Typical Le Mans weather is what we have had so far at the French circuit. Yesterday was glorious, sunny and dry. Saturday was overcast, gloomy, with a very light rain falling for most of the day. Track conditions were changing continuously, especially during qualifying, the track drying out quickly when it briefly stopped raining, before becoming much wetter in a matter of minutes once it started again.
The fickle track conditions made life very difficult for everyone in MotoGP. The only session with consistent conditions was FP3, when it was wet for all of the session. The amount of water on the track changed drastically during FP4, so a majority of the riders decided to sit out most of the session, only taking to the track in the last ten minutes or so to get a feel for the track ahead of qualifying. But by this time, it was clear that qualifying would be something of a gamble.
The form that gamble would take turned out to be poker. In Q1, some riders raised the stakes, some bluffed, and some folded. That process repeated in Q2, the 12 riders entering the second session examining their cards before trying to find the best way to play them. The cards in play were whether to choose slicks or wets, whether to use the soft of the medium compound wet tire, and the ever-changing track surface as the rain disappeared then returned.
The lesson of Q1 was not to play poker with Valentino Rossi. The veteran Yamaha rider took to the track on slicks out of the gate, and after a couple of laps to get some heat into the tires, set a time which nobody would even come close to. After the session was over, it looked like a stroke of genius, but he had only pulled it off because it hadn't rained in the first ten minutes of the session, and because everyone else started the session on wet tires. If the rain had come earlier, Rossi would have been left with little time to try to set a time on wet tires.
It had been a huge gamble, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider admitted. But given his experience at the last race, he had no choice. "Today it was very, very important to try to go into the Q2," Rossi said. "Because if I have to start in the fifth row like in Jerez, my race would be already very, very difficult."
But it wasn't just a leap into the unknown, the Italian emphasized. "The choice was mainly for two reasons. First of all, we worked a little bit on mixed conditions in Austin, and I feel more comfortable with the bike to improve the setting and also the electronics. Usually in these conditions we suffer very much. And also, I made FP4 with wet tires, and I was good, because I feel good in the wet, but we arrived at the limit. So it was clear that you cannot go faster than this. So here the asphalt is good, not a lot of water. We saw the radar that had rain staying all around us, not straight over us. So we decided to risk it, and it paid off. I'm happy, because it was the right choice, and it was important to go to Q2."
Making them call
Rossi's gamble proved to be a master stroke for another reason as well. It sowed doubt in the minds of his rivals, forcing them to rethink their strategies and come in for slicks. Everyone else had gone out on wets, but when the saw Rossi on slicks, and saw his lap times dropping, every single one of them returned to switch to slicks. But the light rain got heavy enough to make the track almost impossible to ride with slicks, unless you already had heat in the tires. The long pit lane exit at Le Mans meant that tire temperatures dropped by perhaps 30°C or more before the riders got on track, and pushing on a cold slick on a damp track is an errand fit only for the exceptionally brave, or the especially foolish. Their chance was gone.
Pecco Bagnaia was typical of the rest of grid. "In Q1 my feeling was good, but we made a mistake with the strategy," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "We saw that Valentino was with slicks, but the conditions were only OK in the first two laps. Then it was impossible to beat the time. I was on a lap with three red helmets, and then I stopped in the box to understand if it was better with the slicks. And with slicks, you need more laps. So if the conditions were the same as at the start of the session, it would have been possible to go with slicks, but it wasn't possible. So we had a little mistake."
For the MotoGP rookies, it was the first time they got time in fully wet conditions, and all were amazed at the grip available. The combination of Michelin's rain tires and MotoGP electronics made the bikes much easier to ride in the wet than the Moto2 machines they were accustomed to. "This bike is easier in the wet than it is in the dry!" Bagnaia exclaimed, before explaining why he felt that way. "Because of the grip that we have. The feeling in the front is incredible, but also when you give gas, you have a lot of grip."
