It has been a tough weekend for a lot of people at Le Mans. The weather has done just about everything to confound and perplex the riders, conditions changing every session. Friday went from wettish to very wet, Saturday went from drying to almost completely dry. There hasn't been a single session of stable weather with a consistent and unchanging track.
That has caused a lot of problems, especially in MotoGP, shaking up the qualifying system based around the combined times through all three free practice sessions. For the fans, though, it's been fantastic, producing two of the most exciting qualifying sessions we have seen for a while. Tricky conditions in free practice put Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, and local hero Johann Zarco into Q1, producing fireworks in the battle for who gets through to Q2. Then, in Q2, the battle happened all over again, this time in a straight up slugfest for the front row. That went right down to the wire, the first three safe only once the dust had settled.
The weather reignited the debate over MotoGP's qualifying system, a common complaint among several riders, and also a regular topic at the Safety Commission, the meeting where riders and organizers gather to discuss how to make racing safer. Andrea Dovizioso voiced the concern on Saturday, despite having made it through Q1 and into Q2. "It’s really stressful, these rules for everybody because every practice has to be a qualifying," the Ducati rider said. "You have to be in the top 10 because the weather can change."
Qualifying for qualifying
Dovizioso's description both encompasses the problem the riders face, but also contains the reason why this system will not be changed. Every practice session is indeed turned into a mini qualifying session, no matter how good or bad the weather is. Riders have to push for a spot in the top 10, to ensure automatic qualification for Q2, and avoid having to go through the cauldron of Q1. That is good for the fans, both watching at home and at the track. There is a reason to watch every session, and TV audiences on Friday are reported to be higher already. FP3 on Saturday morning has become compulsive viewing.
Sources inside Dorna indicate to me that they would be utterly opposed to any change in the current system, unless the riders can make a compelling safety argument. At the moment, all the riders can produce is that they lose time setting up the bike, having to spend ten to fifteen minutes of FP1, FP2, and FP3 trying to post a lap quick enough to keep them in the top 10. That argument holds no water for Dorna, as that means less setup time, and less setup time means more chance of a top rider or team getting it wrong. That makes for more unpredictable racing, but it also limits the advantage to be gained by throwing more resources at bike setup. Less time working on race setup means less data gathered, and less time to spend poring over the fine details, looking for a hundredth here or there. All this together makes for a better show, and a better show means more money from TV rights sales, which in turn means more money for the teams.
If it was excitement and surprises the fans were after, Le Mans had it all in spades. After mostly damp Friday, Saturday morning started with the best track conditions so far. Still not perfect, though, with damp patches on the track and cold temperatures meaning they were taking a long time to dry. Fortune favored the brave, or at least those brave enough to push hard and get their tires up to temperature quickly, and though everyone improved the times from Friday, conditions produced a thoroughly jumbled up Q2.
Big names out
The surprises were as much in who made it through as who was left out. That Dani Pedrosa should have to go to Q1 in cold and miserable conditions is hardly a surprise. The lightest of the riders, getting enough heat into the tires to be able to push is very hard indeed when the conditions are not working to help him. But that Pedrosa should end up 22nd, and last but one, is something of a shock.
Not quite as much of a shock as the man behind him, however: Jorge Lorenzo was 23rd in FP3, and dead last. The gap to the top was nearly six seconds, a difference made all the more poignant by the presence of Pramac's Scott Redding at the top of the timesheets, riding last year's Ducati. But the gap to Lorenzo's factory Ducati teammate was still 4.7 seconds, despite them both being on a Desmosedici GP17.
Lorenzo's explanation for not being fast was simple. "For sure I need much more time than Dovizioso to arrive at the limit suddenly, in a short time. I still have some automatic reactions, that means I don't arrive suddenly to the limit, and I need a lot of laps." Lorenzo identified conditions like FP3, mixed conditions with a damp track, yet still dry enough to require slicks, as being the toughest conditions for him to ride in. Lorenzo insisted that his problems were different to those of earlier in the year, certain that had he had more time in the dry, he could have been competitive.
