One circuit, three races, all of them utterly different in nature. The wide, flowing layout with a long straight, fast corners, and multiple combinations of turns present very different challenges to Grand Prix racing's three different classes. For Moto3, escape is impossible, the race coming down to tactics and the ability to pick the right slipstream. In Moto2, it is possible to get away, but it's equally possible to chase an escaped rider down. And in MotoGP, the fast flicks make it possible to both defend attacks and launch your own counter attack. Mugello is a wonderful circuit, and it served up a spectacular portion of racing on Sunday.
We had expected Moto3 to be the race of the day, as it has been every Grand Prix this season. It certainly did not disappoint, but by the time the last few laps of the MotoGP race rolled around, we had forgotten all about Moto3. The Moto3 race was fantastic entertainment, but the MotoGP race at Mugello was one for the ages. The kind of race that fans will bring up over and over again, one to go along with Barcelona 2009, Laguna Seca 2008, even Silverstone 1979.
It took the return of the real Jorge Lorenzo to light a fire under the MotoGP race. Lorenzo had been looking stronger and stronger all weekend, and was coming to a track where he has previously dominated, and with tires which, he had been told, were identical to last year. Lorenzo's punishing cardio workout schedule now back on track and paying dividends. The fitness he lost when three operations during the off season forced him to abandon his normal training schedule cost him dearly.
2014 Mugello Saturday Round Up: Signs Of Marquez' Weakness, The Importance Of Equipment, And The Rocketship Ducati
Knowing that not everyone is in a position to watch qualifying and races when they are live, we try to operate a no-spoilers policy for at least a few hours after the event. No results in headlines, nor on the MotoMatters Twitter feed. But as the mighty motorcycle racing Twitter personality SofaRacer put it today, ' I know you don't like to Tweet spoilers David. But 'Márquez on pole' and 'Márquez wins' technically, erm, aren't.' To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Marc Marquez took his sixth pole of the season, and his seventh pole in a row on Sunday. Marquez remains invincible, even at what he regards as his worst track of the year.
His advantage is rather modest, though. With just 0.180 seconds over the man in second place – the surprising Andrea Iannone – it is Marquez' smallest advantage of the season, if we discount Qatar, where he was basically riding with a broken leg. You get the sense that Marquez is holding something back, almost being cautious, after being bitten several times by the track last year, including a massive crash in free practice and then sliding out of the race. It makes him almost vulnerable for the first time. His race pace is still fast, but he has others – Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, even the Ducatis of Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso – all on roughly the same pace.
2014 Mugello MotoGP Friday Round Up: On Wasted Sessions, A Feisty Rossi, And American Joy And Despair
The weather didn't really play ball at Mugello on Friday. The forecast rain held off until the last five minutes of Moto3 FP2, before sprinkling just enough water on the track to make conditions too wet for slicks, too dry for wet tires. That left the entire MotoGP field sitting in their garages waiting for the rain to either get heavier and wet the track completely, or else stop, and allow it to dry up. Dani Pedrosa explained that though the track was dry in most places, San Donato, the first corner at the end of the high speed straight, was still wet. Bridgestone slicks need to be pushed hard to get them up to temperature, and if you can't push in Turn 1, then they don't. That leaves you with cold tires, which will come back and bite you further round the track.
One of the items on the list of requirements Dorna sent to Michelin was the need for an intermediate tire. Would anyone have gone out if they had had intermediates? Pedrosa believed they would have. 'With intermediates you can go out. I'm not sure whether you get anything out of it, but for sure you don't have 24 bikes in the box.' You don't learn much in terms of set up when you go out on intermediates, but more people might venture out. One team manager I spoke to was less convinced. 'We have five engines and a limited number of tires. We can't afford to lose an engine in a crash. Why take a risk, when it's better to save miles on the engine?'
2014 Mugello MotoGP Preview: Rossi's Revival In Race 300, And How Marquez And Moto2 Are Changing MotoGP
The paradox of the motorcycle racer is that every race is a big race, yet no race is more important than any other. The pressure on the MotoGP elite is so great that they have to perform at their maximum at every circuit, every weekend. Every race is like a championship decider, not just the race which decides the championship. There may be extra pressure at a home race, or on a special occasion, or when a title is at stake, but the riders cannot let it get to them. There is too much at stake to be overawed by the occasion.
Still, Mugello 2014 is a very big race indeed. It is Valentino Rossi's 300th Grand Prix, and a chance for him to return to the podium on merit again, and not just because the crowds were calling his name. It is the best hope of a Jorge Lorenzo revival, the Yamaha man having won the last three races in a row at the spectacular Tuscan track. It is the best hope for Ducati, the Italian factory having run well here in the past. And it is the first realistic chance for Marc Marquez to fail, the Spaniard has never found the track an easy one, though it did not stop him winning there.
