The Le Mans round of MotoGP is a truly schizophrenic event. The track sits just south of the charming old city of Le Mans, a combination of medieval center and 19th Century industrial outskirts. The surrounding area is lush, rolling hills, woods alternating with open green fields. It is very much a provincial idyll. Until you reach the Le Mans circuit, and its campsites, where visions of Dante unfold before your eyes, and disinterested guards look on as large drunken hordes set about recreating some of the more gruesome scenes from Lord of the Flies.
Some people love it, others hate it. Veteran journalist Dennis Noyes always says it reminds of going to Hockenheim in the 1990s, when the police would not enter the woods at the heart of the track until the Monday after the race. Then they would go in "to pull the bodies out," as he so colorfully put it. Outside the track, the atmosphere is one of quiet provincial charm. Inside, all is wild, free, and out of control. It is an event that should be experienced at least once, though to be honest, once was enough for me.
Even the circuit is schizophrenic. The facility has two layouts. The glorious, high-speed intimidation of the Circuit de la Sarthe hosts the pinnacle of four-wheeled racing, the 24 Heures du Mans car race, on a track full of long, fast straights and sweeping corners. But MotoGP uses the Bugatti Circuit, the shorter, closed circuit, which is all hairpins and tight esses, with just the glorious Dunlop Curve left as a reminder of the larger, faster circuit.
Yet despite its shortcomings, the Bugatti Circuit has plenty to enjoy. The hard braking, then long drop off of Turn 4, La Chappelle, a treacherous turn indeed. The sweep of Musee and Garage Vert, ideal places for overtaking. The series of tricky esses in the second half of the track: the Chemin aux Boeufs, Garage Bleu, and then the double right of Raccordement, again, ideal spots for attacking an opponent, with the risk they will come back at you in either the second half of the corner, or at the next pair coming up. At most tracks, there are only a couple of places you can overtake. At Le Mans, there are only a couple of corners where you can't.
Is it a Honda or a Yamaha track? Its layout offers advantages to both Japanese factories, and perhaps even to Ducati as well. The approach to the corners favors the Hondas, allowing them to get the best from their ability to brake very late and still make the corner. But the Yamahas recover in the exit, using their advantage in mechanical grip to get more drive and power away towards the next corner. What the Hondas gain on the way in, they lose to the Yamahas on the way out. That much is evident from the winners at the track: since Chris Vermeulen's victory here in a downpour in 2007, Honda and Yamaha have shared wins, Yamaha taking four to Honda's three. Then again, Yamaha's wins came in '08, '09, '10, and '12, while Honda's came in '11, '13 and and '14.
What of Ducati? The GP15 could be a bit of a dark horse at the French circuit. The new Desmosedici has very strong braking and corner entry, like the Honda, but with better mechanical grip on corner exit, similar to the Yamaha. With Andrea Dovizioso now comfortable with the bike once again after finding the right set up for the bike at the two-day test at Mugello, this could be the track where Ducati finally get their first win. It will not be easy against the might of Márquez, Rossi and Lorenzo, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Above all, Jorge Lorenzo will be the man to beat. The Movistar Yamaha man showed he had found his missing magic once again at Jerez, dominating the entire weekend almost from start to finish. He was quickest during practice and qualifying, and untouchable in the race. That gave him the confidence he needed, and coming to a track where he has won three times since 2009, he will be the man to watch. Lorenzo said in the press conference that the Hondas had won here for the last two years, before pointing out that Valentino Rossi finished second here last year, less than a second and a half behind Marc Márquez, and that the Yamaha M1 was now a better bike than it was last year. The Honda is still better in braking, but its advantage is much diminished.
Lorenzo will not have it easy, though. Valentino Rossi comes to Le Mans with renewed confidence, after finding in the test on Monday what he had been missing in the race at Jerez. They had tested a few minor updates, all of which offered small improvements, but those improvements will be crucial. Rossi leads the championship after four races for the first time since 2005, coincidentally the last time he was on the podium at all of the first four races. Rossi knows he has a realistic shot at the championship this year, and at a track he once reigned supreme at, will be focused on winning.
Can the Honda riders stop the Yamahas? Marc Márquez surely can, as he showed here last year. Márquez told the press conference that his broken little finger was back at 100% fitness, though it was still a little bit swollen. The track holds good memories for him, having been the place he secured his first pole in Grand Prix, and his first win in Moto2. But he has not had it easy in MotoGP. Despite starting from pole both years in the premier class, he has found a way both ways to make his life difficult. In 2013, it was the weather to blame, Márquez learning quickly in his first ever wet race to come through after dropping down to eighth. In 2014, he had no one to blame but himself, making a mistake at Garage Vert, and dropping well down the field tenth, before still coming back to win the race. Márquez must be careful not to make another mistake like that this year, though. With the other riders in such outstanding shape, an error like that will not go unpunished, and would leave him even further from the championship leader.
