The contrast couldn't be bigger. Two weeks ago, the MotoGP circus was at Shanghai, a new, forgettable facility built especially for Formula 1, untouched by the hand of history. This weekend the paddock sets up shop in Le Mans, one of the greatest names in motor racing, a place so steeped in history you can almost taste it in the air. The very name of Le Mans conjures up images of exhausted riders blasting their way through the night by the glare their headlights, with only grim determination to bear them on until daylight breaks, and the approach of the race's end. Le Mans is a racing legend, as big as Assen, Monza, and Indianapolis.
Though the French Grand Prix takes place at a legendary location, it does not use the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe, the insane, half public roads, half closed track course, but rather the shorter, much tighter Bugatti circuit. The Bugatti circuit is a far cry from the last two tracks we visited, which had plenty of long, fast straights. It comprises a series of short straights connected by wide hairpins, with a couple of chicanes and the long, fast Courbe Dunlop which hurt Alberto Puig so badly back in 1995. Where Shanghai and Istanbul favored outright, sixth gear speed, Le Mans demands agility for the first gear turns, and low down grunt to get out of those turns as quickly as possible. On the face of it, the Ducati's days of clubbing the opposition into submission with brute horsepower are over. But there was one detail which was easily lost among the images of Ducatis romping past Yamahas on sheer top speed, and that was the acceleration which Casey Stoner got out of the last corner onto the back straight in China. The Ducatis may have been forced to surrender their best cards, but they could still have a couple of jokers up their sleeves.
But judging by history (a noble goal, at a track so rich in it), Casey Stoner, and everyone else, will have their work cut out for them trying to keep up with the Yamahas at Le Mans. Since the start of the four-stroke era, the Yamahas have always run well at Le Mans, scoring at least one podium every year, with the exception of 2006, when Valentino Rossi's bike suffered a terminal electronics failure while The Doctor was on a charge, robbing him of a certain podium. But with the bike looking much more reliable this year, and being, as Colin Edwards has put it, "the fastest bike in the world in a circle", the Yamahas look just about unstoppable this weekend.
A Foregone Conclusion?
Although total domination by Yamaha sounds like it could make for a dull race, there's a snake in the grass which might just spice things up. Though everyone expects Valentino Rossi to reign in France, Colin Edwards has made no secret of his belief that Le Mans could be where he takes his first victory in MotoGP. There's no doubt that under ordinary circumstances, Rossi would be glad to let Edwards take his maiden win, and would even do what he could to help. But these are not ordinary circumstances. Four races into the season, and The Doctor finds himself staring at a 15 point deficit to Casey Stoner, with the fast tracks at Mugello and Catalunya to come. It is unlikely that Rossi will feel his able to just hand out points to his team mate without putting up a fight. And Edwards is likely to give him one: Seeing John Hopkins break his podium duck, and seeing his own prospects of retaining his seat at Yamaha next year looking slim, thanks to an expected influx of talent, Edwards is chomping at the bit to take his first win, and will be taking more risk than usual for a chance to stand on the top of the box. A fierce battle between the Fiat Yamaha team mates is likely, and could end up being costly. If they get a little too enthusiastic and end up taking each other out, then Rossi could find himself staring at an even bigger points gap, at a track where he hoped to claw points back.
The man sitting on that points gap must be feeling pretty comfortable. Casey Stoner goes into Le Mans with a 15 point lead, knowing that once we leave France, the MotoGP circus heads to two tracks that will once again play to the Ducati's strength in top speed. So Stoner's mission is simple on Sunday: stick with Rossi and limit the points damage. That may be easier said than done, as Stoner may find himself amidst a pack of more agile Yamahas, Suzukis, and even the odd Honda, all trying to make the most of their advantage while they can. Le Mans could turn into a measure of Stoner's maturity, testing whether he can stay calm under the intense pressure he could end up facing, and not end up pushing too hard and making an expensive mistake.
It will be interesting to see if Stoner can call upon his Marlboro Ducati team mate to help him out. Loris Capirossi has been the number one rider in the Ducati garage since the Italian factory returned to MotoGP, but since the advent of the 800 era, he has forfeited that role. Capirex is still struggling to come to terms with the smaller bikes, despite being a former 250 cc world champion, a supposed prerequisite for being fast on the new 800s. Now, with his Australian team mate leading the championship, Capirossi could find himself under pressure to start working in support of Stoner's title chances, and having to sacrifice his own.
