Expectations are a double-edged sword. Expectations, the expectations you have of yourself, and the expectations that others have of you, can inspire you to remarkable achievements. But wanting to live up to those expectations can also place an incredible burden upon you, knowing that you if you fall short, you disappoint not only yourself, but also all those around you. The way you handle that burden is a test of character, self-knowledge, and mental strength.
All professional sportsmen and women face this burden, but for one reason or another, it is heavier in some sports than in others. Sometimes, it is the popularity of the sport which bears upon the protagonists: a Brazilian striker in the World Cup knows that he carries the weight of tens of millions of fans with him. In some sports, it is the lack of margin for error which imposes itself: with just under 10 seconds to win a race in, a sprinter has to get everything right, from start to finish; the slightest hesitation and your race is over. And sometimes it is the danger of the activity itself which creates the pressure: for the solo round-the-world sailor, a single mistake - misjudging the weather, forgetting to tether a safety line properly - can mean serious injury, and even death.
The Price Of Failure
Italian MotoGP racers taking part in their home race at Mugello face all three of these burdens combined. First, there is the baying crowd. In a land where the motorcycle is king, and motorcycle racing vies with soccer as the national sport, nearly 100,000 fans on the verge of insanity line the track, chanting your name, and waving your banners, willing you on to the win. But fans are as fickle as a teenage prom queen, and if you fail them, they will have no compunction in heaping scorn upon you.
Still, as you fly down the front straight at over 200 miles an hour, there is no room for error. Brake too early, and the raging pack behind you will slam past, pushing you well down the field. Brake too late, and you run wide, and see that same advancing horde slide underneath and ahead, leaving you just as lost. And at some corners, braking too late or pushing the front too hard can have more serious consequences than just earning the eternal opprobrium of your home fans. Get it wrong in some places, and you face bruises and broken bones, the loss of your fingers, and in some cases, career-ending, or even life-threatening injury. For motorcycle racers, the price of failure can be very high indeed.
So it is a testimony to their mental resilience, their optimism, their determination, perhaps their sheer self-centered single-mindedness that the Italian MotoGP riders look forward to the Mugello round of MotoGP with such enormous relish. The ride around the track on the sighting lap, looking out at the Tuscan hills packed with rabid Italian fans, all screaming their name is one of the high points of the year. And yet they all have so much to lose.
Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri and Alex de Angelis all come to Mugello knowing that they face Valentino Rossi, the man who has won here the last 6 years in a row. Melandri faces the double burden of riding an Italian motorcycle at Mugello, and one which he has singularly failed to get to master. Capirossi has the lingering question of whether he isn't too old to be doing this, and knowing that he can win here, having taken victory way back in 2000. And Alex de Angelis must try to make a dent against the world's best, despite being on an underpowered bike and in his rookie season.
But no one faces the weight of expectation which Valentino Rossi does. Rossi is possibly the most famous man in Italy, a position which carries many benefits, but also rules out the option of failure. For Rossi's Italian fans, coming 2nd at Mugello is simply unacceptable, and any further down the field verges on the impossible. Just to add to this pressure, Rossi hasn't lost a race at Mugello on a four-stroke MotoGP bike. As far as his fans are concerned, this weekend's Italian Grand Prix must follow a prearranged script, and any deviation from that script will be mercilessly punished.
As if there wasn't enough pressure already, the elements joined in the fracas, rain ruining the first two sessions of free practice, and disrupting the first half of the practice on Saturday. This only really left the riders with the first half of Saturday's qualifying practice to try and find a race setup, before concentrating on their position on the grid. The pressure to get it right first time was on.
Thirty minutes was apparently all that Valentino Rossi had needed. The Italian seemed impervious to pressure, taking his first pole in nearly a year and the pole record which had stood for two years, comfortably ahead of his rivals. Running well inside record race pace for the first half of QP, Rossi was definitely ready.
For the others, it was harder to say. Dani Pedrosa, though 2nd on the grid, was unsure of his race tires, not having had enough time to test whether his selected set would last race distance. Casey Stoner, on the other hand, was only 4th on the grid, but had managed a couple of very quick laps, and seemed content with his race setup. With little time for testing, it looked like success in the race could be down to an educated - and lucky - guess on race tires.
As the red lights holding the bikes on the grid faded, those guesses were put to the test. Dani Pedrosa got the best guess about the lights, firing off the line well ahead of the pack. So strong was Pedrosa's start that he even left the fastest starter on the grid in his wake, Casey Stoner launching his Ducati past Valentino Rossi and Loris Capirossi into 2nd spot as they headed towards San Donato, the first glorious turn of this glorious track.
