Looking at Le Mans it was hard to believe you were watching Europe entering its summer season. Intermittent rain, blustery wind, and total beanie-and-parka temperatures, did not a happy circus make. Add to that the utter lack of the usual insane crowds of noisy Frenchmen, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were at Phillip Island.
I couldn’t help but think Marc Marquez would have been aching a little in the conditions. And that was even before he crashed his brains out in both practice and the race.
As did his team-mate, Pol. And all of this just as HRC’s perennial overlord, Alberto Puig, returned after a brief absence to resume steering the good ship HRC through some very choppy seas. Coincidence?
But the seas were choppy for everyone this round, and it was all about the weather. And Turn Three – which remains the most crashed-in corner on the entire calendar – an off-camber sumbitch which has claimed 539 bikes in the last five years, and some 44 just on Friday. It was certainly a combination that would be worth watching.
Marc was back on his 2020 chassis. Fabulous had just had his arm-pump issues surgically sorted. Jack was looking to back-up the previous round’s win in conditions which very much suited his abilities – and was once again the first rider out on slicks in FP1 the second something approximating a dry line started to appear. It was a good call. He timed it perfectly and was 2.3 seconds clear of the rest of the field as they headed into Qualifying, which was amazing given how crap the weather was.
By comparison, Maverick Vinales fell off at 20 km/h on rain tyres as he was exiting the pits, and Morbidelli, practicing a flag-to-flag changeover in front of his garage in FP4, twisted his knee and face-planted into his second bike. Turn Three continued to swallow the unwary with savage regularity, and we even started seeing unfamiliar names like Savadori and Marini topping the timesheets for a while.
Qualifying was bound to be fascinating. And it didn’t disappoint. Some big names were all flubbing about at the back of the grid – Mir, Rins, Binder, Bagnaia, and Aleix Espargaro, while Lorenzo Savadori crashed early in the session, ran all the way back to his pit garage, remounted and made his way into Q2. And Q2 was drier than Q1.
Rossi and Morbidelli chose to leave the pits on slicks, which may well have been an act of genius, had Rossi not crashed out on his way to the top of the pile. In short order, pretty much everyone pitted to swap to the dry bike, and the times began to fall.
Two minutes from the end of the session, Honda had it all sewn up. It felt a little like the old, pre-humerus days. Marquez was on top, Nakagami was second, and Pol was sitting in third. And then it all fell apart for HRC once again. The hot laps came late – and there was Fabulous, sitting on pole, with Vinales and Miller finishing off the front row. Row Two was Morbidelli, Zarco and Marc Marquez. Championship leader, Peco Bagnaia was back in 16th, while the reigning world champion, Mir, languished in 14th, just ahead of his team-mate Rins in 15th. Rossi found himself finishing off the third row in ninth – and the flame of hope was again ignited in my black heart.
The race itself was declared dry, but that was just Le Mans having a laugh. Everyone had a fair idea it was going to rain at some stage, and the field was prepped for a flag-to-flag scenario.
The start was chaotic, but Miller scythed into the lead, followed by Vinales, Fabulous, and Marquez, who was almost immediately passed by Taka Nakagami and Pol Asparagro. Rossi rounded up Morbidelli, who then promptly crashed out and was seen holding his knee, presumably the same one he’d twisted head-butting his bike in the pits in FP4. Franco rejoined the race, but finished four laps down.
No-one looked to be settling their nerves any either – with Vinales passing Miller in Virage de la Chapelle, as Rins charged past Marquez to grab fifth.
By the second lap, Vinales, Miller and Fabulous were 1.6 seconds clear of Nakagami, Rins and Marc, who were in turn almost a second clear of Aleix, Mir, and Oliviera. And the clouds were rolling in, and the wind was picking up – and on the very next lap, the rain flags came out, just as Mir, crashed, and Miller smashed past Vinales, who traditionally throttles off the second a rain-drop hits his visor.
Which is what Fabulous also tends to do – well, either that or crash. But not this time. He applied himself and went past Jack and was suddenly leading the race. Rins had also closed very hard onto Maverick, but all eyes were on the lead riders, and it only took Jack a few corners to shove Fabulous back into second. Marquez was now in fourth, and Fabulous was having none of second place. He passed Jack again, and then it started raining like it was serious.
