If Japan is the brains of motorcycle racing, the place where they design the machines that captivate us, and Spain is the heart of motorcycle, the humming, vibrant center, full of passion for all forms of two-wheeled racing, then Italy is the soul of motorcycle racing, the place where motorcycle racing is imagined, dreamed of, experienced, be it MotoGP, Superbikes or minibikes. The Italians live for racing and speed, on two wheels or four, as the myriad racetracks and motorcycle manufacturers testify. Indeed, anyone who has ever driven on Italian roads could attest to their love for racing: no Italian ever misses a chance to pass the vehicle ahead, nor would they be seen dead taking a less than perfect line through the many fantastic roads which crisscross the country.
And the roads don't get much better than Mugello. If Italy is the soul of motorcycle racing, then Mugello is the seat of that soul. Nestling in the glorious Apennine hills, Mugello is just a few miles from both the Ferrari and Ducati factories, and functions as a test track for both. The circuit exudes racing history, the scent of hot oil emanating from exotic prototypes permeating the subconscious of all who visit. But there is more than just the history; there's also the track. The Mugello circuit is one of the finest in the world, and it truly has everything: From probably the fastest straight of the season, to flowing fast turns, slow hairpins and chicanes, and elevation changes, flowing up and down the Tuscan hills, Mugello is a glorious track in a glorious setting.
A Desmo Drubbing?
With that location so close to Ducati's home base in Bologna, and Mugello's long, fast straight, the prospect of anything other than a Ducati whitewash seems virtually impossible, and completely unacceptable to the thousands of tifosi who will line the track on race day. The fans most fervent hope will be to see an Italian rider of an Italian motorcycle stand atop the podium on Sunday, although they would be willing to accept an Italian rider of a Japanese motorcycle, as they have done since 2001. And yet they could well be disappointed. Though the Ducatis are blisteringly fast, the Australian Casey Stoner is the only Ducatista who has been consistently at the front of the pack, while his Italian team mate Loris Capirossi has struggled to come to terms with the new 800. And the Italians not on Ducatis are on perhaps the slowest bikes of the field, both the Yamaha and the Honda suffering in comparison to the Ducatis. And where the marques bearing the current and former world champions are making slow forward progress, the competition, in the shape of Kawasaki and Suzuki have just gotten faster. Kawasaki already believe that they have the horsepower of the ZXRR at the same level as the Ducati, and Suzuki will be bringing yet more horsepower to Mugello, which should put them in contention down the main straight.
That prospect will not be worrying Ducati too much at the moment. Casey Stoner goes from strength to strength, his outstanding wet podium at Le Mans extending his lead over Valentino Rossi. So confident is Stoner that he has decided against using the new parts being made available for Loris Capirossi. Capirex has had an awful start to the season so far, and is hoping that the changes to the engine and electronics will allow him to ride the bike in the way he wants to. There will be a great deal of pressure on Capirossi to perform at Mugello, and his team, the fans, and Capirex himself will not accept failure.
The Pramac d'Antin team will also be hoping to profit from the Ducati's speed. The Mugello round is almost a home race for the Pramac boys, so close are their links to Ducati this season, and both Alex Barros and Alex Hofmann will have high hopes here. Significantly, Barros is the last man to beat Valentino Rossi here at Mugello, back in 2001. With the power advantage the Ducati has, the Brazilian must be confident of repeating that feat.
Don't Look Back
But the Ducatis will not have it all their own way. The competition is catching up, and the strongest challenge could come from the Suzuki garage. Buoyed by John Hopkins' 3rd place at Shanghai, a circuit that is all about speed, and Chris Vermeulen's brilliant rain win at Le Mans, the Rizla Suzuki boys will be looking to benefit from the power gains which new engine parts should bring. Hopkins has looked stronger than ever before this season, and with the boost in top speed, he should be capable of staying with any of the Ducatis down the front straight.
The other beneficiaries of added horsepower have been Kawasaki. The bike is now brutally fast, though it still has a few rough edges, but should have little trouble with keeping up with the Ducatis. Kawasaki's problem, however, is their riders: Both Randy de Puniet and Olivier Jacque are carrying injuries, and neither has shown the necessary aptitude to take a win. De Puniet has been the best of the pair, but, as he demonstrated by crashing out of the Le Mans race whilst in the lead, still makes too many mistakes. Olivier Jacque, on the other hand, is just plain slow. Still stuck in the mentality of the test rider, OJ needs to find the do-or-die attitude which racing at the very highest level requires.
