Heading into this weekend’s French Grand Prix at Le Mans, it was fairly clear that the Yamahas of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo would be the bikes, and indeed the riders, to beat.
Which made it quite unexpected when Dani Pedrosa topped the first practice session on Friday, with Repsol Honda team-mate Marc Marquez in third.
By the end of the second practice with temperatures rising, Jorge Lorenzo had stamped his authority on the weekend, finishing top at the end of day one and feeling satisfied that he had found a good base setting for the rest of the weekend. In contrast, his team-mate & winner of the last race in Jerez, Valentino Rossi had a disappointing first day in France. In FP2 Rossi complained of stability issues, which were difficult and time-consuming to fix. The changes made to solve the stability problems in turn made the bike feel heavier for Rossi and by his own admission he was “very slow”.
Qualifying day on Saturday dawned with a strange feeling around the paddock, as the night before Spanish newspaper El Pais had reported, quite categorically, that Dani Pedrosa would be moving to Yamaha in 2017. This story was thought to be confirmation of earlier speculation from British paper MCN. But with Maverick Vinales’ manager stating that they were still very much in discussion with both Yamaha and Suzuki, with offers from both that the young Spanish rider is considering, it seemed that perhaps the Spanish publication had jumped the gun on their announcement.
Vinales’ manager was further backed up by both Yamaha and Honda, both saying nothing had been signed, with Honda’s Livio Suppo saying that he had been told by Pedrosa that Honda were still his first option.
On track, it was Andrea Iannone that finished quickest in FP3, beating Lorenzo by just 0.005 seconds after following the World Champion round on their last flying laps. In Q1 Aleix Espargaro and Danilo Petrucci made it through to the second qualifying session to fight it out for the first four rows of the grid.
It was in Q2 that Jorge Lorenzo put in the fastest ever lap around the Le Mans circuit, gaining his 63rd pole position and his first at Le Mans in MotoGP. The World Champion’s pole time was so quick that even Jorge was surprised saying, “I didn’t expect such an unbelievable lap time.”
Joining Lorenzo on the front row was Marc Marquez and Andrea Iannone, with Iannone crashing out at the end of the session after a water leak, that on first inspection seemed similar to the one suffered by his team-mate Dovizioso in the Jerez race. Marquez was happy with his qualifying time but complained that he was unable to replicate the feeling he had with used tyres on newer rubber, whilst Iannone felt convinced that he could have challenged for second place on the grid, but was happy with the front row start nonetheless.
For Valentino Rossi it was his worst qualifying of 2016 so far, with the Italian saying “it’s a shame because we improved from yesterday and we are quite competitive in terms of race pace”. Despite his improvements, Rossi admitted to making many mistakes in his qualifying runs, including in his strategy which meant he got caught up in traffic. Starting from 7th on the grid, Rossi was back in the same position that had plagued him so often in 2015 and meant he once again had a lot of work to do in the early laps of the race.
For the other Yamaha riders of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, it was a positive day with Espargaro claiming his first second row start since Aragon 2015 with 4th position and Smith securing 6th place on the grid after going straight into Q2 for the first time in 2016.
At the opposite end of the spectrum it was a disastrous qualifying for Honda’s Dani Pedrosa, who in his media debriefs afterwards was visibly tiring from being asked questions about his future contract plans. Pedrosa was only able to qualify in 11th place, his worst qualifying of the year. After crashing out during the session, the Spaniard said that he had been unable to replicate the feeling he had with this first bike before he crashed, on his second bike when he returned to the track.
Race day was crazy.
Unusually for Le Mans, the weather for the whole weekend was warm and sunny, which meant when Sunday morning arrived for the start of race day, riders were greeted by blue skies. The temperatures hadn’t started to rise by the time warmup began, which meant the track itself was still quite cool. This lower track temperature undoubtedly helped some of the riders who had been struggling with grip in the hotter Saturday sessions. Iannone topped the morning warmup, with Maverick Vinales and Pol Espargaro completing the top three.
By the time the riders had lined up on the grid for the race, it was warmer but also quite cloudy, which led polesitter Jorge Lorenzo to change his visor on the grid. Despite this last minute change, Lorenzo’s focus was firmly on the 28 lap race ahead of him and as the lights went out in Le Mans, the World Champion stormed off the line in one of his trademark perfect starts.
Dovizioso and Pol Espargaro also got great starts off the line moving themselves up to second and third, from fifth and fourth on the grid respectively. Marc Marquez was pushed back to fifth behind Iannone in fourth while Valentino Rossi was only able to make up one place into sixth.
The first lap was a crazy one, with riders battling in incredibly close quarters as they jostled for position. Iannone and Marquez both made it past Pol Espargaro, as the Yamaha Tech 3 rider seemed to struggle to get turned into a couple of corners. Marquez’s move on his fellow Spaniard at Garage Vert, was a firm but fair pass but was still aggressive enough to cause Espargaro to have a wobble, with his foot coming off the footpegs before he regained his balance. By the end of the first lap, Rossi had actually gone backwards behind Smith and Aleix Espargaro, into 8th place, before regaining 6th position on the second lap.
If Jerez was a case of Rossi “doing a Lorenzo” then Le Mans was Lorenzo showing Rossi how it’s done.
