It was an expensive first day at Le Mans. Bikes in the three Grand Prix classes hit the deck (and the gravel trap) 44 times on Friday, a colossal number, even for Le Mans. To put that into perspective: at the first race in Qatar, there were 37 crashes over all three days of the first Grand Prix, and 27 over three days of the Doha round at Qatar. In fact, six of the nineteen rounds held in 2019 had fewer crashes over all three days than Le Mans did on Friday, and another five rounds only had a handful more.
Some 19 of those 44 crashes happened at Turn 3, the first left hander of the Dunlop Chicane. Given how quickly the costs of a crash can mount up – even a slow crash can cost north of €20,000 to replace carbon fiber fairings, footpegs, and levers. And if fuel tanks, exhausts, wheels, brake discs or (heaven forfend) frames and swingarms have to be replaced, costs can rapidly approach six figures.
With that in mind, perhaps they should rename Turn 3 the Million Dollar Corner. A pedant might quibble with the name – the crashes were nearly all low-speed low sides, meaning damage would have been relatively limited, and most were in the Moto3 class, where damage is even less due the combination of light bikes and the lack of aerodynamic appendages which snap off at the merest sniff of gravel. So no, the financial damage done on Friday at Turn 3 probably didn't quite reach the million dollar mark, even taking the exchange rate into account. But then again, it didn't really cost the OSI six million dollars to rebuild Steve Austin to make him better, stronger, faster.
Racking up the numbers
It was an expensive Friday, even by Le Mans standards. Last year, on a weekend where there were 100 crashes over all three days, there were only 38 crashes on Friday, six fewer than this year. And Le Mans is the only track where crashes number over 100 during a MotoGP event. Other tracks have had more – the record in recent years was 155 at a cold and rain-sodden Valencia in 2018 – but three figures are the rule at Le Mans, rather than the exception.
Why so many crashes? First of all, because there are a few low speed corners where you can get away with crashing with a relatively low chance of injury. Of the 38 riders who crashed, only two required medical attention, and only Moto2 rider Yari Montella was unfortunate enough to crash hard enough to actually fracture a wrist and be ruled unfit.
But the biggest factor is of course the weather. Or rather, the weather combined with the layout of the track. Turn 3 is the first time the riders use the left-hand side of the tire for the best part of 40 seconds, since Turn 12 at the Garage Bleu esses. That is a long time for the wind and the rain to suck the heat out of the tire.
Journey into the unknown
Valentino Rossi summarized the issues with the first part of the Dunlop Chicane. "Turn 3 is a nightmare. Every lap when you arrive you’re very worried," the Italian veteran said, before enumerating the dangers to be faced there. "First of all, it’s the first corner on the left after two corners on the right, a long straight, and two more corners on the right, so with low temperatures the tire is cold so there is not a lot of grip."
The next issue was the camber of the track at that point. "The second thing is the banking is opposite. Negative banking, this is a disaster for the bike. You have to lean the bike on the left but with negative banking it’s a problem." Then there was the fact the track is used so frequently by cars, which wears the track in a way which is anathema to motorcycles. "The third factor is this track is used for the car racing in the 24 Hours, and the part that cars use has less grip. The asphalt is more old. When you make 24 hours with 70 cars the track becomes old very early."
"It has been difficult," Maverick Viñales told us. "I would not say a disaster, but the correct word is, I would say difficult. Because the first laps it looks like you are on ice, honestly, especially on the left side. Right side straight away is good, but the left side needs two or three laps."
Viñales made that mistake himself in the morning, after switching from the soft wets to the medium wets. "I just switched from the soft wet tire to the medium wet tire, and I was too optimistic, I just pushed too much in Turn 3," the Spaniard said. "I just went to put the knee down and I just crashed straight away. I think it was a cold tire, so totally my mistake, I needed to wait a little bit more."
It's not just the camber and location of Turn 3 which is an issue. The fact that MotoGP uses a very late pit lane exit onto the track, right on the outside of the corner is also a problem. The bikes are on the 60 km/h pit lane speed limit for a very long time – over 30 seconds if you are in one of the pit boxes at the start of pit lane. That is a long time for the tires to be off the warmers and be radiating heat off into the chill French air. Once you get on track, you have to warm your tires back up again before really starting to push.
