It sucks being the best rider in the world. Just as you believe you have everything under control and can dominate your rivals, along comes some jumped up kid with ideas above his station, determined to administer a king-sized kicking to your behind. That kid has answers to all the tricks you learned to use to beat your rivals, and now you have to reinvent yourself, push harder than you wanted just to stay in the game.
Back in 1998, for example, a cocky Italian swaggered into the 500cc class and threatened the supremacy of Mick Doohan. Doohan finished Max Biaggi off at the end of that year, but he had to dig deep. After Doohan retired, another cocky Italian took his place to rough Biaggi up, just as the Roman Emperor thought he owned the premier class. After a string of titles, Valentino Rossi, the cocky Italian in question, found himself facing a couple of rookies giving him real trouble. Casey Stoner beat him at the second time of asking in 2007, then Jorge Lorenzo took the fight to him inside Rossi's own team, getting the better of him in 2010.
Just as Lorenzo was settling in to take what he considered as his rightful place atop the MotoGP pile, along came a cheeky-faced Spanish youngster on a record-breaking spree, winning his second race and the title at his first attempt. After winning two titles in a row, then an impressive third last year, Marc Márquez suddenly finds himself grappling with an improbably fast Yamaha rider with steel in his soul and the name of a warrior (albeit a fictional one). And in addition to Maverick Viñales, Márquez has to contend with Johann Zarco, who has sprung from Moto2 like a jack-in-the-box, scaring the living daylights out of the regulars.
This is the circle of racing. Every racing series is in a state of permanent revolution, where the newcomers dream up new ways of usurping the established riders, and the old guard have to adapt or die. The moment you get comfortable is the moment your era has passed. The ultimate reward for being top dog is to ride around with a massive target on your back.
The last ten laps of the MotoGP race at Le Mans were a perfect illustration of this. In the orange corner, the reigning champion Marc Márquez, in breathless pursuit of fleeing Yamahas. In the blue corner, the young upstart Maverick Viñales, winner of the first two races and determined to make amends after a couple of poor results. In the black corner, the, well, older upstart Johann Zarco, riding the 2016 Yamaha M1 to results which a rookie simply has no business achieving, especially one on a satellite bike. Finally, in the other blue corner, the hoary old veteran Valentino Rossi, who throws wins and podiums in the face of anyone who dares to broach the subject of retirement.
(There's someone in the red corner too, but Jorge Lorenzo is finding the transition to the Ducati far tougher than he expected, and though he is making genuine progress, it is the kind of progress which befits a new project, not an established champion challenging for another title. At Le Mans, few were paying the red corner much heed.)
The pace was ferocious, aided and abetted by the new surface at Le Mans. The bumps were gone, for the most part, and the grip was outstanding almost everywhere. The one exception was on the entry to the chicane, a few bumps having already formed through Turns 1 and 2, and the entry to Turn 3. That section had already caught Jack Miller out in practice, the Marc VDS Honda rider lucky to escape with his life when his front tire slipped then gripped and sent him careening towards the wall.
Beware of the bumps
It caught Marc Márquez out as well on lap 18 of the race. "I was careful in a few points in the circuit where the crashes normally happen, or where you feel more on the limit, and then at Turn 1, where I didn't expect it, and after passing the bumps I lost the front," he said afterwards. "The bike was a little bit unstable there in the fast corner. I just closed the gas and then I lost the front, maybe I was a little bit too much angle, because I had a small movement in the middle of the corner."
Why so much lean angle? "I started quite well, was starting to feel good with the bike. But then suddenly the Yamaha riders started to be faster and faster." He had lost touch with the three Yamahas at the front, and had his teammate closing quickly from behind. He had selected the medium front tire, but with much higher track temperatures on race day, that was a little too soft for the Honda's braking ability.
Cal Crutchlow, who suffers the same front tire overheating issues as Márquez, certainly believed the medium was simply not up to lasting the whole race. "I finished the race and Marc didn't with the medium," Crutchlow pointed out. "Historically, if me and Marc choose the same tire it's better for us. He believes he still chose the right front tire, but he didn't finish the race." The price for the front tire lasting the race was that it made the bike more difficult to turn, however. Crutchlow, who had hopes of a podium after qualifying, finished in fifth, 13.5 seconds off the winner and 6 seconds behind the podium.
