Le Mans, The Legend
Le Mans is one of the legendary names in motorsports. Everyone, from die-hard gearheads to your Aunt Shirley, has heard of Le Mans. It conjures up images of heroic racers plunging through the depths of night, with only their headlights to light the way down endless straights, and brave souls fighting off sleep to race through the last few hours before the finish. Sadly, when the MotoGP circus arrives back in France, they won't be racing at the classic Le Mans 24 hour track, but at the short Bugatti GP circuit. Where the 24 hour track oozes character and racing romance, the Bugatti circuit is bland, all long straights and sharp hairpin turns, with just a few touches from the long track, such as the classic Dunlop bridge, turn and chicane, before withering away in a series of straights and hairpins.
At first glance, a repeat of last year's result, with a dominant Valentino Rossi parrying every move by a hard-charging Sete Gibernau ahead of an outstanding Colin Edwards, seems highly unlikely. The Yamahas have yet to find a solution to the chronic chatter which has plagued the bike this year, and Sete Gibernau, with the exception of a solid fourth at Qatar, has failed to impress on the Ducati. And yet, looking at what the weather gods have in store for Le Mans this weekend, a repeat of last year is exactly what we might end up with. The Yamaha suffers with a surfeit of grip, which is at the heart of their chatter problems, and, according to Rossi, works best when the bike starts losing grip. Which is either when the tires start to wear, or if it rains. And rain it will, certainly during qualifying, and probably on Sunday, making the Yamaha easier to ride, and giving wet weather specialists such as, picking a name at random, Sete Gibernau a chance to shine. The Texas Tornado, as his moniker implies, is no slouch in poor weather either, so this year's podium could easily be identical to last, but for entirely different reasons.
The Wolves Without
But there will be many wolves at the door come a rainy Sunday. Chief among the challengers will be the two Suzukis: Australian Chris Vermeulen has already taken a brilliant pole in the streaming rain in Istanbul, and his Anglo-American team mate John Hopkins has proven his mettle in the wet, and will be fired up coming off a fantastic and well-deserved fourth place in China. And a former Suzuki rider must surely be expected at the front: Kenny Roberts Jr is sublime in the rain, and having the extremely ridable Honda V5 engine at his disposal only improves his chances. His biggest problem will be the new chassis King Kenny Senior is expecting to provide his son with at Le Mans. Mixed weather during qualifying could complicate finding the right setup for the new frame. But don't be surprised to see the number 10 plate at the front come race day.
Another rainy outsider to look for is Kawasaki rookie Randy de Puniet. He will be determined to put on a good show for his home crowd, just as he did last year, when he came within a corner of winning the 250 cc race, pipped at the post by Dani Pedrosa. He has adapted to the Kawasaki extremely well, and showed that he can ride the bike quickly in the wet during the sodden qualifying at Istanbul. Fellow Kawasaki rider Shinya Nakano is pretty good in the rain too, but without the home crowd advantage of his French team mate, will be looking for a solid, rather than spectacular but risky result.
After Loris Capirossi's dream start at Jerez, the bantamweight Italian's Ducati championship challenge has since faded, sliding ever rearwards at each race. Capirossi is extremely competent in the wet, and needs a result to regain some of the ground he has lost in the championship to the Mr Consistency Nicky Hayden. But as good as Capirex is in the rain, he cannot match team mate Sete Gibernau's wet weather prowess. When it rains, Sete shines. And Sete has a point to prove, after a series of mediocre outings so far.
Risk and Reward
The Kentucky Kid finds himself in a quandary. So far this season, Nicky Hayden has shown himself to be the consummate racing professional, taking his Repsol Honda to the podium every race so far, without risking his shot at the title by throwing it away in a desperate move to try and take a win. But with each successive podium spot, Nicky's face has looked grimmer and grimmer at not being on the top step; he badly wants to win, and can't hide it. So what should he do if it rains on race day? He's excellent in the wet, and his duty as top HRC rider dictates that he takes as many points as possible, to consolidate his lead at the top of the championship table, and keep Honda's hope of regaining the title from their prodigal son Rossi alive. But you don't get to the pinnacle of motorcycle racing without a burning desire to win, and Hayden is currently incandescent. The question must be how much longer he can contain himself before he risks it all in attempt to finally win one.
