One man who wasn’t sure he’d be able to ride ten laps won the Italian GP today, and another who doubted he’d even be able to start in the event finished 4th. Those men are, respectively, Andrea Dovizioso, who was weak from food poisoning, and Valentino Rossi, who led off the start despite suffering a painful thoracic injury while motocrossing at his ranch.

Starts are exciting because of the mad scramble for position and the near misses in the crowd of accelerating bikes. Rossi led, then Lorenzo (who had said a Ducati win was possible) in a double back-and-forth that ended in Rossi, Vinales, and Dovizioso coming under Lorenzo, who thereafter dropped back quickly as he ran out of grip, finishing 8th.

The next surprise was Dovi pulling a gap on pole-sitter Vinales, then ex-CRT pilot Danilo Petrucci (“I would sell my house to have this finish!”) showing he can do what the top men do by diving under Vinales for second. Those positions were later reversed.

After all that high-heart-rate action, the race became what races usually are – a straight contest of pace and tire management.

andrea dovizioso italian gp race action
Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati Team, Grand Prix of Italy 2017Courtesy of Ducati Team

Mugello provides big corners where the Honda’s stop-and-go style is at a disadvantage and the Yamahas, with their strong turning ability, do well. In the past, the extreme acceleration and power of the Ducatis has been offset by the fact that they didn’t turn once the rider had released the brake. That has apparently changed, as Dovizioso’s win showed.

Vinales, with hard tires front and rear, appeared to aim for ability to fight in the final laps:

“I’m a rider who always prepares for the last six or seven laps to push – but I’m also thinking of the championship, and today the twenty points (for second) are more important.

“I did many minute-forty-sevens trying to push to my maximum but Dovi was really strong today.”

maverick vinales italian gp race action
Maverick Vinales, Movistar Yamaha MotoGP, Grand Prix of Italy 2017Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

Ducatis have been fast before but on this day the tire fade that has historically reserved 6th place for them so many times did not occur. Why not? I am thinking that not only is Dovi uniquely able to keep his tires healthy, but actual progress has been made in correcting Ducati’s turning deficiency. Earlier in the week Dovizioso had said, “…in the middle of the corner we lose too much…”

Or Lorenzo, who said, “I’ve been overtaken in the middle of the corners five or six times, which is unusual for me. Also in practice Zarco overtook me there.

“…they (the Yamahas) have more corner speed.”

Tire grip was not equal to Lorenzo’s normal big lines, letting his Ducati go wide, inviting a pass underneath.

danilo petrucci italian gp paddock
Danilo Petrucci, Octo Pramac Racing, Grand Prix of Italy 2017Courtesy of Octo Pramac Racing

Rossi led three laps but couldn't sustain the pace: "I was quite strong. I could fight. Today the Ducatis were very good because they could use the medium rear. For us, with the Yamaha, we had to use the hard, with a bit less grip.

“…with eight laps to go, I was finished.

“I wasn’t strong enough to attack.”

Rossi ran a 1:54.182 from the flag, with Vinales second-quickest at 54.218 and Lorenzo 54.330. Early season sensation Johann Zarco started with a relatively leisurely 1:56.047, and Cal Crutchlow (who was taken down late in the race when Dani Pedrosa lost the front in coming under him, eliminating both from the results) slower yet at 1:56.884.

valentino rossi italian gp race action
Valentino Rossi, Movistar Yamaha MotoGP, Grand Prix of Italy 2017Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

Where were the Hondas? Languishing in in the 6th place vacated by Dovi's win, and as the two DNFs resulting from the Pedrosa/Crutchlow contact. Was it the killer top speed of the Ducatis? A look at the numbers shows test rider Pirro's impressive top speed of 220-mph was only 4-mph faster than Marquez's. That shows not only fair top speed but also, because launching off corners is the foundation of top speed, suggests Honda acceleration is fair as well. What, then?

Let’s put bits of evidence together. Crutchlow has been hinting this year that the Hondas are not only “quite physical to ride” but also that they are frankly unstable, especially accelerating off corners. What does “physical” mean? All the bikes weigh the same and have fairly equal power, so what comes to mind is the late Gregg Hansford, a good-sized man who so often functioned as the steering damper on the Kawasakis he raced.

