The Grand Prix Motorcycling World Championship hits its 1000th event at Le Mans. The grand prix paddock assembles for the 1000th time in France. The fact that it is tempting to say that this will be the 1000th round of MotoGP is both ahistorical and a fascinating glimpse into just how much MotoGP has changed over the years.
In 1949, the first year of the official Grand Prix world championship, the series consisted of a number of separate events, all of which long predated the new FIM sanctioned championship. Big international races had existed almost since the dawn of motorcycling. The Isle of Man TT, which was home to the very first GP in 1949, held its very first race in 1907. The Dutch TT at Assen – held on Saturday, July 9th in 1949 – had been in existence since 1926, after the original race had moved from further east in 1925.
The winners of those first races? Freddie Frith was the very first winner of a motorcycle grand prix, winning the 350cc Junior TT on a Velocette single. Harold Daniell won the 500cc race, the Senior TT, aboard a Norton, another four-stroke single.
Flirting with death
Those early years, the races were mostly held on public roads, or tracks which doubled as public thoroughfares like Assen and Spa-Francorchamps. Only a very few closed circuits such as Monza existed. Safety was next to non-existent: riders wore two-piece leather suits, cork pudding bowl helmets, and raced over bumpy roads, through villages lined with stone walls and houses, or down lanes lined with trees. Crashes were always bad, and often fatal. Grid slots empty but for a funeral wreath were a common sight before races.
The money situation wasn't much better. Each grand prix was a separate event run by an individual promoter. Riders would turn up and hope their entries would be accepted, then hope to qualify to earn start money. They would also have to hope they weren't injured: the process for obtaining start money meant standing in line after the race in front of the promoter's office to collect your envelope of cash. If they were really unlucky, they would find the locked door of an empty office, and a promoter who had absconded with the weekend's takings.
Things changed slowly over the years, with the riders demanding better treatment. The Isle of Man was dropped from the calendar in 1976, after Giacomo Agostini lead a rebellion over the safety of the track. Kenny Roberts took up that particular baton later, threatening to create a breakaway series if the FIM didn't improve conditions, both over safety and the financial security for teams and riders. The old road circuits disappeared, replaced by purpose-built racetracks. Walls and barriers were replaced by gravel traps and hay bales, and eventually air fence.
(Incidentally, for a look at those wild cowboy years of motorcycle racing, I highly recommend the book Continental Circus by Jan and Hetty Burgers, co-authored by Frank Weeink, containing photos and stories from the time. There is now also a second book, Continental Circus 2 – 10 seconds to go.)
A sport transformed
In the 1980s, IRTA, led by Mike Trimby, was born, the teams forming a union to present a stronger front to the FIM. IRTA helped arrange the sale of TV rights, calling in the assistance of Bernie Ecclestone and his experience from F1. The FIM awarded the TV rights to Dorna, but Ecclestone secured the commercial rights to the series and sold that to Dorna. At last there was a unified structure running the series.
Say what you will about Dorna – and there is plenty to complain about – but under their leadership, the sport was transformed into a much more open, safer sport. TV money and tobacco sponsorship allowed Dorna to demand safety improvements from circuits, and drop those which did not comply. That money also gave them leverage with the FIM. A Safety Officer was appointed, and the riders started to meet in the Safety Commission, providing their input for how to make the sport better.
All that has led to the series we have today. The teams are all supported by Dorna through the the money generated by the commercial exploitation of the series. Every single rider in the premier class is on a generous salary, with more than a few on extremely lucrative deals. They ride what are still the most sophisticated racing motorcycles in the world, built to lap a race track as quickly as possible.
A different world
The safety of the series has improved beyond the wildest imagination of those riders back in 1949. Apparel manufacturers pour millions into choosing materials which are abrasion resistant, and creating protective gear which absorbs the energy of violent crashes. Airbags covering shoulders, back, and hips reduce impacts, and full face helmets absorb massive energy to protect the riders' brains. MIPS and other anti-rotation systems are on their way to further prevent traumatic brain injury. Tracks are wide, with ample run off, deep gravel traps, and lined with air fence.
