Yamaha and Honda are locked in a game of who’s got grip. Back and forth, the results have tilted, as first one, then the other, has an ever-so-slight advantage, usually in marginal conditions.
Practice at Mugello began wet, with MotoGP rookie Marc Marquez doing his job, studying hard and coming out on top. In the afternoon, the track dried, and the Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow were one, two and three, with Nicky Hayden fourth on a Ducati and Marquez’s Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, fifth.
“Today’s practice wasn’t that good for us,” said Pedrosa. “We had lacked rear traction, and the bike wasn’t at its best because of that. We also didn’t have a great feeling with the tires.”
No one rests. Everyone works constantly to refine setup, so qualifying’s shocker was that, on his very last lap, Pedrosa snatched pole from Lorenzo. Track temperature had been a moderate 75 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning, but for qualifying, it rose to 110, putting an end to whatever marginal condition was limiting Pedrosa’s grip.
“Track conditions were good,” said the Spaniard, “the tires worked well, and we improved the bike.”
Pedrosa was annoyed by several “lampreys,” slower riders who hoped to improve their positions by clamping onto him, drafting so closely that they impeded his qualifying effort.
Lorenzo noted what has been so evident this season: As track temperature rises, his corner-speed riding style loses some of its power. “We still suffer a little bit when the weather is hotter,” he said. “We don’t have the same grip.”
“All the Honda riders have a better pace thanks to the better temperature of the asphalt,” added fifth-place-qualifier Stefan Bradl.
Ducati’s march back to competitiveness put Andrea Dovizioso third on the starting grid. The Italian is a realist. “We worked really well this morning, improving the setup a little,” he said, “and I was pretty fast this afternoon. But when the tires wear a little, our pace isn’t good enough to fight for the podium.”
“I haven’t been able to get the grip I need to make the bike turn,” added Hayden. “Both ends are moving around a bit at the apex, and I’m getting pumping on the exit.”
Pramac Ducati rider Andrea Iannone agreed. “As long as the tires are new,” he said, “I manage to go fast enough, and I feel good with the bike. But after the first five laps, the back tire starts to lose its grip, especially in the very fast turns.”
Ben Spies, also on Pramac Ducati, is not yet sufficiently recovered from his shoulder operation to ride. He withdrew from the race.
Marquez crashed in every practice, including a tremendous get-off at near maximum speed. “Just after the hill on the straight, I grabbed for the brakes, but I closed the front,” he said. “I tried to save it, but the bike was pulling me toward the wall, so I jumped from the bike to avoid hitting it.”
There were many other fallers. Crutchlow tipped over in the last five minutes of qualifying but ran back to the garage for his “B” bike and did a lap that put him fourth on the grid. Unstoppable Cal! Dovizioso crashed, as well, hurting his neck. “I can’t tilt my head back,” he said, “so I’m not able to look ahead when I’m tucked on the straightaway or turn my head in the middle of the corners.”
Rain was predicted for Sunday, but it didn’t come. In the cool morning warm-up, the order was Lorenzo, Crutchlow and Marquez, but the day heated up, taking track temperature to 105-110 degrees. Would this be too hot for ”Lorenzo’s Way”? Hot enough to put the Honda men on top?
At the flag, it was even-steven, with Lorenzo getting past a fast-starting but wide-running Pedrosa at the second corner then being closely dogged by him and the battered yet remarkably fast Marquez. Round and round they went, nerve-wrackingly close together. No mistakes. But change was coming.
Marquez, the high roller, took a shot at Pedrosa near the end and got past only to crash—his fourth fall of the weekend. He was out.
At the end, Lorenzo led Pedrosa by 5.4 seconds. “The key of the race was in the middle, where I improved my riding,” said Lorenzo. “I was able to brake later with less fuel in the tank, so I was able to improve the lap time by two tenths. From this moment, Dani gave up a little pace, and I could get away and win the race, more or less like last year.” Mr. Consistency.
Crutchlow was third, with Bradl, Dovizioso and Hayden fourth, fifth and sixth. And Rossi? After leading most of FP2, he was clearly on his way to a top finish, but on the first lap, he tangled with Alvaro Bautista, putting both out of the race.
“In general, this was a difficult weekend,” summed up Pedrosa. “The back tire was giving me a lot of problems with grip, but taking 20 points from this race and maintaining the lead in the World Championship is something positive.”
Who will have that elusive 0.1 percent grip advantage next time?