Features

2017 Le Mans Sunday Round Up: An Age Of Champions

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.

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2017 Le Mans MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Zarco's Brilliance, Rossi's Non-Retirement, And Miller's Mental Fortitude

It has been a tough weekend for a lot of people at Le Mans. The weather has done just about everything to confound and perplex the riders, conditions changing every session. Friday went from wettish to very wet, Saturday went from drying to almost completely dry. There hasn't been a single session of stable weather with a consistent and unchanging track.

That has caused a lot of problems, especially in MotoGP, shaking up the qualifying system based around the combined times through all three free practice sessions. For the fans, though, it's been fantastic, producing two of the most exciting qualifying sessions we have seen for a while. Tricky conditions in free practice put Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, and local hero Johann Zarco into Q1, producing fireworks in the battle for who gets through to Q2. Then, in Q2, the battle happened all over again, this time in a straight up slugfest for the front row. That went right down to the wire, the first three safe only once the dust had settled.

The weather reignited the debate over MotoGP's qualifying system, a common complaint among several riders, and also a regular topic at the Safety Commission, the meeting where riders and organizers gather to discuss how to make racing safer. Andrea Dovizioso voiced the concern on Saturday, despite having made it through Q1 and into Q2. "It’s really stressful, these rules for everybody because every practice has to be a qualifying," the Ducati rider said. "You have to be in the top 10 because the weather can change."

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2017 Le Mans MotoGP Friday Round Up: Wasted Day In The Wet, And Tire Wars Revisited

"A wasted day, again at Le Mans," was Cal Crutchlow's verdict on the first day of practice at the French circuit. He had a point: the first session of practice started wet but dried out towards the end, though the track was never really fully dry. FP2 started completely wet, with plenty of rain, but again the rain stopped and the track improved a little. At no time did the track ever really become consistently one thing or another. And with dry weather forecast for Saturday and Sunday, there was not much to learn.

"It’s just a joke," Crutchlow complained. "I don’t know why we come here again at this time of the year. First of all, obviously I really believe we should have a race in France, I like coming to France, the fans are completely mad and I have a good rapport with them. But I don’t know why we come here and I don’t know why we come here now. No idea. Every year, I can’t tell you a year I’ve raced in MotoGP where it’s been sunny all weekend, I don’t think."

Naturally, this kicked off a heated debate among the various nationalities of journalists over whose country has the worst weather, with Silverstone and Assen the candidates giving Le Mans a proper run for their money. Crutchlow remained firm. "I love Le Mans, the history is superb, bike racing at Le Mans is massive as well as car racing. But the circuit’s no good. It’s stop-start and the time of the year’s always raining." It isn't 'always' raining at Le Mans, of course. But it feels like it does.

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2017 Le Mans MotoGP Preview: Rough Nights, More Grip, And Hayden In Our Hearts

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.

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Subscriber Feature: Alberto Puig Interview - On Identifying Talent, And Making Champions

Alberto Puig has a remarkable knack for identifying talent. Since a leg injury forced him into retirement, the former Spanish Grand Prix winner has been deeply involved with the search for young racing talent, in Spain and beyond. His list of successes is vast: Puig is famous as the man who discovered Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner, Toni Elias, Bradley Smith, and many others.

Because of these successes, he has often been called to lead projects searching for talented young riders. He started with Movistar, then worked with Dorna to set up the MotoGP Academy, which became the Red Bull Rookies Cup. He has worked and advised on the Asia Talent Cup series, and is now involved in setting up the British Talent Cup.

How does Puig do it? What qualities is he looking for when he evaluates young riders, trying to assess whether they will be a success or not? And is there a rider where he got that assessment wrong? At the launch of the British Talent Cup back in February, I quizzed Puig on his secrets. He joked off my statement that he was one of the best at identifying young talent. "Maybe I'm lucky!" he laughed. But I persisted, and Puig explained what he was looking for in young riders in a fascinating conversation.

Q: It might be luck considered luck if you had only found Dani Pedrosa, but there are so many riders....

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2017 Jerez MotoGP Test Round Up: The Tire Wars Are Back, Sort Of

For some race fans, the news that the tire wars are back will be music to their ears. The trouble is, the new tire wars which broke out at Jerez are of a very different kind to the period before the advent of the spec tire, when different manufacturers went head-to-head in pursuit of outright performance.

The Jerez tire wars are a very different beast indeed. These pit rider against rider, rather than manufacturer against manufacturer, with the prize being the future direction of tire development in MotoGP. The weapon handed to both sides was a front tire from Michelin using a stiffer construction, first used at the Valencia race and test at the end of last year. The two (or perhaps three) sides in the debate are using the outcome of the Jerez test to try to gain an advantage in the remainder of the championship.

If you wanted proof that Jerez was above all a tire test, look no further than Ducati's decision taken late on Sunday night to stay on for the Monday test. Originally, they had been scheduled to skip the Jerez test and head to Mugello, where they will have a private test to prepare for what is arguably their most important race of the year. But when it became apparent just how much stock some riders were putting in the new tire, the factory Ducati team decided to stay and give the tires a whirl.

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2017 Jerez MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Grip, Tires, And An Imperious Pedrosa

Jerez, the Spanish round of MotoGP, and the first event back on European soil, would in the end come down to a trial of grip. The riders and teams who understood the circumstances best, exploited their strengths, and disguised their weaknesses would come out on top. In all three races on Sunday, the cream rose to the top. Despite rising temperatures and falling grip levels, the smart riders and teams triumphed in all three classes.

In Moto3, KTM made a welcome return to the front, with the Austrian bikes back to challenge the hegemony of Honda in the smallest of the three classes. That race would be won in a brilliant last-corner move when the two riders battling for the lead opened the door for the bike in third. In Moto2, a tense duel would be settled by a mistake, leaving the last man standing to deal with staying concentrated for the second half of the race. And in MotoGP, a thoroughly imperious display saw one rider conquer Jerez, leaving a bloodbath in his wake. Jerez saw three deserving winners emerge.

Grip was already poor for Moto3, but the lighter bikes and their smaller tires are the least affected of the three classes. Things got a lot worse for Moto2, riders struggling for grip, and the race decided by one of the two men battling for victory crashed out a third of the way into the race. The burning Andalusian sun raised track temperatures even higher for MotoGP, and that would prove decisive in the race. Those capable of handling the poor grip triumphed, those who had counted on their good form from the morning warm up transferring to the race came away bitterly disappointed.

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2017 Jerez MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Fast Hondas, Deceptive Yamahas, Losing Winglets, and Orange Elation

Coming into the weekend of Jerez, we knew several things to be absolute certainties. 1. Jerez is a Yamaha track. 2. Ducati always does terribly at Jerez. And 3. The Hondas will struggle against the might of the Yamaha. After qualifying, a swift dose of reality has flushed those preconceptions out of our systems, showing them up for the fallacies that they are.

After qualifying at Jerez, we have an all Honda front row. Two Yamahas start from the second row, but their performance during both qualifying and free practice was far from convincing. The first Ducati sits on the third row, but during practice, Jorge Lorenzo made the Desmosedici GP17 fly, finishing second in FP3 and fourth in FP4.

Where did this shake up come from? The issue is mainly one of grip. After the rain on Friday, there is very little rubber on the track, and the warmer track temperatures has made Jerez its normal, greasy self. The Yamahas perform well when grip is high, whether that be in warmer or cooler temperatures. Extra grip merely helps the RC213V want to wheelie, something for which it needs little encouragement anyway. Robbed of its winglets, the Ducati needs extra rear grip to get good drive out of corners, and exploit its strongest point.

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