Motorcycle racing, like life, is full of little ironies. One such irony is that despite the fact that three of the five favorites for this year's MotoGP title, the current five-time World Champion and one of the leading factories taking part are Italian, this weekend's Italian Grand Prix at Mugello is the only MotoGP race in Italy this year. And this in spite of the fact that Italy has so many glorious circuits with a long and rich history: Monza, with its majestic and insanely fast Parabolica, the tree-lined Imola, Misano's sweeping Curvone Veloce, and this weekend's venue, Mugello.
Sheltered in a steep-sided valley in the hills of Tuscany, the Mugello circuit rolls and flows across the valley floor. Although on paper the track seems like a collection of straights, connected by hairpins, with a bunch of 2nd and 3rd gear chicanes thrown in for good measure, this belies the effect that topography has. The third dimension added by physical geography means that the MotoGP bikes crest the brow close to the end of the finish straight at close to 215 mph, the suspension going light just before they get hard on the brakes for the first corner, the slowest on the circuit, then climbing up towards the Poggio Secco, only to sweep back down again to the southern end of the circuit. The rolling nature of the Mugello track make it one of the most challenging tracks of the season. Rumors abound of one of the deserted flyaway GPs (most probably Qatar) being dropped in favor of another Italian round for next year, but so far, rumors are all they are. But it wouldn't just be Italians who would welcome another Italian round: racing fans around the world would welcome the move. Especially if it was from Shanghai to Monza.
Another irony is that the track which Valentino Rossi will be trying to relaunch his title defense at is owned by Ferrari, the Formula 1 team he announced he would not be racing for next year. All the same, Mugello is the closest thing Rossi and Camel Yamaha have to a home track. So you can bet your entire 401(k) that he will be pushing to the very limit to get a win here in front of his home fans. Of course, you'd better not bet your retirement savings on him actually winning the race, as Rossi's season has so far been an ill-starred affair: run off the track at Jerez, qualifying in terrible position in Istanbul, halted by a chunked tire while charging at Shanghai and suffering a heart-breaking mechanical failure while totally dominating the Le Mans race. With luck that bad, things can only get better for The Doctor.
But Rossi and Yamaha are not the only people at home this weekend. First of all, there's his two compatriots, sharing second spot in the championship, Marco Melandri and Loris Capirossi, both of whom will be dead set on keeping their points gap over Rossi as intact as possible. Capirex has the added motivation of racing a Ducati just 60 miles from the factory in Bologna where it was made, and of improving on the 2nd place in 2003 and 3rd last year. There can be no greater achievement for an Italian rider than to win the Italian Grand Prix on an Italian motorcycle, and with one win already this season, Capirossi cannot be ignored.
Marco Melandri will be looking to take keep the podium an all-Italian affair, taking the place of the unlamented Max Biaggi. Rumor has it that Max will be back again next year, on an Ilmor-powered, Eskil Suter designed 800, but then again, rumor had it that the Roman Emperor would be riding a Corona Suzuki in this year's World Superbike championship, so Biaggi rumors are best taken with a pinch of salt the size of Lot's wife. But to return to Melandri, the Fortuna Honda rider is looking more and more like the prime candidate for the title this year, after winning two of the five rounds so far. Historically, Mugello has not been kind to the likable Italian, his best result a fourth place last year, but if ever there was a year he could win, it's 2006.
Follow The Leader
Of course, the man Melandri and Capirossi tail by four points in the title race may have other ideas. Nicky Hayden's run of eight podiums in a row came to an end in France, where, suffering from bronchitis, he struggled to a still-respectable fifth spot. Back to full fitness, and with new parts expected for his HRC Honda, the Kentucky Kid will be looking to get his first win of the season. He has been so close, and pushed so hard this year that it really can't be long before he succeeds. Nicky is desperate to prove he is not a rider who can only win at Laguna Seca, and will be absolutely determined to win one before the MotoGP circus flies to the US in mid-July.
But Hayden isn't the only American looking for a win this weekend. Colin Edwards will also be looking for a result, now that he has the new improved low-chatter chassis on his Camel Yamaha M1. He has had such a hard season with chatter so far this year, and Le Mans was the first race Colin got off the bike smiling. With the new chassis, the smile might just get to be Texas-sized.