No Such Thing As Too Much
And so to those who will surely be fearing Mugello most. That group includes the one name you would least expect to be afraid of Mugello: 7 time winner here, Valentino Rossi. Fiat Yamaha's star Italian rider says he has a "special relationship" with Mugello, but for the first time in many years, that relationship may start to be showing the strain. The Yamaha is an incredibly fast motorcycle through any section of turns in the world, but The Doctor has had to expend every ounce of his skill to make up through those turns what he has lost to the faster bikes, and especially the Ducati of Casey Stoner, down any straight of significant length. While this has offered the fans the awe-inspiring spectacle of seeing the world's most talented motorcycle racer forced to work for his money, it has not pleased Rossi at all. Both Rossi and Edwards are paying the price of the choices made during pre-season testing: focus on agility, and add the power afterwards. With 5 of the first 7 races rewarding top speed, that gamble has yet to pay off.
So once again, expect to see The Doctor expounding every ounce of his skill through Poggio Seco, Arrabbiata 1 and 2, especially Bucine, the last turn onto the long front straight, in an attempt to either regain the ground lost to, or put space between his Yamaha and the faster bikes. The spectacle will be all the greater for Rossi's troubles.
As for the other Yamahas, Colin Edwards just cannot seem to get on with Mugello, despite the fantastic track and atmosphere, and though undoubtedly inspired by his debut pole at Le Mans, the race may prove tougher than he would like. But not as tough as for the Dunlop Tech 3 Yamahas: despite the obvious steps forward the Dunlop tires have made, they are not quite within striking range of the big two, despite Sylvain Guintoli's heroic efforts at Le Mans. But his outing at his home Grand Prix can only give encouragement for the team, even though they may end up having to suffer through the next two races, hoping for more power from Yamaha soon.
House Of Pain
The Hondas are in much the same boat. Like Yamaha, HRC gambled on maneuverability, sacrificing top speed, and any semblance of wind protection, at the altar of agility. Unfortunately for Honda, in their hunt for agility by centralizing mass, they made it almost impossible to make the necessary subtle adjustments needed to set up the bike, meaning that the Honda RC212V lacks both front end and rear end feel, as well as top speed. Parts are slowly starting to trickle through, but several riders are already going back to last year's forks in an attempt to improve the bike, reminiscent of Yamaha's long and troubled road with the M1 at the beginning of the 2006 season.
The two riders who have managed best with the RC212V are Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa and Gresini Honda's Toni Elias, coincidentally (or not) the two smallest riders in the paddock. Being of such slight stature, they fit perfectly with Honda's concept of mass centralization, and have run fairly well, despite the Honda's shortcomings. Pedrosa was expected to be the main title contender this year, but has been unable to truly compete, while Elias is quickly making himself persona non grata among the rest of the paddock, with his wild and unruly riding style posing a threat to the other riders, according to those other riders. His Tomahawk missile impersonation at Shanghai proved to be immensely unpopular with the rest of the paddock. When Terrible Toni is in form, he is a factor to be reckoned with, but often, he can turn out to be a factor to be avoided.
Dani and Toni's team mates are in more of a pickle. Gresini's Marco Melandri has failed to live up to expectations, as with the other Honda riders, but Melandri's strong ride in the downpour in France must have given him the confidence boost he needs. But he has repeatedly asked HRC for more help with the bike, and those demands are unlikely to be answered in the short term. As for Pedrosa's team mate, Nicky Hayden, you can only really feel sorry for him. He is attempting to put up the kind of title defense worthy of a world champion, as he believes is his duty. But the new bike, and his adaptation to it, have stood very much in his way. Slowly, he is making progress, but too slowly to have any chance of retaining the #1 plate. He may be back on the podium by mid-season, but not yet, not here at Mugello.
The other two Hondas are suffering even worse, if that's possible. Poor Shinya Nakano must cry himself to sleep asking himself why he ever left Kawasaki, and Carlos Checa has fared little better, despite his front row start in France. With so much to do to improve the RC212V, it's tough at the bottom of the HRC food chain.
This is just as true for Team KR, but although they have the advantage of being able to build a better chassis than the one provided by Honda, they only have a single rider to help develop it. This has put them a long way behind compared to the rest, but luckily, they'll be able to do something about that this weekend. Kenny Roberts Jr will be joined by brother Kurtis at Mugello, on a second KR212V, to help get the bike in some kind of shape to be competitive. The Roberts family can only hope to make some significant progress both here and at Catalunya, to get them back into contention.
Home Field Advantage
The two big stories so far this year have been the rise of Ducati, and the rise of Bridgestone. Here at Mugello, test track for both Ducati and Bridgestone, those stories only look like getting bigger. Though the progress made by Suzuki and Kawasaki make the prospect of a Ducati clean sweep look highly unlikely, the chances of the Italian anthem being played on Sunday must be very, very good indeed. The only question is, will it be only for the bike, or will it also play for the rider?