It takes many things to make a great motorcycle racer: incredible reflexes, natural riding talent, immense courage, intense concentration, and outstanding physical conditioning are just the very start of it. Above all, it takes one thing to succeed: Passion. Without passion, it is impossible to put in the hours of tedious physical training to keep up your fitness; Without passion, it is impossible to maintain the strict riding schedule, needed to sharpen your reflexes; Without passion, it is impossible to keep confronting the risk of pain and injury, and push at the very limits of your motorcycle and yourself, just for the chance to stand on a box, holding a tawdry bauble, while a second-rate tune pours out of tinny speakers.
It also takes passion to keep plugging away when things are not running your way, when equipment fails, or your bike is slower than everyone else's, or you can't get your machine sorted just as you want, or money from sponsorship fails to turn up, or a million other little setbacks which constantly stand in the way of success in top-level sport. And it takes passion to stand up to the constant barrage of criticism you face, from your fans, from the press, but most of all, from yourself.
If there's one place likely to help you rekindle any of the passion for motorcycle racing you may have lost, it's Mugello. Set like a black pearl among the emerald Tuscan hills, clasped between the twin jewels of the Renaissance, Florence and Bologna, Mugello makes the pulse race and the nerves tingle, and brings passion to a full and rolling boil.
The weather had helped add to the excitement at Mugello, raining on and off throughout practice, bringing riders to the front of the grid in one session, only to leave them languishing at the bottom of the timesheets the next. The grid was given a final shake during a qualifying session which saw both rain and sunshine, leaving both a Ducati and an Italian on the front row, though disappointingly for the Italian fans, the Italian was not on the Ducati. And after a drafting battle with a last-gasp winner in the 125 race, a brutally physical confrontation in the 250s featuring a last-lap crash and a last-corner dive for victory, the tension on the starting grid and round the stands and hills was so thick that a chainsaw could barely have cut it. The dark clouds that hung in the Tuscan hills served as a visual expression of the atmosphere in the pits, thick, swirling and taut.
So as the lights dimmed, and the MotoGP bikes thundered off the line and over the crest into the San Donato turn, the deafening roar of racing engines bursting over the crowd like a thunderstorm, a wave of blessed relief sweeping around the circuit as the waiting was over. The crowd's relief soon made way for joy, as the shiny red Ducati of Casey Stoner led by several bike lengths into first turn, the Australian championship leader getting yet another of his famous rocket-assisted starts. Chris Vermeulen followed in 2nd on his Suzuki, but bringing even greater joy to the massed ranks of Ducatisti coloring the hillsides red was Loris Capirossi, firing through to take 3rd place, and hot on Vermeulen's tail. Behind Capirossi, the Italian fans faced a dilemma: to cheer on the Ducati of Alex Barros in 4th, or their compatriot Marco Melandri aboard the Gresini Honda, pushing to take Barros' place? Wisely, they avoided the issue, and cheered for both.
Italy's most favored son was faring much worse. From the front row of the grid, Valentino Rossi had seen his Fiat Yamaha almost swamped, as rider after rider passed. His slide was not as precipitous as that of the two Kawasaki riders, who saw their 4th and 7th spots on the grid turn into 12th and 14th by the end of the lap, but after just three turns, Rossi had been relegated from 3rd to 8th, rudely pushed aside by John Hopkins on the Suzuki. The Doctor tried to get back through Casanova, but Hopkins passed again through Savelli, the following left-hander. Rossi passed once again at Scarperia, and though his lead was to last longer this time, Hopkins was back into 7th at the start of the next lap, rudely passing Rossi on the brakes into San Donato, the first turn at the end of the front straight.