Capirossi stood his ground in 3rd, while Nicky Hayden underlined the speed of the Repsol Hondas off the line by gaining two places to 4th. Into San Donato, it was polesitter Valentino Rossi who was the big loser, dropping to 5th as the approached the corner. But having the pole meant sitting on the inside line, and as they raced through the long first turn, Rossi was back up inside Hayden, using his tighter line to snatch back one of the places he had lost.
Flicking left into Luco, Hayden once again had the better line, but out of Poggio Seco, in front of the vast yellow stand full of Rossi tifosi, The Doctor took back 4th once again, and set his sights on Capirossi. He did not have to wait long. As the pack flicked right again after Casanova, Capirex was into Savelli too hot, his Suzuki running wide. Not wanting to refuse such a generous invitation, Rossi was inside, and past into 3rd.
Almost immediately, the Doctor hitched onto Stoner's tail, a gap opening back to Capirossi. With both Pedrosa and Stoner having previous form of making breakaways from the front, never to be seen again, Rossi knew he had to stay close to the Ducati and the Honda to respond to anything they tried.
Rolling Road Block
The gap to Capirossi was tiny, but behind the Italian, traffic was assembling. Nicky Hayden was the first in his exhaust fumes, with Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso following closely. Dovizioso had gotten by Colin Edwards previously, and the Texan was starting to lose touch, needing all of his attention to hold off Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda behind.
As the leaders rounded the long left-hander of Bucine, leading back onto the front straight, it was still Dani Pedrosa at the front, but he knew that the chances of him holding on to that lead down Mugello's long straight were limited. Though the speed differentials were reduced from last year's out and out drubbing, the Ducati that sat just inches from his rear wheel was still a rocketship, and the pneumatic valves had given the Yamaha M1 plenty of speed too. On the run up to the line, Stoner's pass was a foregone conclusion, and the reigning world champion was well in front as they entered San Donato for the second time.
Though forced to concede to Stoner, Pedrosa was not entirely lost. He held off Rossi with ease, keeping the insistent Italian behind him through the first half of the lap. Nor was he losing out to Stoner, still right on the Australian's tail, the front three close enough to cast a beach towel over.
The front three were soon four: Having regained his composure, Loris Capirossi had closed the gap to Rossi, and sat patiently waiting his chance. The front straight made it plain that this was not the place he would find that chance. Though good enough to catch the front three through the twists and turns of the rear half of the track, down the straight, the Ducati, Honda and Yamaha all edged away once again.
Further back down the field, patience was the furthest thing from Alex de Angelis' mind. Almost last into the first corner after getting off the line badly, he had fought his way up to 14th by the end of the first lap, taking 13th a lap later. The man from San Marino had been quick throughout practice, only losing out when it came to qualifying proper, his inexperience with qualifying tires working against him. But in race trim, de Angelis was in complete control, his Gresini Honda easily matching the lap times of the leading group, and over a second quicker than those around him. On lap 3, de Angelis was past Marco Melandri and Randy de Puniet, and a lap later, he had gained two more places, and was in the midst of the fight for 7th. Clearly, de Angelis was intent on living up to expectations at home.
At the front, Valentino Rossi was in a hurry. As the front runners streaked across the line to start lap 3, Rossi crept closer to Pedrosa, knowing he should be able to outbrake the Spaniard into San Donato. But Pedrosa knows his weakness is in braking as well as Rossi, and almost every race, Pedrosa gets that little bit better at it, making it a fraction difficult to get past him on the brakes. As they heeled the bikes over hard for the right hander, Rossi was even, and inside Pedrosa, but The Doctor had overplayed his hand. He made it into the turn level with Pedrosa, but still had speed to lose, and was trail braking to get the bike turned. Pedrosa, his braking already done, had his Honda settled and held speed through the San Donato turn to push Rossi firmly back into 3rd. If Rossi wanted to pass, he'd have to come up with something better than that.
Rossi was back with Pedrosa in moments, but saw his first chance at the other end of the circuit. At Arrabbiata 1, Rossi was climbing all over Pedrosa's seat unit, but Pedrosa was unruffled. The scene was repeated at Arrabbiata 2, and still Pedrosa held sway. So Rossi decided to bide his time. Closing on the Spaniard as they fell down the long right of Correntaio, he lined Pedrosa up through the Biondettis, jamming his Yamaha M1 up the inside of Pedrosa's Honda into Bucine. Holding his line as they headed back towards the straight, he was past.
