If you want to get an idea of what might happen during the race at any particular MotoGP round, the tried and tested method is to pay particular attention to what happens in FP4. Watch the session carefully, and then pore over the analysis timesheet carefully, checking to see who was using which tires, how many laps they had on them, and the average pace they were capable of doing.
Disregard the fast laps set at the end of each the three free practice sessions which select who goes through directly to Q2, and take the qualifying results as a guide to be viewed through the lens of a rider's projected ability to convert a strong grid position into solid race pace. It's no good qualifying on the front row if you get swallowed up before you hit the first corner – just ask Maverick Viñales. And qualifying down on the fourth row is not necessarily an impediment if you can overtake with ease – just ask Joan Mir.
All the above holds true at most race tracks, but not at Le Mans. And especially not at Le Mans this weekend. The weather has been so variable this weekend that conditions have quite literally changed several times within a single session. Much of the grid sat out the first third of FP4, as they waited for the track to dry. Lap times started out in the high 1'39s, and eventually dropped down to the high 1'32s. From the start to the finish of a single 10-lap run, riders were improving their lap times by 3 seconds or more.
"I think it was quite difficult to prepare because we were not really able to make many laps," Fabio Quartararo said about the FP4 session, which he had topped."We came from wet conditions, then it dries. You start with the slicks. You go step by step. Then you have a yellow flag, then it starts to rain, then you know that the tire is cold in Turn 3. So it’s many things that actually you can’t really do. So for the race, I think nobody really prepared well, but it’s the same for everyone."
Joan Mir felt much the same. "It's not only us who can't make consistent lap times, it's everybody," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. Nobody knows where they stand, but at least it is the same for everybody.
Nobody was riding to a structured program, but instead were just trying to feel out the conditions. "We were just riding," Miguel Oliveira said. "It had rained before and then dried. It was unpredictable to make a plan for setup. Nevertheless we could put in some good laps and just ride to understand how quick the track is drying and what tires to use if the same thing happens tomorrow."
Predicting the unpredictable
The only use of the session was to gain an understanding of how the track reacted when it rained, especially in the cold conditions at Le Mans. It was more like a Sunday morning than a Saturday afternoon. "FP4 was just like a warm up," Oliveira told us. "In these conditions you are not pushing to the limit on every lap, you are just seeing how much you can push. It is quite random, and for the race that it what we need to do. We need to be quick in reading the conditions and how much grip we can expect, in both wet and dry."
That was one of the reasons why Jack Miller had stayed out so long during FP4, he explained. "Today in the FP4 I was with Marc and Pol on the out lap, and then it started raining. It wasn’t raining too bad. I saw everybody pretty much going into the box, but I decided to try and circulate and make a few more laps just to understand even with this rain falling how the bike is reacting and where I can push, where I can’t, and just understand what is the limit," the factory Ducati rider told the press conference.
It had been useful experience to prepare for the race. "As we know, the weather here is very unpredictable and it’s most likely that we’re going to get something like that tomorrow in the race. So to be prepared for that, I tried to stay out and manage that. For the race setup, like the boys said, we haven’t really done any changes at all. Impossible to use any other tires. It’s quite clear, I think. Medium tires for wet and the soft tires for dry."
Qualifying shake up
These mixed conditions added more than a dash of excitement to qualifying. Q1 started very wet, but started to dry out as the session progressed. Riders started on the soft wets that work best when there is water on the track and it's raining. They were forced to switch to medium wets as a dry line formed and the softs started to overheat.
Not switching to softs cost Aleix Espargaro a spot in Q2. The Aprilia rider shot to the top of the timesheets with under a minute to go, but that was all his soft wets would bear. As the clock ticked down, he watched powerless as his teammate Lorenzo Savadori and VR46 Avintia Ducati rider Luca Marini bettered his time.
"I made a mistake by not coming to the pits and putting medium wets because the track was completely dry," Espargaro said afterward. "I made a big mistake. When the end of the session was coming near, I made a very slow lap to drop the tire pressure, then I fully focused on one lap. The bike was moving like a flan. When I crossed the line I saw the checkered flag and knew there was time for one more lap but I couldn’t. It was impossible. The tires and the temperatures were too high and the bike was just moving, moving. So I did everything on that lap."
