Le Mans, France
The 2006 MotoGP season is certain to go down in history as one of the most memorable, and most surprising, for a very, very long time. Added to an electric mix of new young talent come up from 250s and over from Superbikes, and capable of immediately running at the front, have been a series of racing incidents and mechanical failures which have totally reshaped the face of MotoGP.
The rain clouds which had caused problems during this morning's free practice session had disappeared by this afternoon, allowing the track to dry out and warm up a little. The strong winds, which had earlier blown a temporary commentary unit over, complete with worried journalists, remained, however. With everyone worried about the possibility of the rain returning later in the session, all 19 riders took off as soon as the green flag dropped, reasoning that a half-decent time might turn into a pole if the track got wet. After the first ten minutes, John Hopkins topped the timesheets with a respectable 1:36.22, with Sete Gibernau in second.
As expected, the last free practice session before this afternoon's official qualifying practice was dogged by rain and difficult conditions. With the rain expected to continue this afternoon, the result looks interesting. Accomplished rain riders had a mixed morning, some doing well, others doing surprisingly dismally. Kenny Roberts Junior, after starting the session slowly, shot to the top of the standings with 10 minutes to go, putting in a series of consistently fast laps, over a second ahead of the rest, only to have his time beaten by a great lap by Casey Stoner aboard the LCR Honda.
Either Yamaha have found a solution to their problems, or the cold weather is reducing grip enough for the Yamaha not to suffer its usual chatter. This afternoon's session was another Yamaha 1-2, this time with Texan Tornado Colin Edwards taking top spot after leading throughout the session, followed closely by team mate Valentino Rossi. 2/10ths behind Rossi we have Nakano on the Kawasaki and Hopkins on the Rizla Suzuki. Le Mans is the Kawasaki's home test track, so it's no real surprise to see Harald Eckl's Green Machine doing well here. Hopkins is obviously on a roll, from his excellent fourth place in Shanghai.
In my race preview, I ventured that poor weather would favor rain riders, the Yamahas and the Suzukis. I was part right, as today's first Free Practice session, held in cold and cloudy conditions, were dominated by the Yamahas, Valentino Rossi being over a second quicker than everyone else for most of the session. With Edwards second fastest, it's still unclear whether these fast times are down to the new Yamaha M1 chassis, or the reduced grip induced by the cool conditions.
After struggling to cure the chronic chatter problems which have plagued the 2006 Yamaha M1, it looks like the engineers have finally admitted defeat. Valentino Rossi will be riding a bike fitted with a new chassis, based on the chassis of his championship winning 2005 Yamaha. It's a big gamble to take, as Rossi's pit crew, led by Jeremy Burgess, will have to work flat out to find a setup which works with the new frame, but with The Doctor trailing by 32 points in the championship, they cannot afford to lose any more points, especially after chatter helped to destroy his front Michelin in Shanghai.
Le Mans, The Legend