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."
Sound familiar? Once upon a time, there was a manufacturer whose MotoGP bike got worse each year, as the engineering team failed to listen to the complaints of the riders. There can't be much wrong with the bike, they reasoned. After all, their rider won a championship on it and was still winning races, right? In 2015, history is repeating itself. The engineers are chasing the limits shown by the data, while ignoring the urgent message coming from the riders. What we once used to refer to as Stoner Syndrome – a bike being made to look much better than it really is by the sheer talent of the rider winning on it – we can now rename Márquez' Condition. This is not a new phenomenon. Back when Wayne Rainey was winning title after title on the Yamaha YZR500, all the while complaining about what a terrible bike it was, his team manager Kenny Roberts kept telling him that until he stopped winning, Yamaha's engineers weren't going to take a blind bit of notice.
The 2015 Honda is nowhere near as bad as the 2009 Ducati was, but it is clearly inferior to the current iterations of the Yamaha and Ducati. The 2015 RC213V is the third best bike on the grid, by some margin. When it is working right, it brakes deeper and turns better than any bike on the grid. When it isn't, it's impossible to stop and the front wants to wash out or run wide. The trouble is, the bike's sweet spot is now so narrow that you can easily miss it. A change in temperature, misjudging weight distribution or geometry, and the front has no feedback and riders have no confidence. That may have been a factor at Le Mans, with track temperatures on race day hitting 32°, rather than the 17° during qualifying. The Honda lacks grip on corner exit, wanting to spin and slide out of the corner. Try to compensate by moving the weight rearward and you lose any feeling from the front.
Honda already knew they were in a bit of bother at the end of 2014. "Our bike this year was more difficult to ride than the bike of 2013," said Shuhei Nakamoto, vice president of HRC. "We want to make it easier, like the Yamaha." They had changed the engine character to give it more torque. "We try to find the torque to ride easy but the result was opposite. The riders say we have too much torque." They tried a new chassis at Valencia last year, which both Márquez and Dani Pedrosa said they didn't like. So Honda brought three new chassis to the first test of 2015 at Sepang, from which Márquez and Pedrosa picked their favorite.
At Le Mans, Márquez had already gone back to an older chassis, one which both Repsol Honda riders had rejected at the Sepang tests. That meant that he and Pedrosa were using completely different chassis. The problem was that both men were still suffering exactly the same problem: a lack of feeling in the front end, and an inability to enter the corners, especially early in the race with a full tank of fuel. There is clearly something fundamentally wrong with the balance of the bike, and that is a deeply worrying predicament which HRC finds itself in.
Marc Márquez said after the race that he was fighting more with his bike than with his rivals. What was particularly perplexing was that he had set an incredibly strong pace during the morning warm up, easily matching the race pace which Jorge Lorenzo had set throughout practice. But Márquez arrived on the grid, the feeling from the front of the bike that had allowed him to be so fast in the morning had disappeared. It was apparent right from the start: Márquez entered the first chicane way too fast, unable to stop the bike in time, running wide and giving up all the places he gained.
It was a pattern which repeated itself throughout the race. As Márquez struggled to keep up with the riders he was with, he would end up braking too deep and running wide, looking as out of control on the bike as he had in his first MotoGP races, when Emilio Alzamora described his riding as "the bike rides him."
Márquez' struggle with the RC213V ended up providing some spectacular entertainment. In the final third of the race, the battle between a winged Andrea Iannone and Bradley Smith trying to make a clean pass on a faster bike allowed Márquez to catch the pair. Just as Smith lined up an immaculate pass on Iannone, sliding inside at the chicane, he was mugged by a wild Márquez, allowing both the Honda and the Ducati to get by again. There then unfolded a brilliant few laps of no holds barred passing, with neither Márquez nor Iannone prepared to take prisoners. Any time one of the pair got past, the other struck straight back, apparently prepared to take almost any risk to get in front of the other again.
It was scintillating to watch, but it was something of a forced spectacle. Andrea Iannone was by this time riding with one arm, as he had no more strength in the left shoulder he had dislocated, and the arm pump from trying to compensate with his right arm meant he had no feeling in his throttle and brake hand. Unable to judge braking properly, Iannone was riding well over his limit – "150%" was his own calculation, using that peculiar form of racer mathematics – unwilling to let Márquez finish ahead of him. For his part, Márquez was battling a bike that wouldn't brake properly, and he couldn't get to turn in. The resultant battle was sublime to watch, but it was more a duel of errors than of razor sharp precision.
That is not to take anything away from Andrea Iannone. For the Ducati man to even finish the race was a miracle. Around the halfway mark, after he had lost touch with the leaders, Iannone had given serious consideration to pulling in and retiring. He gave himself a couple of slow laps to recover, and when he was caught by Smith and Márquez, the battle stoked up the fire in his belly enough to camouflage the pain from his shoulder, and from the right arm compensating for his shoulder. To finish in fifth is a testament to Iannone's courage, and his determination. It was a ride well above and beyond the call of duty.
