MotoGP 2011 Le Mans Preview

Lorenzo leads the procession to the Grand Prix de France

MotoGP correspondent Bruce Allen previews the Le Mansround of the 2011 season. Check back on Monday for the full report of the French Grand Prix.

The run-up to this week’s French Grand Prix (since about last November) has been all about the drama surrounding the Repsol Honda and Factory Ducati teams. It started with a round of multinational musical chairs in which Australian Casey Stoner left his Italian team to join the Spaniard and Italian on the Honda team, and Valentino Rossi ditched his Japanese partners to form the All-Italian Dream Team at Ducati. Six months of Honda vs. Ducati angst, and it’s Yamaha’s Lorenzo quietly leading the pack, on the road to one of his favorite venues.

Heading into the recently completed test in Estoril, expectations were highest for Team Ducati, as it has been searching desperately for answers to the handling problems that are frustrating Il Medico. (Having their boys occupying the fourth and fifth spots in the world just doesn’t cut it in Bologna.) Despite, or perhaps because of, their elevated expectations, the Estoril test was another disappointment for the Italian contingent, as Rossi could only manage fifth, while Nicky Hayden was loitering back in ninth position. Meanwhile, four riders managed to get under 1’37, including Super Soph Marco Simoncelli, Lorenzo, Stoner and Bodacious Brit Cal Crutchlow on a satellite Yamaha.

Jorge Lorenzo

Recent History in France

The 2010 French Grand Prix was a study in contrasts. For Lorenzo, it was the best of times, as he dominated teammate Rossi and the field for his second win of the young season. It was the worst of times for Stoner, who saw pre-season promise turn to ashes; having fallen in Qatar, he crashed out again in France, effectively ending his challenge for the 2010 title. Lorenzo was joined by Rossi and Repsol Honda’s Andrea Dovizioso on the podium.

Valentino Rossi Le Mans 2009

The 2009 edition of the French round was memorable for being perhaps the worst day of Valentino Rossi’s brilliant career. In a race that started wet and finished dry, Rossi returned to the garage on Lap Four to trade his wet bike for dry. On cold slicks, he immediately went lowside, returned to the pits again, traded his (bent) dry bike for his original wet bike, got a speeding ticket exiting pit row, took his penalty like a man, turned a few relatively slow laps, pitted yet again, traded back his wet bike for his now-repaired dry bike, returned to the track one more time, and finished 16th. That day, too, belonged to Lorenzo, with Marco Melandri and Pedrosa joining him on the rostrum.

2011’s Most Pleasant Surprises

By far, the most surprising positive performances of this young season have been turned in by Gresini San Carlo Honda’s Marco “Weird Al” Simoncelli. While everyone’s attention has been focused on the big four Aliens, Simoncelli has been surprisingly competitive. In Qatar, he qualified fourth and finished fifth. At Jerez, he qualified fifth and crashed out on Lap 12 while leading the race. In Portugal, he was on fire all weekend and started on the front row, but crashed early fighting for the lead.

Having finished his rookie campaign in eighth position, Simoncelli has made remarkable strides in his sophomore season. Teammate Hiro Aoyama has had a fine start to his 2011 campaign, and, in seventh position, is the highest-ranked non-factory rider in the field.

Hiroshi Aoyama Nicky Hayden Ben Spies

Rookie Cal Crutchlow, on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, sits directly behind Aoyama in the standings, and finished the recent Estoril test in fourth place on the timesheets. And fellow rookie Karel Abraham, taking flack from all quarters over having “earned” a ride on daddy’s Ducati, sits respectably in 11th position for the year despite having crashed at Estoril. If the season were to end today, both Crutchlow and Abraham could easily declare 2011 a rousing success.

2011’s Biggest Disappointments

Simoncelli has, since last November, constantly been at or near the top of every timesheet MotoGP has, other than those compiled on race days. That he has earned only 11 points year-to-date says more about his style than his ability. Unfortunately, it will probably take a serious crash to teach the Italian that he cannot continue to push his tires past their adhesive limits. One could argue that Jorge Lorenzo might have challenged Rossi for the 2009 title had he been slightly more committed to keeping his bike upright than to sweeping up every possible point in sight. Four DNFs spelled doom for his 2009 campaign. In 2010, he kept the shiny side up all season long, and amassed the most points in premier class history. Simoncelli still has some growing up to do.

Marco Simoncelli

Joining Simoncelli in the “bust” column are Yamaha Factory Stud Ben Spies and Toni Elias, who returned from a one year sentence in Moto2 to run with the big dogs again this year. Spies, the 2010 Rookie of the Year, claimed a seat on the factory Yamaha team for his second premier class season and has flopped loudly thus far. After a ho-hum sixth in Qatar, he crashed out of an almost certain podium in Jerez, and then had technical problems in Portugal when a crew member left some kind of clamp attached to the bike at the start of the race, the high octane equivalent of a surgeon leaving a glove inside the patient. Not good, very not good in a short season.

Elias, risen from the dead career-wise, appears likely to return from whence he came by season’s end. Taking over for Randy de Puniet on the LCR Honda, Elias is getting nowhere near what de Puniet was able to get from the bike last year. Elias has been a Honda guy for much of his career, and can’t blame his lack of production on unfamiliarity with the bike. I criticized Fausto Gresini for dumping Elias and de Angelis after the 2009 season, but must give him props for signing Simoncelli and Aoyama, as he has assembled the toughest satellite team on the block.

Don’t Forget Dani

By virtue of his come-from-behind victory over Lorenzo at Estoril, Pedrosa has established himself as a legitimate title contender this year. Everyone, including me, figured Casey Stoner would be the Prime Mover on the three-headed Repsol factory team this season, as he was fast all winter, beginning on Day One at Valencia. What had figured to be a Lorenzo-Stoner shootout has become a Pedrosa-Lorenzo match-up, at least early on. History has shown us the folly of trying to predict the crashes and injuries that largely determine the outcome of a given racing season.

Le Mans

If someone were to ask me what I’d like to see happen in the next four or five rounds of racing, here’s what I’d say. I’d like to see someone other than Lorenzo, Stoner or Pedrosa win a race. I’d like to see Marco Simoncelli or Hiro Aoyama earn his first premier class podium, and Andrea Dovizioso take his second premier class win. I’d like to see Rossi come from behind for a dramatic win, just like the old days. I’d like to see an American win a race, something we haven’t seen since Nicky Hayden won at Assen in 2006. I’d like to see something good happen to Alvaro Bautista or Hector Barbera. I’d like to see Ducati bikes truly competitive again with the frontrunners. And I’d like to see a four way, season-long race develop for the 2011 title, with Lorenzo, Stoner, Pedrosa and perhaps Spies or Rossi or Simoncelli taking it down to the last week. As they said over and over in Office Space, one of the great flicks of all time, “That would be GREAT.”

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