Ironic. During the soaking wet first session of practice for the MotoGP class at Le Mans yesterday, there were no fallers. On Saturday morning, with the sun high in the sky – well, low in the October sky, but with nary a cloud in sight – the morning session for MotoGP turned into a crash fest, six riders going down. That was one more than in the treacherous drying conditions of FP2 on Friday afternoon. By the end of the day, three more riders had gone down, bringing the total number of crashes in MotoGP to nine, nearly twice as many as Friday.
Why so many crashes when the track condition is so good? In part because today was dry, and Q2 beckoned. The riders had one shot, and had to push. More than this, though, MotoGP is at Le Mans in October, and even on bright, sunny days, the track temperature is on the very bottom limit of the range within which the Michelin tires will operate. With a cold wind whipping out from behind the grandstands as the riders headed into the braking zone for the chicane, it was easy to get caught out by the cold left-hand side of the tires. And that meant a trip through the gravel.
More on that later, and on the dilemma facing Michelin here and at the next few races. But first we had qualifying, and FP4, the only session which is used for race setup, allowing us to get a more accurate picture of race pace. With no tire choice to be made – Michelin expect 100% of the grid to be on the soft front, soft rear combination, as the best option for Sunday afternoon – the riders and teams would be working on race setup and understanding tire endurance.
Thar she blows
Unfortunately for the FP4 aficionados – and the MotoGP teams – FP4 was rudely interrupted. Thirteen minutes into the session, Miguel Oliveira's KTM started spewing out big clouds of white smoke, and leaving a trail of oil around Turn 7 and toward Turn 8. Jack Miller and Fabio Quartararo, who both saw the incident and rode through the aftermath, were lucky to stay upright. But the session had to be red flagged to clean up the mess left behind.
Despite appearances, it was not a blown engine, Miguel Oliveira insisted. "Actually, it was not a problem with the engine at all," the Red Bull Tech3 rider said. "It was just a small technical issue related to the engine that made us lose a little bit of oil. For emergency purposes, the engine automatically stops. So fortunately for us, the engine is still okay. This bike is completely fine. Have no issues. We will be able to run it tomorrow."
Given the amount of white smoke the incident produced, and the oil which was spread on the track, calling it "a little bit of oil" seems like understatement. But it is possible that this was an oil pipe which ruptured or worked lose. If it was a major engine problem, and Oliveira is trying to pull the wool over our eyes, we will find out soon enough. On Sunday morning after warm up, Dorna publishes the engine usage lists. If the engine has been shelved, then that will speak volumes about the concern for the engine.
After a long pause, FP4 resumed, four Yamahas taking the top four spots on the timesheets. They were strong in terms of pace as well, Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, Franco Morbidelli, and Valentino Rossi all capable of running 1'32s at will. Pol Espargaro had strong pace on the KTM as well, and a gaggle of Ducatis led by Danilo Petrucci, Pecco Bagnaia, and Andrea Dovizioso were not too far behind. Jack Miller's name appeared further up the timesheets than his pace deserved.
That Miller is capable of posting a single fast lap was evident once again during qualifying. The Australian snatched provisional pole from Fabio Quartararo as Q2 neared its end, but he was no match for the ferocious speed of the championship leader. Quartararo punched in a lap of 1'31.315 to take pole, just under two tenths off the pole record of compatriot Johann Zarco, also set on a satellite Yamaha, though Zarco was on a Tech3 satellite-spec M1, not on a full factory spec 2020 Petronas Yamaha SRT machine. In doing so, he became the second Frenchman to take pole at the French Grand Prix in three years.
Qualifying didn't shake out as well for the Yamahas as FP4 had. Fabio Quartararo finds two Ducatis alongside him on the front row, with Jack Miller joined by Danilo Petrucci. That is something of a surprise for Petrucci, who has struggled for much of the year. But the Italian found a solution to some of his problems at Barcelona, and has been much more competitive since then. "Since Barcelona I found something better on the bike, especially on braking where I struggled the most during this year," the factory Ducati rider told the press conference. "In Barcelona I lost a lot of time on the straight and in Le Mans there are not so long straights."
A lot of things came together for Petrucci at Le Mans, a track whose layout he likes. "I always like the track," he said. "It’s very flowing. I like the tracks that are not so many tight corners. For sure this year I struggle a lot on braking. That is usually one of my strongest points. But as I told you in Barcelona we found something interesting. Here I think we can use that to be fast."
Riding at Le Mans also helps keep rear tire temperatures down, something which Petrucci has struggled with throughout his MotoGP career. "Especially also the track temperature is always quite low here and this helps the tire to not be so hot. That usually is one of my problems. I think this is one of the reasons I am always quite fast here," he explained.
That qualifying is not a reflection of race pace, and can wreck the hopes of those with good race pace is evident for the grid for Sunday's race. Cal Crutchlow put in a scintillating lap to grab fourth, while his pace in FP4 was nothing to write home about. Maverick Viñales, fast in FP4, starts from the second row, trapped between Ducatis – Andrea Dovizioso sits beside him in sixth – and the Honda of Crutchlow.