Ironically, the greatest danger to the riders is now the extremely close racing the series provides. Back in 1949, the gaps between the bikes was measured in minutes. Now, the top ten bikes will cross the finish line separated by a handful of seconds. But the closeness of that racing means that if a rider falls, the chance of them being hit by another bike is vastly increased. The tracks may be much safer, but an impact from a bike can still be fatal, as we have seen on multiple occasions over the past decade.
An echo of the past
In many ways, Le Mans is indicative of the change over the years. Once, Turn 1, the Dunlop Corner, was a searingly fast long right hander with very little runoff. In an effort to reduce the speed of that corner, a small chicane was added in 1986. That same year, an extra chicane, the Chemin aux Boeufs, now Turns 9 and 10 were added.
The march of progress would not be stymied, however. By the mid-90s, the bikes had gotten faster. In 1995, as his career was in the ascendant and after winning his first 500cc grand prix at Jerez, Alberto Puig fell off his Honda NSR500 through Turn 1 at Le Mans, and slammed into the airfence. Despite the airfence cushioning the blow, Puig badly injured his left leg, and was forced to retire after a failed comeback in 1996. That injury plagues Puig to this day, causing him serious health problems still.
That crash caused Le Mans to be taken off the calendar until 2000, and prompted the track to modify the chicane significantly, as well as tweak the track at Musée, Turn 7. Further changes have followed – to the chicane again, to La Chapelle (Turn 6), and Garage Vert (Turn 8) – in an attempt to make the track safer.
Fast and slow and charming
The changes have slowed the track down significantly, but it still has bags of character. Courbe Dunlop – Turns 1 and 2, as it is technically counted as two corners – is still blisteringly fast, and challenges the riders as they brake from high speed while leaned over to the right and prepare to flick the bike left and right for the Dunlop Chicane, Turns 3 and 4. A quick burst of gas before leaning the bike left to prepare for La Chapelle, a tricky off-camber, downhill very long right hander.
Another quick burst of speed and a chance to dive under a rider at Turn 7, Musée. Then another dab of gas up to Garage Vert, the double right which is another place where you can attack, though you risk running wide. Down the back straight to the Chemin aux Boeufs, literally Cattle Road, and the chicane at Turns 9 and 10. Another excellent place to try to outbrake someone into 9 and block pass them through 10. Turn 11, the 'S' Bleus, or Blue Esses is not a place for passing, but is the section you need to take very precisely to try to line up a pass into Turn 13, so you exit ahead out of the final corner, Raccordement, and onto the front straight again.
Le Mans is known as a stop-and-go track, and rightly so. But there is more to it than just hard acceleration and braking. If you can get the bike to hold a line and turn well, you can flow through the fast first corner, flow through La Chapelle and Musée, and line someone up at the 'S' Bleus.
M1 no more
Underlining just how important sweet handling is at Le Mans, Yamahas won at the circuit seven times in the ten-year span from 2008-2017. But in the five editions since then, they have been on the podium only twice: a third for Valentino Rossi in 2018, and another third for Fabio Quartararo in 2021. Marc Marquez won on a Honda in 2018 and 2019, and a Ducati has won the last three race at Le Mans.
There is no real hope of Yamaha doing particularly well this year either, unless the weather throws a spanner in the works. Cool weather may help – the Yamaha seems to do better in colder temperatures, the front tire suffering less – but the real issue is that the current iteration of the Yamaha M1 is not the bike it once was.
"The others are stepping up a lot, but we are also losing our strong point, stability and turning," Fabio Quartararo told the press conference on Thursday. "This is something that became more difficult every year. Also changing some fueling stuff on the engine to make it more powerful, we increased a little bit the power, but we lost so much in other areas. So this is something that at the end, we have to find our base again."
Quartararo and teammate Franco Morbidelli find themselves ranged against a Ducati which is at the very peak of its performance, a KTM which is rapidly emerging as the second strongest bike on the grid, an Aprilia with the same strengths as the Yamaha but fewer weaknesses. Meanwhile, they are trying to find a base setting that works, a setting that will allow them to chase a single fast lap, which is the single most important target of the new format of MotoGP. Without that, they are beaten before they even start. No wonder Quartararo was so keen to leave the pre-event ride from the town to the track.
