Apocalpyse wow: inside the madness of Mugello

Published: 20 September 2015

At the Mugello MotoGP, the best bike racers on earth are just an excuse for 90,000 Italians to go completely nuts – and it's a perfect crucible for a father and son bonding bonanza, finds MCN Sport editor Rupert Paul and son Freddie.

aturday morning at the Autodromo del Mugello in baking Tuscany, and we’re perched on the Armco above Casanova, instinctively sensing that this is no place for people who are startled by loud noises.

Freddie and I have ridden across Europe for three days to be at the Italian MotoGP, enduring French motorway tedium, horrendously priced garage food, three blocked Alpine passes, ten miles of claustrophobia in the Gotthard Road Tunnel and, on finally reaching Italy, the worst roadworks either of us has ever seen.

But it’s already worth it. Valentino Rossi, in his second comeback, is leading the championship. A home race victory, against the fiercest competition he’s ever faced, in perhaps the last season where he has a real chance, would stand comparison with anything in racing history.

Yesterday we used our paddock passes to watch from the small grandstand at Turn 7. But today I got up at dawn to buy our €120 tickets – the ones that let us wander almost everywhere on the outfield.

“The other ticket, is for a woman?” asks the guy in the kiosk.

“No. Why do you ask?”

“For a woman is only €90.”

“Isn’t that illegal in the EU?”

“No! Is because Italians are gentlemen.”

Gentlemen or not, they’ve been at it all night. We fell asleep in our digs half a mile from the track to the sound of booming music and four-cylinder engines bouncing off the rev limiter for minutes on end. At 5am it was still going on. But even that didn’t prepare us for walking through the Lucco gate a few hours later.

The first 30 seconds are like landing on the planet Tatooine in Star Wars. The delicious tang of roasting meat. The bass thump of a sound system. Bikes everywhere, parked and buzzing about. Air horns blaring at each other across the valley like seagulls. A guy on a penny farthing with a #46 flag on a pole. Beered-up, yellow-shirted nutters three-up on scooters pledging undying allegiance to Valentino Rossi.

The hillside below is strewn with people, motorhomes, caravans and tents. Poles and plastic tape flap in the breeze, staking out viewing spots for latecomers. Fast, complex curves swoop and dip between natural viewing areas that can accommodate tens of thousands.

“Look at this compared to Silverstone!” says Freddie. I’m just as amazed. From here you can see almost all of the 3.2 mile circuit. The nearest thing to Mugello is the best bits of Brands and Cadwell rolled together, then magnified five times. What a beautiful racetrack.

Moto3 qualifying. Danny Kent sets the fastest lap, then Oliveira snatches it. A freight train of 12 bikes rolls into the right hander below us impossibly quickly. Then some enthusiast behind us redlines a bike with a race pipe. You can hear it even over the Moto3 bikes.

In the dense crowd down the hill a guy in Speedos is tending a half-barrel barbecue under a blue gazebo. Another has his stainless steel worktop chocked up on the slope. #46 T-shirts and hats are everywhere, with a few 58s for the still-missed Simoncelli. No one else.

Fenati snatches pole, and Fred reckons he’ll win. So do the commentators, who go about their task with a triple helping of Latin emotion: “Rrrrrromano! Fenaaati! Che spettaculo!”

In an ear-splitting display of boyish high spirits, three crazies, crammed onto an old FZ750 racebike, flash past on the access road and rev-limit the motor up the hill.

MotoGP FP4 is introduced like a boxing match with 22 contestants. “Trecentoquaranta km/h! The nine times world champion! Valentino! Rrrrrrrossiiiiii!”

For the first time there’s a real roar from the crowd. Yellow-shirted fans scramble for a vantage point. Smoke billows up across the valley. Huge #46 banners float in the wind. Rossi shoots past, busting his ass for a good lap time and surely oblivious to anything else. The crowd are up on their feet anyway, waving and clapping. Valentino, you mean this much to me!