Valentino Rossi and Franco Morbidelli, who had been fourth and second respectively in FP4, will start from tenth and eleventh, the fourth row of the grid. They start behind the Ducatis of Pecco Bagnaia and Johann Zarco, and the KTM of Pol Espargaro, horsepower monsters all. The pace they showed in practice is likely to come to naught, given the difficulty of passing on the Yamaha.
"I'm very worried about overtaking," Franco Morbidelli said. "It's going to be super difficult, it's going to be a nightmare. I know this already. Our strong points are useless when we are in a group, so tomorrow is going to be for sure the hardest race after Austria 1 for me."
Valentino Rossi had his hopes pinned on the unpredictability of a MotoGP race in 2020. "I'm not happy about my tenth position because I have to do better, because our potential is better," the factory Yamaha rider said. "So when you start from tenth, in the modern MotoGP you never know where you can arrive. But we have to work this evening because we have something to fix, because the bike in acceleration is a bit too nervous. So we need to improve this. And after my pace is good. I am quite strong. So the race is long, you need to start well and try the maximum for the 27 laps and try to understand where I can arrive."
Not burning rubber
If there is a pinpoint of light for the Yamahas on the front row, it is the conditions. The cold temperatures are playing havoc with Michelin's tire allocation, track temperatures in October giving them little room for maneuver. The soft front tire is the default choice, despite giving a lack of support to the bikes which need hard braking like the Hondas and the KTMs. But the cold temperatures also makes it hard to get heat into the tire, and the Suzuki, which is famously gentle on its tires, struggled to get the tires to work.
The Yamahas fare much better. "Usually from what we understand it looks like we put more temperature on the tires that the other manufacturers, and this is a disadvantage when it's very hot but advantage when it's cold, like here in Le Mans," Valentino Rossi considered.
Franco Morbidelli put that down to the balance of the bike. "It looks like the advantage of our bike is that it is a good bike with the rider, and a good bike with the tires, so it goes well in more or less every condition, and it goes well more or less with every tire that is usable," the Petronas Yamaha rider explained. "So it looks like our bike is the more consistent, because it is good in almost every situation, with every spec you put on."
Out of the Goldilocks zone
That is very different for the Honda, for example. "With the soft compound we are quite on the limit," LCR Honda's Takaaki Nakagami explained. "Some tracks, like Montmelo but also here, the gap between soft and medium is not so close. It’s one or two steps."
The problem is that soft tire doesn't offer enough support in braking, but the left side of the medium tire is too hard to be trusted when throwing the bike into a left-hand corner after it has had time to cool off. "In some corners at this track the S is too soft. But on the left it’s a bit tricky, so for that reason we didn’t try the M compound," Nakagami said. "These conditions are a bit cooler. At the end of straight into T2 the left side is so tricky. We didn’t take a risk. But if tomorrow is a bit warmer maybe one option is the M front."
How much warmer would it have to be for Nakagami to gamble on using the medium front? "With more than 30 degrees on the track, it’s time to try. If under 30 degrees, it’s too risky. Especially in the left," the LCR Honda rider explained. "In the right it’s OK, feedback in braking it’s better. Problem is the left corners. It’s too risky."
The faster you go...
That problem is not quite so acute for the Ducatis, but they are still caught between the soft and the medium front tire. "The problem is that normally we prefer to use a harder compound," Pecco Bagnaia explained. "But in this situation, we have to use a softer one because the conditions are too cold. So it's impossible to use the harder tire."
There was a way to deal with that, but it required a leap of faith, Bagnaia told us. It was a leap of faith he struggled to make, but which his Pramac teammate Jack Miller had mastered. "The hardest part to be fast in the cold conditions is to push more on the tire," Bagnaia said. "It's something difficult, when you have not so much feeling with the front and you have to push. It's very difficult. But if we look at Jack, Jack is very good in this point, because it doesn't matter to him if the front tire is cold, he pushes the same. So I have to learn from him for sure to improve this area."
Too cold for comfort
The Suzukis have the opposite problem. No matter how hard they push, they can't get temperature in the tire to allow them to push. "We are working to improve in that area, the temperature with the front tires is something that at the moment we struggle with," Joan Mir told us. "I lose a lot of time in the first sector because of the first left corner, I'm not able to stop the bike. I don’t have any feedback and if I try a bit more I can lose the front."
That meant that he was losing a huge amount of time in the first sector of the track, Mir said. "This is really difficult. I lose half a second in the first sector and this is a lot. But the good news is that in the other sectors we don’t lose time. We are fast. This means we can be fast but we need to find a solution for the first sector. If we improve, not half a second probably, but 2-3 tenths we can make a really good race."
Mir starts from fourteenth on the grid, four rows behind his main rival for the title Fabio Quartararo. As a result, it is going to be difficult to make inroads into the Frenchman's lead in the championship. He will have to hope that the Ducatis which surround Quartararo can get in the Frenchman's way, and slow him up long enough for Mir to use the strength of the Suzuki to fight his way forward.
