In a city where no sporting event is taken seriously if it lasts any less than 24 hours – Le Mans even has a literary festival which features 24-hour readings – MotoGP feels slightly out of place. Yet over 100,000 fans come to watch what is surely the greatest motorized show on earth, flocking to what remains a legendary racing venue, despite the fact that MotoGP runs on the much shorter, tighter Bugatti circuit rather than the full length layout used by the 24-hour car race.
The race is very much a throwback to the past. The atmosphere is different to almost every other race: there is a constant edge, a sense of danger lurking just below the surface. Some revel in that excitement, others – myself included – grow tired at spending the evening wondering if you will make it out of the track alive if you leave after dark. If Quentin Tarantino directed a movie about MotoGP, he would set it at Le Mans.
The track may be rather tight and stop and go, but it presents a unique and fascinating challenge. Just making it through the Dunlop Chicane after the blisteringly fast first corner at Dunlop Curve is an achievement at the start, and it remains a favorite passing place throughout the race. The downhill right hander at La Chapelle can be treacherous, as can Musee, the long left hander which follows.
Do or die
Once safely through Garage Vert, it is on to the back straight, and through the fast kink at the Chemin aux Boeufs, which remains one of the most colorfully named corners of the year. Here, too, you can take your shot at a pass, though it is easy to run wide and off track, and lose ground. The Esses at Garage Bleu offer a penultimate shot at gaining place, before the final do-or-die passing opportunity at Raccordement, the double right before the finish line. Raccordement is even more treacherous than La Chapelle, precisely because it is easy to run wide on either of the two parts to the corner. And running wide can end in disaster here, out on the various mixes of tarmac and gravel which form the outside of the turn.
Stick to the circuit between the kerbs and you are rewarded with fresh, grippy asphalt. The track was resurfaced in the winter of 2016/2017, and given a fresh lease of life. It helped transform the fortunes of the factory Yamaha team in 2017, who battled for the lead right to the end of last year's race, comfortably faster than those who followed. Maverick Viñales came out on top of that one, but perhaps only due to Valentino Rossi risking everything on a last-lap passing attempt at the Esses. If anyone doubted whether Rossi's ambition still burned strongly enough to mount a title challenge, that passing attempt – all or nothing for the win – consigned such thoughts to the wastebasket.
Le Mans has always been kind to Yamaha, even before the resurfacing. The Japanese factory has won the last three races held at the French track, and has won seven of the last ten races there. The layout may be stop and go, but the sweeping corner speed and precision of the Yamaha M1 allows it get around the track at a rapid clip. If Rossi hadn't crashed on the last lap in 2017, Yamaha would have taken a clean sweep of the podium. As it was, Rossi's crash promoted Johann Zarco to second, and his first podium in MotoGP. It was a sign of much more to come.
Despite nearly pulling off a clean sweep last year, it is perhaps not entirely accurate to call Le Mans a Yamaha track. After all, Jorge Lorenzo has taken five of those seven wins in the last ten years. Lorenzo has often been indomitable at the French circuit, laying down the law in both qualifying and especially the race. The combination between Yamaha and Lorenzo proved to be pretty much unbeatable at the track.
But Lorenzo has moved on, and Maverick Viñales will be looking for a repeat of last year's victory. The Movistar Yamaha rider has only a single podium this year, though he is currently third in the championship. The young Spaniard has always been fast at Le Mans, taking his first Grand Prix victory here – in just his fourth ever 125cc race – as well as victory in Moto3, and putting the Suzuki on the podium for the first time in eight years in 2016.
No clear favorite
Viñales will face two major threats. The first from his teammate, who has long been a force to be reckoned with at Le Mans. The last of Valentino Rossi's three wins at the circuit may have come back in 2008, but the Italian has a long string of podiums since then. He finished second three years in a row from 2014 to 2016, and would have finished either first or second in 2017, if it hadn't been for that last-lap lunge on Maverick Viñales last year. He even finished on the podium in both of his seasons on the Ducati, Le Mans giving him two of his three Ducati podiums. Rossi is a threat to be taken seriously at Le Mans.
Then there's Johann Zarco. His second place here last year was impressive, and since then, Zarco has only gotten better. The Frenchman is currently second in the championship, and already has two podiums from four races so far this season. That is as many as the two factory Yamaha riders combined, a statistic which gives the Movistar team serious cause for concern. If you had to place a bet on where Zarco will take his first MotoGP victory, you could do a lot worse than putting your money on Le Mans.
