If you had made your MotoGP fantasy picks for the Le Mans grand prix on Friday evening, as I did, you would have been all in on Jack Miller and KTM. The Australian was fastest in both the morning and afternoon sessions, and his pace looked good too. Teammate Brad Binder was third in the morning, seventh in the afternoon, and on pace for another strong result.
Or so it seemed. Qualifying went reasonably for Miller, the Red Bull KTM rider ending up in fourth, just behind polesitter Pecco Bagnaia. Brad Binder had a tougher time, struggling with the front tire locking, and ending up in tenth on the grid.
In the sprint race on Saturday, Binder made up for his poor qualifying by getting one of his trademark rocketship starts and steaming through to finish second, behind an unleashed Jorge Martin. Miller chose the medium front, on the advice of KTM and Michelin, and ended up losing the front at Musée, always a tricky spot when the left-hand side of the tire isn't quite up to temperature. But both riders had shown real potential.
Things went downhill on Sunday. Jack Miller elected to use the soft front for the feature race, emboldened by the confidence the front tire had given him in practice. He immediately put it to good use by charging into the lead. But there was a reason that KTM had wanted him to use a harder front tire: when the rest of the field started to up their pace, Miller couldn't follow, and started to drop down the order.
Managing the front
"We had great pace all weekend and led a decent handful of laps, but when the other boys came past they seemed to be able to knock it up a gear," the Australian said. "I knew my marks: I knew where I could push and where I couldn’t. I was fading a little bit but also preserving the left side of the tire and I knew I had a bit left at the end."
He wouldn't get a chance. With three laps to go, Miller cut across the inside kerb of the Dunlop Chicane a little too aggressively, and lost the front. He tried to pick the bike up again and score a point, but couldn't.
It was just the nature of the track, Miller said. "You've seen it here time and time again. Le Mans is one of those ones that I had a good feeling all weekend, the bike was working well all weekend, I made a stupid decision yesterday with the medium front tire, and cost myself a decent result in the sprint race. Put the soft front in today, I felt mega again all the way through. Had good feedback at least." The Australian laid the blame firmly on his own shoulders. "Just a weekend of mistakes on my behalf. Which isn't good enough, I apologize to the team and everyone for that, and we'll try to be better in Mugello."
There was frustration for Miller, but also a sense that the championship is still wide open, despite losing a lot of points. "We're not that far back from the lead," the Australian said, though he trails Bagnaia by 45 points. "And on a day when Pecco scored zero, and some other guys as well, Maverick and there's a lot of guys there who scored zero as well, could have been a really good day for points, and we didn't take any. So kicking myself about that."
The fact that so many other riders crashed left Miller optimistic that all was not lost yet, by a long way. "Like I said, but we're, what, five races through now? We've seen ****ing everything. As you know, this championship will continue like this. This year is like last year on steroids, again. There's so many bikes, everybody's so competitive, we see guys one week struggling, the next week they're riding away from everybody. So it's a tough one to gauge and honestly a tough one to understand who is your – obviously Pecco – but who is your real contenders."
Miller's teammate certainly looks like a real contender. A repeat of his sprint race podium was not on the cards for Brad Binder, however. Binder got another great start, but found himself crowded on the entry to the chicane, dropping back to around eighth place again. Then, as he entered La Chapelle, the long, downhill right at Turn 6, he found Alex Marquez on the inside, and was forced to stand the bike up and ran wide around the outside, losing a whole bunch of places in the process.
Odd choice of words
It was for that, incidentally, that Alex Marquez was given a 3-place grid penalty for the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello. On the one hand, that penalty was a sign that the Stewards have learned something: the wording states that the penalty is to be served at Mugello, or the next race Marquez participates in.
On the other hand, the wording of what Marquez is said to have done wrong is frankly bizarre. "You were observed as being overly ambitious," the penalty states. There isn't a rider on the grid who isn't overly ambitious. Being overly ambitious is the very minimum requirement to make it to the MotoGP grid in the first place.
The penalty notification then goes on to state that this is considered irresponsible riding causing danger to other riders, within the meaning of Article 1.21.2 of the FIM Grand Prix World Championship Regulations.
The strange thing is that the wording of section 1.21.2 was once considered enough to be used in penalties. For example, Johann Zarco's 2020 penalty for the crash at the Styria Grand Prix in Austria states "you were found to be riding in an irresponsible manner causing a crash". By adding in this strange new terminology, the Stewards are courting controversy unnecessarily.
But back to Brad Binder. Once the South African had slotted back in at the rear of the pack, he turned his attention to making his way forward. Assisted by crashes at the front, he picked off riders and moved up from 16th to eighth by lap 11. By lap 14 he was on the back of the group battling for fourth, containing his teammate Jack Miller. Three laps later, he was jammed hard on Miller's tail, and pushing hard to get past.