Round six of the MotoGP™ title makes its way to Valentino Rossi's beloved playground of Mugello in Italy this weekend, with the championship delicately poised thanks to Marc Marquez's crash in the last round at Le Mans.
Even though the two-time MotoGP™ champion remounted and eventually scrambled a few points on his Repsol Honda, the lowly result saw the battle between himself and Movistar Yamaha men Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi tighten up at the top of the standings — a perfect springboard for the balance of the season.
After five of 18 rounds, Lorenzo sits on 90pts, ahead of Marquez (85), Rossi (78), Dani Pedrosa (53), Maverick Vinales (49) and Pol Espargaro (47).
Even though Rossi has won seven times around the classic 5.2km Mugello circuit in the Tuscan Valley, Spanish riders have won the race for the last six years, stretching back to Pedrosa in 2010 and then followed by Lorenzo (2011-2013, 2015) and Marquez (2014). Lorenzo in particular has been brilliant, with his silky-smooth style making for a perfect match with the sweeping curves.
The decade before, Rossi's seven wins at Mugello came in succession, but with the balance power shifting towards his arch-rivals the Italian legend wants to readdress the situation and give his enthusiastic and passionate followers something extra to cheer about. And Rossi will also unveil a special one-off custom helmet, as has been tradition at Mugello over recent years.
"I love Mugello and its atmosphere. It's very difficult for me to keep my concentration here because there are always so many of my friends and fans around, but the Mugello race is also special for me for that reason," said Rossi. "I've had some victories here, many great battles and a lot of good memories. I think this year we can be competitive because our bike is good and I'm getting into a good shape.
"At the Le Mans GP we arrived late at achieving the right set up for the race, at Mugello we will not make this mistake again. After Le Mans I'm relaxed and now I'm ready to try to attain the maximum level of concentration for the Mugello GP."
Rossi is the most successful rider across all the classes at Mugello, with a total of nine victories: one each in the 125cc and 250cc classes to add to his seven MotoGP™ wins.
Mugello is a favourite circuit of almost every rider, the run down to San Donato something that very few other layouts on the calendar can match. Marquez also loves it, but has only finished one MotoGP™ race at Mugello — albeit a win in 2014 — so he'll want to lock away some big points this weekend, especially after the disappointment of Le Mans.
Mind you, at least Marquez finished the race in France, unlike Ducati Team pair Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso who both crashed out — not since Phillip Island's round last year have they finished a race together.
And the Ducati garage at Mugello will certainly have a different vibe after the company announced this week that Dovizioso will be Lorenzo's teammate in 2017 and 2018, leaving Iannone out in the cold. Iannone will be desperate to prove that Ducati made the wrong decision, so the Italian should be full of aggression from the start of practice on Friday morning. In 2015, Iannone started the Mugello race from pole before finishing second behind Lorenzo, with Rossi in third.
Michele Pirro will also be present at Mugello as a wildcard entry on a third Desmosedici GP for the Ducati Test Team.
It was also announced during the week that Pedrosa will remain at Repsol Honda for another two years (2017-2018), which still leaves a vacant seat alongside Rossi at Movistar Yamaha — with Vinales the hot tip to take that.
Vinales took a well-deserved third place for Ecstar Suzuki at Le Mans, so he won't want to drop the ball at Mugello. Vinales' teammate Aleix Espargaro has also been on the improve all year, while Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) has now become a regular top eight finisher.
It's been a disappointing season so far for British hopes Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) and Bradley Smith (Monster Yamaha Tech 3), especially the former who's been down the road in four of the five races.
Mugello will provide Crutchlow a chance for redemption, while Aussie Jack Miler (EG 0,0 Marc VDS Honda) has too shown some good speed but has also crashed regularly, including at Le Mans.
“The outcome of… Le Mans was not what we wanted but I am actually feeling really good about my race pace," said Miller. "We need to work more on our outright speed but I think Mugello will be a little easier for our package.
"The key goal will be to finish the race and be as strong as possible throughout the weekend. Mugello is an awesome track and the top speed we get to on the straight is pretty scary and impressive.
"I can’t wait to see (my teammate) Tito’s face the first time he goes over that crest in sixth gear and then has to pull it up on the brakes for turn one. I’m looking forward to riding there and getting the result I think our speed deserves this season.”
Pol Espargaro leads in the Independent Team championship, now 8pts clear of Hector Barbera (Avintia Racing Ducati).
Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Yakhnich Ducati) could be one of the many riders challenging the likes of Pol Espargaro. The Italian scored a sensational seventh on his return from injury in an exhausting, but rewarding, race weekend, proving he hasn't slowed down while away from the track.
The see-sawing Moto2™ battle resumes with Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40) now the championship leader by 5pts ahead of Briton Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2™).
They now head to Mugello where neither rider has won before. Of the two, Lowes has the best intermediate class record in Mugello, with pole position in 2015 helping him to take fourth place in the race.
World champion Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) was second at Mugello in 2015 behind Tito Rabat, and the Frenchman knows he must fire after he crashed at home last start. The Frenchman is 31pts behind Rins in the championship.
Meanwhile, Zarco’s loss was Tom Luthi’s (Garage Plus Interwetten) gain as the Swiss rider moved up to third in the championship.
Simone Corsi (Speed Up Racing) continues to go above and beyond as the change to Speed Up machinery has given the Roman a much-needed boost. France saw him take second place, his best result since the French GP in 2014. Corsi already has four top 10 finishes at Mugello in Moto2™.
Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) now leads the championship by 24pts after successive victories. And now that's he's in a winning groove it will again be hard to deny the South African, but in the Moto3™ class nothing's a given and Binder will again face a stern test from the likes of Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0), Sky Racing Team VR46 pair Romano Fenati and Nicolo Bulega, Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold) and Francesco Bagnaia (Aspar Mahindra Team Moto3).
Of all the riders in the Moto3™ class, Fenati is the most successful at Mugello having taken three podiums at his home circuit including victory in 2014. Last year he was third behind Miguel Oliveira and Danny Kent.
Never in the history of the Moto3™ title have first and second place riders at Mugello been separated by more than 0.1secs, so standby for another doozy.
The three world championship races at Mugello will be held over the following distances and times:
- MotoGP™: 23 laps, 120.6km, starting at 2:00pm local time (10:00pm AEST)
- Moto2™: 21 laps, 110.1km, starting a 12:20pm local time (8:20pm AEST)
- Moto3™: 20 laps, 104.9km, starting at 11:00am local time (7:00pm AEST)
Images courtesy of MotoGP.com