MotoGP at Le Mans is a weekend filled with anticipation. Anticipation of much-vaunted moves, with fans and media eagerly awaiting a decision from Maverick Viñales on his future. Anticipation of further negotiations, with the rest of the MotoGP and Moto2 grids eagerly awaiting a decision from Maverick Viñales on his future, so that they know which seats might be open for them. Anticipation – and for riders such as Scott Redding, trepidation – at the tires, front and rear, which Michelin have brought to Le Mans, and how different (and hopefully better) they will be from the tires which appeared at Austin and Jerez, which caused problems for so many riders. And anticipation of what the notoriously fickle weather will do at Le Mans.
To start with the last question first, the weather actually looks like being utterly glorious all weekend. Not Mugello or Barcelona style heat, but sunny, dry, and warm. Even the morning sessions should be warm, giving the teams a chance to try all of the tires Michelin have brought to Le Mans (three different fronts, three different rears), and make a fair assessment of them. For the first time this year, the weather gods are smiling unequivocally on MotoGP.
From the last question to the first, what of the big announcements expected at Le Mans? For the moment, it looks like everything is on hold. That is Maverick Viñales' fault, as the talented young Spaniard is struggling to make a decision between Yamaha and Suzuki. The Yamaha one-two in Jerez had given him food for thought, he told reporters, but then at the test the next day, he found himself close to the front, and among the fastest on race pace. "This makes me think a lot," the Suzuki rider said. "If we can take everything from the test, we can be there."
Should he stay or should he go?
It is difficult, he told reporters, the most difficult choice of his career. The step forward they had made at the test had given him hope again, and put him closer again to Suzuki. Then he looks at the results over the past few years, and he veers towards Yamaha once again. He will have to make a decision soon, Viñales told the press, because his team was also anxious to know his future, and to start making plans. In the end, his decision would come down to one thing: the ability to win races and championships. "The important thing is results," he said. "I need to make that my objective, because I came here to MotoGP to win."
Viñales' dilemma leaves the rest of the paddock treading water. If Viñales stays at Suzuki, then Dani Pedrosa is the man expected to replace Jorge Lorenzo at Yamaha. Pedrosa himself denied that anything had changed. "The situation is currently like it was in Jerez. There are no changes from my side." He had offers from several different parties, Pedrosa told the Spanish media, "not just one or two."
Dan in demand
Would he be interested in switch manufacturers after spending ten years with Honda? "Every time I signed a new contract with Honda, I had possibilities with other manufacturers," Pedrosa said. "But every time, I decided to stay with Honda for various reasons. Different reasons every time." His only objective was to be competitive, and to be able to show he could be fast. "If you are fast, you have the option to decide for yourself," he said.
What choice would his current and potential future teammate like him to make? For Marc Márquez, he felt it was important that Pedrosa should decide to stay with Honda. "He is fast, he is experienced, he is important inside the team after all of these years," Márquez said. "Dani is a good teammate," he added, pointing out that Pedrosa is fourth in the championship, and has always been fast and competitive.
Valentino Rossi was happy with whoever Yamaha decide to put beside him, Maverick Viñales or Dani Pedrosa. "I don't know the percent of one or the other, but for me it's the same. Two very different riders." One experienced and fast, the other talented and young. "For me, it doesn't make much difference. I have a great relationship with Pedrosa and also Viñales," Rossi said.
Another domino falls
One decision was made at Le Mans, however: Jonas Folger signed with Tech 3 for 2017 and beyond. Tech 3 boss Hervé Poncharal has had his eye on the German for several years, and tried to get him into MotoGP for the start of the 2015 season. That attempt failed, Folger being in the middle of a two-year contract to race in Moto2 with AGR, but Tech 3 finally have their man. A change of management, and an emphasis on focus, on remaining calm and trying to be consistent are what Tech 3 hopes will help make Folger competitive in MotoGP. On Monday, Poncharal had told me it was more interesting for him to develop a young rider, rather than invest in an old one. With Folger, that is exactly what he gets to do.
Will there be further developments during the Le Mans weekend? Almost certainly. A race weekend is the best opportunity most riders and their managers have to talk to potential teams. But actual decisions could be several weeks away. Mugello is the earliest a new signing is likely to be announced, though Barcelona is more probable. The atmosphere around Silly Season will remain as fevered as ever, for the foreseeable future.
There is more pressing business this weekend, of course: the small matter of races in all three Grand Prix classes counting towards the 2016 world championship. In the first 12 races of this year (three at each of four rounds held so far), there have been 11 winners, Marc Márquez being the only rider to have won two races. Moto2 and Moto3 have seen a different winner every round, while in MotoGP, Márquez shares the spoils with Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi.
Another race, another tire
Tires have been crucial in MotoGP. The return of Michelin to MotoGP has not gone as smoothly as the French tire maker may have hoped, though it has probably gone at least as well as could have been expected. Surprises have lurked round every corner, causing them to reevaluate their tires more than once.
