For the past decade or so, Le Mans has been a Yamaha track, with Yamaha riders taking seven wins in the last ten races. The answer to whether that situation can continue or is simple: it depends. Maybe a Yamaha can win at Le Mans on Sunday. Or maybe another bike will take victory here instead.
That answer is generic almost to the point of meaninglessness, but beneath it lies a kernel of truth. The first four races in MotoGP have taught us a few lessons which point to who and what could do the winning on Sunday. The more precise answer? If a Yamaha is going to win, it is more likely to be be the Tech3 bike of Johann Zarco, rather than the factory Movistar machines of Valentino Rossi or Maverick Viñales. If a Yamaha doesn't win, then the Ducatis are in with a much better chance than you might expect, with Andrea Dovizioso and, who knows?, maybe even Jorge Lorenzo in with a shout.
But the lesson of the first four races of 2018 is that the most likely outcome on Sunday is that a Honda will win, and probably a Honda in the hands of Marc Márquez. That is clearly what most of the riders felt on Sunday. The one recurring theme that came back from riders on every competing manufacturer was that they were both impressed and feared how much the Honda has improved since last year.
When asked if he believed he could repeat his victory of last year, Maverick Viñales made it plain who he thought would win. "I think it's going to be difficult, because also the opponents did a great step, especially the Hondas," he said. "Last year, Dani's rhythm was really good at the end of the race. This year, they have improved, so for sure it's going to be difficult to beat them, but we are going to try. "
Jorge Lorenzo echoed Viñales' sentiments. Asked about his chances on the Ducati GP18, Lorenzo made clear where he thought the danger was coming from. "Let's say that now I feel that finally, the bike is better than the bike I rode last year. The problem is that Honda improved so much this year," he said.
Danilo Petrucci made very similar points. "Now in this moment, the Hondas are maybe a step ahead compared to us," the Pramac Ducati rider said. Being on a Desmosedici GP18, the same version of the bike as the factory riders, made it clear to Petrucci just how far Honda had got ahead. "For sure the bike is the same, even if they have something different, but I think we have to do something more, because the difference between the GP17 and the GP18 is not so big, for example. And in fact the difference between the Honda from last year and this year is quite big. I must say in Mugello last year, only Márquez saved the Hondas. This year I think he did a lap record in half a day. So maybe we have to find something not in the engine."
Acceleration and speed
Where has this improvement come from? "In the last three years, our weak point was acceleration, where we were struggling a lot more and losing a lot, too much, and then we tried to recover in the corners," Marc Márquez told the press conference. "This year we’ve improved a lot in terms of acceleration and I hope that will be in another way for this weekend."
It wasn't just acceleration, Cal Crutchlow explained, having better top speed helped too. The bike was still very demanding physically, though, Crutchlow said. "I don't think it is particularly easier to ride," the LCR Honda rider said. It did mean that they didn't have to push the bike to the absolute limit on every corner of every lap, he explained . "We are still on the limit, don't get me wrong, and we still have our tendencies to do the same as normal, brake late and try to gain our advantage there. But in the end, I think we have more speed, we have more acceleration as well. So it tends to work in our favor a little bit with regards to not pushing the bike past the limit all the time."
All three HRC riders – Márquez and Dani Pedrosa at Repsol Honda, Crutchlow at LCR – are benefiting from the improvement of the Honda. That puts them in a good position for Sunday, Crutchlow believes. "I think we were competitive enough here last year," the Englishman said. "Dani was on the podium, Marc crashed but he was in a good place, I finished fifth, so not too bad at all. Yes, over the years, maybe this track suited other manufacturers better, but I think this year we have a stronger package, so at other race tracks which have not been great for us – Qatar – we were competitive. And again, it's credit to Honda that we've brought something out that it seems like we can go to every race track and be competitive at, at the moment."
Dovizioso the underdog
If there is to be a threat to the Hondas, it will come from Andrea Dovizioso. Danilo Petrucci explained that he believed Dovizioso had a clear advantage over himself and Jorge Lorenzo. "Dovi, in this moment he has got something more compared to me and Jorge, something from his riding style," Petrucci said. "I don't know if he maybe got more feeling on the front wheel, and he can use a setting that fits better for the bike. You have to have a lot of faith in the front wheel in the corners, in the front of the bike."