Part of the problem which Honda faces is not so much of their own making, but has been forced upon them by their rivals. Márquez rode to a distant fourth place in almost exactly the same time he took to win the race in 2014. But while he was just a tenth of a second slower over 28 laps, Jorge Lorenzo was finishing nearly 20 seconds ahead of him, and Valentino Rossi some 16 seconds faster. The Yamaha M1 is a much better bike than it was last year, the improvement coming in part from the fully seamless gearbox, but also to a good extent from the major step in braking performance. The Yamaha can now brake much later than it could do last year, and is faster through the corner and out of it. The bike is a little bit down on top speed compared to the Honda, but it does a lot of other things better. "This year, we have a great bike, very complete," said Jorge Lorenzo after winning the race.
If the Yamaha has a weakness, it is in being able to push hard for a single lap, and to post a time in practice, according to Valentino Rossi. Once again, his team did a sterling job to find the missing piece of the jigsaw during warm up to give him a competitive bike. The modification they tried in warm up did not work as expected, he told the press conference, and so they gambled on something more extreme for the race. It paid off, Rossi coming close to catching his teammate, but in the form Lorenzo had at Le Mans, he was entirely indomitable. What Rossi really needs is to qualify better, so he does not have so much work to do in the race. "In the race, our bike is always fantastic, it is always so balanced, you can push all the lap," enthused Rossi in the press conference.
Then there's the Ducati. That the GP15 is light years ahead of its predecessor has been covered in great depth both here and elsewhere, and it is clearly now a very competitive motorcycle. The race at Le Mans exposed its remaining weaknesses, however, Andrea Dovizioso finishing over 12 seconds behind the winner Lorenzo. Part of that gap was because he didn't want to take too many risks once it was clear he didn't have the pace of the Yamahas, Dovizioso said. It was confirmation that there was still work to do, especially on how the bike behaves in the second half of the race. "Maybe we still use too much the grip to go fast, and after a few laps, I can't keep the same lap time," Dovizioso explained.
Maintaining his pace is where Lorenzo won the race at Le Mans. He got a strong start, and then started pushing as hard as he could. Things did not go so easily for him as they had at Jerez, but there was still no one capable of getting close to the Spaniard. The old Jorge Lorenzo is back, Le Mans merely confirmation of what he showed in Spain.
Lorenzo would counter that he had never gone away, however. He had always been fast, but things had not quite gone perfectly until the race at Jerez. That had not prevented some in the media from writing him off, something which Lorenzo was at pains to point out had been entirely wrong. Just as it was wrong to write Márquez off now that he was struggling. "I was very far from Valentino before the Jerez race, and some people said I was in crisis," Lorenzo said in the press conference. "And probably some of them they're going to say Marquez is in crisis because of these races. But you know myself, Marc, Valentino, we have the talent, and we have to wait for all circumstances to be on the right way. Marc is going to win races, is going to be competitive in the future." When everything goes right for him, he will be there.
What of Dani Pedrosa's return? The crash was deeply unfortunate, coming so early in the race, but the Spaniard made the best of the hand he was dealt. The throttle return spring had been broken during the crash, and so Pedrosa had been forced to shut the throttle manually during the rest of the race after remounting. It provided a good test for his right arm, to see how it would hold up after surgery. Pedrosa's pace was similar to the men engaged in the battle for fourth, once he had remounted and was riding again. Pedrosa was pleased with how well his arm had held up, and it had plenty of scope for improvement. The problems he had had were not with his body, but with his bike, Pedrosa said. The RC213V had a lot of areas in urgent need of improvement, he said, echoing the concerns of everyone else on a Honda.
The support races provided contrasting levels of entertainment at Le Mans. The Moto2 race was won in impressive style by Tom Luthi, but the race itself was processional and bloodless. Tito Rabat showed he was back on form by finishing a strong second, and Johann Zarco pleased the crowds by finishing on the podium.
Moto3, on the other hand, was an utterly thrilling spectacle. A group of nine made a break at the front, containing the cream of the Italian Moto3 stable, Fabio Quartararo, Jakub Kornfeil, Miguel Oliveira, and Isaac Viñales. It was to be an Italian day, however, as Kornfeil, Viñales and Oliveira could not match the pace of the Italians, and Fabio Quartararo crashed out while trying to keep up with them. It would also be a very good day for Danny Kent, as the battle for the lead slowed the group up enough for the championship leader to catch the front group after an incredible race through the field. Kent had started in 31st, after totally misjudging conditions during qualifying, but was inside the top 10 by lap six, and on the back of the lead group by the end of the race.
Though Romano Fenati went on to take his first victory for the year, as well as the first win for KTM in 2015, Kent proved to be the big winner on the day. The Englishman had a shot at the podium, but with Enea Bastianini and Pecco Bagnaia pushing hard to get on the box, he knew it would be risking getting caught up in an incident, and possibly throwing away all the hard work he had put in during the race. His team had already shown him "P4 OK" on his pit board, and Kent settled for a bumper haul of championship points over a rolling the dice for a podium or crash. With main title rivals Quartararo and Efren Vazquez out, Kent extended his championship lead even further, to 37 points over Bastianini. It was a mature, smart decision taken in the heat of battle.
The glory of the day belonged to Italy in Moto3, and even more, to the VR46 academy, with all of the young Italians involved in the training program set up by Valentino Rossi. But Danny Kent was riding for glory at the end of the year. I think both groups will be equally happy on Sunday night.