Round Five – Le Mans
Le Mans is a very well supported race with one of the most vocal, partisan and colourful gatherings of the season. A huge crowd is expected to pack into the Le Mans Bugatti Grand Prix race circuit – which incorporates parts of the famous 24-Hour track in its layout – but with the position of the track in the Sarthe region of France, wet weather can never be discounted.
One of the most important races on the calendar for MotoGP tyre supplier Michelin, Le Mans is also one of the most iconic events of the year. The 4,185m circuit with its five left and nine right turns was resurfaced in late 2016 in readiness for the next season and the new asphalt immediately produced new lap and race records.
The circuit is very tight and features many lower gear corners which will require good stability from the front Michelin tyres under braking, allied to hard acceleration and traction from the rear tyres, so the tyre allocation for this event has been specifically chosen to meet these requirements.
Marc Marquez put on an impressive display on home turf in Jerez, riding for redemption after his crash out the lead at COTA and showing he’s certainly capable of sealing the deal in a dominant race. In doing so he also took back the Championship lead, and in terms of race wins and track records, Marquez has a solid CV at Le Mans – as is becoming true everywhere – and the reigning Champion will be gunning for his third premier class victory at the venue. But there’s one man who stole some of the headlines in Spain – as well as a few records – and now it’s his turn to race on home turf.
“We had a very strong weekend in Jerez and a productive test but this is MotoGP and we must always keep working. Between races I was able to relax a little bit at the F1 and also the Leipzig versus Bayern game, riding my bike in the stadium was great and the noise was incredible. Le Mans can be a tricky GP, especially with the weather so we must be prepared for any conditions. Last year I was able to win here but we always face a lot of opposition.”
Fabio Quartararo has been an impressive rookie since he stepped up, but in Jerez he stepped it up even further. Breaking Marquez’ record as the youngest polesitter in MotoGP on Saturday, on Sunday he seemed on for a first ever premier class podium right behind the reigning Champion – before the heartbreak of a mechanical failure. So, on Monday, he smashed his new lap record in testing by half a second. The Frenchman is fast and his home crowd will be behind him every lap – at a track where Yamaha have often reigned.
“We can only draw positive conclusions from the Spanish GP. We took pole position, we were fighting for the podium and on Monday we were the fastest at the test whilst we were trying out many things for the coming races. It’s good to go to Le Mans after a great weekend like we had at Jerez. There will be a lot of fans at the French GP and that will give me extra motivation. It also generates more stress and pressure as it’s my home Grand Prix, but in the end it’s good to have a race where the fans are all behind me. I think the Yamaha YZR-M1 will be well suited to Le Mans, because in recent years Yamaha have done well there. I believe we can get a good result. We will do our best and work in the same way as we did at Jerez. I’m looking forward to the race.”
One man hoping to leapfrog the Frenchman a little earlier in the race this time around is Alex Rins. The Spaniard followed up his first MotoGP win at COTA with a second place behind Marquez, but Rins had fought through to it from ninth on the grid. Saturday form is the chink in his armour as it stands, and the Suzuki man says he’s unsure as to why. Can he unlock that one lap pace at Le Mans? Or will he be forced to slice through the pack again before unleashing his speed? Only one point off Marquez in the standings, Rins will be pulling out all the stops on Saturday to set himself up for an assault on a second win and the lead.
“The latest results have been very positive, but we’ll stay grounded and not get carried away. We need to follow our path, which is to improve race by race. We know that Le Mans can be a tricky circuit for us as it is mainly ‘stop and go’, but at the same time the growth we’ve done with the bike compared to last year, and my increased experience could be two important factors for a good race in France. We know the points we definitely need to work on to improve further, one of them is qualifying. We must be aware that we have a competitive package and we need to keep the positive trend to place ourselves at the top.”
Andrea Dovizioso, meanwhile, missed the podium at Jerez by mere tenths and saw himself slip down to third in the standings.
“At Le Mans we should be more competitive than in the last round, at least on paper, even though last year in France the race didn’t go as planned. Weather conditions always play a key role at Le Mans, and it’s crucial to be able to manage this variable to your advantage. At any rate, I expect to have many fast rivals out there, so it’ll be important to start off on the right foot since the very first session and prepare ourselves as well as possible for the race. The Desmosedici GP has some characteristics that we can take advantage of in France, but we need to iron out some details to maximize our potential and play our cards right on Sunday, which is when points are given. I’m confident we can ride a strong race.”