Upping the pressure
One down, three riders still standing. Well, four actually, but the fourth, Dani Pedrosa, was still a little way behind the three Yamahas at the front and closing. After dipping under the old lap record around the halfway mark, the Yamahas started to up the pace. Johann Zarco had led the first six races again, just as he had at Qatar, but with better grip, and four races worth of experience under his belt, he was not going to repeat the errors of his first MotoGP race. (That sentence bears repeating: Zarco led the first six laps of his first MotoGP race, and led the first six laps of his fifth MotoGP race. On a satellite bike. These things are not really supposed to happen).
Maverick Viñales had got past Zarco and tried to put some time into him to escape, but for ten laps, that had been simply impossible. "For ten laps, I saw Zarco 0.3, Zarco 0.3," he marveled. "I couldn't believe it, because I was doing mid-32s all the time, but they were there, Zarco and Valentino." Viñales upped the pace again with eight laps to go, and opened the gap to half a second. Zarco creaked under the strain, unable to get into the low 1'32s.
Valentino Rossi could, however. The Italian veteran finally sliced past Zarco in a display of clinical precision at Turn 3, the corner which had earlier claimed Márquez. He then set his sights on his teammate, determined to cling on to his lead in the championship going into his home race at Mugello. That honor would go to whoever crossed the line first, as well as he honor of taking Yamaha's 500th victory in Grand Prix racing. Rossi had already claimed that trophy for Honda when he was with the rival marque. Repeating the same feat with Yamaha would add luster to an already illustrious record.
The scent of victory
If being the best rider in the world sucks, Valentino Rossi has had to suffer for a very long time. With the exception of his two years at Ducati, Rossi has been in contention for the championship every season since he arrived in the premier class back in 2000. He has won seven of those seventeen championships, reinventing himself as each new generation of riders comes up through the ranks. First they came to challenge him, then they came to challenge the riders who challenged him. Now, Rossi faces the third generation, trying to beat the riders who beat the riders who beat him, all those years ago.
Rossi was fast enough to catch Viñales, and even fast enough to pass him, and hungry to notch up another victory. It had been a while: nearly a year had passed since his last victory, at Barcelona in early June, 2016. That had left him hungry for a win, all the more so after struggling in the early part of the season with the front end of his Yamaha M1. "Today I really feel the smell of victory because was the perfect race," he said after the race. Rossi always speaks of winning in tangible, visceral terms. When he says he can taste it, or smell it, he means it very literally indeed. It is a physical sensation.
He got ahead of Viñales, and the battle went up yet another notch. Rossi's pace had dropped from 1'32.5 to 1'32.3, and Viñales was giving it everything he had just to keep up. Pushing so hard, in fact, that he outbraked himself into the Chemin aux Boeufs chicane, cut across the inside of the corner, then rejoined behind Rossi. There were echoes of Austin, where Rossi had been penalized for cutting across hard standing when Johann Zarco slammed into him after a slightly optimistic pass.
Would Viñales be penalized? Race Direction had studied the incident carefully, with timekeeping poring over the data to see if he had gained any advantage. "The result from Timekeeping analysis was that overall he did not gain (they told me he lost a very small amount)," Race Director Mike Webb told me afterwards. "That coincides with my initial visual impression in real time." Watch the footage from the helicopter camera and you can draw the same conclusion. Viñales is roughly four tenths behind Rossi as they exit Garage Vert and cross the track markers heading towards Chemin aux Boeufs. After Viñales' excursion at the Chemin aux Boeufs chicane, the Spaniard crosses the finish line to start the final lap precisely 0.408 behind Rossi.
Blue on blue
Both men were at the very limit of their ability on that last lap. So hard was Rossi pushing to maintain his advantage over Viñales that he arrived at Garage Vert just a fraction too hot, and ran just a little wide. It was a mistake he had made a couple of times during the race, both attacking and defending at that point. But he opened the door just enough for Viñales to come through and take the lead.
Still, Rossi was confident. "I knew I had another chance because I was very close and I tried to remain there. Because in sector 4 I was good." He closed in on his teammate through Chemin aux Boeufs and was lining himself up to prepare a pass at the two final corners. But he entered the Bleu esses just a fraction too fast. The rear slid out from under him, dumping him in the gravel on the outside of the track. "Sincerely what happened in the crash we don’t understand because usually you have to keep attention to the front, but I lose the rear," Rossi said. "But you know I am of the idea that when you crash anyway you make a mistake and it's like this."
