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Jul 5, 2011

MotoGP Blog: Joshua And Mixo's Gran Premio D'Italia Adventure At Mugello

A normal passing maneuver in Italy. Photo by Mixo/Klaus&Hammer.

FIRST PERSON/OPINION

By Joshua Steinberg

Remember when you were a kid and there was a toy you really wanted? Then one day you finally get it, only to find that the instructions are in a foreign language. The next thing you know it's lying on the floor in a million pieces along with all your hopes and dreams. That's because language can sometimes prevent people from enjoying things to their fullest.

One place I have always wanted to visit is Italy. Probably because of the food. Lasagna in particular. My amazingly substandard language learning skills mean I don't speak a single word of Italian. Well, that's not entirely true, I do know how to say "lasagna." Oh, and I know how to say "ciao" (pronounced "chow," but you have to say it as if you don't have a care in the world). Plus, I have a spot-on Italian accent. Assuming all Italians sound like Vinny Barbarino. Or the Godfather. So I figured we'd have no problems.

We landed at the tiny airport in Firenze (that's Florence to you), claimed our luggage, and stepped outside to take in our first breaths of actual, honest to goodness, Italian air. We were overwhelmed. Was emotion? Was it inspiration? No. It was heatstroke. Italy was freaking hot! And not just hot, mind you, but humid. Humid like the rainforest, humid. After living in California and then Finland we had forgotten all about humidity. Our hair, on the other hand, had not and two seconds later we were both doing fair impersonations of Marco Simoncelli. Ciao.

At the rental car office we were issued the keys to none other than a new Fiat 500 with a five-speed manual and a diesel engine. In black. It's a cool little car and one that will be available in the U.S. (without the diesel engine of course). The only issue was, even though we travel pretty light, a rear seat had to be folded down so our bags would fit in the "trunk" which is basically a rear glove compartment. It's a small sacrifice considering we got over 45 miles to the gallon despite my driving like an unhinged lunatic. Ciao!

After picking up the Fiat and driving a few, oh I don't know, inches, we observed that, in Italy, there is an utter and complete lack of anything resembling traffic laws, rules of the road, or basic self-preservation instincts. The right of way on Italian roads goes to whoever doesn't yield. Like a giant game of chicken. Therefore, the idea is to drive as fast as possible everywhere, all the time, and swerve often, don't even think about hitting the brakes, and never under any circumstances use a turn signal. Instead, just honk the horn. As long as you don't crash into anyone else, it's all good. When any of the bazillion cars, bikes, or scooters do inevitably try to occupy the same space at the same time, the general rule of thumb is: So long as nobody is killed and nothing is on fire, it's all good. Ciao.

After months of getting used to driving with the oppressively strict rules and pathetically low speed limits in Finland, I found driving in Italy to be, well, dangerous, insane, stupid, and quite possibly the most fun I've ever had while driving a car.

Out-braking another tiny car into a sharp left turn as our tires squealed for traction was amusing. Four-wheel-drifting the Fiat over bumps thorough a second-gear right turn had us giggling like kids who had just discovered porn for the first time. Having a big Porsche SUV go up the inside of us on an exit ramp, his tires howling as they reach the edges of available traction, was enlightening. And that was just on the drive from the airport to the hotel. Which was less than a mile away.

I love driving in Italy.

There are two ways to get to the track from our hotel. One involves a fairly straight, multi-lane, divided highway followed by a fairly straight single-lane road. This is the route that any sensible person who wanted to get from one place to another quickly, conveniently, and safely would take as the other is slightly more circuitous. By slightly more circuitous I mean the route resembles a plate of cooked spaghetti. That has been dropped on the floor. Over a mountain. No sensible person would take this road. It is narrow, winding, and has only one lane in each direction. It is lined in some places by either a stone wall or a steep drop-off. In others by a building, but then in some spots the side of the road is a nice, soft, grassy, um, ditch. To make matters worse it is driven regularly by Italians who consider the lines on the road to be mere suggestions and a speed limit to be the speed at which a car spontaneously combusts and/or disintegrates.

