There has been much lamenting of late that the MotoGP paddock has been full of talk and not much action. There have been plenty of complaints about the dangerous riding of certain riders, and not much evidence to back the accusations up with. Well, that certainly changed at Le Mans.
But before we get to the controversy - and there was plenty of it, and this time, it was real, not artificially stirred up by the media (mea culpa) - it behooves us to talk about the race. For there was a lot of interesting data that got buried under the polemic, which may prove key for the rest of the season.
The winner was entirely predictable, though the difficulty Casey Stoner had in securing the win, at least for the first third of the race, was rather less expected. Stoner, he said, had had about as near a perfect weekend as it was possible to have, blitzing every session and going on to win the race by an obscene amount - though obviously assisted by the removal of Dani Pedrosa and Marco Simoncelli from the proceedings. The Casey Stoner we saw at Le Mans this weekend was the Casey Stoner that most pundits had backed at the start of the year, after he had dominated much of preseason testing. With the 2011 Ohlins forks now working for him, Stoner looks like being a very hard rider to catch.
But then again Dani Pedrosa did give the Australian a run for his money, at least for the first ten laps. "Dani matched my pace every time I upped it," Stoner said, "until I reached a pace I wasn't happy running at all race." Luckily, that was also the pace that Pedrosa could not match either, and the Spaniard soon dropped off the back. But given that Pedrosa is still suffering with pain in his left shoulder after surgery, it is clear that the Spaniard still has plenty of pace left in him.
Or rather, had plenty of pace. After being taken out by Marco Simoncelli (more of which later), Pedrosa heads back to Barcelona with a broken collarbone, on the right side this time. Though the break appears to be a clean one, the worst thing about this situation is that given his experience with his last collarbone break, he is deeply reluctant to have a plate fitted to fix his collarbone. That was what caused the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome that saw him losing strength and feeling in his left arm, as either the screws or the plate cut off the supply of blood to his arm while racing. A repeat of that is Pedrosa's greatest fear. It remains to be seen what he will decide to do.
Valentino Rossi put the Ducati on the podium at Le Mans, but that result needs to be viewed with caution. Rossi's podium - and the same is true for Dovizioso - was entirely down to the Simoncelli-Pedrosa situation, and otherwise, the Italian would only have finished 5th. Yet there is quite a lot of cause for hope too, though it would be unwise to get too carried away just yet. The good thing was that Rossi and his team found a setup that worked for the race, finding some rear grip that Rossi had lacked all weekend.
But the worrying thing was that they had arrived at Le Mans full of hope after the Estoril test, convinced that the new chassis and other parts were a big step in the right direction. There then followed a series of statements that sounded ominously like Casey Stoner from 2010: the team was struggling to find a setup, the bike wasn't responding as they expected, and they didn't really understand what was wrong. After looking at the data more closely on Saturday night and Sunday morning, they found a solution that apparently worked.
It is clear that the Ducati Desmosedici is still a fickle beast, responding only as and when it sees fit. But it also appears that the changes that have been made may mean that the beast has had its first obedience lesson, and may have gone from devouring its owner whole, to merely biting its hand off. Not what you want from a racing motorcycle, but a step in the right direction.
The news at Yamaha is worse. Progress has either stopped altogether or is only being made at a snail's pace, while at Honda they are moving forward like, well, like one of this year's RC212Vs. Watching Jorge Lorenzo ride was an object lesson in desperation, the reigning World Champion clinging to every position he could, until having to surrender with four laps to go. Lorenzo and his crew never really got his M1 working this weekend, and it showed. What's more, the Yamaha is still getting slaughtered on acceleration out of the corners, the Honda reigning supreme in that area.
