2015 Le Mans MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Why The Honda Is The Third-Best Bike In MotoGP, And Wins vs Titles In Moto3
Something always happens at Le Mans. Something happens at every MotoGP race, of course, but Le Mans seems to always have more than its fair share of happenings. Unlikely events, weird crashes, high drama. Marco Simoncelli taking out Dani Pedrosa. Casey Stoner announcing his retirement. Things that nobody had seen coming emerge from the shadows. News that was half suspected is suddenly thrust into the limelight. Something always happens at Le Mans.
This year, it was the turn of Honda to make the headlines, not something you want to do at Le Mans. The weakness of the bike was finally exposed, with three factory Hondas all crashing out, and the fourth one looking likely to do the same at any moment. Dani Pedrosa and Scott Redding suffered identical crashes, losing the front early in the race. Cal Crutchlow's crash was different. He made a mistake when his foot slipped off the peg, grabbing the front brake harder than he meant to and locking the front as he turned in to La Chapelle, the long downhill right hander. But up until that moment, he had been struggling with exactly the same lack of front end grip on corner entry. Marc Márquez' spectacular and wild first few laps saw him running off the track just about everywhere, as he tried to brake hard and enter the corner, but ended up running wide.
At last there was confirmation of something which all of the Honda riders had been saying since last year. Cal Crutchlow's first reaction when he got off the RC213V was "I'll tell you what, it's a hard bike to ride." Scott Redding said much the same. "It's a difficult bike to ride, a lot more difficult than the Open Honda." Such statements were met with outright skepticism by most observers. After all, this was the same bike on which Marc Márquez had won the first ten races of the season, before going on to wrap up his second title in a row virtually unchallenged.
That was probably part of the problem. The Honda was nowhere near as good as Marc Márquez was making it look. "In my opinion, the talent of Marc hides some limits of the Honda," said Andrea Dovizioso in the post-race press conference. "He's the only one able to go fast, also last year, but especially this year. I believe Honda in this moment doesn't have a perfect balance."
Press releases from the teams and Bridgestone after Sunday's fascinating French Grand Prix:
2015 Le Mans MotoGP Saturday Round Up: How The Weather Shakes Up Racing, And Matching Lorenzo's Metronomic Pace
Motorcycle racing would be a good deal less complicated if it was an indoor sport. Leaving the complications of housing an area covering several square kilometers to one side for a moment, having a track which was not subject to rain, wind or shine would make things a lot more predictable. No longer would the riders and teams have to worry about whether the track was wet enough for rain tires, or slicks could be used with a dry line forming. Nor would they have to worry about track grip dropping as temperatures rose beyond a certain point. Or differences in grip from one part of the track to the next, as clouds hide the sun and strong winds steal heat from the asphalt. There would be only the bike, the rider, and the track.
Racing would be a lot less interesting, though. Saturday at Le Mans was a case in point. On Friday, it looked like the races were all pretty much wrapped up: Jorge Lorenzo was unstoppable in MotoGP, Tito Rabat was back to his best in Moto2, and Danny Kent was imperious in Moto3. Cold temperatures in the morning and rain at the start of the afternoon threw a spanner in the works for almost everyone. All of a sudden, things look a lot more complicated. And rather intriguing.
The Moto3 class were the hardest hit. The skies were pregnant with rain before qualifying started, with only very light drizzle falling. Within two minutes of the green light going on, the drizzle was heavier, and the track went from being a little slow to being downright treacherous. Fabio Quartararo got it right: first out of the pits, he took pole with his first flying lap. Then he got it wrong: he was nearly two seconds slower on his next lap, then found himself tumbling through the gravel at Turn 1, the quickest corner on the circuit. He wasn't the only one, being joined in the gravel by his teammate Jorge Navarro, while on the other side of the track, Brad Binder had crashed out. The men and women of Moto3 had had enough: they filed back into the pits as the track went from damp to wet, only a few brave souls venturing out in the second half of qualifying, circulating fifteen or more seconds off pole pace.
