Motorcycle racing is a lot like poker. Over the long haul, the best player will always come out on top, as they take the cards they are given, play the percentages, and make the best of the hand they have. Of course, sometimes luck intervenes, and a run of bad hands can leave strong players floundering around trying to cut their losses, while they wait for their luck to change and the percentages to start running in their favor. So it is in MotoGP, where the best riders take what they're given and wring the last possible drop of performance out of it, winning when they can, and limiting their losses when they know they can't. Over the duration of a season, riders will hope that their luck will even out, leaving the final result down to the skill of the rider, rather than the luck of the draw.
But when it rains, the rules change. It's as if a couple of strangers had joined the table and suggested playing by an arcane set of rules used only in a tiny mountain town in Nevada mining country. Suddenly, winning comes down to courage, adaptability, a quickness to learn, and plain old-fashioned luck. Sometimes, that luck can even come down to whether or not you happened to have passed through that little mountain town or not before. It would be unfair to call motorcycle racing in the rain a lottery, but it does mean that all the old bets are off, and we start anew, with the slates wiped clean.
So there was much crossing of fingers, waving of rabbits' feet and touching of wood as the weather outlook worsened during the junior classes. The day had started bright enough, a few drops of rain soon driven away, but the track mainly dry and the skies sunny, if not clear. However, as the morning went on, the skies began slowly to darken, as did the faces in the garages as they watched the rain's relentless approach on the weather radar. The 125 races had been run under great, if rather cool conditions, but as the 250 race progressed, the cloud cover grew thicker, the temperatures dropped, and the skies put on a mantle of darkest gray. There was still hope the rain might yet hold off, at least until after the race, but that hope grew fainter as 2pm, and the start of the MotoGP race, approached.
As the bikes were rolled out of the garages, the rain finally began to fall, a thin, faint drizzle hardly worthy of the name. But it was enough to trigger an explosion of activity in the pits: spare bikes were hurriedly transformed, with slick tires swapped for wets or intermediates, suspension softened, and engine mappings hurriedly reprogrammed. The astute Dani Pedrosa even went out for one sighting lap on his intermediate-shod spare bike, scrubbing the tires in to rid them of the smooth and slippery surface, hoping for an advantage if the rain got worse, before returning to take his dry race bike to the grid. With a few minutes to go, the Race Director officially declared the event to be a wet race, meaning anyone could come into the pits to change bikes at any point during the race, as long as the new bike was on different tires to the old one.
The Greasy Pole
But as the bikes rolled round after the warm up lap, to take their place on the grid for the start, no one was thinking that far ahead. All were out on slicks and though the track was greasy, it was still a long way from being wet, and a dry line sure to form after a few laps. When the lights finally went out and the pack exploded off the line, all thoughts were on the Dunlop Chicane, whether everyone would get through safely, or whether we would see yet another first lap incident, as we had in China and in Turkey. The first chicane came and went safely, but there was drama of a different kind: Colin Edwards, who had set such an astonishing lap to conquer pole on Saturday, was swamped by a marauding throng of 800s as if he had gotten the class wrong and turned up on a 250. The polesitter's Fiat Yamaha, which had been working so perfectly all weekend, was now looking more injured cow than raging bull, and from 1st on the grid he had dropped all the way down to 18th in the space of a single lap. Two laps later, Edwards was in to change bikes, to try his luck on his spare bike.
Where Edwards was going backwards, team mate Valentino Rossi was going forward, grabbing a couple of spots into the chicane, to tuck in behind Casey Stoner on the Ducati, who was off to yet another lightning start from 3rd on the grid. Once out of the chicane, Rossi was on Stoner, and past at the La Chappelle right hander, exactly as the script, written by fans and commentators, dictated.
Behind the title duo, John Hopkins, who had shot his Rizla Suzuki to third through the chicane, was dropping back, as rider after rider slipped past. Carlos Checa, who had made good on the brakes into the chicane what he had lost from the starting line, was the first to pass, with the Gresini Honda duo of Marco Melandri and Toni Elias following, bringing along the Brazilian Alex Barros, off to a great start from a lowly 13th spot on the grid. But what really set the crowd on fire was the sight of local man Sylvain Guintoli rocketing through the field, passing Hopkins to take 7th before the lap was done.
As the bikes chased around the track on the second lap, the Yamahas were unleashed. At the front, Valentino Rossi pulled away, building a lead of nearly 1.4 seconds. Behind Rossi, Guintoli, the revelation of the weekend, was on a charge, passing Elias into the chicane, and Melandri one corner later. As the pack lined up for the final double right-hander leading back on to the start and finish straight, Guintoli pounced again, dispensing with Carlos Checa and taking over 4th.