Another yellow flare. A spliff on the wind. Then the big screen shows Marquez losing the front into Turn 1, and trying to bump his RCV. No luck. The crowd applaud his misfortune.

You see different things when you watch in real life. The sparkle of the Suzukis’ blue paint. Or, in Moto3, the way Danny Webb stays streamlined even in corners. Suddenly there’s a four-bike train with Andrea Dovizioso and Scott Redding first and second. Scott can equal Dovi over the lap, but the Italian does him on fast direction changes. Scott gets him back on T1 to T4. Fred notices how all the bikes jerk about into Turn 5, and almost all slide on the way out. It might look smooth on telly, but it’s really violent.

Rossi is fourth. Blue smoke goes up and everyone on the hillside applauds. Three people stand up and join banners to spell ‘WLF’, except it says ‘FLW’. A entire herd of brushcutters, leaf blowers and chainsaw engines start up. They make a crap noise, but they’re portable. The owner of the most hideous bike we’ve seen, a Busa with a zombie face painted on the screen, gets on and moves off. He is German.

Qualifying 1, and Marquez is in serious trouble. Aleix Espargaro is riding like a god, so Marc settles for 12th, then returns to the pits. On the big screen he’s showing the team how the bike snaps sideways under him. It’s obvious he doesn’t like it. Then Yonny Hernandez bumps Marc down to 13th, and instantly becomes the second most popular man in Italy. Marquez is furious.

The guy with the Speedos is waving a Ducati Club Italia flag at every rider. His gazebo has collapsed, but he doesn’t care. Behind us, a man calmly sets up his barbie. He’s already ripped several branches off nearby trees to use as fuel. Another fan has strung a hammock between two more trees, and is taking a nap. Two faces, presumably attached to bodies clinging to long ladders, peer over the fence. They’re seeing it all without paying.

The commentator is at it again: “The TIME ATTACK della MotoGP! Carrrrrrl Crutchlow! Andrrrrreya! Yannonie! And, signore e signori, the nine times world champion Valentino Rossi!” The hillside erupts again: More air horns, engines, flares. In the middle of the perimeter road a guy puts a Honda scooter on its stand and starts revving it to the max. It goes on and on and on. A huge huge jam develops behind him. No one cares. And he never gets tired of the braying racket from his barely-silenced pipe.

We decide to walk up the hill a bit – and realise that we’ve hardly even started.

Here are some things to do at Mugello:

1. Get drunk. Fix a stuffed cat to your hat.

2. Strap a police siren to your handlebars*.

3. Turn it on. Ride round the access road all day.

*No siren? Tape your horn button on.

Or here’s another:

1. Remove the silencer of whatever you rode here on.

2. Get drunk, don ski goggles and enlist the participation of at least two passengers*.

4. Ride around the access road all day.

*If three, the guy at the back must wear a sombrero and be holding a half-full glass of beer.

Brushcutters and mini scooters are everywhere. One guy is taking his chainsaw engine (throttle jammed open, naturally) for a walk, strapped to a skateboard on a lead. A second man on a disaster-area scooter veers down a bank, crashes into a hot barbecue, and falls over. Two of his mates produce another scooter and rev it without mercy, one pouring water on the engine to create steam. When the water runs out they hold the bottle to the exhaust until the pressure buildup pings it up in the air. All three then fall over laughing.

A little further on, a master is at work with an open-piped Yamaha T-Max, revving the engine in slow, lusty blips that, over the course of minutes, get faster and faster. His mate, naked to the waist, is waving his arms like an orchestra conductor. People nearby have their hands over their ears. A guy on a Ducati comes past and joins in for a couple of minutes, its throaty bellow contrasting nicely with the yowl of the T-Max. Then Ducati man gets bored and worms his way forward. Undaunted, scooter man carries on. In the distance, an ambulance tries to get through, but by now the jam is 300 yards long. Another loon, not content with whirling a T-shirt around his head in time to the blips, puts his ear to the exhaust and gives the thumbs-up sign, to huge cheers. He is surely going to be deaf for life.

