Can a shade of blue end MotoGP’s red reign at Mugello?

Ducati’s Mugello stronghold looks set to be under siege once again on MotoGP’s return this weekend for the Italian Grand Prix. But its biggest threats could come from multiple camps and sets up an enthralling Tuscany tussle ahead

Can a shade of blue end MotoGP’s red reign at Mugello?

Much like Peter Gabriel in 1986, Mugello has bathed in red rain in MotoGP’s last three Italian Grands Prix at the stunning ribbon of tarmac nestled in Tuscany’s gorgeous green hills. Andrea Dovizioso battled through illness to win his first-ever dry MotoGP race in 2017 on the Desmosedici, while Jorge Lorenzo finally dragged a victory out of his Ducati a year later.

And in 2019, Danilo Petrucci completed the dream rags to riches story when he beat Marc Marquez and Dovizioso in a thriller in 2019 to stand on the top step of the podium for the first time seven years on from a debut season in MotoGP on the Ioda CRT that was never guaranteed to make each race.

It would have been hard to look past a fourth-straight Ducati win in 2020 at Mugello, but the hills fell silent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though we’re not out of the woods yet and the typically yellow-wrapped crowd has been forced to stay at home, the world is a little bit better a place in 2021 now MotoGP has been allowed to be let loose at Mugello.

And kicking off proceedings in a fashion not likely to trouble the bookmakers’ predictions, Francesco Bagnaia guided his Ducati to the best time of the day – a 1m46.147s in FP2.

Bagnaia comes into the first of (at present) two MotoGP rounds on his home soil in 2021 with some wind in his sails. He sits second in the championship, just a point behind Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo, following three podiums from the first five races and was marked out by Marquez in the Italian press earlier this week as being the Ducati rider to fight for the title.

Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team

Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The young Italian has won a lot of fans for how he’s approached his season so far, and admitting taking a maiden home win on Italian soil for Ducati wasn’t at the forefront of his mind coming into the weekend shows just how well his head is screwed on. Key for him was ensuring he starts the weekend off with some consistency in his pace.

Consistency was something he had on display immediately on Friday. Bagnaia set his best lap in FP1 – a 1m47.186s, which put him sixth – on his final tour of the session, on a medium rear tyre that had just completed its 17th lap. He didn’t do as much used tyre running in FP2 in the afternoon, but cooler forecasted conditions for Sunday (with a threat of rain in the air) makes his FP1 running still relevant.

Even without any significant long runs, Bagnaia’s pace on fresh medium rubber was solid and a 1m47.660s on a seven-lap-old medium rear and 17-lap-old medium front hints at good longevity in his race pace.

"We still have a little bit to improve, I mean more kind of electronics, myself riding, more than setting of the bike. But I’m feeling good and I feel we have a great potential in this track" Fabio Quartararo

What’s made Mugello such a Ducati stronghold in recent years has been the bike’s brutal top speed - Pramac stand-in Michele Pirro setting a new track speed record of 357.6km/h in FP2 along Mugello’s 1.1km main straight.

Top speed has never been a Yamaha strength, yet it is a 10-time winner at Mugello in the modern era – albeit it’s currently observing a drought dating back to 2016. But neither Fabio Quartararo or Maverick Vinales were put off by its top speed deficit relative to the Ducatis, citing the fact it won both races in Qatar, which has a massive straight, and those victories came after both Quartararo and Vinales had to fight back through the field.

Where the M1 excels at Mugello is through sectors two and three – the run from the Materassi left at Turn 4 through the long right Correntaio at Turn 12. In FP2, Ducati riders topped the intermediate splits in sectors one and four, but it was Yamaha riders fastest in sectors two and three.

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing, Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing, Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Quartararo was best the of the M1s in fourth at the end of Friday and his race pace looks strong. On a five-lap run in FP2 on a medium rear that had seven laps on it already, Quartararo reeled off a 1m46.960s, 1m47.095s, 1m46.975s, 1m47.071s and a 1m47.300s. Admitting he still needs to find a bit more on Saturday, the French rider is exuding confidence.

“My second run was really good, I was in 1m47s low during five laps. So, I feel great. Our pace is looking really good, really comfortable,” he said. “We still have a little bit to improve, I mean more kind of electronics, myself riding, more than setting of the bike. But I’m feeling good and I feel we have a great potential in this track.”

Team-mate Vinales was similarly decent on used tyre pace in FP2, setting a series of low-mid 1m47s on a medium rear with nine laps on it at the start of that run. He was unable to improve on eighth on the combined times due to traffic late on in Q2 – something which also angered Quartararo. The FP1 pacesetter also noted he needs to find a little bit more on the electronics side.

