Round 5 of the 2016 MotoGP championship brings those daring young men on their wingleted machines to the French countryside for the Monster Energy Grand Prix de France. The Loire river valley is wine country and, as most folks know, you need rain and mild temperatures to grow a decent sauvignon blanc. What’s good for the grapes is, unfortunately, bad for motorcycle racing. Without a clue who might win Sunday’s race, it’s a safe bet that the Rain Gods will play a part in the outcome.
Before we start, let’s address this writer’s predictions concerning Round 4 in Jerez. I suggested that Valentino Rossi might be under-motivated, being handsomely contracted through the end of 2018, and that Jorge Lorenzo could be inclined to hold back in order to punish Yamaha for lovin’ on Vale so much that he jumped ship to Ducati for the next two seasons. Accordingly, the two finished one-two in a Yamaha rout. We’ll just set all that on a side burner to simmer for a while; I’m much better at discussing past events than predicting future ones.
Recent History at Le Mans
Early in 2013, Dani Pedrosa was having the best premier class season of his career. Starting the year with a 4th in Qatar, he chased race winner and rookie Repsol Honda teammate Marc Marquez all over the joint in Austin before settling for second. He followed that up with a decisive win in Jerez. Somehow, in a steady downpour, he outran Cal Crutchlow and Marquez to the flag at Le Mans, extending his lead for the year. He held this lead until a heavy crash in practice at Round 8 in Germany, clearing the way for Marquez to eventually take the title. At Le Mans that year, Lorenzo and Rossi floundered, so to speak, ultimately finishing seventh and 12th, respectively.
The 2014 French Grand Prix was a dry race, during The Year of Marc Marquez. The defending champion continued his historic run of poles and wins in France, although the top six finishers – Marquez, Rossi, Alvaro Bautista, Pol Espargaro, Pedrosa and Lorenzo – were separated by a mere seven seconds. Bautista, on the Gresini Honda, worked Tech 3 Yamaha pilot Pol Espargaro by 6/10ths at the finish to deprive Herve Poncharal’s French team of what would have been an oh-so-sweet podium at their home race.
Last year, on a perfect afternoon, Movistar Yamaha delivered a clear message to the grid, notably Marquez: anyone contemplating, say, a third world championship in 2015 would need to go through The Bruise Brothers. Lorenzo, in a replay of his win in Jerez two weeks earlier, got away early and was never challenged on the way to his 35th career win in MotoGP. Rossi had to slice his way through several Andreas on Ducatis to secure his ninth podium in a row and 13th out of 14 dating back to 2014. It was a forgettable Sunday for team Repsol Honda, as Marquez crossed the line fourth, while Pedrosa, just back from radical arm pump surgery, hung on to finish 16th.
Les Étrangers en France
Of the three current Aliens – Pedrosa’s membership status is under double secret probation – Lorenzo has enjoyed the most success at Le Mans. Since his promotion to the premier class in 2008 he has won four of his eight starts at the Bugatti Circuit, including last year. Marquez, with eight starts across three classes (the first when he was 15) has stood on the top step twice, in 2011 (Moto2) and 2014. Valentino Rossi, with 16 MotoGP starts at Le Mans, has tasted victory only three times here, the most recent in 2008. If history is a teacher, one would be reasonable to expect Lorenzo, Marquez and Rossi to appear on Sunday’s podium. Pedrosa could upgrade his Alien status with a podium finish, especially if he were to knock one of the Yamahas off. Most especially if that Yamaha bore #46.
The Return of the Tranches
A tranche, as some of you will recall, is just a fancy word for stratum which, itself, is just a fancy word for a level or layer in a stack of widgets, which is a word economists use in place of “whatever.” Back in the day, I used to assert that the grid would divide itself into rather discreet tranches based upon rider performance and character, or lack thereof in the case of Alvaro Bautista. For the past few seasons it was difficult to discern natural breaks in the standings. Not so after four rounds in 2016:
- Tranche One: Marquez, Lorenzo and Rossi. The crème de la crème.
- Tranche Two: Pedrosa, Pol Espargaro (Tech 3), and Team Suzuki Ecstar, Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales. Vinales figures to jump up sometime in the next year or two.
- Tranche Three: Four Ducati pilots – Hector Barbera, Eugene Laverty, and the two Andreas, plus Tech 3 Yamaha slacker Bradley Smith. Barbera and Laverty are punching above their weight, while Iannone and Dovizioso actually belong in Tranche Two, where they would reside were it not for bad luck (Dovizioso) and oversized testicles (Iannone). Smith, so far this season, is making KTM as nervous as Mike Tyson in a spelling bee about having tapped him for the next two years.
- Tranche Four: Stefan Bradl (Gresini Aprilia), Scott Redding (Pramac Ducati), Bautista (Gresini) and Tito Rabat (Marc VDS Honda). Redding and Rabat are underachieving while heading up; Bradl and Bautista are overachieving while heading down. Imagine how these standings would look had Gigi Dall’Igna stayed at Aprilia.
- Tranche Five: Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), Loris Baz (Avintia Ducati), Yonny Hernandez (Avintia) and Jack Miller (Marc VDS). These four just can’t get arrested. Crutchlow, especially, has top ten talent and a world of excuses to go along with his five (5) points for 2016. Baz has potential but must overcome a height problem, a tall order indeed. Yonny appears to have peaked a year or two ago, while Miller really has no business in the premier class at this point in his career.
Pramac Ducati hard luck case Danilo Petrucci is, as yet, untranched, having missed the entire season with injuries. He is slated to return this week and is said to be anxious to claim a spot in Tranche Two. Readers are encouraged to feign outrage over the tranching (?) of their favorite riders in the Comments section below.
What to Expect This Weekend
Wine in cardboard boxes and goatskins. Rain at least one day. Breathtaking brolly girls. Lorenzo and Marquez in a cage match, with Rossi and Pedrosa tangling in the undercard. Dovizioso on the podium if it rains on Sunday. Herve Poncharal playing the “home race” card. Michelin people everywhere, the dopey anachronistic Bib getting seriously outdrawn by the paddock gals.
People riding scooters smoking Gauloises. Heavy security – guys in shorts and Jimmy Buffet t-shirts wearing black steel-toed boots, with machine pistols sticking out of their waistbands. And at least one trio of Brits in those ridiculous head-to-toe Union Jack outfits, drunk out of their gourds, thinking they had bought tickets to a football match in Germany.
As of Monday evening, the weather looks promising, partly cloudy with temps in the 70’s and a slight chance of rain. Rain is forecast for Monday and Tuesday; if it arrives early, Jorge Lorenzo will not win the race. The Rain Gods, currently working overtime in the U.S., have yet to turn their attention to France. If and when they do, anything can happen.
The race goes off early Sunday morning in the states. We’ll have results and analysis right here later in the day.