The MotoGP godfather has gone but his disciples still rule Mugello

MotoGP

VR46 riders won Sunday’s Italian GP and finished fifth and sixth, confirming that even though Valentino Rossi has gone he isn’t forgotten

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VR46 riders Bezzecchi and Bagnaia led every single lap of Sunday’s Italian GP

MotoGP

This year’s Italian Grand Prix may have been the first Mugello weekend without Valentino Rossi since 1994 but MotoGP’s godfather loomed large over Sunday’s race, which was dominated by the young men with whom he’s been locking handlebars at his Tavullia ranch these last few years.

VR46 rookie Marco Bezzecchi amazed everyone, including himself, by leading the first eight laps and then Pecco Bagnaia took over to lead the last 15.

In other words, it was VR46 disciples from start to finish, watched studiously throughout by their teacher, who spent then weekend trackside, spotting things that no one else can spot, then relaying them to his pupils.

Not only that, there were three VR46 proteges in the top six: Bagnaia first, Bezzechi in fifth, just 1.1sec off the podium, and Rossi’s half-brother Luca Marini in sixth, a further six tenths of a second back and 3.8 second off the win. And of course the last two ride for Rossi’s Mooney VR46 Ducati team.

That is quite an astonishing legacy. Unique too. Nothing like this has ever happened in Grand Prix motorcycle racing before.

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More philosophy student than motorcycle racer? But Bagnaia is super-fast and super-brave

Ducati

Bagnaia, Bezzechi and Marini may all have been moulded by their time with the VR46 Riders Academy but they are all very different young men.

When I look at Bagnaia I see a young philosophy student, possibly from Turin university, rather than someone who makes his living riding motorcycles around in circles at 225 miles an hour. He’s calm, quiet, thoughtful, polite, not your average bike- racer stereotype and more than a million miles away from the hard-drinking, womanising redneck crazies that ruled this sport several decades ago. And he’s nothing like the showman that is his mentor, but who is?

When I look at Bezzecchi I see something quite different: a sweet young nutter, shuffling around in baggy top and trousers, his mad mane of Marco Simoncelli hair crammed inside a baseball cap, looking for some fun or a fight, whichever comes first.

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And then there’s Marini. There’s something very princely about the 24-year-old, in a nice way. It’s the way he carries himself and he’s also very cerebral, which shouldn’t come as a surprise because his dad’s a psychiatrist. “I am like ice, Valentino is like fire,” he told me a while back.

Marini has always been a slow-burner. To greatly over-simplify this sport there are two kinds of motorcycle racer trying to make their way to the top. There are the maniacs who can’t help themselves from trying too hard, pushing too far and tumbling through the gravel trap, over and over and over again, until finally they locate the limit and realise that their lives will be pleasanter if they don’t keep tripping over it.

Then there are the thinkers, who inch forward, week by week, month by month, creeping up on the limit, micro-analysing their data, trying not to argue with the laws of physics, because they know there’s only ever going to be one winner in that argument and it won’t be them.

No need to tell you which is Bezzechi and which is Marini.

Marini has fallen off his GP22 four times this season, while Bezzecchi has dumped his GP21 on 11 occasions. Sure, Bezzecchi is a MotoGP rookie but he’s already crashed more times than Marini did during his entire premier-class rookie campaign last year.

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Bagnaia chases down leader Bezzecchi, chased by runner-up Quartararo and Marini

Ducati

Nothing wrong with that, of course (unless you’re paying the parts bill). It’s just the different ways that different riders go about trying to be fast.

Casey Stoner, for example, thinks Bezzecchi may just turn out to be better than anyone else. The 2007/2011 MotoGP king says the former Moto2 and Moto3 winner can use lines that others can’t, which sounds a but like Rossi in his glory days.

Bezzecchi even had a cool Mugello paintjob on his helmet, as was his mentor’s habit. ‘Scary, 1141 metres of fear’, it proclaimed, the literal version of his Rossi’s 2008 lid, which explained the terror of approaching the 220mph left kink at the end of the start/finish, the kind of corner which you breathe a sigh of relief each time you get through unscathed, a bit like doing the Isle of Man TT.

Bagnaia’s riding technique suits his temperament. He rides with real grace and precision, using the front tyre better than just about anyone, stopping the bike like hell in a straight line, then flicking into the corner with huge speed.

Most of the time anyway. At Le Mans a few weeks ago everyone was locking the front tyre into the French track’s many slow corners and that’s how Bagnaia ran off the track and lost first place, before crashing a few corners later.

After that race he said, “Maybe it’s time to be more mature”. I can hardly imagine a more mature 25-year-old than Bagnaia, but if you want to be MotoGP world champion you’ve got to be hard on yourself. Pitilessly hard on yourself.