Fellow Repsol Honda rider Dani Pedrosa, fresh off his immaculate first MotoGP win in China, has good memories of Le Mans. It was Pedrosa who pooped de Puniet's party last year, taking the Frenchman in the penultimate corner for the win. But Pedrosa hates the rain. Like all great racers, he is very good in the rain. But unlike the riders lower down the field who are willing to take bigger risks, with the rain as a leveler for the machinery, Pedrosa won't chance his championship challenge for a wet win. Pedrosa's erstwhile and current rival, Casey Stoner, is more likely to take risks in the wet. In the lower classes, Stoner was known for making risky moves to lead races, frequently crashing after pushing just a little too hard in his pursuit of a win. During his 250 title challenge last year, and especially since arriving in the premier class this year, Stoner has matured enough to know that his talent will bring him a win eventually, and gained the patience to wait for it. Stoner will surely be pushing hard, and if he gets his nose near the lead, his new-found maturity will be tested to the limit.
The Fortuna Honda riders have shown great talent, but little consistency. Marco Melandri took a brave win in the thriller at Istanbul, but has otherwise been out of the fray at the very front. Spanish team mate Toni Elias has shown similar flashes of brilliance, punctuated by periods of mediocrity. Melandri is no mean wet weather man, but he needs a return to his Turkish form to get back in the title race. The other inconsistent Honda rider is Konica Minolta's Makoto Tamada. Tamada had singularly failed to shine during the first three races of the season, but more than made up for it with a display of knock-down-drag-out fairing bashing in Shanghai. Whatever he was missing previously, he found it again in China, and that bodes well for Le Mans.
The Mighty, Fallen
So, what of the Yamahas? Valentino Rossi is having a nightmare of a season, although for mere mortals, a season with a win and a fourth isn't too bad. Right up until the first race in Spain, race followers expected 2006 to be another walk in the park for Rossi, his swan song before leaving to join Ferrari in Formula 1. But unlike last year, when The Doctor arrived at Le Mans with a 25 point lead after just three races, he comes to France this weekend trailing championship leader Nicky Hayden by 32 points. So he'll be hoping for rain, to ruin Le Mans' otherwise grippy surface, and tame the Yamaha's chatter, giving him a shot at getting back some of his deficit. With Rossi expected to announce his intention to either go to Formula 1 or stay in MotoGP some time in June, this weekend's race could be crucial. Had Rossi been leading the championship, betting on him taking Bernie Ecclestone's shilling would have been a sure thing, but The Doctor won't want to go out on anything other than a high. As for team mate Colin Edwards, the likable Texan will be looking to hold on to the form he refound in China, and hoping to repeat his podium of last year. Big things were expected of him in his second year on the Yamaha, and up until Shanghai, Edwards had been conspicuous by his absence. If Colin wants to stay in MotoGP for another year, he will have to start stringing decent finishes together, or he could end up suffering the same fate as Max Biaggi, Alex Barros and Troy Bayliss.
What's in a Name?
At a track with a Dunlop bridge, a Dunlop Curve and a Dunlop Chicane, the Dunlop-shod riders will be under a lot more pressure than usual. And a wet race could play into their hands. British rider James Ellison put on an outstanding display in the wet during the IRTA tests at Barcelona, and Tech 3 Yamaha team mate Carlos Checa did extremely well there too. After a string of excellent results during winter testing, former 500 cc race winner Checa is struggling at the tail end of the points. The d'Antin Ducati team of Alex Hoffman and Jose Luis Cardoso are in an even worse situation, playing second fiddle to the development team for the MotoGP grid's lowliest tire manufacturer. With new tires not expected from Dunlop during Le Mans, a wet race is the best all of the Dunlop riders can hope for, if they are not to finish at the very tail end.
Five in a Row?
So, the question remains, will the streak of a different winner each race remain intact? In Hayden and Stoner, we have two top contenders who have shown they deserve a win. And a wet race would open the door to even more potential candidates, the Suzuki pair of Vermeulen and Hopkins are a serious threat in the wet, and de Puniet is certain to pull out all the stops in front of his home crowd in the rain. Then there are the old-school rain kings of Roberts and Gibernau, who are a force to reckon with in the rain. And of course, if it stays dry, then we have a whole new ball game. With this much choice, it's no wonder the 2006 MotoGP season is turning out to be the most exciting season in a very long time.