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.

Johann Zarco head into race day with pole position
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Johann Zarco

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.

Zarco was racing in front of 105,000 French fans
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Johann Zarco

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.”

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Johann Zarco

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.

Johann Zarco
Johann Zarco

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Aleix Espargaro
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Aleix Espargaro

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.

Jorge Lorenzo
Jorge Lorenzo

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Andrea Dovizioso
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Andrea Dovizioso

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Cal Crutchlow
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Cal Crutchlow

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.

Jorge Lorenzo
Jorge Lorenzo

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Andrea Iannone
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Andrea Iannone

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Jorge Lorenzo
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Jorge Lorenzo

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Jorge Lorenzo
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Jorge Lorenzo

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Alvaro Bautista
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Alvaro Bautista

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Andrea Dovizioso
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Andrea Dovizioso

“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.”

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Andrea Dovizioso
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Andrea Dovizioso

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Marc Marquez
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Marc Marquez

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Valentino Rossi
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Valentino Rossi

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Jack Miller
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Jack Miller

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Marc Marquez
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Marc Marquez

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Cal Crutchlow
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Cal Crutchlow

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Marc Marquez
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Marc Marquez

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.

MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans - Maverick Vinales
MotoGP 2018 – Round Five – Le Mans – Maverick Vinales

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.

Marc Marquez
Marc Marquez

The next round is Mugello.

Marc Marquez
Marc Marquez

And shit always happens in Mugello.

Marc Marquez
Marc Marquez
2018 MotoGP – Round Five – Le Mans – Race Results
  1. Marc MARQUEZ SPA Repsol Honda Team Honda
  2. Danilo PETRUCCI ITA Alma Pramac Racing Ducati +2.310
  3. Valentino ROSSI ITA Movistar Yamaha MotoGP Yamaha +5.350
  4. Jack MILLER AUS Alma Pramac Racing Ducati +6.314
  5. Dani PEDROSA SPA Repsol Honda Team Honda +7.419
  6. Jorge LORENZO SPA Ducati Team Ducati +10.355
  7. Maverick VIÑALES SPA Movistar Yamaha MotoGP Yamaha +23.758
  8. Cal CRUTCHLOW GBR LCR Honda Castrol Honda +25.795
  9. Aleix ESPARGARO SPA Aprilia Racing Team Gresini Aprilia +26.206
  10. Alex RINS SPA Team Suzuki Ecstar Suzuki +27.937
  11. Pol ESPARGARO SPA Red Bull KTM Factory Racing KTM +32.304
  12. Hafizh SYAHRIN MAL Monster Yamaha Tech 3 Yamaha +34.962
  13. Franco MORBIDELLI ITA EG 0,0 Marc VDS Honda +37.881
  14. Bradley SMITH GBR Red Bull KTM Factory Racing KTM +38.299
  15. Takaaki NAKAGAMI JPN LCR Honda Idemitsu Honda +41.986
  16. Thomas LUTHI SWI EG 0,0 Marc VDS Honda +45.260
  17. Karel ABRAHAM CZE Angel Nieto Team Ducati +56.872
  18. Xavier SIMEON BEL Reale Avintia Racing Ducati +1’12.117
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
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

MotoGP Championship Standings

  1. Marc MARQUEZ Honda SPA 95
  2. Maverick VIÑALES Yamaha SPA 59
  3. Johann ZARCO Yamaha FRA 58
  4. Valentino ROSSI Yamaha ITA 56
  5. Danilo PETRUCCI Ducati ITA 54
  6. Jack MILLER Ducati AUS 49
  7. Andrea IANNONE Suzuki ITA 47
  8. Cal CRUTCHLOW Honda GBR 46
  9. Andrea DOVIZIOSO Ducati ITA 46
  10. Dani PEDROSA Honda SPA 29
  11. Tito RABAT Ducati SPA 24
  12. Alex RINS Suzuki SPA 22
  13. Pol ESPARGARO KTM SPA 18
  14. Jorge LORENZO Ducati SPA 16
  15. Franco MORBIDELLI Honda ITA 16
  16. Aleix ESPARGARO Aprilia SPA 13
  17. Hafizh SYAHRIN Yamaha MAL 13
  18. Alvaro BAUTISTA Ducati SPA 12
  19. Takaaki NAKAGAMI Honda JPN 10
  20. Mika KALLIO KTM FIN 6
  21. Scott REDDING Aprilia GBR 5
  22. Bradley SMITH KTM GBR 5
  23. Karel ABRAHAM Ducati CZE 1

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