Pedrosa tried to get back once more down the straight, pulling out of the Italian's draft as they approached the yellow and orange kerbstones which mark the braking point for San Donato, but this time, Rossi was in control. Now 2nd, he had only Casey Stoner to go.
Gone In 60 Seconds
It didn't take long. Rossi tailed the Ducati up Poggio Seco and over the hill, through the left-right flick of Materassi and Borgo San Lorenzo, and started the run up through Casanova. As the Ducati flicked left for Savelli, Rossi's Yamaha was inside, and past into Arrabbiata 1. From 3rd to 1st in just 2/3rds of a lap, Rossi was demonstrating just why he had won the previous 6 races in a row here.
Of course, Rossi knew that Stoner would try to use the speed of the Ducati to retake the lead down the long front straight. But unlike his pass on Pedrosa, the Italian had got ahead of Stoner early on in the lap, hoping for a cushion over the finish line. As they passed the third timing point, he had over 3/10ths of a second, but it was cutting it close. Once Stoner opened the taps on his Ducati out of Bucine, he started eating up the tarmac that separated him from Rossi. As they hit the blind crest that precedes the braking point for the first corner, Stoner was right on Rossi's tail, but that would not be good enough. Entering San Donato, Rossi was still ahead.
Stoner dug in his heels. With clear track ahead of him, Rossi was pushing to make the break. On lap 5, he was pushing so hard he broke Max Biaggi's lap record from 2005, set on a 990cc Honda RC211V, by 0.08 of a second. But Rossi's new record would not stand long: 0.1 of a second later, Casey Stoner was 0.03 faster still, claiming a new lap record at 1'50.003, 0.114 quicker than Biaggi's old time. But more importantly, he had Rossi in his sights, and The Doctor was not getting away.
Next time round, Rossi turned the tables on the Australian. The Italian edged away by 1/10th, giving him a lead, but not much of a one. On lap 7, Rossi was more emphatic, taking 2/10ths out of Stoner, and creating clear air between his Yamaha and the Ducati. Sensing he was starting to gap the Australian, Rossi pushed on, creeping away into the distance, a tenth of a second at a time. There was little that Stoner, or Dani Pedrosa, who sat on Stoner's tailpipe, could do to stop the rot.
The Wild Bunch
Behind the front three, chaos reigned. Loris Capirossi had managed to stay with the front three initially, but on lap 5, he had to let them go. The Suzuki rider's times were strong, but the record pace the front three were laying down was just too much. Capirex started to drop, falling back into the clutches of the angry mob behind.
Nicky Hayden was performing a similar backward motion, but his descent through the ranks was considerably more dramatic. The American ran with the men at the front for the first two laps, but could not sustain that pace. From 5th on lap 2, by lap 5, he was down in 10th, and nearly a second a lap slower than the rest of the field. He was in for another long day.
Unlike Marco Melandri. The Italian's day was cut brutally short by Randy de Puniet, who crashed spectacularly on lap 5, just ahead of Melandri's Ducati. With nowhere left to go, Melandri ran off track, and out of the race. A lap later, they were joined by John Hopkins, whose quickshifter cut out at the worst possible moment, the end of the 200mph straight. Unable to change down quickly enough, Hopkins could do nothing but go straight on, crashing his Kawasaki heavily into the fence at San Donato. Hopper was livid, suffering a second mechanical failure in a row, but unlike at Le Mans, it was one which could have hurt him very badly.
There was more chaos to come. Though the group chasing the leaders was rapidly losing touch, it did not stop the battle to lead the hunt. De Angelis was the favorite, putting on a mesmerizing display of passing as he sliced his way forward. From nearly last at the first turn, he was 8th by lap 5, and still pushing forwards. Two laps later, he had passed James Toseland, and climbed up to 6th, behind Andrea Dovizioso and Loris Capirossi. Even his compatriots did not last long: just two laps later, the Honda Gresini rider had passed both Dovi and Capirex, and was up into 4th. He was 4.5 seconds down on the Pedrosa in 3rd, and had 14 laps to go. It was a stiff task he had ahead of him, but not beyond the realms of possibility.
