2016 Le Mans Saturday Round Up: Pedrosa Again, Tires, & Qualifying Strategies

The report last night that Dani Pedrosa will replace Jorge Lorenzo in the Movistar Yamaha garage had a devastating effect on the paddock on Saturday. It provoked an almost universal panic among everyone peripheral to the decision. Maverick Viñales' manager Paco Sanchez – strictly speaking, the lawyer who is helping Viñales with his contract negotiations, as Viñales is managing himself – was interviewed by every television broadcaster in the MotoGP paddock, along with nearly every radio station and most journalists. Repsol Honda team principal Livio Suppo and Movistar Yamaha team director Maio Meregalli did pretty much the same, answering the same questions over and over. It was Silly Season at its most frenetic.

As an example, the Spanish sports daily – Spanish journalists are chasing this story hardest, as they have the most at stake – AS featured the following vignette on its website. Reporter Mela Chercoles walked past Albert Valera, manager of Jorge Lorenzo, Aleix Espargaro and others, and heard him berating Alex Salas, assistant to Maverick Viñales. "Tell me that Maverick won't let the Yamaha train get away from him," Chercoles reports Valera as saying. The sense of disbelief in the paddock is huge.

Damage control

That confusion has not been helped much by the answers given by those involved. Paco Sanchez told everyone who would listen that the decision is still Viñales' to make. The financial terms of both contracts (with Suzuki and Yamaha) are acceptable, they are now just negotiating about the sporting and technical details, he told several reporters.

HRC's Livio Suppo was responding to questioning with his usual irony. "If I have to believe what is written in the press many times, I waste a lot of time," he told Crash.net. Honda was still negotiating with both Pedrosa and Marc Márquez, and there was no rush. Yamaha's Maio Meregalli was a little more cagey, both speaking live to MotoGP.com's pit lane reporter Dylan Gray, as well as Crash.net. The trouble with responses like that is merely fuels the fires of suspicion, whether justified or not.

Maverick Viñales was as nervous and mystified as you might expect, still insisting that the choice for Yamaha was his to make. Asked if he was still the key to negotiations, he replied, "As far as I know, in theory yes." He had to take his time to make the right decision, and said he would start to think about it on Monday.

Zeno & Friend

There were only two stoic faces in Le Mans, and they belonged to perhaps the only two men who know the truth. Lin Jarvis managed to avoid speaking to most reporters, but was spotted in the Yamaha garage looking on as Jorge Lorenzo smashed the pole record. Dani Pedrosa produced a performance worthy of Louis van Gaal – the Dutch manager is legendary in Holland for shutting journalists down – by insisting that nothing had changed. "Today I will not answer questions about this, because I already said on Thursday, the situation is the same as it was in Jerez." When pushed, he became forceful: "I can tell you more loudly, but not more clear. I will not answer these questions."

What is the real truth? Has Pedrosa agreed a deal with Yamaha? Is Yamaha – or even Suzuki – using this as a way of putting pressure on Viñales to make a decision, to force the young Spaniard into one camp or the other? It is hard to say. But El Pais is perhaps the most highly regarded newspaper in Spain, and their journalists are, for the most part, beyond reproach. Motorcycle News may get a lot of flak for some of its more speculative stories about new bikes, but their sports pages are the jewel in its crown, and still among the best reporting on the sport available. If both those publications are reporting smoke, then you had better have a fire extinguisher to hand.

Michelin make good

While the gossip was all about the situation at Yamaha, the action out on track was becoming intriguing. Le Mans is turning into the first weekend that feels entirely normal. After complaints about the front tire at Austin, then universally negative comments about wheelspin at Jerez, Michelin had brought a new rear tire with a slightly softer construction to Le Mans. That new tire is proving to be the solution to the problems of most riders.

So much so that Valentino Rossi wasted the first day of practice trying to get the harder rear tire working, chasing a set up that the tire fixed simply. "Yesterday, we concentrated on some stuff in the setting that we think can help us for the traction especially," Rossi said. "But in the end we waste our time, because the tire helps itself for traction."

The improvement was immediately visible. Rossi quickly rose to the top of the timesheets in FP3, setting a time that would only be beaten at the end, as everyone started chasing a time that would put them through to Q2. Rossi's improvement carried through to FP4, where his race pace was both strong and consistent. Good enough to match that of Marc Márquez, and that of the two Andreas on the factory Ducatis.

