The sixth round of the MotoGP World Championship welcomes the Fiat Yamaha Team to their 'home' circuit of Mugello this weekend and the mouth-watering prospect of another classic race at the legendary venue. Already one of the most eagerly anticipated dates on the calendar, this year's visit to Tuscany has the extra spice of an Italian manufacturer leading the World Championship whilst the homecoming of Valentino Rossi to his adoring fans always guarantees an electric atmosphere and a performance to match from the mercurial 28-year-old.
Rossi has satiated the partisan local crowd's appetite for entertainment and end-product for the past five seasons, putting together a run of victories previously unsurpassed by any one rider at their local track. 'The Doctor' has not been beaten on Italian soil since 2001, when he crashed out in a wet race, and his past three victories for Yamaha are unequalled in measures of brilliance and bravery. Mike Hailwood, who won the Isle of Man TT for five consecutive seasons in the 1960s, is the only rider in history to have held such a firm stronghold over his home Grand Prix.
Colin Edwards' record at Mugello is somewhat less spectacular but the Texan has every reason to look forward to this weekend. After qualifying on the front row of the grid at four of the first five races Edwards has been denied a mammoth points haul merely through sheer bad luck - the latest chapter in a catalogue of misfortune coming in France, where the heavens opened as the grid formed on an otherwise dry circuit and denied him the chance to shoot for victory from pole position. A continuation of his excellent practice form and another top performance in qualifying should finally bear fruit this Sunday.
The Mugello circuit is one of the fastest on the calendar, with the front straight almost certain to entice the new 800cc machines towards their highest top speed of the year. Measuring 1,141m, it is 61m shorter than the back straight of Shanghai, the longest in the championship, but the faster final turn and longer entry into the straight means the riders can get on the gas early, shift up through the gears and still have time to get the throttle wide open in sixth, potentially edging past the 337.5km/h set by Casey Stoner in China. Mugello differs from other fast circuits in its frequent changes of gradient and the speed of its chicanes. There is a mix of slower and high-speed corners, although even the slowest corners are wide, allowing several 'ideal' lines and putting the emphasis on rider skill as well as chassis set-up precision.
Valentino Rossi - "Something incredible";
As well as his five MotoGP victories at Mugello, Valentino Rossi also won the 125cc race there in 1997 and the 250cc race in 1999 - making him easily the most successful rider at the circuit across all classes of Grand Prix racing. It promises to be another special weekend for the Italian and he is optimistic that his chances won't be spoiled, as they were in France, by the rain.
"We hoped that Le Mans would be a place where we might have been able to win back some points on Stoner, but unfortunately the weather played against us," says Rossi, who trails the Australian by 21 points in the current rider standings. "We stayed in France for two days of testing and we made a lot of progress, especially with the tyres. We also tried some new engine modifications, just small details, which we think will help us in Mugello.
"As everyone knows I have a very special relationship with Mugello. I have won there many times, including the last three years with Yamaha, and I've had some of the greatest races of my life there. Even though I will have a second home race this year at Misano, Mugello is something incredible and the fans and atmosphere there are always unbelievable. It's a fantastic track but of course the straight is very long and we know we're going to have a very hard battle on our hands. At least we can rely on the weather... I hope!"
Colin Edwards - "Crazy in a good way!"
In stark contrast to the fortunes of Valentino Rossi at Mugello, for Colin Edwards it is one of his least successful circuits - with a best ever result of ninth place in both 2003 and 2005. However, Edwards' pace aboard the YZR-M1 at every kind of circuit so far this season gives him plenty of reason to think that he can end that barren run this Sunday.
"Mugello hasn't been one of my best GP tracks and I've never had a really great race there, but we're aiming to turn that around this time," affirms Edwards. "Le Mans was a massive disappointment for everyone, especially after getting pole, but it was good to get back to work straight away and try to find out why it happened instead of sitting stewing over it for ten days. We know our bike is working brilliantly when we get everything right - qualifying is proving that at every race - but we really need to translate that to race conditions and to do this we need to make the most of every minute of practice.
"Mugello is an incredible place and the Italian fans are completely crazy, in a good way! The countryside is beautiful and you can't help but be inspired by the atmosphere. This is really crunch time now - six races in eight weeks with the first being Valentino's home race and the last, in the US, being mine. Let's hope we can kick the run off to a good start with a double podium in Mugello, finish it off in the same way at Laguna and try to do the same thing at all the ones in between too!"
Davide Brivio Team Director - "An interesting scenario";
Fiat Yamaha Team Director Davide Brivio is eagerly anticipating a battle royale this weekend as his riders prepare to tackle Ducati at their home circuit. The Italian factory have won three of the first five races so far this season and are sure to make life difficult for Rossi and Edwards at Mugello. Brivio, however, is confident that the overall performance of the YZR-M1 will give his riders every chance of success.
"Of course Mugello is a very important race for us - firstly because it is in Italy and secondly because it comes at a key part of the season, at the start of six races in eight weeks," says Brivio. "Valentino has a great record there and at Yamaha we have been able to win with him for the past three seasons but this year it will be very difficult. We're working hard to improve the package available to both our riders and we'll see if that pays off here. I think we will be competitive but in racing you never know.
"For Colin the challenge is to convert his obvious potential in practice into a top result in the race. We know Mugello is not his favourite track but we've worked hard in recent weeks to give him a package he is happy with everywhere so hopefully that proves to be the case once free practice starts on Friday morning. It is an exciting weekend for the team and especially for Valentino because it is in Italy but it is also the home of Ducati and they will be very motivated, I'm sure. It's a very interesting scenario."