MotoGP: 2009 Le Mans Preview

Bienvenue à Le Mans


MotoGP correspondent Bruce Allen previews the Le Mans round of the 2009 season. Check back on Monday for the full report of the Grand Prix de France.

Stage Four of the flying circus is upon us as we make our way from southern Spain to northern France. MotoGP refers to this as The Grand Prix de France, using the same naming convention Formula One uses for their senior events. Since F1 booted France off their 2009 schedule, we can think of this weekend as THE Grand Prix, rather than A Grand Prix, or One of Several Grand Prix de France. Grand Prixes? Whatever – it’s even more confusing in French.

Since Valentino Rossi’s solid win in Jerez two weeks ago, a number of newsworthy items have crossed the wire. This is in stark contrast to most between-race weeks, where the media desperately seek something worth reporting, and end up with interviews in which riders reveal bombshells such as, “We hope to do well”, “I like this track a lot”, and “The women here are very beautiful.” Stuff like this leaves me quivering.

Valentino Rossi won in Le Mans in 2008. He's looking to do it again Sunday for his 99th career Grand Prix victory.

MotoGP gets egg on their face and restores 60 minute practice sessions

As predicted here several weeks ago, The Powers That Be reversed the ill-considered cost-saving decision made just prior to the season. The 45-minute sessions in force since Stage One have hindered several teams, and have served as a convenient excuse for all of the poor performers. The Ducatis, especially, seem terribly difficult to dial in, especially on weekends where there has been a lot of variation in weather and temperature conditions, namely EVERY weekend.

Nicky Hayden confers with his new crew chief Juan Martinez.Like this weekend. Rain cut short the first practice session just after the half-hour mark, so we’ll have to wait to see if the extra time will benefit the Ducati riders. The Desmosedicis occupy three of the bottom four spots in the championship standings, and today’s short practice session repeated the trend as Ducati riders filled four of the bottom six on the time sheet, all over a second and a half behind Casey Stoner’s best time on the Desmosedici. There’s another practice session Saturday (weather willing) and the longer times may still improve the performances of Sete Gibernau and Nicky Hayden, although nothing seems likely to help poor Niccolo Canepa, short of sugaring the gas tanks of the other riders.

Randy de Puniet heads home with Mo Mentum. Yeah, right

The good people of the LCR Honda team are doing their level best to jack up our expectations for monsieur de Puniet this week. I’m not buying. Randy was 42 seconds off the pace in Qatar, and 45 seconds off in Motegi, finishing in 10th and 11th places, respectively. He did out-duel Marco Melandri, Loris Capirossi, Colin Edwards and Andrea Dovizioso in the battle for fifth place in Jerez, and finished fourth when Lorenzo laid his bike down trying to catch Stoner. But de Puniet was not competitive with Rossi, Pedrosa, Stoner or Lorenzo in Spain. The idea that he will suddenly leap into the top tier of riders because the fans are yelling in his language doesn’t hold water.

At Le Mans in 2007 he completed eight laps. Last year he finished 9th, roughly 30 seconds off the pace set by Rossi. Ten bucks says he doesn’t finish in the top five on Sunday. As my old boss used to say, “Slow as a freshman – slow as a senior.”

Riders under pressure Nicky Hayden, James Toseland and Dani Pedrosa

Several announcements this week have turned up the heat on a number of riders, as if testing the limits of adhesion at 200 mph isn’t pressure enough. Hayden’s team made some personnel changes and brought back Juan Martinez as his new crew chief, a move the rider applauded but one which again raises expectations. In that Stoner has 54 championship points thus far this season, and Hayden has five. Nicky has to wonder if and when the Italians might make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Colin Edwards reached the podium last year in Le Mans. Can he do it again?Meanwhile, over in the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 garage, Colin Edwards is musing publicly about winning this weekend’s race, while James Toseland is doing his best not to get whacked by team owner Herve Poncharal, whose “support and encouragement of James” is lacking only the words “or else.” It’s no secret that Herve wants Ben Spies wearing his team’s colors next season, and if Toseland doesn’t start showing something – ANYTHING – very soon, his tenure is likely to be measured in weeks or perhaps months. One gets the impression that Edwards is just messing with him, too, since Colin is unlikely to see the podium himself this week, though he did manage a third-place finish last year.

Repsol’s new corporate director of sponsorship, the ultra faboo Begona Elices, gave an interview this week in which she stressed her company’s commitment to winning a MotoGP championship like, now, and in which she fell short of giving Dani Pedrosa the kind of unconditional endorsement he deserves. She also refused to rule out taking a run at signing Jorge Lorenzo at season’s end, though she said that such was “not a scenario they were currently examining.” Ahem … Pedrosa, who is still healing from injuries suffered in March, seems to be getting everything there is out of his factory Honda, giving the Yamahas and Ducatis all they can handle in every race. He surely doesn’t need this kind of lukewarm support, at all of 23 years old.

The rain is likely to return

Mudder may I?After Stages One and Two were weather-bound, it was nice not hearing about the rain in Spain, but the forecast for the weekend at Le Mans is less than promising. This could be good news for Chris Vermeulen and Rizla Suzuki. Vermeulen has a reputation as a “mudder”, one he spends not inconsiderable effort trying to shed. The last time Suzuki won a MotoGP race was in 2007 at, you guessed it, Le Mans. If I were Vermeulen, I’d pray for rain, and worry about my reputation later, after I’d climbed down from the podium. If Suzuki doesn’t start showing signs of life, their future in MotoGP could mirror that of Kawasaki, which turned off the taps this year after several seasons of being glaringly uncompetitive. In the words of the late, great Elvis, “this ain’t no game.”

Finally, a little idle pre-race chatter

After the 2007 MotoGP season, six riders failed to return for 2008. They included Alex Hofmann, Makato Tamada, Fonsi Nieto, Alex Barros, Kenny Roberts, Jr., and Carlos Checa. Four riders from last season went the way of the dodo, including Shinya Nakano, Sylvain Guintoli, Anthony West and John Hopkins. As much as we might like to think otherwise, this works out to about five riders per season who fail to make the grade. At this point, if I was a betting man, and I am, I’d guess that five riders in jeopardy of not being invited to next year’s prom are Niccolo Canepa, Yuki Takahashi, James Toseland, Sete Gibernau and Toni Elias. If you disagree, let’s hear from you.

Enjoy the race.

2009 MotoGP top five standings (after three rounds)
Pos. Rider Motorcycle Points
1st Valentino Rossi Fiat Yamaha 65
2nd Casey Stoner Ducati Marlboro 54
3rd Jorge Lorenzo Fiat Yamaha 41
4th Dani Pedrosa Repsol Honda 41
5th Andrea Dovizioso Repsol Honda 30

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