And so we enter the final stretch of the 2020 MotoGP season – and the fact that six Yamaha engineers are stuck in Andorra due to one of them contracting Covid-19 is a reminder that the end of the 2020 season might come sooner than expected. MotoGP heads to Le Mans, for the French Grand Prix, not in May, when the series usually heads there. That means cooler temperatures, not just in terms of air temperatures, but in solar intensity as well. Le Mans in early October gets 4 hours less sunshine than in mid May, and with the sun much lower in the sky, it doesn't heat the asphalt as much even when it is hidden by curtains of cloud, or drenched in rain.
But Le Mans has some saving graces. Firstly, the weather in October is pretty much as you might expect, something which proved problematic in Barcelona, where temperatures were about 10°C colder than expected. That means that the selection of compounds Michelin has brought to Le Mans are much more capable of dealing with the conditions likely to prevail. That, in turn, should mean that teams and riders have a wider choice of tires during the weekend, and aren't just stuck with the softest compounds available.
The rain which is forecast should help too. Wet conditions are expected on Friday, and possibly on Sunday too. Riders who favor one particular compound of slick are less likely to run out of them, if wets are needed on Friday. There was certainly less concern from the riders. "The allocation is how it is," Aleix Espargaro said. "In Barcelona it was very cold, it was difficult to manage temperatures of the tires." That is not the case at Le Mans, even for the very cold temperatures expected during the morning sessions. "Here we have enough range to cover it. The most dangerous is the front. This weekend we have the P [one of Michelin's mysterious tire codes, which they refuse to explain - DE]. The P works in very low conditions."
Grip, grip, grip
Above all, what makes Le Mans easier is the fact that the track has so much grip. When it was resurfaced in 2016, the new asphalt was a huge improvement, the current lap record half a second under the time set on the old surface. The additional grip compensates for any issues with temperatures. That was a major help as far as the KTM was concerned, Pol Espargaro explained, the RC16 usually something of a Goldilocks bike, needing everything to be just right to perform.
"Normally we struggle when we go out of this perfect window of temperatures for the tires, especially on the track," the Red Bull KTM Factory rider told us. "But here it's a little bit different, because the track is super grippy. It's so so grippy. So when we are struggling because it's too cold or too hot, it's because the grip goes down, and we are not able to warm the tire because we don't get the grip. But as here, the track is super grippy, because the asphalt is very good."
For Sunday, there is also the change in schedule – the race is due to start at 1pm local time, to avoid a clash with F1 which is racing at the Nürburgring in Germany. This means that MotoGP will race before Moto2, and as a result not have a layer of Dunlop rubber to contend with.
That is something which Maverick Viñales hopes will help him. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider has repeatedly blamed the changed feeling of the track after the Moto2 race for his poor results. "It makes it very interesting," Viñales said. "We’ll see if bike is same than in the practices. It means that it’s after Moto2 that we lose all the grip."
While starting before Moto2 instead of after may make a difference for the Yamahas and KTMs, it will have less effect on the Ducatis. "I didn't even think about that," Jack Miller said when I asked him about it. "We get to ride before them, that should be a bit better. A little bit more grip at the beginning of the race, that's all it helps for."
Andrea Dovizioso was even more skeptical. "I don't think it changes things for Ducati. If it changes, then it changes for everybody. But to say it's better for some bikes than others, I don't think so. In Le Mans normally you don't feel too much difference in any case."
If anything makes a difference at Le Mans, it is the grip of the asphalt. That should help the Yamahas, at a track where they have traditionally been strong. Yamahas have won at Le Mans on five of the last ten occasions, with Jorge Lorenzo and Maverick Viñales sharing the honours – Viñales' victory memorably coming after a fierce battle with Valentino Rossi, in which the Italian crashed out with two corners to go.
Rossi struck a note of caution for the race this year. "Historically the Yamaha is very good in Le Mans, so we come here optimistic, but we need to understand this year. Last year was not a great race for Yamaha. We were not so bad. I was the top Yamaha but we arrive in fifth position. I was not so far from the podium and the three Ducatis in front of me but we were not very strong and I lose so much in acceleration." The bike is stronger in that aspect this year, but Sunday will show what is possible.
Maverick Viñales is a little more optimistic, believing that racing before Moto2 should offer lessons for Yamaha to learn. "The bike is good when we have grip," he said. "Le Mans is a track where we used to have good grip and be riding in a good way. Last year in FP1 and FP2 we were strong. This is the facts." The question is what will happen in the race, however. "We need to try to understand before Moto2 race if feeling is the same or not. Normally in practice we can be really strong, but then in the race we go back. Good opportunity to understand many, many things for us."
