Three races into the 2013 MotoGP season, and the Yamaha Factory Racing team have been forced to tear up the script they had written for themselves after preseason testing. Their original goals were for Jorge Lorenzo to win as often as possible in the early part of the season, building a lead at the tracks at which Yamaha is supposed to be strong, then defend that lead in the second half of the year. Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, was to finish adapting to the Yamaha once again and get on the podium ahead of the Hondas as much as possible, to help build out Lorenzo's lead in the championship.
The plan worked perfectly at Qatar. Lorenzo was untouchable in the race, and won easily. Rossi showed he still had it by getting on the podium and taking second, while the first Honda was Marc Marquez in third. This worked out even better than expected, as although Marquez is clearly an exceptional talent, the real title threat, Yamaha believed, would come from Dani Pedrosa.
Race two, at Austin in Texas, went a little better and a little worse than anticipated. That Marquez would win there had been expected, after all, the Repsol Honda rookie had been quickest at the test. But Marquez' advantage over Lorenzo - and especially the gap from Pedrosa to Lorenzo - was much smaller than they had feared, putting Lorenzo within striking distance of the Repsol Hondas. For Valentino Rossi, on the other hand, things did not go so well, the Italian never feeling comfortable on the bike, and finishing behind two satellite riders, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Cal Crutchlow and the LCR Honda of Stefan Bradl.
Race three is where the plan started going horribly wrong. The Yamaha men arrived in Jerez supremely confident, after having dominated preseason testing there. Jerez was the start of a run of Yamaha tracks, where Lorenzo and Rossi - and maybe even Cal Crutchlow - would really start to shine, and put some clear blue water between themselves and the Repsol Hondas. It did not work out that way: the Yamahas struggled against the mighty Hondas, and Dani Pedrosa took a very easy victory. Adding insult to injury, Marc Marquez bumped Jorge Lorenzo out of second place, robbing the Yamaha man of the lead in the championship, and putting both Repsol Hondas ahead.
And now MotoGP heads to Le Mans, yet another track that is supposed to favor the Yamahas. Given Jorge Lorenzo's utterly dominant win in the soaking rain at the French circuit in 2012, it is easy to think that the Yamahas should have an easy time of it here. The danger is that riders, teams and fans follow the comfortable assumption that Le Mans is a Yamaha track, disregarding recent history there.
It is true that Yamaha riders have won four of the last five races at the track, with Valentino Rossi taking one win and Jorge Lorenzo taking three victories at the track. But the idea that Yamaha dominates at Le Mans seems to stem from further back in history then many people think. In 2008, Yamaha took a clean sweep of the podium, with Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo taking the top two spots, and Colin Edwards, riding for the satellite Tech 3 team at the time, securing third. In 2010, they managed a one-two, with Lorenzo winning ahead of Rossi. But that one-two finish in 2010 and Lorenzo's 2012 win are Yamaha's total podium haul from the last three years. Though they have only had one win at the circuit - Casey Stoner's 2011 victory was even more convincing than Lorenzo's in 2012 - Honda have had four podiums in the last three years, one more than that of Yamaha, while Ducati has been on the podium twice.
Those Ducati finishes are more reflective of the reality of Le Mans than the simple anointing of the French circuit as a 'Yamaha track'. For those two Ducati podiums in fact belong to Valentino Rossi, and were two of the lowly three rostrum finishes he secured during his dismal two-year spell at the Italian factory. It is not that the Yamaha is strong at Le Mans, it is very much a track at which riders can excel, rather than suiting a particular machine. Valentino Rossi has been on the podium four times in the past five years; Jorge Lorenzo has been on the podium four times in the past five years; but Dani Pedrosa has only had a single podium at the circuit in all his time in MotoGP, a third place back in 2008.
Of course, the real star at the Le Mans circuit is the weather. The only thing that can be relied upon at the track is that at some point during the weekend, it will rain, and probably quite heavily. And probably not just once: the fact that Chris Vermeulen's only victory in MotoGP came at the Le Mans circuit speaks volumes about the weather there. The location of the track - halfway between Paris and the Atlantic coast, set in soft, undulating hills - means that it is right in the tail end of the spring storms that tend to roll in from the ocean, bringing wind, rain and an arctic chill to the circuit. The wind, though, is good, as it means that the rain is blown out again just as quickly as it came in.
