As the MotoGP circus descends upon the charming French town of Le Mans this weekend, there is one question at the front of everybody's minds: can he do it? Can Marc Marquez continue his incredible string of poles and victories by winning at Le Mans? On the evidence of the 2014 season so far, you would have to say he can. But Le Mans is a different circuit, and one where a gaggle of Yamaha riders have gone well in the past. This could possibly be the first race since Qatar where Marquez is made to work for it.
Marquez has a lot going for him in France. Leaving aside his form – a perfect record of poles and wins this year, as well as being fastest in over half the sessions of free practice so far – the track looks to play to the Honda's strengths, on paper at least. The stop-and-go nature of the Le Mans track sees the bikes spend a lot of time under hard acceleration, with slower corners needing hard braking. The Honda's 'V' approach to the corners – brake late, turn hard, stand the bike up quickly and get on the gas – seems to be a much better fit to the Le Mans circuit than Yamaha's 'U' style – brake early, enter faster, carry more corner speed and smoothly wind on the throttle.
And yet Yamaha riders have won four of the last six races at the circuit. Jorge Lorenzo has won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans three times, and each time with a very comfortable margin over his competitors. Valentino Rossi has won here twice on a Yamaha, in 2005 and 2008, and finished second behind Lorenzo in 2010. It's even a track where Colin Edwards has shone in the past on a Yamaha – and where perhaps he can do well once again, despite hating the current Yamaha chassis he is riding at Forward Yamaha. This is the first in a series of circuits where Yamaha riders have dominated in the past. If Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi want to start fighting back against the might of Marquez, Le Mans is as good a place to start as any.
Which of them is more suited to taking the fight to Marquez? Valentino Rossi has had an outstanding start to the season – strong enough to convince him to stay on for another two years – and grows stronger every week. Rossi has regained confidence in the front end of his Yamaha M1, allowing him to brake much later than he could last year. That confidence could be what he needs to tackle Marquez; he will at least be able to fight in the braking zones.
Jorge Lorenzo has two weapons to bring to the battle with the Spanish prodigy. Firstly, the discovery that the softer of the two tires available is durable enough to last race distance, something Lorenzo and his crew found at the Jerez test. The drop in grip after the first few laps is bigger than with the harder of the two compounds, but after that initial drop, grip levels stay stable. This should give Lorenzo the confidence he needs to push early, and push all race long. Le Mans looks like being the first race where Lorenzo has the fitness, the set up and the confidence to attack Marquez.
It isn't just the Movistar Yamaha riders Marc Marquez will have to beat, however. Le Mans is a circuit where his teammate Dani Pedrosa has also gone well in the past. The Spaniard won here last time out, in a torrential downpour, and has won in the 125cc and 250cc classes as well. Despite being overshadowed by Marquez, Pedrosa is in excellent shape, having finished with two second places and two thirds. Pedrosa has finished within two seconds of Marquez for the past two races, and will want to beat him soon. The question mark hanging over Pedrosa in France is how well his forearms will hold up, the Spaniard having had surgery to relieve arm pump just a week ago. If he is healed, he will be a threat.
Will it be enough? After four races, Marquez looks unstoppable. He is matching and beating records left, right and center, keeping pace with Valentino Rossi's string of victories from 2008, with Mick Doohan's start in 1992, and still on course to rival Giacomo Agostini's season in 1972. He is dispatching the competition with ease, the only time he had difficulty in holding off a rival at Qatar, where he was riding for the first time after breaking his leg. Le Mans is a very low grip circuit, which suits the loose and liquid style of the Spaniard perfectly.
It was also the circuit where he showed his true potential in his rookie year. Winning at Austin was remarkable, but had been expected, as he had already tested there. Getting on the podium at Le Mans was arguably the greater achievement. He had never ridden a MotoGP in anger in the rain before, and it showed in the first laps, Marquez losing nearly 10 seconds in the first four laps. He used those four laps to learn, however, and by lap six was on the pace with the front runners. By the end of the race, he had moved up from eighth to fifth, and had cut the gap to race winner Pedrosa by two seconds. He proved he was a very, very fast learner, even when thrown in at the deep end. A year, and his first championship later, the pupil has become master.