The crowd were already elated, but more was to come. Randy de Puniet, inspired by his compatriot's charge, was surging forward himself. On the next lap, de Puniet wedged his Kawasaki past Marco Melandri and Carlos Checa, to take up station behind Guintoli's Yamaha.
By this time, Casey Stoner was starting to fade. He had been having problems holding off a resurgent Alex Barros, finally succumbing on lap 3, only to be joined by the following Frenchmen. De Puniet moved first, passing Guintoli into Garage Bleu, and opened the hunt for Stoner. By the time they got to the chicane, the French pair were upon, and then past the Ducati rider. But it was not yet over for the Stoner, for a couple of turns later Melandri was past too, pushing the Australian down into 6th.
De Puniet was riding like a man possessed. Once past Stoner, he set his sights on Barros, taking the Brazilian before the lap was out. Where one local led, the other followed, Guintoli taking over 3rd within the next lap. With the pesky foreign interlopers out of the way, the local boys were free to chase down the leader, Valentino Rossi. They made very short work of the chase, De Puniet taking over a second out of Rossi's lead once past Barros, and by the end of lap 5, the French pair were breathing down the Doctor's neck. The Doctor's discomfort was short-lived, as by the chicane, de Puniet and Guintoli were past. If the crowd had been pleased earlier, they were ecstatic fit to burst by now. This time, it was Guintoli's turn to push, the Dunlop rookie slipping past de Puniet through the Museum left-hander. Two Frenchmen battling for the lead at the French Grand Prix was a dream come true for the home crowd, but their lead was small, with a group of nine, containing the Hondas of Pedrosa, Melandri, and Hayden, the Suzuki of Hopkins, the Ducatis of Stoner, Barros and Capirossi, and the Yamahas of Rossi and Tamada following hot on their heels.
Can't Stand The Rain
The rain though still light, had been getting steadily worse, and speculation started on which of the rain specialists we would see making a charge. So surprise was great to see a man who is notorious for loathing the wet come charging through the field. Dani Pedrosa had started from 10th, dropping to 15th by the end of the first lap. But someone or something had lit a rocket under the tiny Spaniard, and he was bludgeoning his way to the front, dispensing with Capirossi, Hayden, Checa, Melandri and Stoner in the space of just 3 laps. Pedrosa's example had similarly inspired John Hopkins. 2nd going into the first corner from the start, he slipped down to 11th, then latched on to Pedrosa to fight his way forward. By lap 6 he had made his way to 9th, but on the next lap, he just exploded, taking 6 places to leap up to 4th.
As lap 7 progressed, the rain was starting to get serious. Lap times had been good while the track was still only damp, as long as you avoided the greasy patches off the racing line, but that was starting to change. Riders were having to slow, the worsening rain starting to make conditions treacherous in places. Fortune may favor the brave, but she also lays traps for the reckless, and Carlos Checa was the first of her victims. Tires had started sliding , and rider after rider was getting lifted out of the saddle as the grip-slide-grip of impending highsides began to make their presence felt. Such a twitch had allowed de Puniet back past Guintoli, and a couple of corners later, Valentino Rossi had a similar twitch before Garage Bleu, running wide and immediately losing four places to the massed crowd behind him. Carlos Checa saw his chance, and ran in hot up the inside, but just a little too hot, crashing out of the race. He was not to be the last.
After losing out to de Puniet, Guintoli was caught by the chasing pack. First Hopkins flew past, and Pedrosa followed at Museum. Desperately trying to hold off the charge of Valentino Rossi, Guintoli highsided two turns later at the Chemin aux Boeuf Esses. The Doctor's reflexes were astonishing, getting hard on the brakes and just missing the tumbling Dunlop Yamaha of the French rookie, but again losing places which he had just managed to claw back. Guintoli's triumphant run was over, but he proved his mettle as a rider, remounting his damaged bike and entering the pits, to take out his wets-shod bike, and rejoin the fray.
It's The Pits
Guintoli wasn't the only early visitor to the pits. Alex Hofmann gambled on coming in early, and got back out again having lost only a single place. On the next lap, the field from 6th on down decided to follow the Pramac Ducati's example, pitting to swap bikes for ones with tires more suited to the conditions. The leaders would wait another lap before coming in to change bikes, but this came one lap too late for the other French hero, Randy de Puniet falling victim to his own excitement at leading his home race and crashing out while in the lead. Toni Elias was another victim, losing the front in the difficult conditions.