Last year at Le Mans he crashed, but it was out of the lead – and it’s a track that’s been kinder to the Italian than Jerez. A Ducati has never won there, but with the increasing all-round form of the Borgo Panigale factory, is now the time? As Rins surges towards the front and the likes of Maverick Viñales take points off him, the Italian will be refocused to attack in France.
And what of Viñales? After his first podium of the season the Spaniard could be a key threat, and he won at Le Mans in 2017 when he famously outpaced team-mate Valentino Rossi and the ‘Doctor’ went down on the final lap.
Rossi, too, could be one to watch despite a more difficult Jerez, having won there three times in the premier class and boasting the usual impressive record.
Jorge Lorenzo has an even better record at Le Mans than Rossi with five premier class wins to the Spartan.
“After a tough weekend I am pleased to be able to get back on the Honda without too much time between races. In the past, I have gone well in France but we will need to see how this weekend goes. The test we had on Monday after Jerez was productive and importantly I was able to get more time on the bike which should help us to understand and improve.”
Home hero Johann Zarco – on the podium in 2017 – and teammate Pol Espargaro will be hoping it is after a tougher Spanish Grand Prix than anticipated. But the Austrian factory are making huge gains to the front reading behind the positions, and the work never stops.
Espargaro is also just ahead of brother Aleix Espargaro in the Championship, and the Noale factory Aprilia are only a point ahead of KTM in the standings so there’s plenty at stake.
That’s true of the fight to be top Independent Team rider too. Jack Miller has now been equaled on points by Takaaki Nakagami, and his LCR Honda team-mate Cal Crutchlow – a podium finisher at Le Mans – is only two points back.
Miguel Oliveira and Hafizh Syahrin jet to Le Mans this weekend full of motivation. The French Grand Prix is the most exciting event of the calendar for the entire Red Bull KTM Tech3 team, as it is the home round of the squad based in Bormes les Mimosas.
Hervé Poncharal – Tech3 KTM Team Manager
“The French Grand Prix in Le Mans is for sure a very special event for the Red Bull KTM Tech3 team. Your home round is always a very special one. Of course, there are more French fans than anywhere else on the MotoGP calendar and a lot of national media you want to treat well, because for some it’s the only event where you see them. We still remember the unbelievable welcome we received from the crowd last year, which is for sure something that might be a bit different this year without a French rider on board, but still Miguel speaks really good French and Hafizh, I believe is very popular with all his jokes in the French public. It’s also very important for us as France is a key market for KTM, an important market for Red Bull, but in addition we have our fuel and oil sponsor, Elf, which is French and is going to do a lot of communication around the team for the French GP. I really believe that after the though Grand Prix in Spain, the test on Monday was quite productive. Thanks to KTM we received a few new items to test, that were all quite positive – not an immeasurable gain, but small gains and I think this is the way we will grow up together. We were quicker, had a more constant lap time, a better pace and more confidence for the riders. Although we’ve been never there with the KTM RC16, from my point of few, it should be a little bit easier than what we faced in Jerez. The weather is going to be a big question mark, as usual there, but this is something that is going to be the same for everyone, except that our two guys never rode one lap in the wet on the KTM, so I think everybody and even more us, we are looking forward for dry conditions and hopefully sunshine. Last year Claude Michy, the French Grand Prix organizer, managed to have the highest attendance on Sunday and hopefully with Fabio Quartararo in MotoGP class now, Johann Zarco in Factory KTM plus the whole Tech3 team carrying the French flag, we can at least match that result and make this event very special and sweet. We can’t wait to be there, we can’t wait to see the fans and give them what they come to find.”
