The MotoGP riders are hoping that Le Mans doesn't turn into another Portimão. In Portugal, they spent two days perfecting their wet setup, only to find themselves racing in the dry with next to no time on a dry track, outside of morning warm up. At Le Mans, it could well be the opposite. Two days of practice in near-perfect conditions, only for the race to be held in the rain. Or not, the forecast changes every time you look at it.
The weather isn't the only thing capable of surprising. All through FP3 and FP4, a very clear pattern emerged. The reigning world champion had come to his home grand prix with a plan, and vengeance in his heart. Still smarting from finishing second in Jerez, Fabio Quartararo is intent on stamping his authority on the French Grand Prix at Le Mans.
The Frenchman's rhythm in free practice was fearsome. 1'31.7s with used tires in FP3, 1'31.6s with used tires in FP4. Not single laps either, but effortlessly stringing together runs of lap after lap. The only riders who came close to that kind of pace were Alex Rins and Aleix Espargaro, but they didn't have the consistency which Quartararo was displaying.
Pole position seemed a foregone conclusion, but Pecco Bagnaia had other ideas. The factory Ducati rider had been struggling in the morning, but a small tweak to the setup gave him the confidence he needed. Bagnaia was quick out of the gate in the first run of Q2, but Quartararo demoted hm to second, getting down to a 1'30.688.
As the clock ticked down toward the end of qualifying, Bagnaia came into his own. The Italian took nearly a quarter of a second off the best lap of Quartararo, hammering in a 1'30.450. Jack Miller, following in his teammate's wake, took advantage to climb up to second, seven hundredths of a second behind Bagnaia.
"It was impressive," the Australian told the press conference. "We’re all pushing. I did a 30.5, but to watch his pole lap, in the best seat in the house, it was impressive. He went the whole way through Turn 6 with the black line coming off the front tire. Missed the line a little bit and was able to bring it back in."
That small tweak to Bagnaia's bike had made all the difference, especially in the warmer temperatures in the afternoon. "This morning I was happy, but when it’s cold it's easier to go fast in this track. This afternoon in FP4 I was not sure about the pole position because I was struggling a lot. My biggest problem was to stop the bike," Bagnaia explained.
The change before qualifying fixed all of that. "Then in qualifying, we make a bet with my crew chief and my technician because I was not feeling great, and then after this little modification I was starting to feel great again. The grip was better. I was able to stop better the bike. Finally the feeling was great. So, I’m very happy about the pole position. I’m more happy about find something has helped me a lot. I think we are ready for the race of tomorrow."
Quartararo was forced to admit defeat. "On the qualifying we are, I will not say we are missing something, all the time, not only in qualifying, but Ducati are able to really do something crazy, Ducati and the riders, I don't say only Ducati," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. It was harder for him to drop his lap times with a new tire. "We have basically all the same as in the race pace, so it's difficult to really make the difference. The difference you make is putting yourself on the limit, having a little bit less fuel and put yourself in the zone. But to do that for 27 laps it’s impossible."
His qualifying time was made but taking himself right to the limit, and leaving nothing out on track. "I am quite happy because I think 1'30.6 with our bike is… I feel on the limit, I have nothing more and compared to the other Yamahas I think the gap is quite big. So it's also a reference for me that we are doing a good job," Quartararo said. That explained the mixed feelings he had after qualifying. "I was disappointed, but two minutes later I was happy."
It is worth putting those times into perspective. Before arriving at Le Mans, the lap record at the French track was 1'31.185, set by Johann Zarco back in 2018 on the Tech3 Yamaha. On Friday, Enea Bastianini got down to a 1'31.148 on the Gresini Ducati. In FP3, Zarco shattered Bastianini's record by nearly six tenths of a second, hammering in a lap of 1'30.537 on the Pramac Ducati. Then in Q2, Bagnaia took almost a tenth of a second off of that to reach 1'30.450.
In the space of four years, Bagnaia has taken 0.735, or nearly three quarters of a second off the outright lap record at Le Mans. Sure, conditions were just so for Bagnaia to be that much faster, but it illustrates just how much faster MotoGP bikes have gotten. This wasn't the first time this year either. At Jerez, Pecco Bagnaia took four tenths off the previous pole record from 2020, then a tenth off the race lap record from 2021.
Both Michelin and Brembo have spoken of being surprised by the difference the past few years has made, pointing especially to the aerodynamics and the ride-height devices as key factors here. But those words gain much more impact once you see records being demolished in that way. If it stays dry, the chances of Maverick Viñales' race lap record from 2017, 1'32.309, is likely to be smashed. Do not be surprised to see Sunday's race run in the 1'31s, if it's dry.
