By their very nature, human beings are superstitious beings, seeking succor and aid from wherever they believe they can find it. Some seek it in the support of a Supreme Being, who they entrust with clearing obstacles from their path and lending them strength beyond their natural ability. Others seek it in the most mundane objects, believing that a green vest, a pair of socks, or a necklace with pendant will bring them the luck and the success that they seek. Yet others follow a fixed set of actions, putting the left shoe on before the right, touching a mirror or a picture, only speaking to a set person on entering a room, religiously observing the rituals which have always brought them luck so far.
Valentino Rossi is one of the latter, following rituals and patterns in a fixed sequence in the hope of recreating the success which has followed them in the past. So Rossi meticulously applies all his own decals to his bike before a race; stretches to touch his toes before approaching his bike; crouches down to clutch the right foot peg before mounting the bike; and stands up as he rides out of the pits to adjust his leathers caught on film in all too intimate detail a million times by the curiously positioned camera on the back of Rossi's bike. He will always wear something yellow, the color finding its way onto his leathers, his gloves, his helmet and his bike.
At Mugello, Rossi's superstition is heightened, not the least by his incredible success at the circuit. On the 13 previous occasions Rossi raced here in the world championship classes, he came away with victory 9 times, 7 of those wins coming from his last 7 visits. The last time Rossi failed to win at Mugello was in 2001, riding a Nastro Azzurro Honda NSR 500 with a special celebratory paint scheme. Rossi crashed out on the penultimate lap and swore never to race at Mugello again with a special livery. Since making that vow, he has not lost at the Tuscan track.
Rossi's proscription on special paint jobs does not extend to his helmet, however. The Italian has always come to Mugello with something special from friend and legendary designer Aldo Drudi on his head, perhaps the best and most famous of which was the helmet he wore at the last race here in 2008. This featured a picture of Rossi's face, eyes and mouth open wide in terror. It was, he explained, the expression he wore under his helmet every time he came to Mugello, heading into the San Donato turn at the end of the 340 km/h straight.
This weekend, Rossi turned up with a special helmet once again. For the 2009 race, Drudi had painted Rossi's gloved hands holding the top of his head. The Italian said it represented the stress of trying to deal with the Tuscan circuit: stress from both the demanding layout, featuring lots of fast combinations with blind entry; and the demanding crowds, tens of thousands of whom flock to the track expecting to see another Rossi victory. The attendant press added to the pressure, bombarding the Italian with questions about the difficulty of maintaining his winning streak in front of his home crowd, and whether he was disappointed on missing out on the opportunity to take his 100th victory at Mugello, after failing to score his 99th win at Le Mans two weeks previously.
Stick To The Plan
Rossi faced it all, unfazed, having seen it all before. What worried the Italian more were the timesheets in practice. Though there was nothing wrong with his race pace, Rossi's name kept being knocked off the top of the timesheets, his pesky team mate Jorge Lorenzo and Ducati's Casey Stoner consistently finishing ahead of him. The problem was compounded in qualifying. For the first time since entering the premier class, Rossi didn't qualify on the front row, edged out into 4th by two young upstarts and an old veteran, Jorge Lorenzo taking pole, ahead of Casey Stoner and Suzuki's Loris Capirossi.
It was an ill omen, and more were to follow. Though practice had been held under a burning Tuscan sun and perfect conditions, the forecast for Sunday was mixed: It would rain at some point during the day, but there would also be dry spells, meaning another flag-to-flag race was in the offing. Though Rossi has won plenty of rain races, his record in the flag-to-flag format has not been good, and he has come to believe the races are unlucky for him. Finally, in the Red Bull Rookies Cup race held after qualifying on Saturday afternoon, Japanese rider Daijiro Hiura finished third, taking the final spot on the podium. Hiura races with the number 46.
Race day turned out to be wet as predicted, the track still soaking from the downpour which had plagued the preceding 250cc race, but with the rain gone the track was certain to start drying out within a few laps, necessitating a dash into the pits and a leap onto a bike shod with slicks. If Rossi was fazed by the weather, others were looking forward to it: Chris Vermeulen had been fast in the morning warm up, as had Rossi's chief rival at Mugello, Ducati's Casey Stoner.