Over the next few laps, these close battles continued up and down the field, with Jorge Lorenzo slowly but surely drawing out a lead from Andrea Dovizioso in second. By lap 4 Iannone was closing down on his team-mate, while Rossi was chasing down Marquez. A couple of laps later, Iannone made it past Dovizioso to take second place, in a clean pass that surely led to a sigh of relief in the Ducati garage and back in the Bologna factory. But on the very next lap Iannone crashed out at Garage Vert, in a crash that confused the Italian, as he said afterwards he hadn’t been pushing as hard at that point as he had earlier in the race.
From that point, other riders started to fall as the sun came out and the track temperatures rose again. Scott Redding retired with a technical issue, Cal Crutchlow crashed, Tito Rabat and Yonny Hernandez also hit the floor. After an initial flurry of incidents it seemed the riders had settled down for the mid-point of the race, but Rossi soon livened up the action once again as he passed Marc Marquez at Garage Vert, with a clean and clinical pass on the Spaniard. Rossi then lined up Dovizioso and got cleanly past the Ducati as well, to take second place as Jorge Lorenzo continued to dominate out front, untroubled by what was happening behind him.
On lap 16 there was perhaps the strangest incident of the race as both Marc Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso crashed out. The two riders hit the floor almost simultaneously, with replays showing Marquez fell fractions of a second earlier. Due to the nature of the crash there was some initial speculation that something was on the track at turn 7, but as others riders continued to pass through that section without problems it became clear it was just a coincidence. Marquez said after the race that he simply lost the front under braking as he tried to make up the time he lost in acceleration, whilst Dovizioso was unsure why he crashed but revealed that his telemetry data showed he had been leant over by 2 degrees more before he crashed than he had at that corner on previous laps.
Marquez was able to rejoin the race, albeit with the majority of his left side fairing missing, but struggled to get his bike free of the gravel trap meaning he was lapped by the remaining riders, while gravel could be seen flying out of his bike as he slipped into last position to continue to the chequered flag.
A couple of laps later there were two more crashes with both Jack Miller and Bradley Smith falling, leaving just 13 riders still on track as Lorenzo continued to lead by a mile. At this point the race entered another settled period as the remaining riders concentrated on getting themselves and their bikes over the line. The final battle of the race was on the last lap as Hector Barbera fought with Danilo Petrucci, in an effort to take 7th from the Italian, but Petrucci was able to hold off Barbera and kept his position at the flag.
Jorge Lorenzo crossed the finish line to take the chequered flag over 10 seconds ahead of his team-mate Valentino Rossi in second. It was Lorenzo’s second victory of the season and the perfect birthday present for the World Champion, who turned 29 on the Wednesday before the race. Maverick Vinales finished in third place to secure his first ever MotoGP podium, and the first for the Suzuki team since 2008, once again marking himself out as a likely future champion.
There were certainly quiet periods in the race, with almost half of the field not making it to the finish line, but if Jerez was a case of Rossi “doing a Lorenzo” then Le Mans was Lorenzo showing Rossi how it’s done. Perhaps Rossi’s win in Spain was more of a spectacle simply because it was something the Italian doesn’t do very often, but just because Lorenzo has shown many times over the past years that he can dominate from start to finish with apparent ease, it doesn’t make it any less of an achievement.
The World Champion’s start was executed with pin-point precision and his race was a calculated display of a rider completely at one with his bike. Even with the riders behind him crashing or fighting from further back on the grid, in all honesty no-one was going to get close to Lorenzo once he’d set his sights on the victory.
His winning margin of 10.6 seconds was the biggest he’s ever achieved in a dry MotoGP race.
Petrucci stakes claim.
Aside from Lorenzo’s domination and Vinales’ first podium, the standout ride for me has to Danilo Petrucci. In his first race of the season, after injuring his hand at the Phillip Island test, he fought through the pain and a mild case of the flu to take 7th place after holding off Barbera on the last lap. The Italian is looking forward to being back on his Pramac Ducati again at Mugello for a strong home performance.
Tyres seemed to play a big part yet again this weekend and that’s likely to continue for the rest of the season. Michelin brought a softer construction soft compound rear for the race in Le Mans, which all of the riders responded to positively. However even after extensive work on the front tyre this year, it seems that this was still a problem area in France. With the temperatures rising during the race and the Dunlop rubber from the Moto2 race leaving the track slippery, it perhaps wasn’t surprising to see the front end let go for the riders that fell. The track itself also contributes to these issues with a number of areas riddled with bumps, causing the bikes to lose grip at both the front and the rear. Nonetheless Michelin said they were quite happy with the performance of the tyres this weekend, particularly concerning laptimes and their consistency. Lorenzo only dipped below 1’33 once between laps 2 and 25, and even that was only by a few hundredths of a second. The rear tyre construction will now remain the same for the next two races at Mugello and Montmelo, with a tyre test held after the race at the Catalunya GP.
As MotoGP prepares to head to the beautiful Mugello Circuit in the Tuscan hills for the Italian Grand Prix, Lorenzo leads the championship ahead of Marquez and Rossi. Over the last few years he’s been the man to beat at Mugello, despite the fans understandable adoration for their local hero, that unfortunately often spills over into negative gestures towards the Spaniard.
I wonder how they’ll react to him next year when he’s riding for Ducati…