That wasn't something Mir was concerning himself with, however. "Honestly, today I'm not looking at the other riders," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "I'm just focused on my feeling. It's true that with Petrucci, Miller there in front it will be hard for them to break away. But at the moment I'm focused on another thing, to get back again my feeling."
Sunday's race has the potential to shake up the championship, but given this is 2020, it would be tricky to predict which direction that would be in. On paper, Fabio Quartararo starts from pole, has the best race pace, and should have the best chance to win the race, and become the first Frenchman to win his home Grand Prix since Pierre Monneret won at Reims in 1954.
But he has a lot of fast Ducatis around him, Petrucci having very strong pace, as does Andrea Dovizioso. Pol Espargaro is quick if he can get a good start, and if Maverick Viñales can avoid getting swallowed up on the run into the first chicane, he could put pressure on Quartararo. And maybe, who knows, the Suzukis can come through the field while Ducatis run interference with the championship leader. That would truly put the cat among the pigeons.
The Esponsorama Saga
Off track, there was much ado about one of the final slots on the 2021 grid. In the morning, MotoGP's ace pit reporter Simon Crafar pressed Avintia team manager Ruben Xaus on the fate of the team, and Xaus admitted that changes were on the cards, with either a sale of the Esponsorama Avintia structure or the involvement of an outside party on the cards.
"It’s been three months that these rumors are there," Xaus told Crafar. "When I came here to help [team owner] Raul [Romero] two years ago, I saw many things I didn't like. I told him if he wanted my help I needed to be strong and hard inside the box to create a better image and situation. We changed many things. The team raised up."
But that wasn't enough to save the team financially, Xaus explained. "When we saw that it would be difficult to renew those places, we don’t have a real big budget, it was time to move apart and give the keys to somebody else. Raul sees that. He’s 50 and he has 2 kids in Andorra. He offered the situation to the organizer and a few investors. It seems the approach of somebody else to the team is there. The possibility is on the table. Now we’re just checking the who and the how. There is pressure from many sides. We want to have the best one. Mainly I think Aragon 2 we’ll have some things very clear."
The rumor in question is that the VR46 team would come in and take over the Avintia team in 2021. That was not something which the VR46 team were interested in, Valentino Rossi said. "It's not true," Rossi told Italian media. "We won't have a team in MotoGP in 2021."What they were looking for was a seat in MotoGP for Luca Marini, current leader of the Moto2 championship and Rossi's brother. "We are interested for Luca, to bring Luca into MotoGP next year," Rossi said. "So for that reason yes but they are still speaking. I don’t know if it will be possible. I hope, I hope to have Luca in MotoGP."
Raul Romero had told Motorsport.com that if VR46 wanted Marini in the seat currently occupied by Tito Rabat, they would have to pay. "If anyone wants to ride this bike, they will have to pay or bring a sponsor," Romero said. "If [Rossi] wants his brother to ride, he doesn't need to buy the grid slots, he just has to pay for the bike. I will be continuing with the team in 2021, but we won't be renewing our contract with Dorna from 2022."
This is where it all gets complicated. A reshuffle is expected in 2022, when the new five-year contract period between Dorna and the teams starts. The departure of Avintia is just one of the changes: Gresini and Aprilia will be splitting into separate entities, Gresini becoming an independent team again, and Aprilia running its own team as a factory effort. The VR46 Racing Team is expected to step up to MotoGP, Dorna long having held grid slots open for them.
The question is what bikes these new teams will be using. Both Suzuki and Aprilia have spoken of wanting to supply bikes to a satellite team, but while Suzuki is being chased hard for its satellite bikes, Aprilia is yet to produce a bike good enough to convince a satellite team to take them on.
Suzuki had three interested parties for a satellite squad: the VR46 team, Gresini, and in something of a surprise, the Petronas squad was also said to be interested in taking on the Suzukis. But it is looking like it is Gresini who have won that battle, and likely to run GSX-RRs in 2022. Newly signed Moto2 rider Fabio Di Giannantonio is a candidate for one of those rides, if he lives up to expectations on the Gresini Moto2 Kalex next year.
That leaves VR46 and Petronas to fight over the Yamahas. In theory, Valentino Rossi's long association with the Japanese factory should give him the upper hand, but the Petronas SRT squad has proven itself to be the best run independent team in the paddock, and arguably a better team than some of the much better funded factory squads. Letting Petronas go would be a big loss for Yamaha, so at the moment, it looks more like VR46 will take over a role as a junior Ducati team alongside Pramac.
That would make sense in terms of sponsorship. The VR46 operation has been set up to help nurture and promote young Italian riders, and a link up with Ducati, the most prominent Italian manufacturer, would be good marketing.
2022 is a long way away, of course, and much can change in the meantime. First, there is the small matter of Sunday's French Grand Prix. F1 at the Nürburgring means a revised schedule, with Moto3 racing first at 11:20am local time, 20 minutes later than usual. MotoGP follows at 1pm, an hour early than normal. Moto2 follows at 2:30pm, with MotoE wrapping up the day and the 2020 MotoE season at 3:40pm.
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