The Last Thing You Need
The reasons to be fearful of a rain race were amply demonstrated by Jorge Lorenzo. On his sighting lap, Lorenzo crashed at the penultimate corner, lowsiding into the gravel. The Spaniard scrambled to get back onto his bike and into the pits, leaping onto his spare bike and exiting the pit lane with just seconds to spare before the pit lane closed, which would have left Lorenzo to start from the back of the grid rather than the pole position he had fought so hard for on Saturday.
Lorenzo was lucky his spare bike was already in wet weather trim, with only minor adjustments needed on the grid. Meanwhile back in pit lane, his mechanics were working flat out to repair the damage to his first bike to get it ready for the inevitable bike swap as the track dried. The Spanish prodigy seemed relatively unruffled on the grid, focusing on the race ahead and banishing any thoughts of the events of the sighting lap.
As the lights dimmed, unleashing the unholy screech of 800cc MotoGP bikes down Mugello's magnificent front straight, Lorenzo was given cause to think of his sighting lap spill once again. The bike's launch control did not appear to be switched on, and the rear wheel of Lorenzo's Yamaha M1 span up, producing plenty of smoke but little forward motion. Lorenzo's pole position went for naught, the #99 Fiat Yamaha entering the first corner well down in the second half of the pack.
Where Lorenzo got a terrible start off the line, his bitter rival Dani Pedrosa got his customary rocket start, flying through the pack to take the lead into San Donato. Behind Pedrosa, Randy de Puniet hugged the inside line, while Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen used his wet weather skills to ride round the outside of the Frenchman's LCR Honda. Valentino Rossi exited San Donato in 4th place, exactly where he had left the line, with the other Suzuki of Loris Capirossi probing the options for a pass at Luco. Casey Stoner, the other rocket starter, had been quick off the line but had hit a puddle and had the rear spin up, losing 5 places within yards of the start.
The first lap of any race is a test of bravery, but the first lap of a wet race is battle of nerves as riders probe and test to see just how much grip there is, paying very dearly for any excess of confidence. But it does allow the brave to get to the front quickly, and the first lap at Mugello was a textbook example. Unsurprisingly, Chris Vermeulen quickly took the lead, demoting Pedrosa down to 2nd at Materassi, with Andrea Dovizioso following Vermeulen past Dovi's Repsol Honda team mate as they flicked back right for Borgo San Lorenzo.
Casey Stoner followed Dovizioso's example at the next corner, taking 3rd from Pedrosa at Casanova, but Stoner was the last to pass the Spaniard for the moment. Pedrosa had a gap to Randy de Puniet, who was holding up Valentino Rossi and Loris Capirossi. Rossi was by the Frenchman in the first of the Arrabbiata right handers, but would have to work before he could catch Pedrosa.
You Can Run, But You Can't Hide
Vermeulen led through Mugello's snaking western loop while Casey Stoner pushed Dovizioso for the right to challenge the Suzuki man, but the terrifyingly fast front straight exposed the Suzuki's weakness. As the riders crossed the line for the first time, Vermeulen was in the process of being swallowed up by the far more powerful Ducati and Honda, Stoner leading into San Donato. Dovizioso had followed Stoner past, but Vermeulen would not just roll over, holding the outside line to brake a fraction later and take back 2nd spot.
Behind the leaders, Jorge Lorenzo had channeled his anger at his poor start into an aggressive first lap charge. By the time the Spaniard crossed the line, Lorenzo had taken back half of the 10 or so places he had lost at the start jamming his Yamaha M1 past riders ahead at every opportunity that presented itself. Lorenzo crossed the line just behind his team mate, but could not follow Rossi past Pedrosa as the Italian lunged through at San Donato.
Stoner may have been leading but he would not have it all his own way. Vermeulen and Dovizioso sat lurking on the tail of the Ducati, Dovizioso pushing at Vermeulen for a shot at the Ducati. As the front three crossed the line Mugello's front straight once again highlighted the shortcomings of the Suzuki, Vermeulen doing all he could to hang in Stoner's draft, then forced to hold Dovizioso off on the brakes into San Donato before starting the process of chasing his Australian compatriot once more.