If you don't, a crash on cold tires awaits. That was what happened to Fabio Quartararo in the middle of FP2. His first flying lap out of the pits was seven or so seconds slower than his usual pace. So on his second flying lap, the left side of the tire on his Monster Energy Yamaha M1 simply didn't have enough heat in it. The Frenchman put his crash down to that long and slow exit from pit lane. "I think first of all that the pit limiter is way too far from where we start from the pit lane, so it's not great," Quartararo told us. "I think we need to put it way more close, and yes, it's so difficult to warm up the tire."
Impatience will get the better of you, if you are not careful, as Aleix Espargaro managed to demonstrate not once, but twice. The Aprilia rider crashed on his first exit in FP2, then immediately repeated his mistake after rushing back to the pits to grab his second bike.
"Today I just had bad luck," Espargaro said. "I’m in a moment this season in very high confidence. I tried to push on my first lap, and in the first split was already coming on a 1'32 lap. Then I crashed. I was too hot." The worst thing was he did pretty much the exact same thing a few minutes later. "Then I took the second bike and I wanted to go immediately fast, and I made the second mistake. I say sorry to my team because two big mistakes." He owned up to just being too over eager. "I felt I did these mistakes because I felt good and competitive and fast enough from the beginning. But today wasn’t ready to go fast immediately. You need more laps to put temperature into the tires."
With a wet session of practice in the morning and a cold and dry session in the afternoon – though with dark clouds threatening to soak the track with no warning, forcing everyone into hurry up mode just in case – it is hard to get a sense of who might be quick after the first day. It was even hard for the riders to understand where they stood at any given time, Jack Miller said.
"It's extremely difficult to understand or gauge where you are, what times you need to do," the Ducati Lenovo Team rider told us."To even get a feeling with the track is very, very difficult at this point in time, because every lap is different, every session is different. You're not able to go and push or able to go do a run with decent pace, let's say."
The usual suspects
That didn't mean you couldn't get a sense of the competition, however. "I think you can gauge who's going good or whatever, but I mean it's the normal guys who are there," Miller said. "Fabio's there, Zarco's there, the guys that go quick here are there. Pol, for example, another one who really likes this place."
Despite topping the morning session, putting in a slick at the right time and pushing when others didn't quite dare, Miller felt he was missing something in the afternoon. "I felt like my rhythm was not bad, I just really struggled, especially with the wind, to be consistent," he said. "Even to put a lap together all the way, I didn't feel like I was able to do that today. I found a little bit of something in the last run and I was able to find some time then."
Miller's race pace on used tires wasn't bad, part of a sizable group who were capable of high 1'32s on tires with 10 or more laps on them. Among the group were Miller's Ducati teammate Pecco Bagnaia, Repsol Honda rider Pol Espargaro, world champion Joan Mir, his Suzuki teammate Alex Rins, and even a seemingly resurgent Valentino Rossi.
For Rossi, the improvements made at the Jerez test appear to be translating into additional pace in the dry at Le Mans. "A better day for us," the Petronas Yamaha said. "Already this morning in the wet I was quite fast and I felt good with the bike. But I needed dry practice to understand if the work on the Monday test at Jerez can help us in Le Mans. We were lucky. FP2 was full dry so we can push. At the end I’m in the top 10 in P9. All during practice I ride in better way. I’m constant, I can brake deeper and entry faster. I was not too bad for all the practice. In the end I’m in the top 10 and it looks like we are a bit stronger compared to the first races."
The Jerez test had been extremely fruitful, Rossi explained. "I think the help the work in Jerez help us a lot. We worked hard in the Monday test. We modified the setting of suspension, we have different forks, we changed the weight balance of bike. We also tried a different carbon swingarm which is good. All these things help us, especially in braking and in entry. It can bring more speed in the corner without running wide and I feel better on the bike," the Italian enthused.
Johann Zarco was a fraction quicker than that second group in terms of race pace, but despite setting the fastest outright lap of the day, the Pramac Ducati rider was no match for the factory Yamahas. Both Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales were quickest overall, and capable of dipping into the low 1'32s on used tires. That bodes well for the pair come Sunday, if the race is dry at least.
"It has been good, it has been positive," Viñales told us. "I just concentrated a lot to make the race rhythm, because we don't know when we are going to get another dry session. And in case on Sunday it's a dry race, I tried to understand the race setup a little bit. But overall I feel pretty good."
For Fabio Quartararo, fresh from arm pump surgery, he was pleased to have been competitive and not have any issues with the right arm. There had been some concern at the start of FP2, when he knew he would have to push right from the start of the session in case it rained.
