The first properly wet session of the year for the premier class came as predicted on Saturday morning at Le Mans and it saw most of the usual suspects shining under the cloud cover. The Yamahas came to the surface like earthworms after rain at the start of the session but rivals picked up some speed on the final run and it turned into a tasty Yamaha-Honda-Ducati battle. Maverick Vinales carried the flag for the blue bikes and ended the session in the lead by nearly two tenths of a second from the master of tricky conditions, Marc Marquez.
The promise of rain materialised ahead of the first session of the day and for the lightweight class that meant a wet track, slow motion footage of slides and the occasional excursion into damp gravel. While rainfall was not particularly heavy, it did mean that FP2 gave us the final line-up for the two qualifying sessions, leaving riders to concentrate on their wet weather riding.
The weather is a fickle mistress to motorcycle racing. The MotoGP riders have just spent two sessions in dry and relatively sunny conditions looking for the perfect setup, and all that work is likely to be wasted. Rain is expected overnight, and then all day on Saturday, starting from around 10am, just in time for FP3. Sunday looks like being damp, rather than wet, so even the setup found in what will probably be very wet conditions on Saturday will be of little use on race day. The race will be something of a gamble.
But we still learned plenty on Friday. We learned that Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales have the best race pace, a couple of tenths quicker than the sizable group capable of fighting for third. We learned that Marc Márquez is still capable of impossible-seeming saves, though that is also a portent of problems with the Honda – neither Jorge Lorenzo nor Cal Crutchlow managed to duplicate Márquez' trick, instead ending up in the gravel. We learned that Alex Rins still can't put a single fast lap together, despite having very good race pace. That it was a carbon swingarm which Pol Espargaro had been testing in secrecy at Jerez. And that Fabio Quartararo is a genuine competitor.
With the darkening clouds edging ever closer throughout the final session of the day, it was lucky that the intermediate class got a full afternoon of dry running. Brad Binder in particular made the best of the track time available and brought KTM and their new chassis back into the limelight by taking the lead in FP2 as the checkered flag came out. After a pretty excellent FP1, Remy Gardner confirmed that no bruises or burns were going to keep him away from the fight and as proof, he finished the day five hundredths of a second down on the leader.
The premier class was straight out of the gates when the light turned green with the overcast sky giving some minor cause for concern. Marc Marquez took this opportunity to sample the hard rear tyre and dragged a decent result out of it by taking charge of the session while most people fancied the medium. Fellow Honda rider Cal Crutchlow was the only other rider tempted by the hard, while Yamaha picked the mediums and Ducati flirted with the soft.
The second set of sessions for the day started with some more cloud cover gathering over the Bugatti Circuit and with the threat of rain for the remaining practice session, lightweight class seemed in a hurry to set up a competitive time for the important top 14. Quite a few riders got caught out in some that rush and visited the gravel trap and runoff areas all throughout the session, including Aron Canet, Darryn Binder, John McPhee, Lorenzo Dalla Porta, Romano Fenati and Niccolo Anotoneli.
The intermediate class had a side of cloud with their blue sky but Andrea Locatelli enjoyed the cool morning from the top of the timesheets for most of the session, consolidating his position late on with the only time in the 1:36s. Marcel Schrotter slowly climbed through the ranking and eventually finished second to the Italian, a little over a tenth of a second off. Brad Binder put the brand new KTM chassis to good use to join the top three while Sam Lowes got demoted to fourth position after a brief stint at the top.
Perhaps the Eiffel Tower was a bit of a lucky charm to the local men who paid a visit before action set off in France. Fabio Quartararo had a dream start to his home race weekend, the Jerez poleman back at the top of the timesheets with a final flying lap in the 1:31s. Andrea Dovizioso looked keen to threaten that but had to make do with second position, one tenth slower than the lead Yamaha and another tenth ahead of teammate Danilo Petrucci.
Sunshine accompanied the MotoGP circus from Jerez all the way to Le Mans so the lightweight class opened proceedings in a sunny but chilly morning at the notorious French circuit. Jerez poleman Lorenzo Dalla Porta led most of the session until a minor tip off sent him back to the Leopard Racing garage halfway through the action. This allowed Gabriel Rodrigo to rob him of top position and the duo were running together for their final time attack. Although the Italian was stringing together red sectors on the timesheets, the Gresini man held firm at the front by eight hundredths of a second.