It wasn't enough, and Lorenzo Savadori got through to Q2 ahead of him. It was an outstanding result for Savadori, who has struggled to make the switch from tester to full-time MotoGP racer. The Italian had a very strong Saturday, finishing second in a very wet FP3, before passing through Q1 to qualify eleventh on the grid.
The wet weather was what made all the difference, Savadori explained. "Honestly I don't like a lot the wet conditions, but in these kind of conditions I am more similar to a kind of Superbike style," the Italian said. "Because every time I ride a Superbike, you have a lot of movement, and when I have this kind of movement, I get more feeling."
That movement is absent from bikes as stiff as MotoGP machines are. And understanding how a MotoGP machine reacts was the problem. "At the moment my big difficulty is taking confidence with this bike, because it's completely different, the style. It's more rigid, you need to have more stability to have a good performance," Savadori explained. "Aprilia help me a lot to work on this, and I want to say thank you. But I need more time to take more confidence."
The weather wasn't done messing with the riders in Q2 either. The track looked like it would continue to dry, riders starting off on medium wets to put in a lap time to buy them a spot on the grid. But they soon switched to slicks as the track dried out almost completely. The cold wind and cool track temperatures meant the only option was to stay out and hope the tires held up; coming in to swap to new tires would cost too much time, not just in terms of losing a lap, but because it took another couple of laps for the tires to get up to temperature in the conditions
Then there was the brief flurry of rain at the end of Q2. With three minutes left in the session, Marc Márquez took over pole from Repsol Honda teammate Pol Espargaro, trailing Takaaki Nakagami in his wake who took over second. Honda looked set for its first lock out of the front row since Jerez 2017. The clock ticked down, and with a minute to go, rain appeared on camera lenses as a shower blew over the circuit. Riders sat up, and HRC started rubbing their collective hands.
Then riders buckled down once again. The rain had come and gone in the space of half a minute, and the track hadn't been affected. The fast laps came flying in, and first one rider then another leapfrogged past the Hondas, shuffling them down the grid. Fabio Quartararo took pole, his third in a row and his second time at Le Mans. Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales sits next to him on the grid, with Jack Miller in third, knocking Franco Morbidelli back to fourth. The three Hondas ended up sixth, seventh, and eighth on the grid.
Takaaki Nakagami was frustrated at having missed out on a golden opportunity. "The last 2 minutes, we saw some drops of rain in sectors 3 and 4," the LCR Honda rider explained. "Also Marc was in front of me, 5 seconds ahead, and he also slowed down a bit. And I followed him to slow down too."
Too slow to go fast
That proved to be a mistake. Slowing down meant losing heat in the tires, making it impossible to get enough heat back in again to be able to survive the treacherous left at Turn 3, which had claimed so many riders. "I couldn't push, I couldn't bring the best performance in sector 1, and this is everything. I was a bit too slow and I couldn't take any risk in sector 1, so I lose a couple of tenths in sector 1, and then it's game over."
If Nakagami was frustrated, Pol Espargaro, was absolutely livid. The Repsol Honda rider, who always wears his heart on his sleeve, was furious at himself for failing to convert the speed he has shown throughout the weekend at Le Mans into a pole, or at least a front row start. Like Nakagami, he had backed off when it started raining, but had crashed when he tried to push again.
"I’m ****ed off with myself because today we were aiming for the pole position or the top three for sure," Espargaro said. He knew he had the speed. "The first sector in that lap was amazing. Was under three tenths and was two tenths faster than Fabio, three tenths faster than Jack. They both are in the first row."
His greatest frustration was that he had missed a chance to make amends for a poor performance at Jerez. "It’s painful because I feel I could do it. I’m ****ed off because for example in Jerez I knew for me the chances were very low, but here I had a huge chance to be in an amazing position, also fighting for the pole. I was waiting until the end to make the last push. Two or three laps before the end it started to rain and then I slowed down because the rain. I’m sure I slowed down too much. I did not correct, and then I was risking too much in corner six and I crashed in that corner."