You could make a case that the Yamaha is currently the worst bike on the grid, though first you would have to persuade your interlocutor that it is worse than the Honda RC213V. The defenders of Honda might point to Alex Rins' victory at the Circuit of The Americas, but that is a very special set of circumstances. The Honda lacks rear grip, and lacks confidence in the front end. It isn't great in braking and turning, nor good on corner exit.
Help may be at hand. For the first time this year, the Repsol Honda garage will have a Kalex-built chassis to try. Stefan Bradl tested it extensively at the Monday test after Jerez, before handing it over to Joan Mir. But a technical issue meant that the bike cut out after just half a lap when Mir took it out. That was not enough to explore the limits of a frame, Mir asserted.
Mir and Marquez will be hoping that the forecast is accurate for Friday, so they get a chance to try the Kalex chassis, and assess its strengths and weaknesses. The chances of it being a silver bullet for all of Honda's problems are slim, but any improvement, especially in feedback and feel, will be welcomed. And a bit more grip on corner exit might help.
Le Mans was always a track where the Honda was strong, even during periods when the bike was suffering at other tracks. So there might be some hope that the RC213V won't struggle as much as it has at other tracks.
The riders still might, however. Joan Mir is suffering a crisis of confidence after a positively miserable start to the season. "We are in a moment where my confidence and everything is very low," the Spaniard said. "We came from a period that is very difficult, also the last part of last year was difficult. This year is difficult." A solid result is important for Mir just to give him something to build on.
As for Marc Marquez, the Spaniard is back from injury, but lacking race fitness. Three races off and having spent no time on any form of motorcycle means his expectations are low. The target for the six-time MotoGP champion is to make it through the weekend and get himself fit for Mugello.
Marquez has also been able to put the penalty given at Portimão behind him, now that the FIM MotoGP Court of Appeal has handed down its verdict that the penalty should be considered as served. He emphasized once again that the appeal had been against the fact that the penalty was changed, not the penalty itself.
The view from the inside
He was also asked if his rivals would hold the fact that he hadn't served the penalty against him. With KTM's Jack Miller interjecting 'No' before Marquez could answer, the Spaniard pointed out that nobody goes out with the intention of crashing into someone else, and that the risk of criticizing someone one week risked suffering the same criticism the next.
"If you speak bull**** about a rider, then in the next race the same can happen to you," Marquez said. "Nobody crashes because they want to crash into another rider. Nobody attacks without thinking. But sometimes we are riding on the limit and we are making some mistakes." Sometimes those mistakes led to a rider crashing on their own, sometimes it meant crashing into another rider. If you race at the front for long enough, Marquez insisted, it was inevitable that you would end up in these situations at some point.
So who should we be betting on to win at Le Mans? It is hard to look past the Ducatis, given the Desmosedici has won the last three editions in a row. What is remarkable is that it has been a different rider each year. In 2020 it was Danilo Petrucci in a cold and wet race. 2021 saw Jack Miller win a flag-to-flag race. And last year, Enea Bastianini held on after Pecco Bagnaia crashed out to take a convincing victory.
Bastianini isn't present this year, still recovering from the fractured shoulder blade he suffered in the sprint race in Portimão. Petrucci returns to the factory Ducati team to replace last year's winner, meaning that he should be able to adapt relatively quickly. The team have all his settings and ergonomics from his time there, and so they should have the bike ready to fit him from the moment first practice starts. But the sport has moved on and changed, even in just the two years Petrucci has been away. If it looks like rain on Sunday – it doesn't at the moment – then that might be his only hope of getting close to the podium.
Pecco Bagnaia should have been on the podium, or perhaps even won the race last year. But the Italian had a mistake-strewn first half of 2022, crashing out of race after race until he put himself straight after the Sachsenring. After a lightning start, Bagnaia looked to be headed down the wrong road again, crashing out of strong positions in both Argentina and Austin, despite winning the sprint race in Texas.
Righting the ship
Bagnaia put that all straight again at Jerez. After a difficult start on Friday, the Italian found enough speed on Saturday to get on the podium in the sprint race, then hold his nerve to win the grand prix on Sunday. Bagnaia is in excellent form, and his hiccups in the early races have been lessons he has learned from. "In any case, we can learn from our mistakes and we can understand we can learn, so maybe I can improve from that situation," he told the press conference.