Just getting to this road requires driving through Firenze, a task that will make even the best sat-nav's head explode. At one point our Tom-Tom just gave up and kept telling us, "left turn ahead." Even in Italy, if you make four lefts in a row it's called a circle. By the third lap we not only started to recognize buildings, but people started to recognize us. And point. And laugh. As for the more sensible and direct route, well, I have no idea. We were too busy driving with the lunatics, sorry, with the locals on the back road. And laughing the whole time. I was overtaken across a solid white line, going into a blind turn, while going well above the posted speed limit. By a scooter. With two people on it! One of them was wearing a suit. Ciao.

Eventually, I got the hang of things and started passing slower cars wherever it was possible, but as we approached a person driving slower (pronounced "sensibly") and I failed to use a short turn lane to pass going into a tight left hander, Mixo scolded, "you could have made that pass. An Italian would have done it." This from the same woman who in Finland informs me every five minutes of the various traffic laws I may be violating. When questioned about this inconsistency she just shrugged and said, "Hey ciao. When in Rome"¦"

We did make it to the track safely and without incident, well ok, we did make it to the track in one piece. So that was good. We also had a new understanding of how and why Marco Simoncelli rides the way he does. He's not taking extraordinary chances and making stupid passes, he's not being overly aggressive or dangerous. He's just riding the bike like your average Italian commuter. Without the horn. Mugello is Ducati's home race and the fans we met were clearly hoping for a good showing from the boys in red from Bologna. Ideally, the Italian fans wanted an Italian rider to win the Italian Grand Prix on an Italian bike. For that to happen Valentino Rossi would have to win on his new, next-year's-chassis-with-this-year's-engine, bike. A tall order made worse because his longtime crew chief and all around smart mechanic guy, Jeremy Burgess, would not be in attendance. To say it was a long shot would be like saying that there might be a couple names that end in "i" in the local phonebook. Still, the Italian fans were hopeful.

After all, Valentino Rossi has had more fans than every other rider in every single race in every single country so far on our adventure. That means more Spaniards were rooting for Rossi than for Lorenzo, who is the current MotoGP World Champion and a Spanish person. It was the same in France, and it was the same in England. So it's understandable that here in Italy Rossi is more popular than the Beatles, Elvis, or a doughnut buffet at the policeman's ball. Combined. The number of people wearing yellow in support of Rossi was overwhelming. It was everywhere. Yellow hats, yellow shirts, yellow, uh, everything. It's a damn good thing that Rossi's favorite color isn't black or MotoGP races would be positively Goth.

The only other recognizable color was red in support of Ducati.

There was so much red and yellow at Mugello that it looked like two armies had a battle with mustard bombs and ketchup missiles. And both sides had taken heavy casualties.

Honestly, if it wasn't yellow or red than it had Rossi's number 46 on it. More often than not, it was both. There were thousands of 46 flags, banners, and T-shirts. A 46 was spelled out with empty beer cans on a lone hillside, and there was more than a few unfortunate hairdos supporting the 46.

In the paddock the crush of people around the Ducati trucks, desperate to catch a glimpse of Rossi or snag a coveted autograph was massive, even bigger than at any other track. As Mixo and I were standing nearby taking pictures, the throng was parted by security like the, well, like the Yellow Sea as Rossi left on his scooter. He was only inches away so I said; "Viva la figa" (a reference to a slogan on his leathers) and he slowed down, smiled, gave me a pat on the back, and said, "ciao" before speeding away. Now, I'm not usually star-struck, but I have to admit that made me giggle like a Japanese schoolgirl. No wonder everybody likes this guy. He's nice.

Later, we randomly bumped into another remarkably nice guy, Rossi's teammate Nicky Hayden. He was staring at me like he recognized me so I told him that he did. He asked, "where from" and I wish now that I had thought up a better answer. So Nicky, if you're reading this I am not, repeat not, stalking you.

Ordinarily, Mixo and I like to wander around the campgrounds and meet the local race fans because that is where most of the wonderful nuggets of random insanity grow. So far it has been an amazing experience to meet people from different countries, with different backgrounds who do not speak the same language, but share a common love for all things motorcycle and motorcycle racing. However, Italian race fans love Mugello.

