Over the next few days, it is going to be impossible for any MotoGP fan worth their salt to avoid hearing the phrase "nestling in the Tuscan hills." For the MotoGP circus returns once again to Mugello, one of the most beautifully situated race tracks in the world. The Italian track seems to bring out the poetical in even the most hard-nosed and cynical of journalists and press officers, and before you know it, you are awash with press releases and previews sounding more like paeans to the pastoral idyll in which the circuit is located than cool analyses of the race that is to come.
Once you visit Mugello, it's not hard to see how this happens. Mugello sits in a rich green valley, just to the north of Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and arguably the modern world, and just south of the imposing peaks of the Apennines. The soil is fertile, the climate is warm without being too hot, the proximity of the Mediterranean both moderating the harsh summer heat and providing a ready supply of cool rain, and everywhere you look, nature supplies a generous and delicious bounty, demanding very little in the way of work in return. Olives, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and artichokes fill the fields; wild mushrooms, berries and fungi line the hedgerows and woods; and game such as wild boar and pheasants fill the forests. Over a plate of pasta with truffles and a bottle of Chianti, it is difficult not to regard Mugello and its surroundings through the very rosiest of spectacles.
And it's not just the scenery which makes visitors wax so lyrical. Even during the dullest years of motorcycle racing's premier class, the Autodromo Internazionale Del Mugello always seems to generate spectacular racing. At some tracks, if a rider can make a break, they can get a way and build up a big lead. But Mugello has such a variation of corners and combinations of corners that riders can make up the ground they might be losing in one section of the track by pushing in parts that they feel stronger at. Mugello demands the utmost of riders, but is as generous in its rewards as it is harsh in its demands.
Much of that is down to the layout. The track lines the steep sides of a narrow valley, in the crook of a hillside carved out by the relentless forces of geophysics. It starts with one of the most daunting sections of track on the calendar. The riders fire out of Bucine and down the long front straight, crossing the line before reaching some of the highest top speeds of the year. Then, as the bikes edge past 200 mph, the track snakes right, then subtly left, just as it drops away over a crest towards the first corner, San Donato. As the bikes hit the crest, the front wheel goes light at the exact moment you need to slam on the brakes for the long, open right hander.
Not only do you have to coax the front wheel down to start scrubbing off serious speed for the first corner, but Mugello immediately throws the first of the problems which typify the classic Italian circuit at you. San Donato is basically a long, wide uphill hairpin, with at least three different lines through it before hitting Luco and climbing up the hill to Poggio Seco. Brake as late and as hard as you dare for San Donato, and you could yet see someone cut back underneath you as you exit, having entered earlier to get better drive out of the corner.
Deal with San Donato well, and more trouble awaits. The Southwest side of the track consists of a series of combinations of corners, going uphill, then downhill, most of which have the added bonus of being blind entries. Each turn seems to either climb or fall away, the exit to the corner hidden by the steep hillside. Casanova is especially intimidating, the track falling away steeply as you flick right, with no hint of where to go next, before coming back right at the bottom of the drop. A short section then takes you on to another combination, this time the double right handers of Arrabbiata 1 and Arrabbiata 2, climbing back up the hill towards the fast flick of Scarperia.
Flicking left and dropping down onto a short straight then takes you on to another long, intimidating corner. Correntaio loops downhill to come back on itself, pushing the front all the way from the braking zone to the exit of the corner. Another fast left-right flick takes you back to Bucine, the final long looping left with several lines through it, making defending a lead an incredibly difficult proposition. And if that wasn't hard enough, there's just enough room from the exit of Bucine to the finish line for someone to pull out of your draft and ahead of you across the line down the main straight. Glorious, treacherous and fast, those adjectives sum up Mugello pretty well.
Monsters And Chimeras
Glorious, treacherous and fast also sum up the crowd fairly accurately as well. Though falling just short of Jerez' Breughelian scenes of madness, the fans at Mugello surely know how to put on a show. The most evident element on display is the noise, and lots of it, generally provided by every imaginable object ever fitted with a combustion engine. From the little Piaggio Ape three-wheeler with the open megaphone exhaust (no good for horsepower on a small capacity two-stroke engine, but oh, the noise!) to brand new Honda Fireblades being bounced off the rev limiter, by way of the sawless chainsaw, held against the chain link fence to transmit the shriek of its tiny engine all the way around the track, the sound generated is way beyond deafening. If the Trumpets announcing the Apocalypse sounded during the Mugello race weekend, the first the crowd would know about it would be when the Four Horsemen came galloping down the front straight. If there's one thing the Italians know how to do, it's put on a party.
