Yesterday, I wrote about the stupendous crowds at Le Mans for the 1000th motorcycle grand prix. The circuit and event were the right place to celebrate such a memorable occasion. But the fans who packed the circuit at Le Mans got their money's worth in terms of racing too. The MotoGP race was spectacular and tense in equal measure.
It was also a very messy affair. Of the 21 riders who lined up at 2pm on Sunday – Raul Fernandez had tried to ride after arm pump surgery, but that had proved impossible – only 13 made it to the checkered flag. It was a war of attrition.
Why all the crashes? A lot of reasons. There's a lot of hard braking at Le Mans, and more right than left corners. Temperatures can be relatively cool, and tires can cool off quickly. And riders found themselves caught between choosing a softer front tire and suffering in braking, and going for the medium or hard front and nursing the left side of the tire through Musée and Chemin aux Boeufs.
"I think the grip here is not fantastic and there's a lot of hard braking places where you need the support from the front tire," Brad Binder explained. "Here we have a really soft rear tire so it makes up for the low grip on the rear, but the front doesn't quite handle it. So I think that's where the most of the crashes come from."
All in early
There was another reason for some of the early crashes too. "Everybody was really, really aggressive in the first laps," Luca Marini said after the race. Marini was one of those early victims, sliding the front on the exit of the Dunlop Chicane and managing to save it on his elbow. Unfortunately, he had Marco Bezzecchi and Alex Marquez right on his tail, and though Bezzecchi was able to slip past Marini as he dragged elbow and knee on the ground, Alex Marquez, unsighted by Bezzecchi's bike, clipped Marini's bike, bringing them both down.
For a few terrifying moments, Marquez desperately tried to scramble to the left side of the track on his hands and knees, as the pack fired past him on their way out of the chicane. Luck, great riding, and good marshalling prevented him from being hit by any of the bikes coming up from behind. Both Marini and Marquez came away relatively unscathed, Marini left with pain in his thumbs from the impact of the handlebars, and in his hands from sliding along the ground.
"I touched the kerb too much inside of Turn 4," Marini explained afterward. "So I lost the front, but then I was able to stand up the bike. I made one of my best saves of my life, so I was happy in that moment! Because I was starting to really accelerate. But then Marquez hit me in the back."
Alex Marquez described what happened from his point of view. "In that point, Luca was starting to struggle a little bit and Marco was attacking him. So I said, ‘OK, if Marco attacks him, I will try also to overtake and to go’. But then he did a small mistake of going in on the kerb, he lost the front," the Gresini Ducati rider explained.
He hadn't seen how Bezzecchi had managed to just miss Marini, and couldn't see Marini because Bezzecchi was directly in front of him, Marquez explained. "Marco was able to not touch him by nothing. And I was behind Marco, so I didn't see nothing. And then when Marco moved, Luca was in the middle, and I was not able to avoid that crash."
Marini realized there was nothing Alex Marquez could have done. "I think it was really difficult for him to avoid the impact because he was trying to gain the position," the Mooney VR46 rider explained. "He was trying to gain time, not lose time, so it was difficult. For me, it was just a racing incident. In this case it's really difficult for the rider behind. Bezz was really good, Marquez maybe he couldn't see me. I don't know. Because it was difficult from the TV to see the point of view of Marquez, if there was Bezz in front of him or not."
That might have been the most spectacular crash, but it wasn't the most significant. Thirty seconds before, Maverick Viñales and Pecco Bagnaia had collided at the 'S' Bleus, both riders ending in the gravel as they contested third place behind Jack Miller and Marc Marquez.
The collision had started a couple of corners earlier. Maverick Viñales had passed Bagnaia on the entry to Turn 11, the first right of the esses. He had carried more speed out of Turn 10, and was well placed to dive under Bagnaia on the way into Turn 11. But that speed put him a little wide on the exit, forcing him to scrub speed and cut back inside again to line up for the left at Turn 12.
Bagnaia, meanwhile, had seen Viñales come through, turned into 11 early, and was carrying more speed on the exit. That put the Ducati and Aprilia on intersecting lines, and Viñales banged into the side of Bagnaia as they started to turn in to Turn 12. The collision stood Bagnaia up, and threw Viñales out of his seat, causing him to lose control of his Aprilia RS-GP. Viñales' Aprilia shook wildly, and slammed into Bagnaia's bike again, putting Bagnaia on the ground, while Viñales wobbled into the gravel before falling.
The crash caused some of the better comedy of the race. Immediately after the crash, Viñales rushed over to Bagnaia and started to shout at the Italian. Bagnaia shouted back, and an altercation started, with some comedy fisticuffs thrown in for good measure. The pair were soon separated, and cooled off on the short ride to the pits.
Afterward, both riders accepted that it had been a racing incident, the sort of crash that can happen at chicanes and esses like the 'S' Bleus. "It's a shame because I passed him very clean and then, my point of view is that he can leave a little bit more space in this change of direction," Viñales said. Bagnaia mostly agreed. "He overtook me clean, very clean, but was a bit wide," the factory Ducati rider said. "I was on the inside, on my line and when he came back he just tried to do his normal line. But I was there. So maybe I could manage better and maybe I had to close the gas. Or maybe he had to consider that I was there."