Traffic & strategy

Rossi's luck ran out during qualifying, however. Though how much is luck and how much is a matter of strategy is open to debate. His first attempt at securing a place on the front two rows faltered when Dani Pedrosa crashed in front of him, and he was forced to abort what he had intended to be his fastest lap. On his second run, he found himself caught behind Maverick Viñales, who was too fast to be easily passed, but not fast enough to allow him to improve his time. It left him frustrated. "It's not very easy, because if you push, they push, if you slow down, they slow down," Rossi said.

Traffic had cost him a place somewhere between third and fifth. Instead, he must now start from seventh. At a track where it is difficult to pass, that leaves him with a lot of work to do. A podium was still entirely possible, he said, as his pace was good. But getting to the leaders will be difficult.

Rossi's best hope – and probably the hope of everyone watching – must be that Andrea Iannone can use the speed of the Ducati Desmosedici GP to get ahead of Jorge Lorenzo and slow him up. Lorenzo's pace has been strong all weekend, but on Saturday, he turned things up a notch, just to pressure the rest of the field. He had to cede top spot to Iannone in FP3, if only by five thousandths of a second. In FP4, the hammer made an appearance, Lorenzo putting over half a second into the field.

Put the hammer down

It was a warning shot. When qualifying started, Lorenzo took provisional pole with his first lap, then shaved another couple of tenths off with his second lap. On his second run, he turned the pace up even further: on his very last lap, he not only smashed the existing pole record held by Marc Márquez, but he also became the first ever motorcycle racer to lap the Bugatti circuit in under 1'32.

It was a typical Lorenzo display of controlled, seemingly effortless speed, and remarkably, it was also his first pole position in the MotoGP class. Lorenzo has won at the circuit four times, but until today, he had never been able to qualify in first position. Given that the last seven MotoGP races have all been won from pole position, that is a worrying development for the rest of the grid.

While Lorenzo's riding was inch-perfect, what really gave him pole position was the fact that he managed to create clear track around him. This is truly his strength during qualifying, the ability to ensure he has no one ahead of him (and often, no one behind him) when he goes for his flying lap. He manages it by constantly changing up his pattern. One race, he will be the first out of pit lane, and able to gap anyone behind him trying to follow. The next race, he might be first, or he might wait for a couple of minutes, allowing everyone else to leave. At Le Mans, it was that strategy that bought him a clear track, and a straight run at pole.

How to get ahead?

Lorenzo's pace has everyone else worried. The question was not who could keep up with him, but how to prevent him escaping. "Apart from Jorge, everybody has a similar pace," Andrea Iannone told the press conference. Andrea Dovizioso agreed. "At the moment, it looks like nobody has the pace to stay with him." Iannone's plan was simple. "I would prefer to be in front of him at the first corner. The risk is that he goes away from the start." Should that happen, it's game over.

The best chance for the Ducatis – and everyone else – is if they can use their top speed to get off the line and into the Dunlop Curve first. Failing that, if they can stay close enough to Lorenzo on the first lap to take a shot down the back straight, or once again along the front straight on the start of the second lap, then they have a chance to stop the Spaniard. Failing that, then we could see a repeat of Jerez, but with the other Movistar Yamaha rider in the starring role.

Marc Márquez took second, but the Repsol Honda rider had no illusions of beating Lorenzo. The Spaniard was having to take a lot of risk in braking to try to make up for the Honda's lack of acceleration. " What I lose in the acceleration, it’s impossible to get back again," he told the press conference. Maintaining that level of risk over race distance is not possible, so the best he can aim for is a podium. Le Mans was the race last year when the depth of Honda's problems became painfully clear, nearly every Honda rider crashing out. Things appear to have improved slightly, but the problems are still there. Staying upright will be crucial for Márquez, and a real test of his maturity.

Stemming the leak

If there was one rider who could have challenged Lorenzo, it was Andrea Iannone, but the Italian suffered a crash at the start of his second run. Water leaked from his Desmosedici and onto his rear tire. The leak was put down to a broken water pump, the same issue which caused problems for Andrea Dovizioso at Jerez. Iannone deflected questions during the press conference, saying he had not yet spoken to his engineers, and telling the media to ask Ducati for more details. It does appear that the water pump on the GP16 is an issue. It has been relocated from last year, and such detail changes can expose minor design flaws. Having two similar failures in two consecutive events will move this up the priority list for Ducati.