The fact that Dovizioso had been able to turn a poor start to Jerez round to being competitive during the race gave him hope here at Le Mans, the Italian said. The change had been to switch to using the aerodynamic fairing, but that change is not as simple as merely bolting on the aerodynamic side pods and heading back out on track.
They had decided to not use the fairing after preseason testing, but that had proved to be the wrong decision. "Sometimes when you’re doing a test, especially with different conditions, you can try a lot of things, you can understand the base of the setup and the way to go," Dovizioso explained. "Sometimes you have some clear ideas, in the race weekend when the conditions are different, it can put you in a wrong way, a wrong situation. What happened for example, we decide not to use the fairing, because in the test we didn’t use and I was really fast. But it was different. After that we analyzed all the small details."
The decision to use the aerodynamic fairing gave Dovizioso and his team a lot more work to do in a short period. "My team worked very well and they understood where we had to go to improve the situation and the fairing was the way. From Saturday afternoon our pace was there. I was very focused so with that big change. It wasn’t a problem for me to adapt, because when you change the fairing you change the mind, the braking points, the exit… It’s not so easy and takes a little bit of time to use the best potential of the bike."
The confidence which Dovizioso gained from risking such a major change and coming away understanding why it had worked is what makes the Italian so strong. He may have lost major points in the crash with Lorenzo and Pedrosa at Jerez, but there was still all to play for, Dovizioso said. "It’s very bad what happened in Jerez, especially for the championship. And especially when you can get a lot of points. And especially at a bad track for us. So it was really, really, really bad, especially in the way, because I didn’t make a mistake. But at the end there is always some positive things. The speed was there. I’m really happy. I start from the back and I recovered a lot of positions and I was very close to Marc. So really happy about that. It’s always really important that, when you’re doing that kind of weekend, because we were off the pace on Saturday, but we could fight for the podium on the Sunday. It’s very important for the future, to try to understand why we did that."
New engine, new electronics, new problems
Confidence is exactly what the Yamahas are lacking. Maverick Viñales summed up the situation when talking about the outcome of the test at Mugello last week. It had not brought the massive step forward he had hoped for, but he recognized that the changes that are needed take time. "I think for Yamaha, it's very difficult to improve in just two races," Viñales said. "It's difficult, because first you have to know the way to go, and then you have to improve. So what we did was try to get a good set up, try to make laps, laps, laps to get confidence. The rhythm was good but the fast lap was not so incredible as last year. But let's see. I hope that this week we can recover a little bit the feeling. That's going to be good for me, good for the team. A little bit also to have more self confidence. It's important, I think it's important to have a good result and increase the self confidence of Yamaha and also the team."
Why are the factory Yamahas struggling while Johann Zarco is still doing so well? In an interview with the Spanish broadcaster Movistar, Viñales' crew chief Ramon Forcada revealed that it was probably down to their choice of the new engine last year, which had a knock-on effect on the electronics. "The problem is the whole picture. A motorbike is a package: a rider, an engine, a chassis, tires… if we could pinpoint just one thing, it would be very easy to fix and put on last year’s electronics. But the engine has changed and needs the new electronics."
Johann Zarco had a different engine – both riders in each team must have identical engines, but the engines can be different between the factory team and a satellite team, for example – and this was probably where Zarco's advantage came from. Zarco is using an engine which has had a year of work on the electronics, so they are relatively sorted. The factory Yamaha riders have a new engine, and Yamaha are still working on getting the electronics just right for the new engine.
Interestingly, Forcada revealed that both Rossi and Viñales tried a new engine at the Qatar test, but by that time, it was too late for them to change, and they were stuck with the engine they had chosen at the end of 2017. This is reminiscent of what happened to Honda for a couple of years, where riders tested new engines in Valencia, made their choice of engines for the season at Sepang, and only discovered that the engine wasn't what they had hoped for once they reached the final test at Qatar, where the circumstances were different.