Second time unlucky
In Q2, Valentino Rossi tried to pull off the same trick, going out for the first run on slicks. His Yamaha stablemates had the same idea, with both Maverick Viñales and Petronas Yamaha rider Fabio Quartararo also fitting slicks for their first pit exit. This time, the gamble didn't pay off. The track was too wet, and they all immediately returned to the pits for wet tires, Rossi coming back into pit lane waving his finger to imitate a windscreen wiper.
"We tried the same thing in Q2, because I know that maybe if I'm able to make two laps, maybe I can get pole position, but unfortunately, there was already too much water," Rossi said on Saturday afternoon. "So I stopped. It's OK, I'm happy about the fifth place, but it looks like the best moment to make the front row or make the pole position was the first five minutes of Q2, because there was less water, especially in section 1 and section 2. But anyway, in the end I'm not so bad, starting fifth position is perfect."
If slicks were the wrong choice, the medium wets were the right one, but even then the conditions were treacherous. Marc Márquez set off like a scalded cat out of the pits, understanding that he had to get in a lap time as quickly as possible, and keep the tires warm. His first flying lap was good enough to take pole, and his second flying lap might have been even faster if he hadn't crashed. But precisely because he was trying so hard, the Repsol Honda rider got the bike out of shape on the little flick left before La Chapelle, which put him off line for the entry to La Chapelle, the only way to make it by letting the rear of the bike hang out.
Trying too hard
That meant he was asking too much of both the front and the rear tires, and he slid gracefully out on the downhill right of La Chapelle. It was a crash he had under control, the bike not damaged very much so he decided to continue. But it was also a crash he couldn't save. It didn't matter, as the rain started to become heavier, and improving on his time was impossible for anyone.
"It was a difficult quali, because it was not only about speed; it was also about the strategy, about understanding, being smart, understanding the track conditions," Márquez told the press conference. "Immediately when I went out, I saw that we made the correct decision to start with the wet tires. Then immediately I saw that the light rain was becoming heavier and heavier. Then in the first lap I pushed a little bit. That was enough to be in pole. Then our strategy was, first lap push a little bit and the second lap give everything. But when I give everything, I very good for just three corners, but the fourth one, in the fourth corner I fell down."
Márquez' pole takes his total to 55, putting him equal second in the premier class with Valentino Rossi behind Mick Doohan. That statistic needs a footnote, however, as poles were only officially recorded from the late 1970s. Before that, official records for pole position are sketchy and incomplete, but it is almost certain that Giacomo Agostini took more poles than Doohan. The downside to participating in a sport with a long and rich history is that some parts of that history get lost in the mists of time.
Pace but no position
While Rossi and Márquez got their tire choice just right in Q1 and Q2, there were also plenty of others who got it wrong. Maverick Viñales, like Rossi, had gone out on a slick at the start of qualifying. But unlike Rossi, who managed to squeeze a strong lap out after changing to medium wet tires, Viñales couldn't find the pace to get close to the front. That left him marooned down in eleventh, and on the fourth row of the grid.
Viñales was resigned after qualifying. "I think we made a big mistake with the strategy in Q2," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "The strategy was we didn’t know whether to go out on slicks or on wets. We chose two exits slicks, and we lost these two or three laps which was the window to do the best lap time. The time could have been much better than what I did in the last laps."
"But it happened, we paid for it so it makes no sense to start to get angry," Viñales said. The good thing is the feeling in the wet is there, and in dry is there. We have good rhythm. Our mission is to try and be on the podium. In the race we are going to try to push and see what we can achieve in Sunday’s race."
It is unfortunate that Viñales is stranded back on the fourth row, for both FP3 and FP4 showed that it is Viñales who had the pace to go with Márquez from the beginning. If he had qualified on the front row, Viñales could have proved to be a formidable obstacle to Márquez, but with the Repsol Honda rider on pole, Viñales has his work cut out to get near enough to Márquez before he disappears. Viñales has so often shown that he has incredible speed and potential, but he is also a master at making things incredibly difficult for himself.