And it's an Italian who hopes to be the spark that sets the festivities ablaze. Valentino Rossi returns to Mugello with a record rivaled only by Mick Doohan. The Doctor has won the last 6 races in a row here at the Tuscan track, and has not lost on a four-stroke GP bike. The last time Rossi lost here was in 2001, aboard a specially painted Honda NSR 500, and since then, Rossi has refused to run special liveries at Mugello, despite a lot of pressure to do some from sponsors. Rossi has turned down a lot of money at Mugello because of his belief that a special paint scheme will bring him bad luck. Six straight wins says his decision has been justified.
The chances of Rossi making it 7 in a row are very strong indeed. The bookmakers are barely offering you your money back for a Rossi victory, and when you look at the facts, it's hard to fault them. Rossi has won here when he has been off form and on awful bikes. He won in 2006, when still suffering with terrible chatter in his 990cc M1, and he won in 2007, when at least 10 horsepower down on the mighty Ducatis, and on the weaker the two main tire makes. Aboard what is arguably the best bike on the grid, with outstanding tires, and coming off back-to-back wins, Valentino Rossi will be a nigh-on unstoppable force.
The first of the immovable objects to stand in his path is the diminutive figure of Dani Pedrosa. Small though the Spaniard may be, redoubtable he surely is this season. In his third year of premier class racing, Pedrosa has come into his own, and with the Honda RC212V already a vast improvement over last year's bike, he has finally been able to put up a fight for the championship. But the Honda still lacks top end power, and the spring valve engine is down on speed compared to the pneumatic valve and desmodromic motors of the other marques. Fortunately for Pedrosa, Mugello is a track where you can make up for a lack of outright speed by drafting down the front straight and pushing round the fast combinations round the outside of the circuit. Though it may be difficult to stop Rossi, it shouldn't be impossible for Pedrosa.
Rossi's team mate, Jorge Lorenzo, is another man who could be able to stand in Rossi's way. But Lorenzo is still hurt, his broken bones in both ankles and feet slowly healing, the only benefit being that the pain from his ankles masks the pain from the arm pump surgery he had before the Shanghai Grand Prix. It appears that Lorenzo is at the very least impervious to pain, and possibly even inspired by it, as the reigning 250 champion has finished 4th and 2nd since breaking his ankles, his injuries barely slowing him up. As his legs get stronger, so will Lorenzo, and Porfuera looks set to become a more formidable force at every race. With Mugello Lorenzo's 100th race, and the Spaniard already smashing every rookie record in the books, Valentino Rossi could find he has his hands full with his Fiat Yamaha team mate on Sunday.
If it is up to the Italian crowd, then if Rossi cannot win, at least an Italian motorcycle should. With Ducati's home base just 60 miles of glorious sweeping mountain pass roads away in Borgo Panigale, a suburb of Bologna, Mugello is very much a home race for the Italian factory. Many of the factory staff and thousands of Ducatisti from around the world will crowd the scarlet Ducati grandstand at the Correntaio corner, all of them willing the bright red bikes on to a win. Though their best chance probably came last year, when the Ducati was definitely the fastest, and arguably the best bike on the grid at Mugello, the factory bikes fell short, with Casey Stoner, the man who dominated 2007, even ending up bumped off the podium by the satellite d'Antin bike of Alex Barros, a result which, rumor has it, caused an abrupt end to the flow of factory upgrades to the Pramac team.
The chances of a d'Antin bike beating Casey Stoner to a podium place are remote in the extreme this year, but this won't make Stoner's task any easier. The other teams have all caught up with Ducati, and Stoner is facing his toughest few races since his arrival at the Bologna factory. But Stoner's talent, coupled with the top speed advantage, albeit much reduced, which the Ducati still has means that you cannot rule out the reigning world champion. Stoner is still capable of pushing the Ducati to incredible heights, and with a 41 point deficit to Valentino Rossi, may start to take a few more risks in his race to close the gap.
No Fat Lady
Talk of Stoner being out of the championship is premature, though. The Australian may be 41 points down, but that's not as big a deficit as it would be in any other year. Normally, there are two, maybe three candidates for the title each year, making it hard to claw back valuable points. If there are two men chasing win each weekend, then they can realistically only get back 5 points each race, the difference between the 25 points for 1st and 20 points for second. But this year, there are 4 riders who are all capable of winning every Sunday, with 3 of them finishing in the top 4 at every race so far. The difference between 1st place and 4th place is negligible on the race track, with Stoner, Pedrosa, Rossi and Lorenzo capable of sweeping the top 4 in any order. But the difference in points is much bigger, with 12 points difference between 1st and 4th. A couple of desperate last lap maneuvers and a little bit of luck could see Stoner close the gap within 3 races. The title chase has never been so open.
