Neither race was a classic in France, but Moto2 and Moto3 still produced plenty to talk about last weekend. Here, we’ll dive into some of the more pressing matters in both classes.
Fernandez’s star rises
Anything Pedro can do, Raul can do better. All weekend long 20-year old Raul Fernandez demonstrated once again why his future is among the paddock’s big talking points. The rookie was untouchable in France, scoring a maiden Moto2 pole position before maintaining his cool in the opening laps when those around him lost theirs.
In a frenzied opening, when riders navigated a dry but patchy track on slick tyres, a number of podium contenders crashed out between laps one to four, Aron Canet, Augusto Fernandez, Joe Roberts, Sam Lowes and Xavi Vierge among them. A lap later and Fernandez coolly slotted by early leader Marco Bezzecchi to assume control. And from there, he held firm, even when team-mate Remy Gardner advanced to second and attempted to reel him in. There were no signs of the arm-pump issues that slowed him in the closing laps of the Spanish Grand Prix. As Bezzecchi said post-race with a shrug, “he was just faster.”
The win saw Fernandez make history, becoming the first rider in the Moto2 class to win two of his first five races. Little wonder he has gained an array of high-profile admirers. Aleix Espargaro is one of them. “Everybody is talking about Pedro Acosta because he's, yes, unbelievable. But with all respect for him Moto2 is a lot more difficult,” said Aprilia’s MotoGP man on Thursday. “(It’s) Another story. Moto3 rookies, for me the word ‘rookies’ is not really correct because they are coming from the Spanish championship, Red Bull Rookies and the bikes are very similar. But Moto2 is already a very powerful bike, difficult with a lot of talented riders and what Raul is achieving this year for me is unbelievable.”
As they often are, Espargaro’s comments were pointed. On Friday, Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport reported Fernandez’s name was high on the shortlist compiled by Aprilia’s management to place in its factory team next year. Fernandez ticks the boxes, showing the youth, speed and dedication to take the Noale factory’s much improved MotoGP project to the next step.
But interestingly, the rider from Madrid played down his chances of a MotoGP move after the race, indicating instead that he would prefer a second year in Moto2. “I don’t want to think about MotoGP,” he told journalists in the post-race press conference. “All riders need a minimum of two years in each of the categories. I want to stay for two seasons in Moto2 with my team because it’s a great family.”
When Fernandez was asked if he had failed to follow the success of Maverick Viñales and Joan Mir, two of his countrymen that had benefitted long-term from being fast-tracked through the intermediate class, he laughed. “I remember (what they did),” he said. “At the end I (will) stay with KTM. It depends on KTM. They will bring me the best opportunity. If they think that I need to continue for one more year in Moto2, I’ll continue. That is my opinion.”
One reason Fernandez is so keen on staying on KTM is the impact team boss Aki Ajo has had on his sensational transformation. “For me he’s the most important person in my career,” he said. “Last season I had too much pressure. I thought too much and didn’t enjoy the race. Step-by-step they helped me to not do this. (Aki) brings the 100% (out of his riders) and the calm. In my case, he gives me the calm and the experience to enjoy the race.”
Another important detail is the identity of his personal manager. Hannes Kinigadner, who looks after both Raul and younger brother Adrian, is the son of Austrian motorsport legend Heinz, who won motocross world championships and competed in the Paris-Dakar for KTM. Heinz Kinigadner has extremely close ties to Red Bull co-founder/owner and KTM-backer Dietrich Mateschitz. Heinz also set up the Wings For Life charity, which raises money for spinal injury research, after Hannes was paralysed in a motorcycle accident in 2003. KTM Motorsport Director Pit Beirer also has close links to the charity. With Hannes negotiating Raul’s deals, it’s hard to envision them seriously listening to anyone other than the Austrian factory.
But rather than focus on MotoGP, or lifting this year’s Moto2 title, Fernandez rolled out that old racing adage: enjoy the moment, take things race-by-race. “I don’t think about the title,” he said. “I’m a rookie. Here, Jerez and Portugal I had experience. But I know in the future I will have a difficult track, like Mugello, where I have been only one time. Because of this, I don’t want to think too much about the title. We will see, if I stay in the same place in the last part of the season, maybe we’ll think about it.”
Why so much damaged carbon fibre?
It felt like Aleix Espargaro spoke for most in attendance at a dreary Le Mans when on Saturday he said: “We can’t come to Le Mans with 8°C on the tarmac The tyres that Michelin and Dunlop are bringing are not working. Everybody is crashing. Are we all idiots?”
The answer was obvious. No, they are not idiots. And even still, we witnessed 117 crashes across all three classes at the French Grand Prix, including 36 in Moto2 and a whopping 51 in Moto3 – the third highest tally in modern GP history (Valencia 2018 and Misano 2017 still lead the way with 155 and 140). And it was in line with recent rounds at this track, when 109, 90 and 100 crashes dotted the 2018, ’19 and ’20 events.
The Le Mans Bugatti Circuit features some of the most difficult turns on the calendar, with Turns 3 and 14 once again proving particularly treacherous. The weather obviously didn’t help. Nor did the temperatures, with Moto3 FP3, for example, taking part with just 7°C on the tarmac. And the fact that Dunlop have just one wet rear tyre for each class means the conditions experienced in France are at the very extreme end of its operating window.
The tyre supplier came in for some rare criticism on Thursday, when Sam Lowes expressed frustration that the wet rear available for this weekend was the same used in last year’s French GP. “We only had one wet session last year and we had so many crashes,” said the Briton. “I’m honestly very surprised Dunlop didn’t bring something different this week, because the forecast is terrible. The grip was so bad last year. (Luca) Marini crashed leaving pit lane in the morning because the tyres don’t work so well. It’s a little frustrating. If you look at how we had to ride in the wet (in 2020), it’s not disappointing, but frustrating. It was more a case of staying on and riding around.”