Rossi may have been unhurt in the crash, yet he was still in physical pain. After he failed to restart the bike, he slumped over it and hung his head in torment. The last time I saw him that downcast was at Assen in 2016, when he crashed out of the lead of the restarted race and went from closing the gap on Marc Márquez to being 42 points behind, and putting the title just about out of reach. Rossi had smelled victory, savored the taste in his mouth, and had it snatched from him before he could sink his teeth into it, like Tantalus watching the branches bearing fruit lift just out of his grasp.
How hard had Rossi been pushing Viñales on the final lap? When Viñales crossed the line to take his third victory of the season, the Movistar Yamaha rider set another lap record, improving Rossi's from a couple of laps earlier by six hundredths of a second. This was racing at the very limit, with nothing left to spare. Viñales barely stayed on the right side of the limit, and came away the winner. Rossi overstepped the mark by the merest fraction, and was left empty handed.
These were two great rivals riding to the very maximum of their ability. Like all elite athletes, riders like to use the mathematically illiterate (or rather, innumerate) expression "giving it 110%". In Parc Fermé, Viñales even spoke of riding at 200%. But taking the ideal time from each sector he set during the race, Viñales' last lap was literally ridden at 99.9%. Rossi, then tried to ride at 100.1% in just that final sector, and paid the price.
From time to time, fans (well, fans of other riders) will mutter about Valentino Rossi being over the hill, and that it is time for him to retire. Aged 38, he is already improbably late into his career. He has already won everything there is to win, has no need of money, nor even a new project with which to keep himself busy, as he continues his work with the VR46 Riders Academy. But the fact that he came within four corners of win number 115, and extending his lead in the championship, should put any talk of retirement to rest. If you want to replace Valentino Rossi, first find someone better.
An unlikely alien
But Rossi didn't win. Maverick Viñales did. Three wins in five races puts him back in command of the championship, with a lead of 17 points over second place, and 23 points over his teammate. After two tough races, first crashing out in Austin, then struggling with an unwilling front tire in the heat at Jerez, Viñales needed to get his championship challenge back on track. He has done that and very much more. If there are any more obstacles preventing him from entering the pantheon of extraterrestrials, his third win in five races should have fully and permanently removed them.
Viñales deserves a great deal of praise and attention for his achievement at Le Mans, but all eyes were on the man who crossed the line in second. Johann Zarco had earned his maiden podium even before Rossi crashed out, but finishing second instead of third made it all the sweeter. It is easy to overlook the scale of Zarco's achievement: the last rookie to get a podium in his first season was Marc Márquez. Before that, it was Ben Spies, then Jorge Lorenzo.
But Márquez and Lorenzo were on factory bikes, and Zarco is on a satellite Yamaha. The last satellite rider to get a podium in his first season was Ben Spies in 2010, at Silverstone, again on the Tech 3 Yamaha. Prior to that, it was Andrea Dovizioso in 2008, on the Scott Honda at Sepang. Spies arrived in MotoGP after dominating World Superbikes and winning the title at the first attempt. The next year, he would join the factory Yamaha squad. Andrea Dovizioso would also move to the factory Repsol Honda team the year after.
Casey Stoner did the same in 2006, taking second in just his third race at Istanbul Park aboard the LCR Honda. Stoner also took his first pole a race earlier, in Qatar, whereas Zarco took his first front row start and first podium in race number five, at Le Mans. Only Stoner took his first podium quicker than Zarco, while the Frenchman matched the earlier achievement of Ben Spies. Dovizioso had to wait until the penultimate race of the year.
Does this mean Zarco is as good as Stoner or Spies? That is not really the right way to look at the Frenchman's results. Comparisons are difficult to make, but one thing is entirely clear: under normal circumstances, Johann Zarco has no business achieving the results he is scoring. If it weren't for Zarco, we would all be full of just how well his teammate Jonas Folger is doing. Unfortunately for the German, Zarco is doing things he is not supposed to.
Release the pressure
It is all the more remarkable, then, that Zarco got both a front row and podium at his home race. It is common for riders to buckle under the added pressure at home. Even though they do their best to put it out of their minds, the fact that every camera and microphone in the country is stuck in their faces is a constant reminder. There is barely time to eat between interviews, and practice offers a welcome break from media appearances. The sense of expectation from the crowd is almost palpable. It is easy (and quite common) to crash out pushing too hard. Zarco did not do that: he rode his own race, aimed for the win, settled for a podium, and managed the pressure swimmingly.