The two waves of pit stops had surprisingly little effect on the running order, aided by less chaotic scenes than at Phillip Island, the last place we had done this. But the biggest beneficiary was a familiar name: Chris Vermeulen had seized the opportunity to jump from 7th to 2nd in Australia, and at Le Mans, he went one better. 8th on lap 9, by the time he came past the finish line at the end of lap 10, he passed the leading group as they left the pits on fresh tires, taking over the lead ahead of his Suzuki team mate John Hopkins.
The Suzuki 1-2 was not to last long. Vermeulen was strong, and looking comfortable at the front, but Hopper was coming under pressure from the bunch behind, Melandri leading the attack ahead of Pedrosa, Rossi, a revitalized Nicky Hayden and the Ducati train of Stoner, Capirossi, Hofmann and Barros. He withstood Melandri's attack for a lap, falling prey to Rossi on the next. While Vermeulen's wet weather setup looked absolutely perfect, parrying Melandri's approaches with apparent ease at the time, Hopkins was having a tougher time, running wide to let past a gaggle of followers. The American, who snatched his first podium last time out at Shanghai, would not feature again at the front.
Within 3 laps of the pit stops, the top two steps of the podium looked settled, Vermeulen and Melandri clear of the rest by over 3 seconds. Vermeulen had pulled a a gap of 1.8 seconds on Melandri, but Melandri kept nibbling away at it, taking a couple of tenths each lap. Melandri worried away at Vermeulen to get the lead down to 2/10ths of a second, but Vermeulen responded. Over the next couple of laps, the former World Supersport champion clawed back a couple of tenths to extend his lead. Melandri made another push, getting within a quarter of a second once again, but Vermeulen was not to be fazed. The Australian Suzuki man kicked once again, taking 2/10ths on lap 21, over half a second on lap 22, and another second on lap 23. With 5 laps to go, a 2 second deficit, and over 15 seconds back to 3rd place, Marco Melandri decided to settle for 2nd, his best result of the season, and valuable points in the championship, leaving Chris Vermeulen to take his first win in MotoGP, Suzuki's first four-stroke win, and their first win since the Sete Gibernau won the Valencia Grand Prix in 2001. The Australian had put on another masterful performance of wet weather riding, demonstrating that when the conditions are right, he is capable of beating anyone in the world.
Behind Vermeulen, the final podium place was yet to be settled, and more importantly, championship points. Valentino Rossi had come to this track with a mission: to cut down Casey Stoner's lead in the title race, before the series hits the high-speed heaven of Mugello and Catalunya. After Rossi had had to let Vermeulen and Melandri go, his 3rd place looked in good shape, parrying every move which Casey Stoner tried on him. For 4 laps he fended off the young Ducatista, but on lap 17, he succumbed to the pressure, running wide going into the Esses, and letting the Stoner through. It was a harbinger of worse to come for The Doctor. Rossi lost a second to Stoner on the next lap, one and a half seconds the next, completely losing touch with the Ducati and surrendering a potential 3 points in the championship. But Rossi's day was about to get worse: having chosen a hard rain tire, gambling that the rain would be light, his lap times kept slipping, from 1'50s on laps 16, 17 and 18, down to 1'52 by lap 21, 1'55 by lap 23, down to 2'00 by the final lap. Casey Stoner, the man expected to wilt under Rossi's relentless pressure, had not cracked, but had instead ridden a strong race to take yet another podium and another 6 points from Rossi, the difference between the Australian's 3rd and Rossi's 6th. With the Ducati heartland of Mugello and Barcelona to come, Stoner will surely approach the season's halfway mark with a very cushy title lead indeed.
Rossi put up several laudable but doomed defenses on his way back through the field. First up was an invigorated Nicky Hayden, the reigning world champion improving every race, with the prospect of a decent points tally to help him out of the title basement. Hayden looked well on his way to 4th, despite being chased by his Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa, until he lost the rear at the Esses and crashed heavily into the gravel at high speed. The Kentucky Kid sat disconsolate in the gravel, shades of Estoril, only this time Hayden had no one to blame but himself. Pedrosa went on to take 4th, while Hayden's crash lost him yet more ground in his title defense, leaving the American 72 points, or nearly 3 race wins, adrift of the leader Casey Stoner.