Bagnaia was faultless at Mugello, well, apart from after the start when he got beaten up by the pack, ending the first lap down in eighth. No worries, he stayed serene and made steady forward progress, taking the lead from Bezzechi on lap nine of 25 and that was that. He now stands fourth overall, 41 points behind reigning champ and current points leader Fabio Quartararo, with a maximum 300 points still up for grabs.

The two Mooney men were in podium contention for a while but there were faster, more experienced riders coming through – Aleix Espargaro and Johann Zarco – from whom they would learn plenty.

“The race wasn’t bad,” said Marini. “Not fantastic… not yet.

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All eyes on Turn One – Marini on the grid, in the zone

Mooney VR46

“The three riders at the front (Bagnaia, Quartararo and Espargaro) had something more than us, but it was nice to follow them to see how they manage their riding and their tyres because your riding style needs to change a lot between the different tyres, between the soft and the medium, and been when you are doing your race pace and pushing for a time attack.

“In the race the riding is different, you have to do the corners in a certain way, so it was nice to see the guys ahead of us and I understood a lot. The difference is I cannot stop the bike so well in the last phase of the entry, so they can turn better than me.”

MotoGP’s critical phase is no longer trail-braking into corners with the front tyre, because you will most likely lose the front, so nowadays it’s all about making the most of the soft-casing rear, using a lot of rear brake to slow the bike as you lean into a corner and then maybe using even a bit more rear brake to help the bike towards the exit, in a deftly controlled skid that you and I wouldn’t even notice.

Mugello was a better race than Jerez and Le Mans because it’s a fast, open race track and fast – open race tracks create better racing because they give riders more opportunity to pass and draft their rivals.

The fact that it’s a better track matters even more than usual these days, because of the front-tyre pressure issues that turned the previous two races into processions.

Mugello is super-fast and flowing, so you don’t nail the front tyre into the turns, like you do at Jerez and Le Mans.

The Italian circuit is all about swooping into corners and maintaining your momentum, so you don’t overload the tyre, instead you rely more on its edge grip to make the lap time. Plus the Mugello layout has you travelling at very high speed for most of the lap, so there’s a lot more cooling air swirling around the motorcycle, whether you’re chasing other riders or not, which helps keep front-tyre temperature low enough.

If Bagnaia was masterfully in control throughout on Sunday, Quartararo was the opposite, riding like he always rides at the moment, on the verge of losing control, climbing all over the bike – forward, back, left and right – to load the tyres in the right way at the right time. Like Marquez did in his pomp. No one else can do this – not right now, anyway.

The reigning world champion and current championship leader expected the worst at Mugello: a phalanx of Ducatis gobbling him up on the start-finish each lap, stealing his fast lines through the corners, forcing him to accept a lowly finish, like he did at COTA and Termas.

Instead he fought like he has done every race so far this season, extracting every last bit of performance from his Yamaha YZR-M1. He even drafted past Marini’s Duke once, using his superior corner speed exiting the final corner to sneak into and out of Marini’s slipstream. Then he followed Bagnaia, passing Bezzechi three laps after the factory Ducati man had taken the lead.

It took Espargaro another seven laps to make it through into third. If the Aprilia man had got a better start and hadn’t found it so hard to leave the Mooney Ducatis behind he might’ve made Bagnaia’s day more difficult.

Marini and Bezzecchi had a few fraught moments together, a bit like racing each other at Rossi’s ranch, but not quite.

“I took a bit more care with Bezz because we have a good relationship” Luca Marini

“It’s different from the ranch!” grinned Marini. “I took a bit more care with Bezz because we have a good relationship, so I wanted to be clean with him, I didn’t want to do anything strange.”

It’s worth noting where the team-mates of the podium men finished. Aprilia’s Maverick Vinales took the chequered flag in 12th, Ducati’s Jack Miller in 15th and Yamaha’s Franky Morbidelli in 17th.

What does this tell us? That it’s still the rider than makes the difference in MotoGP. And it follows that the closer you make the motorcycles the more the riders make the difference. On Sunday the difference in race pace between the winner and 10th-placed Marc Marquez was half a second per lap. Ten years ago at Mugello the difference in pace between first and tenth was 1.5 seconds, 30 years ago it was 2.4 seconds.

These days tuning the rider matters more than tuning the bike. A few other significant things happened on Sunday. Jorge Martín and his Ducati GP22 broke the all-time MotoGP top-speed record at 225.9mph/363.6kmh, thanks to the vacuum created by several bikes in front of him,

Also, Quartararo was the only inline-four motorcycle to score points, which inevitably makes us think about next year when it looks like there will be 20 V4s on the grid and only two inline-fours. Also, 16 European motorcycles and six Japanese.

No doubt MotoGP is changing.