One Small Step
In the Suzuki garage, the pecking order is already fairly well established. John Hopkins has had his strongest start to a season so far, and finally smashed through his personal glass ceiling in China, getting a MotoGP podium at long last. Now that he has rid himself of the monkey he carried on his back for so long, Hopper looks like being unleashed. The Suzukis have been strong from the moment that testing started at the end of last season, only coming up a little short on horsepower. But the team will be bringing two sets of new engines to France, one set with more horsepower for the race on Sunday, and "something special" to test on the Monday after the race. The extra ponies will help the already outstanding handling of the GSV-R, and could help an already stoked Hopkins to climb another step on the podium. Or maybe even two.
Chris Vermeulen has had a tougher time than his team mate. The Australian Suzuki rider has struggled in qualifying, never managing to get decent grid position, but has consistently ridden strong races to finish well ahead of his qualifying spot. Unfortunately, gaining 7 or 8 spots to take 7th does not make the headlines, even though close examination of his lap times has often revealed a strong and fast race. If Vermeulen can start qualifying better, his results will improve drastically. And with the extra horses the Rizla Suzuki will have on tap, he could be much closer to the front than he has been at previous races.
The French Connection
The other bike which has shown a huge improvement is the Kawasaki. Going from blowing up at its first public appearance to posting strong qualifying times, and a couple of top 10 finishes, the Kawasaki team is looking ever more competitive. And they should be strong at Le Mans: the team has strong connections with France, beyond their two French riders. The youngest of the pair, Randy de Puniet, will be looking for revenge for last year, when he crashed out on the first lap after being forced into the gravel by a hard-charging Valentino Rossi. The young Frenchman has been riding well so far this season, but has still shown signs of his old weakness, a penchant for slinging the machinery at the scenery. He finished on the podium four times in the 250 class at Le Mans, so he always runs well at his home Grand Prix. If he can stay aboard, he will be someone to watch.
Kawasaki's other French rider, Olivier Jacque, will be absent from Le Mans this weekend, as he is still recovering from a nasty arm injury he suffered in a crash at Shanghai. His place will be taken by Spanish rider Fonsi Nieto, currently racing for Kawasaki in World Superbikes. Though the Spaniard has a name almost as legendary as Le Mans, being the nephew of the 2nd most successful motorcycle racer of all time, Angel Nieto, this is Fonsi's first time on a MotoGP bike, and the learning curve is too steep to expect him to be much of a force in France.
The Pramac d'Antin Ducati team could also find themselves having a tougher time than they would like. So far, the private Spanish-based team has performed beyond most people's pre-season expectations, but Le Mans could be difficult for them. The tight, slow nature of the Bugatti Circuit will not favor the Ducati's strong top-end, robbing Alex Barros and Alex Hofmann of the advantage they have. Alex Barros put in an extraordinary, if unnoticed, performance at Shanghai two weeks ago, riding a lonely race after getting tangled up with Toni Elias' Honda at Turn 1, lapping as fast as Pedrosa and Melandri, who finished 4th and 5th there. He also became the first person to perform the incredible feat of bump-starting a MotoGP bike, an accomplishment not to be sniffed at considering the extremely high compression ratio of the Desmosedici. He will need to repeat his race in Shanghai to stand a chance in France.
Le Mans will also be difficult for Honda. Big Red has finally admitted that it made a mistake when designing the RC212V, seriously underestimating the power required. Being slow is one thing, but sadly for the Honda riders, and perhaps especially for Carlos Checa and Shinya Nakano, who left teams to grab a ride on a Honda, the RC212V is not just slow, it's also weak in the turns. The front end lacks feel, and the back end lacks feel, meaning it's tough to get confidence through corners. Fortunately, the corners at Le Mans are mostly fairly slow, where the lack of front end feel is less of an issue, and a good deal less frightening than in fast sweepers, but Honda has some work to do before they start to catch up.
A sign that they are taking the problems seriously is the announcement that for the time being, HRC will be focusing its efforts on the factory Repsol Honda team. While bad news for the rest of the Honda riders, it should help Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa make some serious steps forward. Reigning champion Hayden has been waiting for a new fairing since Qatar, and HRC's new commitment could see parts starting to come out of Japan more quickly. The Kentucky Kid needs something, for although he is getting to grips with the 800 better with every race, he is still running a long way behind where he feels a champion should be.
