There are few circuits on the calendar whose names ring so loudly through the annals of history as that of Le Mans. Only Assen, the Isle of Man, and Indianapolis are as inextricably associated with motor sports as Le Mans is. Like Indy, though, Le Mans is more associated with four wheels than with two. The 24h Du Mans endurance race is truly one of the landmark events of the motor sports year.
The glamor of that event rubs off on the 24-hour motorcycle race as well. That race is arguably the biggest race on the FIM EWC endurance calendar, and victory there adds extra shine to any rider's record. It is a highlight not just of the endurance racing year, but on the motorcycle racing calendar, marking the rhythm of the racing season as loudly as Jerez, Assen, the Isle of Man TT, Mugello, Phillip Island.
It sets a high bar for the French Grand Prix at Le Mans to live up to. Despite the deep and entrenched love of endurance racing in France, and especially at Le Mans (they have a 24-hour event for everything there, a taxi driver once told me: 24-hour car, bike, truck, and mountain bike race, 24-hour literary festival, even a 24-hour tiddlywinks competition), more spectators flock to the Le Mans circuit for MotoGP than for the 24-hour race. Last year, over 99,000 attended.
With a fairground, DJs playing music all night, and various other spectacles put on over the weekend, there is much for them to do. Add in copious supplies of strong drink, and the circuit starts to resemble scenes from Quentin Tarantino's 'From Dusk till Dawn' once the sun goes down. The alcohol-fueled scenes at campsites at Assen and the Sachsenring can be just as wild and hazardous, but there the atmosphere seems somehow more good humored. You are probably just as likely to come to serious harm at the hands of drunken racegoers in Holland or Germany, but at Le Mans, you half fear being stripped naked and tied to the front of a buggy, driven by a muscular chap with a loudhailer calling himself Humongous.
If the atmosphere can be grim at night, the circuit itself has a certain charm. Though MotoGP uses the shorter, 4,185 meter Bugatti Circuit layout, rather than the iconic 13.6 km Circuit de la Sarthe used by the sports cars, the track still sits in the wooded region to the south of the charming historical old town of Le Mans. It is regarded with some justification as a stop-and-go circuit, but that does not really do it justice. The rolling terrain adds a third dimension into the mix, with the section from La Chapelle down to Garage Vert full of downhill, off camber corners, made to catch out the unwary.
In the past, La Chapelle and Musée are the corners which would catch so many riders out because of this. But this year promises to be different. The circuit was resurfaced late in 2016, a dire necessity after fourteen years of abuse. The new surface now has more grip than a free climber whose footing has just slipped halfway up El Capitan. The bumps left by the sports cars on the shared sections of the track are gone too. When the MotoGP riders tested at the circuit between Austin and Jerez, Maverick Viñales lapped a second and a half under the lap record, on a track which still had damp patches on it. This is a very good surface indeed now.
All that grip is good news for Yamaha, and something of a disaster for Honda. If the last race at Jerez taught us anything, it's that the Yamahas suffer when grip is low, and the Hondas can take advantage. The lesson from Le Mans is likely to be that when grip is high, it's the Yamahas which benefit, while the Honda riders are left battling their machines, trying to contain an excess of horsepower in a short and twitchy chassis.
It's not just the grip, it's the layout. For the past two years, the factory Yamahas have finished first and second at Le Mans. Yamahas have filled at least one spot on the podium every year since 2011. The track really suits the Yamaha, despite there being a lot of hard braking followed by hard acceleration. Over the years, the balance has shifted: once, the Honda was easier to stop and drive out of corners. But Yamaha upped their game on the braking front, and have hugely improved mechanical grip and acceleration. Honda, meanwhile, have maintained their advantage in braking, but lost a huge amount in acceleration over the past four or five years. The bike remains physically demanding to control, the front wheel clawing the air whenever the rear finds grip.
So Le Mans should come as a blessed relief to the Movistar Yamaha team, and especially to Maverick Viñales. After dominating the first two rounds of MotoGP and posting great times during practice at the next two, Viñales' title challenge has faltered badly. In Texas, Viñales had no one but himself to blame, losing the front under braking. At Jerez, he lay the blame implicitly on Michelin, for supplying him with a duff front tire. The week before Jerez, he had smashed the lap record on the new surface, despite the track still being damp.
