MotoGP Mugello Preview

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It’s Tight at the Top Heading to Italy

The first half of the 2012 MotoGP season draws to a close this Sunday at Mugello, one of the most tradition-soaked circuits on the global tour.  After last week’s stunning finish at the Sachsenring, the Aliens—Repsol Honda pilots Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, and factory Yamaha heartthrob Jorge Lorenzo—sit clumped together at the top of the standings, breathing down each other’s necks.  All three are relatively healthy, for a change.  All three have enjoyed success at the Italian Grand Prix.  And all three are hungry for another win before heading to the United States.

Nestled at the foot of the Apennine Mountains, on the only piece of relatively flat ground between Genoa and Naples, Mugello has hosted the Gran Premio d’Italia since 1994.  (Between 1991 and 1993 the race alternated between Mugello and Misano, helping to make my point that Misano is, regardless of what the locals say, in Italy.)  The circuit is long and fast, with one of the great main straights in all of racing.  It has seen several long winning streaks—Mick Doohan won five in a row between 1994 and 1998, while Valentino Rossi enjoyed seven consecutive wins here between 2002 and 2008.  Were I prone to hyperbole, I might assert that The Doctor earned his medical degree at Mugello.

Recent History

The 2009 race was unique in several ways.  Casey Stoner, riding the factory Ducati just down the road from The Factory, won the flag-to-flag event that started out wet, finished dry and was hotly contested throughout.  Lorenzo, who almost lost his #$@& on the sighting lap that day, rode his #2 bike to second place, edging Rossi by one second.  Rossi, in turn, snaked Andrea Dovizioso in the last turn to snag the last podium spot by an eyelash.  Loris Capirossi, in one of the last competitive outings of his career, drove his Rizla Suzuki to fifth place, but trailed Stoner by just three seconds.  Mugello 2009 was a red letter day for Italian race fans, with a Ducati on top and three paisans in the top five.

In 2010, Dani Pedrosa had one of those days where he took off from pole position like a scalded cat and never looked back, defeating Lorenzo by four seconds.  Dovizioso enjoyed a productive third place finish, while Stoner finished fourth, 25 seconds behind Pedrosa.  Rossi, injured in practice, would yield the world championship to his studly Spanish teammate that fall, and it marked the passing of a figurative baton.  Rossi’s absence from Mugello that year prefigured his devolution from 2009 champion to 2010 contender to 2011 pretender.

Last year, it was Lorenzo’s turn to stand atop the rostrum, flanked by Repsol Honda pilots Dovizioso and Stoner.  Stoner, on his way to the title, got worked by Dovizioso on the last lap, yielding second place by 15/1000ths of a second.  Pedrosa, in his first race since having been Simoncellied in France, managed a gutty eighth place finish.  For Dovizioso, Mugello marked his fourth podium in five races, but he would lose his factory seat anyway, as Honda decided that a three man factory team was unwieldy, spelled “I-N-C-R-E-D-I-B-L-Y  E-X-P-E-N-S-I-V-E.”  American fans took comfort in watching Ben Spies punk Simoncelli in the last turn of the race for a well-earned fifth place.

Great Expectations

So, the 2012 season leaders return to Italy having each won here in the last three years.  During the last two weeks, Pedrosa has gained ground at the expense of his two rivals, having avoided the bad luck that dogged Lorenzo in Assen and the bad karma that befell Stoner in Germany.  After Silverstone, Pedrosa lagged Lorenzo by 39 points and Stoner by 14.  Today, he trails Lorenzo by 16 and leads the defending champion by six.  (Casey, in his post-race blamefest interview at the Sachsenring, pointed his finger at the circuit—too short and slow for him to open the throttle—and essentially gave the finger to “those German marshals,” whom he claimed refused to help him get his bike righted in order to finish the race and scarf up a few points.  Click here for a marginally tasteful spoof of that conversation in the gravel.)

Though all three have reason to be optimistic about their chances this weekend, I like Lorenzo, as the 1000cc YZR-M1 has it over the Hondas on long fast circuits.  The weather forecast calls for hot, dry conditions, which will make tire management important, and Lorenzo’s Yamaha is a gentle as a baby’s breath on rear tires.  This forecast, too, is bad news for the Ducati contingent, as their sole hope in 2012 is torrential daylong downpours.  If any of the three Aliens falter, one expects Dovizioso to be ready to pounce on the third podium spot, as he has been nails at his home track since 2009.

“Silly” is a Crummy Term for the Season

The racing press needs to come up with an alternate descriptor for the high stakes game of musical chairs that envelops MotoGP around this time each year.  “Silly”, for me, is a highly feminine word, like “cute” or “pretty”, that seems more appropriate in HGTV clothing design shows than a macho sport like MotoGP.  But, as a former boss used to tell me, “I’ll alert the industry.”  Just sayin’.

If I had to bet on next year’s six factory riders, I’d be comfortable betting your house on Pedrosa and Marquez on the Repsol Honda team, Lorenzo on the Yamaha, and the doomed Cal Crutchlow wearing Ducati colors.  It’s the last two seats that have everyone talking.

If Rossi decides that discretion is the better part of valor, I don’t know why he wouldn’t hook up with Fausto Gresini and ride a “factory” Honda for San Carlo, which is dying for an Italian rider.  Bautista’s contract is in play for next season, and Honda is now limited by the rules to four bikes in 2013.  LCR must be delighted with Herr Bradl, despite the historical enmity between France and Germany, feeling he has a bright immediate future.  If Rossi stays with Ducati—stranger things have happened, I just can’t think of any off the top of my head—then it looks to be curtains for Nicky Hayden.  The 2006 world champion hasn’t actually won a race since, well, 2006, and could easily find himself in World SuperBikes, where Ducati is highly competitive, and where he could be a star again.

Right now, it appears to me that Andrea Dovizioso will join Lorenzo on the factory Yamaha.  The Italian is getting great results in his first year on the M1, and would immediately be a strong contender on the 1000cc factory bike.  This is the third season in a row that Ben Spies has gotten off to a slow start, and even if he were to podium three or four times in the second half, I can’t believe he can save himself.  I suppose he could swallow his pride and return to Tech 3 alongside Bradley Smith, but can’t recall any young factory rider who went back down to Triple A ball after a two year stay in the bigs.  WSB would be a bigger fall, and the CRTs are out of the question.

Ben Spies’ world is so upside-down at this point that a win at Mugello, as unlikely as that sounds, might actually provide some relief from the spotlight for a few weeks. For teammate Jorge Lorenzo, a second consecutive victory in Italy would provide relief of a different sort, by getting those two Repsol guys out of his face until Laguna Seca rolls around.

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