Going out first turned out to be the key. The riders who waited for the lights to go green at the end of pit lane fill the front of the grid, those who let the pack escape first, then followed at a leisurely pace in pursuit of an empty track are all well down the order. Quartararo, Navarro, Pecco Bagnaia, Romano Fenati fill the front rows, Danny Kent and Efren Vazquez bring up the rear. It was, said Kent, a 'terrible mistake', after dominating in free practice. It was an understandable one, though, as normally, the Leopard Racing team's tactics would have bought Kent and Vazquez free space in which to set out the pace. A normally smart move backfired this time, due to the weather.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after qualifying at Le Mans:
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after the first day of practice at Le Mans:
The Le Mans round of MotoGP is a truly schizophrenic event. The track sits just south of the charming old city of Le Mans, a combination of medieval center and 19th Century industrial outskirts. The surrounding area is lush, rolling hills, woods alternating with open green fields. It is very much a provincial idyll. Until you reach the Le Mans circuit, and its campsites, where visions of Dante unfold before your eyes, and disinterested guards look on as large drunken hordes set about recreating some of the more gruesome scenes from Lord of the Flies.
Some people love it, others hate it. Veteran journalist Dennis Noyes always says it reminds of going to Hockenheim in the 1990s, when the police would not enter the woods at the heart of the track until the Monday after the race. Then they would go in "to pull the bodies out," as he so colorfully put it. Outside the track, the atmosphere is one of quiet provincial charm. Inside, all is wild, free, and out of control. It is an event that should be experienced at least once, though to be honest, once was enough for me.
Even the circuit is schizophrenic. The facility has two layouts. The glorious, high-speed intimidation of the Circuit de la Sarthe hosts the pinnacle of four-wheeled racing, the 24 Heures du Mans car race, on a track full of long, fast straights and sweeping corners. But MotoGP uses the Bugatti Circuit, the shorter, closed circuit, which is all hairpins and tight esses, with just the glorious Dunlop Curve left as a reminder of the larger, faster circuit.
Yet despite its shortcomings, the Bugatti Circuit has plenty to enjoy. The hard braking, then long drop off of Turn 4, La Chappelle, a treacherous turn indeed. The sweep of Musee and Garage Vert, ideal places for overtaking. The series of tricky esses in the second half of the track: the Chemin aux Boeufs, Garage Bleu, and then the double right of Raccordement, again, ideal spots for attacking an opponent, with the risk they will come back at you in either the second half of the corner, or at the next pair coming up. At most tracks, there are only a couple of places you can overtake. At Le Mans, there are only a couple of corners where you can't.
Previews from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone ahead of this weekend's race at Le Mans:
2015 Jerez MotoGP Test Round Up: Happy Yamahas, Hondas Chase Traction, Aprilia's Seamless, Suzuki Finds Pace On Old Tires
The day after a race is simultaneously the best and the worst time to go testing. The best time, because the track is in great condition, having already seen three days of action. Riders are all fully up to speed, with both the track and with their riding. It is also the worst time, because riders and teams are exhausted after the intensity of a race weekend, having given their all to try to win at the track. Testing after a race weekend is probably the least worst solution.
The Monday test after Jerez saw this point very well illustrated. With temperatures very similar to race day, the MotoGP teams – all bar the factory Ducati men, who were headed to Mugello for a test there on the 11th and 12th May – found a track in almost identical condition to the race, in which they could test things they didn't have time to over the weekend, to try to find where they want wrong.
Jorge Lorenzo had already had a perfect weekend, dominating practice and qualifying and then taking a stunning victory. He therefore did not have much to test on Monday, a new fork and a new clutch being the biggest items. The fork was much the same, being the fork Valentino Rossi was using, but the new clutch was "pretty bad," according to Lorenzo, gains overall rather limited. It did not stop Lorenzo being fastest overall once again, however, though at less than four hundredths of a second, his advantage over his teammate was rather slim.