Down And Out
While de Angelis had gotten past Dovizioso and Capirossi with relative ease, Jorge Lorenzo had not had it so easy. Stuck behind the two Italians, and seeing his title rivals disappearing into the distance, Lorenzo started to push his luck. Wanting to get past his old 250 nemesis Dovizioso, Lorenzo attempted to force his Yamaha underneath the Italian's Team Scot Honda at Scarperia, but he was trying to create something which wasn't there. Lorenzo, who had been struggling all weekend, lost the front, and try as he might, he couldn't get it back again. He was down, and tumbling through the dirt, lucky not to aggravate his still injured ankles. "Porfuera" was now merely "fuera".
Next to join Dovizioso and Capirossi were the Tech 3 Yamaha team. James Toseland was first on the Italians, the British former Superbike champion climbing up through the field at yet another track he had never raced at before. He was joined anon by Colin Edwards, and over the next 6 laps, the four men slugged it out for 5th place, their differences not quickly settled.
Toseland made the first move, running his Yamaha between Dovi's Honda and the end of the pit wall along the straight, through a gap that didn't seem to exist. Next time across the line, Toseland pulled the same move again, this time on Capirossi. Within 2 laps, the reigning World Superbike champion was up from 7th into 5th.
The atmosphere in the Tech 3 Yamaha garage is excellent, and the two team mates get along very well, Colin Edwards even sharing data with his less experienced team mate, but there are limits to everything. Seeing Toseland get past the Italians spurred Edwards on, and on lap 13, the Texan was also past Dovizioso and Capirossi, and back with his team mate. Settling on Toseland's tail for a while, Edwards made his move on lap 15, taking the brave line through Casanova, to stuff it up the inside at Savelli, almost a carbon copy of his former team mate's move on Stoner several laps earlier.
Up front, that former team mate had started to turn the screw. Valentino Rossi was eking out a tenth at a time over Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, and the former 250 rivals were starting to feel the pressure. Stoner was the first to buckle. Seeing Rossi tantalizingly within his grasp, he tried to close into San Donato, braking later than usual. Too late, as it turned out, for he was too hot into the corner, and couldn't get his Ducati turned quickly enough. He ran wide, and Pedrosa was past underneath into 2nd. Stoner's mistake left Rossi over a second clear.
The Doctor went into full attack mode. Lap after lap, he pounded in times right on record pace, extending his lead. Behind him, Pedrosa was holding up Stoner, the Spaniard unable to catch Rossi, and Stoner finding it hard to get past Pedrosa. By lap 13, Rossi's lead was over 2.5 seconds, and still growing. At the start of lap 14, Stoner corrected his mistake, catching Pedrosa over the line and outbraking him into San Donato.
But by now it was too late. Though there was still 10 laps of the race left, Rossi was still the fastest man on the track. As the laps ticked down and the race approached its ever more inevitable conclusion, Rossi surfed the gap all the way home, keeping his advantage at a comfortable 3 seconds until it was time to put on a show for the crowd on the final lap.
Living Up To It
Despite the enormous weight of expectation which he had upon him, Valentino Rossi did the incredible, taking his 7th win in a row at Mugello, in comfort and with panache. The win had been a foregone conclusion almost from the moment Rossi had gotten past Stoner on lap 4, a fact that made it no less impressive. Following up pole position with his third win in a row, Valentino Rossi is looking ever more ominously like the man who crushed all-comers in 2005.
Once he had lost touch with Rossi, there had been little Casey Stoner could do about it other than watch Rossi's lead grow. But after a string of poor results, including a disastrous mechanical failure at Le Mans, Stoner entered Parc Ferme happy to have brought his Ducati home in 2nd. Though the competition had stepped up a notch, this was much more like the Stoner of 2007, and the Australian was glad to be competitive once again. Now - ironically - 46 points behind Rossi, Stoner is back in contention.
Dani Pedrosa was not quite as happy as Casey Stoner, but the Repsol Honda man knew he had to be content with 3rd place. Pedrosa had been unable to stop either Rossi or Stoner, and had elected to play it safe, and limit the damage he would suffer in championship points. At least with Lorenzo not scoring, Pedrosa had one less rival to worry about.
What Pedrosa did have to worry about was Alex de Angelis. In the final laps of the race, the Gresini Honda man looked like catching the Spaniard, but in the end, the distance was just too great. If de Angelis had had a better start and not have to carve his way through the field for the first 8 laps, then a podium would have been with easy reach for the man from San Marino. De Angelis' result marks a return to form for the Gresini team, and was sorely needed.