Valentino Rossi heads into the race weekend more optimistic than he has been in years. Though Misano is closer to Rossi's home in Tavullia – it is literally walking distance, though it is a long walk indeed – Mugello is the Italian's spiritual home, the track he loves most in the world.
The news that 340mm carbon brake discs are to be allowed once again in MotoGP has rekindled a debate that has been going on behind the scenes for some time. The move to allow the discs at all tracks, and not just Motegi where they are already compulsory, has come as both power and weight of the MotoGP machines has grown over the past three years. But the real solution lies in reducing minimum weight.
There was a certain irony in the moment chosen by the Grand Prix Commission to ban carbon discs larger than 320mm. The move – made for reason of cost savings and rationalization – came just as MotoGP was to return to 1000cc, meaning the bikes were about to reach higher top speeds. Compounding the problem, the minimum weight was also increased. The initial proposal was to raise the minimum from 150kg, the weight of the old 800cc machines, to 153kg. However, to make life easier for the CRT machines, the weight limit was raised even further, in two steps, to 157kg in 2012 and 160kg in 2013.
2014 Le Mans MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Rossi's Revival, Lorenzo's Slump, Ducati's Stagnation, Miller's Revenge And Funny Front Ends
Now, Valentino Rossi knows how Max Biaggi felt. 'I did one mistake in 27 laps,' Rossi told the press conference after the MotoGP race at Le Mans. 'But in the crucial moment of the race.' Rossi braked a little bit too deep into Turn 9, ran wide, and Marquez was through. The mistake was because Rossi knew Marquez was coming, and had to try to push to keep ahead. 'I try to push, to do 1'34.0, but I knew I was at the limit.' Rossi knew that if he did not keep pushing to the full, Marquez would be upon him and past him in no time. It was perhaps that effort that caused Rossi to make the mistake that let Marquez by.
It was indeed a strange role reversal for Rossi. Ten years ago, it was Rossi himself who was hunter, stalking riders like Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau, following them and simply waiting for a mistake. Now, the hunter had become prey, faltering when Marquez bore down upon him. At last, he got to ride a mile in Biaggi's boots.
Yet all credit is due to the veteran Italian. He is currently the only rider in the world capable of putting up any kind of resistance to the unstoppable force which is Marc Marquez. Both Rossi and Marquez were surprised and disappointed at Rossi's mistake, both relishing the chance to go toe to toe with one another. 'I don't know if I can beat him,' Rossi said, 'But I would like to fight. I think it would be fun.' Marquez concurred, telling the press conference he had expected to have 'a nice battle' with Rossi as he came up behind him, but when he saw Rossi make the mistake, he did not hesitate. He was past, had put half a second into Rossi within half a lap, and was gone. If anything, it was a mark of respect that he distanced himself so quickly. Marquez may have been prepared for a fight with Rossi, but he couldn't afford to hang around to see what Rossi could do. With five victories from five poles, Marquez may be confident, but he is not yet reckless.
2014 Le Mans MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Marc Marquez As Sound Investment, Rossi On The Honda, And The Changing Of The Moto2 Guard
Qualifying at Le Mans was full of surprises. Efren Vazquez grabbed his first ever pole in Moto3, Jonas Folger bagged his first Moto2 pole after just five races in the class, and Pol Espargaro secured a front row start as a rookie. Andrea Dovizioso posted another impressive performance, grabbing third in qualifying, and Ducati's first front row start of the year. The two Movistar Yamahas were relegated to the second row of the grid, and Dani Pedrosa will start from way down in ninth. If you'd put money on that sequence of events, you could have earned yourself a very tidy sum indeed.
You certainly wouldn't have earned much by betting on who would take pole. Marc Marquez is turning into the very antithesis of surprise, at least if you judge him by the timesheet. The championship leader only managed three flying laps during qualifying at Le Mans, but two of those were fast enough to break the pole record held by Dani Pedrosa, and set using super soft Michelin qualifying tires. For the second meeting in succession, Marquez destroyed a pole record which had stood throughout the spec tire era.