Vermeulen held on until they crossed the line to start lap 4, but by now, he was fighting a losing battle. Dovizioso got past over the line again, then held off the Australian's challenge as they braked for San Donato. One Australian down, one to go, and at Materassi, Dovizioso shot his first bolt. Stoner parried as the track flicked back right for Borgo San Lorenzo, but Dovizioso would not be denied for long. The Australian held the Repsol Honda behind him for most of the lap, but at Bucine, Dovizioso was past.
Once the Italian was past the Ducati it was clear just how much Stoner had been holding Dovizioso up. Dovizioso quickly put half a second over Stoner, but he wasn't the only Italian going fast. Behind Stoner, Valentino Rossi and Marco Melandri were charging forward, catching then passing the Australian with relative ease and going on to chase Dovizioso. Rossi caught Dovi on lap 7, passing him into San Donato to start lap 8. By now Melandri was also with the leaders and looking to get past, clearly the fastest of the three on the undeveloped Hayate.
The Old Switcheroo
As the race had been progressing the track had continued to dry, and riders had started coming in to switch bikes and get back out again. James Toseland had been the first to take the gamble, swapping bikes as early as lap 4, and with his tires now hot and sticky he was starting to charge through the field. Once Dovizioso had understood that he could not match the pace of Rossi and Melandri on rain tires, he quickly dived into the pits for a bike shod with slicks in the hope of better luck with different tires.
It was a timely swap. On lap 8, Toseland was the fastest man on track while the wet tires started to overheat and lose grip. Dovizioso was in on lap 9, the rest of the leaders still staying out. But as they headed along the short straight before Materassi, Marco Melandri dived up the inside of Valentino Rossi to lead his home Grand Prix on a bike that only 6 months' previously had been destined for the crusher after Kawasaki announced its withdrawal from MotoGP. Wet tires were now well and truly shot, and at the end of lap 10 the remaining leaders headed into the pits.
The riders cruised back out of the pits, the bikes straining against pit lane limiters, all now on slick tires, but the role that tires would play was far from over. All through practice, the hot weather had made the hard tires the only ones capable of lasting and providing good feel for the riders. The teams all had as near a perfect setup as they could find on the hard tires, having discarded the softer of the two compounds brought by Bridgestone as unlikely to last the distance. But the track was now significantly cooler than on Friday or Saturday, and the damp patches remaining on the track were still sucking the temperature out of the tires. Should you play it safe and use the harder compound you know you have the setup for, or should you gamble on the softer slicks providing more grip, despite only having a ballpark setup for the tires?
The teams and riders were split down the middle: Some, such as Casey Stoner and Loris Capirossi went all in, fitting the medium compound front and rear. The Yamahas for the most part were playing it safe, with Valentino Rossi, James Toseland and Colin Edwards all fitting the hard slicks front and rear, going with what they knew. On the other hand, Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso took a more cautious gamble, fitting the hard rear tire with the softer front. The wisdom of these choices would only be known 13 laps later when the finish flag dropped.
Melandri, Rossi, Stoner and Lorenzo all exited the pits just as Andrea Dovizioso flew down the front straight, his tires already holding the heat of his first lap out. Dovizioso picked up three places in as many corners, and by the time they headed down the front straight once again the Italian was in the lead.
Why Take It Easy?
But Dovizioso wasn't the only rider to have moved forward. Casey Stoner's gamble on the softer tires was rewarded with a blistering out lap, the Australian leaping from 4th up to 2nd, passing Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and Marco Melandri on the way. Lorenzo, with the softer front, was also past his team mate, as was Loris Capirossi on the soft tires. Mindful of his experience at Le Mans two weeks ago when he crashed on his out lap, going on to finish 16th and out of the points, Rossi was being conspicuously cautious, waiting for his tires to come to him before starting to really push.
Stoner displayed no such qualms. Down 3 seconds on the leader Dovizioso on lap 11, the Australian had the hammer down, reeling the Repsol Honda in with astonishing speed. He had a second back on lap 12, and as they roared across the line to start lap 14, Stoner was on Dovizioso and ahead into San Donato. The Ducati man had brought Loris Capirossi with him, and at Savelli, Capirex had his Suzuki past Dovizioso's Honda as well, and into 2nd.
