No French Fairytales
With Boris Mihailovic – Images by AJRN
The script called for Johann Zarco to spear off from his hard-earned pole position, and sail to the first French MotoGP victory for 1000 years. It would have been the first time the French had won anything more challenging than a tennis match in aeons and hopes were high. Pride of the nation and all that.
So 105,000-odd Frenchers turned up at Le Mans for Round Five of the MotoGP, which is a terrifying amount of Frenchers in one place, as anyone who has ever been to Le Mans will tell you.
I was lucky enough to be watching the race with Chris Vermeulen and Kevin Magee, both of whom had raced at Le Mans several times. It was 11 years to the day that Chris had won at Le Mans, and to celebrate this epic achievement, Suzuki had decided to give Chris his race-winning Suzuki GP bike live on air during the Foxsports MotoGP telecast.
But before that happened, I asked Kev and Chris about this home-ground advantage thing the Pom race-callers were banging on about as Zarco sat on pole with the packed grandstands roaring out his name.
“I think it makes things worse,” Chris said. “You can’t hear the crowd when you’re racing, but you know they’re all there expecting you to win. Your friends have all come, and the pressure is really on.”
Kevin Magee agreed. Both had raced Le Mans, and both had raced at home. Both did not feel there was any advantage to be had racing at home.
Zarco just sat on pole and grinned his now familiar crooked grin. It would be different for him. How could he not win at Le Mans? The entire French nation was willing him to the chequered flag. That had to count for something.
Integrated winglets, or “aero packages” as they are now being called, were very much in demand for most of the grid. The stop-start nature of Le Mans had the teams trying to maximise downforce to minimise wheelying out of the slow corners.
It was a grid paradoxically more filled with certainty and uncertainty than usual. It was, after all, contract year for many, and the silly season was in full swing. Asparagus A had a new two-year contract with Aprilia, Rins had his new two-year deal with Suzuki stitched up, and Dovi had just that morning agreed to stay at Ducati for another two years.
He had also, according to trackside whispers, “found” something at the Jerez tests the week before, and this something had been given to all the Ducatis. Whispers hinted it could have been a vial of Lorenzo’s tears, but I think that was probably not true.
The order of battle itself was intriguing. Zarco was on point, with Marquez in second and Danilo Petrucci sitting on third. The second row was Iannone, Dovizioso and Lorenzo, with Miller, Vinales and Rossi set up on the third row. Qualifying had seen the top nine separated by less than a second.
Crutchlow, his lungs full of blood after highsiding himself into an overnight hospital stay the day before, languished back in 13th spot – but just the fact he was there was an amazing effort by any measure.
Vermuelen explained to me the run into Turn One at Le Mans is crazy fast. But you need to get a good start here of all places, because the nature of the track tends to break up the field pretty quickly. And when the red light went off and Lorenzo fired himself into first place again, followed by Zarco, Dovi and Petrucci, with Marquez back in fifth, it appeared like a different fairytale to the expected one was about to unfold.
And so it did.
But of course, it was neither the one the French expected, the one Lorenzo has been praying for since he pulled on the red Ducati leathers, or the one Dovi had anticipated in his quest for that elusive world championship.
And it sure wasn’t the race Iannone had been expecting. He was back in Belen Rodriguez’s sexy arms before the end of Lap One, having been consumed by the right-hand glory of La Chapelle.
I think a breakdown of the first few laps of the 27-lap race would be instructive at this point. It’s when most of the interesting stuff happened.
So Iannone’s gone on the first lap, right? Lorenzo is leading, and being pursued by Zarco, Dovizioso, Marquez (who had just passed Petrucci), and Rossi.
But you know, and all the Frenchers know, that Lorenzo is doomed. He’s not gapping the field. Behind him, Zarco has the collective fizz of France urging him on, Dovizoso’s never been closer to a world championship, Petrucci is racing for a seat on Lorenzo’s bike next year, and Rossi is really keen to get a tenth world title so he can retire at last.
There was no way Lorenzo was going to keep the lead or win the race. That was the only given at this stage. Bautista ate dirt on the following lap and Lorenzo’s doom kept closing in on him at the front.
With 23 laps to go, Dovi surged past Jorge, and two corners later, at La Chapelle, lost the front end and handed the championship leader, Marquez, a free ride for this round. Dovi sat in the gravel beside his bike for a long time after the crash. He was physically unhurt. But he was emotionally shattered and still beating himself up about it late that night.
“It’s difficult, very difficult for me to metabolise a mistake like that,” he sobbed to the media. “It is not like me. I didn’t think that I could lose the bike at that moment. For me, what happened is unacceptable, truly stupid. When you have more speed than the others like today, throwing away the race like that is unacceptable. I cannot afford to make these mistakes if I want to battle for the title with Marquez. I apologise to the team.”