This year looks to be no exception, with some rain expected on every day of the race weekend, the big question being exactly when it will be wet and when it will be dry. The forecast at the moment - though by the time you read this, it may have changed once again - is for there to be a mixture of wet and dry sessions, with the mornings looking the most promising. The race, meanwhile, looks set to take place on a damp, but not wet, track, making it the worst of all possible surfaces.
Who does that favor? Not Yamaha or Honda, or even Ducati or one of the CRT teams, the weather at Le Mans looks set to favor the team and rider who can get close to a usable set up as quickly as possible. That, you would have to say, favors Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, as the two men with both the most experience with their current bikes and the closest thing to a set up that works out of the box, as their victories at Qatar and Jerez respectively show. On paper, Le Mans would appear to suit the Honda slightly better, as the track has so many tight corners followed by short straights, but Pedrosa's mediocre record at the circuit must surely weigh against him.
That does not mean this race is Lorenzo's to lose, however. If Valentino Rossi and his team finally solve the issues they have been having with braking, the Italian could be very close to the front, given his record at Le Mans. Likewise, if Marc Marquez and his crew get a base set up early on, it is easy to imagine his meteoric rise to the front of the MotoGP pack will continue. Given how quickly Marquez learns, and the depth of experience supporting him, it would not be safe to bet against him.
Then there's the satellite riders. While Bradley Smith continues to adapt to riding a MotoGP bike - a time-consuming business, unless your name happens to rhyme with 'Arquez' - his teammate Cal Crutchlow will once again be chasing glory. Crutchlow is balancing on the verge of leaving 'best of the rest' behind him, and challenging to belong to the 'best of the best'. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man's record at Le Mans is not good, having crashed out in his first year and run off the track in his second, but his main focus so far has been to stop making so many mistakes. If Crutchlow can put together a perfect race, then he might just make the breakthrough he has been waiting for.
The satellite Hondas are in a similar position to Crutchlow, with Stefan Bradl finding himself most under pressure at the moment. The LCR Honda man had a great race last year, finishing in fifth just ahead of Nicky Hayden and not far behind Dani Pedrosa. So far in 2013, Bradl has failed to live up to expectation, and though were are only three races in, he will have to start delivering soon if HRC is not to start losing faith in the young German. Alvaro Bautista, meanwhile, must continue his lonely work on the Showa suspension, and hope that the recent improvements found will carry over to Le Mans.
And then there's the Ducatis. Le Mans is a track at which Andrea Dovizioso has always shone, scoring podiums here in both 2010 and 2011. The layout of the track helps, too, with shorter, slower corners meaning that the bike does not suffer lose too much time with the understeer which continues to plague it. Both Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden will regret not having the updates developed on the 'lab' bike being tested by Michele Pirro, though, as the improvements which that design offers are mainly in corner entry, a key factor in riding the Bugatti short circuit layout at Le Mans. But in difficult conditions, which look likely in France, the Ducatis are always quick, finding the limit made much easier when the conditions bring the limit in from beyond the very edge of performance.
Michele Pirro will also be at Le Mans, making a return after his wildcard ride at Jerez. This time, however, he will not be riding Ducati's lab bike, but racing aboard Ben Spies' Ignite Pramac machine, the 'standard' Desmosedici which Spies raced in the first two races of the season. Those races aggravated muscles and tendons in the Texan's chest, as he attempted to compensate for the weakness in his shoulder from surgery at the end of last year, and is the reason Spies is not present at Le Mans. The other side of the Pramac garage is not in much better shape, with Andrea Iannone only recently recovered from surgery on his arms for arm pump, and his knee to close up a nasty gash he suffered in a crash.
Whatever the weather at Le Mans, the French Grand Prix is the race where Jorge Lorenzo needs to get his title defense back on track. His task has not been made easy, with the strength of the Hondas and the advent of Marc Marquez, but in France, Lorenzo needs to make a stand. Momentum - the great virtue of Yamaha's MotoGP bike - is swinging away from him. Time to turn it around.