"I felt different, a little bit strange," the Frenchman said. "Not really anxious, but where I was a little bit more anxious was in FP2, because in FP2, everyone was with new tires, and pushing straight away because maybe it was going to rain." Quartararo had been pleased to find he could push without suffering too many issues, he told us. "It was a good lap time, it was not a time attack, but just a new tire with the fuel and I was quite impressed with my lap time. So I'm happy, because the arm feels good, a little bit strange, but it's OK."
Marc Márquez does not have the pace of the front runners, his rhythm more in the low 1'33s than 1'32s, despite managing to get straight through to Q2 in the dry. But he was still lacking a bit of confidence in his right arm, the Repsol Honda rider explained, especially in the mixed conditions at the end of FP2. Under normal circumstances, he would have been the first rider out on slick tires on the damp track, instead of leaving that honor to Jack Miller, who proceeded to set the fastest time by nearly a second and a half.
"It's true that my confidence now is not very high," Márquez confessed on Friday evening. The big crash on Saturday at Jerez had taken its toll. "It's true that for example after Jerez I was thinking at home, and I need to take care about the risk at the moment." It wasn't fear, however, it was a concern he did not have the same control as before while he is still not at full fitness. "It's not like I don’t want to take a risk, but to control that risk I'm not in good physical condition, so some strange movement on the bike, maybe I cannot control like before," Márquez said.
Friday morning was no time to be taking too much risk, the Repsol Honda rider explained. "I was waiting a bit and I didn’t put the slick tires on before because I already had a good lap time on wets. I knew that it was time to go to slicks, but I was not the first rider, I think I was the third or fourth rider with slicks. But already five minutes before that it was possible to go with slicks. But it's not the time to take a lot of risks in FP1. We will take risks tomorrow in qualifying and then the race, but always try to be inside the limits."
There is an improved atmosphere inside the Repsol Honda garage, with the return of team manager Alberto Puig. The ex-racer had been absent for a while due to ongoing treatment to the leg he injured in the crash at Le Mans in 1995, which eventually ended his career. Puig being back made a huge difference on both sides of the garage.
For Pol Espargaro, having an ex-rider between him and the Japanese HRC engineers made communication much easier, as Puig understood what he was trying to say, listening for the message. "It's not about weakness in communication between the Japanese and me," Pol Espargaro said. "I mean sure the Japanese culture is much different to the European one and sure it's harder for me to explain my problems to one Japanese than to Alberto. I think it's more about relationship, for me Alberto in the team is very important because Alberto is a guy that first of all has been a rider. So he understands always our feelings even if there are things that are not going good. Sometimes Japanese or just the technicians or electronics, everyone sees everything in numbers. And you are one number on a bike full of numbers, you know."
As an ex-rider, Puig understands that the numbers on a computer screen don't tell the whole story. "With Alberto when I talk with him everything becomes more human," Espargaro said. "I don’t know if I'm explaining it well but when I talk to him I hear that he understands my problems in another level, that I can explain to him and he is translating to all the Japanese crew because he knows them more than me. For me, having Alberto back is more than important, I think it's crucial and I talk so much with Alberto and he understands me so well and I'm super open with him. It's important for me that Alberto is here."
Marc Márquez felt much the same way, despite the known friction between Márquez' personal manager Emilio Alzamora and Puig on the side of HRC. "The team manager needs to find the way, that communication between the Japanese staff, team and rider is in a good way and then also the strategies," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "A good team manager needs to be inside the strategies and always I say, I completely agree with Pol, Alberto Puig has many years riding in MotoGP." The ex-racer was one of the reasons Márquez tied up his future with HRC. "I don’t want to say that one is better or worse, but Alberto is one of the reasons why I signed for example a four-year contract with Honda."
Puig is at the core of the team, keeping everyone on the same page, Márquez explained. "He is a really important person inside the team and of course if he is at the track it's much better for everybody, just for everything to be more under control. It will not change the results maybe but inside the box everything is more in control." Puig was brutal in his honesty, with everyone, and that meant that everyone knew where they stood and what was expected and needed. "The hard meetings, he is the person that always speaks and speaks honestly to the riders and the engineers. This is very important inside the team," Márquez said.
Honest and open communication will be needed over the next two days, as rain is forecast to play havoc with both qualifying and the race. But nothing is quite so changeable as the weather at Le Mans, so everyone needs to be prepared for a dry race as well, and a flag-to-flag race just in case. There is nothing quite so predictable as the unpredictability of the weather at Le Mans.
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