Le Mans will be a key race for the championship as well. Viñales needs a result to get his championship back on track, after the disaster of Barcelona. Fabio Quartararo needs to keep up his form from Barcelona and try to win his home Grand Prix. That proved tough last year, when he struggled in qualifying but found some real pace during the race. "Last year here was really positive," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "The result was not that great but in the race we showed our pace was really fast, if we check the lap time we had the pace for the podium. That’s really good, we hope for the same this year."
While a Yamaha has won for half of the last ten years, a Honda has won the other five times, with Marc Márquez having three of those victories to his name. But without Márquez, Honda's chances of victory drop drastically. Alex Márquez is a rookie, though improving, Stefan Bradl has been a test rider too long to be competitive, and Cal Crutchlow is still struggling with the after effects of surgery for arm pump.
"I spent ten days at home, ten times in hospital, MRI scans, seeing surgeons," Crutchlow said. "My arm’s not in a great situation. One of the reasons I didn’t ride [at the test] in Portimao. I didn’t want to use the arm. Again I’ll ride this weekend and then I’ll go and see Dr Mir again and consult with him as to what’s the best option to do. The arm still has fluid, the arm is very swollen, the flexor muscle is very, very hard for some reason. Skin is completely stuck to muscle and tendons. We can’t get it off." But that was all part of the job, Crutchlow pointed out. "Another week in the life of. If it was easy everyone would do it."
Takaaki Nakagami is Honda's best bet of a strong result. The Japanese rider has had a very solid season in 2020, and been unlucky on a couple of occasions to miss out on a podium. The question is whether he can overcome his poor previous form at Le Mans: last year, he qualified seventh despite crashing in a wet Q2, then crashed out of the race from twelfth. Nakagami has been more consistent this year, and will need that at Le Mans.
Take away Marc Márquez, and there would have been a pile of wins for Ducati at Le Mans. Last year, Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci finished on the podium, and Jack Miller finished fourth. Miller finished fourth in 2018 as well, while Petrucci finished second that year, after Dovizioso had crashed out of second place in the early laps.
Could a Ducati spring a surprise? "I enjoy the place, fought for the podium the last two years here," an optimistic Jack Miller told us. "Always been relatively fast here, won here in Moto3, so I get along with the place quite good, the bike seems to work pretty well here, so we'll see what we can do." But the weather was likely to upset any firm plans, requiring flexibility. "Just try to take it as it comes, try not to think too much about it, especially with the way the weather can be here. Just try to be ready for any sort of conditions."
Andrea Dovizioso is still in contention for the title, the Factory Ducati rider just 24 points back from Quartararo. To an extent, conditions may actually help Dovizioso, the wet weather canceling out Dovizioso's problems with braking from the new construction Michelin rear slick. It will also leave him with more soft front tires, the compound he favors.
Qualifying will be key, Dovizioso believes, and the key to qualifying is to ensure he can pass directly to Q2. "For sure the position makes the difference even more year by year, because especially this season the time gap is very small. So it's even more important this season not to lose a second at the beginning of the race because the gap most of the time is very small. It's very important but you need to be faster in practice and we are working on that, but we are struggling that much this season so we will see," the Italian said.
That leaves the Suzukis. Joan Mir is currently second in the championship, and given the consistency the Spaniard has shown, arguably the favorite for the title. Teammate Alex Rins has struggled with injury, but also consistency, but he has also proven to be quick, scoring a podium in Barcelona behind his teammate. Rins still has a long way to go with his recovery, though. "I would like to say I’m at 100% but still not 100%," he said. "I’m happy to not feel pain on the bone but with this sort of injury you have to stop and recover for two to three months to be perfect. We didn’t stop with this season full of races, on the bike I’m not feeling enough muscle on the right arm."
Mir is in much better shape all round, with four podiums to his name. The only thing missing is a win. "I think in the World Championship we are really close, but to fight for the Championship you need to win races and that is a fact," Mir said. "At the moment we are competitive, focused, consistent and fast, but we don’t have a victory yet. I am fully focused on that, fully focused on trying to get my first victory. Meanwhile it is important to score points and continue this way and like I said, just focus on the victory."
