The record books will show that Yamaha defector Jorge Lorenzo won today’s French Grand Prix by 10 seconds over teammate and rival Valentino Rossi. The mainstream racing media will be busy slavering over young Maverick Vinales, who put a Suzuki on the podium for the first time since Loris Capirossi did so at Brno in 2008. The real story of today’s race, however, was the eight riders, including at least three contenders, who crashed out as if the race had been run in the wet, marking the first time the Rain Gods have ruined a race on a clear sunny day.
Q2 on Saturday was a study in contrasts. Defending world champion Lorenzo lay down a 1:32.2 early in the session, which would have sufficed to put him on his first ever premier class pole at Le Mans, in front of Marc Marquez. Later, he pitted, changed the rear tire, trimmed an annoying hangnail, then went back out and casually posted a 1:31.975, becoming the first rider ever to crack the 1:32 barrier at the Bugatti Circuit on two wheels. Meanwhile, Dani Pedrosa, suddenly the “presumptive” #2 rider on the factory Yamaha team for the next two years, lost the front entering the Dunlop Chicane, narrowly avoided getting creamed by several following riders, and ended the session sucking canal water in 11th place. Rossi, for his part, struggled through a flashback to 2015 while securing 7th, mired on the third row on a narrow track not terribly conducive to overtaking, as if that made any difference to the Italian icon.
Lorenzo’s lap begs the question: What’s all the fuss about the standard ECU? If qualifying lap times were two seconds slower than last year, opponents might have an argument. From here, it doesn’t appear to make any difference in qualifying. That it makes things more difficult at race distance is somewhat more credible.
As expected, when the lights went out, Lorenzo took the hole shot, assumed the lead, withstood a minor early threat from the factory Ducatis, and ran away from the field. My notes on Lap 2: “race over.” Fans were thus reduced to enduring a battle for second place, comparable to spending 45 minutes to see who would lose The Super Bowl. For the record, the early first group was comprised of Lorenzo, Ducati teammates Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone, Marquez and Pol Espargaro on the Tech 3 Yamaha, who got swallowed up by Rossi on Lap 3.
Marquez appeared to be struggling, while Rossi was recovering from a poor start. Iannone went through on Dovizioso on Lap 6, and it appeared Dovi was ready to strike back until he perhaps remembered the newly issued and oppressive team rule prohibiting such a move until the next lap. Fortunately for him, Iannone, who seems to be developing some kind of adversarial relationship with success, crashed unassisted out of second place on the Lap 7 in a replay of his bonehead move in the season opener in Qatar. The hapless Scott Redding’s Pramac Ducati retired at about the same time when his engine, in his words, “simply stopped.”
Iannone’s crash moved Marquez up to 3rd and Rossi to 4th. On Lap 8, Cal Crutchlow crashed out of Tranche 5, as did Tito Rabat. By now, Lorenzo’s lead over Dovizioso was 1.5 seconds. Yonny Hernandez, working his way out of a good job, crashed on Lap 9. On Lap 12 my only note was “here comes Rossi.” Vale went through on Marquez at Garage Vert on Lap 13 and passed Dovizioso one lap later to take over 2nd place, with Lorenzo barely visible in the distance.
Marquez was losing great gobs of yardage to Lorenzo and Rossi exiting the corners, forcing him to brake late and hard entering the turns and putting a big load on his front tire. My sole note on Lap 15: “Marquez going down.” Sure enough, on Lap 16, both he and Dovizioso went down simultaneously at the Museum Corner. The remarkable visual reminded me of an old James Bond movie in which his tricked-out Aston Martin, at the mere touch of a button, sprayed oil on the road, causing the bad guys chasing him on motorcycles to slide off into the woods. The net effect of the Lap 16 double dip was to elevate Vinales to third place, from which he would hold off Pedrosa. Otherwise, aside from Jack Miller’s customary crash on Lap 18 and Bradley Smith’s unfortunate off on Lap 20, that was that.