The speed of the Ducatis put Fabio Quartararo back onto the second row, and having to chase Bagnaia, Miller, and Espargaro for the opening laps. At Jerez, that had turned into a disaster, as the temperature in his front tire quickly spiraled upward and took away his ability to brake and turn the bike.
Have front, can follow
At Le Mans, Quartararo was far less concerned. The front tire allocation was far more forgiving, he explained. "In Jerez I was already alone with the hard front and already alone I was on the limit. Here we are with the soft front, and the front tire is not overheating and doing high pressure." If he did find himself stuck behind a Ducati, he would be able to bide his time and seize an opportunity to pass once it arose. "I'm not so worried and I think that I have, I will not say a lot of overtaking points of course, because you know that with the Ducati in acceleration is always playing, but in the race you know that 27 laps is long and you have always the opportunity to try an attack."
Bagnaia acknowledged that it was Quartararo he would be watching out for in the race. "For sure Fabio is the man to beat," the Italian told the qualifying press conference. "But I think that after this modify that I did in qualifying, I’m more close now, but it’s difficult to say now." If it doesn't rain, the Ducati Lenovo rider fancies his chances. "If it’s dry and I can start well, I will try to push from the start and try to manage a gap."
If the race is wet, it's an entirely different kettle of fish, of course. "If it will be wet it will be another story because you can’t push like you want at the start," Bagnaia explained. "You have to control more the situation. We didn’t do any laps on wet, so it can be totally different."
Wet races are always very different affairs. Differences in lap times stop being counted in tenths or hundredths of a second, as they are in the dry, and turn into seconds. Solid leads can quickly become illusory, as chasing riders suddenly find a lot more grip than the riders ahead. Qualifying positions and starts are rendered irrelevant. Doubly so if the race becomes a flag-to-flag.
Most riders are hoping for a dry race. Not just for themselves, Pol Espargaro pointed out. "Also, for the people who comes to see the motorbikes. Rain is ****!" Given the massive crowds packing the grandstands and the circuit, you wouldn't wish rain on them.
Can Quartararo pull it off if the race stays dry? If he has no concerns with the front tire overheating, that certainly seems possible. If anything, front tires at Le Mans have the opposite problem: the soft is good enough to last the race, but the medium might offer a fraction more support. The medium, however, takes longer to warm up and is quicker to cool off. Push too early, and you risk losing the front before the tire is ready, especially in the left handers like Musée or Chemin aux Boeufs. And if the skies cloud over and the winds pick up, you can find yourself in similar predicament.
Obviously Pecco Bagnaia is going to be a factor starting from pole, especially if this setup change helps as much in race pace as it did in qualifying. But beyond Bagnaia, keep an eye on Aleix Espargaro and Alex Rins. Rins' pace was strong, and he is not afraid of trying a pass. He himself was unconcerned about starting from the third row. "I'm quite calm for tomorrow," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "It will be a long race, so starting from P8 we have enough options."
Aleix Espargaro, however, is the most intriguing challenger on Sunday. This is the third race in a row the Spaniard has started from the front row of the grid, and he finished on the podium in both of those. The Aprilia RS-GP is hugely improved in 2022, and competitive absolutely everywhere. Even Espargaro's teammate, Maverick Viñales, is showing that. Viñales is almost comically incapable of qualifying well, but in practice and in races, his pace has been very close to that of his teammate. That hasn't shown in the results, but it demonstrates that the RS-GP is a very competitive package right now.
The upgrades brought to the Jerez test two weeks ago may be the final piece in the puzzle for Aleix Espargaro. The carbon clutch is both lighter and more effective than the standard version used so far. If that allows Espargaro to get a better start with the Aprilia, it will put him in position to be truly competitive.
Espargaro's performance is also starting to answer the question of just how good the Spaniard himself is. I interviewed him for a story about the CRT bikes in 2013, and at the time, he said all he wanted was a chance to measure himself on an equal footing with the best riders in the world, to see if he could beat them if he was on comparable machinery, rather than an underpowered CRT machine. "The thing I would like to know is if I can or not," he told me back then. "Now it is impossible to know, because it is really impossible to have these bikes, so the chance to know if I can or not, this is what I want."
Nine years later, in 2022, it looks like Aleix Espargaro is getting that chance. And it looks like he is coming out of that comparison extraordinarily well. The Spaniard is as fast as anyone on the grid, capable of winning races and scoring podiums. We have all been wondering just how good Aleix Espargaro really is. The answer is, good enough to be a serious candidate for the 2022 MotoGP title.
If those are the winners at Le Mans, then KTM and Honda are clearly the losers. The KTM is in the biggest trouble at Le Mans, something which Brad Binder believes is in no small part down to the stop-and-go nature of the track. "To be honest, we are struggling a lot," the South African said. "We are not stopping as well as we want to. On angle, we don't turn as well as we want to, and obviously that also effects your drive. So there's a few points that are already hurting us, but this whole year it seems that the tighter corners are more difficult for us. The small tight corners."