The ideal scenario for the home fans would be an Italian winning aboard an Italian bike, but the chances of Marco Melandri taking victory on the Ducati are slim in the extreme. Melandri has struggled with the GP8, never really getting a feel for the bike. A brief revival at Shanghai only made the Italian's return to the back of the field at Le Mans all the more painful. It looks like Melandri has a long season ahead of him.
The Alice Ducatis have a similarly long and hard road to travel. So far, Toni Elias is the only man besides Casey Stoner who seems to have a handle on riding the Ducati, but Mugello will show just how far Elias has progressed. A podium seems beyond the realms of the possible, but if Elias keeps improving, then a top 10 should be within his grasp.
For Colin Edwards, another podium is all too real a possibility. After getting on the box at Le Mans, the Texan must feel he is capable of much more. But Mugello has rarely been kind to Edwards, so if his luck runs against him, he will have to rely on his Tech 3 Yamaha. On his and the bike's form so far, that's a pretty comfortable situation to be in.
Edwards' Tech 3 team mate is in the middle of a run of difficult tracks. James Toseland has never raced at Estoril, Shanghai, Le Mans, Mugello or Barcelona, though the reigning World Superbike champion has tested at the Italian track before. After a barnstorming start, his results have started to slip a little, with his crash at Le Mans the current low point. But with his home GP at Donington fast approaching, JT's confidence will be building. He'll need all the confidence he can get at Mugello this weekend.
Confidence is something Nicky Hayden is desperately short of. His misery continues aboard the 800cc RC212V, a situation which started almost the day after he was crowned the last of the 990cc champions. Hayden continues to work as diligently as ever at Repsol Honda, but the new bike remains a little too small and underpowered to allow Hayden to ride freely. The Kentucky Kid is awaiting the new pneumatic valve engine more keenly than any of the other Honda riders, as he hopes the extra power will allow him to steer with the back wheel, as he has done so successfully in the past. At Mugello, it's a case of struggling on.
But hopefully not for long. The surprise appearance at Mugello will be the grizzled veteran Tady Okada, HRC's official test rider, running the Italian Grand Prix as a wild card aboard the new pneumatic valve powered Honda RC212V. Though Okada is a little too old and a little too rusty to be competitive during the race, Honda - and the rest of the MotoGP world with them - will be scrutinizing the new engine very carefully, to see if it delivers power smoothly, uses fuel efficiently, and can hold up under race conditions. If it lasts the distance, and shows a good turn of speed down the long front straight, the Repsol Hondas could get the air valve engine to race at Barcelona, instead of having to wait for the post race tests there to ride the new bike.
The remainder of the Honda satellite bikes will have to wait much longer for the air valve engine, much to the chagrin of Andrea Dovizioso. Another rookie revelation, the Italian rider has made a big impact on the JiR Team Scot Honda, and with talk of a factory Honda for next year, Dovi will be highly motivated to get a decent result at his home race.
For the Gresini Hondas and the LCR of Randy de Puniet, Mugello is a matter of trying to hang on to the tail of the leaders for as long as possible. If they can stay close to the front pack, they are in with a chance of attacking, but on current form, they are down too much on power to get close enough.
As for the Suzukis and the Kawasakis, they are unlikely to feature at Mugello. The track has a lot of long, fast curves, exactly the kind of feature which suits neither bike. This will be a bitter disappointment to Loris Capirossi, who won the race here back in 2000, and would love to do well for his home crowd. The only hope for the blue and green bikes will be the changeable conditions forecast for the weekend. With rain a racing certainty on Friday, and a good chance of showers Saturday, Kawasaki's Ant West and Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen could use their wet weather ability to bag a decent starting place. But their luck runs out on Sunday, with race day forecast to be sunny and dry. In those conditions, it would take a miracle to beat Valentino Rossi, or at the very least, a surprise downpour.
Magic In The Air
Mugello is truly a magical location, hence the poetry in the shape of press releases which rain down on fans from the teams. The track is a jewel, a jet black ribbon of tarmac set in the emerald hills of Tuscany. The fans are just that, fanatical, and leave no stone unturned in their efforts to reinforce the Italian stereotype for exuberant and demonstrative behavior. And the local hero will have his friends, family and followers to cheer him on as he attempts to make history by winning 7 times in a row at the Italian circuit. If there is a place at which magic is possible, Mugello is it. The circuit gives MotoGP fans some of the best racing of the season, and this weekend looks like being no different. With little to choose between the four men leading the championship, and Valentino Rossi on a mission, Mugello promises to be legendary. A fitting tribute to a legendary location.