Today at the 30th running of the French Grand Prix at Le Mans, youth triumphed over experience. Yamaha Top Gun Maverick Viñales withstood a classic last lap challenge brought by teammate and legend Valentino Rossi to capture Yamaha’s 500th grand prix win. The youngster ended his day on the top step of the podium, the grizzled veteran his prostrate in the gravel. Ten years ago, Rossi would have won this race. In 2017, the tide may be beginning to turn.

Maverick Viñales won his third race in five rounds this season, putting him back on top of the championship standings.

Practice and Qualifying

FP1, on a wet but drying track, provided the usual comedic results found in wet sessions, with Jack Miller over a second clear of Marc Marquez and Johann Zarco, with the Espargaro brothers, Pol on the KTM and Aleix on the Aprilia, finishing dead last together, not having it. FP2, wetter yet, saw Andrea Dovizioso put his Ducati in front of Marquez and Danilo Petrucci, another mudder. FP3, still soggy, was topped by Scott Redding, Cal Crutchlow and Miller again. FP4 was dry – Viñales, Dani Pedrosa, Rossi, and Zarco – but by then the lambs and goats had been separated. That things were out of kilter was exemplified by Redding leading the Q2 lambs.

Scott Redding was a surprise name on top of the time sheets after FP3.

The goats relegated to Q1 included some recognizable names – Tech 3 rookies Zarco and Jonas Folger, plus Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dovizioso. Dovizioso led Zarco into Q2 after an exhilarating 15 minutes, with the Frenchman climbing into second place at the tail end of the session. But both KTM bikes – Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro – had already passed straight into Q2, along with a few other surprises – Karel Abraham and Loris Baz among them. Go KTM. Go GP15s.

When the dust and fumes cleared after Q2, we were left with an all-Yamaha front row of Viñales, Rossi, and Zarco, followed by Crutchlow, Marquez and Dovizioso. The announcers were so caught up in homeboy Zarco’s last lap push for the front row – crowd going mental – it barely registered, to me anyway, that Viñales had taken his second pole of the season, his first since Qatar.

Johann Zarco was fast all weekend, qualifying on the front row and earning his first career MotoGP podium. Doing it all on his (and his Tech3 Yamaha team’s) home race made it that much sweeter for the Frenchman.

Meanwhile, Pedrosa and Lorenzo, both having podiumed at Jerez two weeks ago, found themselves starting 13th and 16th, respectively, having failed to pass through Q1. The cool temperatures, one believes, hindered Pedrosa, who always has trouble heating up his front tire. The possibility that it was raining somewhere in France appeared to affect Lorenzo, whom one reader has described as suffering from aquaphobia, not to mention bipolar disorder, gobs of self-recrimination, and in need of a full reset. His ride today, from 16th to 6th was respectable, his Friday and Saturday not so much.

The Race – A Yamaha Cakewalk. Almost.

Maverick Viñales, Johann Zarco and Valentino Rossi put up an impressive display for Yamaha at the front of the Le Mans Grand Prix.

Zarco, starting from the middle of the front row, put his head down at the start and, entering the second turn, had taken the lead, with Viñales, Rossi, and Marquez comprising the front group. It appeared that Marquez was working harder than the Yamahas and that Viñales and Rossi were keeping their powder dry, waiting for their fuel loads to drop before taking on the rookie. On Lap 7, Viñales went through cleanly on Zarco while Marquez began dogging Rossi.

A second group had formed up consisting of LCR Honda hooligan Crutchlow, factory Ducati #1 Dovizioso, and Repsol Honda #2 Pedrosa who, having started 13th, was busily slicing his way through the field. Pedrosa pushed his way past Crutchlow and into 5th place by Lap 15, turning his attention to teammate Marquez. Suddenly, on Lap 17, under pressure from Pedrosa and with the Yamahas getting away, Marquez lost the front in Turn 3 (for the third time in two days). His two DNFs in the first five rounds have a decidedly 2015 flavor to them.

After scoring back-to-back podium finishes, Marc Marquez had his second DNF of the season, dropping him to fourth overall on the season.

