Things were warming up nicely both literally and metaphorically in the premier class’ final roulette ride for a Q2 ticket, especially with a few high profile names lingering back down the order after Friday’s adventures. One of those men was Andrea Dovizioso, who was on the move from the off, cautiously placing himself into the top ten on the combined standings only four laps in. Meanwhile, Friday leader Andrea Iannone was exceedingly impressive on a used combination of medium front and soft rear and led most of the session with a time half a second slower than his Friday benchmark.
The curtain of fog lifted just in time for the lightweight class to open the show on Saturday morning but it was a lukewarm performance on a cold track. Most of the usual actors were at the front but the pace didn’t get too hot until the final two minutes. Aron Canet set the tone at the start of the session but ultimately and unavoidably, it was Jorge Martin who once again put his name in the headline.
Mugello is many things: majestic, magical, magnificent. Beautifully set, with a natural flow unmatched almost anywhere else. It was made to host the fastest, most powerful motorcycles in the world, giving them room to stretch their legs and challenging the rider's skill and bravery, and the bike's handling, horsepower, and braking.
Unfortunately, this challenge is what makes Mugello so dangerous. During the afternoon session, Andrea Dovizioso hit 356 km/h on the Ducati Desmosedici GP18. Shortly after, his engine spewed a huge cloud of smoke at the end of the straight, causing the red flag to come out. A little while previously, the session had also been red flagged, after a huge, vicious crash by Michele Pirro just over the crest at the end of the straight, the fastest and most dangerous part of the track.
It made for some harrowing moments at Mugello. The track fell silent, a pall descending on pit lane as the teams feared the worst. Having learned their lesson at previous tragedies, Dorna were not showing either the crash or the rider on the ground. The mood only lifted when word reached us that Pirro was conscious, and moving his arms and legs. MotoGP dodged a bullet on Friday. But there are still rounds in the chamber.
The sun was finally fully out for the last session of the day and Mattia Pasini was the one who shone first, the Italian sorting out his bike setup troubles from FP1 to dominate the early part of FP2. It wasn’t to last as the final two minutes were a flurry of red and orange sectors. Friday’s winner ended up being Joan Mir, the Spaniard presumably in a hurry to get to MotoGP and going a tenth faster than Sam Lowes.
The cloudy afternoon in Mugello got more gloomy shortly after the start of the session, the red flag coming out for a heavy crash for Michelle Pirro in turn one. The Italian was said to be conscious and moving by the time he was picked up by an ambulance and the session was restarted with 28 minutes on the clock and with Andrea Iannone leading. The Suzuki man manged to sneak in a lap to improve his time at the top of the timesheets before another red flag was caused by another Ducati.
Mugello was warming up nicely for the second run of sessions of the day, although the clouds did keep the lightweight class company. Fabio Di Giannantonio was back with a vengeance, at least for the early part of FP2, the Italian leading for most of the session before Jorge Martin’s reputation as the fastest man in class came to the fore and the Spaniard checked out at the front by over three tenths of a second to improve his own pole record.
The intermediate class danced their first tango of the weekend in Mugello and it brought nothing new to the routine. Alex Marquez established himself as the early leader and came under friendly(ish) fire in the final time attack from teammate Joan Mir. The younger Marquez came out on top, ending the session with a three tenths advantage on his pursuers.
Friday morning in Mugello saw the splendid scenery covered by a sheet of low clouds, although the track kept dry for the duration of the session. The low grip took a few people by surprise and plenty of front tyres were tortured but the top of the timesheets were a very patriotic display. Local expert Michelle Pirro perhaps unsurprisingly led the way after the first run and the Italian was unchallenged at the top until compatriot Andrea Iannone brandished a new rear soft tyre and blasted ahead by half a second.
A cloudy but warm morning set the scene for the opening session of the weekend but the plot was more of what we’ve gotten accustomed to. Namely, Jorge Martin setting camp at the top of the timesheets early in the session, then going on to improve on his own benchmark in a final attack. Things got a little more unusual behind the Spaniard – if not in names, it did in time gaps.
Usually we have to wait until Friday for the action to hot up at Mugello, but there was an almost hysterical vibe at the Italian circuit on Thursday. We appear to have entered what can only be described as peak Silly Season, with the rumblings of a series of rider and bike changes likely to explode into the public consciousness between now and Barcelona. By the time the MotoGP test finishes on the Monday after Barcelona, we should know where Andrea Iannone, Jorge Lorenzo, and Joan Mir are riding, and have a solid clue as to what Franco Morbidelli, Dani Pedrosa, Danilo Petrucci, and Jack Miller will be doing in 2019. It's going to be hectic.
All this is adding to what is already an incredibly stressful weekend, especially if you are an Italian rider. The paddock is already buzzing with sponsors, friends, family, and fans, so you can imagine what it will be like when the action starts in earnest on Friday, let alone the madness of race day. How do the riders cope with it? "Just let the seconds pass away from here to Sunday at 2pm," Danilo Petrucci said. The Pramac Ducati rider took a podium in Mugello last year, and has been even more competitive in 2018. He is in the hot seat to replace Jorge Lorenzo in the factory team, if the Spaniard leaves as many expect he will.