The biggest issue was Scott Redding's delaminating rear Michelin in Argentina. In response to that, Michelin brought in a tire with a much stiffer construction, which has caused every rider on the grid problems. Redding, in particular, suffered badly at Jerez, finishing dead last, then circulating slowly during the test, without finding a solution. But others had problems too: Jorge Lorenzo blamed his finishing second to Valentino Rossi on excessive wheelspin, saying the tires were not up to standard. That spawned a host of conspiracy theories, that Michelin had brought a special tire to Jerez suited to Rossi, and not to other riders. Rossi dismissed those accusations with a typically humorous quip: "It's difficult to find 113 excuses, every so often you have to repeat yourself," the Italian said, referring to the total number of victories he has racked up in Grand Prix racing.
To address these issues, Michelin have brought an extra rear tire. In addition to the soft and medium rear, which use the same construction which they took to Austin and Jerez (though with a different compound in the middle of the tire, in an attempt to combat wheelspin), Michelin have also brought a slightly softer construction rear, using the same compounds as the soft rear tire. Aprilia and Ducati tested the new rear at Mugello, where it met with a positive reception. If it can withstand the rigors of Mugello, then it should be just fine at Le Mans.
At the front, Michelin have settled on a single construction, ditching the softer '36' front and doing with the '34'. That tire is available in three compounds, soft, medium, and hard. Having a single construction is a positive step for the French tire maker and for the riders, who can now concentrate on getting the best out of one style of tire. When front tires had two constructions, they had to decide between a tire which had more feel in the corners, but no support in braking, or one which was better under braking, but less predictable in the corners.
Stop and go. No, not the team
Le Mans is going to be a real test for the new tires, as well as for the teams and the bikes. The French circuit is very stop-and-go, even more so than Motegi. It is a series of hairpins and tight corners, strung together by short straights. Braking happens in a straight line, followed by hard acceleration. There are a couple of popular overtaking points, including Musee in the first section, as well as Garage Vert. At the end of the short back straight, the Chemin aux Boeufs chicane is another popular point to take a chance, but it is not the last. In the final drive to the line, Garage Bleu and Raccordement also offer a final opportunity to try to get ahead in the final drive to the line.
Le Mans may be mostly stop-and-go, but it also features one of the fastest corners on the circuit. Dunlop Curve is a sixth gear corner, entered at close to 300 km/h. "Very fast and very scary," is how Valentino Rossi described it. It has been improved over the years, given more run off and tightened up a little, the chicane added to slow it down a fraction. But it remains one of the great corners on the circuit, and a real test of bravery. Good riders can pass at Chemin aux Boeufs. Great riders can pass at Dunlop.
Hard braking may be good for the Hondas – it is their one strong point still – but what follows is tough on them. The lack of acceleration will make it hard on the RC213V at Le Mans, much as it did last year. Honda riders will have to once again try to overcompensate on corner entry, and potentially pay the price. Last year, Dani Pedrosa, Scott Redding and Jack Miller all lost the front, and Cal Crutchlow was struggling before he made a mistake and went down. Marc Márquez managed to finish fourth, but he was clearly having problems, struggling to beat Andrea Iannone, a rider who had damaged his shoulder just a couple of weeks earlier at a private test.
Márquez was not confident speaking in the press conference. The track suited his riding style rather well, the Spaniard said, and it was a circuit he quite liked. But the problems he had with the front tire here last year are the same ones he had at Jerez two weeks ago. Márquez leads the championship by 17 points at the moment, but will be lucky to leave Le Mans with a lead anywhere near that large.
Yamaha vs Ducati?
Strong braking and strong acceleration favor Yamaha and Ducati. Last year, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi made it a Yamaha 1-2, and the pair will be hoping to do the same again. Rossi is keen to see the order reversed, after not having one here since 2009. The fact that he has seriously improved his qualifying performance and upped his speed in general leaves him hopeful of success. Rossi's data engineer, Matteo Flamigni, described Rossi as being in the best form he had ever seen him. Bullish with the confidence of victory at Jerez, the Italian will be a very dangerous prospect indeed.
The main challenge to the Yamahas is likely to come from the Ducatis. Hard braking and hard acceleration are exactly where the Ducatis excel, ironically, the GP14.2s more than the later bikes. Yet Andrea Dovizioso finished on the podium last year (albeit 12 seconds behind the winner Jorge Lorenzo) and Andrea Iannone ended the race in fifth. With a bevy of strong Ducatis, things could get very interesting at the front. Scott Redding would dearly like to post a good result, but he is entirely reliant on Michelin bringing a tire he can use. Eugene Laverty, Hector Barbera, Loris Baz, all could cause a surprise.
What of the Suzukis? Aleix Espargaro is riding for his place in the ECSTAR Suzuki team, and in the last two races, has shown that he more than deserves to be kept on for next year. Maverick Viñales, meanwhile, is perhaps becoming distracted by the choice ahead of him. If Viñales can put that to the back of his mind, he can possible really bring home a strong result. The improvements to the Suzuki GSX-RR mean the bike is now pretty much competitive. Rear grip and acceleration could be a problem for the Suzukis, but perhaps the new Michelin will help to solve that problem. A podium, or finishing just shy of a podium and with earshot of the factory Yamahas could help to sway Viñales' decision.
There is much to play for at Le Mans, more even than usual. Returning to Europe, the teams all have a chance to catch their breath, and a little more time to assimilate the data they have collected over the first four races. The teams are gaining a better understanding of the new tires and the new electronics every race weekend, but they are all doing it at slightly different rates. Every weekend seems to throw up new surprises. There is no reason to believe that this race will be any different.
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