It is worth remembering that Le Mans was a big weekend for Viñales last year. First, it was the place he came under a lot of pressure to sign with Yamaha, with rumors floating that Yamaha were talking to Dani Pedrosa to take the seat vacated by Jorge Lorenzo. Le Mans helped him make up his mind about signing with Yamaha. Secondly, Le Mans was the place he got his first ever podium in MotoGP, and Suzuki's first since their return to the class. Viñales is good here, which should worry everyone else.
Grip alone is not enough
The layout and grip may theoretically suit the Yamaha, but that won't necessarily fix Valentino Rossi's problems. The Italian struggled badly with rear grip and a vibration from the tire at Jerez, then at the Monday test, when he had a chance to test the stiffer construction front, as well as a new chassis, he and his team made no progress at all. He was still lacking the feeling he needs from the front end of the Yamaha, no matter what the team tried. He finished the test as 21st, 1.8 seconds off the time of his teammate.
Will the grip help Rossi find some confidence? More mechanical grip should at least give him some feedback from the tire. That in turn should make the job of the team easier, finding a way to give Rossi a bike he can work with. In theory at least, the trouble being that the variables in motorcycle racing interact in such infinitely complex ways that theory rarely transfers to practice.
There is another Yamaha rider to keep an eye on, of course. Johann Zarco has stunned MotoGP watchers so far this year, immediately making his presence felt. He led the race at Qatar comfortably for six laps before crashing out, had strong races in Argentina and Austin, then a fabulous race in Jerez to finish fourth, and first Yamaha. More importantly, he went from making wild and overly ambitious moves in the first couple of races, to slicing past Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, and Marc Márquez with surgical precision. "He reminds me of me," Márquez said after the race, a sentence which should terrify his rivals.
The big question for Zarco is how he handles the pressure. Though he was on the podium here two years ago, he had a miserable race at Le Mans in 2016. Coming in as reigning Moto2 champion, he was swamped by media attention, and perhaps that got to him. He made a poor start, then crashed and remounted, limping home to finish in 24th position, over a minute behind the eventual winner, Alex Rins.
Always the weather
Then there's the rain, which has already started to fall and is expected to continue for at least part of the weekend. This throws something of a spanner into the works, removing much of the disadvantage which the Honda has. When teams are having to cut power because of wheelspin in the wet, that levels the playing field for anyone on the Honda RC213V. That will give heart to the factory riders, but also to the men on satellite bikes. Both Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller have won races on the Honda in the wet, and Miller and Tito Rabat have just spent a day testing Michelin's rain tires in Valencia, on an artificially soaked track. Miller came away from that test having learned a thing or two, a team spokesman said.
The Repsol Honda riders will be hoping to keep the momentum they picked up at Jerez. The last two races have seen a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa. After the second race of the season, Márquez trailed Maverick Viñales by 37 points, while Pedrosa was 39 points behind. Two races later, and Márquez is now 2 points behind Viñales, and 4 behind championship leader Valentino Rossi, while Pedrosa is just 10 points behind the Italian. A good result at Le Mans would shake up the top of the standings even further.
For Márquez, Le Mans has always been something of a mixed bag. It is the track where he got his first win in Moto2, after a dramatic start in the first three. He took a podium in his first year in MotoGP, then won the following year, part of his long ten-race winning streak at the start of 2014. Since then, things have gotten tougher, Márquez suffering as the Honda struggled to deal with the circuit.
His teammate's experience is even more mixed. In 2011, he was swiped off his RC213V by a hard-charging Marco Simoncelli, breaking his collarbone in the process, just a few weeks after recovering from surgery to fix a problem caused by a fractured collarbone from October the previous year. Two years later, Pedrosa was victorious, winning at the track for the first time since he left the 250 class. Fresh off a win at Jerez, Pedrosa comes in to Le Mans feeling confident.
Whither the winglets?
Perhaps the most intriguing prospect at the French Grand Prix are the Ducatis. The Desmosedici has a lot going for it at the circuit: its acceleration is among the strongest in the paddock, though the loss of the aerodynamic winglets was a big blow in that regard. Ducati are still struggling to find a solution in that area, after having abandoned their first attempt at aerodynamics, the so-called hammerhead fairing. Will Ducati roll out a replacement at Le Mans? It seems unlikely, as paddock rumor suggest they want to take more time developing something more successful. But if they had a fairing which they believed would work, Le Mans would be as good a place to try it as any.
