Le Mans is very much a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde kind of a weekend. The city of Le Mans is utterly charming and sedate, its historical center full of buildings reaching back to the 12th Century. The Le Mans circuit (the shorter Bugatti Circuit used by MotoGP and motorcycle racing events, that is) is a run down affair beside an industrial estate on the outskirts of the city.
In the evenings, the central square in Le Mans has peaceful and civilized air, where people gather to eat and drink. A few miles further south, inside the circuit and at the campsites which surround it, mayhem is unleashed, a bawdy, rowdy riot of drink, fire, and noise. The atmosphere during the day is the opposite, almost, a friendly, lively, and especially passionate crowd roam the wooded areas around the track, enjoying some of the richest entertainment you will find at a race track anywhere around the world.
In the evenings? Well, best leave the track before the sun goes down. Though the entertainment goes on all night – a ploy forced on the organizers to keep the bike fans out of the town in the evening – the atmosphere turns from joyful to wild and chaotic. At night, things can get a little unruly.
More than stop and go
The track itself is an underrated place, living in the shadow of its much grander and more famous Circuit de la Sarthe, which hosts the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race. The Bugatti circuit track layout is often written off as a stop-and-go track. It is certainly that, but it is also much more. Sure, there is plenty of hard braking – Brembo rates it as one of the harder circuits for braking on the calendar, with an average peak deceleration of 1.2G – followed by places where riders are hard on the gas. But the track also has some outstanding corners, and excellent places to pass.
After the terrifying 300 km/h sweep of Turn 1, the Dunlop Curve, the riders brake for the chicane, a difficult left-right affair where it is easy to make a pass, and to make a mistake while trying to do so. Then it is on to La Chapelle, a long, sweeping and downhill right hander. It is a tempting place to try to make a turn, but because the track drops away, also an easy place to wash out the front, as Andrea Dovizioso found out to his detriment during last year's race.
It is then off to Musée, a long left hander going the other way, and another corner require care. Then on to Garage Vert, a corner which is really two turns, a double right hander leading onto the back straight. Garage Vert is treacherous too, as Johann Zarco discovered in the pressure cooker of his home race last year. At the end of the back straight, it is a straight braking duel for the entry to Chemin aux Boeufs, one of the finest-named corners on the calendar. Hard left and then hard right, and a place where you can easily run wide if you are not careful.
Then onto the final section of the track, the right-left of the Garage Bleu esses, which offers an opportunity to pass to anyone whose bike can hold a tight line and who can pick their lines with surgical precision. From there, to the final double right of Raccordement, a place where the brave and the desperate can take one final shot at beating their rivals. That is not without risk, as many a rider has pondered as they picked the gravel out of their leathers after not quite making the pass stick.
So what is the perfect bike for Le Mans? As always, there isn't really one. But as a stop-and-go track, the bike needs to be set up for hard braking, and for acceleration out of corners. In most corners, you brake, release, and turn in, rather than trailing the brakes a long way into the corner. That needs a bike which is stable under braking, and can be pitched into a turn quickly and hold a tight line.
Corner exit is key. Where you make up time at Le Mans is in acceleration, by picking the bike up quickly and driving out of corners. That needs a bike with strong bottom end, good mechanical grip, and controllable wheelie. The fast you get out of the corner, the sooner you arrive at the next place to stop.
Put all of these characteristics together, and it's easy to think this is a Ducati track. Which, to be fair, it should be. For the past three years, Andrea Dovizioso has qualified on the second row, and been in contention at the front of the race. Last year, he even led briefly, before losing the front at La Chapelle. He had taken the lead from his then teammate Jorge Lorenzo, before Lorenzo tired and dropped down to sixth. But Danilo Petrucci put the Pramac Ducati onto the podium in 2018, proving that the bike can be fast at Le Mans.
If anything, the Ducati should be even stronger this year. The bike turns a little better, but is just as stable on the brakes, and it still has the best mechanical grip on the grid. Acceleration in the lower gears is stronger as well, important out of Le Mans' many slow corners. Over the crest down the back straight, Ducati's superior aero package helps reduce the wheelie and gain speed and stability into the Chemin aux Boeufs corner.
Last year, Andrea Dovizioso came to Le Mans off the back of the disaster at Jerez, where he, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa had all managed to collide in the corner now named after Dani Pedrosa. That put pressure on the Italian, and made him force a little too much a little too early.
This year, Dovizioso comes to Le Mans while third in the championship, trailing leader and main title rival Marc Márquez by 3 points, rather than 24. We have strong Ducati tracks coming up – Mugello, Barcelona – and with Le Mans a track which favors Ducati, and where the Hondas struggle, this is a good place to gain back some points, while there is no need to lay everything on the line.
Earning a ride
Le Mans could be much more important for Danilo Petrucci. The Italian has not made the start to his factory career he would have hoped, and needs to start making an impression. Petrucci is in the hot seat this year, with his contract up at the end of 2019, and rumors swirling over who may or may not be riding for Ducati in 2020. Both Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia are in the frame for the second factory seat, and with Alvaro Bautista tearing up WorldSBK, his name is being bandied about as well. Ducati management have said they will start to think about the disposition of the 2020 seats from Mugello, so a good result in France will make an impression.