Now it was Zarco and Marquez behind Lorenzo, who was still as doomed as he was before Dovi crashed. Marquez passed Zarco, and Rossi, just behind Petrucci, was now the fastest rider on the track.
But then Zarco hit the ground in Turn 8, and the whole of France groaned and threw things on the ground. No fairytales for France on that day.
The Doctor was now in podium contention because Lorenzo was still as doomed as ever.
Marquez passed him on Lap 10 – clean and hard. Petrucci passed him on Lap 11 – clean and hard. Rossi passed him on Lap 12 – clean and hard and no doubt laughing a little bit.
Jack Miller, who had been having one of the best runs of his career, passed Lorenzo on Lap 13, on the bike Lorenzo was riding last season. Which probably stung some.
And then Maverick Vinales, who has turned out not be the next Marquez at all, passed Lorenzo seven laps from the end.
Marquez was not challenged. Petrucci could not catch him. And Rossi could not catch Petrucci. And Miller could not catch Rossi. So it was all somewhat processional after the first few crashy laps.
My interest was sustained wondering if Crutchlow would survive until the end of the race, and praying to strange gods Marquez would eat gravel and make the championship more interesting.
At the moment, it’s all his, but there are lots of rounds left and he has not yet won it. No-one on those tracks is ever more than a millimetre away from catastrophe – and Marquez is certainly no exception. It would be fair to say he’s probably half-a millimetre closer to catastrophe than most. Him binning it is the only thing standing between him and his next world crown. Everyone else is racing for second place.
Looking at the points table after race five, you’ll note Marquez has 95. Vinales, in second, has 59 points. It is not an unassailable fairytale lead this early in the game, but it’s certainly ominous.
But between Maverick in second and Dovizioso in 9th, it’s dizzyingly close. A mere 13 points separate second to ninth. So there’s everything still to play for. One DNF from Number 93 and the championship fairytale might have a very different ending.
The next round is Mugello.
And shit always happens in Mugello.
2018 MotoGP – Round Five – Le Mans – Race Results
- Marc MARQUEZ SPA Repsol Honda Team Honda
- Danilo PETRUCCI ITA Alma Pramac Racing Ducati +2.310
- Valentino ROSSI ITA Movistar Yamaha MotoGP Yamaha +5.350
- Jack MILLER AUS Alma Pramac Racing Ducati +6.314
- Dani PEDROSA SPA Repsol Honda Team Honda +7.419
- Jorge LORENZO SPA Ducati Team Ducati +10.355
- Maverick VIÑALES SPA Movistar Yamaha MotoGP Yamaha +23.758
- Cal CRUTCHLOW GBR LCR Honda Castrol Honda +25.795
- Aleix ESPARGARO SPA Aprilia Racing Team Gresini Aprilia +26.206
- Alex RINS SPA Team Suzuki Ecstar Suzuki +27.937
- Pol ESPARGARO SPA Red Bull KTM Factory Racing KTM +32.304
- Hafizh SYAHRIN MAL Monster Yamaha Tech 3 Yamaha +34.962
- Franco MORBIDELLI ITA EG 0,0 Marc VDS Honda +37.881
- Bradley SMITH GBR Red Bull KTM Factory Racing KTM +38.299
- Takaaki NAKAGAMI JPN LCR Honda Idemitsu Honda +41.986
- Thomas LUTHI SWI EG 0,0 Marc VDS Honda +45.260
- Karel ABRAHAM CZE Angel Nieto Team Ducati +56.872
- Xavier SIMEON BEL Reale Avintia Racing Ducati +1’12.117
MotoGP Championship Standings
- Marc MARQUEZ Honda SPA 95
- Maverick VIÑALES Yamaha SPA 59
- Johann ZARCO Yamaha FRA 58
- Valentino ROSSI Yamaha ITA 56
- Danilo PETRUCCI Ducati ITA 54
- Jack MILLER Ducati AUS 49
- Andrea IANNONE Suzuki ITA 47
- Cal CRUTCHLOW Honda GBR 46
- Andrea DOVIZIOSO Ducati ITA 46
- Dani PEDROSA Honda SPA 29
- Tito RABAT Ducati SPA 24
- Alex RINS Suzuki SPA 22
- Pol ESPARGARO KTM SPA 18
- Jorge LORENZO Ducati SPA 16
- Franco MORBIDELLI Honda ITA 16
- Aleix ESPARGARO Aprilia SPA 13
- Hafizh SYAHRIN Yamaha MAL 13
- Alvaro BAUTISTA Ducati SPA 12
- Takaaki NAKAGAMI Honda JPN 10
- Mika KALLIO KTM FIN 6
- Scott REDDING Aprilia GBR 5
- Bradley SMITH KTM GBR 5
- Karel ABRAHAM Ducati CZE 1