They love it like Lenny loves small furry animals. Which is why various areas of the track are not accessible without the specific ticket to that area. We were therefore denied entry into any of the camping sites including the vast general admission hillside overlooking most of the track. And this time there would be no inebriated members of the RAF to get us in (reference from Silverstone). I was willing to buy a camping ticket just so we could experience the legendary party that is the Mugello campground, but all that was available were full 3-day passes and, well, no, that was not in the budget. The moral of the story is if you go to a GP (and you should) do some research and plan ahead. Know where you want to watch and what tickets you will need.

For qualifying we ended up in a section of bleachers just outside the paddock area with a good view of "Savelli" just past "Casanova" and before "Arrabbiata." Look I didn't name the turns, I'm just telling you what they're called. Ciao.

The 125cc GP qualifying went off without a hitch and looked promising for a close battle. The MotoGP session started dry but after about 10 minutes the sky turned black and the conditions became soft and brown as the rain fell. Most of the riders went to their garages and most of the fans went into hiding or went to the restroom or went to a food vendor for that dried ham stuff. Look, I can barely pronounce it, much less spell it.

When a few riders came back out I assumed it was to test wet settings as there is no way to improve a dry qualifying time once the track is wet. I think, though, that those who did come back out did so specifically and solely for the benefit of the fans. After a few laps Colin Edwards was going around the track, off the race line, and slowing at every single spot where spectators were sitting in the rain. He then not only waved, but also seemed to be thanking them for sticking around. Colin Edwards is a good dude.

Almost the entire MotoGP field was soon on track and slowing down to wave at the fans. Tony Elias came ripping through "Casanova" and seemed startled to find Nicky Hayden on the exit, off the race line, and waving to the fans. It took him a second, but Elias slowed, sat up, looked over, then sheepishly started waving. Just as he passed the last section where any fans could see. That's OK, Tony, it's the thought that counts.

On race day the forecast was for clear skies and high temperatures. There would be none of the previous days' weather shenanigans, which had included rain, wind, hail, and I'm pretty sure at least one small tornado because afterwards a girl was looking for her small dog.

We got to the track early and started wandering the paddock when we bumped into our Finnish friend, Jukka, who works with Mika Kallio on the Marc VDS Moto2 team. He told us that Mika didn't feel well due to not being able to sleep the night before. I figured it was because he was starting from his best ever grid position and was nervous, but apparently it was because of the massive, loud, disco inferno party that went on all night just up the hill from the paddock. And the fireworks. And the un-muffled chainsaws (sans chain). And of course the ever popular and ceremonial bouncing of the motorcycle engines off the rev-limiter and burn-outs.

Next time we go to Mugello, we will be camping.

Mika appeared from the RV and indeed looked pretty tired so we wished him good luck and headed to the bleachers. We knew it would be packed and if we had any chance of seeing anything we would need to get to the back row of the bleachers, get there early, and stay there all day. So we did.

We usually like to roam around a bit during the day, but staying in the same place did offer some advantages. We could watch all the bikes from the same angle so it was interesting to see (and hear) the difference between where the fast guys would get on the brakes and throttle compared to the, er, less-fast guys.

The fact that the Moto2 bikes all have the same engine would lead a person to think that the races would be a toss up. And though the races are often close and the winners far from predetermined, some guys are just plain faster than others. The difference is how each rider uses that available power. Go to the track and see in person how many different riding styles are used to hustle the bikes as quickly as possible around any given section of racetrack. Some guys are super-aggressive on the bike and look like they're boogieing, but end up on the bottom of the time sheets. Other guys can look like they're hardly breaking a sweat and top the list. Maybe it's all down to how well a rider can set up the bike or maybe it's due to how well the team can interpret and deliver what the rider needs or maybe it's just the guy with the skills and stones to hold the throttle open longer and brake later. Like your average Italian commuter, on his Vespa.