The most obvious beneficiary of increased focus at HRC is likely to be Dani Pedrosa. The tiny Spaniard has adapted well to the new Honda 800, despite its problems, and has so far posted the best results of the Honda riders. His smooth style suits the new class, and his small size fits the Honda philosophy of mass centralization. Despite all this, Pedrosa is still nowhere near being the title challenger he was touted as at the start of the season. As new parts start to come into the team, his fate will improve, but at Le Mans, both Hayden and Pedrosa can only hope not to lose too much ground.
Grin And Bear It
For the other Hondas, the public lack of HRC support means all they can do is grit their teeth and hang on. Marco Melandri, another man touted as a potential champion during the pre-season, has started to gell with the RC212V after a rocky start. Despite his improvement, he is still complaining bitterly about the defects of the 800, and may have to come to terms with 2007 being a lost season for him. Melandri won in convincing style at Le Mans last year, but he will be very hard put to repeat this weekend.
Melandri's Gresini Honda team mate Toni Elias is the only one of the Honda men who seems to have no problems with the RC212V. Terrible Toni's flamboyant riding defies reason and logic, sliding the rear and hanging it out in total contrast to the smooth style which MotoGP sages have declared to be the best way to ride an 800. The spectacle of Elias' wild style has earned him great acclaim from fans and spectators, but has met with a much cooler welcome from fellow riders. Valentino Rossi complained after being shoved brutally aside at Istanbul, Alex Barros was not amused at getting caught up in Elias' desperate first corner lunge at Shanghai, and championship leader Casey Stoner has had harsh words to say about Elias following him during qualifying. The young Spaniard has shown much promise so far this season, but needs to start cleaning up his act. If he can keep it together at Le Mans, he could be a force to be reckoned with. But that's a big if.
It Could Be Worse
The Honda riders furthest down the HRC food chain are the riders with the biggest problems. Both Shinya Nakano and Carlos Checa had high hopes when they finally got a ride on the odds-on favorite to dominate the new MotoGP series. But now, both are left floundering towards the rear of the pack. While Carlos Checa was already familiar with the Michelins from his time at Yamaha, Shinya Nakano has the double handicap of struggling with the RC212V's distant front-end, and adapting to his switch from the Bridgestones he ran last year. The only benefit to being last in line for upgrades is not being tied to Honda for changes. Team LCR have ordered an Italian firm to produced a revised fairing for Checa, to replace the minuscule item which the Spaniard is too big to crouch behind. Although Checa has always done well at Le Mans, and Nakano qualified in 2nd last year, neither man is likely to be a factor on Sunday.
If the Honda riders think they're having a bad time, then it is as nothing compared with the nightmare that Kenny Roberts Jr and Team KR are going through. Although Honda's engine is underpowered, Team KR at least have the freedom to build a chassis which does not suffer from the chatter or vagueness of the Honda bike. They seem, however, to have built a chassis which suffers from a whole host of other problems, including a lack of rear end grip. After a promising 2006, Kenny Jr has spent the start of this season running at the rear, often finishing behind the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha boys. Team KR still have a lot of work to do.
The French Connection II
The Tech 3 Dunlop Yamaha team are looking fairly cheerful heading into their home Grand Prix. Sylvain Guintoli continues to show good progress, and Makoto Tamada, though inconsistent, occasionally shows flashes of the brilliance he once had. Most importantly, the Dunlop tires are starting to make real inroads on the Bridgestones and Michelins. The gap keeps narrowing, bringing the Tech 3 Yamahas ever closer to being in contention.
History In The Making
But despite Dunlop's improvement, Bridgestone and Michelin are the only contenders for the win on Sunday. The tire regulations have already had a huge impact, with Bridgestone emerging from the fray as the winning tire so far, helped by the fact that Bridgestone has never been able to fly in tires overnight, made based on data collected the previous day, as Michelin did previously. Ironically, Casey Stoner puts part of his success down to being out of the "overnight" Michelin loop last year. The lowly position which the LCR team held in the Michelin tire hierarchy left the Australian working with a set allocation each race weekend. Instead he was forced to learn to "set the bike up to the tyres and not the other way around." That has worked strongly in his favor so far this year.
But after trips to two tracks where both tire manufacturers have tested, and two tracks where no one had tested, the next arena of combat is Le Mans, a track where Michelin has "more data than NASA," in the words of Eurosport commentator Julian Ryder. If Michelin cannot win here, they are in real trouble, and the new tire regulations will have caused a genuine revolution in MotoGP. A Bridgestone win at Le Mans could change the face of the championship, and leave Valentino Rossi, the red hot favorite to take the title prior to the season, with an even bigger hill to climb. It would be history in the making, and the legendary Le Mans would be a very fitting venue indeed for such historic events.