Few tracks on the current MotoGP calendar set the pulse racing like Mugello.
Phillip Island may come close with it's seaside setting and fifth gear curves but in terms of atmosphere, ride-ability and glorious hillside vistas the Tuscan circuit next to Borgo San Lorenzo stands above the rest.
In modern times it's proved to be a fine gauge of championship credentials too. In the past 22 years only four champions in the premier class - Roberts in 2000, Rossi in 2001, Stoner in '07 and Marquez in '13 - failed to finish on the podium at the Italian GP in their championship year. Like Assen and Montmelo, if a rider can be quick around Mugello, they can be quick just about anywhere.
But Mugello's appeal stretches above and beyond its technical, challenging nature. It routinely serves up some of the season's finest racing. Here, we take a look at six of the finest battles that have taken place in those lush Tuscan hills…
1976 500 Nations Grand Prix – Sheene versus Read
The seeds of this duel were sewn long before the first grand prix event at the newly constructed Mugello circuit got underway. Phil Read and Barry Sheene had fallen out over petty matters before the relationship hit rocky ground in '75 when Sheene refused to ride shotgun to Read in a world championship race.
Then there were rumours in the British press that Sheene had bedded Read's wife, whom he later claimed wasn't very good “at it” in a tabloid expose. That Suzuki GB turned Read down at Sheene's request for the 1976 500 grand prix season simply added to the ill feeling between them.
It wasn't as if Read held a grudge or anything. As he wrote in his autobiography 'The Real Story'
, “what had I done for him but tell him how to get on in the racing world.” Read even claimed Sheene had been “prostituting himself” with TV deals and said he was “the most successful failure I know.”
No hard feelings there then. So it's fair to say that a lot more than championship points were at stake when they arrived at Mugello in May, 1976. Having waltzed away with the first two rounds of the year Sheene and his official Suzuki GB entry looked every bit the champions in waiting. Having left MV, Read was racing as an old fashioned privateer while Agostini had ditched his four cylinder 500 in favour of a Suzuki RG 500, claiming he would return to the Italian firm when they built him a faster engine.
The Mugello that greeted riders on their first visit to the track may have been more or less the same as the contemporary version in terms of layout but the bumpy surface and limited run off left a lot to be desired. Raised kerbs lined the 3.2 miles, while reams of catch fencing awaited the riders should they overstep the limits. To emphasise the danger race day claimed the lives of two local riders. Otello Buscherini and Paolo Tordi were killed in the 250 and 350cc races.
Agostini stormed to pole on Saturday to head the grid from Sheene, Länsivuori and Read. The Italian showed he had lost little of his cunning by leading the early laps from Sheene, while Read made his way through the field from a bad start. By the twelfth lap it was a three way dice at the front before Agostini's RGV spluttered to a stop, forcing the Italian out.
Showing his best years weren't all behind him Read swept into the lead on the eleventh lap. With both swapping the lead and breaking the lap record the penultimate time around they entered the final turn together. Read braked later, ran wide and left an opening on the exit of Bucine. Sheene saw the space, went for it, and drafted by to win by 0.1 seconds at the line in a result that more or less spelled the end of Read's grand prix career.
Such was Read's speed, just three days after celebrating 20 years of top-flight racing, Sheene paid tribute to his rival at the flag. “He has always been the most difficult to beat,” he said. Just weeks later Read announced his retirement. Recognising his privateer RG would be no match over the course of a season he quit. In only its first year Mugello served up the year's finest race, a sign of things to come.
1997 250cc Italian Grand Prix – Biaggi versus Aprilia
By the end of 1996 Aprilia had fallen out of love with Max Biaggi. And Max Biaggi had very much fallen out of love with Aprilia. After 22 race wins and three world championships Biaggi believed he was now a big enough a name to demand a rock star wage (four million dollars). And a team built solely around him to boot.
The bosses in Noale saw it differently. With Tetsuya Harada already signed up for the following year - a move that incensed the Roman - Aprilia felt they needed a change to prove anyone could win on their bike.