He also destroyed the field in the process. Marc Marquez was nearly seven tenths quicker than the second placed rider during qualifying. He was over eight tenths quicker than both Movistar Yamaha riders, and over a second quicker than his teammate Dani Pedrosa. He took his fifth pole of the season – a clean sweep in 2014 so far – and his sixth in succession. If he wins tomorrow, he will take the record as the youngest rider to win five premier class races in a row from Mike Hailwood. He has more records in sight: Giacomo Agostini won the first eight races from pole in 1971; Mick Doohan won ten races from pole in 1997. Bookies are currently offering odds of 1/18 on Marquez taking the championship in 2014. Those are the kind of returns you would expect from interest on a long-term savings account, not from having a flutter in the hope of winning big. In the opinion of the bookmakers, betting on Marc Marquez is like putting money in the bank.
Who can stop Marc Marquez? By the look of the FP2 timesheet, maybe Andrea Iannone can. The Pramac Ducati rider ended Friday just 0.007 behind Marquez, the closest anyone has been to him on a Friday since Qatar. Looks are, of course, deceptive, and if you dig a little deeper you see that Iannone's fastest lap, though impressive, was made using a tow from Dani Pedrosa, just as the Repsol Honda rider was setting his fastest lap of the session. Iannone also benefited from using the extra soft rear tire which Ducati is allowed to use, making it that little bit easier to post a quick lap.
Iannone should not be written off too quickly, however. Pedrosa slowed up to let Iannone past immediately after the pair had set their quick laps, and on the next clear lap, Iannone got into the 1'33s again, posting a time equal to Pedrosa's best lap, but this time, all on his own. Whether he convert that to consistent pace in the race remains to be seen. The Italian appears to be circulating around the 1'34.3 mark. Fast, but not fast enough to match what Marquez appears to be capable of.
For real race pace, you have to look a little further down the timesheets. Jorge Lorenzo appears to have refound his mojo, and is starting to grind out the laps. The Movistar Yamaha rider put in 16 full laps during FP2, 5 of which were 1'34.1s, plus a single lap of 1'34.054. This is the Lorenzo of old, working on consistent pace and slowly ratcheting up the pace. Lorenzo's pace is still no match for Marquez – the Repsol Honda man seems capable of banging in 1'33.8s at will – but it is clearly the best of the rest. It has taken four races for the real Jorge Lorenzo to make an appearance, but at least he is finally here.
As the MotoGP circus descends upon the charming French town of Le Mans this weekend, there is one question at the front of everybody's minds: can he do it? Can Marc Marquez continue his incredible string of poles and victories by winning at Le Mans? On the evidence of the 2014 season so far, you would have to say he can. But Le Mans is a different circuit, and one where a gaggle of Yamaha riders have gone well in the past. This could possibly be the first race since Qatar where Marquez is made to work for it.
Marquez has a lot going for him in France. Leaving aside his form – a perfect record of poles and wins this year, as well as being fastest in over half the sessions of free practice so far – the track looks to play to the Honda's strengths, on paper at least. The stop-and-go nature of the Le Mans track sees the bikes spend a lot of time under hard acceleration, with slower corners needing hard braking. The Honda's 'V' approach to the corners – brake late, turn hard, stand the bike up quickly and get on the gas – seems to be a much better fit to the Le Mans circuit than Yamaha's 'U' style – brake early, enter faster, carry more corner speed and smoothly wind on the throttle.
And yet Yamaha riders have won four of the last six races at the circuit. Jorge Lorenzo has won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans three times, and each time with a very comfortable margin over his competitors. Valentino Rossi has won here twice on a Yamaha, in 2005 and 2008, and finished second behind Lorenzo in 2010. It's even a track where Colin Edwards has shone in the past on a Yamaha – and where perhaps he can do well once again, despite hating the current Yamaha chassis he is riding at Forward Yamaha. This is the first in a series of circuits where Yamaha riders have dominated in the past. If Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi want to start fighting back against the might of Marquez, Le Mans is as good a place to start as any.
The first MotoGP test of the season at Jerez is a tough one for the factories, coming as it does after three flyaway races on three continents, followed by a one-week hop back to Europe. Teams and engineers are all a little bedazzled and befuddled from all the travel, and have not had time to analyze fully all the data from the first four races of the season. It is too early in the season to be drawing firm conclusions, and crew chiefs and engineers have not yet fully exhausted all of their set up ideas for fully exploiting the potential of the package they started the season with.
As a result, they do not have a vast supply of new parts waiting to be tested. The bikes that rolled out of pit lane on Monday were pretty much identical to the bikes raced on Sunday. The only real differences were either hard or impossible to see. Suspension components, rising rate linkages and brake calipers were about as exotic as it got. The one area where slightly bigger changes were being applied was in electronics strategies, with Yamaha and Honda working on engine braking, and Honda trying out a new launch control strategy. That new launch control system did not meet with the approval of Marc Marquez, however, and so will probably not be seen again.