What is Zarco's secret? Firstly, it is probably a good thing he is older. He is not as easily intimidated, and being a double Moto2 champion means this isn't his first rodeo in the glare of the public eye. He and his team also had a plan, and followed it without getting diverted or distracted. Zarco decided very early on that he wanted to use the soft tires, and his incredibly smooth style makes that possible. In that respect, he is like Jorge Lorenzo, who also favored the softer compounds when he could. Subtlety and smoothness means Zarco can exploit and maximize grip, which in turn reduces the amount the tire spins, and wears.
That only lasts so long on the 2016 Yamaha M1, however, and at the end, Zarco had to cry off and let the factory bikes go. Still, second place at his home Grand Prix, comfortably ahead of Dani Pedrosa in third, and having led the first six laps, all this is a mark of things to come. If Valentino Rossi doesn't retire at the end of 2018 (and on current form, that's not going to happen), Zarco may decide to try his luck at another factory. Or rather, another factory may decide to coax him away from Yamaha.
Punching above his weight
Dani Pedrosa crossed the line in third, an unexpected result for most, but not for everyone. The Repsol Honda had qualified poorly, unable to get this tires up to temperature in the cold conditions. But his pace in qualifying and FP4 suggested there was more to come from the Spaniard. Starting from thirteenth, Pedrosa got a fantastic start and managed to avoid much of the carnage which can unfold in midfield. He was already seventh by the time he crossed the line at the end of the first lap.
He worked his way forward, conditions now working in his favor as temperatures rose. Tires worked well, and Pedrosa made some bold moves to get past first Andrea Dovizioso, then Cal Crutchlow. The move on Crutchlow was surprisingly physical, the LCR Honda rider leaving the slightest hint of a gap at La Chapelle, and Pedrosa seizing his chance.
Crutchlow was philosophical about the move. "As I said that's racing," he said. "I have no hard feelings at all, and to be honest he probably couldn't see me because he was hanging off the bike on the inside." It was good that it was Pedrosa hitting him, rather than the other way round, Crutchlow opined. "If I hit him with that impact, he'd have been on the floor because he is so light."
Once past Crutchlow, Pedrosa upped the pace and started catching his teammate. As he closed on Márquez, the 2016 world champion crashed out. With Márquez out of the way, Pedrosa could set his sights on the Yamahas, but that was the moment Viñales, Zarco, and Rossi chose to ratchet up the pace. Pedrosa was going as fast as he was going to manage, and had accepted he would finish fourth. Rossi's crash gifted him a podium, and three valuable championship points.
The overlooked contender
Pedrosa now finds himself second in the championship, 17 points behind Maverick Viñales. The Spaniard remains the most underestimated rider in MotoGP, always written off early, yet always finding himself in the hunt, and winning races. 2017 is moving Pedrosa's way, now that Michelin have settled on tires he can use, and as the championship reaches tracks where temperatures are high enough to help him get heat into the tires.
It is easy to write Pedrosa off in the championship, but it would also be extremely foolish. He remains a dark horse in the title chase, and given the number of mistakes being made, the championship should still be regarded as being wide open. There are 13 races and a maximum of 325 points to be awarded. Of the 23 riders on the grid, only two – Jonas Folger and Bradley Smith – have finished every single race. Maverick Viñales, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, and Johann Zarco all have one DNF to their name. With his crash in Le Mans, Marc Márquez now has two. 2017 will be decided by consistency, and the ability to score points when others fail. There will be more DNFs before the end of the season. We just don't know who will score them.
Work for Borgo Panigale
While Honda and Yamaha have dominated proceedings, Ducati are still trying to catch up. After Jorge Lorenzo's podium at Jerez, cold weather and sketchy conditions threw a spanner in the works for any hopes of a strong run. Lorenzo is making progress on the bike, but he started from sixteenth, and lost four seconds in the melée of the start. Lorenzo faces two issues: his process of adapting to the bike, and his inability to cope with mixed conditions, especially a damp track that requires slicks. After the opening laps, he managed to run a reasonable pace. But he was still the best part of a second slower than the men at the front, and crossed the line 24 seconds behind Maverick Viñales. He may have finished sixth, but the gap to the winner was telling.