The group chasing Lorenzo could contain more than just Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi and the two factory Ducatis. Both Monster Tech 3 Yamahas start from the second row, the track clearly suiting the Yamaha. Pol Espargaro is clearly in the groove at Le Mans, a track which really suits his style. Teammate Bradley Smith has finally found a set up which works for him, after successful experimentation at the Jerez test. He feels at home on the bike at last, and can start to show some of the form which saw him finish sixth in the championship last year. Espargaro may be the dark horse for the Le Mans race, but Smith would be happy just to get a top six, and some momentum going into the rest of the season.

At Suzuki, things are not going quite as well. Though the pace is decent, the problem they are having is a lack of rear grip, a problem they have had since the very start of the project. It left Maverick Viñales frustrated. "I always said – even last year – that we need to improve the rear because in sector one I don’t need to use the rear. I only use the front and I’m there in fourth, in the ideal partial times. The problem is when I need to use the rear to turn. The bike doesn’t turn and starts to slide. It’s one year that I’ve said the same and still I have a problem." If they can't solve that problem, then the Suzukis will have a tough time sticking with the front group.

Super support

In Moto2, Tom Luthi has dominated, topping both free practice and qualifying on Saturday. The Swiss rider took a comfortable victory last year, and looks well on the way to winning again in 2016. Alex Rins starts from second, finally pulling things together after a difficult start to the weekend. Rins has an opportunity to close the gap on championship leader Sam Lowes, the Englishman failing to find any confidence in the front end of his Kalex. For Lowes, damage limitation will be the watchword.

Lorenzo Baldassarri had been due to make the first front row start of his career, after an impressive final run. But when his bike was taken for inspection by the scrutineers, they found that he had used an illegally low tire pressure, and so his fastest lap was scrapped. That dropped him down to eighth on the grid. The imposition of compulsory tire sensors are doing their job in Moto2, ensuring rider safety after some serious issues with teams running tire pressures which were dangerously low.

In Moto3, Brad Binder seems to be sitting pretty after a difficult start to the weekend. On Friday, they had to tear his bike down to the frame to try to locate a problem, costing the South African the first session of free practice. Since then, he has been catching up, and he looked set for pole on Saturday. Niccolo Antonelli smashed that dream, the Italian putting in a superb lap at the very end to bump Binder into second.

Praise is also due to Aron Canet, the rookie in the Estrella Galicia team. The Spanish youngster has made a strong debut, and benefited from having raced here last year in the FIM CEV championship. Canet beat his more experienced teammate Jorge Navarro to the first row, Navarro forced to start from fourth.

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Lorenzo must be giggling at all the commotion caused by his early switch to Ducati. For the first time his agenda is at the epicentre of paddock events, not just an addendum to the activities of others. His quest for clear #1 status that took him to Ducati throws up another interesting question in the soap opera of MotoGP paddock politics. Of the two Andreas' currently at Ducati Iannone is the one that shows the most naked ambition to be a top dog and has, as seen during this weekend, the raw speed to challenge Jorge. Yet Dovi has the smarts, the craft & the temperment to challenge Lorenzo on equal machinery to a championship battle. In Lorenzo-speak Ianonne is a hammer, Dovi is smooth as butter. Wonder which is Lorenzo's choice for the "second" Ducati seat? David, why not rattle that cage for us?  

He's already stated he has no interest in interfering with who will be his team mate.

Of course we can't know his private thoughts but I don't think we'll get another answer.

In 2011 you´ve written a scathing article about the facilities at LeMans and that you avoid going there. Is that still the case?

Regardig the race:If Valentino would catch and overtake Jorge today, that would really leave a mark I think...

might have the raw speed to try and stay in front of JL but will he ??? Given the uncertainties about his contract is it better for him to show sheer aggressiveness or nice second? David what's your take on it?

MGM. If ai has the speed to win there is no need to take nice 2nd. If possible ai is there to win not to play 2nd fiddle to jl. Stupidity like the clash with ad is something else then aggressiveness.

I'm not talking about that stupid move on Dovi. I'm thinking bigger plan: Ducati brings JL on one purpose only : deliver the WC. Anything else has to be in place to make the best possible environment for JL to do that. If AI shows too much aggressiveness (no stupid moves just disrupting his pace and rough moves) then this might not bode well for next year.... showing that ai might not want to play 2nd fiddle. Whereas JL needs precisely that. A good team-mate that keeps the rest of the field at bay while he delivers his hammer style laps undisturbed. It's just speculation of course but they put 12 millions on the table....I don't think they want any obstacle on the way