In theory, the Suzuki should be strong at Le Mans, the bike changing direction easily and having strong acceleration. But they had a difficult weekend last year, starting from 18th and 19th in the race after a difficult qualifying. Joan Mir crashed on the warm up lap, meaning he had to start from pit lane, his race ending before it even started. Alex Rins was quick, eventually crossing the line in 10th after starting from 19th.
Qualifying remains the Achilles heel of the Suzuki GSX-RR. Despite the fact that the Suzuki makes overtaking look like child's play, getting stuck behind riders costs time, as Mir and Rins found to their cost in Barcelona. A solution to that is needed if they are to start winning races on a regular basis. "It is something we have a margin to improve in that area, for sure it is difficult to find the solution because it is not our strongest point, but I am confident that the team will find a solution," Joan Mir opined. "Not to fight for pole positions but I would be happy to start on the first two rows."
Algarve roller coaster
The riders arrived at Le Mans fresh off the back of the track familiarization at Portimao, the circuit in the Algarve, on Portugal's southern coast. The track received pretty much universal praise from everyone who attended, Valentino Rossi waxing particularly lyrical. "Sincerely it is a fantastic track and I like it a lot. A lot better than what I expected. Looking from the television I expected a more tricky, difficult track with a lot of jumps and everything. But the track is beautiful, one of the best tracks for riding a motorcycle."
It would be a fantastic place for a season finale, Rossi opined. "I am very happy to finish there. Yesterday was a perfect day: 25 degrees and sun, no wind. Perfect conditions and they said also in November they hope to have a good temperature. I am happy to end the championship there and I hope Portimao will remain in the calendar the next years because it is a beautiful track and in a beautiful place."
The atmosphere at the track, going there to learn rather than push the limits, had also made for a much more pleasant experience, Jack Miller said. "Had a lot of fun yesterday. Was good to ride on a track with the guys, especially when it's a little less serious, it's not a test, it's not a Grand Prix. It's more like when you go to ride with friends."
It was a very tricky track to learn. "It's not an easy track, but for me, this is what makes this track fun, what makes it different," Pol Espargaro said. "For sure Portimao is going to be one of the most difficult tracks on the calendar, because there are many corners where you don't see the end of the corner, or there are many corners where you go into the next one without seeing anything because they are blind corners. But in the end, you need laps to learn the track, you need laps to learn how the kerbs are, how tight the corners are, how fast the corners are, you need this."
It took a couple of long runs to figure it all out and put it together, Jack Miller said. "I did a long first run, I did about 16 laps in the first run, and I found myself still messing up at the end of that," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "So it took me at least 20 laps to really get the flow of things. To come in, and think about it, and then go back out after this first run. And it's quite long lap there, it's not short like in Valencia, for example, or somewhere like that. It takes up quite a lot of time in the session."
That would be an advantage when MotoGP returns in November, Miller believed. He found it hard to understand why some riders, such as Fabio Quartararo, had elected not to ride at the test. "I don't understand why they didn't. Especially once I got there and did some laps on the track, you understand how difficult it is to learn. I'm stoked I went."
Quartararo explained that he didn't go because he had his eyes on the championship prize. "First of all it was to avoid any kind of injury, I think it was a bit risky two days before doing three races in a row," the Petronas Yamaha rider told the press conference. He already had some experience there, so he knew which way the track went, at least. "I was there six years ago and also we have a long FP1 and FP2 when we’re there, so that’s the reason I didn’t go to Portimao." All three classes get extra time on the Friday at Portimao, with MotoGP having two 80-minute sessions.
The resurfacing of the Portuguese tracks had removed most of the bumps, but one or two questions over safety remained, especially for the final corner, a long, fast, downhill right leading on to the front straight. "On the pictures everybody is commenting on the up and down," Aleix Espargaro said. "But at the end the rest of track is OK. We have enough room in case of crash. It’s on limit but OK. But last corner is dangerous, more unsafe. Rest of track is at the limit but we race at circuits that are a little more dangerous. For example Motegi walls are closer in many places than Portimao."
Jack Miller was of a similar opinion, but his emphasis was less on comparing with other tracks, and more on raising the bar at every track on the calendar. "A little bit," was how he assessed the danger of the final corner. "I've seen worse, for example in Barcelona it's worse. But for sure, it's not so much this is worse or that is worse, if we can try and bring the level up everywhere it would be better. But I think we'll be discussing that on Friday in the Safety Commission."
Whether MotoGP makes it to Portimao is still open to question, as the pandemic creeps back up on Europe. First, there is a Grand Prix in France to deal with. That is reason enough to be cheerful.
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