Mugello used to be, for Valentino Rossi, what Phillip Island was for Casey Stoner. During his salad days, between 2002 and 2008, Rossi stood on the top step of the podium at his home track seven straight times, while Stoner won the Australian Grand Prix six times from 2007-2012. On race days, the two old priests at the Catholic church in Tavullia, Rossi’s home town, would watch the race, get a load on with the locals, and ring the church bells afterwards. The bells have been silent after the Italian Grand Prix for the past seven years.
A number of factors have conspired to deprive Rossi of a home win during this time. In 2009, Stoner was still enjoying success wrestling the Ducati Desmosedici until lactose intolerance sidelined him during the second half of the season. He won a three-way shootout at Mugello that year, beating sophomore sensation Jorge Lorenzo by a second and Rossi by two. 2010 was the year Rossi crashed hard in practice, resulting in the only serious injury of his career and a DNS at Mugello. 2011 and 2012 were The Lost Years at Ducati, during which he finished sixth and fifth in Italy, a complete non-factor.
Rejoining the factory Yamaha team in 2013, there was the Bautista incident described below. In 2014 Marquez and Lorenzo were faster. Last year it was Lorenzo again, with Andrea Iannone adding insult to injury by inserting himself into second place. Yes, he’s Italian, but he’s not Rossi.
In short, since 2008 it’s been one thing or another. With the best bike on the grid and a shiny new contract in hand, with teammate and rival Lorenzo departing for greener (or redder) pastures at season’s end, and some good luck having come his way two weeks ago at Le Mans, Rossi appears to have his mojo back. The Magic Eight Ball says, “Signs point to yes” this week in Italy.
Recent history at Mugello
The 2013 Italian Grand Prix was not a Rossi classic. Far from it. Early in the race, the excitable Alvaro Bautista, starting ninth on the GO&FUN Gresini Honda, went into Turn 2 on the gas while all around him were braking, sending himself and Rossi into the hay bales. Rossi’s teammate and defending world champion Lorenzo had things his way all day, leading every lap while holding brash Repsol Honda rookie Marquez at bay.
Marquez, trying too hard to make something happen late in the day, crashed heavily on Lap 21, surrendering second place to series leader Dani Pedrosa and third to Tech 3 soccer hooligan Cal Crutchlow who, having crashed so many times in practice, was being held together with Bandaids and popsicle sticks. (Crutchlow seems to deliver his best results when seriously injured; I’ll resist the temptation to follow that observation to its logical extreme.) The crowd went home disappointed at Rossi’s customary bad luck, deriving little consolation from Andrea Dovizioso’s 5th place finish, with fellow paisans Michele Pirro wildcarding his way to 7th, followed by Danilo Petrucci in 12th and Andrea “The Rider Formerly Known as Crazy Joe” Iannone 13th.
In 2014, Lorenzo gave the crowd a replay of 2013. Unfortunately for him, 2014 was The Year of Marquez. The Yamaha icon, despite having led for 21 laps, was unable to fend off Marquez at the flag, getting pimped by 12/100ths, with Rossi third, at least finishing the race, if not winning it. The win put Marquez six-for-six in 2014, looking dynastic, while Team Yamaha, doing everything possible under massive pressure, put both riders on the podium but was unable to take the win at Rossi’s home crib. Marquez left Italy with a 53-point margin over Rossi, a lead which was able to withstand a great second half of the season from The Bruise Brothers.
Last year was another Lorenzo-on-rails outing, a carbon copy of what we saw in France two weeks ago. Exciting for Jorge, numbing for the fans. Polesitter Iannone, aboard the rapidly-improving Ducati GP15, completed his career-best premier class outing in second place despite a list of injuries more commonly found at the foot of a set of concrete stairs. Rossi was able to take care of a healing Dani Pedrosa to claim the final spot on the podium, but 2006 it wasn’t. Marquez crashed out mid-race during the season of his discontent.
The Big Picture
Rossi sits in third place for the year, trailing the incandescent Lorenzo by 12 points and a troubled Marquez by only seven. Lorenzo is on a roll at present, and Mugello is one of his favorite layouts, very Yamaha friendly. For Rossi, it’s home. For Marquez it is enemy territory; after last season’s switchblades-in-a-phonebooth war with Rossi, the young Catalan can expect a rude welcome from the 90,000 locals wedged into the friendly confines on Sunday. With Marquez struggling with acceleration and rear grip, and Pedrosa winless for the year, times are tough in the Repsol Honda garage at present.
But not nearly so tough as things down the block at the factory Ducati digs. The factory team, The Dueling Andreas, have been screwed, blued and tattooed thus far in 2016. A season in which many folks, myself included, thought either could pose a genuine threat to Lorenzo Rossi Associates finds them mired in 10th and 11th places, any chance for a credible season spoken of only in the past tense. The suits in Bologna are issuing team orders. Gigi Dall’Igna has chewed his fingernails to the quick. A win on Sunday at their home track would do little to wash away the wretched memories of 2016.
For the Suzuki Ecstar team, it has been a good news, bad news fortnight. The good news, obviously, was that Maverick Vinales earned his first premier class podium at Le Mans and the first for the factory team since 2009. The bad news was that he is expected to follow up the Veuve Clicquot and Cohíbas Espléndidos by finally signing a contract (which included an application for membership in The Alien Club) with Yamaha for 2017-18, thereby ruining everyone’s mood and producing a vacuum on the #1 saddle. Listen carefully and you can hear this vacuum sucking Andrea Iannone inexorably toward a two-year deal with Suzuki.
Better a Devil You Know than a Devil You Don’t
Honda lived up to its longstanding reputation for being cautious, conservative and respectful by signing the aging Pedrosa for another two-year, no-championship stint with the Repsol factory team. The new contract says more about Pedrosa’s ability to give useful feedback to the engineers than it does about his competitiveness on track. Some will point out that he had a fairly strong start to the 2014 season and a strong finish to the 2015 campaign. But he’s never won a MotoGP title and he never will. Too many injuries, too many other great riders, too much bad luck. You name it, and there’s been too much of it. Plus, there’s still that lunatic fringe of fans who will never forgive him for the Nicky Hayden incident at Estoril in 2006, and who should get a life.
As for the news on Tuesday that Ducati would be keeping Dovizioso and disposing of Iannone, the thinking apparently was that Dovizioso’s poor results are due mainly to bad luck, while Iannone’s are his own fault. Probably a wise decision, as Lorenzo and Dovi will present a formidable front next year, presuming the GP16’s maneuverability continues to improve. Lorenzo probably had concerns, too, about having The Maniac as his wingman. Who wouldn’t?
I can think of a few tracks where Lorenzo is going to get some major wood blowing Vale away in the main straights.
Your Weekend Forecast
Rain should vacate the greater Scarperia area by Friday afternoon, giving way to blue skies and temps in the upper 70’s. Rossi weather. No reason to think The Bruise Brothers won’t both end up on the podium on Sunday afternoon. If I had to pick a dark horse to join them, I’d go with Iannone, against my better judgment. And there is no truth to the rumor Rossi is shopping for a used DeLorean sporting an aftermarket flux capacitor. Just sayin’.
We’ll have results and analysis right here later on Sunday.