This weekend the MotoGP paddock has travelled north to Le Mans for the fifth race of the 2017 season at the French Grand Prix.
Known for its temperamental weather, the Le Mans Bugatti circuit hasn’t disappointed so far, with further rain forecast on Friday which could mean the first two practice sessions end up as a wash-out, while Saturday and Sunday have a better chance of some dry running; something which could make FP3 a very important session.
We shouldn’t really be surprised by the rain though; out of 15 previous MotoGP races, 9 of them have either started in wet conditions or had rainfall during the race. French GP tip: be prepared for all weather!
One thing that shouldn’t cause too many problems this weekend is the track surface, having been resurfaced earlier this year. Michelin held a test day before Jerez with a number of riders, and luckily everyone was in agreement that the grip level is good in both wet and dry conditions, as well as the bumps having been removed. Due to the improvements, we should expect to see times drop quite a lot in dry conditions.
The track itself is quite tight and twisty, with a stop-and-go layout that features both late braking and hard acceleration (particularly from low speeds, which could see wheelie being an area of concern with no wings). In terms of overtaking there are four main areas to look out for, starting with turns 2, 3 and 4. Turn 2 follows the fastest corner of turn 1 before leading into the chicane. The second area is at turn 8, which is a double apex right-hander onto the back straight, moves up the inside here will be a familiar sight during the races. Following on is turn 9 at the end of the straight, where the riders brake downhill into the left-hander, before quickly flicking the bike right. While the last chance for overtakes at Le Mans comes at turns 13 and 14, the final right-handers onto the front straight.
Because of the twisty nature of various parts of the track, handling and stability will be key, but riders and teams will have to find a compromise to ensure braking isn’t affected and ultimately it will come down to consistency.
French GP tip: be prepared for all weather!
Coming into this weekend, Valentino Rossi leads the championship by just two points from his Yamaha team-mate Maverick Vinales (Rossi’s 62 points is the lowest championship lead after 4 races since the current system was introduced in 1993). Both had a difficult race last time out in Jerez, but while Maverick turned things around in the post-race test, Valentino continued to struggle; although he thinks he might have found some positive notes to work on this weekend. The Le Mans track normally suits the strong points of the Yamaha, with Jorge Lorenzo winning there 5 times, including in 2016. Last year Rossi finished second, while Vinales secured his first MotoGP podium that year. This weekend should be drastically different to Jerez for the pair, with more grip and much cooler conditions, and I fully expect to see them back fighting at the front.
But while Jerez was a bad day for the Factory Yamahas it was a very good one for the Hondas, with Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez taking a 1-2 for the Repsol team. Both have won at Le Mans in the last few years and although they left the Michelin test without taking part, they’ll be able to take advantage of the data from Cal Crutchlow who did run. If they can bring the same pace that they had in Jerez, both should be able to have a strong weekend fighting with the Yamahas.
For the Ducati team, Jerez was a good step forward with Jorge Lorenzo finishing third as he made the difference at a circuit he loves and Andrea Dovizioso ended in 5th, although both riders were a long way back from the leading Hondas. In Le Mans, it could again be down to Jorge to make up for any of the Ducati’s shortcomings. His record at the French circuit is incredible with 5 wins, including 2015 and 2016 where he led every single lap of both races, with 2016 giving him his biggest winning margin in the dry of 10.654 seconds over Rossi in second. Luckily for the Ducati team, it won’t all be on Lorenzo, as Dovi has a decent record at Le Mans as well, with 3 podiums in MotoGP and front row starts between 2011 and 2015. He rode well last year, before crashing out of 3rd in sync with Marquez on lap 16.
Zarco, in particular, will be one to watch very closely this weekend.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the French Grand Prix without the French riders themselves and this year we have 3 on the MotoGP grid for the first time at Le Mans since 2002, with Johann Zarco, Loris Baz and Sylvain Guintoli (standing in for Rins) all lining up.
Zarco, in particular, will be one to watch very closely this weekend. His start to the 2017 season has been nothing short of amazing; from leading the race in Qatar to some incredible overtakes in Jerez two weeks ago, he does not look like a rookie. Speaking about riding at home, Johann said “there is some pressure but I tried to manage it at home, where I rested and saved the positive energy.. I will fight for the best position and possibly even a top 3 because I’m always getting closer and closer to the rostrum”. A home podium is definitely not out of reach for Johann, although it obviously won’t be easy, and the weekend is also an important one for the French Tech 3 team.
But while on track there’s guaranteed to be some breathtaking action this weekend at Le Mans, everyone’s thoughts are currently with Nicky Hayden after his accident while cycling near Rimini yesterday. The 2006 World Champion is still in a very serious condition and everyone has their fingers crossed for some good news soon. Speaking at the press conference Valentino spoke for everyone; “A very good guy. Coming from a good family of racers.. We hope for the best”.
Nicky is universally loved and the motorcycle family has once again pulled together to give him and his family as much support as possible. Let’s hope we’re hearing that wonderful Kentucky accent again sooner rather than later.