Pedrosa found himself in a similar situation to Lorenzo, though the cause was somewhat different. The Repsol Honda rider had struggled in the early laps to get temperature into the tires, but just as he was getting up to speed, he developed a technical problem. "Today at the end of FP3, I put the slicks on, and I need some time to warm up the tire," Pedrosa said. "But after three or four laps, when I was ready to improve my lap times, then my engine had some problem, and the bike stopped and I couldn't finish the practice."
Beware the Flying Frenchman
Q1 showed that 22nd and 23rd were not a real reflection of the potential of Pedrosa and Lorenzo. On a dry track, Pedrosa posted a time that would have been good enough for fifth on the grid, ahead of his teammate. Lorenzo's Q1 lap would have been good enough for eighth, had he set it in Q2. Their problem is that neither man made it straight through, Andrea Dovizioso and Johann Zarco taking the top two slots in Q1 and earning passage to Q2. The loss was particularly keen for Pedrosa, as he only lost out to Zarco at the very last moment.
Zarco's Q1 was a sign of things to come, and built on the rock solid foundation he had set in FP4. A crash in FP3 meant he was short of his preferred soft tires for qualifying. The Frenchman had used FP4 to build up his confidence after his crash, going out for a single run of 18 laps in total. 11 of those laps were 1'33s, the kind of pace you would expect would be good enough for a podium – at the very least – on Sunday. In Q1, Zarco did more of the same, opting to go for a single run of 9 laps, pushing harder and harder until the end, securing passage to Q2 in the process.
But it was in Q2 where Zarco showed his real mettle. With just one set of tires left for qualifying, he spent the first half of Q2 waiting patiently in his garage. He used that time to rest and recover from Q1, before going out for the final eight minutes. Then, it was a case of rinse and repeat: a single run getting faster and faster, squeezing other riders off the front row in the process. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider ended up third, alongside the two factory Yamahas, Maverick Viñales taking pole from Valentino Rossi.
There is a lot to get excited about with Johann Zarco, the Frenchman completely outperforming any reasonable expectation of a rookie in MotoGP. But what was really impressive about Zarco's performance on Saturday afternoon was how he handled the pressure. The roar of the crowd when he went through to Q2, then grabbed the front row was deafening, perhaps louder than the roars for Valentino Rossi, who enjoys the loudest support at almost every racetrack. That is an expression of the expectations the fans have for the Frenchman, and to handle that calmly and with focus is very promising indeed.
Zarco was modest about his achievements in the press conference. "It confirms because the bike wants the podium," the Frenchman said, poetically granting the Yamaha agency in his front row. "The bike has the potential. When you analyze all the season, last year, you can see that Lorenzo and Vale were so strong. So, I say, why not? If you use well the bike, you have to be in this position."
Can Zarco get on the podium on Sunday? Cal Crutchlow identified the Frenchman as one of the candidates for the box, along with Viñales, Rossi, Marc Márquez, and himself. From the pace of practice, Viñales holds the strongest cards, quickest in outright pace and starting from pole, his second of the season.
Rossi, too, has strong pace, the Italian gaining confidence in the front end from the grippy French asphalt. A setup improvement had helped make Rossi more competitive, but like Zarco, he agreed that the Yamaha was well suited to the circuit. "We modify something on the bike, but it looks like that the M1 like a lot this track and this new asphalt," he said.
Putting off his pension
With Zarco on the front row, alongside Valentino Rossi, it was inevitable that a French journalist would dare to dream of having the Frenchman one day take the Italian's place in the factory Yamaha team. Rossi was quick to joke about the idea – "You hope!" he quipped – before giving perhaps the strongest sign that he is not yet thinking about retirement. "I have two years’ contract and I enjoy. I can be strong, but unfortunately I'm quite old. So, during next year I will have to decide if continue."
