Perhaps the sprint races are starting to calm down a bit. Sure, there were only 17 finishers – Raul Fernandez withdrew on Friday because of his arm pump surgery, and Jack Miller, Augusto Fernandez, Jonas Folger, and Fabio Quartararo all crashed out – but there were no injuries, no riders taking each other out, no excessively enthusiastic attempts at a pass ending in collisions. It was hard, close, clean competition.
Surprising, then, that once again all of the drama is around the standard of stewarding. After the meeting the Stewards had on Friday with the riders, explaining how each contact would be punished and laying out the guidelines they use to assess which penalty to apply in which situation, they went on to apparently throw their own guidelines out of the window and – correctly – not penalize any of the several riders who touched other riders while making hard passes. This left half the riders furious, the other half delighted, and everyone dismissing the role of the Stewards as pointless. It felt like they span the great Wheel O' Penalties again, and we all got lucky when it came back saying "Free Pass".
We'll get to that later. But first, there was a fascinating qualifying and plenty of excitement in the race to talk about.
Hard time at home
Perhaps we should start with what would turn out to be a very long day for Fabio Quartararo. Q1 started off looking good for the Monster Energy Yamaha rider, as he quickly set a time that looked out of reach for the rest of the field. But Luca Marini kept getting closer and closer, leaving Quartararo's once comfortable position suddenly looking rather precarious.
Quartararo's fate was sealed when Augusto Fernandez pulled a deeply impressive time out of the bag to go fastest. Quartararo was forced to use a second set of precious soft tires to try to guarantee a spot in the top two, but he couldn't improve while Luca Marini did. The Frenchman was left dangling in third, stuck at the head of the fifth row of the grid.
Things wouldn't go very much better for him in the race. He was swallowed up at the start, but was able to use his pace to close on the group battling for sixth. But on lap 10, he entered a little too hot and lost the front going into Chemin aux Boeufs. Fortunately (if that is the appropriate word) for the viewers, the TV director had just switched to Quartararo's shouldercam, the tiny camera in his left shoulder, so the TV audience got to ride along.
Quartararo's pace in the race compared to qualifying – his best race lap was a 1'31.771, his Q1 leap was 1'31.366 – perfectly illustrates the problem he has. "It's a problem because I'm able to ride really fast in the race, but not in the qualifying," the Frenchman said. "And I need to put everything together in qualifying. And this is the hardest part that right now, maybe in the past I was doing, I'm saying a number, 5 mistakes in one practice, but right now I'm doing 10. Because I think I’m always on the limit on the pace."
That was different in the past, Quartararo insisted. "I remember in the past I always asked my crew chief how intense I need to make the race pace. ‘Keep a little bit of margin for the tire’. Right now I never ask. I go in the track and just go for it and this is the thing that when I go for time attack, I'm already on the limit. You try to find a little bit more, but you don't have. So it's difficult to make that perfect lap." The margin Quartararo had for qualifying is no longer there. Every lap is like a qualifying lap.
Quartararo switched his complaints with the bike from the aggressiveness of the chassis back to the lack of horsepower. The issue is that the bike lacks the top-end horsepower to be able to push the big wings at the end of a straight. And you need the big wings to be able to keep the front end down while accelerating out of slow corners, such as are dotted around Le Mans.
"Today, like I've said, the only points for me to overtake is Turn 4. Everyone, in general, more or less it's Turn 3, Turn 8 and Turn 9," Quartararo said. He was losing a tenth or so just on pure acceleration, and he wasn't able to carry the corner speed to make up for that at Le Mans.
These are not trivial problems. Both engine and aerodynamics are limited by the homologation process, but in addition, Yamaha have lost their way with the chassis as well. The Yamaha used to be slower than the rest, but fast through corners and stable in every part of the corner. Because of that, Yamaha riders could carry more speed through the corner and start accelerating from a higher speed. Ride-height devices and aero have negated that advantage, but today, like I've said, the only points for me to overtake is turn 4. Everyone, in general, more or less it's Turn 3, Turn 8 and Turn 9.
But it's out of from acceleration and they took one tenth or one tenth and a half. Then you cannot make turn one much faster to arrive in turn 3 overtaking. So the problem is a matter of having more power to use more downforce because if we compare the wings we are using to the others is really small.Yamaha's loss of a stable basis is arguably a bigger problem right now.
That corner speed is something which Honda may have found at least a partial answer to. Marc Marquez was the only rider of a Japanese bike to make it through to Q2. He did that in part thanks to the new Kalex chassis Honda is using, which turns better and allows him to carry more corner speed. The price he pays is a loss of braking, but the net gain is a small but significant step forward.