Stoner and Capirossi had quickly gapped Dovizioso, the Suzuki man clinging onto the coat tails of the Ducati. Stoner's gamble on the soft tires may have paid off but the bike switch had brought the bad with the good. The clutch on Stoner's bike had started slipping, allowing the engine to spin up uselessly without providing drive. As the pair headed down the front straight, the fans in the grandstand were treated to the remarkable spectacle of Loris Capirossi powering past Casey Stoner as if Stoner was standing still, a reversal of the situation with Chris Vermeulen just a few laps before.
Stoner had other things on his mind though. The Australian was frantically trying to adjust his clutch to try and stop it from slipping. He tried it one way without success, then the other, which worked better, finishing his fiddling just in time to sit up for the heavy braking required for San Donato. The problem almost solved, Stoner was back on the Suzuki's tail and threatening. In his hurry to get back at Capirossi, Stoner grabbed a fraction too much throttle, the rear tire squirming out from underneath for a second before flicking back into line again. But as they streaked down the front straight, Stoner was out of the draft and past Capirossi, giving his clutch a final tweak to get it set correctly. Normal order had been restored.
While Stoner and Capirossi had been swapping places, the harder tires of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi were starting to come into their own. The two Fiat Yamahas were up to speed and starting to close in on the Repsol Honda of Andrea Dovizioso, the threesome also nearing the Ducati and Suzuki. Loris Capirossi was still on Stoner's tail, but he was having more and more difficulty clinging on, the gap growing painfully slowly but inexorably.
On lap 18, Jorge Lorenzo was right on Andrea Dovizioso and pushing hard. On the run through the Biondettis, Lorenzo crept closer, finally making a lunge inside the Honda rider at Bucine, then holding his line to take 3rd. Rossi may have hoped to follow Lorenzo, but the two men leapt away from the Italian down the front straight, Rossi having to brake desperately late into San Donato just to close the gap again.
Dovizioso had been warned. Now he knew he had Rossi behind him, he wasn't going to go down without a fight. Dovi made his Repsol Honda as wide as possible, then cranked it open a little bit more, opening the merest slither of daylight between himself and Rossi. Not enough to be called a gap, but enough to make it impossible for Rossi to attempt a pass.
Rossi could only wait, knowing his best chance lay at the end of Mugello's mighty straight. He chased Dovizioso past the grandstand and along the pit wall, unable to draw level, but as the track dropped away for the braking zone, Rossi braked a fraction of a second later, getting the run into the corner, and holding his line to take 4th.
With 3 laps to go, Lorenzo and Rossi were 2 seconds down on the leader, Casey Stoner, and over half a second a lap faster. It should be possible to catch and even challenge Stoner, but there was a complication. That complication was riding a Rizla Suzuki, and was no longer quite fast enough to match Stoner's pace but still plenty fast enough to be a major obstacle. As an Italian with a chance of a podium - rare enough for the Suzukis - at his home Grand Prix, Loris Capirossi was intent on being an obstacle the size of the surrounding Apennine mountains.
Jorge Lorenzo's work was relatively simple: The Spaniard had caught Capirossi as they rounded the final Bucine corner before heading onto the straight, and Lorenzo could simply use the superior power of his Yamaha M1 to motor past Capirossi's Suzuki. The Italian veteran tried valiantly to hold Lorenzo off on the brakes, but to no avail. So deeply had he braked that Capirossi almost ran wide allowing Rossi to come underneath him as well, but the large radius of the San Donato corner allowed Capirex to cut back, adding an apex to the corner and cutting across the bow of Rossi's Yamaha, forcing Rossi to slow and killing his drive out of the corner.
Rossi was still stuck behind the Suzuki and would need to find a way around. He closed enough to start pushing through Arrabbiata, but it wasn't until Scarperia that he could finally force his way past and up into 3rd. If Rossi was to extend his winning streak at Mugello to 8 in a row, he would have to hurry. Two seconds down, with a lap and a quarter left to go, he had just lost half a second working his way past Capirossi, and he still had Lorenzo to deal with.
