Mugello MotoGP: No Rossi, no party?


This will be the first Italian GP without Valentino Rossi since 1994, so will Mugello be as mad as it’s been over the past two decades? And can Ducati celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launch of its Desmosedici MotoGP bike with another Mugello victory?

Valentino Rossi Yamaha MotoGP

Rossi greets his yellow hordes after his final Mugello podium finish, June 3, 2018


This will be a weird weekend at Mugello – a bit like visiting a splendid stately home that’s haunted by the ghost of a much-loved lord of the manor.

It’s almost three decades since Valentino Rossi made his international debut at the circuit which became his holy of holies, where fans from around the world gathered to worship their racing god.

During the Rossi years Mugello became more than a sports event, which is the greatest thing that can happen to any sporting event, to rise above mere competition and become a cultural phenomenon, even a quasi-religious experience. Like watching Ayrton Senna drive at Monaco, Muhammed Ali fight George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle or Pelé win Brazil’s third World Cup in Mexico City.

Rossi rode his first international race at Mugello during the 1995 Italian Grand Prix, where Mick Doohan, Max Biaggi and Haruchika Aoki won the 500cc, 250cc and 125cc GPs. Rossi’s race – Italy’s round of the 125cc European series – didn’t go well. He had rear-tyre trouble and slumped to 16th.

FLORENCE, ITALY - MAY 31: The photo shows the fans of Valentino Rossi of Italy and Fiat Yamaha Team during MotoGp race in Mugello circuit on May 31, 2009 in Florence, Italy. (Photo by Mirco Lazzari/Getty Images)

Rossi’s fan club camped out, as always, at the Casanova/Savelli esses

Mirco Lazzari/Getty Images

It’s worth noting that the 16-year-old Italian didn’t win a single round of the 1995 Euro series, despite an Aprilia contract, which guaranteed him good machinery and a salary of £12,000. He was only a kid and although he had the speed, he had yet to learn how, when and where to use it.

Rossi returns to Mugello this weekend a middle-aged man to hang out with his VR46 crew and attend a ceremony to retire his number 46 from MotoGP. This will take place before Saturday afternoon’s MotoGP qualifying sessions.

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No doubt Dorna should send him out on a lap of honour after the ceremony. If he does tour the circuit, where he won seven consecutive MotoGP races from 2001 to 2008, the hillsides can expect scenes of delirium that will probably eclipse anything that greets Sunday’s MotoGP race.

In fact a Rossi lap of honour should become an annual rite at Mugello. I won’t be around in 2059 but I can see the 80-year-old Rossi cruising around, receiving the adulation of the crowd, his legend undimmed by the passing of time. Perhaps the Pope will lend him the popemobile.

MotoGP is now one-third of the way through its first season without Rossi since shortly after Dorna took control of the championship in the early 1990s. Once Rossi had achieved god-like status in the 2000s the people in charge were forever terrified about what would happen when he finally hung up his leathers. We will soon learn whether their fears were justified.

MUGELLO CIRCUIT, SCARPERIA, ITALY - 2019/06/02: Valentino Rossi of Monster Energy Yamaha on track during the Moto GP Oakley Grand Prix of Italy. (Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Rossi at Mugello in 2019 – the last time fans were present for the Italian GP. He crashed out of the race

Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images

They say no sportsperson can be bigger than the sport but I’m not sure that was the case with Rossi. The Italian transcended motorcycle racing, attracting girlfriends, grannies and many more who would never have bothered if they hadn’t been seduced by his charms.

In so doing he became MotoGP’s money magnet. Companies wanted to spend money in MotoGP, even if they weren’t spending it on Rossi or his team, because just by being there they could bask in his reflected glory.

I recall one sponsorship finder – circa 2005, when most paddock people assumed Rossi was on his way to Formula 1 – telling me, “It will be a desert around here when he goes.”

However, MotoGP certainly wasn’t a desert at Le Mans ten days ago and nor was it a desert at Jerez two weeks earlier.

And yet I hear grim reports from various motorcycle-racing websites, who have the exact data to know who’s interested and who isn’t. Several web journalists tell me their site traffic has dropped around 20% since Rossi retired from bikes last November. That’s a big number, which will hurt MotoGP if it translates into falls in TV viewing numbers, spectator attendances and sponsorship income. (Happily, my boss tells me that this site is still attracting a similar audience.)

The last time Rossi didn’t race at Mugello was in 2010, when he crashed on Saturday morning and broke a leg, prompting a mass exodus of fans, some of them hanging ‘No Rossi, no party’ banners on the trackside fences before their departure.

So how will this weekend’s Mugello crowd compare to the Rossi years? Will some fans have lost interest? And will the fans that do show up be as crazed as they were during the previous two decades, when Rossi worship showed itself in so many wild and wonderful ways?