The trouble the Yamaha riders face comes from Honda, however. Marc Márquez has outperformed expectations at every track so far, winning two of the first four races and leading the championship. The 2018 Honda RC213V is a much better bike than last year's machine, meaning Márquez is well within his comfort zone on the bike. And a contented Márquez is a dangerous Márquez, as he has proven so far this year.
He may be coming off two race wins in a row, including an exceptional win at Jerez, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he will have the speed to challenge at Le Mans. Márquez had the wind knocked out of his sails in a fast crash at the Mugello test, falling at the very quick Arrabbiata 2 corner. A spokesperson for Honda said he had come away from the crash unhurt, but a video of the crash – since deleted – shows that he clearly had to take a moment to compose himself again after the crash, resting against the barrier, and clearly shaken up.
That Mugello test was a busy affair. The Movistar Yamaha riders had a new step with the electronics to test, Honda worked on aerodynamics, and Jorge Lorenzo switched to the chassis being used by Andrea Dovizioso since the beginning of the year, while both Ducati riders also tried out some aerodynamic upgrades. What we will see from that test at Le Mans is open to question, beyond Lorenzo holding on to the latest Ducati chassis. That was a frame he had rejected at Buriram, but in the more settled and calmer atmosphere of the Jerez and Mugello tests, Lorenzo has decided to give it another chance.
If Johann Zarco is Yamaha's ace in the hole, then Cal Crutchlow is the card Honda have been hiding in their sleeve. The LCR Honda rider has been very strong since the start of the year, even leading the championship after Argentina. But Crutchlow has now crashed out of two consecutive races, and needs to finish. If he can keep his composure, then he too can mix it with the leaders.
At home with the Ducatis
The Ducatis pose an interesting prospect at Le Mans. Though Andrea Dovizioso only has a single podium here on the Ducati, the Italian has been a close fourth a couple of times. Dovizioso has had a much stronger start to his 2018 season, and despite crashing out at Jerez, he comes to Le Mans with high hopes. Le Mans could be the race where everything falls into place for the Italian, and a strong result here would set him up perfectly for Ducati's home race at Mugello in just over two weeks' time.
Then there is Jorge Lorenzo. Le Mans is a track which he virtually owned at one points, winning half the races he has contested at the circuit. His first outing at the track on a Ducati did not go as he had hoped, finishing in sixth some 24 seconds behind the winner. But Lorenzo is starting to get a handle on the Desmosedici, though it remains a struggle to reinvent his riding style to suit the GP18. With a different chassis and the confidence of having led at Jerez last week, then held onto second place until that fateful crash at Dry Sack, he may be much closer to the front. Lorenzo is a rider who depends on confidence, and nothing instills confidence like racing at a track where he has excelled in the past.
Powder Blue Brigade
It is the Suzukis who will be the most fascinating to watch, however. Andrea Iannone's two podiums came straight after Alex Rins' debut podium in MotoGP in Argentina, making it three podiums in three races. The 2018 GSX-RR is obviously a much better package than last year's bike, and arguably competitive with the Hondas, Ducatis, and Yamahas. Alex Rins is making solid progress as a rider, though he needs to stop falling off in a hurry, having three crashes in four races. Andrea Iannone has adapted his riding to the Suzuki, and is starting to really shine on the bike. Iannone is even more of a confidence rider than Lorenzo is, and he has more reason for confidence than the Spaniard. That could throw up a surprise or two come Sunday.
There will be plenty of action off track at Le Mans as well as on track. On Thursday, Marc VDS team boss Michael Bartholemy will give a press conference to discuss the allegations made against him by former team coordinator Marina Rossi, who took her concerns to team owner Marc van der Straten, and I will finally be able to publish the Marc VDS story I have been working on for the past week or so.
Talks for the future of bikes and riders will also continue at Le Mans. With Bartholemy confirmed as team manager by Van der Straten, the German-speaking Belgian can turn his attention to negotiating with Yamaha and Suzuki – if Suzuki boss Shinichi Sahara is able to fly to France, that is. Those meetings should see the Marc VDS team get one step closer to making a decision on who to go with. Right now, Yamaha seem to be the favorite, but the team has not ruled Suzuki out by a long shot.
Then there are the riders. Will Alberto Puig finally release Dani Pedrosa, and try to sign someone to replace him, with Joan Mir currently at the top of his shopping list? Will Jorge Lorenzo close in on a deal with Suzuki? Will Andrea Dovizioso's manager tie up sufficient loose ends to be able to announce a new contract with Ducati at the Italian factory's home race at Mugello? Will the Angel Nieto Team get the pair of GP18s they desire for 2019, and who will ride the bike for them? There is a lot going on off the track at Le Mans, and much to play for.
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