Vinales mentioned the drop from the medium tyre was quite significant. That is reflected in Franco Morbidelli’s second run in FP2, where he did two low 1m48s lap on a 13-lap-old medium at the start of that run. His high 1m47s pace on slightly younger mediums doesn’t measure up to Quartararo’s, but Morbidelli was able to go third fastest overall on a two-year-old M1 almost 20km/h down on top speed on the straight.

But Yamaha’s most significant gain on Friday came from the introduction of its front holeshot device. Long-requested, it was met with great acclaim by its riders – particularly the factory duo. Given the long run down to San Donato, if Yamaha can stay reasonably unbloodied, it will pose a serious threat to Ducati – particularly if Vinales and Quartararo can get out front and utilise the Yamaha’s corner speed. Given the hard front wasn’t well-received by Yamaha riders on Friday, any scenario where they don’t have to push a medium front too much will be useful.

As far as the other Ducatis are concerned, Spanish and French GP winner Jack Miller’s race pace is slightly trickier to read into. His fresh tyre pace on the medium and soft in FP1 and FP2 wasn’t particularly standout. However, in FP1 he did set a 1m47.716s on a 19-lap-old medium rear, while he felt stronger on the medium having spun 12 laps on the soft in an FP2 he finished ninth in. Miller is certainly hinting at being there come Sunday, while Pramac’s Johann Zarco conceded he needs to find a bit more in the warmer conditions – particularly on time attack – after he was 10th on Friday.

Jack Miller, Ducati Team

Jack Miller, Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

While Yamaha poses one half of the blue charge that could end Ducati’s Mugello reign, Suzuki came out the blocks swinging on Friday – and one name in particular, Alex Rins, was mentioned by a number of riders as one to watch.

It’s easy to forget Rins was in that lead battle for victory in the 2019 Mugello race, so has form at Mugello, while the Suzuki suits the flowing nature of the track. Just 0.071s off the pace on Friday in second, Rins rattled off a series of solid low 1m47s laps on an 11-lap-old medium rear in FP2 and has been buoyed by a ‘secret’ electronics set-up that is improving the bikes acceleration, which was the bike’s main issue in 2019, and this in turn has slightly improved the GSX-RR’s top speed.

Still the main issue for Suzuki, Rins was quick to point out his 1m46.218s in FP2 wouldn’t be enough to keep him in the mix in qualifying. So a step forward on Saturday is crucial to Rins’ charge, and it’s one he needs to see to the end having crashed in the last three races while in strong positions.

"I think seven or eight riders can fight for the win. But at the moment, I think my pace is really strong, so I will just try to continue tomorrow working in the same way because I think we’re in a good way" Francesco Bagnaia

Team-mate and world champion Joan Mir was only 11th at the end of Friday, though this was largely down to traffic on his time attack at the end of FP2. But he wasn’t as happy with the bike, a set-up change made to aid turning making his Suzuki too “aggressive” and stopping him from “flowing”. So, Mir has a clear target for Saturday’s FP3 and FP4 sessions, but Rins’ form should offer some encouragement.

Bagnaia is under no illusions his Ducati counterparts won’t be in the mix as the weekend goes on, but is wary of the blue threat from the factory Yamahas and Suzukis.

“For sure the Yamaha guys are really strong, Fabio and Maverick and Franky were today so fast,” the Ducati rider said. “But I think that also the other riders in Ducati, they for sure tomorrow will improve their pace, so they will be fast. And also the Suzuki riders, so I think seven or eight riders can fight for the win. But at the moment, I think my pace is really strong, so I will just try to continue tomorrow working in the same way because I think we’re in a good way.”

Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team

Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

An eight-rider tussle for victory would be a fitting way to signal Mugello’s return to the calendar, but that group could swell as the factory KTM’s of Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira displayed solid pace on an RC16 boosted by a new chassis allowing them to exit corners better, while the RC16 was just 1.1km/h shy of Pirro’s speed in FP2 courtesy of a new fuel from ETS. And Takaaki Nakagami was comfortably top Honda runner in seventh on his LCR-run RC213V having had pretty solid pace of his own on used rubber in FP2.

Ducati is currently in the midst of a purple patch, having scored podiums in every race so far and arriving on home soil with back-to-back victories in its pocket.

It remains in a good position to continue both its streak and its Mugello reign, but the brute force which kept it out of reach of the Yamahas and Suzukis in recent years now looks like it won’t be enough to keep them down in 2021.

Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team

Francesco Bagnaia, Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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