Speculation mounted towards the close of '96 and Biaggi was forced to wait weeks to meet with Ivano Beggio. As Biaggi recalls in his autobiography the president of the factory didn't mince his words: “You are a great rider, but next year we have to do without you. It must be the Aprilia that wins, not only Max Biaggi.”
And in hiring Harada and the returning Loris Capirossi Beggio was right, at least on paper. Here were two potential champions who were less egotistical, less expensive and less demanding. But were they as fast?
Left out in the cold, Biaggi turned to Erv Kanemoto, with whom he had worked in 1993, and a team was quickly put together. Full HRC backing was gained with the help of Marlboro sponsorship and with names like 'Little' George Vukmanovich - one of Freddie Spencer's ex-spanner men and someone who Jeremy Burgess learned from in the '80s - fettling the machines the Honda NSR250 was a match for the Aprilias from the off.
In total contrast to the 500 class, the '97 250 series enjoyed a vintage year with Waldmann, Jacque, Harada and Capirossi all battling to usurp the reigning champion. The gap between first and second was less than a second at eleven of the 15 races, with three or more riders covered by that amount on five occasions. One of those was the stunning Italian Grand Prix, where Aprilia, who also lost main sponsor Marlboro when Biaggi left, were looking to regain a footing in the series after three consecutive Honda wins.
Biaggi seemed intent on making a mockery of the competition at the season opener in Shah Alam, where he lapped everyone up to seventh place; a remarkable achievement considering how late his machine had been built during the off-season. But by Mugello he had slipped to second overall. With Aprilia test rider Marcellino Lucchi joining Capirossi and Harada for his home race it would take something special to overcome that triumvirate.
When the lights went out Biaggi and Lucchi found themselves in a three-way battle with Capirossi after Harada retired. The lead changed hands on countless occasions until the final lap when Capirossi led out of the final corner. Biaggi and Lucchi drafted by at the line, separated by the narrowest of margins - just 0.05 seconds. Capirossi was a further 0.068secs back in third. “I just gave 100, 110 percent to stay there,” said an exultant Biaggi afterwards.
He would have been forgiven for flashing a cheeky smile in the direction of the Aprilia suits. As he ascended the podium in front of the 60,000 strong crowd everyone in the racing world wondered just what had Ivano Beggio been thinking.
1998 125cc Italian Grand Prix – Manako benefits from Giansanti chaos
No circuit lent itself to 125 racing like Mugello. With only two hairpins - and fast ones at that - marking either end of the front straight the flowing, open corners generally prevented riders clearing off into the distance.
Multi rider gaggles and last lap sort-outs were the norm and you can count the runaway winners in the smaller class from the turn of the century on one hand. In the past 13 seasons the biggest winning margin was Lucio Cecchinello's 2003 effort, standing at seven tenths of a second.
The final Bucine corner has settled many a last lap scrap. With riders jostling for the perfect line to catapult them onto the final straight chaos regularly ensues. None more so than 1998.
It was a Japanese lockout at the front of the grid with Nobby Ueda, Kazuto Sakata and Tomomi Manako taking the front three places. The race had been a standard affair up until the riders started their 20th and final lap. The three Japanese were duking it out with local men Mirko Giansanti, Lucio Cecchinello, Gigi Scalvini and Marco Melandri – a 15-year old revelation contesting his first full grand prix season - in a fearsome seven-rider fight.
Manako started the final lap in front but was pushed back to sixth. Seven riders jostled on the run down to Bucine with Giansanti the most eager of the lot. With a debut GP win at home within touching distance the Italian braked much too late, ran wide and cracked the throttle open ambitiously early. In many ways the result was inevitable. The Italian was thrown over the top, Ueda was forced off track, Cecchinello slammed into the rolling Matteoni Honda and Sakata somehow avoided a similar fate as he rode over its fairing.
Manako was left to ride through and in a mad dash to the line held off Melandri, taking his first grand prix podium, and Scalvini by the smallest of margins, just 0.044 seconds. Sakata came through in fourth while Ueda rejoined in seventh.