Unleash The Hounds
Loris Capirossi had no need of such subtleties to pass Vermeulen. Capirex simply unleashed the Italian stallions of his Ducati along the front straight, and was past Vermeulen's Suzuki by the time they crossed the line at the end of the lap. The forecast Ducati whitewash, the scenario feared by the entire paddock, seemed about to unfold, much to the delight of the banked red mass filling the Ducati stand at Correntaio, as Stoner and Capirossi put their heads down and started to edge away from the chasing pack. The pack knew they could not afford to let the Ducatis go, and started to give chase.
Melandri led the hunt, having passed Chris Vermeulen as the Suzuki rider slumped down the field, a slide which was only halted once he found his rhythm after 8 laps. Melandri was soon joined by Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda, the man who had been fastest during all of the weekend's dry practice sessions, and a lap later by John Hopkins on the other Suzuki. Both Pedrosa and Hopkins had passed Barros, the Brazilian going backwards, soon to be passed by Valentino Rossi as well.
The efforts of the chasing pack were aided by the Ducatis themselves. Not satisfied with just running at the front, Loris Capirossi wanted to lead his home Grand Prix as well. Drafting his team mate along the front straight, he slipped into the lead as they crossed the line. But Stoner was not selling his hide that cheaply: As they dived towards San Donato, Stoner tried getting past back again on the brakes. With neither Ducati willing to give an inch, both ended up way too slow through the first turn, allowing Melandri and Pedrosa, engaged in a braking duel of their own, to catch them to form a front bunch of four.
With the front four holding each other up riding defensive lines round the back half of the circuit, they were an easy target for the following group. Hopkins was first to join the fray, with Valentino Rossi not far behind, regaining ground after passing Vermeulen. On the next lap, the racing got closer still. Once again, the front four divided into pairs down the main straight, with Casey Stoner trying to pass Capirossi once again, while Marco Melandri held off Dani Pedrosa. But this time, it was Melandri who braked latest, and showed what makes Mugello such a great circuit. Running wide into San Donato, he held station round the outside of Stoner, using the next left-hander, Luco, to move past into 2nd, taking advantage of the multiple lines the Tuscan track allows.
The Italian Shuffle at the front meant that Hopkins and Rossi could turn the four into six. Rossi, sensing his chance, scythed past Hopper a couple of turns later, coming down the hill through Savelli, and moved to sit on Pedrosa's tail. Then things started really hotting up. As they crossed the line to start lap 6, the front group were almost 4 abreast. First Stoner flew past Melandri, taking advantage of the Ducati's superior power, then Pedrosa came by too, using the drive he was getting out of the final turn to launch down the front straight. Behind Melandri, Hopper was showing off the new horses that Suzuki had found him, re-passing Rossi over the line.
As San Donato approached, Loris Capirossi, sensing his team mate breathing impatiently down his neck, drifted left for the right-hander, and left his braking as late as possible, in the hope of cutting across everyone's lines and buying himself some space to make a getaway. But Capirex had left his braking just a half a yard too late, suddenly finding himself wide, and unable to turn early enough. By the time he finally got his Ducati heeled over and into San Donato, it wasn't just Stoner who had got past him, it was Pedrosa and Melandri as well, dumping Capirex from 1st to 4th in one fell swoop. Two turns later, Hopkins was past Capirossi through Poggio Seco, Rossi following in his wake along the next short straight. This was to be the signal the end of Capirossi's resistance, as he followed Vermeulen's lead, dropping off the back of the group and losing touch with the front runners.
Fortunately for the Italian fans, they still had a Ducati leading. But not for long, as Dani Pedrosa was hell-bent on getting into the lead. Half a lap later, Pedrosa pulled off a brilliant pass, apexing early through Arrabiata 1 to move up the inside of Stoner and lead into Arrabiata 2. The reason for Pedrosa's hurry was just a few bike lengths behind: Rossi had his revenge on Hopkins through The Doctor's favorite passing zone, Scarperia, to claw back 4th place, and was past Melandri into 3rd just a few turns later into Bucine, the long left-hander leading back onto the main straight.