Last year, Petrucci finished on the podium after starting from the front row. Two years earlier, he finished as first Ducati, despite it being his first race back from injury, and riding with a massively swollen hand. This is a track which Petrucci likes, and which suits his style. He can get on the gas early without fear of burning up the side of the tire, acceleration being done in a straight line. This could be the race where Petrucci earns the right to be seen as the favorite for the second factory Ducati seat in 2020.
On a side note, the factory Ducati team will have a slight change of branding at Le Mans. Due to France's much stricter interpretation of the ban on tobacco advertising, the Mission Winnow branding is gone. The association with tobacco giant Philip Morris is too strong, and so at Le Mans, they are back to just being the Ducati Factory Team.
Pick up and drive
The Yamaha riders benefit from the layout at Le Mans for much the same reason that Danilo Petrucci does. Though much work has been done on the M1's electronics to fix its problems with tire wear, being at a track where the bike is up on the fat part of the tire quickly helps a lot. From there, Yamaha riders don't have to worry about spinning the rear tire on corner exit, and using up too much edge grip.
That ability to accelerate is aided even further by the fact that the track was resurfaced a couple of years ago. The new surface has much more grip, and that is exactly what the Yamaha M1 needs to excel. The riders can use the grip to get drive out of corners, but also to carry corner speed and get on the gas earlier. This is Yamaha's best chance of victory since Phillip Island – or arguably, Sepang – last year.
Valentino Rossi was careful to play down the idea that Yamaha might do well at Le Mans. "The reality is that we don’t know," he said. "I want to say to you that it has long corners, new asphalt and good grip. But that's like Jerez: long corners, new asphalt and good grip. But for some reason you never know. It’s something between the marriage of the bike, the tires and the track. Sometimes you arrive and you start from a good level so you can improve. Some other times you can have more problems so I don’t know why. But over the years, Le Mans is always good for the Yamaha."
Rossi has won a lot at Le Mans, though his last victory at the track dates back to 2008. He came close again in 2017, when he crashed out in a do-or-die attempt to pass teammate Maverick Viñales in the final couple of corners. So Le Mans is arguably the best chance of victory since the start of the season. The fact that he was competitive in Austin, a track with some similarities to Le Mans, bodes well. "But for me to win, there is a long way from now to Sunday afternoon," he said.
Maverick Viñales is more optimistic, and with some justification. The Spaniard is just coming off a very strong podium in Jerez, and this is a track which he loves. He won his fourth every Grand Prix race here, on a 125cc back in 2011, and won again in 2013. He took a podium on the Suzuki back in 2016 – the same race where he was persuaded to sign for Yamaha – then won again the following year on the M1.
The track suits his style as well. Viñales is more of a point-and-shoot rider than a corner speed king, diving into the corner and then picking up the bike and getting on the gas early. Le Mans rewards that. But more importantly, the confidence he gained from the race at Jerez is crucial to Viñales' speed.
Then there's the Petronas Yamaha team, of course. Fabio Quartararo comes to his home race, fresh off triumph and disaster at Jerez. The Frenchman showed incredible speed at Jerez, becoming the youngest ever polesitter, taking that record from Marc Márquez. He was very strong in the race, until a broken gear linkage put him out of the race. Though there will be a huge amount of pressure on him from the home fans, Quartararo is relaxed, and looking forward to racing.
Quartararo's progression has been remarkable. "He is a lot further along than we expected at this point," Petronas Yamaha team manager Wilco Zeelenberg told me. So much so that the team decided to invest in a fork upgrade, to the latest spec of fork internals from Ohlins. A significant investment (in the tens of thousands of euros), which should provide a little bit more feedback at the limit. Quartararo will not have the new spec forks for his home race – there wasn't enough time to produce them after the Frenchman had tested them at Jerez – but as he showed at Jerez, he was already more than fast enough to be fighting at the front.
What his teammate will do is another question. Franco Morbidelli was quick for the first nine laps of Jerez, until his tires started to overheat a little, and he was forced to slow his pace and dropped back through the field. When his tires cooled off a little, he was able to push a little, and he discovered new ways to get the best out of the bike. It was a valuable lesson, and one he may yet put to use at Le Mans. Apart from one victory in Moto2 in 2017, Morbidelli has not known much success at the track. This year could be the time he turns it around.
Rins ravaging rivals?
What about the Suzuki? Alex Rins arrives in Jerez in second place in the championship, trailing by just a single point. The Spaniard is competitive at most tracks, and the fact that he won the race in Austin suggests that the Suzuki GSX-RR could go well at Le Mans. The bike is probably the best handling machine on the grid, extremely agile and capable of holding a tight line. The bike has power enough, brakes well, and enough acceleration to get into the slipstream of the other bikes.