This year was no different. There were a number of out lap crashes in each class. Maverick Viñales (FP1) and Alex Rins (race) fell at turn 4 on their out laps, while Andrea Migno (FP1) and Albert Arenas (warm up) did the same in Moto3 and Moto2 respectively.
Gary Purdy, Dunlop’s Track Service Support Engineer, said the fact Dunlop had to build a wet tyre that could deal with high track temperatures in somewhere like Thailand or Malaysia, as well as the French chill, was another factor. “For us it’s the track temperature and the surface is not so aggressive here. There is not a lot of grip. And a few of the turns – Turn 3 – is a bit off camber, which doesn’t help at all,” he told Simon Crafar in pit lane. “Also, we’re not like the big class; we’ve got one spec of wet (rear) that’s got to do all different variations of temperature and surface. We’ve got to work with that only. All they can do is work with a little bit of pressure [change] to help themselves.”
On the back of another expensive weekend for teams and manufacturers, softer wet compounds must surely be brought to this event in the future?
Gardner pays for early melee
“This all came from our qualifying. What are you going to do?” That was Remy Gardner’s assessment of a race he had the speed to win. A mistake on his fastest lap on Saturday afternoon in patchy conditions left him seventh on the grid. And a near moment at the first chicane ultimately left him too far in arrears of teammate Fernandez by the time he fought through to second on lap 19 .
“I don’t think the quali helped,” said the 23-year old. “And it seemed I was taking the sensible approach in the first few laps. I got buried going into the first chicane. Vierge came around the outside, (Hector) Garzo up the inside and they both lost the front. Everyone was slapping into each other. I nearly went down. But then I started understanding the track, changing my lines. There were a few crashes in front that freed up some space. Unfortunately, I ran out of tyre in the end, coming from so far back. But I can’t complain.”
Gardner is yet to crash this year and rarely appears flustered. Sunday was his eleventh consecutive top seven result, with seven podiums coming in that time. That’s championship form by any measure.
Arbolino and Bendsneyder rejuvenated
Raul Fernandez wasn’t the only rookie to impress here. Tony Arbolino posted a personal best result by some distance to finish an excellent fourth, ahead of the more experienced Bo Bendsneyder, who came home a personal best fifth. The outlook for both riders was bleak leaving Jerez. Arbolino was lost and, to borrow his own words “slow, not competitive.” Fernandez’s immediate success in the class was adding to his woe. Bendsneyder meanwhile went under the knife on the Wednesday after Jerez to alleviate an arm-pump issue that had dogged him since round one.
Yet both men were surprise contenders in the podium fight for the race’s first 16 laps. Arbolino revealed his willingness to risk a lot in the early laps, when the track was patchy and sketchy in the extreme, was key. “I felt like there was slight rain at some point in the race and the riders were much more careful, so I thought this was my time to push. I was happy to be able to keep the pace and to ride fast lap times throughout the entire race,” he said. And Dutchman Bendsneyder’s gamble with Dunlop’s softer rear slick paid off. “We started with the soft rear tyre so we knew that the last laps could be difficult. It was already difficult in the last 10 laps. But the positive point is that we took advantage in the beginning so I could manage to be in P3 for a long time.”
Inexperienced podium gives off feel-good vibe
Sunday’s Moto3 podium must have counted as one of the lesser decorated in history. Before France, Sergio Garcia, Filip Salac and Riccardo Rossi had just four podiums between them. But each showed speed in wet conditions as well as maturity to manage their respective situations as the track dried.
The press conference offered both Salac and Rossi (previous best results: fifth and eleventh) the chance to describe some of the sacrifices that even a Moto3 rider with limited previous success has to undergo to make it to the world championship.
“The first time I sat on a mini-bike was when I was two years old,” said the Czech Salac, second at the flag. “When I was four, I took part in a race in Prague. When I was six my father had the idea to go to Spain because the level there is the highest. In the Czech Republic there aren’t the best conditions to prepare for the races. When I was six, I started in the Cuna de Campeones (in Valencia) and we moved there. Half of the year, we lived there. My father gave a lot of years of his life to me and this is the day we’ve been working for. He spent a lot of money. And we have a big family – I have a lot of siblings. It was a little unfair because he was always with me.”
Third placed Rossi added, “The people only see this world. But behind this wall there are a lot of things, that people don’t see. When I was living in Italy, my father brought me every Friday to train and then go back. On Monday he’d wake up at 6 and go to work to make it possible for me to do this. I don’t go out with friends. I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t eat McDonald's – a lot of sacrifices that people don’t really see. They only see the results. But it’s this which is the most important thing in this sport.”
Title rivals fail to capitalise on Acosta blunder
No matter his talent, a first big mistake was always going to come in Pedro Acosta’s rookie campaign. In France he gave his title rivals a chance to make up ground on his ridiculous 51-point lead by crashing out early on at turn three. The 16-year old had dazzled once again, this time in the wet, conditions he has limited experience of, at a track he had never seen before Thursday. He made up a staggering 15 places in the first two laps before falling at turn three. Not that it mattered a great deal for his title hopes. Main challengers Nico Antonelli, Jaume Masia and Darryn Binder also succumbed to the tricky conditions with crashes on laps one, two and nine respectively. Even on a bad day, Acosta extended his advantage by five points. And this weekend was yet further evidence of his dizzying ability to learn at a near superhuman rate.
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