Stoner was not taking being passed by his old 250 nemesis lying down. Back along the front straight, Stoner unleashed the Beast from Bologna once again, and went after Pedrosa once more. But Ducati must have the Beast on a diet, as the fearsome carnage that the Stoner was dishing out in Qatar and Shanghai was looking more like a gentle slapping at Mugello. Combined with the 800 extra revs which HRC have found, the Ducati was no longer destroying the Honda down the straight, but instead, it was all that Stoner could do to sneak past Pedrosa into the first turn. And even this was to be in vain, as the young Spaniard, having regained the form which so impressed everyone last year, took the lead back from Stoner through Poggio Seco. And into Materassi, the next corner, Rossi was past Stoner too.
But Pedrosa, Rossi and Stoner still had company. Melandri and Hopkins had been rejoined by Alex Barros, and the three were right behind Stoner. As Pedrosa crept away from Rossi down the straight to start lap 8, Hopkins and Barros made a move on Melandri. Hopkins inside and Barros outside, there was no chance that all three could get through San Donato at the same time, despite the different lines possible through the first turn of the track. It was Alex Barros who blinked first, running wide, and forced to drop behind Melandri, who had had no choice but to let Hopkins through into 4th.
Six Green Bottles
The top 6 were all still close. Just over a second covered Pedrosa in 1st to Barros in 6th, but the first cracks were starting to show. Melandri was the first victim, dropping out of contention after Barros passed on the next lap. But that still left the front 5 close. Pedrosa and Rossi were like siamese twins, linked at the wheels, and Stoner had his sights on Rossi's tail. But as he closed, Rossi moved on Pedrosa. Through Scarperia, the blind right-hander over the crest of a hill, Rossi was past and into the lead. Pedrosa, unshaken, kept Rossi close, and blasted past once more as they motored down the front straight, but once again, Rossi demonstrated the Yamaha's amazing stability on the brakes, going back past into the lead into San Donato.
Though Rossi was past, Pedrosa was not going to just roll over. Pedrosa kept as close as he could to Rossi, trying to get back past down the straight. The Spaniard came close, but could not hold on, as he tried for lap after lap. The fierce duel was already proving too much for Stoner, the Australian losing touch on lap 12, leaving the win down to a straight fight between Rossi and Pedrosa. Rossi pushed hard round the first part of the track, building a lead from San Donato to Correntaio but Pedrosa fought back out of Bucine and along the front straight. But even though Rossi was losing a quarter of a second in less than a mile, he was gaining more than that through the earlier sections.
Pedrosa fought bitterly to stay with Rossi for 3 more laps, before finally having to admit defeat, Rossi gaining half a second for every quarter of a second he lost. The race was run, and Valentino Rossi went on take the win by over 3 seconds, keeping his streak at Mugello alive, and extending his series to 6 wins in a row at Mugello, an incredible accomplishment. As The Doctor crossed the line, Mugello exploded into a cacophony of noise, the tension stored during a long, grueling weekend finally burst, Italian passion for motorcycle racing finally allowed free flow. The fans invaded the track, and the hills resounded to the deafening din of engines of every conceivable type being bounced off rev limiters until they blew up. If you wanted a demonstration of passion, it was here before you, in Mugello.
Rossi had come to Mugello with a point to prove. All Italian riders show up at Mugello with something special in terms of gear, and Rossi had brought a new helmet. Featured prominently on the front was a large, red heart. When asked about it, Rossi was uncharacteristically evasive, saying that it was a token of appreciation for his fans, to thank them for their passion. But the real story could be read from the race: The Italian press, fickle as ever, had been accusing Rossi of not having his heart in MotoGP any more, of being too rich, and in MotoGP too long to put in the effort and the passion which being a champion in the premier class of motorcycle racing requires. On Sunday, Rossi answered them loud and clear, first with his helmet, then with his race. If anyone was in any doubt about The Doctor, Mugello should have cleared it up.
