Motorcycle racing would be a good deal less complicated if it was an indoor sport. Leaving the complications of housing an area covering several square kilometers to one side for a moment, having a track which was not subject to rain, wind or shine would make things a lot more predictable. No longer would the riders and teams have to worry about whether the track was wet enough for rain tires, or slicks could be used with a dry line forming. Nor would they have to worry about track grip dropping as temperatures rose beyond a certain point. Or differences in grip from one part of the track to the next, as clouds hide the sun and strong winds steal heat from the asphalt. There would be only the bike, the rider, and the track.
Racing would be a lot less interesting, though. Saturday at Le Mans was a case in point. On Friday, it looked like the races were all pretty much wrapped up: Jorge Lorenzo was unstoppable in MotoGP, Tito Rabat was back to his best in Moto2, and Danny Kent was imperious in Moto3. Cold temperatures in the morning and rain at the start of the afternoon threw a spanner in the works for almost everyone. All of a sudden, things look a lot more complicated. And rather intriguing.
The Moto3 class were the hardest hit. The skies were pregnant with rain before qualifying started, with only very light drizzle falling. Within two minutes of the green light going on, the drizzle was heavier, and the track went from being a little slow to being downright treacherous. Fabio Quartararo got it right: first out of the pits, he took pole with his first flying lap. Then he got it wrong: he was nearly two seconds slower on his next lap, then found himself tumbling through the gravel at Turn 1, the quickest corner on the circuit. He wasn't the only one, being joined in the gravel by his teammate Jorge Navarro, while on the other side of the track, Brad Binder had crashed out. The men and women of Moto3 had had enough: they filed back into the pits as the track went from damp to wet, only a few brave souls venturing out in the second half of qualifying, circulating fifteen or more seconds off pole pace.
Going out first turned out to be the key. The riders who waited for the lights to go green at the end of pit lane fill the front of the grid, those who let the pack escape first, then followed at a leisurely pace in pursuit of an empty track are all well down the order. Quartararo, Navarro, Pecco Bagnaia, Romano Fenati fill the front rows, Danny Kent and Efren Vazquez bring up the rear. It was, said Kent, a 'terrible mistake', after dominating in free practice. It was an understandable one, though, as normally, the Leopard Racing team's tactics would have bought Kent and Vazquez free space in which to set out the pace. A normally smart move backfired this time, due to the weather.
The track was still wet when the FP4 session for the MotoGP class started, throwing the plans of many a team into disarray. After struggling in the morning, Valentino Rossi had wanted to try a set up change aimed at getting the bike to turn a little better, so he could pick it up earlier. That is key to exploiting the mechanical grip of the Yamaha, and improving in acceleration. On a wet track, such changes are impossible to test. Rossi had to wait until qualifying to try the changes, hardly ideal when you have just fifteen minutes for two very short, very intense runs. It seemed to work, and though Rossi starts from seventh on the grid, he was confident he was closer to teammate Jorge Lorenzo than he had been at Jerez.
Others suffered with Rossi. Cal Crutchlow had been running back-to-back tests with the new swingarm which Marc Márquez has also been using, and needed more time to find the right set up to get the best of it. At least Crutchlow is already fast: Pol Espargaro is in real trouble as a result of a wet FP4. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider is way down the order, at a track he had his best result at last year. The bike is doing one thing very well, but it comes at the cost of everything else. Espargaro has a fantastic braking set up, and is even outbraking the Hondas. That is leading him further into trouble, however. By braking later, he finds himself too far into the corner when it comes time to release the brakes, and they can't get the bike to turn. No turning means no corner speed, and no corner speed means using up the tire trying to get on the gas early, with the bike still leaned well over, in search of acceleration. Espargaro is faced with a stark choice: on Sunday morning, they will go back to the setting they had so much success with here last year, and hope for the best.
The miserable weather in FP4 did bring cheer for some. Loris Baz and Alex De Angelis stuck on slick tires right at the end of the session, to test the grip ready for Q1. There was enough of a dry line for slicks to work, and Baz found himself at the top of the timesheets at his home Grand Prix in FP4. "It was something very cool!" said Baz afterwards. He did not have so much luck in qualifying, but the reception from the crowd after FP4 will linger with him for a long time.
