There's an old saying in racing: "When the flag drops, the production of bovine fecal matter stops." Though the phrase "production of bovine fecal matter" is usually replaced by something a good deal more succinct, colorful, and likely to get blocked by some internet filters. So once the bikes rolled out onto the track for a full day of timed practice, the bellow of MotoGP bikes finally silenced the complaining that had been going on on all sides since the bikes were rolled back into the trucks on Monday night after Estoril.
There's certainly no place to hide from the Hondas at Le Mans. HRC came to what has traditionally been regarded as a Yamaha track and has wiped the floor with the opposition. On Friday morning, the four factory Hondas (three Repsols and one San Carlo Gresini) took the top four slots on the timesheets, the nearest non-Honda (the factory Yamaha of Jorge Lorenzo) over a second behind fastest man Casey Stoner. In the afternoon, Marlboro Ducati's Nicky Hayden helped disrupt the party, snagging 4th ahead of Lorenzo, demoting Repsol Honda's Andrea Dovizioso down to 6th. The Ducati and the Yamaha even closed the gap on the top Honda, from over a second to just under nine-tenths of a second.
That's still a huge gap to fill, and a lot of time to find, and championship leader Jorge Lorenzo is growing increasingly desperate at the gap between himself and the Hondas. He can find another two tenths in his riding, by riding at the absolute limit. But that still leaves another six tenths to close on Stoner's pace, and Lorenzo says he needs some help from Yamaha to make that happen. The engine still does not have the power of the Hondas, and more horses won't be on their way until Barcelona - or more likely, Silverstone or Assen - when the current brace of engines in use in the factory Yamahas have been shelved for the next brace of motors to be brought into the allocation.
The Yamahas, Lorenzo claims, are exactly where they were in 2010, while Honda has made a giant leap forward. Looking at the timesheets, it isn't quite that rosy: the Yamaha is slower than it was last year, while the Hondas are exactly where they were last year. With one exception of course, that pesky Australian.
In reality, as American journalist Dennis Noyes pointed out, the natural order of 2011 has merely been restored. What we are seeing is the same pattern we saw before and during Qatar, with Casey Stoner blitzing the field, and Jorge Lorenzo only keeping pace thanks to riding the wheels off his Yamaha, and aided by Dani Pedrosa's shoulder injury. Here, too, Pedrosa's shoulder is playing a role, though still a minor one, the Spaniard still suffering muscle spasms in the shoulder he was operated on after Jerez. In the last year of the 800s, Honda have finally built the bike that they should have built back in 2007, when they got the rule change they were after. And they did so by building a typical Honda: powerful, precise, and easy to ride, just as they did throughout the four-stroke era.
Their one weakness may be fuel consumption, gasoline bellwether Marco Simoncelli sounding the alarm over the amount of fuel the Honda is using to go so fast. The stop-and-go nature of Le Mans means the bikes spend a lot of time with the gas wide open at low speeds, accelerating out of first- and second-gear hairpins onto the straights. Come race day, HRC may be tempted to dial it back a notch or two, to ensure that the bikes make it home rather than die on the last lap. Given Stoner's public statements in the past over using race fuel maps during practice, to ensure they can repeat their practice pace in the race, that may turn out to be false hope dawning for Honda's rivals.
Over at Ducati, the Ducati is being a Ducati: fickle, unpredictable, fast if you get it just right, slow if you don't. Nicky Hayden booked real progress at Le Mans, snagging the 4th fastest time in the afternoon, but Valentino Rossi struggled at the circuit. The new chassis which showed so much improvement at Estoril is barely better than the old one at Le Mans. Rossi still has little feeling from the front end, with pumping at the rear now adding to his woes. The only signal of better times is that a change to the rear which the team tried at the end of practice seemed to show some definite improvement, but Rossi could only put a couple of laps in on the new setup, leaving not enough time to gauge the extent by which the bike had got better.
Rossi's biggest problem is corner entry. The dreaded understeer is still there, as is the lack of feedback from the front, but the worst part appears to be the lack of response to setup changes. The Ducati's sweet spot is still just a little wider than a tightrope at a Las Vegas show, and like the tightrope, if you miss it then disaster beckons. Rossi, crew chief Jerry Burgess and Ducati's chief designer Filippo Preziosi all have a mountain of work still to do until their aim of making the Desmosedici easier to ride for everyone, not just Rossi, has been achieved.
In Moto2 and 125, the dominance of the two championship leaders continues. In the 125cc class, Nico Terol's latest trick appears to be pretending to be off the pace until the last few minutes of practice, before embarrassing everyone with a blistering lap again, while Bradl only has fellow German speaker - though Germans might contest that Swiss German is related to the language they speak - Thomas Luthi for company, and he has to look back away before he sees the nose of the Interwetten machine.
At least Andrea Iannone is further up the field during practice, promising much for qualifying. If the Speed Master rider could finally start from the front couple of rows on the grid, then Iannone might finally be able to give Bradl a run for his money, instead of having to fight his way through from the 5th row or worse.
The Le Mans paddock was also touched by tragedy, though one which took place earlier in the week on the way to the circuit. France-based website Bikes In The Fast Lane was the first to break the news, Mike Werner reporting that one of the Tech 3 trucks had been involved in a tragic accident, in which a biker was killed at a motorway toll booth. More news has emerged today, that the accident was caused by Guy Coulon, who was driving one of the French team's Moto2 trucks at the time. Coulon was reportedly backing up out of a toll booth, running over and killing a motorcyclist who had lined up behind the truck. In accordance with French law, Coulon has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, a practice which is common when accidents lead to a fatality. The accident is currently under investigation by the police, and according to the Motorcycle News website, the Tech 3 truck has been impounded, though Coulon has been released.
The news is a tragedy for the family of the motorcyclist killed, and a personal tragedy for Coulon. As Mike Werner points out in his article, the rules regarding motorcycles sharing toll booth lanes with trucks are a contributing factor to the tragedy. Motorcycles are hard enough to see from a car, and often invisible from something as large as a race transporter. Having them sharing lane space at toll booths would appear to open the door to accidents such as these. Our thoughts are mainly with the family of the dead man, who did not deserve this to happen. But our thoughts are also with Coulon and the Tech 3 team: being involved in a road accident is bad enough as it is, when fatalities are involved, it makes things much worse.