Lorenzo did not help his cause by crashing in the morning warm up and injuring his hand. Hurting himself and trashing a bike was bad enough, but the bike caught fire and it looked like the engine exploded in a big way, potentially losing Lorenzo an engine from his allocation. Making things worse, if it had been a flag-to-flag race - a definite possibility, given the dark clouds that hovered over the circuit for much of the day - he could have been forced to take another one of the current spec of engine, as Yamaha have not yet completed work on the more powerful engine that Lorenzo has been asking for. There is a chance - albeit a small one - that Yamaha could bring a different engine to Barcelona with a bit more bite off the corners, to give him more of a chance of staying with the Hondas.
But of course all of that will be lost in the talk generated by the on-track controversy. There was plenty to choose from, caused by a whole range of incidents. First, the controversy-that-never-was: After the MotoGP race, there were claims that Valentino Rossi should have been penalized, as he is alleged to have passed Jorge Lorenzo under a waving yellow flag (for the Pedrosa crash). In the press conference (and the footage would seem to bear this out) Rossi had already passed Lorenzo in Garage Vert, and Lorenzo had merely nearly drawn level again down the back straight.
And going off on a tangent a little, it was blatantly evident just how much Rossi hates his former teammate Lorenzo from the way he raced at Le Mans. Once Rossi saw that catching Lorenzo was possible, he stepped his riding up a level, and pushed much harder than he has in previous races. Passing Lorenzo was even sweeter, as evidenced by a veiled comment at the press conference, claiming his pass on Lorenzo was "revenge for last year at Le Mans". It was revenge alright, but for more than just Le Mans.
Then there was the little contretemps during warm up, when Casey Stoner punched Randy de Puniet after De Puniet had gone onto his line. The problem was that Stoner was traveling at race speeds, while De Puniet was wandering about adjusting his brakes, and in his panic when he saw Stoner approaching at speed, De Puniet drifted over to the wrong side of the track. With a closing speed of 100mph or more, Stoner saw that the only place he had left to go was off the track and into the concrete wall that lines that side of the circuit. "When something like that happens, you feel like you're going to die for half a second," Stoner explained his actions afterwards.
Once he returned to his pits, both Stoner and De Puniet were called to race direction, where Stoner received a fine of 5000 euros. De Puniet went unpunished, though the respected Italian publication GPOne.com felt that it was De Puniet who should have been fined in this case. The problem, Stoner explained, was that this sort of thing happened regularly, and that riders needed to be aware that they were endangering riders on fast laps while they are out there cruising.
But both Stoner and De Puniet had apologized to one another, De Puniet recognizing that he had made a bad mistake, Stoner that he had overreacted to the situation in the heat of the moment. However, punching the only Frenchman in MotoGP at his home race did little to endear Stoner to the home fans.
The real controversy, of course, was in the passing, and particularly in the pass that Simoncelli attempted on Dani Pedrosa. What happened was simple: Simoncelli had caught Pedrosa, and had snuck past him at Garage Vert. In passing Pedrosa, he had sacrificed drive out of the corner, and Pedrosa was back in front along the back straight. Arriving at the Chemin aux Boeufs esses, Simoncelli, on the outside of Pedrosa, braked later than Pedrosa and cut across the Spaniard's bows, leaving him nowhere to go.
Both men were at the absolute limit, and Pedrosa had basically two options: brake, stand the bike up and probably crash on his own; or hold his own, and lowside, taking both Simoncelli and himself out in the process. Pedrosa, being the gentleman that he is, took the polite option, standing the bike up and clipping Simoncelli's back wheel, crashing in the process and fracturing his collarbone. Simoncelli was called in for a ride-through by race direction, and ended up off the podium.
Opinion on the justness of the punishment was divided between the media and the current crop of riders. Strangely, it was the media who though that the ride-through was excessive, while all of the MotoGP riders - including hardened veterans like Colin Edwards - felt that Simoncelli's pass was dangerous, and a punishment was appropriate. Even Simoncelli's great defender in the paddock, his friend Valentino Rossi, said Simoncelli's move had been "too hard, especially because he doesn't leave any space for Dani." Even Hector Barbera - hardly a paragon of virtue when it comes to wild and reckless passes - condemned Simoncelli's move.
