Round Four of the 2012 MotoGP season lifts off this weekend in northern France at historic Le Mans, where they’ve been racing one thing or another for over 90 years. As expected, the Aliens rule 2012, with Repsol Honda’s Casey Stoner and factory Yamaha mullah Jorge Lorenzo sitting at the top of the heap, with a single point separating them, while Stoner’s teammate Dani Pedrosa lurks alone in third place, waiting for one of his rivals to screw up. There’s plenty of history here for you at Le Mans, with the best riders on earth looking to add to it on Sunday.
For 2010 champ Lorenzo, each week presents the same gros problem – when it comes to the 2012 championship, he’s regularly getting double-teamed by the two Repsol Hondas. Bad enough one should have to tangle with Casey Stoner or Dani Pedrosa in the turns at Le Mans, but both of them? It’s one of the reasons Lorenzo is unlikely to win the 2012 title. Not only will he spend a lot of time looking at Stoner’s rear wheel, but he’ll have Pedrosa sniffing at his own. Some weeks it may be Pedrosa running up front and Stoner lurking, but the basic equation doesn’t change. There’s two of them and one of you.
As we’ve observed more than once in MotoGP, rule #1 is: beat your teammate. Lorenzo will get a little back in those instances where Stoner and Pedrosa go at each other. But with Ben Spies out of the conversation and the emerging Cal Crutchlow on the satellite Tech3 Yamaha unable, thus far, to crack 3rd position, Lorenzo will be on his own most weeks. And unlike Stoner and Pedrosa, he doesn’t have many opportunities to run away from the field, as the Repsol guys occasionally do. Usually, Lorenzo has to stalk people and run them down, and this year he’s doing it with someone breathing down his own neck.
Recent History in France
The 2009 French Grand Prix was a comedy of weather-related errors in which Fiat Yamaha’s Lorenzo was eventually joined on the podium by one Marco Melandri and Dani Pedrosa, marking the last time a Kawasaki-powered machine stood on a MotoGP podium. 2009 was Rossi’s last championship season, but Le Mans that year was Lorenzo’s One Shining Moment, as he won the flag-to-flag affair going away, while Rossi finished two laps down as a series of mishaps and mis-calculations ruined his day.
In 2010 it was Lorenzo again, joined onstage by Rossi and Dovizioso. Stoner’s early crash left the door open for the Spaniard. At the end of the day Lorenzo led the Ducati chieftain by 59 points, and Stoner’s dream of a title in 2010 lay in ruins.
Finally, last year, Stoner took his first career win at Le Mans with an easy stroll past Dovizioso and Rossi. This was the race in which the late Marco Simoncelli undercut Pedrosa in one of the lefthanders and sent him flying off his bike and out of the 2011 championship race. For Rossi, last year’s French Grand Prix podium would be the high water mark in a brutal inaugural season with Ducati. Lorenzo’s fourth place finish confirmed he would be unlikely to repeat as world champion.
For Ben Spies, the Future is Now
Two elevens and an eight. Loris Capirossi-type numbers. Practically CRT numbers. From the number two rider on the factory Yamaha team. A default top five pick in every round last season, can’t get out of his own way in 2012. If I had an opportunity to interview Ben, I would of course ask him, “WTF is UP, brother?” or something to that effect. The thing is, at this point it doesn’t matter what’s up. All that matters is that Spies find some settings he likes and goes out and gets all up in Dovizioso and Crutchlow’s Tech3 grilles. That he qualify on the front row. That he challenge for a podium or two.
A number of younger riders in recent years had solid rookie seasons only to flame out completely in their sophomore seasons (Mika Kallio comes to mind.) Never thought Ben Spies might be one of them. All of which makes the ambitious Tech3 garage the hottest joint in town.
Early Season Surprises
Thus far in 2012 there’ve been a few lovely surprises and several ugly ones. Crutchlow and Dovizioso, of course, lead the way in the “lovely” category, while Spies stands at the head of the “ugly” class. Another nice surprise so far has been the outstanding effort of Stefan Bradl on the LCR Honda. Last year, Toni Elias was unable to get anything out of the satellite RC212V. Bradl, coming up from Moto2, has made the adjustment look easy. Kudos to LCR for staying with a MotoGP program despite the troubles from last year.
And kudos, as well, to Alvaro Bautista, who appears to be getting about as much out of the Gresini RC213V as can be expected after two years on the late Rizla Suzuki. Not sure many people are holding their breath over the prospect of Suzuki getting back into premier class racing in 2014.
In the CRT division, Aleix Espargaro holds a slim lead over Power Electronics Aspar teammate Randy de Puniet, while NGM Mobile’s Colin Edwards takes time off following collarbone surgery. Edwards’ team originally announced that Alex de Angelis, who labors for them in Moto2, would sit in for the Texan this week at a test in Estoril, making him a logical choice to race in Edwards’ place. Apparently, the Powers that Be took another look at the video of de Angelis crashing in practice at Jerez in 2010 and decided instead to invite Chris Vermeulen back for a cameo appearance. Crikey.
The season being endured by James Ellison is painful to watch, as he is now fighting off challenges from owner Paul Bird about bringing in wildcard riders to ride his bike for him! Shane Byrne indeed.
A Glance Ahead – Rounds 5 through 9
A nice, orderly progression awaits the riders from now until mid-June. Catalunya rolls around in two weeks, followed by Silverstone two weeks after that. The riders then take the first of several mid-season holidays, not returning to action until June 30 at Assen. So much for the nice, orderly progression.
The week following Assen, the paddock descends upon the Sachsenring for the annual German Grand Prix. Then, one week later, the action moves to Mugello for the Italian GP. Three races in three weeks, after which the season will be half over. Any riders serious about taking home some hardware at the end of the year ought not to crash out at Assen and chance missing three races. In life, as my mother told me on countless occasions, timing is everything.
The forecast for the greater Le Mans area this weekend calls for showers in the area all three days, with the best chance of rain coming on Sunday. Temps will be cool, in the 60s. Under these conditions last year, in warm-ups, we would have been seeing riders sailing high side on cold tires. As long as we’re in the kudos business this week, let’s save a few for Bridgestone Motorsports, as their 2012 tires are proving much safer during the damp, chilly early-season rounds.
Of course, don’t be surprised if that last casual observation comes back to haunt me on Sunday. It’s EXACTLY the type of thought you regret putting into words.
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