Marquez grabbed third from Rins, and Miller ran off the track at the Garage Blue esses, but rejoined quickly and then everyone rolled back into the pits to swap bikes.
Except Miller and Bagnaia, both of who roared into the pits 10 km/h faster than was allowed and scored themselves a double long-lap penalty each.
Marquez was first out, followed by Rins, who then crashed on the first corner he encountered. Fabio sat himself in second, Miller in third, with Taka and Zarco behind them, line abreast.
Marquez eked out a 1.1-second lead on Fabulous, and it was growing by the corner. Fabulous was 2.6-seconds ahead of Jack, who was a massive 12-seconds in front of Taka Nakagami – which is how it stayed for two wet laps, and then Marquez crashed out of the lead.
This now left Fabulous to fend of Miller, who had closed the gap to the Factory Yamaha rider, but then had to take his first Long-Lap Penalty, and the gap was back to about two seconds. Miller closed it up again, took his second penalty the following lap, and then set about hunting Fabulous down.
Everyone except Zarco had gone out on Soft Wets. Zarco was riding Medium Wets – and as the rain tapered off, the wisdom of this move began to play out, which was about the time Fabulous also copped a long-lap penalty. His was for mistakenly pulling into Maverick’s garage during the bike swap, and then weaving past some pit-crew to get to his bike.
It didn’t matter. Miller passed him going into Turn Six before he even took the penalty, but when he did, he found that Zarco was a mere 2.4-seconds behind him and Taka Nakagami and coming fast.
Fifteen laps from the end, Turn Three ate Oliveira, and Marc Marquez, who had rejoined the race after his off, was now lapping two seconds faster than the font-runners. Turn Three then consumed Rins for the second time, and Miller had gapped Fabulous by 4.3-seconds.
Two laps later, Zarco went past Nakagami coming into Turn One, and the attrition rate saw Marquez Junior up in fifth place. Then the rain stopped and the track began to dry out very quickly.
But 12 laps is still a long way to race, and Marquez Senior was very much on the charge. As was Aleix Espargaro when his Aprilia ceased to proceed. Zarco was also making up ground on both Miller and Fabulous, his Medium tyres making all the difference against the disintegrating Softs the two blokes in front of him were sliding around on.
Then Marc Marquez crashed again, and his much-anticipated fairy-tale return ended again. Zarco was now lapping two seconds faster than Fabulous, the track was all but dry and Miller was waving his leg at his crew as he rocketed down the straight. With nine laps to go, Jack was of the view he maybe should pit and get the bike with slicks. Which is right about when I reckon he got a message from Gigi on his dashboard. “STAY OUT THERE, BASTARD!” I’m thinking it might have said, and so he did.
He was more than five seconds clear of Fabulous, who was still four-and-a-half seconds ahead of Zarco. Pitting to swap bikes would have blown that lead easily – given how long the pit-lane exit at Le Mans is.
Six laps from the end, Zarco finally blasted past Fabulous down the straight, and Bagnaia was contending with Petrucci (who has always done his best work in crap conditions) for fifth place, with Alex Marquez ensconced in fourth. Peco would pass them both in the next two laps, while Jack held Zarco at bay, almost six seconds ahead, as Fabulous lingered more than four behind his countryman.
And that’s pretty much how it ended up. Zarco had managed to close within 3.9-seconds of Miller, but was more than 11 seconds ahead of Fabulous when they all went over the line.
Bagnaia and Petrucci (on a KTM) followed, then Marquez Junior and Taka Nakagami, ahead of Pol’s Factory Honda. No Suzukis to be seen. Rossi struggled through in 11th, behind his former team-mate, Maverick Vinales.
Jack then did a shoey on the podium, and somehow managed to pour some of the sparkling Lorenzo’s Tears (as I feel that vintage is called) into Fabio’s mouth as well.
Zarco was having none of it – because he’s older, and his days of drinking terrible wine from the boot of a bloke who beat him are over, one would think.
Marquez sat in his garage with his head in his hands, and Puig was probably scratching at the door of Pedro Acosta’s trailer, as everyone else packed up and prepared to travel to Mugello in two weeks.
We are well into the meat of this season now, and the championship ladder is as close as it gets. It’s only going to get closer and crazier – and Jack is so on a roll.
Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.
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