That puts Alex Rins in a strong position for this weekend. If Rins can hang with the faster Ducati and Honda down the back straight, he can use the superior agility of the Suzuki to pass them and put some space between himself and his rivals before the front straight. He could very well prove to be the fly in everyone else's ointment this weekend.
Qualifying will be crucial, however. That has been the weakness of the Suzuki at most tracks this season, with neither Rins nor teammate Joan Mir able to pinpoint exactly what the problem is. If the Suzukis can qualify on the front two rows, they have a much better chance of being in the mix for victory or the podium.
Joan Mir is confident of a strong race in Le Mans as well. In Jerez, Mir had learned that it was costly to follow other riders too closely, as that allows the tires to overheat which eventually led to a crash. But the Spaniard has a strong record at the French circuit, with a win in Moto3 and a podium in Moto2. He believes the bike will be competitive, and then it's just up to him in qualifying.
Not as strong as it looks.
On paper, the Honda RC213V should be competitive at a stop-and-go circuit like Le Mans, but that has not generally been the case in recent years, despite Marc Márquez' victory at the track last year. The bike brakes well, and has plenty of power, though controlling acceleration out of slow corners has been a bugbear of the Honda for some time.
The acceleration issue is a little better on the 2019 bike, according to Honda riders, but to gain that, Honda has sacrificed a little bit of feel in braking and on corner entry. The more powerful engine is also an issue, creating problems in engine braking as the bike enters the corner. And though Marc Márquez insists that Honda made a step forward after crashing out at Austin, Cal Crutchlow reports he still has the same issues.
It is worth noting that both Márquez and Crutchlow crashed out in Austin, the victim of inconsistent engine braking. Le Mans bears a resemblance to some parts of the Circuit of the Americas, suggesting that there could be more risk of crashing at Le Mans than at the last race in Jerez.
So for championship leader Márquez, just getting across the line and scoring points could be enough. If the bike feels like it doesn't want to cooperate, Márquez may decide to settle for points, rather than chase a result which involves too much risk. As Valentino Rossi put it on Thursday, "the important races are the races where you are struggling." On a good day, you might miss out on a handful of points if you have to settle for a podium rather than a win. But on a bad day, finishing in the top six rather than crashing out can score enough points to ensure a championship at the end of a long year.
Living up to expectations
For Márquez' Repsol Honda teammate, Le Mans could once again prove crucial. This is a track Jorge Lorenzo loves, and where he has excelled in the past, winning at Le Mans five times in MotoGP. The asphalt has grip, and some of the long corners allow Lorenzo to use his incredible ability to maintain corner speed.
The problem is that Lorenzo is struggling to get to grips with the Honda. "The Honda is never going to be a natural bike for me," the Spaniard told the press at Le Mans. "The Honda is the Honda. It's a bike that needs to be ridden by braking very late, getting the rear wheel crossed up, tipping the bike in quickly, and at a big lean angle. That's never going to be a natural bike for me."
Lorenzo pointed out that the same was true of the Ducati. He had needed time to adapt, and help with ergonomics, before finally being able to understand and win with the Desmosedici. He needed exactly the same thing from Honda.
Yet rumors at Le Mans suggest that Honda are already considering moving on from Jorge Lorenzo at the end of the year, rumors which Honda strenuously deny. Honda are rumored to be unhappy with the results Lorenzo has obtained, having expected far more.
Lorenzo dismissed the rumors out of hand. "You can always hear these kinds of rumors when the situation is bad, when your results are not positive," the Spaniard said. "Personally, nobody has ever given me an ultimatum, nobody has ever talked to me about this subject."
He needed time to adapt, and had to trust that HRC would have patience with him. "The patience a team has is not up to me, and I can't change it," Lorenzo said. "What I know is I have a two year contract. It's important that we understand that this is going to be a long process. It's not going to come naturally, as it did on other occasions, or as it might come to another rider when they change to a new bike or a different category. Every small bit of progress is a step closer to our objective, and we have to celebrate each bit of progress like a small victory. With time and with kilometers we will find something positive, and things will get better."
Slipping and sliding
Making things even more complicated at Le Mans could be the weather. At the moment, the forecast is for rain sometime on Sunday, though there is also evidence that rain may actually come on Saturday as well. That would complicate matters enormously, forcing the teams to change their strategy and try to chase a fast time in the dry on Friday. That could cause a bit of a shake up of the grid if no one can improve their Friday time on Saturday. But chasing a time on Friday also means sacrifice time the rider could be spending to chase a decent base setup.
Rain on Sunday could also throw any predictions of who will do well out of the window. Lorenzo may love the grippy surface at Le Mans, but a spot of drizzle could leave the track unpredictable, and with sketchy grip. Those are precisely the conditions where Lorenzo struggles badly, while others manage rather better.
The promise of light rain would benefit Lorenzo's Repsol Honda teammate Marc Márquez. Márquez is the undisputed king of low grip conditions, often a second or more faster than everyone else when the grip is unpredictable and the bike is sliding and moving around. If it only rains for a little bit before the race, the stars may well align for Márquez. And that would put a real spanner in the works for the 2019 championship.
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