Rossi still has a burning ambition to race, and continues to love racing as long as he is competitive. Though it gets harder every year for him to win a title, there is no doubt he is still easily capable of winning races. Once, I thought Rossi might start to consider retirement, but the Italian still looks intensely happy to race. I get a strong sense that retirement is very far from Rossi's mind at the moment. And I don't think it will be any closer in the middle of next year, the point at which he will have to make a decision about his future.
If Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa were the big losers from FP3, their loss was KTM's gain. Both Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro made it straight into Q2, the first time that has happened for the Austrian factory. Yes, of course, there are mitigating circumstances, sketchy conditions offering the KTM men an opportunity for an upset. But they seized that opportunity with both hands, and both made it through.
But if anything, their achievements in Q2 itself was even more impressive. Pol Espargaro will start from eighth on the grid, while Bradley Smith starts from tenth. For a bike that only raced for the very first time at Valencia last year, the progress KTM have made is remarkable. The switch to the big bang engine (or as the riders themselves insist on calling it, under pressure from the corporate communications department, the "new engine configuration") has been a massive leap forward for the RC16. The acceleration of the bike is much more controllable, so much so as to be visible to even the casual viewer on TV, Pol Espargaro said.
With the engine now where they need it to be, that is one less item on their minds. KTM can now focus on fixing the chassis, and making the bike a little easier to turn. The resources the Austrian factory are throwing at the job should not be underestimated. The results they have achieved so far should be a clue as to why not.
The most terrifying moment of the day came during FP4. Track conditions were still far from perfect in the first half of the session, and Jack Miller was following Marc Márquez and Danilo Petrucci through Turn 1. As he prepared to flick the bike left for Turn 2, the front end folded on Miller, and when the front tire gripped again, it sent the Australian heading straight towards the wall on the inside of the track. The bike crossed the grass on the outside of that corner, sliding and straightening as it went. Miller's RC213V then struck a glancing blow against the protective barrier, flipping him off the bike and parallel with the wall.
It was one of the most horrific crashes I have seen in a long time, yet Miller walked away virtually unhurt. He was forced to go to the medical center for a concussion check, but at first glance, it looked like it could have gone an awful lot worse for the Australian. Cal Crutchlow, who has befriended Miller in the last year or so, saw the crash happen in front of him. Crutchlow stopped, and waited until he saw Miller moving before he got back on the track and focused on FP4 again. It was a terrifying moment for all concerned.
Is there anything that could be done to prevent such a crash? The consensus was that crashes like that can happen anywhere and are hard to fix. Sometimes when riders save a crash, they can find that in doing so, the bike is pointing in a very different direction when the tire grips again. Andrea Dovizioso gave his view: "It’s one of the most difficult crashes, and you can’t control when you lose the front in the fast corners, going the opposite way. It was really reactive to pick up the bike again. So dangerous. But the problem is it isn't possible, making the track safe everywhere, unfortunately."
The one thing that could be fixed in this instance is to move the wall back from where it is a little. But in ordinary circumstances, riders don't get anywhere near that wall when crashing. It's just when the tire grips after slipping that it becomes a problem. Then, it all comes down to luck. Jorge Lorenzo put it succinctly: "I think that today, God took him out and said, it's not your day to get injured seriously."
Handbags at 6pm
It wasn't the only thing which Lorenzo had to say about Jack Miller on Saturday. The day before, the two had become embroiled in an argument at the Safety Commission. It is unclear what the argument was about, though given the main topic at the meeting was the choice of front tire, and Lorenzo had been very vocal on the subject, that would be the most likely candidate.
Miller had taken umbrage at Lorenzo's persistence, and informed the Spaniard that he felt Lorenzo should insert his opinion where only a proctologist could retrieve it. Lorenzo was indignant, accusing Miller of being ignorant and of not treating him with the respect five-time world champion deserves.
Whatever you feel about Miller's attitude, one thing is for certain. The fact that he got back on the bike for Q2 after the massive off in FP4 speaks volumes of his mental fortitude. You may question his judgment or his wisdom, but there is no question at all when it comes to his courage.
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