Using the conditions
By contrast, Marc Márquez was philosophical. The Repsol Honda rider knew the conditions had helped him. "Obviously in wet conditions I feel more natural and normal than in the past because it’s less demanding about my physical condition," Márquez explained. "It’s something that we already expected. Then in dry conditions even in FP4 I felt better. In qualifying I was riding not so bad. But the track conditions were not perfect. The lap times were slower. The grip was lower and then all these things, when it’s like this I’m riding better. When everything is more on the limit and you need to push more, then it’s where you stress more the physical condition and where I struggle more."
Márquez was still getting back the strength in his right arm, with some muscles at 50% and others at 80%, he told us. And he was still having issues from the shoulder surgery he had at the end of the 2019 season. That operation had left him with very slight nerve damage, which he was still working to improve. "It’s true that on the shoulder I’m struggling more, especially the back of the shoulder. It’s where I’m working more and trying to improve. If you remember, two winters ago I had an operation on the right shoulder. That injury still is not 100% recovered because there was some damage to a nerve in the shoulder. All these things become, the rehabilitation becomes more difficult."
That meant he struggled in right-hand corners still, which he tried to compensate by going faster in left handers. Which is why all of his crashes so far had been in left-hand corners, because there is a limit, even for Marc Marquez. "If you check, two times in Jerez I crashed on the left part," Márquez said. "Here I crashed again in a left corner, because it’s where I feel the most confident and I try to take all the lap time there. But sometimes everything I lose in the right corners, where I’m struggling, it’s impossible to recover because it’s the limit."
If anyone is likely to benefit from the conditions which prevail at Le Mans, it is Marc Márquez. The Spaniard is the best in the world at mixed conditions. Anyone who saw Argentina 2018, where the Repsol Honda rider was 2 seconds a lap faster than his rivals on a damp track, will know this. So fast was Márquez then that he ended up being punished for riding dangerously, running into Aleix Espargaro and knocking Valentino Rossi off track. Márquez still has that speed, as he demonstrated at the end of FP3 on a drying track.
But that too had its limits, Márquez warned. "It’s true in the mixed conditions, or to try to adapt on track as quick as possible, was one of my strong points. It was one of my strong points and still now I feel comfortable." But the lack of strength in his arm and shoulder meant he didn't have everything under control, he explained. "It’s true that on a slick if there are some wet parts I don’t feel comfortable like in the past. If I have some aggressive movement of the bike, still I cannot control like I want. There I don't feel completely safe, but I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel like it’s in my hands."
That offers opportunities to Jack Miller, arguably the second best at riding in sketchy conditions. Not quite at the level of Marc Márquez, but close enough to take the fight to the Repsol Honda rider, and at the current point in Márquez' rehabilitation, beat him. What's more, Miller is strong in wet and dry as well, and should be competitive in all conditions.
One thing or the other
The Yamahas, on the other hand, need the weather to do one thing or another. If it is dry, Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales are incredibly quick, and likely to leave the rest of dead. If it's fully wet, then the same applies. But if it's damp enough to need medium wets, they are in trouble.
"Looks like with the wet mixed conditions when we are able to go with the slicks it’s not bad, but when we need to go with the wet tires on mixed conditions, for us the bike has no acceleration," Quartararo told the press conference. "I’ve been behind some riders, different bikes, and we are struggling so much in the drive area. I feel good, honestly, on the braking, corner speed, but when it’s drying up, it’s really tough. I don't know from the other riders, but I know that for me it’s impossible to really lean fast the bike. As soon as we pick up the bike, the bike is staying on the same place and just spinning a lot."
All this makes predicting what will happen a complete lottery. There are an almost infinite number of variables to take into account, and which could come into play. If it's a fully dry race, then some kind of normality might prevail, and the grid position might matter. If it's fully wet, then differences in lap time can be counted in seconds rather than hundredths, rendering grid position irrelevant. And if it's mixed, well, it's anyone's guess.
Championship leader Pecco Bagnaia is down in 16th, not far from reigning champion Joan Mir. But both riders are confident of ending much closer to the front, pretty much in any condition. "We have a good package in the dry and a good package in the wet. Not the best one, but I think that we can fight with this package," Joan Mir said. "I think that it's always a problem in 14th, but I always start in 10th, so it's not a big change." And given that Mir finished on the podium at Portimão after starting from ninth, he is probably right not to worry.
There is an awful lot at Le Mans which is out of the hands of the riders. And that's what will make for a fascinating race.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.