During the hour between the Moto2 and the MotoGP races a debate raged in our section of the bleachers. How did I know it was a debate? Well, I may not speak Italian, but I do speak fluent hand gesturing. They were arguing about who was going to win so I interjected, "Simoncelli, primero" and followed with "you heard it here first." That was greeted by the ceasing of hand gestures and lot of blank stares. Then one guy, approving my prediction that an Italian (though not THE Italian) would win asked me who would come second. "Ben Spies" I told him. This he also had no problem with. One of the other guys blurted out, "anyone but Stoner" to which they all gesticulated their agreement. "Or Lorenzo" another offered, more gesticulating of agreement. Then the first guy asks with a pleading tone, "and third?" I just shrugged as saying Stoner or Lorenzo would have obviously ended our budding friendship and possibly my life as well. A smallish, older gentleman put his hands together in prayer and just said "Rossi." They all agreed, knowing it was a long shot, but hoping for a miracle.

As MotoGP races go this one was a pretty good. Meaning that there was passing, actual lead changes, and no major crashes that took out half the field. However, Simoncelli did not win, Spies did not come in second, and the Rossi miracle was not to be. Though, every time he came around or made a pass the entire 82 billion people in attendance went wild. They didn't care if the pass was only for sixth. I can only imagine what would have happened if Rossi was actually fighting for the win. People would probably just spontaneously combust right on the spot out of shear excitement! There would just be little piles of ash with bit of yellow fabric in it all over the place.

Meanwhile, there was an Italian in the lead group mixing it up for a win. By half race distance the fans had noticed and were cheering for Repsol Honda's Andrea Dovizioso. With gusto. He may not have been their first choice, but he is fast, he is Italian, and he was up front fighting for position.

At the checkers Lorenzo got the win, Stoner got third, and Dovi, the underrated Italian, took second. He was bookended by two World Champions. Not too shabby.

At most other tracks the end of the race signifies the time to gather up the things you brought--clothes, coolers, furniture, children, whatever--and go home. At Mugello the end of the race means it's time to unleash pure, unadulterated and unrestrained mayhem. Ten bazillion people quickly found their way over, under, or through gate, fences, or walls and onto the racing surface. Most headed directly for the front straight and the pit garages like a swarm of locusts ready to devour anything in their path. The guards were helpless to stop the flow and the uniformed police who had been standing at a gate moments ago were now huddled in the paddock tunnel. Soon there were bicycles on the track, then scooters, then street bikes. There were so many two-wheeled vehicles on the track it looked like rush hour in Beijing. They were going in both directions around the circuit, narrowly missing each other. Some riders were in T-shirts, some had no shirts, and nobody was wearing a helmet. I saw a guy two up on a scooter doing a wheelie. Many were trying to go as fast as they could through the traffic or pop a wheelie or do a burnout. There was enough moto-stupid going on to make a full-length movie called "Ways to injure yourself and those around you."

Meanwhile, thousands of people were still streaming in from all directions. People were having their picture taken while laying on the track. Or sitting in the gravel trap. One guy was doing a headstand on the curbing. A father was showing his young son the proper way to charge up to and climb over a tire wall. People took bits and pieces of debris, or gravel or whatever wasn't nailed down as a memento. A couple guys grabbed the hand truck from a marshal's station and were busy taking turns riding it around, until one of them crashed into the gravel trap. Then they all wanted to crash into the gravel trap. Then they took pictures of each other crashing into the gravel trap.

And all this time there are more and more bikes, scooters, and any other motorized contraption people brought with them racing around.

It was an absolute catastrophe. It was absolute chaos. And it was absolutely fantastic.

Apparently, this happens every year. The track has tried to stop it, but their efforts were about as successful as a guy selling French olive oil in Sicily. Now they just open the gates and let the fans do their thing. What a great attitude to have towards your customers.

By the time Mixo and I got back into the paddock it had been overrun. The funny thing was that for an unruly crowd seemingly bent on total destruction, everyone was actually, pretty, um, civilized. Behaved, even. Nice. We had expected to find the paddock a smoldering ruin, but it was just fine. Swarming with people, but fine none the less. It was by far the safest unhinged riot that I have ever been caught up in.

By the time we made it back to the hotel we were tired, sunburned, and hungry. The poor Fiat 500 was now in need of tires, a good washing, and probably a new motor.

Italy was one of the best trips I have ever taken. The Italian food, the Italian fans, the Italian food, the Italian scenery, the Italian food, the Italian attitude; I love it all. Did I mention the food?

Ciao.