Racing didn't come more frantic than this. For Sakata and Manako it was one of several close calls during their title fight that went all the way to the final race. And in Marco Melandri Italy had a remarkable talent that would play a part in the Italian Grand Prix for years to come.
2000 500cc Italian Grand Prix – Capirossi versus Biaggi and Rossi
In the end it was the battle we had all been waiting for. With three years of incessant needle behind them Max Biaggi and Valentino Rossi were finally racing in the same class. And the fourth race of the season at Mugello was where they finally faced off on track. Yet as the grand prix circus left Tuscany it was Loris Capirossi, another Italian, who was celebrating while Biaggi and Rossi licked their respective wounds. No one had counted on that.
Compared with recent times it had been a relatively barren spell in the top class for Italian riders. Only Luca Cadalora and Biaggi had won more than a single race since the last Italian 500 champion in 1982. More pressing was the fact an Italian had never won the big race at Mugello.
Each of the Italian trio arrived in Tuscany with a point to prove. Capirossi had left his home race the previous year with his head hung low, accumulating a one-race ban for string of misdemeanours including a first lap collision with Lucchi. Biaggi had started 2000 horribly. From five races he had a single fourth place finish and four DNFs to his name. Rossi on the other hand was coming into his own, having gained two podium finishes in his previous two outings. Now was the time to stand on the top step.
With Kenny Roberts Junior the only rider to show race winning potential coupled with consistency in the early season, 2000 was ridiculously open. And it was the championship leader who got the hole shot from sixth on the grid to lead after Biaggi, Rossi and Capirossi had qualified behind Alex Barros on the front row. It took Rossi just ten corners to briefly hit the front of a premier class race for the first time and a determined Capirossi followed through before going to the front a lap later at the fearsome Arrabbiata double left.
Biaggi meanwhile was making his way through to third, past Roberts after an average start to make it an Italian one two three. As if the crowd weren't rapturous enough Capirossi then slowed to allow his countrymen to catch him. By lap 16 they were all together.
“I decided to wait for them. I thought if it came to a battle on the last lap that I could win it,” he later told Mike Scott. His bold prediction rung true as the Italian fans were treated to eight laps of a breathtaking three way fight. Positions changed several times a lap until Rossi went down first at Correntaio while trying for the lead two laps from home. The race long duel with nemesis Biaggi would have to wait. Now the Roman tried to wrestle victory, lining the Emerson Honda up through Scarperia but his brake lever brushed the back of Capirossi's NSR, sending him sliding into the gravel like Rossi a lap before.
It was left to Capirossi, punching the air triumphantly for the remaining five corners, to take his second victory in the class. Carlos Checa and Jeremy McWilliams took advantage of the mayhem to climb the podium, the first time a Brit was in the top three since 1993.
The result was vindication for Capirossi after the deserved criticism that came his way a year before. Barring a freak wet race a year later an era of Italian dominance at Mugello had begun.
2006 MotoGP Italian Grand Prix– Rossi versus Capirossi
Any one of Rossi's seven MotoGP victories at Mugello deserves a mention here, with each one achieved in either dominant style or exceptionally risky circumstances. His bouts with Biaggi in '03 and '05 were memorable for obvious reasons. And his victory in the damp, six lap dash in 2004, shortened because of rain, showed incredible bravery to go along with his abundance of natural ability.
Yet his dice with Loris Capirossi in 2006 (pictured) must surely go down as the most spectacular. The encounter was an all out scrap which, at times, included six riders. With the 990s caressing the rise at the end of the front straight, touching 210mph line astern, the spectacle was more akin to a 125 showdown. To this day it's a race Rossi still cites as his finest Mugello memory.
The reigning champion arrived in Italy determined to put a rotten start to his title defence behind him. Front-end chatter and reliability issues plagued his M1 in the early stages of '06 preventing him from scoring more than 40 points from a possible 125. He hadn't endured a worse start since his debut year on the 500.
With Ducati not having won a home grand prix since their return to the class in 2003, the men in red had every reason to look optimistic after qualifying. Sete Gibernau produced one of the laps of his career to take pole from Capirossi and Rossi. The scene was set.