The biggest question mark on Sunday hangs over the head of Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man will finally make his return after surgery, now comfortable with the progress made during his recovery. It had been a much slower, more complex process than he would have liked, he told reporters at Le Mans. There were good days and bad days, and it was not all plain sailing. After the test before Jerez, he had had a lot of swelling in his forearm, Pedrosa said. He had decided against coming back at Jerez because he felt he had more to lose from making his injury worse than from competing. Better to wait, and race when he was certain, than risk further complications. He did not want to risk losing an entire season for the sake of a single race, Pedrosa said.
The surgery Pedrosa had is complex and unusual, removing the fascia from around the forearm muscle completely. Normally, the fascia is merely slit open, to allow the muscles inside to expand. Even after a fasciotomy (the opening, rather than the fasciectomy, which is removal) fluid can accumulate in the forearms. With a fasciectomy, that can be even worse.
Even though Pedrosa is racing again at Le Mans, he feels it will be a few races before he is certain of his condition. One race will be instructive, but not provide a full picture of his fitness. His rivals are more concerned by his speed than by his fitness, however. Rossi, Márquez and Lorenzo all told the press conference they believed Pedrosa would quickly be up to speed, and would be likely to be a factor at Le Mans. The Spaniard has won here, and is fast here. Even though he is just back from surgery, you cannot count him out.
The Suzukis face the toughest challenge, tantalizingly close to the front runners, but deeply disadvantaged by the layout of the track. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales had opposing views of the race, having more to do with their attitude to the track than anything else. Espargaro was very pessimistic, saying he hated the track, while Viñales was much more hopeful, at a track which has always served him well.
Given the current state of development of the Suzuki, the older of the two is most likely to be right. The weakest areas of the Suzuki GSX-RR are acceleration and horsepower. The tight hairpins of Le Mans place a premium on those qualities, making it likely that the Suzuki will simply be destroyed coming out of the corners. A seamless gearbox would help, but that is not due for several more races, having been pushed back after a couple of mishaps in testing. Even horsepower upgrades won't be coming for a while, Barcelona being the first opportunity Suzuki could bring more ponies. The Suzuki is a bike with outstanding handling, and the team has two exceptionally talented riders. But they are likely to suffer on Sunday.
The satellite teams, however, could put the cat among the pigeons. Pol Espargaro had his strongest MotoGP race at the track last year, experimenting with a different braking set up, which saw him use some of his old Moto2 style to help get the bike stopped. Since then, he has almost entirely forgotten about that style, it having proved to be useless at most other tracks. If he can get a good set up for the race, he should be in contention. This, Cal Crutchlow told reporters, is the closest field in MotoGP for a while, so anyone who can stick with the leaders for the first ten laps is in with a chance. Pol Espargaro is surely one of those who can.
What about the three British riders? Bradley Smith is having a stronger start to the season than his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammate Pol Espargaro this season, and so has to be a factor. Cal Crutchlow has already been on the podium this season, and with the new chassis he received at Austin, has found it easier to be consistent until the end of the race. The new chassis he had offered both a solution to old problems and temptation to get into new problems, Crutchlow explained. The main modification was to allow the bike a little more freedom to slide. Before, when he slid, he would either hit the lock stop and not be able to turn the bike enough, or go straight on in the corner. Now, the bike allowed much more freedom to brake later and still enter the corner, but that was a path to temptation as well. Knowing that you have much more freedom to brake later and still make the corner meant you find yourself braking later and later, and eventually finding the point of no return. "It feels like there's an endless limit into the corner, but there's only so late you can brake," Crutchlow said.
Though a strong British performance would please the many British fans who make the short hop across the Channel to head to Le Mans, what the crowd really want to see is a French win. They have a very good shot at victory in both Moto2 and Moto3, and ironically, it could be British riders to deprive them of the win. In Moto3, Danny Kent has been unstoppable in the last three races, but rookie Fabio Quartararo is rapidly reaching the point at which he will claim his first win in the series. To do so at home – even though Quartararo spent most of his young life growing up in Spain, making him less French than his passport suggests – would be a huge boost for French racing. If Quartararo fails, there is always Alexis Masbou, who has already had a win this season. But they must first deal with Danny Kent, who has so far controlled Moto3 with an iron fist, and shows no signs of letting up any time soon.
A better hope is perhaps Johann Zarco. The Frenchman has only won one race this season, but is looking like the clear favorite to take the title. Zarco has settled happily back in to the Ajo team, a place he scored his best results in the 125cc class back in 2011. The importance of having a team you trust around you, and one you feel comfortable with, is all too evident from Zarco's 2015 season. He looks fast and happy, a deadly combination.
Once again, a British rider could well turn out to be the fly in the ointment. Sam Lowes has been very strong so far this year, but his weakest point has been when conditions are hot. The Speed Up is a little too stiff still, meaning that when it is hot, it is harder to control. In the cooler conditions at Le Mans, the Speed up should go well. And when the bike goes well, Lowes is likely to excel. A good result is exactly what he needs to get his championship challenge back on track.
The weather is so often a protagonist at Le Mans, its effects not confined to the pace of the Speed Up. This time, however, it looks like things will go the way of the races, with no rain forecast for the rest of the weekend. It should be close in all three classes this weekend. If it rains, it could be even more complicated. And that is good for the fans.