One of the greatest privileges of my job is to stand at trackside and watch the riders up close. It is the ideal antidote to the malaise which can affect journalists like me who tend to spend too much time indoors, in the press room, in the back of garages, and in team trucks and hospitality units, endlessly talking to people in pursuit of information. Walking out to Nieto, Peluqui and Crivillé, turns 9, 10 and 11 at Jerez, savoring the passion of the fans cheering as their favorite riders pass by, observing each rider closely as they pass, trying to see if I can see anything, learn anything, understand anything about the way the best motorcycle racers in the world handle their machines.
There is plenty to see, if you take the trouble to look. This morning, during warm up, I watched the riders brake and pitch their machines into turn 9, give a touch of gas to turn 10, before getting hard on the gas out of turn 10 and onto the fast right handers of 11 and 12. In the transition from the left of turn 8 to the right of turn 9, you see the fast riders move slowly across the bike, while the slow riders move fast. You see them run on rails through turns 9 and 10, before forcing the bike up onto the fatter part of the tire while still hanging off the side out of 10 and heading off to 11. You see the extreme body position on the bike, almost at the limit of physics. It is hard to see how a rider can hang off the bike further, outside hands barely touching the handlebars, outside feet almost off the footpegs. Photos and video barely start to do the riders justice. To experience it you need to see it from the track, and from the stands and hillsides that surround it.
Of all the riders to watch around Jerez, none is as spectacular as Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo is spectacular not for his exaggerated mobility, but rather for the lack of it. He slides around the Yamaha M1 like a python, oozing from side to side, his motion almost invisible to the naked eye. One moment he is hanging off the left side of the bike, then next he is over on the right, and you find yourself with no clear memory of seeing him go from one side to the other. He appears almost motionless, while the bike underneath him chases round the track at immense speed. He looks like a special effects montage, Lorenzo having been filmed in slow motion, sitting atop a motorcycle being shown at double speed. It is a truly glorious spectacle.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after qualifying at Jerez:
2015 Jerez MotoGP Friday Round Up: How Rossi And Lorenzo Took Different Tire Strategies, And Why Stoner Was Snubbed
The Circuito de Velocidad in Jerez is not just a single circuit, it is three. It is a highly abrasive, very grippy track in the wet. It is a grippy, flowing track in the dry, when track temperatures are below around 35°C. And it is a treacherous, greasy, low-grip track when it is above 40°C. It didn't rain today (nor will it for the rest of the weekend) and so we only got to see two of the three tracks on Friday. But boy were they different.
Different or not, the same man ended both MotoGP sessions at the top of the timesheets. In the cool of the morning, when track temps were low and grip high, Lorenzo went out and dominated, hammering out a string of low 1'39s, well below the lap record pace. In the afternoon, the Movistar Yamaha man took his time, experimenting with then discounting the harder of the two tire options, before putting the soft back in and running another string of mid 1'39s, five of which were better than Marc Márquez' second fastest lap. It felt like the real Jorge Lorenzo was back.
Was Lorenzo's down solely to the fact that he was running the medium tire, where others were struggling to make the hard tire work for race distance? To an extent, but that is to misunderstand Lorenzo's intention. The Movistar Yamaha man believes he will be able to race the softer of the two tires, that tire being better for the Yamaha over race distance. It is better because of the way Bridgestone have changed the allocation this year, widely hailed as an improvement. For all three tires – the medium and hard for Yamaha and Honda, the soft and medium for the rest – the compounds have been changed slightly, going just a fraction harder. That has left everyone with two viable choices of tire for the race, the option of endurance with the hard, or early speed and a more predictable drop.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone after the first day of practice at Jerez:
Jerez is always a very special weekend. When Valentino Rossi described the first race back in Europe using those words, he spoke for everyone in the MotoGP paddock. Everyone loves being back in Europe, because the atmosphere changes, the hospitality units fill the paddock, the catering staff, hospitality managers, runners, cleaners, general dogsbodies – in other words, the people who actually do any real work – return to fill the paddock, and old friends are reunited after a long winter away, often doing something else to subsidize the meager pay they take for the privilege of working in Grand Prix during the summer. The paddock becomes a village once again, awaking from the long winter slumber.