I had a chance to speak at length with Moto2 rider Kenny Noyes, and he explained the problem with Simoncelli's pass. When you pass up the inside, the other rider has an escape route, Noyes said, but round the outside, that's much more difficult. If you make a pass round the outside, you make the actual pass on the exit of the corner, where the rider you are passing has options to change his line. Closing the door on the way in and chopping off their front wheel is unacceptable, mainly because it's also the best way to ensure both riders will crash.
But Simoncelli's biggest crime, according to Noyes - and most of the other experienced riders - was that his dangerous pass was completely unnecessary at that point. Simoncelli had run Pedrosa down fairly efficiently, and it was only a matter of time before he was passed and escaped. Running that close to Pedrosa down the back straight meant Simoncelli could easily have passed Pedrosa at the next corner, the right hander of the esses that form the Chemin aux Boeufs. Even if he had backed off there, Pedrosa would not have lasted another lap, given the fact that Simoncelli was so much faster.
Whether a ride-through penalty is the appropriate punishment or not is another matter altogether, but here, Race Direction are caught between a rock and a hard place. The problem with a ride-through is that it's irreversible, once issued, the rider is left out of contention. However, theoretically, issuing a time penalty would allow Simoncelli to keep racing, and if he had caught Casey Stoner and taken Stoner out as well, it would have created a whole new level of controversy. The scenario is unlikely, but illustrates the difficulty of making the decision.
Of course, many felt that Simoncelli was being singled out after all the talk at Estoril and Le Mans that the Italian is a dangerous rider. Others, and more specifically Jorge Lorenzo, took this as justification for the accusations they had made previously.
Lorenzo played a double role in this situation, however, the Spaniard having put a very tough move on Dovizioso at the start of the second lap. Lorenzo got in hot inside Dovizioso and the two nearly came together before Dovizioso was forced wide and Lorenzo took the position. Valentino Rossi wasted no time in the press conference sticking the knife in for that move. "If we follow what Lorenzo say on Friday" - Lorenzo had called for tighter scrutiny of tough moves, and examining whether rules on overtaking would be feasible - "then they have to give him a ride-through." Rossi said. "But unfortunately, nobody follow what Lorenzo says," he added.
The difference, according to Andrea Dovizioso, was a matter of intent. "What happen with Lorenzo was the same as what happen with Simoncelli several times, but I think the important point to understand is if the rider do this on purpose, or if he just brake too late and couldn't avoid it." Dovizioso was prepared to give Lorenzo the benefit of the doubt, at least until he had seen the TV pictures.
But after two race crashes, caused entirely through his own fault, a dangerous pass and a ride-through is the last thing Simoncelli needed. And if he had shown just a little bit of patience - literally, just a few hundred meters - he could have covered himself in glory rather than acrimony.
If Simoncelli needed an example of how to do it, he needed only watch the 125cc and Moto2 races. The 125cc race, in particular, was educational, with Maverick Viñales - a sixteen-year-old schoolboy - ignoring the mind games of the much more experienced Nico Terol, and waiting icily until the last lap to make a move, snatching victory from Terol at a point when Terol could do nothing about it. That was not the race of a rider who was putting in just his 4th full-time appearance on the international stage. That was the calm, collected race of a future world champion, one with the ice in his veins needed to win at the very top level of competition.
Even in Moto2 there were lessons to be learned for the observant. After a tough start, Marc Marquez worked his way through the field using tough, aggressive, but safe passes to take the lead, and after crashing out of the first three races, finally get his first Moto2 race finish with a win. Marquez is just eighteen years of age, and on the brink of manhood, yet the Spaniard showed a maturity and an intelligence far beyond his years.
Though all the talk this weekend will be of Simoncelli, the real talking point should be the emergence of two new stars, who will soon light up the firmament of MotoGP. Marquez and Viñales are names to watch, and the real stars of the weekend.