2014 Le Mans MotoGP Friday Round Up: A Fast Marquez, The Old Lorenzo, And Honda's Moto3 Revival
Who can stop Marc Marquez? By the look of the FP2 timesheet, maybe Andrea Iannone can. The Pramac Ducati rider ended Friday just 0.007 behind Marquez, the closest anyone has been to him on a Friday since Qatar. Looks are, of course, deceptive, and if you dig a little deeper you see that Iannone's fastest lap, though impressive, was made using a tow from Dani Pedrosa, just as the Repsol Honda rider was setting his fastest lap of the session. Iannone also benefited from using the extra soft rear tire which Ducati is allowed to use, making it that little bit easier to post a quick lap.
Iannone should not be written off too quickly, however. Pedrosa slowed up to let Iannone past immediately after the pair had set their quick laps, and on the next clear lap, Iannone got into the 1'33s again, posting a time equal to Pedrosa's best lap, but this time, all on his own. Whether he convert that to consistent pace in the race remains to be seen. The Italian appears to be circulating around the 1'34.3 mark. Fast, but not fast enough to match what Marquez appears to be capable of.
For real race pace, you have to look a little further down the timesheets. Jorge Lorenzo appears to have refound his mojo, and is starting to grind out the laps. The Movistar Yamaha rider put in 16 full laps during FP2, 5 of which were 1'34.1s, plus a single lap of 1'34.054. This is the Lorenzo of old, working on consistent pace and slowly ratcheting up the pace. Lorenzo's pace is still no match for Marquez – the Repsol Honda man seems capable of banging in 1'33.8s at will – but it is clearly the best of the rest. It has taken four races for the real Jorge Lorenzo to make an appearance, but at least he is finally here.
What has caused the uptick in Lorenzo's fortunes? Two things. First, the appearance of the new soft option rear Bridgestone, which has a little more edge grip than the tires at the first four races. Bridgestone are adamant that it is neither a new construction nor a new compound, but rather a special treatment for the edge of the tire which gives it a fraction more edge grip. That leaves Lorenzo feeling a little more comfortable, and a little less like he is fighting the bike all the time.
The biggest change, however, is probably in Lorenzo's attitude. The test at Jerez convinced him he can race the softer of the two available tires and make it last to the end of the race. That boosted his confidence, and eight more days of training leave him feeling in better physical shape as well. Lorenzo is back in race mode, and from here on in, will be a much tougher nut for Marquez to crack.
On the other side of the garage, the opposite appears to have happened. After the optimism of Jerez, Valentino Rossi is struggling at Le Mans. The two tracks are very different, and they are having to turn the set up of the bike 'upside down', as Rossi put it, to get the M1 to work. So far, Rossi and his crew have yet to find a real solution to his ills. The problem is on corner exit, the rear of the bike moving too much to get any real drive, and this is where Rossi is losing time.
Rossi's turnaround in fortunes came close to costing him dearly. The Italian had said that his goal was to be on the front row for the start, but for a while, it looked like he wouldn't even make it into Q2, and would have to suffer the ignominy of coming through Q1. Rossi was left outside the top 10 right up until the end of the session. As the checkered flag was waved, Rossi crossed the line on his last lap to dive just ahead of Pol Espargaro and into 10th. The difference? Just 0.008 of a second, a very slim margin indeed. If Rossi hadn't made it, he would have been forced to take a lot of risks in FP3 on Saturday morning, but that is a dangerous strategy indeed. Mornings at Le Mans are very cool, making pushing very tricky. Track temperature in the afternoon was an excellent 39°C, a shrill contrast from the chilly 13°C in the morning.
The condition of the track will be critical for tire choice for the race. Grip is improving as the track gets used, and the question will be whether that will be enough to make the hard tire a viable option. So far, Marc Marquez and some of the other Hondas have favored the harder of the two available tires, but that tire wasn't working at Le Mans on Friday. If grip improves enough for Marquez to use the harder tire, then the ground which Lorenzo has gained could disappear from under his feet again. So far, the temperatures are looking up for race day. But choosing the hard tire could still end up as a real gamble.
While much of the focus was on MotoGP, there was plenty to see in the junior classes as well. In Moto2, Tito Rabat is back to his old tricks, despite coming straight from a clinic where he was treated for kidney stones and colic. But the Pons team is right with Rabat, Luis Salom finishing ahead of the Marc VDS rider in FP2, and Maverick Viñales ending up just behind him. Dominique Aegerter is also right there with them, and Jonas Folger is close to the pace of the other class rookies Salom and Viñales.
The Moto2 news which raised a few eyebrows at Le Mans came yesterday, when the Forward team announced they would finally be getting support from Kalex for their chassis, and be official customers of the German chassis maker. There had already been rumblings from some Moto2 team managers about the situation, with rival Kalex teams worried that support for Forward would mean a loss of support for them. It appears that Kalex has resolved this situation, though no doubt the complaints will linger for a while. At least the KLX label the Forward teams were racing under will disappear. Kalex chief designer and owner Alex Baumgärtel had taken the KLX name as a personal affront, seeing his bikes running under a different name. His pain is at an end, at least.
In Moto3, Honda are starting to make the inroads into the class they had expected when they changed their strategy, and entered full factory bikes. The Alexes, Marquez and Rins (it is tempting to refer to the Estrella Galicia 0,0 team as Team Alex) topped the timesheets, just ahead of Jack Miller on a KTM. Honda have been making steady progress since the beginning of the season, and Rins and Marquez are where everyone had expected them to be before the season started. But Miller is right behind them, and confident his KTM has the power to match the Hondas for pace. The stop-and-go nature of the track should play to the strengths of the KTM, the bike being stronger than the Honda in braking. If Honda have found improvement there, then Miller and Romano Fenati will be up against it. No doubt Moto3 will the race of the weekend again. It almost always is.