Three race at Le Mans, three winners, and all three displays of complete control. In the first race of the day, Brad Binder waited until the penultimate lap to seize the lead, and render his Moto3 opposition harmless. Alex Rins took the lead much earlier in the Moto2 race, toyed with Simone Corsi a little more obviously, before making it clear just how much he owned the race. And in MotoGP, Jorge Lorenzo faced fierce competition at the start, but in the end he did just what Valentino Rossi had done two weeks ago at Jerez: led from start to finish, and won by a comfortable margin.
Lorenzo's victory was hardly unexpected. The Movistar Yamaha rider had been dominant all weekend, quick from the off, and peerless during qualifying. Everyone lined up on the grid knowing they had only one chance to beat him: try to get off the line better than the Spaniard, and enter the first chicane ahead of him. Lorenzo knew this too, and his start was picture perfect, no one close enough to launch an attack into the chicane. Andrea Dovizioso came close, but launching off the second row gave him too much ground to make up at the start, and he had to slot in behind Lorenzo and settle for second.
Lorenzo did not have it all his own way in the early laps. Both Andreas on the Factory Ducatis kept him honest for the first five laps, Dovizioso leading the charge at first, until Iannone took over. Iannone felt he had the pace to run with Lorenzo, perhaps even beat him, but that required the one thing he has not excelled at in 2016: staying upright. If the Le Mans race was meant to be an audition to be the rider Ducati will keep for next season, then it was a gambit that would fail. On lap 7, Iannone hit the deck, his race over.
Down we go together
Iannone's crash was not the first – Yonny Hernandez had binned it nine seconds earlier – nor would it be the last. In the end, a grand total of eight riders would hit the deck. Joining Hernandez and Iannone were Cal Crutchlow, Tito Rabat, Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso, Jack Miller and Bradley Smith. After just a single crash at Jerez, Le Mans looked like a disaster for Michelin once again.
That is, until you actually look at the statistics. Last year at Le Mans, six riders crashed out, in pretty similar circumstances to Sunday's race. "The surface is fourteen years old," Eugene Laverty commented, one of the twelve riders to stay upright all race long. "It needs to be redone." The track is bumpy, and it is littered with patches where the asphalt has been repaired. The circuit is tricky at the best of times, but when the MotoGP field arrive at another new track they have not tested at, with Michelins they are still getting used to, and new electronics complicating matters even further, mistakes are inevitable.
Most of those who crashed owned up to their mistakes. Dovizioso ran a little wide, and went down trying to compensate. "It was my mistake, I have just two degrees more lean angle, and it was enough to lose the front," he said. Bradley Smith owned up to an excess of enthusiasm, getting tempted into trying to catch his teammate Pol Espargaro and Aleix Espargaro on the Suzuki. "I was trying to carry my corner speed, and just rolled off the side of the tire," he said. Tito Rabat and Marc Márquez ended up pushing the front too much, trying to make up ground under braking.
There were those who were less convinced. "I don't know what happened," Andrea Iannone said. "It's completely strange, and is very very difficult to explain what happened." He had Lorenzo in his sights, and had decided he did not have to push very hard to try to catch the Spaniard. For Jack Miller, the crash was similarly inexplicable. He entered the second part of Garage Vert as normal, and the front just went. "I hit the bump, and the bike disappeared from under me."
Why so many crashes?
What was the real reason for so many crashes? A realistic assessment is that there were a whole bunch of factors involved. Firstly, the feeling of every track changes on Sunday, after the Moto2 race. "There's always a little more rubber on the ground after Moto2," Bradley Smith explained. "They slide quite a lot going into the corner, so the track gets a bit more greasy." It is a recurring complaint among the MotoGP teams, as Sunday is the first day they hit the track after Moto2 instead of before the class. The heavy Moto2 bikes with their fat tires also lay more rubber on the track on Sunday, because limited electronics see them backing the rear into corners, and in the tight battles through the field, they are using much more of the track than they had during practice.
Then there's the extra pressure that comes with race day. "The constant demand of a race intensity plus full fuel loads is ramping up the front tire temperature quite a lot," opined Smith. Riders are not just pushing harder because it really counts for something, they are also doing so for lap after lap. On a track as bumpy and old as Le Mans, the risks are even greater than normal.
Some it is probably also down to a lack of data, as the teams and riders learn more about the new tires, and Michelin understand more about MotoGP. Eugene Laverty saw a lot of crashes happen directly in front of him. "They were happening when trail braking, before you would get a chance to catch it on your knee. There are a few bumps at this track, and with the Michelins, you definitely feel the bumps more."
