This weekend is something special, not because a MotoGP race is being held in Italy, but because for the first time in a half century, an Italian man riding an Italian motorcycle is poised to win on home ground. Despite its’ outsized reputation within the walls of the motorcycle universe, Italy has not been fertile ground for brands, people or racing in a very long time. But no longer.
Everyone with even a casual interest in motorcycles knows the names Ducati and Valentino Rossi, but few outside those following professional motorcycle road racing know just how isolated those famous Italian names have been in a global context. Advertising and hype aside, Duacti has won a MotoGP world championship only one time (2007), and has struggled in World Superbike for several years. Aprilia, once the dominant force in the 125cc and 250cc world championships (today’s Moto3 and Moto2) has withered away almost completely.
Men like Valentino Rossi and Max Biaggi (twice world champion in SBK in recent years) remain highlights, but compared to the number of talented young Spanish riders flooding the grids of almost every race in all categories, and despite Italy’s historical significance as a motorcycle center, Italy has just not been able to deliver consistent men and machines of quality.
This weekend appears to be set to change that perception. Ducati, after years of hopes and broken promises, has one of the best motorcycles on the MotoGP grid. Factory riders Andrea Dovizioso, currently 3rd in the world championship standings, and teammate Andrea Iannone, have placed on the podium at every race this year. Even the Octo Pramac Racing privateers have led races and regularly finished in the top 5.
Dovizioso, Iannone, Danillo Petrucci and Michele Pirro, all Italians and all riding Ducatis, have shown the confidence and aggressive race craft that MotoGP has come to expect from the new breed of Spanish riders like Marc Marquez, Aleix and Pol Espargaro, and Maverick Viñales. They regularly hold their own or beat off the best of the pack.
And then there is Valentino Rossi. 9 times world champion, 7 of them in the premiere class, he has come back to lead this year’s championship after most pundits and professional MotoGP riders wrote him off as a has-been. His masterful performances have put paid to talk of retirement, while rejuvenating the enormous and wildly partisan Rossi fan base which, like it or not, bring in a lot of media attention and dollars.
Italy was as recently as 2005 the largest motorcycle consumer market in Europe, nearly twice as big and that of the US, and home of Piaggio and Aprilia, at that time two of the six largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world. Today Italy is a pale shadow of its former self, the market having shrunken to about 15% of pre-recession levels, while Aprilia (since taken over by Piaggio) struggles to sell 10% of what it once did. Ducati is owned by German Audi, Malagutti by Indians and Benelli is Chinese. MV is once again teetering on the financial abyss.
Mugello is an amazing track at an amazing part of the Italian countryside. Nestled in Tuscany, home of the original renaissance and where the modern western world was resurrected from the mire of the dark ages, it is a location that resonates with Italians. Rossi’s magical performance there last year, when he outshone Marquez to victory, is perhaps a harbinger of things to come. As of this writing, Andrea Dovizioso is topping the time sheets in free practice, with 6 Ducati riders in the top ten. Valentino Rossi is also among the leaders.
Sunday will no doubt be a terrific race for MotoGP fans everywhere. In Italy, it will be something more. The hopes of a nation that once owned motorcycle racing, that brought home 75 world championships, more than any other country, will be rekindled. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that this coming Sunday will be historic.