Race day brings a surprise: hollow-eyed fans leaving the circuit, pushing their shopping trolleys in front of them. Have they finally had enough? Are they avoiding the crowds? Or just heading out to Scarperia for fresh supplies?

People pour in, so we keep walking. We buy breakfast at €6 for a roll, but it’s freshly made with pukka ham, mozzarella and salad, and toasted in front of us. No filth on sale here. We sit at Turn 1, a giant hairpin, under the oak trees. Sam Lowes is first out in Moto2 warm-up, his bike making a noise under braking like an incoming shell. Several of them together sound stupendous. On his first flyer he stops perfectly from 175mph to hit his apex and smear it out.

Soon we notice that this corner really tests the riders. Often they mess it up. The best of them slide in spectacularly to help turn the bike, before apexing at about 2.30pm, if you get my drift. MotoGP warm up: Rossi’s opening lap produces a standing ovation. Iannone gets cheers. Marquez gets no reaction at all.

Lorenzo looks unassailable. His Yamaha makes a huge, friendly growl, unlike the waspy tearing calico of the Hondas and Ducatis. Cal’s bike looks bloody awful but you can at least spot him easily. Scott is well out of shape, and leaning over miles. Marquez is the least popular man here, but it’s a privilege to see him ride. He really is different. Elbow down, spins the back sideways and out.

The races are thrilling. Danny Kent leads in Moto3 but can’t make a break on the leading pack and has to settle for second. In Moto2, Sam Lowes gets dorked by an incident at Turn 1, loses ten seconds and carves his way back to fourth before hitting a brick wall.

In MotoGP, Rossi wins, obviously. Actually he doesn’t. He claws his way up from eighth to third, helped by retirements from Marquez and Dovi. Lorenzo is in utter mental domination mode. He gets Turn 1 right from 212mph 23 times in a row and takes the victory by miles. No one else has a hope of getting near him.

The Ducatis are fantastic, and Iannone rides brilliantly to second. Fred and I decide the track invasion is a must. We are first at the gate, and soon joined by the official Rossi fan club. Their celebration banner is  a renaissance painting of Rossi as an ermine-clad emperor, with the words: “Hail Valentino. Your fans salute you.”

As only they know how. 

If you went to Mugello thinking that the racing is what would stick in your mind upon leaving, you’d be very mistaken. The hilarious Italian crowd are indisputably the most outstanding feature.

My previous motorcycle race spectating amounts to a few flat track races, a big classic meet at Cadwell, a couple of MCE British Superbike rounds and five MotoGPs at Donington Park and, later, Silverstone. I have even been involved in a couple of track invasions at Donington (when they used to happen), where I managed to come within touching distance of the riders on their slow-down laps. I thought at the time that this was fantastic, and definitely the craziest bit of spectating I had done… that was, until I found myself flat out sprinting down the home straight at Mugello inhaling yellow flare smoke, and being chased for a good spot below the podium by 10,000 surprisingly fast Italians.

In my opinion, spectating at Mugello is best compared not to a motorbike racing event, but drunken teenage fire pit parties – the sort where you burn tractor tyres. I doubt there are many other motorcycle races where insanity and celebration figure quite this prominently. I’m told Jerez is on the same level, but I would have to go there to be sure.

With my typically British attitude, you’d think that being sat on a sunny hillside with a great view of turn one, and awaiting the imminent MotoGP race, it couldn’t get any better.

But you’d be wrong. How about a blind drunk man, wearing an oversized, multi-coloured Mohawk, and draped in a Rossi cape, mercilessly revving a chainsaw engine 20 yards from you for ten minutes... followed by a round of appreciative applause from the rest of the merry crowd. In England this would be seen as the act of an anti-social idiot. But here in the madness of Mugello, we were left thinking: where is our chainsaw engine?

A few quick tips on camping. Be sure to take a shovel to dig staircases to your steeply-sloping plot, a few monkey bikes, and an axe to collect firewood or flammable objects to keep you entertained in the evenings. Oh, and of course exhaust removal tools. From my observations bedding and clothes seem redundant.