Both Lorenzo and Rossi were fast, but Stoner had seen the danger coming. On the last lap of the race, Casey Stoner put in his fastest lap, more than matching the pace of Lorenzo and Rossi. Stoner crossed the line to take a victory that was historic in more ways than one. The wildly cheering crew in the Ducati garage demonstrated how important the race was to the Bologna factory, finally taking a win at their home track, a track that Ducatis have spent thousands of laps trying to wear a groove into. They had been on the podium 5 times in the 6 years that they had raced here at Mugello, but each time they faced Valentino Rossi's Mugello mojo, and each time they lost. Finally, the spell had been broken and Rossi's reign in Tuscany was at an end.
Even more remarkably, Stoner's win came despite mechanical problems, forced to adjust a slipping clutch. Stoner's impromptu repair skills are proving vital, as he had to adjust an over-tight steering damper at Le Mans just 14 days ago in the previous flag-to-flag race. Stoner's pit crew are starting to look careless, the Australian winning despite his team, rather than because of them. Stoner won this race on the first lap out of the pits, setting a time of 2'06.761, nearly 7 seconds faster than Valentino Rossi and 4 seconds faster than Jorge Lorenzo. At the end, Stoner's lead was just 1.001 seconds.
Jorge Lorenzo crossed the line to take 2nd, an outstanding result after his race had gotten off to such a poor start. Most riders would have been so unnerved by crashing on the sighting lap then spinning the rear off the line and losing 10-odd places that they would have been happy just to cruise around mid-pack, and score some valuable points. Not Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo seems to possess the ability to forget about errors and problems as soon as they have occurred, an ability he shares with his team mate. He may have dropped to 2nd in the championship after his defeat at the hands of Casey Stoner, but heading into his home round at Barcelona, he will be feeling confident of getting the lead back soon enough. And more importantly, he leads his team mate.
All Good Things Must Come To An End
That team mate was distraught at seeing his winning streak come to an end at Mugello. As he crossed the line in 3rd place, Valentino Rossi deflated visibly, taking his loss very hard. Winning means a lot to Rossi, though he is usually very sporting whenever he loses. This time, though, the loss really hurt, and Rossi rode back round to the pits slumped over his bike.
Rossi put his defeat down to his tire choice. The hard front tire the team elected to run was the logical choice, as it was the tire they knew worked around the track. But the cold, damp asphalt at Mugello meant that the tire took longer to get up to temperature, and it took too long before Rossi could push for the lead. It's unusual for Rossi to assign blame for mistakes in the team, preferring to both win and lose as a team. But in the press debrief after the race, Rossi told reporters that the tire choice had been down to Peter Baumgartner, the highly experienced Bridgestone tire engineer assigned to work with Rossi, adding immediately afterwards that in the past, Baumgartner's advice had allowed him to win races, but not this time.
Andrea Dovizioso finished in 4th in his home Grand Prix, getting ahead of Loris Capirossi at the end of the straight at the start of the final lap. Dovizioso had come perilously close to the podium, pushing Rossi hard at the end of the last lap. For the second race in a row Dovizioso just missed out on a podium, but the progression the Repsol Honda rider has made since the start of the season and the improvements expected to the bike after the Catalunya Grand Prix suggest that it won't be long before Dovi is finally back on the box.
Loris Capirossi was also close to the podium for his home race, but in the end the Suzuki's lack of horsepower proved fatal. The Italian veteran rode a brilliant race in front of his home crowd, matching the pace of the front runners despite a serious power deficit. But Mugello's 349 km/h front straight left Capirex with nowhere to hide, allowing his rivals to pass with relative ease.
In 6th and 7th place came the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team, Colin Edwards just pipping his team mate James Toseland to the post, taking the position on the final lap. Edwards had got a miserable start, languishing down in 11th spot until the pit stops, but on slick tires the Texan started making rapid progress. Yet another decent result for Edwards allows the Texan to tighten his grip on his seat at Tech 3 for next season.
Meanwhile, team mate James Toseland got a much needed boost to his so far miserable season. The Yorkshireman had struggled since the switch to Bridgestones, but he found some of the pace he had been missing at Mugello. Toseland's results were partly down to a gamble that paid off, coming in early and making up a lot of ground while other riders were still getting up to speed after swapping to slicks.
Randy de Puniet had yet another respectable race, running in 6th for a long time before losing out to the Tech 3 Yamahas in the final laps. The LCR Honda sported Playboy sponsorship once again, team boss Lucio Cecchinello doing another of his useful single event deals, and de Puniet delivered by giving the sponsor the exposure they had paid for. De Puniet seems finally to have put his wayward past behind him, no longer the crasher of previous years.