Dani Pedrosa said, after the race, “The bike was shaking a lot even on the straight, and basically I wasn’t able to manage it.”

Then there”s the video of Marquez’s near-crash in the Warm-Up. Cresting the rise in the braking approaching Turn 1, his bike gave a great shiver that delayed his braking enough that he had to take to the gravel. Spinning the rear to keep the front light, he did not dig in and flop over like a mackerel tossed into the bottom of a boat. Instead, he stayed upright and came to rest without breaking another hundred-thousand Euros-worth of parts (have you heard the rumor that Honda Racing is on a budget, asking riders please not to crash?).

alvaro bautista italian gp race action
Alvaro Bautista, Pull&Bear Aspar Team, Grand Prix of Italy 2017Courtesy of Pull&Bear Aspar Team

What is the point? It is that when unstable bikes go light over a crest, they lose the only damping between them and the shakes – that of fully-loaded rubber tire footprints. And why might the Hondas not be as stable as their competition? We can’t know for sure, but when recently-retired Honda engineer and ex-MotoGP manager Shuhei Nakamoto designed the NSR250 chassis ridden by Max Biaggi in 1997, he gave it extra lateral flexibility in hope of thereby preserving tire contact in mid-corner and delivering good front-end ‘feel’. Trouble is, it was also so flexible laterally that like Pedrosa’s RC213V today, it was ‘shaking a lot even on the straight.’

Engineers in MotoGP know that if certain structural parts have natural frequencies in the ranges near 16 and 25 cycles per second, ‘vibration’ (chatter in old-speak) may result. In the range of 8-10 cycles, front-end wobble is the danger, and in the range 2-3 cycles, high-speed weave. Chassis design is an invisible minefield of potential oscillations, any one of which can impose time loss on riders. If the steering-head is well-braced against longitudinal bending to withstand heavy braking over un-smooth surfaces, it may be too stiff side-to-side to perform well in keeping the front tire hooked-up in mid-corner.

marc marquez italian gp race action
Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team, Grand Prix of Italy 2017Courtesy of Repsol Honda

All these conflicting requirements begin to sound like the Voice of Management in business;

  1. Fix the problem.
  2. Don't change anything.
  3. Don't spend any money.

Andrea Dovizioso has known for a long time that he is good but has been unable to prove it – as he did today. He is cool, enabling him to set rules for himself and ride by them. In a 2016 interview he said, “When the adrenaline reaches its peak, I don’t lose my head. On the contrary, I’m more rational and clear-headed.

Describing being taken down by (then) teammate Iannone in Argentina, he said, “While I was sliding (on the pavement) I turned to him and our eyes met. I was so alert that I did him thumbs-up and thought, ‘Nice work…’

johann zarco italian gp race action
Johann Zarco, Monster Yamaha Tech3, Grand Prix of Italy 2017Courtesy of Monster Yamaha Tech3

But other top riders are cool, so what worked today? Dovi has developed his own techniques for making tires survive the Ducati’s extraordinary power and has the presence of mind to do this start-to-finish. No “goin’ fer it”, no trying to win every corner. An overall goal and a firm plan for reaching it. Clearly, what Dovizioso knows, teammate Lorenzo has yet to learn.

What about season sensation Johann Zarco? “I was tired because I had to force the bike a lot and I felt that my tires had dropped a little. However, in the last five laps the group behind me caught up but…the hard tire was working really well again… This meant that I could push and save this 7th position.”

Recalling the form he has shown in the past was Alvaro Bautista (Pull & Bear Aspar Ducati) in finishing 5th.

“When I caught Marc I thought about pushing to see if I could leave him behind, but he hooked on and it was difficult.

jorge lorenzo italian gp race action
Jorge Lorenzo, Ducati Team, Grand Prix of Italy 2017Courtesy of Ducati Team

“On the last lap I tried to close all the doors to prevent him passing me.

“This was a real fifth, not down to problems for other riders.”