But he will not be letting the high expectations get to him. "I will do my normal things and try to do my best that’s the best I can do. If you stop and think about it I have nothing to change compared to other races as at Le Mans the situation was more or less the same. I am talking about the future, wanted to confirm my speed from last year. At Mugello I have a friendly paddock but it is not as I said it is not a big advantage. We will work in the way worked in Le Mans, controlling every detail, and they we’ll see. The podium is a target but we’ll discover it on Sunday afternoon because it is very difficult to predict the race in MotoGP in the space of two years. I can only go as fast as I can."
There is no such thing as an ideal race track. Circuits are bound by the iron laws of reality: Grand Prix level tracks have to fit a given distance (between 3.5km and 10km) of track into the available space, in a layout which will allow powerful vehicles to stretch their legs. They have to be somewhere where noise is not an issue, either as a result of being isolated from the general population, next to another source of noise such as an airport, or situated near a willing and enthusiastic town or city. They need to have space for the fleet of trucks which transport the paddock from circuit to circuit, and they have to be accessible to those trucks via roads wide enough to let them pass. Last but not least, they have to provide an attractive setting which fans want to visit, and good viewing over as much of the track as possible.
All these things militate against the existence of the ideal circuit. Find a space which is away from hostile neighbors, and it may be too small to create anything other than a tight, contorted track layout unsuitable for MotoGP bikes. Or it may be on a hilltop, with few natural viewing opportunities. Or it may be too far from large population centers to make it easily accessible for fans, or lack the space for a usable paddock layout.
Yet something approaching the ideal circuit truly exists. A track where the bikes can use all of the 270+hp at their disposal. A track which challenges every aspect of the rider, from managing their reactions at 360 km/h, to braking late and entering corners hard, to sweeping through fast combinations of turns carrying as much speed as you dare without washing out the front or having the rear come round and bite you. A track with a roomy paddock, near a major highway, and several large population centers. In a country full of bike-mad fans. Set in a valley among some of the most enchanting scenery on the planet. Oh yes, and the food in the paddock restaurant is some of the best you will eat all season.
It was a case of double delight for Michael van der Mark at the UK Round of WorldSBK, and the Dutchman is only getting started
Last weekend's racing at Donington Park was exactly the shot in the arm that WorldSBK needed. A new rider on the top step of the podium, a new bike as the center of attention in Parc Ferme, and most importantly: Jonathan Rea being beaten in a straight up fight by Michael van der Mark.
Rea and Kawasaki have dominated the championship over the last three years and even for Yamaha's Van der Mark it was a surprise to finally break his duck in such style with a double.
Where will Joan Mir, Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Iannone end up next year? MotoGP’s silly season is about to reach its climax
Many MotoGP journalists spend a lot of time chasing contract stories. I gave up years ago, even though I know that you lot love wheeler-dealing tales from the paddock.
I gave up partly, mostly because when journalists put contract questions to riders, personal managers, team managers and factory bigwigs, they are answered with forked tongues. And how could it be otherwise? There’s a lot at stake – the careers of riders, the reputations of manufacturers and many millions of Euros – so why would anyone in their right minds tell a journalist the truth?
One of the ways in which MotoGP has attempted to control both cost and performance has been through the use of spec electronics. The first step was to make the ECU, the computer hardware, standard, allowing factories to continue to run their own software on the spec Magneti Marelli ECU adopted in 2014. This move prevented factories from developing their own specialized hardware and leveled ECU performance.
In 2016, MotoGP switched to spec software on top of the spec hardware. With everyone forced to use the same, standardized software, factories could no longer throw large numbers of software engineers at the problem to try to figure out more elegant and efficient ways of control the behavior of the bike, through traction control, engine braking, and anti-wheelie strategies. Dorna had hoped to create a level playing field with this move.
Of course, there is nothing engineers love more than challenge of finding ways to tilt a level playing field in their favor. Since the adoption of spec software, the different factories have find different ways of trying to extract an advantage from the current rules.
In the final part of our series on test riders, an interview with Michele Pirro, Ducati's workhorse and arguably the rider responsible for taking the concept of a test rider to a higher level. Pirro's path to Ducati ran through the CRT bikes, spending a year on a Honda-powered FTR bike with the San Carlo Gresini team in 2012, after graduating from Moto2.
In 2013, he was hired by Ducati to work as a test rider under Bernhard Gobmeier, who was brought in as head of Ducati Corse after the Italian factory had been bought by Audi. A year later, when Gigi Dall'Igna took over as Ducati Corse boss, Pirro was given even more responsibility in helping to turn the program around which had lost its way in the years after Casey Stoner left Borgo Panigale.
Since then, Pirro has been charged with pushing forward the development of the bike. Pirro's speed has been key to helping the Desmosedici improve, the Italian consistently capable of running in or around the top ten. His best finish last year came at Misano, where he crossed the line in fifth, equaling his best result in MotoGP. Wildcards are just one way in which Pirro remains fast, he also races in the Italian CIV championship, which he wins with relative ease. But his dream remains to return to MotoGP, and to have a shot at proving he is not just a great test rider, but a great MotoGP racer.
Andrea Dovizioso, who came to Ducati at the same time as Pirro, is clear about his importance as a test rider. "His work about test the rider is amazing, because he’s able to make a similar lap time, so we are very lucky to be in this condition. He is testing a lot." I spoke to Pirro at the 2018 Sepang test, on a day he was not testing the GP18. Pirro was very open about his aims and goals, and also about the process which had brought him to where he is today, and about the development he has engaged in for Ducati.