By the time Q2 started, the track was not too far off being perfect. That meant that the front row has a very familiar feel. Marc Márquez took pole, always able to find something extra when he needs to, after seeming a little way off the pace during practice. That was deceptive, however. He and his team were taking a different approach to the weekend, Márquez explained during the press conference. It was needed, because the world champion is struggling with the rear end of his Honda RC213V on corner entry. The improvements at the front end had caused problems at the rear, with the back wheel sliding and stepping out "like dirt track," Márquez said. "With the other  bike, I create that slide. Now the problem is that the bike creates the slide, and I try to avoid it."
That doesn't mean you can rule Márquez out, however. Cal Crutchlow believes Márquez has the best pace of the front runners, as the Repsol Honda man has barely touched his tire allowance. Most of his laps have been set on old tires, in preparation for the race. The timesheets show Márquez posting fast laps, but not consistently, but Crutchlow believes that come race day, he, along with race-day magician Valentino Rossi, will be one to watch.
The timesheets paint a very clear picture of who is strongest, however. Jorge Lorenzo's race pace is positively fearsome, the Spaniard carrying on where he left off at Jerez. In FP3, he posted nine sub 1'33.5 laps. That is more than all of his rivals put together. That pace did not translate into pole, however, the Movistar Yamaha man only managing the third fastest qualifying time, behind Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso. It was his worst ever front row performance, Lorenzo said, suffering electronics problems on his fastest lap.
That there was something wrong with his bike was obvious from the TV footage. Lorenzo exited the pits staring at his dashboard, pushing buttons, and shaking his head. He explained what happened during the press conference. "When I exited for my second try, in the pit lane area the bike was working strange. Then I see the dashboard, and it shows 6th gear or 5th gear and I was in first, second. It keeps like that more or less for one lap. But then when I was really fast the bike was working a little bit strange, especially in the engine brake, in some corners was sliding too much with the throttle. But I didn’t feel it was so bad I had to stop. I keep pushing and make the best possible. Probably because of that I enter with too much engine brake and almost crashed. But I didn’t notice until I entered the pit lane and the mechanics told me forget the feeling in qualifying because one piece of the sensor was broken. Was a pity, but what you can do?"
To be this fast, with that many problems, suggests that Lorenzo is a cut above the rest. Márquez, Dovizioso and perhaps even Valentino Rossi cannot be ruled out, but the fear is that if Lorenzo gets a clean start with no one ahead of him, the race could be over by the end of the first lap.
Speaking of technical problems, the wild and speculative theory I put forward last night about Marc Márquez' Austin engine has been comprehensively disproved. This evening, Dorna published the engine usage lists, showing who used what engines on Friday and Saturday. The engine which Márquez had a problem with in FP1 was one of the two engines still in active service, not the engine which died at Austin being given another run out. The problem for Márquez must have been an electrical issue, as the Spaniard used both of the engines he used during FP1 throughout the rest of practice. It is a shame, as it was a very attractive theory, but like most wild speculation and conspiracy, it had no basis in fact.
Jorge Lorenzo's metronomic pace clearly has admirers in the Moto2 class as well. On Friday, it was Tito Rabat who was cranking out the laps at scorching pace. He did not fare quite so well on Saturday, with Tom Luthi fastest in the morning, then Alex Rins going on to take pole during qualifying. Rins' first ever Moto2 pole was impressive in several ways. First, taking pole in just his fifth Moto2 race shows how quickly he is adapting to the intermediate class, his progress made even more impressive when put in stark contrast with his former teammate Alex Márquez. Secondly, Rins took pole by posting exactly the same lap time as Sam Lowes, after the Englishman had put in a quick lap early in the session. Rins was awarded pole on the basis of his second fastest lap, as dictated by the rules. But it wasn't just his second fastest lap which was impressive, but the long string of laps in the low 1'37s which he posted during qualifying.
The Moto2 race looks like being a carbon copy of Jerez, but without Jonas Folger making an escape. Folger crashed early during qualifying, and is left languishing in midfield. But Rins and Rabat, Lowes and Luthi, and of course championship leader and home favorite Johann Zarco are all looking capable of winning. Moto2 has certainly livened up this year.
If the weather was a factor on Saturday, it should not have much of a role to play come race day. The current forecast is for clear skies and relatively warm temperatures. Warm, that is, for Le Mans: the mercury looks unlikely to rise much above 19°C. That is ten degrees warmer than on Saturday morning, however, so the riders will be more than happy to settle for that.