The man who has ridden more laps at Mugello than almost anyone here, Niccolo Canepa, had his best result of the year, finishing 9th. This was just what Canepa needed to do at Mugello, finally displaying the talent that earned him the Ducati test role last year. Now all Canepa has to do is get up to speed more quickly at other tracks, for if this is just a one-off top 10 then the Italian could be back in Superstock or Superbike again next season.
Chris Vermeulen had started strong, leading the race at the beginning, but it simply wasn't wet enough for the Australian to excel. Hampered by the Suzuki's lack of power, he could offer no resistance to the rest of the bikes, sinking down the standings to finish 10th.
Marco Melandri had been another early leader, and on wet tires, the Italian had looked almost unbeatable. But after changing bikes, Melandri quickly dropped through the field to finish 11th, victim of the wrong tire choice, choosing the hard front and medium rear, the reverse of what was needed. In the wet, Melandri showed exactly what he was capable of. But the bike switch cost Melandri dearly.
Nicky Hayden finished the day in 12th, a position he has become accustomed to. But the American left Mugello in a much more upbeat mood than usual, as his 12th place this time had been caused by a brake problem rather than a general lack of confidence and lack of feeling with the Marlboro Ducati. Hayden had worn down his rear brake using it to stop the rear from spinning, using it up before the end of the race. Though everyone is looking forward to the day of testing after the Catalunya Grand Prix, Hayden is longing for it the most. The American will want to spend as much time as possible looking for a setup which will work for him on the Ducati, after missing so much riding time through injury, poor weather and just plain bad luck.
Hayden finished ahead of Pramac Ducati's Mika Kallio, who had a hard day on his dry bike. Happy enough on the wet setup, Kallio complained that his dry bike simply wouldn't turn, leaving him out of contention. The talented young Finn Kallio must be mulling over his decision to take a ride aboard the satellite Ducati, now increasingly being labeled "The Duc of Death" for its ability to terminate otherwise promising careers.
The final bikes across the line were the Gresini Hondas of Toni Elias and Alex de Angelis, in 14th and 15th respectively. The Gresini Honda used to be one of the most desirable satellite riders to have, but so far this year both Elias and de Angelis have been at best inconsistent, at worst downright dismal. Elias struggled with tire choice, the tires not heating as he needed, slowing the Spaniard up. De Angelis was de Angelis, running off the track on his first lap out on slick tires, tipping over but able to rejoin. Fausto Gresini summed the race up as hitting rock bottom, and the Italian is surely having a long hard look at his riders right now.
De Angelis wasn't the only rider to run off the track on the first lap out of the pits. The same thing happened to Yuki Takahashi, who didn't even make it to the first intermediate timing point. Takahashi continues to look out of his depth in MotoGP.
Can't Keep A Good Man Down
Dani Pedrosa managed to get in three laps after coming in to change bikes before crashing out at Savelli. The crash was the last thing Pedrosa needed, having torn a ligament and cracked a bone in his hip in a bizarre near-highside during practice. After the crash, Pedrosa lay still in the gravel trap, unable to move, but fears that he had aggravated his injury were unfounded, examination finding no further injuries from the crash.
Pedrosa is now lying immobilized at home for 10 days, hoping to be ready to race in his home Grand Prix. Frankly, the Spaniard would be better to miss the Barcelona race, and possibly the Assen race 13 days later, and focus his efforts on healing up and getting fit. Pedrosa's title challenge for 2009 is effectively over though he bears very little blame for that situation. Pedrosa's interests would be best served if he recovered fully, and helped get the Honda RC212V ready to mount a serious challenge in 2010.
Valentino Rossi's preparation for Mugello was assiduous as ever. He ran meticulously through all the rituals he has at his disposal, in an attempt to maintain his Mugello mojo, a force which had won him seven races in a row at the Tuscan track. Despite all his talismans, his signs and wonders, even Rossi's magic cannot banish chance and control all the factors needed for another victory. A statistician would label the end of Rossi's victory streak "regression to the mean," a concept which states that all exceptional occurrences will eventually come to an end. Ducati simply label it "Victory."