Aero fairing or no, there is good reason for Ducati to be optimistic going into Le Mans. It is a track where both Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso have both gone well. Lorenzo has five wins and and another podium in the premier class, his margin of victory often huge. Dovizioso cannot quite match Lorenzo's record, but he has been fast on a Ducati at the French circuit, and crashed out of a podium position last year. The bike works well, its strength in braking and acceleration helping it out on the stop-and-go layout. The long corners at the track, turns like Musée and La Chapelle, and the fast right hander of the Dunlop Curve are where the bike struggles. Dealing with those will make the difference for the Bologna bikes.
The race will be especially key for Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard is slowly starting to get his head around the way to ride the Desmosedici, he was learning to use the back brake better to help get the bike stopped, allowing him to brake much later than before. Into Turn 6, Danilo Petrucci explained after reviewing Lorenzo's data, the Spaniard was braking ten to twelve meters later than both Petrucci and Andrea Dovizioso. That is no mean feat: Andrea Dovizioso is renowned as one of the latest brakers on the grid, so to outbrake him takes real commitment. Lorenzo was braking later and with more pressure than him, Petrucci explained, and that had made the difference. If Lorenzo can repeat that at Le Mans, a track he loves, he could be on for a very good result indeed.
Shockwaves through the paddock
Though the riders and teams are still working towards the race on Sunday, running through their preparations for when practice commences on Friday morning, there is an air of distraction in the paddock. Everyone has been severely affected by the accident which Nicky Hayden suffered, struck by a car while out training on a bicycle. Hayden now lies critically ill in a hospital in Cesena, kept in intensive care with head and chest trauma.
In part, Hayden's accident is preying on the minds of the paddock because so many of them (riders and team members alike) are such fervent cyclists. Cal Crutchlow famously trains with Tour de France green jersey winner Mark Cavendish, but there are many others who are just as keen on cycling. Aleix Espargaro, his brother Pol, Bradley Smith, and many, many more spend hundreds of hours cycling thousands of kilometers every year on bicycles. If it could happen to Nicky Hayden, they know it could happen to them. In an interview with Radio Catalunya, Maverick Viñales said he was even considering switching from riding on the road to going mountain biking, to avoid the risk of encountering cars.
But above all, Nicky Hayden is on the minds of everyone on the paddock because he is almost universally loved, admired, and respected. During his time in MotoGP, Hayden never had a bad word for another rider, never blamed his team (even when they let him down), never blatantly blamed the bike for his own shortcomings. Nobody worked harder than Hayden: come testing time, he was the first to enter the track and the last to leave, and when you totaled up the number of laps each rider put in, Hayden's name invariably came out top.
Most of all, Hayden was gracious, both in success and in failure, in victory and in defeat. As a teammate, he was always helpful, willing to share what he knew. Speaking to journalists, he was always friendly, professional, giving you the quip you were looking for, always willing to answer your questions. When he left the MotoGP paddock, he left a very big hole, and MotoGP's loss has been WorldSBK's gain.
Hayden in our hearts
So while the teams and the riders are focused on winning at Le Mans, Nicky Hayden is still firmly in their thoughts. At the moment, all we know is that he is critically ill in hospital. But motorcycle racers are made of tougher stuff than most humans, and the paddock is rife with tales of miraculous recoveries. The most recent example is former Spanish Superbike champion Kenny Noyes, who suffered severe head trauma in a practice crash at Aragon. For a long time, Noyes lay in a coma, with little hope of recovery. Now, after many, many months of hard work, Noyes is back riding flat track bikes at his school again, though only for fun, and not on the road. He says he wants to be 100% before he makes that step. The road to recovery is long and arduous, even when miracles happen.
Nicky Hayden's condition may be critical, but where there is life, there is hope. My thoughts, and the thoughts of everyone I have spoken to, emailed, messaged, or communicated with online, are with the 2006 World Champion. He is one of the toughest humans I have ever known. He deserves to get through this, and recover.
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