Casey Stoner handed Ducati its first Italian MotoGP success in Mugello today with a victory that ended Valentino Rossi’s incredible winning streak on home soil.
Undefeated in Mugello since the 2002 season, Rossi could only finish third in a rain-hit flag-to-flag, with a famous victory for Ducati recorded by brilliant Aussie Stoner.
With the race starting on a wet track, Stoner made a brilliant start on his factory GP9 machine, quickly disposing of shock early leader Chris Vermeulen.
But with a dry line quickly appearing, the 23-year-old quickly ran into major grip issues with his wet Bridgestone tyres deteriorating rapidly on the drying surface.
The 2007 world champion plummeted to sixth place on lap and his victory hopes looked dead and buried as he failed to match the pace of title rivals Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi.
Stoner though followed Rossi and Lorenzo into the pits on lap 10 to switch to his GP9 fitted with slick tyres and his fortunes were immediately transformed.
Running the softer compound Bridgestone front and rear slicks, Stoner immediately found a quick pace and overturned a five second deficit on Rossi on lap nine to be over two seconds in front of the Italian hero just three laps later.
He passed Andrea Dovizioso for the lead on lap 14 and while he came under threat from a hard charging Loris Capirossi on the factory Suzuki GSV-R, though his biggest worry was a clutch problem.
Stoner said: “When the track was really wet the bike was working great but as soon as it started drying out I struggled so much. The tyres turned to shreds and I couldn’t get any traction whatsoever. I was just trying to stay with the leaders as close as I could because in Le Mans I lost too much time and I didn’t have enough time to make it up later in the race.
"I thought when we do go to slicks I want to be as close as possible so I pushed a bit harder than what I would normally have felt comfortable at. It worked because I was close enough when it went to slick tyres. I made a good pit stop and exited really well. I got a really good feeling with the slicks immediately and I was able to start chasing down Dovi. Dovi was holding a pretty good pace and I could catch him a little bit and once we got by I felt comfortable with a good pace.
"Then I started to have a big problem with the clutch. It started to spin and burnout and the rpm was going everywhere but I wasn’t actually driving forward. I was really afraid coming onto the straight when Loris came by and I thought that my race was over. It was spinning so much that I was going nowhere. I adjusted the clutch one way and it didn’t work and then adjusted back the other way as far as I could and it started to hook up a bit more.
"All I could do was ride as fast and as smooth as I could and I managed to keep my advantage. I made a couple of mistakes on the last couple of laps and was really close a few times to going down but I stayed on for the victory. This is huge for us and a very big achievement for us. It’s something we thought we could at least have fought for in the dry but we know we had a good pace to fight in the dry too.”
Stoner’s 18th MotoGP victory moved him back to the top of the world championship points, but he was playing down the significance of another 25-point haul.
“At this stage of the world championsip its not the most important thing. Points are always crucial and as many as you can get at every round is important. It’s more the middle to the end of the season that it becomes crucial. The important thing now is not to lose too many points before you put the hammer down for the end of the season. You’ve got to make sure you stay in striking distance.”
Rossi was gracious in defeat, but the fact that he was beaten in front of his home fans for the first time in eight years was a bitter pill to swallow.
Not least because he was leading the race on laps eight and nine, much to the delight of a wet but partisan crowd of just over 81,000 fans.
Rossi’s hopes of an eighth successive win in Mugello were dashed by his pit stop. Although he came out of the pits in front of Stoner, he slipped down to sixth place, struggling to get confident with his choice of a hard front Bridgestone tyre.
He eventually clawed his way back into third place, passing the fading Capirossi on the penultimate lap.
“I’m always very unlucky in these type of races. I’ve never taken a podium in this type of race before now. We’d found a good wet setting in the warm-up and I was strong in the first part of the race. I stopped but I think the right decision was to pit a lap earlier.
"Unfortunately we started the second part of the race with the hard front tyre and this was a disadvantage for me and I was very slow in the first few laps. I was also thinking about Le Mans because the conditions were quite dangerous with the slicks. With cold slick tyres in the rain it is very difficult to understand and control the bike.
"I had quite a good pace but the front choice is not the right one and I’m not fast enough to try and win. Anyway, it’s very important to be on the podium in Mugello.”
Fiat Yamaha team-mate Jorge Lorenzo was second and trails Stoner by just four-points in what is turning out to be an epic title race.
Repsol Honda rider Andrea Dovizioso finished in fourth place and he was only two seconds adrift of Stoner.
But like in Le Mans, he agonisingly missed the podium by just 0.1s, though he did revel in the glory of leading his home MotoGP.
He led for four laps on full wet tyres and three on slicks and said: “The sensation of leading the race in front of my home crowd was incredible and I think overall we had a good race today - I’m satisfied. I fought like hell to take third and we were so close - only 53 thousandths from the podium!
"I think our race strategy was good, we changed the bike at the right moment and I pushed as hard as possible to maintain my position. With three laps to go I tried to keep in contact with the others and when Rossi overtook me, I managed to stay with him. Then I tried to slipstream him out of the last corner but I couldn’t make it.
"Anyway, all in all it was an exciting race and a positive result. We are getting closer, but still not close enough to win. We need to keep on working because we are still not as competitive as the fastest riders, especially in dry conditions.”
It was a nightmare day for his factory Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa though.
His world title hopes suffered a massive blow when he crashed out on lap 13, though he didn’t aggravate a serious muscle injury in his right leg picked up in Saturday’s morning practice session.
And Nicky Hayden was looking on course for his first top ten finish for Ducati until he ran into a rear brake problem that dropped him to 12th.