The race was a classic. Rossi led a group of six that included Gibernau, Nicky Hayden, Marco Melandri, Casey Stoner, and Dani Pedrosa. Capirossi hadn't made a good start and was closing in.
Gibernau (lost knee slider), Stoner (crash) and Melandri (off-track excursion) eventually ruled themselves out of the reckoning but Capirossi joined the group on lap six. Eight laps later Rossi ran wide at San Donato, losing four places but with five to go he had moved back into second. With the Repsol Hondas just a few lengths back the closing stages would produce another all-Italian fight.
Rossi still struggles to remember the final lap to this day. “At the end our level was exactly the same. We started the last lap passing on the line, nothing between us. It is the only time in my career that I don't remember the last lap. I just understand that I won after the line,” he said in 2013.
He put the decisive move on Capirossi coming out of San Donato. From then he never looked back, lapping the course 0.4secs faster than his pursuers to lead home the Ducati man and Hayden in a brilliant third. After a nightmare start he was back in championship contention. “That was one of the most epic battles I remember,” he beamed minutes after the race.
Fourth placed Pedrosa, who finished two seconds back in his first MotoGP race at Mugello, said it best: “I'm looking forward to watching it on TV!” It was one you could watch again and again.
2009 250cc Italian Grand Prix – Pasini versus Simoncelli
The only wet race on this list, the 2009 250 event produced a final lap at odds with the weather and as colourful and exciting as the riders involved in it.
Mattia Pasini had a chequered history with his home grand prix. In 2004 he was seen wiping away the tears after missing out on a home podium by 0.01 seconds. A year later he beat eventual champion Alvaro Bautista by one thousandth of a second to claim a famous home win. There were mixed results since then but Mugello was always an emotionally charged event for the Rimini rider.
Rain descended on Tuscany during morning warm up and intensified as the 250s took to the grid. As the riders pushed off on their warm up lap the track was underwater with pools running across the racing line. The first few laps were going to be hairy.
Bautista and Simoncelli stole a march on the garishly clad Pasini – resplendent in pink colours for his home race – early on. Conditions continued to worsen, making any passing move an exercise in total concentration. The big talking point came on lap eleven. Having benefited from a good run through Casanova, Simoncelli lunged under the Spaniard at Savelli. With water running down the hill at a vast rate Simoncelli hit the brakes, ran out of space and stood his Gilera up, taking Bautista off track with him.
It wasn't the first time. The pair had developed an intense disliking for one another the previous year after clashing at Jerez, Donington and Phillip Island. This time they somehow stayed upright but when they rejoined Pasini was already six seconds up the road.
Yet it was far from over. A spitting mad Bautista gained on Simoncelli at a rate of a second a lap, and two on the leader. But the number 58 responded, setting the fastest lap the penultimate time round. He was on Pasini's rear wheel as they crested the rise before turn one for the final time.
The last lap was vintage as the lead was exchanged eight times. In truth the pair rode alongside one another for much of the 3.2 miles, side by side through the first three turns and the run through Savelli–Arrabbiata. It was daring stuff but Pasini made the decisive move at Palagio to take a fabulous win in the most trying of circumstances.
The fall out focussed primarily on Simoncelli's lunge on Bautista. Spanish sports daily Marca said Simoncelli's move resembled a “cock fight”, owing more to brainless bravado than a well-executed plan. Bautista's team-boss Jorge Aspar was seething on pit wall while Àlex Crivillé, commentating on Spanish television, called for race direction to act.
And act they did. His comeuppance? A yellow card from race direction and a $5,000 fine. Simoncelli remained defiant after the race, claiming those incidents were viewed differently when Spanish riders were involved: “When anything happens with the Spaniards, they [race direction] never do anything. Remember Debon and Luthi? Or when Barbera hit Pasini? Those were normal race incidents? So why is this different?” he asked.
The 'polemica', as reported in Spain, should take nothing away from Pasini's late resilience. As it turned out the home win was the last time he graced the top step of a podium. Not a bad way to be remembered.