Mugello in Italy is Valentino Rossi's home track. Rossi has won here no less than seven times in the last seven years. That's one hell of a record. He treats the place like his personal playground, choosing where to make passes to either please his own legion of fans or to irritate his rival's fans who set up their own little enclaves around the circuit. And he is very, very good at it. But regardless of Rossi's utter dominance over the last few years, Mugello is a fantastic circuit. It has probably the longest straight on the calendar with some of the hardest braking, it has variations in elevation and it has some wonderful complexes. There is always good racing here, even when the rest of the season has been a little ordinary to watch.
Practice, as is so often the case, saw Rossi slightly off the pace with honours shared between Lorenzo and Stoner. When I say off the pace, what I mean is that Rossi was within two tenths of a second of the leader. And of course practice means nothing. It's qualifying that counts. And in qualifying we saw the first couple of upsets of the weekend. Valentino Rossi, for the first time ever, didn't get on the front row. And Loris Capirossi did, firing the slightly underpowered Suzuki around at blistering pace to end just thirteen hundredths of a second off pole, under three hundredths quicker than friend and rival Rossi in fourth. Stoner finally got the Ducati to work for him, trying a new swing arm to improve stability, while the current man on form Jorge Lorenzo took pole again. Rossi was joined on the second row by Randy de Puniet and Colin Edwards, while row three was headed by Dovizioso from team-mate Pedrosa and Toni Elias.
Of course, things can change, especially in a weekend of motorcycle racing, and this weekend proved that Mother Nature has a sense of humour. And no love for tyre technicians or chassis experts. Because after a sunny, dry Friday and Saturday, much as you might expect in Central Italy at the end of May, race day was cold, grey and wet. Well, hardly cold, but certainly not as warm as we'd expected. And certainly wet. Which put the cat among the pigeons somewhat.
Then, just to liven things up a bit more, it stopped raining. And started to dry out. So it looked set to be a flag to flag race, starting on wets and changing to slicks part way through. Unless it rained again, of course, in which case it could get very interesting indeed as the riders tiptoed around on shredded wet tyres, unable to change unless they came out on slicks.
In case it wasn't complicated enough, Jorge Lorenzo managed to crash on the sighting lap while trying to get some measure of his wet tyres. Somehow he made it back to the pits and out on his spare bike in time to start from his rightful position instead of from the pitlane, but it was tight. And his mechanics had their hands really full trying to get his trashed number one bike back ready for the tyre swap, otherwise it would all be for nothing. And indeed it nearly was anyhow. Lights out and Lorenzo rocketed backwards as he got huge wheelspin of the line, ending up almost last. It was Stoner, Rossi, Dovizioso, Pedrosa and, astonishingly, Chris Vermeulen who made the running at the beginning, with the Suzuki rider taking the lead from Stoner on the first lap before being outgunned by the Ducati down the straight. Then it was a real beanfight between Dovizioso, Stoner, Rossi and Vermeulen, with the Honda rider coming out ahead on lap four, while Stoner dropped off the pace, the Ducati having eaten the wet tyres in just a few short laps as the track rapidly dried. Lap eight saw Rossi take the lead in emphatic style from Dovizioso, with Marco Melandri snapping at their heels and Lorenzo making a magnificent charge up through the field to already be back in contention.
But the track really was drying fast, and those wet tyres had gone off. First to come in for slicks was none other than James Toseland. The Englishman had been bumping around toward the back of the field, and obviously didn't have a wet setup so what did he have to lose? Initially, it seemed that the gamble hadn't paid off as he lapped thirteen seconds slower than the leaders on his out lap. But then he was just five seconds slower. Then one second. Then, astonishingly, he lapped a full six seconds faster than the next fastest man on the track. The gamble had paid off, and Toseland climbed from the back of the pack to seventh in a fairly short period. Of course, this wasn't going to carry on, and everyone came in for their change in a great gaggle. Toseland still went quicker than the rest as his tyres were warm and, most importantly, he'd got used to the feel of a slick tyre, but the best was definitely past.
The trouble was, the track was still damp in places. Alex de Angelis found this out early on, as did Yuki Takahashi. Both riders explored the ample gravel traps as they ran out of grip, but both got away unhurt. Indeed, de Angelis was able to rejoin the race, finishing a lap down but still picking up a point. Less fortunate was Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard had already injured himself in a practice crash, apparently separating a tendon from the bone in his hip, and it appeared that he landed on the same area in the race as well. Certainly he was clearly in considerable pain when he was stretchered off the circuit, and the rest of his season must now be in jeopardy.
Up at the front, Stoner managed to get back into the lead after forcing his way past a determined and extremely quick Loris Capirossi, with Dovizioso right up there as well. Rossi took an apparent age to get his slicks warm, perhaps being overcautious after his Le Mans debacle, while Lorenzo made no such mistake and closed right up. It all genuinely got exciting, with real racing taking place for a while and plenty of overtakes, feints and counterattacks before the chequered flag. Capirossi and the Suzuki were fast as anything around the corners and the wily veteran is a demon on the brakes, but that couldn't make up for the Suzuki's lack of grunt, and he lost places to Lorenzo and Rossi in quick succession after Rossi had finally got up to speed and reeled in the lead group. On the last lap the Suzuki also got outgunned by Dovizioso, putting Capirossi into fifth - an excellent result but not what he deserved.
James Toseland, meantime, had got the better of Randy de Puniet and was in a solid sixth place until getting mugged by team-mate Colin Edwards half way around the last lap and yielding the place. Chris Vermeulen, after such a strong start, was unable to maintain the pace on slicks and finished tenth. Still a respectable result but again not what the likeable Australian deserved.
We've got a two week gap now until the next race in Catalunya. Stoner is back on top of the championship, thought Rossi is just nine points adrift in third, with Lorenzo splitting them. It's wide open, and looking as though there is still potential for things to get interesting...
Italy MotoGP Results
1. Casey Stoner (Ducati)
2. Jorge Lorenzo(Yamaha)
3. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
4. Andrea Dovizioso (Honda)
5. Loris Capirossi (Suzuki)
6. Colin Edwards (Yamaha)
7. James Toseland (Yamaha)
8. Randy de Puniet (Honda)
Nicola Canepa (Ducati)
10. Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki)
MotoGP standings (after five rounds)
1. Casey Stoner 90
2. Jorge Lorenzo 86
3. Valentino Rossi 81
4. Dani Pedrosa 57
5. Andrea Dovizioso 56
6. Marco Melandri 48
7. Colin Edwards 45
8. Loris Capirossi 38
9. Chris Vermeulen 37
10. Randy de Puniet 34