Dani Pedrosa, too, showed the passion of a champion. The Spaniard could barely hide his disappointment at only taking second at Mugello, despite running his best race since Jerez. Pedrosa had been convinced he could win here in Italy, and the timesheets would have agreed with him, if it hadn't been for one very special motorcycle racer on a very special mission.
And Then There Were Three
With 1st and 2nd places settled, there was still all to race for back in 3rd. Casey Stoner had dropped out of reach of Rossi and Pedrosa and into the clutches of Hopkins and Barros. The three stuck together as if tied with lock wire. It would turn into a war of attrition, and John Hopkins was the first to break. Hopper had run a softer compound on his front tire, and by lap 18, it was past its prime. Barros passed the Rizla Suzuki along the front straight, and Hopper was left to run on his own, finally coming home in 5th.
Now, it was down to who would be top Ducati. Casey Stoner could not afford to lose another place, as that would mean surrendering valuable points in the title race. But Barros was equally determined to get past, and take the podium place he came so close to getting in Istanbul. With 3 laps to go, the Brazilian veteran made his move. He had been hired by Ducati and Bridgestone because his phenomenal braking ability provided such valuable data, and he used this skill to perfection, passing Stoner down the front straight and holding him off on the brakes into San Donato. Stoner struggled valiantly, fighting Barros every inch of the way, but try as he might, he could not get back past. The Pramac d'Antin team, last year's perennial backmarkers, had undergone the astonishing transformation from MotoGP ugly ducklings to podium swans, Barros flying over the line to take 3rd, ahead of a bloodied but unbowed Casey Stoner on the factory Ducati.
John Hopkins was unchallenged in 5th, but behind Hopper, Toni Elias had fought several fierce battles to climb up to 6th, passing Loris Capirossi on the final lap, forcing the Ducati man down to 7th. Chris Vermeulen, having halted his slide, fought a race long battle with Nicky Hayden, coming out on top, and then passing Marco Melandri on the last lap to take 8th. Melandri was forced to settle for a disappointing 9th on the Gresini Honda, with reigning world champion Hayden again struggling to take 10th.
Behind Hayden, Barros' team mate Alex Hofmann ran a lonely race to take 11th place, dissatisfied after his strong showing at Le Mans, while the winner's team mate Colin Edwards came in a very lowly 12th. Both Fiat Yamaha men extended their Mugello streaks on Sunday, but while Rossi's is an enviable run of wins, Edwards' record at Mugello is one of bad luck and missed chances, a run he would gladly have broken.
Shinya Nakano continued his and Konica Minolta's run of anonymous performances with a 13th place, while behind Nakano, Sylvain Guintoli put on another strong showing to finish 14th on the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha, ahead of his far more experienced team mate Makoto Tamada. Olivier Jacque finished a similarly faceless race down in 16th, and out of the points on the Kawasaki, while Kenny Roberts Jr's misery continued, finishing 17th and dead last. The only bright point for Kenny Jr is that the extra data gained by having brother Kurtis run this weekend may have helped Team KR find the direction they need to go to improve his lot. Kurtis Roberts has pulled out fairly early in the race, with unspecified problems, but the team were just glad to have the data he collected.
Mugello was truly at the heart of motorcycle racing on Sunday, the heart on Valentino Rossi's helmet. The race, Rossi's performance, and the raw, untamed energy of the crowd once the checkered flag had dropped didn't just kindle motorcycle passion, it doused it in rocket fuel and dropped in a match. The noise was deafening, as the fans ran Piaggio APE three-wheelers and brand new Fireblades to destruction. The speaker struggled in vain to make himself heard above the racket, but soldiered bravely on. The only time that anything intelligible could be made out above the cacophony was the sound of thousands of Italian throats joined in song, belting out the Italian national anthem during the podium ceremony, with the winner Valentino Rossi conducting. If you wanted to know what passion was, it was on display her at Mugello. No one will dare question The Doctor's passion again.