Pedrosa had passed Rossi earlier, and once the Spaniard was past, it was Alex Hofmann's turn. The German rider had a near perfect wet weather setting on his d'Antin Ducati, and once past Rossi, Hofmann rode it home to take 5th, his best ever finish in MotoGP. Rossi held on to take 6th, scoring vital points, but giving away too many to Stoner, while Vermeulen's team mate John Hopkins struggled home to 7th.
The Kids Of Today
Behind Hopkins, a seething Loris Capirossi took 8th, unhappy with his bike, and unhappy with his team. Many felt that 2007 could be Capirossi's year in MotoGP, including Capirex himself. But so far, he has failed to come to grips with the 800 cc Ducati GP7, and is starting to express his frustration at being comprehensively outclassed by his younger, and ostensibly junior, team mate. After the race, Capirossi said that he felt let down by Ducati, that the team had made a big mistake with the mapping for his wet weather bike, and that he believed that after so many years of working for Ducati, Ducati should start working for him. This season is expected to be Capirossi's swan song in MotoGP, and the Italian veteran must surely have hoped for a much prettier tune.
The Dunlop Yamaha Tech 3 team ended up taking 9th and 10th places, Makoto Tamada finishing ahead of Sylvain Guintoli, but utterly outclassed by his young French team mate. Guintoli had remounted after his crash, swapped to his wet weather bike, and still managed to clinch a 10th, a strong and gritty performance, and impressing all who watched. Little was expected of the Frenchman, but he has shown real ability in pushing the Dunlop project forward.
Behind Guintoli, Fonsi Nieto rode a very steady race to take 5 points in his first MotoGP outing. The Spaniard, riding the injured Olivier Jacque's Kawasaki, kept his cool in the terrible conditions and brought the bike home to score points, a very creditable performance.
The last points scorer was the 2nd unluckiest man of the weekend. Starting from pole, Colin Edwards' race had gone from bad to worse, pitting twice, once with a problem with engine braking, and another time for fresh tires. After the race, Edwards summed up his luck by saying "I'm not even friends with Pasini, a reference to the Italian 125 rider tipped for the title prior to the season, who has taken 4 poles in dominant form but suffered 4 mechanical DNFs, and whose Aprilia has been dogged by problems at every race. If Colin Edwards was unlucky, at least he was better off than Mattias Pasini.
The rest of the field failed to finish, the conditions exacting a terrible toll on riders and machinery. Alex Barros and Kenny Roberts Jr were perhaps unluckiest, both crashing out on the final lap, though Kenny Jr had already been lapped. Nicky Hayden, Shinya Nakano, Randy de Puniet, Toni Elias and Carlos Checa had all crashed out much earlier, failing to rejoin.
The Stuff Of Legend
Once again, we came to France expecting the result to be cut and dried, the Yamahas to win, and Valentino Rossi to get back some of the precious points he had given away at the faster tracks. The weather had other ideas, and threw up a thrilling spectacle; Not quite a lottery, but certainly a reshuffling of the pack, which rewarded calculated risk and an effective strategy for using the conditions to your advantage. The man most capable of turning the conditions to his hand was Chris Vermeulen, and no one could begrudge him his victory, the deserved reward for a brilliant race.
But the big winner at Le Mans is Casey Stoner. Riding a careful race, he extended his points lead, and is in an outstanding position going into the next two rounds at fast tracks. Valentino Rossi limited the damage, but his mission here was not damage limitation, it was to attack and move forward. For Rossi, the 2007 season so far is depressingly similar to 2006, despite the much better shape that Rossi's M1 is in.
Working against Valentino Rossi are the new tire rules. The new regulations have shaken up the championship, and made the outcome of races less dependent on the favored status of a particular rider, and more on the team's ability to select the right tires for the conditions. The tire regulations were less of a factor today, the teams being allowed as many wet tires as they wish, but the teams used to flying in tires built to suit the conditions no longer hold sufficient advantage at the dry races to counter the randomness which a wet race provides. Michelin may get a bye for the weather, with Bridgestone taking the podium here in Le Mans, Michelin's home track, and a place they should not lose at, but they have to pick up their game when it's dry, or they may lose the title for the first time since Dunlop won it in 1991.
Though the rain had a huge impact on the outcome of the race, it seems entirely fitting that a location which is suffused with so much history should create yet more: The first win for the Suzuki four-stroke GSV-R; The first win for Chris Vermeulen; and the first time that Michelin have lost a race here almost since living memory. If history is to be made, it might as well be made at a track which is forever linked with racing legend.