DNA and data
Old instincts and a different feeling make it hard to determine the limit. "You never feel you are over the limit, but if you push just a little bit more, it can happen, and you lose the front," Andrea Dovizioso said. As Valentino Rossi put it, the DNA of the Michelins remains unchanged. The Michelins always had a reputation for the front tire lacking feedback, and that continues now that they are the sole tire supplier.
Bradley Smith had an even more interesting theory. It is possible that the minimum tire pressures set by Michelin are a little too high, Smith thought, causing the tires to overheat in the first part of the race, and tire pressures to rise to just outside their operating window. "I think potentially at the moment, we're going over the working pressure, because of the intensity of the racing, all of us hard on the brakes every corner, you're not quite as smooth as you usually are," Smith said. "I think we then take the temperature up quite a lot, and then we just start pushing. The tire stops flexing and it becomes a lot more rigid." Hit a bump with a more rigid tire, and the tire doesn't absorb it as much, and it's easier to crash.
This, Smith explained, is why the crashes were happening later in the race rather than earlier. "So it's kind of, building, building, building, and then it just starts to taper off, and when the rear grip starts to go, it stops pushing on the front, and the front is a little bit stiffer than it usually is, and away you go." It was only a theory, Smith was keen to point out, but without tire sensors logging tire data, it was something that would be hard to test. From Mugello, tire sensors are to be made compulsory, and Smith will get a chance to analyze his theory in more detail.
Dig your own hole
It wasn't merely tire pressures that were causing the Hondas to crash. Le Mans is a truly awful track for the RC213V, the nature of the circuit mercilessly exposing its fundamental flaws. Of the five Hondas on the grid, only one managed to complete the race without crashing. That is eerily similar to last year, when only one of the four factory-spec Hondas finished without crashing. The results are also similar: in 2015, Marc Márquez finished nearly twenty seconds behind the winner, Jorge Lorenzo. In 2016, Dani Pedrosa finished almost nineteen seconds behind the winner, once again Jorge Lorenzo.
The problems are exactly the same. The Honda has no acceleration, and is losing horribly out of corners. Asked to rank the bikes in terms of acceleration, Marc Márquez was frank. "For me, if we make a ranking in acceleration it would be: Ducati, Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda. We are losing there. Ducati we are losing a lot, Yamaha less, Suzuki less, then we are there." The only option the Honda riders have is to try to make up on the brakes what they are losing on corner exit. That entails taking a lot of risk, and asking a lot of the front tire. That will only work for so long, until the front tire cries enough.
Such intensity is a lot easier to sustain outside of the race. "When you are riding in this way, in practice maximum five laps, it's easier, because you just concentrate for five laps," Márquez said. "But riding in this way for 28 laps is really difficult." Losing time in acceleration was frustrating, Márquez admitted. "It's hard because on the straight the time is 'free'. It is really difficult for your mentality when you see on the straight you cannot follow them." It is a problem which is difficult to solve, he added, as the engine design is frozen for the entire year.
Plus ça change
If this refrain sounds familiar, well, that's because it is. Márquez' words are almost identical to the things he said in 2015. The engine is too aggressive, the bike wants to spin up and wheelie rather than accelerate, and Honda is stuck with the engine because of the engine freeze. HRC brought a modified engine for 2016, which is a little easier to use, but the problem remains. Perhaps due to the spec electronics, anti-wheelie now no longer something they can cure in the ECU software.
The situation is so bad that according to MCN's MotoGP reporter Simon Patterson, Repsol Honda team principal Livio Suppo wants the engine development rule to be changed. Given the hole that Honda are in, you can see why they would want that. But it is hard to feel sorry for HRC, however, as this issue has not appeared out of thin air. The 2014 RC213V was already a tough bike to ride with extreme power, and at the Valencia test that year, HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto acknowledged as much. "This year's machine is not easy to ride," he told reporters, and said it was something Honda would address.
The 2015 bike was, if anything, even worse. So bad, that it caused Marc Márquez to crash out of three of the first seven races, and arguably cost him a shot at the title. Honda brought Casey Stoner in to test the bike, then ignored the feedback he gave them, prompting the Australian to jump ship and sign as a test rider for Ducati.
