The track was hotting up, mostly literally, for the afternoon play session of the premier class and it was freshly renewed Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso who wrote another headline after his earlier announcement. The metaphorical fight for the lead was, as ever, between him and Marc Marquez. The final runs saw Marquez having a look at the hard rear tyre while Dovizioso kept to his softs. The status quo was maintained at the top until the final time attack but the world champion made sure to keep us entertained by piling up the saves. Johann Zarco chased some home glory as he took over the lead in the final three minutes but he was soon denied by Dovizioso, who became the only rider to drop into the 1:31s on the French circuit.
A big improvement in track temperature predictably led to faster times and faster crashes. No harm done and it ended up as a good afternoon at the office for the Italians. Tony Arbolino sat at the top of the timing screens for most of the session, until Niccolo Antonelli dethroned him in a final time attack. The SIC58 Squadra racer snuck ahead of Kaito Toba by a mere four hundredths of a second but the Japanese rider missed out on perfectly fine opportunity to fight back by suffering a rather speedy crash on his last lap.
It had long been expected, but it is finally confirmed. The official Ducati Motor Twitter account just confirmed that Ducati have signed a new contract with Andrea Dovizioso for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
Dovizioso is to speak to the media about the contract at 5pm on Friday, after which point a press release will be released. Dovizioso becomes the thirteenth rider confirmed for next year.
The tweet announcing the signing is below:
As morning in Le Mans was starting to warm up, the boost in confidence saw quite a few intermediate class riders test the gravel traps around the circuit, with no serious consequences. One man who managed to avoid all that was Marcel Schrotter, who grabbed the lead from Alex Marquez at the halfway point of the session and ran away at the front – at one point over four tenths faster than the rest.
A clear but cool morning awaited the premier class for their first venture on French grounds and it was going to be a first indication of the pecking order, especially for Yamaha. The only real conclusion was that the situation is as close as ever, the lead exchanging hands between four factories about every five minutes. Cal Crutchlow was the early leader, with Valentino Rossi and Andrea Iannone also putting their names at the top but it wasn’t to be for any of the three in the end.
The forecast in Le Mans likes to give us a scare every now and again but the predicted clouds were nowhere to be seen by the time the first session of the weekend got off to a start. Under sunny blue skies, Enea Bastianini led most of a pretty close session until Jorge Martin picked up the lead in final five minutes. The Spaniard was only a tenth of a second off until that point and went on to sneak ahead of Jakub Kornfeil by a tenth and a half.
For the past decade or so, Le Mans has been a Yamaha track, with Yamaha riders taking seven wins in the last ten races. The answer to whether that situation can continue or is simple: it depends. Maybe a Yamaha can win at Le Mans on Sunday. Or maybe another bike will take victory here instead.
That answer is generic almost to the point of meaninglessness, but beneath it lies a kernel of truth. The first four races in MotoGP have taught us a few lessons which point to who and what could do the winning on Sunday. The more precise answer? If a Yamaha is going to win, it is more likely to be be the Tech3 bike of Johann Zarco, rather than the factory Movistar machines of Valentino Rossi or Maverick Viñales. If a Yamaha doesn't win, then the Ducatis are in with a much better chance than you might expect, with Andrea Dovizioso and, who knows?, maybe even Jorge Lorenzo in with a shout.
But the lesson of the first four races of 2018 is that the most likely outcome on Sunday is that a Honda will win, and probably a Honda in the hands of Marc Márquez. That is clearly what most of the riders felt on Sunday. The one recurring theme that came back from riders on every competing manufacturer was that they were both impressed and feared how much the Honda has improved since last year.
Aleix Espargaro is to remain with Aprilia for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Aprilia today announced they have extended Espargaro's contract for two more years.
Espargaro's announcement is the second signing to come today, and brings the total of signed riders for next season and beyond up to eleven. For the full list, see the story on Alex Rins re-signing with Suzuki.
The Aprilia press release appears below:
Alex Rins has signed a new contract with the factory Suzuki Ecstar team for 2019 and 2020. The young Spaniard will stay with the team for two more seasons, as he continues to show the growth expected of him after a difficult rookie season marred by injury. Rins is now the twelfth rider to be confirmed for the 2019 season, and leaves one less factory seat to fill.
The re-signing of Rins had been widely expected. The Spaniard had spoken at Austin of positive progress being made, and the final details were hammered out at Jerez. Rins' first podium in MotoGP helped, taking third place in Argentina, but the fact that he has crashed out of the other three races held so far is a concern. Yet he has consistently shown he has the pace to compete at the front.
In a city where no sporting event is taken seriously if it lasts any less than 24 hours – Le Mans even has a literary festival which features 24-hour readings – MotoGP feels slightly out of place. Yet over 100,000 fans come to watch what is surely the greatest motorized show on earth, flocking to what remains a legendary racing venue, despite the fact that MotoGP runs on the much shorter, tighter Bugatti circuit rather than the full length layout used by the 24-hour car race.
The race is very much a throwback to the past. The atmosphere is different to almost every other race: there is a constant edge, a sense of danger lurking just below the surface. Some revel in that excitement, others – myself included – grow tired at spending the evening wondering if you will make it out of the track alive if you leave after dark. If Quentin Tarantino directed a movie about MotoGP, he would set it at Le Mans.
The track may be rather tight and stop and go, but it presents a unique and fascinating challenge. Just making it through the Dunlop Chicane after the blisteringly fast first corner at Dunlop Curve is an achievement at the start, and it remains a favorite passing place throughout the race. The downhill right hander at La Chapelle can be treacherous, as can Musee, the long left hander which follows.