The other American trying to crash the Italian party will be John Hopkins. For the first time since the Suzuki debuted, Hopper looks like he has a bike which can be competitive. Although it is still a little down on acceleration, the Anglo-American is getting within spitting distance of a podium nowadays. Close at Shanghai, and even closer at Le Mans before sliding into the gravel, it can't be long before Hopkins gets a top 3 finish. Mugello may even suit the Suzuki, the bike's outstanding handling compensating for the lack of drive out of corners. And with Mugello being Ducati's local test track, you can be sure that Bridgestone have got plenty of miles here, and will have tires to suit the track. Hopper's team mate Chris Vermeulen has also shown great promise, but will be having to learn a new track for the third race weekend in a row. And Mugello's many blind corner entrances make it a difficult track to learn, so although the Australian has exceeded expectations so far this season, this is going to be a tough weekend for him.
New Kids On The Block
The two most prominent class rookies, Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa and LCR Honda's Casey Stoner, have no such learning curve. The tiny Spaniard won convincingly at Mugello last year, Stoner dumped to fourth by Lorenzo and de Angelis on the last lap. Pedrosa's debut in the premier class has been astonishing, sharing the title of second-youngest rider to win a Grand Prix. Any doubts MotoGP followers had at the beginning of the season have been well and truly dispatched, as the only thing standing between Pedrosa and his second MotoGP win at Le Mans was poor tire choice. And Casey Stoner has made almost as much of an impact. The rider tipped by Mick Doohan as the heir apparent to Rossi's crown has had the misfortune to be debuting in the same season as Pedrosa, otherwise the talk would all be of the young Australian. His results have not matched Pedrosa's, but he has been very close indeed, on inferior equipment.
The other 250 rookie to join the top class is Frenchman Randy de Puniet. He will be looking for revenge after being dumped in the gravel at the first corner at his home Grand Prix, and he has done better than many had expected so far this year. Kawasaki team mate Shinya Nakano has also shown progress, but the Bridgestone-shod Green Machines are still coming up short compared to the Hondas, Yamahas and Ducatis.
In Case Of Emergency
If the Italian crowd had to settle for a non-Italian winner, then Capirossi's Ducati team mate Sete Gibernau would be their favorite alternative. Not because the Spaniard is particularly liked in Italy, especially after his run ins with Rossi last year, but mostly because if they can't have an Italian rider on the top step, they would make do with an Italian bike. Gibernau is yet to regain the blistering form of 2004, though his switch to Ducati has certainly improved his mood and his motivation. Riding in front of a sea of Ducati flags is sure to make him step up his riding a notch.
As a last resort, the Italians might even settle for supporting Makoto Tamada. The Konica Minolta rider is part of the Japan Italy Racing team, and has improved hugely over the past two races, after getting off to a terrible start. He will need to make another big improvement to run at the front, though.
Kenny Roberts Junior is another American rider with a new frame for this weekend. The last outing on the Team KR bike's new frame ended in disaster, completing only two laps of Le Mans before coming in to retire. Kenny Jr will hope he has more time to sort the new chassis out at Mugello, and with a proven Honda V5 power plant, once the team gets the initial problems fixed, Kenny looks like being a genuine front runner.
Of the Dunlop teams, Luis d'Antin's Pramac Ducati team also regard Mugello as their home race, but so far, neither Alex Hoffman nor Jose Luis Cardoso have managed to make an impression. They are not helped by being the junior team of the newest tire manufacturer, riding a bike which has a voracious appetite for tires. The main Dunlop team, Tech 3 Yamaha, has shown more promise this year, with Carlos Checa setting some surprisingly good times during practice so far, but unable to translate that into good race results. British team mate James Ellison has proved to be a quick learner, but on his first season on a competitive bike, he really needs to learn even faster.
A Tuscan Treat
So we have all the necessary ingredients for a great weekend of racing: a fantastic circuit in a beautiful setting; a champion who has never been so far behind in the points this early in the season; a grab bag of young, and some slightly older, guns raring to take his crown; and, for the first time since Qatar, a weekend which doesn't look like being affected by rain. With so many contenders, it's hard to pick a winner in what promises to be another epic race. But if you're the betting kind, you'd be foolish to bet against the Italians at Mugello.