Crutchlow complains that Michelin’s latest fronts favor the Ducatis and Yamahas (that is, they are not hard enough for the Hondas’ super-hard braking) but we all know that the series moves on to tracks on which the Hondas will again be fast. Marc Marquez is crashing because he is having to make up for the shortcomings of his motorcycle. Mighty Honda, unable to get a grip? Sounds like organization trouble, which is why Lockheed created its famous “Skunk Works.” The natural state of organizations is interdepartmental conflict. Remember Honda building that 7/8 scale RC212V for Pedrosa? Remember one rider getting pneumatic valves and another preferring metal springs? Lots of energy, but in no particular direction. What if no one’s in charge?

grand prix of italy podium
Maverick Vinales, Andrea Dovizioso, and Danilo Petrucci on Grand Prix of Italy 2017 podiumCourtesy of Ducati Team

Gran Premio d'Italia Race Results

Pos. Rider Num. Nation Team Time/Gap
1 DOVIZIOSO Andrea 4 ITA Ducati Team 41'32.126
2 VINALES Maverick 25 SPA Movistar Yamaha MotoGP 1.281
3 PETRUCCI Danilo 9 ITA Octo Pramac Racing 2.334
4 ROSSI Valentino 46 ITA Movistar Yamaha MotoGP 3.685
5 BAUTISTA Alvaro 19 SPA Pull&Bear Aspar Team 5.802
6 MARQUEZ Marc 93 SPA Repsol Honda Team 5.885
7 ZARCO Johann 5 FRA Monster Yamaha Tech3 13.205
8 LORENZO Jorge 99 SPA Ducati Team 14.393
9 PIRRO Michele 51 ITA Ducati Team 14.880
10 IANNONE Andrea 29 ITA Team Suzuki Ecstar 15.502
11 RABAT Tito 53 SPA Team EG 0,0 Marc VDS 22.004
12 REDDING Scott 45 GBR Octo Pramac Racing 24.952
13 FOLGER Jonas 94 GER Monster Yamaha Tech3 28.160
14 BARBERA Hector 8 SPA Reale Avintia Racing 30.676
15 MILLER Jack 43 AUS Team EG 0,0 Marc VDS 30.779
16 ABRAHAM Karel 17 CZE Pull&Bear Aspar Team 42.306
17 GUINTOLI Sylvain 50 FRA Team Suzuki Ecstar 46.294
18 BAZ Loris 76 FRA Reale Avintia Racing 50.731
19 LOWES Sam 22 GBR Aprilia Racing Team Gresini 50.740
20 SMITH Bradley 38 GBR Red Bull KTM Factory Racing 50.897
21 CRUTCHLOW Cal 35 GBR LCR Honda 1 lap
22 PEDROSA Dani 26 SPA Repsol Honda Team 1 lap
23 ESPARGARO Aleix 41 SPA Aprilia Racing Team Gresini 8 laps
24 ESPARGARO Pol 44 SPA Red Bull KTM Factory Racing 10 laps

Rider Standings

Pos. Rider Num. Nation Points Team
1 VINALES Maverick 25 SPA 105 Movistar Yamaha MotoGP
2 DOVIZIOSO Andrea 4 ITA 79 Ducati Team
3 ROSSI Valentino 46 ITA 75 Movistar Yamaha MotoGP
4 MARQUEZ Marc 93 SPA 68 Repsol Honda Team
5 PEDROSA Dani 26 SPA 68 Repsol Honda Team
6 ZARCO Johann 5 FRA 64 Monster Yamaha Tech3
7 LORENZO Jorge 99 SPA 46 Ducati Team
8 PETRUCCI Danilo 9 ITA 42 Octo Pramac Racing
9 FOLGER Jonas 94 GER 41 Monster Yamaha Tech3
10 CRUTCHLOW Cal 35 GBR 40 LCR Honda

More Photos From The Grand Prix of Italy 2017

michele pirro italian gp race action
Michele Pirro, Ducati Team, Grand Prix of Italy 2017Courtesy of Ducati Team
andrea iannone italian gp race action
Andrea Iannone, Team Suzuki Ecstar, Grand Prix of Italy 2017Courtesy of Team Suzuki Ecstar