Results speak louder than words for KTM at the moment, however. Miguel Oliveira is the best KTM at Le Mans, and will line up in 17th, just ahead of his teammate Brad Binder. The Tech3 teammates are even further back, Remy Gardner in 22nd and Raul Fernandez dead last in 24th. No amount PR "6th row of the grid" spin can hide the hole they find themselves in.
While prospects at Le Mans have been bleak from the outset, the French track has been far crueler to Honda. Pol Espargaro topped the first session of practice on Friday morning, but it's been all downhill from there. Thanks to fast times on Saturday morning, there were three Hondas through to Q2. But in the afternoon, they had nothing for the others, Marc Marquez, Pol Espargaro, and Takaaki Nakagami filling out the fourth row of the grid.
They were lucky to have been in Q2 in the first place. Ranking both qualifying sessions by times, Marc Marquez was 11th quickest rather than 10th, Pol Espargaro was 16th fastest instead of 11th, and Taka Nakagami was 18th fastest instead of 12th.
Pol Espargaro had two very simple explanations: A lack of progress through the weekend, and a warmer track in the afternoons. "It's like we arrive at a circuit and straight away on Friday, while everyone is still understanding the track and the bike and before everyone starts to put their motorbikes on the limit, I can be quick. I'm one of the quickest," the Repsol Honda rider said.
"But then we arrive to one moment where, then everyone starts to work, the bikes start to be faster, and then you reach your limit. And it's difficult to be faster. We are there. We do not improve and even the track in the afternoon. It's a little bit hotter and instead of improving we decrease our speed. We lose."
That wasn't the case for the other manufacturers, Espargaro argued. "Ducati's, it doesn't matter if it's sunny, cold, they are fast all the time and also other manufacturers. But we struggle a little bit more with that and it's difficult. It’s difficult to keep improving."
The biggest issue seems to be the warmer conditions in the afternoon. Taka Nakagami explained that on a hot track, the first thing to go was edge grip, and that made it more difficult for them to turn the bike. "In cool conditions you had grip, but this afternoon from FP4 and qualifying were really tough sessions for us, all Hondas, because the main issue was a lack of rear grip. Huge drop and somehow we couldn't feel any rear grip."
That was costing turning, the LCR Honda rider said. "So losing a lot of the time for the second part of the turning. Not talking about the drive, just lack of the side grip and a lot of snapping and moving, and really unstable when I push."
Marc Marquez was very much in the same boat, finding himself in conditions that made no sense once the track got warmer. He rode on his own for a while in FP4, to try to figure out where the limit was, but ended up crashing at Chemin aux Boeufs.
Marquez put the difficulty down to the combination of warm conditions and the layout of Le Mans. With a lack of front end feel and more weight on the rear, he was no longer able to pivot the bike on its nose to get the bike turned quickly in the hairpins.
"You need to turn in a short time, and use the acceleration a lot," Marquez explained. When they could run sweeping lines and accelerate using corner speed, it was a little easier for them. "It's true that for example we were fast in Qatar we were fast in Mandalika, in Malaysia, but you can use a lot of the track to turn. But here, we need to brake hard, turn in a short time, and that's where we are struggling a bit more."
The one bit of news which emerged on Saturday was that at Mugello, Dorna is to retire Valentino Rossi's number, 46, to honor his legacy. That means that Rossi will actually be at Mugello, something which might help with flagging ticket sales at the venue.
The most curious thing about the retirement of Rossi's number is that it is something he has never asked for himself. When asked about it 2016, he was far from enthusiastic. "My first impression is that I don't like that the 46 is canceled," the Italian said. "I prefer that it remains and if some other rider wants to take that number they can."
He is not alone in that thought. The general consensus among the riders is that retiring numbers is not something they care very much about, though with the caveat in this case that if racing numbers are to be retired, the #46 is the most deserving number to be protected.
But there is little sense or reason behind the way that numbers are retired. Sure, Casey Stoner's #27 is retired, and the Australian's status in the championship is beyond question. But Loris Capirossi's #65 is also retired, and as great a rider as Capirossi was, he was no Casey Stoner. Barry Sheene's #7, on the other hand, continues to be available, despite the fact that Sheene was the last rider with a comparable media profile to Valentino Rossi.
If we are to pick MotoGP legends whose numbers ought to be retired based on their stellar record of success, perhaps someone ought to suggest to Dorna that they need to retire the number of 5-time 500cc champion Mick Doohan. After all, if Valentino Rossi's #46 is sacred, then surely, so is Doohan's #1...
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.