Ducati launches its first MotoGP bike, Mugello, May 30, 2002. CEO Claudio Domenicali is on the right Dorna

Ducati launches its first MotoGP bike, Mugello, May 30, 2002. CEO Claudio Domenicali is on the right


To be brutally honest, I don’t really care. Grand Prix racing was here before Rossi arrived and it’s still here. People who want to watch will keep watching, those who don’t won’t, the world will keep turning and the world championship will keep going, for richer or poorer.

And who will rule Rossi’s happiest hunting ground on Sunday?

Mugello is one of MotoGP’s fastest circuits, a beautiful old-school layout that was most likely scrawled on a paper napkin over a long lunch in a local trattoria, rather than CAD-designed in a Formula 1 architect’s office. That’s why this ribbon of sacred asphalt winds its way up and down a Tuscan valley, using the topography for all it’s worth, unsullied by the nasty little acute-apex corners that blight too many modern racetracks, turning them into high-class kart tracks.

And then there’s Mugello’s hyper-drive start/finish straight, where there’s every chance that someone – almost certainly someone riding a Ducati – will break MotoGP’s current 225.2mph/362.4kmh top-speed record.

“For sure, Mugello will be Ducati land,” said Suzuki’s Alex Rins after the last race at Le Mans, where Enea Bastianini and Jack Miller finished first and second on their Desmosedicis.

It’s hard to disagree with Rins. Ducati has MotoGP’s fastest motorcycle, which now brakes and turns as well as anything, the factory regularly tests at Mugello and this year it will have a record nine Desmosedicis on the grid, most of them likely to qualify well and win the drag race to Turn 1, where they may just create the biggest roadblock in MotoGP history.

On the other hand, last year’s Italian GP was won by the slowest motorcycle on the grid. Fabio Quartararo’s Yamaha YZR-M1 was almost 8mph slower than the Ducatis on top speed, but while the Dukes got to exploit their top speed advantage once a lap Quartararo used his M1’s awesome corner speed through every one of Mugello’s 15 corners. And not a single Ducati finished on the podium.


Triple World Superbike champ Troy Bayliss gives the Desmosedici its public debut, on the eve of the 2002 Valencia GP


That’s the wonder of motorcycle racing – slower, finer-handling motorcycles often do very well at fast, flowing tracks like Mugello and Phillip Island, where maintaining momentum is everything.

A Ducati victory this year would certainly be fitting, because Mugello 2022 marks exactly 20 years since we first laid eyes on a Desmosedici, during the 2002 Italian GP.

At that time Ducati were kings of World Superbike, with 19 riders and constructors titles from the championship’s first 14 years, with the 888, 916 and 996 v-twins. Everyone knew Ducati could build fast road bikes but could the company build a winning MotoGP bike?

From the archive

The first Desmosedici was unveiled to the media on the Thursday evening, with champagne and nibbles, on the rooftop of the Mugello pits complex.

The single machine on show was very much a rough-and-ready prototype, yet to undergo its first track tests and obviously thrown together in a panic for the launch.

After we had poked and prodded around the machine several Suzuki engineers found their way onto the rooftop to have a look, quietly snapping photos and wondering whether they should be worried or not.

During the launch Ducati Corse CEO Claudio Domenicali (now Ducati Motor CEO) told us the company would spend 30 million Euros on the 2003 MotoGP season. I wonder what Ducati spends now.

A few months before the Desmosedici’s launch I’d interviewed Domenicali about Ducati’s plans for the new 990cc MotoGP world championship, which had got underway at Suzuka, Japan, in April 2002.

The first MotoGP technical regulations were written to encourage technical diversity, with twin-cylinder engines and triples allowed onto the grid at just 135 kilos, against fours and fives at 145 kilos and sixes at 155 kilos, with oval-piston motors copping a 10-kilo handicap.

Domenicali was a bit cheeky in that interview, telling me that Ducati was building “a super twin” for MotoGP, which I assumed would be a pumped-up-on-steroids prototype version of its WSB v-twins.

In fact Ducati had already calculated that a twin would have no chance in MotoGP, despite the generous weight advantage, so Domenicali’s “super twin” was his secret code for a V4.

At that time there was a theory up and down pit lane that MotoGP bikes couldn’t make much more than 200 horsepower, simply because the tyres weren’t ready.

Domenicali didn’t credit that particular theory.

“Horsepower is like money – you can never have enough!” he added.

Ducati’s first Desmosedici was superb, winning its first race at Catalunya in June 2003, with Loris Capirossi onboard, just two months after its Suzuka debut, where Capirossi led the race and finished on the podium, behind Honda RC211V riders Rossi and Max Biaggi.

Since then MotoGP has been a long and winding road for Ducati, with many ups and downs along the way: 19 and a bit seasons, one riders championship, three constructors titles and 55 race wins.

These days MotoGP is much, much more complex than it was two decades ago, when the paddock was a more laidback, fun-loving place, where engineers didn’t need to fret about what tyre pressure their rider would need at the start of the race to reach the correct pressure when it really mattered.

But that’s the world for you: life never get less complicated.