Will the Quartararo show start to pick up traction and threaten them as well as the Rookie of the Year crown? Or can the veterans start to claw back some ground…
Can Marquez extend his lead and take Honda’s 300th premier class win? Is Rins’ race day reputation set to roll on? Will Yamaha be resurgent once again? Can ‘DesmoDovi’ unleash the Desmosedici and take Ducati’s first win at the venue? Or will Quartararo steal the headlines again…
MotoGP World Championship Standings
Ahead of COTA, the stats said Championship leader Lorenzo Baldassarri could be facing an uphill struggle and that’s exactly how it played out on race day: the number 07 crashed out and key rival Tom Lüthi emerged victorious. Since then, Baldassarri has returned to the top step in Jerez with another dominant showing and extended his lead, but he’d reigned in Spain last year and the back-to-back wins came as no surprise despite a tough start to the weekend. Now, as we head into the Shark Helmets Grand Prix de France, the form book says it could be another uphill for the Italian and a big chance for the Swiss rider to fight back, for Le Mans is more than a track where the Italian has struggled; it’s also a track where Lüthi has shone.
Four wins – two in the 125 World Championship and two in Moto2 – added to two more podiums in the intermediate class make the Swiss rider an immediate favourite. It would also be perfect timing to hit back so soon and he’s on good form this season so far. Will that be enough? Or can Baldassarri show it’s nothing to do with track records and flip the form book?
Behind the two at the top of the standings, Marcel Schrötter in third is one hoping this season is a clean slate at the circuit, along with Jerez and COTA podium finisher Jorge Navarro. Remy Gardner, meanwhile, will want to bounce back from his Jerez crash that also took out Alex Marquez – a man with podium form in France who will also be eager to get back near the front after having been denied the chance on home turf.
Sam Lowes, meanwhile, says the Jerez test was a problem solver and is another one with a previous top five finish in France, and Dominique Aegerter has a solid record at the track – and has now scored points for new Moto2 manufacturer MV Agusta twice. It could be another solid venue to keep that record rolling.
Finally, one of the biggest questions comes courtesy of another newer chassis on the grid: what can KTM do at Le Mans? After a test that saw plenty of new hardware on show from the Austrian factory – and that after a top five for Brad Binder in Spain – the mutterings were positive as they seemed to find some answers for the issues they’d experienced in the heat of Jerez.
Moto2 World Championship Standings
|4||Jorge Navarro||Speed Up||44|
|17||Fabio Di Giannantonio||Speed Up||9|
|22||Dominique Aegerter||MV Agusta||5|
|23||Khairul Idham Pawi||Kalex||3|
|31||Stefano Manzi||MV Agusta||0|
|34||Gabriele Ruiu||MV Agusta||0|
|35||Dimas Ekky Pratama||Kalex||0|
Veteran he may be, but the signs didn’t seem to be pointing to a Niccolo Antonelli victory in Jerez before we arrived – nor to a SIC58 Squadra Corse 1-2. Nevertheless, that’s what happened and Moto3 got another shake up in the standings, as well as making some emotional history as SIC58 Squadra Corse took their first win 15 years after the late Marco Simoncelli’s first Grand Prix victory. So as we head for Le Mans in the wake of another surprise race winner then, do track records even matter in 2019?
Antonelli will likely be one of the riders hoping so, despite just winning at a track where he’d not always had the most success. Le Mans sees the Italian boast one of the best records, with three top five finishes including last year, and that bodes well as he aims to outgun Championship leader Aron Canet. Canet, whom he trails by a single point, has a podium, a fourth place and a top ten to his name in France for his part though, so there’s not much in it – like in the standings.
There is, however, one rider who has previously won at Le Mans: Romano Fenati. But as the rounds roll on and that statistic keeps showing up, the Italian’s season so far remains a difficult one. In Jerez he ran on avoiding Ramirez’ crash through no fault of his own, so can he turn it around at Le Mans, where he has a win from 2015 and a podium from 2016?
A few more veterans to look out for could be Marcos Ramirez, Andrea Migno and Jakub Kornfeil. On two previous appearances at Le Mans Ramirez has taken a fourth place and a podium, meanwhile Migno and Kornfeil are consistent presences in the top ten in recent years in France – and Migno was on the podium last season. That’s not forgetting last year’s winner Albert Arenas, who impressed on his return from injury in Jerez as he took fifth.
There are some riders whose 2019 form can’t be ignored, too: Jaume Masia needs to bounce back, Kaito Toba shows no sign of disappearing from the fight at the front and Lorenzo Dalla Porta will have a bittersweet aftertaste from Jerez after taking pole then dropping down to eighth.
Moto3 World Championship Standings
|5||Lorenzo Dalla Porta||Honda||40|
MotoGP weekend schedule
Times in AEST