No questions remain about the Tech 3 Yamaha team. Colin Edwards came home 5th, a second ahead of his team mate James Toseland. Tech 3 have benefited from many things this season, not least of them being the determination of both Yamaha and Michelin to obliterate the humiliation of 2007. This, combined with Edwards being freed from the constraints of testing for Valentino Rossi, and James Toseland getting all of the factors right in his switch from World Superbikes to MotoGP, has left the French team 3rd overall in the team standings, with only the factory Yamaha and Honda teams ahead of them. A remarkable turnaround from last year.
Having spent all race going back and forth with each other, Loris Capirossi finally prevailed over Andrea Dovizioso to take 7th. The Suzuki performed better than expected at Mugello, and in the end, Dovizioso succumbed to the Italian veteran's long years of experience.
Dovizioso was lucky to stay ahead of Shinya Nakano, the Japanese rider crossing the line just a few thousandths behind the Italian. Nakano's 9th spot underlined the Gresini Honda team's resurgence, and could mark a turning point for the team.
Chris Vermeulen crossed the line a lonely 10th, nearly 15 seconds down on the group ahead. With Capirossi performing so well on the Rizla Suzuki, it is the Italian, rather than the Australian, who is looking like the team leader.
Behind Vermeulen, the Alice Ducati team also showed the first tender shoots of a resurgence. Sylvain Guintoli took his best finish of the season in 11th, while Toni Elias was rather more disappointed to only take 12th. Guintoli clearly felt he had found something, though he is still short of pace. And with 4 riders crashing out, 11th and 12th could be a distorted picture. Barcelona, in a week's time, will tell us more about the state of the Ducati and the satellite Ducatis in particular.
Change In The Air?
Nicky Hayden's long day finally ended in 13th position, 50 seconds after Valentino Rossi's, and in a diametrically opposed mood. The American thought he had some pace in the morning warm up, but by the afternoon, that had gone. So clearly uncomfortable with the current iteration of Honda's RC212V race bike, Hayden will be longing to use the new pneumatic valve engine at Barcelona, hoping that the extra power the engine develops will suit his style better.
That air valve engine finished its first race in 14th on Sunday, and more importantly, in one piece. The engine has been proved as a concept, but with the 41 year-old Tady Okada riding it, it is hard to tell whether 14th is down to the bike's lack of performance or Okada's long absence from racing. The bike's 10km/h top speed deficit down Mugello's long straight could be down to either. Okada had complained of a lack of edge grip, which would make it difficult to get drive out of the final corner and a decent launch onto the straight, or it could just be that Okada is getting rusty, and perhaps more cautious with his throttle hand, a little less inclined to risk flinging it into the gravel just to cut a tenth off his lap time.
In last place, as ever, was poor Ant West, complaining, as ever, of a lack of rear grip. It is hard to say whether West's problem is down to his bike or his psyche, or more likely, a combination of the two. John Hopkins was only 13th when he crashed out at Mugello, so the evidence is starting to point towards the Kawasaki. Unless the team can find some fixes soon, Hopper's multi-million dollar contract may start to lose some of its glitter.
A Matter Of Perspective
Expectations at the Mugello round of MotoGP were high, sky high. But it was ever thus, and every Italian who straddles a racing motorcycle at the Tuscan circuit knows it. As far as the Italian fans were concerned, those expectations were fulfilled completely, Italians taking a clean sweep of wins in all the major classes, and Valentino Rossi making history once again by taking the longest winning streak at Mugello with his 7th victory in a row here.
For neutral observers, the race was less satisfying, though. So many times over the years, the Italian circuit has thrown up fantastic races, real thrillers that will live on in racing memory for many years to come. But Rossi's victory at Mugello was emphatic, and never in doubt once the Italian was past his two main rivals for the title.
Last year, one rider romping away from the rest of the pack led to howls of discontent from the fans, leading to claims that the racing had become boring and threatening the series' popularity. For the last 3 races, that scenario has been repeated, only this time, it is the fans' favorite who is meting out the punishment. Whether The Doctor's indisputable charisma can detract attention from the processional nature of the races at the front remains to be seen.
But the best solution would be more competitiveness from his rivals. Casey Stoner finally seems to be returning to form, and is sure to push Rossi hard. And if Dani Pedrosa gets a pneumatic valve engine that works, and HRC reopen the Honda Lane in MotoGP, then Rossi will have to face two men pushing him to the limit. Rossi should relish the challenge, and so will the fans. Next Sunday's race at Barcelona will tell us just how great that challenge will be.