Postcard from Mugello

I love lying in bed listening to birdsong. I find it really uplifting. So I was delighted to discover our chosen hotel lay slap bang in the middle of a Tuscan forest full of trilling birds. Yes, we were back in Italy again. This time for the Oakley Italian MotoGP at Mugello which is not far from Florence.

My beloved chose our hotel but with my blessing. It’s a small family run affair, sympathetically restored with a modern interior, small bar and great restaurant. Our drive over in glorious sunshine passed smoothly with a couple of stops for lunch and refreshments. We exited the motorway at Florence skirted round the town and headed cross-country to our destination through typical Tuscan countryside, lush and green with those distinctive trees and ochre clad properties.

I’ve wanted to attend another live MotoGP race since we last went to Catalunya in 2012. While the television coverage of all 18 events is excellent you can’t beat live sport for its atmosphere and noise. With MotoGP, I love the mix of Free Practice, Qualifying and Sunday Race Days. Lots of short, sharp, action packed sessions, none of which extend beyond 45 minutes. In between it’s good to stretch one’s legs and wander round the circuit and merchandise stalls. No rider sells more merchandise than Valentino Rossi and, with this being his home GP, pretty much everyone is decked out in blue and yellow.

We picked up our tickets at the accreditation centre where we bumped into a German guy who was staying in our hotel and was looking for a lift to Mugello. He works for Oakley, principal sponsor of the event, and had been parachuted in at the last moment to help. We happily obliged.

Quite by chance we parked near the entrance closest to the stand where I’d booked our tickets, which was under cover, in the shade, on the home straight, opposite the boxes. We were a tiny spot of red and black in a sea of blue and yellow, right opposite the Yamaha box. The stand was well served by refreshment stalls and facilities with proper toilets, unlike those scattered around the circuit which offered hole in the ground amenities which I (thankfully) haven’t seen in donkey’s years.

My hopes had been raised by a sign advertising vegetarian panini but they were dashed when the vendor revealed they were tomato and mozzarella. Ah well, I won’t pass away if I miss lunch though I was regretting not bringing some fruit and snacks from home.

Mugello Teaser

This weekend, a third of the way into the championship, Michelin (the sole tyre provider) changed its front tyre for the remaining 13 races to one which features a stiffer casing, which I’m reliably informed deforms less during braking. You might be thinking, so what? But in MotoGP nothing is more important than the front tyre. Everything comes from the front tyre: the all-important rider feel, corner-entry speed, mid-corner speed and therefore corner-exit speed. So, would the tyre change be a game-changer?

Preliminaries

Crowds were sparse on Friday, largely those who were staying under canvas or in their camper vans at the circuit. The main grandstand was about 30% full while the others were pretty much empty though there was a goodly number on the grassy hill overlooking the circuit which sits in a bowl surrounded by the Tuscan hills, thickly clad with forest and basking in the sunshine. Had it rained, it would have been Dantesque with mud and water everywhere.

The crowds increased by a factor of twenty over the week-end and, despite arriving in time for the start of the day’s action, we were some way back in the car park. This meant it was much easier to exit the circuit. As anticipated, many of the race favourites had shone in both free practice and qualifying. While to the delight of the partisan crowd, Italian riders were well placed though championship leader, Maverick Vinales – surely the best name in MotoGP – was on pole for the blue riband event despite not favouring the tyre change. His team-mate Rossi was second on the front row.  Obviously, the crowd was hoping for nothing less than a Rossi victory in the blue riband event and for Italian riders to shine

Throughout the week-end, the press were always at least 10 deep at the Yamaha garage, though largely only over at Rossi’s box. He only had to appear on the many screens around the track for a massive cheer to erupt from the crowd. Barely anyone, not even the other Italians, got a look in. Makes you wonder what’ll happen to the sport when Rossi (now aged 38) finally retires.

My beloved likens MotoGP to chariot racing of old and there’s something very gladiatorial about the whole spectacle, including when, and in what order, riders emerge from their boxes and the pit lanes.

I mentioned the noise. It’s not as noisy as F1. But if Moto3 bikes sound like mosquitos, the bigger bikes throb like Concord and your whole body vibrates as they pass flat out on the home straight. It’s not quite loud enough for ear plugs, but almost.

On Saturday, at half- time, a few brave/foolhardy souls have the opportunity to ride pillion on a Ducati once round the circuit. I’d love to do this but I suspect once on the back of the bike I’d be holding on so tight I’d probably suffocate the pilot.

Race Day

On Sunday, the place was stuffed to the gills with over 160,000 spectators, many of whom were sitting on the hill overlooking the circuit.

After warm up for all three classes, a moving homage was paid to the late 2005 World Champion Nicky Hayden who recently died from injuries sustained from being hit by a vehicle while riding his bicycle. You could tell how well he was regarded by current riders and crew from the emotions of their face during the 69 seconds (Hayden’s MotoGP number was 69) of silence followed by applause.

The dynamics of each race are very different. In Moto3, all the bikes have the same engine (different chassis) and the front group is highly competitive with the race lead swapping frequently. The leading twosome only managed to break free from the pack on the final lap, with a spectacular duel on the home straight. Italian Andrea (a Rossi protegé) taking his maiden GP victory, and on home turf, with fellow Italian Fabio di Giannontonio coming in as runner-up. Needless to say the crowd were delighted.

Moto2 featured a stunning three-way fight with veteran racer Mattia Pasini – yes, another Italian – recording his first victory since 2009. Another veteran, Thomas Luthi was runner-up.  Another home win and already the Italian commentators were running out of superlatives.

Finally, the race everyone was waiting for. Would Rossi avenge his defeat last season at the hands of the current world champion, Marc Marquez, back in sixth place on the grid?

Yet another Italian, Andrea Dovizioso, took only his third GP victory with a significant margin and amazing turn of speed on the straight. Current championship leader, Vinales was second, with Italian, Danilo Petrucci, on another Ducati, was third. Rossi was fourth. Three Italian wins! We heard more  Mama Mia’s from the commentators than you’d find in an Abba song.

Time to go Home

With most of the crowd heading for the track, we raced back the car park and headed for the motorway. I would’ve stayed until Monday but my beloved had a business trip on Monday, despite it being a Bank Holiday in most of Europe. Our quick get away meant we avoided potential hold ups and arrived home at a reasonable time. We’d enjoyed our trip to the MotoGP in Mugello and vowed not to leave it so long again before visiting another circuit.

 

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