Rossi went through Zarco on Lap 23 and unsurprisingly began lining up Viñales. Thus began five laps of primo quality racing, as the veteran and the wünderkind squared off, one on one, for bragging rights. Rossi went through into the lead on Lap 26, a scene we’ve witnessed scores of times over the years. But Viñales took it back as Rossi ran wide midway through the last lap, trying to block Viñales, then laid his M1 down in a gentle low side late in the lap trying to overtake him yet again.

Valentino Rossi was not interested in finishing second today. It was his for the asking, and he politely refused. Upon his departure from the racing surface, Zarco got promoted to a silver while Pedrosa suddenly found himself on the podium, through almost no fault of his own. One more time, class: “In order to finish first…”

Valentino Rossi had a good race up until the final lap when he crashed out trying to chase down his teammate. It’ll be interesting to see at the end of the season how much of a difference finishing second at Le Mans would affect the final standings.

Those of you who recall my prediction that Aleix Espargaro would put his Aprilia on the podium today undoubtedly share my angst at seeing him parked by the side of the track, head lowered, smoke wisping from his engine. After a terrible qualifying session, he had been climbing the order all day from 18th place at the start and, to my thinking, could have easily snagged third place had his engine not given out. Just sayin’. No need for anyone to point out that he crashed out of 8th place on Lap 24.

Ranking the Bikes

The results haven’t been there yet but the fledgling KTM RC16 has shown some potential.

Sparing no expense, we here at MO have commissioned a non-scientific study ranking the overall capabilities of the various machines found on the grid. In doing so, we relied on mood more than methodology. The following rankings emerged:

  1. 2017 Yamaha M1
  2. 2016 Yamaha M1
  3. 2017 Honda RC213V
  4. 2017 Ducati GP17
  5. 2017 Suzuki GSX-RR
  6. 2017 KTM RC16
  7. 2015 Ducati GP15
  8. 2016 Honda RC213V
  9. 2017 Aprilia RS-GP
  10. 2016 Ducati GP16

Readers are encouraged to take issue with these rankings. We will re-rank the riders in our preview of the upcoming Mugello round.

Sidebars

Jack Miller is very fortunate to escape serious harm after this crash in qualifying

The fact that Jack Miller is still with us after the crash he experienced on Saturday is nothing short of a miracle. He later qualified in 11th place in the dry Q2 after dominating FP1 by a second and a half, having gambled on slicks late in the session. (I wonder if the “mudders” – Miller, Petrucci, etc. – regret having developed a reputation for riding well in the rain at 190 mph. Comparable to those guys who make a living tying themselves to the back of an enraged bull and trying to stay attached for 10 seconds after someone touches an electric prod to his nuts. That moment when you think, “Am I really doing this? Is this at all sustainable?”)

Was it my imagination, or did pretty much every satellite Ducati in the field crap out today?

Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi set several lap records through the race.

Finally. The grippy new racing surface was supposed to lower qualifying times by a second or two. Last year Lorenzo qualified at 1’31.975. This year, on a dry, perhaps somewhat dirty track, Viñales qualified at 1’31.994. But at the end of the 28-lap race on medium tires, Viñales and Rossi were trading lap records every time around. Viñales set the newest lap record on the last lap of the race. So, the new asphalt appears to meet the ideal spec of non-abrasive with good grip. And Michelin appears to have figured out Le Mans.

The Big Picture

Watching all three races today, I got the distinct impression that MotoGP is on the verge of being taken over by the ludicrously fast young riders populating Moto3 and Moto2. Viñales beats Rossi and Zarco beats Pedrosa today, and one gets the impression that leadership amongst the premier class is on its way to turning over. The Rossis, Pedrosas and Lorenzos seem to be in jeopardy of being pushed off center stage by names like Viñales, Zarco, Bagnaia, Morbidelli, Mir and Fenati, among others.

Until you look at the 2017 standings and see Dani Pedrosa and Vale Rossi grazing near the top of the food chain. Veteran riders occupy four of the top seven spots for the year, five if you count Marquez. Maverick Viñales has put himself 17 points clear of his nearest competitor as the season turns toward Mugello. He will have to keep eating his Wheaties if he intends to stay there.

Several riders showed their support for Nicky Hayden this weekend. Everyone is hoping for good news for the Kentucky Kid.