So. Someone please tell me the last time a race run under perfect conditions featured eight riders crashing out, not counting Redding’s retirement. At the post-race press conference, Lorenzo said it was an ongoing issue with the Michelins, with riders not being fully under control at any time on the track. Rossi said it was just racing. Vinales said it was having less control on the brakes with a full fuel load. I wasn’t asked, but my belief is that the Rain Gods planted the expectation of a wet track in the riders’ heads and it stuck. Having gone out on slicks, the results were almost predictable.
The latest rumors in the media suggest that Vinales, having played too hard in his negotiations with Yamaha, has been turned away in favor of… Dani Pedrosa? It may be that today’s podium will cause Yamaha to up the ante again, but, if not, it seems Yamaha has taken a very short term, conservative and dull approach to filling Lorenzo’s seat. Yes, Dani is still a good rider; that his best days are behind him is pretty clear. Yes, he will be a threat to podium most weekends, with perhaps a few wins left in him, but he will not win a title. Instead of taking a bold step, choosing a young gun, a Vinales or Rins, to serve as Rossi’s wingman and #2, primed to take over the top spot in 2019, Yamaha appears to have kicked the can down the road.
If Iannone, Dovizioso and Marquez had not collapsed mentally today, Pedrosa would have finished seventh. Just sayin’.
If Pedrosa signs with Yamaha, it raises a larger question concerning who will take over the #2 seat at Repsol Honda. Iannone would have been the logical choice last year, but has proven himself thoroughly unpredictable, a personality trait not highly prized in Japanese culture. Marquez would object to Alex Rins, and Rins might not be enamored of the idea of wrestling with the RC213V in its current state. Pol Espargaro could be a good candidate, except he’s always been a Yamaha guy. (Why Yamaha has not given Pol more consideration is a mystery.) And any reader who suggests that Cal Crutchlow is the obvious choice should immediately seek therapy. Five points in five rounds; the scoreboard doesn’t lie. Honda might as well promote Alex Marquez, who himself has managed four crashes and five points in five rounds in Moto2.
A recent Facebook meme, directed at women, said, “Sure, it’s all fun and games until your jeans don’t fit anymore.” The same could be said for the MotoGP calendar, with Mugello, Catalunya, Assen and The Sachsenring looming. Two weeks from now the season will be a third gone, and the standings at the top are as tight as wallpaper. The Movistar Yamaha team loves Mugello; I’m not sure Marquez loves any circuit other than Austin right now. The factory Ducati team will be looking for something, anything good to happen at their home crib in a season racked by disappointment and bad luck. Team Suzuki Ecstar, brimming with optimism, will want to build upon their recent success.
We have arrived at the heart of the 2016 MotoGP calendar. The silly season will be heating up, too, with Tech 3 Yamaha having this week signed Jonas Folger from Moto2. (Folger celebrated his promotion by crashing four times at Le Mans, providing a reasonable impression of Toni Elias at his most lethal.) Even on days like today, when the race was a snooze, there’s always something to argue about in MotoGP.
|2016 MotoGP Le Mans Results|
|1||Jorge Lorenzo||Movistar Yamaha||–|
|2||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||+10.654|
|3||Maverick Vinales||Suzuki Ecstar||+14.177|
|4||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||+18.719|
|5||Pol Espargaro||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+24.931|
|6||Aleix Espargaro||Suzuki Ecstar||+32.921|
|7||Danilo Petrucci||Octo Pramac Yaknich Ducati||+38.251|
|8||Hector Barbera||Avintia Racing||+38.504|
|9||Alvaro Bautista||Aprilia Gresini||+48.536|
|10||Stefan Bradl||Aprilia Gresini||+54.502|
|11||Eugene Laverty||Aspar Ducati||+1:02.677|
|12||Loris Baz||Avintia Ducati||+1:07.658|
|13||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||+1 Lap|
|–||Bradley Smith||Monster Yamaha Tech3||9 Laps|
|–||Jack Miller||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda||11 Laps|
|–||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Corse||13 Laps|
|–||Andrea Iannone||Ducati||17 Laps|
|–||Tito Rabat||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda||21 Laps|
|–||Cal Crutchlow||LCR Honda||22 Laps|
|–||Yonny Hernandez||Aspar Ducati||22 Laps|
|–||Scott Redding||Octo Pramac Yaknich Ducati||23 Laps|
|2016 MotoGP Top Ten Standings After 5 Rounds|