Progress at last?
Jorge Lorenzo was also a victim of strategy. In the Repsol Honda rider's case, it was in using his tires in the wrong order, choosing a soft first instead of a medium wet. "The bad part was that I decided to use two tires on the rear, but the first one was the soft," Lorenzo said. "The track was quite good at the beginning, so everyone pushed and put the medium. The medium was the perfect tire for these two or three laps, but I was with the soft and I couldn't take profit of these laps. Then when I put the medium, it started to rain more, especially in the first sector. It was very slippery, and with the medium which was the right tire for the constant conditions, it was too slippery at this moment, so nobody really improved the lap times. So that's why I am in eighth, when today I could be first row or second row."
That in itself is something of a revolution. Lorenzo finally reverted to the standard Honda seat on Friday, immediately finding a burst of speed. He carried that speed through to the wet practices on Saturday, ending FP3 in seventh, and qualifying in eighth on the grid, despite having the wrong tire on at the wrong time. "I didn't have enough time or the time I would like in the dry, only one day, but I demonstrated that I made some progress," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Hopefully tomorrow if it's dry in the race, you have also the warm up to try to repeat this good feeling. And if it's going to rain, hopefully it's also a wet warm up. But the feeling is better, I feel more natural on the bike, and this translates into a faster lap time and a more consistent pace."
New hope for Zarco
Lorenzo wasn't the only rider to make a step forward in the wet. Drawing strength from the support of his home crowd, and from the different feeling the KTM RC16 gave him in the wet, Johann Zarco finished FP3 in fifth place, and if he hadn't gotten caught up in the slick strategy of Valentino Rossi, felt he could have been on the front row of the grid.
"Best position and best QP from the beginning," Zarco said. "Disappointed and angry after the Q1 because we missed the strategy, not about the slicks because what Valentino did was very clever, but even with the rain tires. I left the box with the slick and it was too late to do something. It was a shame. It was conditions where I felt good after a long time struggling and I think we could have played for pole position today. To miss the Q2 I was on fire inside. But, positive for tomorrow, I think in mixed conditions we have the chance to do a good race. It is also the first time since I have been on the KTM that I can feel some strong points on the bike and this gives me a smile and a good motivation to feel that what we do is working."
All bets are off
So how does the race look like playing out? The weather looks like bringing mixed conditions, with very light rain forecast from around noon to 3pm. That is the best possible conditions for Marc Márquez, for on a low grip track in unpredictable conditions, he is almost unbeatable. He finds himself on the grid alongside Danilo Petrucci and Jack Miller, both of whom are excellent in the wet, and Miller has the chutzpah to take a gamble on slicks if there is the chance the track might dry out. The Le Mans track drains well, and a dry line can form even if there is still very light rain and no wind.
Andrea Dovizioso starts from fourth, but was confident of being able to fight for the win with Márquez. "I think we can fight, really fight," the factory Ducati rider said. Likewise Valentino Rossi, who has the experience and cunning to make the right choice when it comes to gambling on tires. Maverick Viñales, who was as quick as Márquez in both the wet or dry, would need a miracle to be able to make his way forward from eleventh. Add to this the fact that historically, Viñales has lost ground at the start and struggled in the opening laps, and it looks like he has a mountain to climb.
The biggest loser on Saturday was Alex Rins. His inability to put in a quick lap on Friday means the Suzuki Ecstar rider will start from nineteenth on the grid, with a huge challenge ahead of him. He will really need help from events at the front to make his way forward, but the chances are not strong. He has the pace, but just not the position.
The odds are good for a flag-to-flag race on Sunday, the first one we have had in a while. Once again, it will come down to tactics and strategy, and a big pinch of luck. Whatever happens, the race should have plenty of spectacle, even if the probability is that Márquez will disappear at the front. But after so many moments and slides this weekend, there are a couple of ways, both positive and negative, of interpreting that.
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