Lessons from history
This year's Honda RC213V is a better machine, but it is still nowhere near competitive. Sure, Marc Márquez is second in the championship, and has won two of the five races. But look beyond that, and the Honda riders are in real trouble. Dani Pedrosa is fourth in the championship, but already 37 points behind the leader Jorge Lorenzo. Best satellite Honda is Tito Rabat, the ex-Moto2 champion having racked up a grand total of 11 points. Cal Crutchlow, fifth in the championship in 2013, and a man with eight podiums to his name, has just 5 points, and 2014 Moto3 vice champion Jack Miller has just two points. In five races, the five Honda riders have racked up a grand total of eight race crashes.
It feels like another repetition of the Stoner years at Ducati. A brilliant young rider flatters a frankly awful bike, deluding a factory into thinking the machine is not far off, and just needs a bit of refining to make it competitive. HRC will only really discover just how bad their bike is if Marc Márquez leaves for pastures new. If Dani Pedrosa leaves for Yamaha, then the rider they bring in to replace him could be in for a very nasty shock indeed.
Boys in blue
Compare and contrast with the situation at Yamaha. Between them, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi have won three of the five races so far. This was the second one-two finish they have completed, and the first Yamaha home has never finished lower than second. The bike is superb, and the factory Yamaha riders decide the outcome of races based on who qualifies better. That has so far given the advantage to Jorge Lorenzo, the Spaniard managing the 15-minutes format better than Rossi.
It was his poor qualifying which cost Rossi a lot of ground at Le Mans. Though Rossi quickly worked his way on to the back of the group chasing Lorenzo, by the time he was able to get through on Márquez and Dovizioso, he was already over five seconds down on his teammate. When they both crashed two laps later, there was no necessity for Rossi to take the kind of risk needed to allow him to get close to Lorenzo, even if that had been possible. Rossi was content to settle for twenty points, and closing his gap to the lead in the championship.
Not necessary faster
At Ducati, the situation was a lot less phlegmatic. While Andrea Iannone expressed frustration at the crashes he did not understand, Dovizioso demanded a change in approach from the Bologna factory. "The positive thing is that we have the speed, and this is so important in MotoGP," he told reporters. "Now we have the base about the speed, but we don't have the consistency. I believe we use too much the rear tire, we use too much the energy to be fast, so it's difficult to keep for the race. To be in front, to stay with the Yamaha riders in this moment, we have to be consistent."
A change in strategy was needed, to reduce the consumption of the rear tire, he said. But Ducati were also losing out to Yamaha in the corners. "The turning of the corner, they are a little better," he said. "We have to be calm and speak with the engineers, and decide together the strategy for the future. But my opinion in this moment is we have to think in a different way."
A real podium?
Suzuki were delighted with their podium for Maverick Viñales, as was the Spaniard. But he was keenly aware that his podium had come in part because three riders had crashed in front of him. Still, Viñales had shown impressive pace, especially in the second half of the race. What's more, he had passed plenty of riders along the way, including his teammate Aleix Espargaro and the two Monster Tech 3 Yamahas of Bradley Smith and Aleix Espargaro.
Viñales' real weakness was at the start. From eighth on the grid, the Spaniard had made no real impression off the line, and taken his time to get going. Once he did, he was impressive, showing flashes of the brilliance that led many to label him as the next MotoGP alien.
Did Viñales' podium make a decision about his future harder? Not really, he said. "The decision has nearly been made." He now needed time to think, time at home without distractions, before making the right decision. He hoped to know his future before Mugello, he said.
Further back, Pol Espargaro brought the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha home to a solid fifth place, but the Spaniard was far from pleased. The result left him frustrated at the amount of ground he was losing to the factory bikes, both in acceleration and in braking. "We have amazing speed in the warm up," Espargaro said, when he finished as the fastest Yamaha. But he had been unable to convert that in the race. "In the race, we can't reproduce that rhythm," he told me. "In every acceleration, they take three or four meters." That adds up over race distance. "The gap is too big. In the end, I am 25 seconds from Jorge, and 15 seconds back from Vale," he said. For Espargaro, the podium is still a long way away.
Expect the unexpected
Lorenzo's win and Márquez' crash did help to shake up the championship. The Repsol Honda man's 17-point lead disappeared at a stroke, Lorenzo now ahead of Márquez by 5 points. The decision of Márquez to get back on the bike and continue the race was fully vindicated, the Spaniard picking up three valuable points at the end. Those points could end up being decisive in the championship.
With Rossi's third place, the top three are now covered by just 12 points. It is still very early in the championship, but it is already clear that we are in for an eventful season. With so much happening, and all three leaders having lost major points due to crashes, the championship is still completely wide open.
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