The setting helps. The charming old city of Jerez is showing the first shoots of economic recovery, not yet enough to match the full bloom of spring happening on the surrounding hillsides, the slopes covered with wild flowers, but there is a much more positive vibe than there has been for some years. There is a sense of optimism. That sense of optimism flows into the paddock, already buzzing after a sizzling and surprising start to the 2015 MotoGP season. With over 100,000 people expected to pack the stands on Sunday, Jerez feels like the right way to kick off the long European leg of the championship.
The weather helps too. It is hot and sunny, with a long, dry weekend ahead of us. That will please everyone, giving them all a chance to actually work on set up. The track is short enough for them all to go out, test a set up, come back in and try something else, and with the weather holding, they can repeat that process until Sunday's race. For Andrea Dovizioso, this was key: with so much still to figure out with the brand new GP15, the factory Ducati men want as much dry weather and stable conditions as they can get. The bike has worked at every track they have been at so far, and Jerez was always a particular bugbear of the Ducati. Both Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone are keen to see how the new bike will actually go around the track here. "I have a good feeling for this weekend, because the agility has improved a lot," said Iannone. Agility is key at this track, because of the many changes of direction. "I think this bike is ready to fight with the best," the Italian said.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Bridgestone ahead of this weekend's race at Jerez:
2015 Argentina MotoGP Post-Race Round Up: On Rossi Vs Marquez, And Why You Shouldn't Believe The Pundits
You should never believe professional pundits. We writers and reporters, forecasters and commentators like to opine on our specialist subject at every opportunity. The wealth of data at our fingertips, which we study avidly, fools us into thinking we know what we are talking about. So we – and I do mean all of us, not just the royal we – tell our audience all sorts of things. That Casey Stoner is about to return to racing with Ducati. That Valentino Rossi is set to join the Repsol Honda squad. That Casey Stoner is not about to retire, or that Dani Pedrosa will.
Your humble correspondent is no different. In 2013, during his first season back at Yamaha, I was quick to write Valentino Rossi off. At the age of 34, I pontificated, the keenest edge had gone from his reflexes, and he was at best the fourth best motorcycle racer in the world. He would never win another race again, unless he had a helping hand from conditions and circumstances, I confidently asserted. Rossi proved me wrong, along with the many others who wrote him off, at Misano last year. Now, after three races of the 2015 season, Rossi has two wins and a third, and leads the championship.
After the race at Argentina, the experts and pundits are all rubbing their hands with glee once again. Analyzing the coming together between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, ascribing intention to one rider or another, confidently claiming that they can see inside the minds of the men involved. We are certain that Márquez was trying to intimidate Rossi when the Yamaha man came past. We are convinced that Rossi saw Márquez beside him, and deliberately took out his wheel. Or that Márquez made a rookie mistake, or that Rossi is now inside Márquez' head, or any other theory you care to mention. We can be so sure our claims will go unchallenged and unchecked, because the only two men who are genuinely in a position to challenge them have much better things to do. Like race motorcycles for a living, and try to win a MotoGP title, for example.
So what did happen? What we know is that the two men collided on the penultimate lap of the race. The collision was the moment that the fans remember, but how they got to that point is a far more interesting story. One which starts at the beginning of the weekend, when the riders got to try the new tires Bridgestone had brought to the track. Having seen extreme wear from the highly abrasive track the first year MotoGP came to the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit, Bridgestone changed their allocation. They built a new, extra hard tire to bring for the Hondas and Yamahas, with a harder compound on the left shoulder. The tire felt less comfortable in the early laps, but it had better durability over the course of the race.