Contracts a gogo
The Thursday before a race is usually the day to announce contracts, and the Thursday at Le Mans was no different. Alex Rins signed on at Suzuki, and Aleix Espargaro extended his contract with Aprilia, making it twelve riders contracted for 2019. With half the grid signed, the other half are getting nervous, but it is clear that it is Andrea Dovizioso who is causing the logjam.
Danilo Petrucci explained how Dovizioso had caused the predicament which Petrucci found himself in. "We are talking with Ducati, but in this moment, the first thing they have to solve is the Dovizioso deal," Petrucci said. "After Dovizioso chooses his future, then even the other riders - I think me, Iannone, Pedrosa, Lorenzo, and Miller - we will move after Dovizioso chooses what he wants to do, because at the moment, everybody is stopping, waiting for Dovi. I don't know what he is going to do, but for sure we have to wait."
Petrucci is still in the frame for the second factory Ducati seat if Jorge Lorenzo leaves, though that is not entirely certain. Lorenzo won't make a decision until he has a few strong results under his belt, he said. "I think that with the circumstances, with the not such a good feeling that I had with the bike in the first races, and the back luck we had in Jerez, we couldn't demonstrate our true potential with a good result, or two or three good results, and the position that we deserve," Lorenzo said. "So let's hope that in these three next tracks we can make these good results happen, and then we will be in a better position to negotiate."
It is widely assumed – often on good authority – that Lorenzo is about to jump ship to Suzuki, but that is far from a foregone conclusion, the Spaniard said. He still has unfinished business at Ducati. "Probably the easiest way will be to take another way, but if I wanted to keep the easiest way and the more comfortable way, I would stay in Yamaha. So for me it will be disappointing to close something that was not done, that was not finished. But you know, everything is possible and my priority, my idea is to try to be competitive, try to fight for wins, and try to get wins with this bike, and I think I can do it."
The key word there is "wins". Because it doesn't say "championships". Reading between the lines of Lorenzo's words, he wants to get at least one win on the Ducati under his belt, and preferably more. But he may regard that as a mission accomplished, rather than pursuing a title at all costs.
If Lorenzo is going to take a while to sign on, his current teammate looks like making a decision sooner rather than later. Talks with Ducati had made a lot of progress in recent weeks, he said, and he felt it was drawing to a conclusion. "Yes, we are a bit closer than before. The situation improved in the last few days. I’m happy because I found a lot of support from a lot of people. This is really positive for me. I’m really happy about that. We will see. Still there remain some details. My manager will arrive tonight and he will continue to speak about that." The obvious place to announce a new deal would be Mugello, as an Italian rider with an Italian factory at an Italian track. But if things progress well, they may not be able to wait that long.
More races, more money, more headaches
It is not just riders who are under contract, of course, circuits also have to agree terms with Dorna for the future. Sources who know about Dorna's future plans assured me that the MotoGP calendar will be expanded to 20 races for 2019, with Finland joining the calendar. And the expansion may not stop at 20: there are a couple of projects which could come to fruition quite quickly, including a track in Indonesia, currently regarded by the manufacturers as the jackpot because of the number of bikes they sell in that market. The most likely scenario is that there are 20 races in 2019, and 21 or 22 in 2020 or 2021. But a lot of water is yet to pass under the bridge before we get to that point.
Expanding the calendar may be desirable for Dorna – more races mean more income – and arguably for the teams as well – they get paid for races, they don't get paid for attending a test – it does pose scheduling problems. The summer break has already disappeared – there are now three weeks between Sachsenring and Brno, rather than the four or five weeks there have been traditionally – and it is hard to fit more races into the summer.
The schedule move to have the Qatar race at 7pm instead of 9pm helps make the Qatar race weekend much more flexible, but the real stumbling blocks are the start of the F1 season, and where Easter falls in the year. MotoGP does not want to clash with Formula 1's opening weekend, even though such races would take place in entirely different time zones. But Easter is important too, as it would be impossible to race at either Jerez or in Argentina on the weekend of Easter. In those deeply Catholic parts of the world, Easter is perhaps the most important holiday of the year, and having a race then is simply impossible. Being a movable feast – the date of Easter is decided by the combination of sun and full moon, rather than just day and month – Easter can sometimes make scheduling easier, sometimes make it harder. Just one more headache to add to the pile.
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