Jorge Lorenzo took the lead on lap 1 Sunday at Mugello and had both the pace to win and the tire management to hold that pace to the end, seizing the victory by the huge margin of 6.6 seconds over teammate Andrea Dovizioso. For Ducati, this 1-2 finish at its home track is a tremendous tonic. Pole-setting Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha) was third.

Throughout practice, rider after rider observed that seven men had the pace to win and the victory would go to the one who picked and managed the right tires. The big problem was temperature. Remember that in 2007–’08, Michelin’s too-narrow temperature-operating range triggered a bug out of top riders to Bridgestone, which in turn pushed series rights-holder Dorna to accept the time had come for a spec tire. In the mornings at Mugello, tire performance was excellent. In the hotter afternoons, not so good.

Maverick Viñales (Movistar Yamaha) said, "I work in the practices in a good way, and I think I'm competitive. But from FP4 to the race we lose one second. I felt I was crashing in every corner." Marc Márquez (Repsol Honda) said much the same: "In the morning I had a perfect bike, but in the afternoon it was totally different." The front tire was the focus of this concern because while the medium performed best some suspected it could not finish. But the hard performed strangely and would be slow in early laps. "The harder [front] option is a strange tire because on the left it's softer than the medium. I don't like it but it's the only option I have to finish the race."

Márquez didn’t finish, crashing at turn 10 on lap 5 while running second. “I was trying to manage with the hard front, but I arrived at turn 10 and tried to save it [deploy elbow jack!] but it was impossible. I was still losing the front by the time I got to the gravel.” He had scrubbed most of his speed trying to dig in the front tire enough to lift the bike back up, but this time it didn’t work. He noted that the crowd cheered harder for his crash than for Lorenzo’s win. “To celebrate the crash of a rider is sad,” Márquez said, “because we are taking risks on the track.”

How did the top finishers—Lorenzo, Dovizioso, and Rossi—manage in spite of this? Dovizioso said, “Rossi and I made a cautionary selection, opting to fit the harder tire, but it didn’t work well. Valentino almost crashed a couple of times in front of me, and when I tried to push to catch Jorge, I wasn’t fast enough in corner entry and through the corners.” He had said before the race that, “I will not change my approach. People who try to take more risk normally make a mistake.”

Jorge Lorenzo at Mugello
“So many critics,” Mugello race-winner Jorge Lorenzo said at Sunday’s post-race press conference. “A lot of suffering. Many, many hours of hard work. Finally, I got something—some pieces that give me confidence—and I demonstrated what I said was true; I won the first victory with Ducati.”Courtesy of Ducati

Rossi said, “The steering kept closing up [losing front grip] and I couldn’t push.” Despite that, through mid-race he pushed aside challenges from younger men—Andrea Iannone (Ecstar Suzuki), Danilo Petrucci (Pramac Ducati), and Alex Rins (Ecstar Suzuki)—to finish a grand third (after having qualified on pole, provoking mass release of celebratory yellow smoke from the grandstands). “When I looked at the other riders,” the 39-year-old Italian noted, “their tire choices [both were on medium front/soft rear] flashed up [in my mind] like on TV. I thought maybe I could have an advantage over Iannone and Petrucci at the end. In fact, it was exactly like this.” That, plus a lifetime of experience at the highest level!

Now for the question: How did Lorenzo do it? In one sense, he attributed his ability to sustain his pace to greater support during braking from the arrival at Mugello of a differently shaped fuel tank that he had asked for, but there was more. “I was very worried about the [medium] front tire because maybe some bikes would destroy the front tire less. This would be an advantage for them so I just changed my riding style completely to save this front tire; I probably did the biggest change of my riding style from practice to the race of all my life. It worked a lot because after the race I looked at the front tire and it was a lot better than I expected.”

While making this adjustment, his lap times were tightly consistent, the quality for which he has so long been admired—click, click, like a metronome. Looking gives some clues to what these changes may have been. This is a visibly bumpy track, but the top finishers were on machines that soaked up bumps rather than hopped and skipped over them. Consistent pressure on the tires is a key to temperature control. A softer, more rain-like suspension setup? More chassis flex? Each racetrack is a kind of filter, obstructing some bikes, giving advantage to others. Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) spoke of a “rubber-band effect” as each section of Mugello helped or hindered the different riders.

A second observable was that Lorenzo was radically off the inside of his bike, holding it up as much as possible in corners. Kenny Roberts did this years ago, too, deciding to work a different part of a fading tire to extend its usefulness. And Márquez, in his first year in MotoGP, fresh from Moto2, was despite his rookie status able to postpone his tire drops to laps significantly later than other riders. Rossi assimilated some of this and perhaps Lorenzo now has as well.

Valentino Rossi
Valentino Rossi (46) won pole on Saturday with a blistering 1:46.208 lap. “It was a very tough race because we had to start with the harder front tire, which we knew wouldn’t provide a lot of grip. I tried not to make any mistakes, which was hard, and I also tried not to lose contact with the podium contenders. I’m very happy because the podium was the target for me.”Courtesy of Yamaha

Whatever combination of things Lorenzo was doing was powerful enough to persuade his strong pursuers to cut their losses and just stop pushing. Claudio Domenicali, the engineer who is CEO of Ducati, said, “Today we saw the real Lorenzo.” Despite the win and sense of vindication and relief, the most recent word is that Lorenzo will leave Ducati. “I am very happy with this victory,” he said at the post-race press conference, “but one side of my heart is sad because I believe if I had this modification [the reshaped fuel tank] before, I could tell you that I would continue with Ducati, but I cannot tell you that.” Where can he go? One possibility is a newly created Yamaha satellite team. Lorenzo’s riding evolved in symbiosis with the YZR-M1.

What of the Miracle Man, Johann Zarco, who has so often hooked up and led or finished high while the factory Yamahas struggled? “In the race, I was not able to find a really good feeling,” he said. “I was fighting in every corner.”

Marc Márquez
“The front folded unexpectedly—though I almost saved it,” Repsol Honda’s Marc Márquez (93) said about his crash five laps into the Italian GP. “We still have a 23-point advantage; last year at this point we were 37 points back. Today demonstrates what I’ve been saying for a while: The season is long and anything can happen.”Courtesy of Honda

In effect, Dorna’s decision to level the playing field by requiring a spec ECU and common but obsolete software has compelled teams to gamble on setup because they can no longer generate all the information on which they previously based their decision-making. This works both ways: A satellite gamble is no more assured of success than a factory gamble. For next year, Dorna plans another step, to mandate a spec IMU as well. An IMU is not just three orthogonal accelerometers and solid-state gyros. To generate useful information, it needs also a signal-processing computer that resolves the sensor outputs into usable orientation and positional data. By taking control of the IMU, Dorna can prevent that computer from being used as a subprocessor to handle other tasks. First among those “other tasks” is recovering the abilities lost to the spec ECU and software.

For the moment, the gambling Dorna has put into MotoGP is a success, producing more winners by bringing all teams to a similar level. Who will be on top next and why?