If the championship leader doesn't put a Ducati on the podium, there is a string of candidates who could do so instead. Marco Bezzecchi worked on a few settings and practice starts at the Jerez test, after a very tough weekend there, and can try to get his championship challenge back on track. Johann Zarco has a chance to get on the podium at his home grand prix, or perhaps finally score his first win. And Jorge Martin is still keen to make the point that it was he, rather than Bastianini, who deserved the second factory seat. And let's not forget about Luca Marini and Alex Marquez, both of whom have been on the podium this year.
But perhaps the main challenge to the Ducatis could come from KTM. Brad Binder and Jack Miller were on the podium in the sprint race on Saturday and Sunday's grand prix, Binder winning the sprint on Saturday. The bike is getting better, and is arguably very well suited to the nature of Le Mans.
Part of the KTM RC16's strength is its ability to use the rear to stop the bike, and get the front wheel pointing in the right direction on corner entry. That and the way the bike can change direction gives it an advantage at Le Mans, Jack Miller believes. "Le Mans is kind of a track where you need to stop-go part of it. But then also you need to be able to get the timing right, especially in Turns 3 and 4," the Australian told the press conference.
The bike should suit the entire circuit, Miller said. "Then also over the back after the back straight, with the chicanes is where you kind of need to get the timing right and the bike needs to react in the right way, so I feel like we've got that with this bike and you know as you said week by week gotten better and better and the bike’s gotten more and more comfortable with it."
KTM had the advantage of having Dani Pedrosa testing at Jerez three weeks before the race. That provided a wealth of data, which undoubtedly helped the Red Bull Factory KTM team excel. They don't have that at Le Mans, with everyone starting from zero at the track. The bike may be good, but KTM doesn't have the base data which Ducati is blessed with. In France, we will see just how quickly they can get up to speed.
Finally, Aprilia. Aleix Espargaro's third place last year was the Italian factory's best result at the circuit, and the 2023 RS-GP is a better machine than the bike in 2022. Maverick Viñales is also stronger this year, and this is a track where he has won in the past and always been strong.
But the Aprilias have two weaknesses still, one of which the weather may help neuter. Where both KTM and Ducati have found ways to get around the sensitivity of the Michelin front tire to rising temperatures, the Aprilia suffers similarly to the Yamaha. The cold in France may mitigate that, making rising temperatures and pressures easier to manage.
Off the line
The other problem, though, remains. Despite qualifying on pole at Jerez, Aleix Espargaro had bikes flying past him left and right on the way into the first corner. "We improved the starts a lot during the weekend, but I could see Aleix started first and arrived fifth in the first corner, so we need to improve that. It is something mandatory to fight for every race," Maverick Viñales said on Thursday. It was something which the Aprilia riders spent a lot of time on at the Jerez test, the workbench in the Aprilia garage adorned with a line of new clutches at the start of the day, which had all been used up by the end.
The Aprilia RS-GP is certainly fast enough to win, Aleix Espargaro believes, but it is hampered by the fact that it works best when the track ahead is empty. "The DNA of the Aprilia is to release the brake and have good corner speed, and we can do this while we’re alone and this is why we lead the sessions and we can be very fast," Espargaro said.
"But Sunday is another story; you have to close the lines and pick up the bike and accelerate, you have to brake and to fight and this is something that the Aprilia is not at the same level. We need to work on this." Espargaro has a point, but if he can qualify well and Aprilia can finally fix the starts, he might find himself in contention again.
Ironically, the Aprilia RS-GP is the proof that the Yamaha M1's problems are not down to it being an inline four. The Aprilia is a V4, yet suffers the same issues: it wants to lead from the front and run ideal lines, and as soon as another bike gets in the way, the front tire overheats and it can't find a way past. "You have to be at least 0.3 or 0.4 faster than the guy in front, or if not, it's very difficult to overtake," Viñales explained. "That's a lot, actually. So sometimes you have the rhythm to be in the front, but as you are stuck with other riders, you cannot be there."
All this is theory, of course. Races tend to have a mind of their own, with the best laid plans falling apart on contact with reality. That, as Nicky Hayden used to say, is why they line up on Sunday.
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