Le Mans has also been a good track for Ducati, though have never been able to win there. Valentino Rossi ended on the podium both times he raced here on the Desmosedici, Andrea Dovizioso was not far off a podium last year, and Nicky Hayden gave the Italian factory another fourth spot in 2010. Dovizioso and teammate Cal Crutchlow come to the track knowing that a podium could be difficult – especially as the weather looks set to stay dry all weekend, a rarity in the blustery and damp northwestern corner of France – yet there is real hope. The low-grip surface of Le Mans means tire wear should not be an issue, meaning that Ducati could get more out of the softer options they are allowed to run. Braking is also where the Desmosedici shines, and the track layout could work in the bike's favor too. With only one corner where the bike is on its side for a long time, that should avoid the Ducati's biggest weakness.
The race will be especially important for Cal Crutchlow. The Englishman has had a miserable start to his Ducati MotoGP career, suffering a string of mechanical and electronic problems. Brake problems at Jerez were the low point, after Crutchlow had worked doubly hard to come back from injury he suffered at Austin. Two weeks later, and with a test under his belt where they tried a revised braking set up, Crutchlow will want to finally get a good, solid, incident-free race under his belt, and start working for the future. The signs are that both Crutchlow and Dovizioso will have a new chassis at Le Mans, which they tested at Mugello. Though not a major step forward, it allows a greater range of adjustment. Both Ducati riders had run out of adjustment on the old bikes, and so this new chassis should give them a wider range of set up options.
Le Mans will also be a chance for Andrea Iannone to once again make a bid for a factory ride. The Italian has really found his feet in his second season, and has consistently been the fastest Ducati on the track. His problem is that he is fastest only for a single lap, and has not yet put a strong and consistent race together. If he can unlock that secret, he can be a real dark horse, and start to worry the factory Ducatis.
Of the satellite Honda and Yamaha riders, Stefan Bradl is back from arm pump surgery, but looks to be fully healed. The LCR Honda rider needs to start getting results, as HRC expect regular podiums of him this year. What's more, the LCR team will be running the ELF sponsorship at Le Mans, as it is the home race for the French oil firm. If the Honda suits Le Mans as well as many expect, Bradl will both want and need to be a factor come Sunday.
Le Mans is also the home Grand Prix for the Tech 3 Yamaha team. Despite being based at the opposite end of France, their home race is a massive event for the team. Neither Bradley Smith nor Pol Espargaro will get much rest at the circuit, practice and the race actually coming as a nice break. How well they do on the track will depend on whether the Yamaha can withstand the onslaught of the Hondas. The pressure will be on for the Tech 3 pairing.
Le Mans could be a track where the Open class Forward Yamaha has the edge over the factory option machines. With more fuel, Aleix Espargaro and Colin Edwards should be able to get off Le Mans' tight corners better, without having to worry about fuel consumption. Aleix Espargaro has shown real pace during practice and qualifying, but the Spaniard needs to make the next step during the race. Edwards has an outstanding record at Le Mans, but is stuck with the Yamaha chassis he dislikes so much. The good news is that he should soon be getting a new chassis to ride, to be designed, according to Motorcycle News, by former FTR designer Mark Taylor. Edwards had demanded that English engineering guru be involved in the project, but after Taylor left FTR, giving form to the collaboration proved difficult. Those problems seem to have been resolved, and Edwards could have a new chassis by Mugello, according to MCN. That won't help the Texan at Le Mans, however.
If the layout of the Le Mans circuit plays to the strengths of the Honda RC213V, the same cannot be said of the RCV1000R. Where Honda's production racer lacks most is in acceleration, limited by the use of conventional valve springs. Acceleration is exactly where time can be gained at Le Mans, with its plethora of first-gear corners. Life will be tough for Nicky Hayden, Scott Redding, Hiroshi Aoyama and Karel Abraham, forced to find time wherever they can. The race among the production Hondas has become one of the more entertaining battles, all four riders and bikes reasonably well matched.
Redding is still adapting to MotoGP, learning to ride a bike which is radically different to his Kalex Moto2 machine from last year. Hayden, meanwhile, is learning to ride a bike which turns again, after spending so long on a factory Ducati which suffered chronic understeer. The American is learning to brake deeper into the corner, pushing the bike to turn harder, and making improvements every race. Aoyama is having something of a revival, after a couple of very tough season, while Karel Abraham appears finally to be recovering from the shoulder surgery which has slowed him up for the past six months.
Will Le Mans see Marc Marquez' reign of terror come to an end? Going by the first four races, it seems unlikely. The track layout plays to the strengths of the Honda, and Marquez is totally at ease on low-grip surfaces, his dirt track training coming into its own. Most of all, Marquez is riding high mentally, on top of the world on the bike, and with a newly-signed two-year contract under his belt. If anyone is going to beat Marquez, they will first have to get into his comfort zone and disrupt his rhythm. That looks to be very tough indeed, but they all have a chance on Sunday.