Andrea Dovizioso felt much the same. He was fourth behind Pedrosa, but the gap to Viñales was over eleven seconds. "We are happy about the position at the end of the race, but we can't be too happy about the speed we have," Dovizioso said. "So we expected to be a little bit closer, but our speed wasn't good enough to really fight with the top." The Ducati was losing in acceleration, Dovizioso said. This is almost certainly still a hangover from the loss of the winglets, something Ducati are still struggling with. Their first attempt at an aerodynamic fairing had to be abandoned. They have a private test in Barcelona this week, so perhaps their second attempt will be trialled there. They need something.
The MotoGP race was one for the ages, but both Moto2 and Moto3 left plenty to talk about. In Moto2, Franco Morbidelli recovered his composure and went on to take another comfortable win, his fourth of the season. Behind him, Pecco Bagnaia took second, his second podium in Moto2, and his second in succession. Bagnaia regularly overachieved in Moto3 on the Mahindra, and is now starting to do the same in Moto2. Bagnaia looks to be a little special. Alex Márquez finished in fourth behind Tom Luthi, the Spaniard suffering at the end of the race with the bone in his foot he broke in practice.
Moto3 was just as memorable as MotoGP, but for entirely different reasons. A typical first-chicane clash left four riders at the side of the track, and Adam Norrodin rejoined the race pouring liquids and oil. He unwittingly left a trail of fluids at several points around the track, which the Moto3 pack encountered as it embarked on the second lap of the race. On the entrance to La Chapelle, roughly half of the Moto3 field went down, with bikes and bodies flying everywhere, and occasional contact. Nobody was seriously injured – and there were plenty of miraculous near misses – but Nicolo Bulega, Joan Mir, and Niccolo Antonelli all took a fair beating from flying bikes.
After the clean up, which took a fair old time, the restarted and shortened race provided a thrilling battle for second, but the winner made it look easy. Joan Mir was helped by first Jorge Martin, and then Romano Fenati crashing out. Mir managed the race easily, taking his third win of the season to lead the championship by 34 points. He will be a tough nut to crack for those who would challenge him.
The battle for second did not disappoint, and after the usual swapping of places, it was Aron Canet who came out on top. The Spaniard just pipped Fabio Di Giannantonio to the line, who in turn nudged Marcos Ramirez back into fourth. Ramirez has been achingly close to his first podium, and will soon be on the box. KTM's hopes rest with him, as the Austrian factory is yet to score a single podium so far this season.
Le Mans also saw the return of Danny Kent, keen to make amends for his departure from the Kiefer Moto2 team in Austin. Kent rode as a wildcard in the Ajo Moto3 team, and acquitted himself very well. He finished in tenth, just behind his temporary teammate Bo Bendsneyder, which is good going given he has only had a day of testing on the bike at Jerez. Whether that will be enough to secure a permanent ride in Moto3 remains to be seen. Ajo has several more wildcard slots in Moto3 for the rest of the season, so if Kent is not offered a ride with another team, there is every chance he will get a second shot as a wildcard.
The New Golden Era
Now, MotoGP moves on to Mugello. With record crowds at Le Mans, and Valentino Rossi still very much in contention, that race is likely to be a madhouse. And the crowds are right to come: MotoGP is truly in a golden era. There is a young upstart leading the championship, an underrated veteran in second, the man widely touted as the greatest rider in history in third, and determined to take a win at his spiritual home. The most talented rider ever to swing a leg over a bike (though some would say that was Casey Stoner) is fourth in the standings, and the new challenger, Johann Zarco is in fifth. The Ducatis are at home, and have a three-time world champion aboard to try to help them to victory. Meanwhile, only a heartbreaking technical issue separated Aprilia from a top eight finish at Le Mans.
On the grid at every race, there are four riders who have already earned their place in the history books, plus another couple who are well on the way to doing the same. And behind them, in Moto2 and Moto3, is another generation of young riders who have set their sights on the elite of MotoGP. The premier class contains the very best riders in the world, and indeed, the very best riders in history. That may suck for them, but it doesn't suck for all of us who love the sport.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Casey Stoner was the first rookie to podium on a satellite before Johann Zarco, doing so in 2006. In fact, it was Ben Spies in 2010, and before that, Andrea Dovizioso in 2008. The relevant paragraphs have been corrected.
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