Le Mans is very much a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde kind of a weekend. The city of Le Mans is utterly charming and sedate, its historical center full of buildings reaching back to the 12th Century. The Le Mans circuit (the shorter Bugatti Circuit used by MotoGP and motorcycle racing events, that is) is a run down affair beside an industrial estate on the outskirts of the city.
In the evenings, the central square in Le Mans has peaceful and civilized air, where people gather to eat and drink. A few miles further south, inside the circuit and at the campsites which surround it, mayhem is unleashed, a bawdy, rowdy riot of drink, fire, and noise. The atmosphere during the day is the opposite, almost, a friendly, lively, and especially passionate crowd roam the wooded areas around the track, enjoying some of the richest entertainment you will find at a race track anywhere around the world.
In the evenings? Well, best leave the track before the sun goes down. Though the entertainment goes on all night – a ploy forced on the organizers to keep the bike fans out of the town in the evening – the atmosphere turns from joyful to wild and chaotic. At night, things can get a little unruly.
More than stop and go
The latest episode of the Paddock Pass Podcast features Neil Morrison and David Emmett going over the fascinating events of Jerez. There was so much to talk about after that race, as well as the Monday test.
Neil and David go through the race, and look at Marc Marquez' victory in Spain, and ask what this means for the championship. We of course spend a lot of time on Fabio Quartararo, the disaster he suffered during the race after becoming the youngest ever polesitter, and whether this means the Frenchman is a genuine future star.
The carbon fiber covered chassis on the Honda RC213V test bike used by Stefan Bradl
David Emmett: This was the talk of the Jerez weekend. Stefan Bradl had two bikes at his disposal, this one, featuring a different chassis design (see the scalloped section in the center of the main beam), and the standard aluminum chassis. After Honda spent the winter working on the engine of the RC213V, they are now diverting their attention to the chassis. Riders have complained of a lack of front end feel from the 2019 frame, and this seems to be an experiment to create a bit more feel, especially on corner entry and mid corner. Marc Márquez tested this chassis at Jerez on Monday, and set his fastest time on the bike.
Another view of the carbon fiber covered chassis on Bradl's RC213V
David Emmett: A view of the full frame. The welds appear to be in the same place as the standard frame, but the top beams are different.
Frame flex is the black art of MotoGP chassis design. Here’s why chassis are getting softer, not stronger, despite ever-increasing speeds and horsepower
Study this photo of the front end of a Repsol Honda RC213V, particularly the upper triple clamp. Notice how the underside (between the two HRC logos on the left and right) has been scalloped out, so that much of the triple clamp can only be a few millimetres thick.
What does this tell us? That Honda, like everyone else, is making its MotoGP chassis softer and softer.
It has been a good season so far for Suzuki, the Suzuki Ecstar team, and especially Alex Rins. The Suzuki rider won the race in Austin, finished a comfortable second at Jerez, and has not finished outside the top five all season. Rins sits in second place in the championship, a single point behind leader Marc Márquez.
The Suzuki GSX-RR is a much-improved bike over the winter. After the massive steps made in the second half of the 2018 season, a series of refinements during testing have turned the bike into a bona fide championship contender, and a machine to be feared by its rivals. At Jerez, where Andrea Dovizioso got a close up look at the bike of Rins, the factory Ducati rider was full of praise for the Suzuki.
"I think the Suzuki is better than all the bikes in turning," Dovizioso said. "Rins, when he overtook me, his speed in the middle of the corner was amazing. It’s impossible for me to understand but maybe in the hard braking they are not so strong. It didn’t look like it, but maybe they have some limits. When a big talent rides the bike it’s always difficult to see a bad point of the bike. But for sure in the middle of the corner they are so fast."
At the Monday test in Jerez, Suzuki brought a few more updates to test, most notably a new swing arm and their own version of the swing arm spoiler. The swing arm was rated a success, but the spoiler did not fare so well. Alex Rins ran into the gravel with the spoiler and damaged it beyond repair.
After the test, we spoke to Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio about the test, about the competitiveness of the GSX-RR, and about Alex Rins and his chances of winning the 2019 title. "At the end of the day, it's always useful to do this test, especially after four races, because you can start to guess at the problems you are having and the area where you can improve," Brivio said.
Press releases after the races in Imola:
WorldSBK Race 2 and WorldSSP300 races cancelled due to weather conditions in Imola