The MotoGP series, especially in the shape of Dorna, the marketing body behind MotoGP, loves to compare itself with Formula One and other four-wheeled racing series, the comparisons always coming out in MotoGP's favor. And it is true that there is usually more passing in a single MotoGP race than there is in a season of Formula One. Dorna is always delighted to point out that if it's excitement you're after, then MotoGP is very much the place to be.
But such hubris is not without risk: the irony that the two most famous racetracks the MotoGP circus will be visiting this year are famous as venues for racing on four wheels rather than two is not lost on either MotoGP fans or the car-racing crowd. And to add insult to injury, the MotoGP bikes won't even be running on the track layouts that made these venues famous, but on shorter, neutered versions of the tracks. In the case of Indianapolis, where MotoGP visits for the first time in September, that is probably no bad thing, as a 2.5 mile high-speed oval, with nothing but concrete retaining walls as crash barriers, is no place for motorcycle racing. But at Le Mans, the 8.5 mile Circuit de la Sarthe course, famous for the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance car race, has some potential as a motorcycle circuit, although heavily favoring top speed over agility.
But MotoGP won't be using the legendary 24 hour track. Instead, it will be running the short Bugatti circuit - yet another blow to MotoGP's pride, being named after the famous Italian car designer Ettore Bugatti. And where the Circuit de la Sarthe long circuit simply oozes character, the short Bugatti layout is a bit of a mishmash, with only hints left of the larger and grander track.
The first corner is such a reminder: The long right-handed Courbe Dunlop is still a big, fast sweeper, but had its teeth drawn after Alberto Puig had a huge accident there in 1995, a crash which leaves Dani Pedrosa's mentor limping to this day. Speeds through the sweeper are now tempered by the Dunlop Chicane, a slow left-right combination which invariably sees off-track excursions on lap 1, as a crowded pack tries to cram through the tight chicane.
Once through the chicane, the riders head off into a section vaguely reminiscent of Motegi, with a long 180 degree right hander at La Chappelle taking the pack back towards the infield, until the tight left of Musee, which doubles back on itself to head up towards Garage Vert. Once through the squared off double apex right, the bikes get a chance to stretch their legs down the fast back straight, until they start to brake for the rather charmingly named Chemin aux Boeufs, or Oxen Alley. The charm of its name belies its treacherous nature, however, something which Nicky Hayden's huge crash in the rain last year can attest to. Once through these sharp esses, another short straight takes the riders onto the sharp right and sweeping left of the Garage Bleu esses, before hitting the final tight double right at Raccordement, and haring back off towards the line, gathering speed for the entry to Courbe Dunlop once again.
The Le Mans track is a bit of a culture shock coming from the previous race at Shanghai. Where the Chinese track is all vast straights and fast flicks, emphasizing top speed and stable cornering, the French circuit is a succession of tight, first-gear corners connected by short straights. Flat out speed is of little use here; what matters is the ability to brake hard and accelerate quickly. Where Shanghai is the long slog of a heavyweight boxing battle, Le Mans is the quick-punching close-quarters scrap of a welterweight bout.
Under normal circumstances, the French track heavily favors French tires, though this has little to do with the circuit layout. Michelin's headquarters is just a few hours' drive away, and the French factory tests extensively on the Bugatti circuit, collecting reams of data on every bump and asphalt repair patch around the track.
Despite that, Michelin still managed to get a proper drubbing at last year's French Grand Prix. With rain arriving shortly after the race started, the Michelin technicians gambled on the weather improving and sent all their runners out on hard tires, which proved woefully inadequate for the conditions. Kenny Roberts Jr, Nicky Hayden, Carlos Checa and Shinya Nakano all found that out the hard way, Hayden's crash being particularly nasty, while Fiat Yamaha's Valentino Rossi struggled in mid-pack. His team mate Colin Edwards finished 3 laps down, after his tire choice was exacerbated by a slipper clutch problem, leaving Edwards with a locking rear wheel getting into every corner.
Where Michelin failed, Bridgestone shone. Their rain tires were designed to handle a broader range of conditions, and their investment paid off big time in France. The Japanese firm swept the podium, with Dani Pedrosa the first Michelin rider home in 4th, and Rossi the only other Michelin in the top 8. Bridgestone's testing program, which consisted of riding their rain tires to destruction on a dry track, gave the Japanese tire maker just what they needed to win in mixed conditions, a point they proved several times more during the year.
Last year's winner will be hoping that Bridgestone can come through for him again in 2008. Chris Vermeulen rode a superb race in the downpour at Le Mans to take his first victory in MotoGP, and the first ever four stroke victory for Suzuki, their last win dating from 2001, when Sete Gibernau piloted the RG500 two-stroke bike to victory at Valencia. Vermeulen will get help from more than just his tires: The Le Mans track has suited the Suzuki for the past couple of years. John Hopkins was fighting for a podium here in 2006, before crashing out, and Hopper managed a 7th here in 2007, despite struggling with the conditions. Short, tight turns and heavy braking are things the Suzuki does well, and there's plenty of that at Le Mans.
Vermeulen's team mate Loris Capirossi, the man who replaced Hopkins at Suzuki, has fond memories of Le Mans. The Italian veteran put his Ducati on the podium here two years ago, and had his 800 not developed an electronics problem, could have gained a decent finish in 2007. With Capirex starting to find his feet on the Suzuki, and the team back in Europe, and closer to home, the Italian could spring a surprise in France.
The man who sprung perhaps the biggest surprise last year was Sylvain Guintoli. The Frenchman fought his way to the front last year, leading his home Grand Prix for one lap, before a highside ended his ambitions once the rain started to fall. It signaled the start of a remarkable rise for the likable Guintoli, which secured his future in MotoGP and saw him sign for the Alice Ducati team run by Luis d'Antin. Despite being the bike that won the MotoGP title last year, the Ducati GP8 is proving a very difficult beast to tame this year, and so far, Guintoli has been left at the back of the field scrapping over the final points with his team mate Toni Elias and the factory Ducati rider Marco Melandri.
Glimmer Of Hope
At Shanghai, however, the tide showed signs of changing. After a mediocre qualifying session, Marco Melandri found some kind of fix, either in himself or in the bike, and ended up in a pretty exciting battle for 5th, much further up the order than he had appeared all year. And it wasn't just Melandri: Toni Elias broke into the top 10 for the first time this year, and looked something like his old, combative self, the rider the fans love so much. From having been virtually written off this season, the Ducatis - or rather, the Ducatis not ridden by Australian world champions - are starting to look like a more competitive package. The only person not to have benefited so far is Sylvain Guintoli, but at his home race, the Frenchman will be desperate to find something.
Though the reigning champion is less troubled by the Ducati GP8's all-or-nothing character, even Casey Stoner, the man who was nigh-on unbeatable last year, has struggled. Since winning the first race and looking likely to dominate once again, the Australian's season has faltered. After the nadir of Jerez, Stoner has climbed back up the standings, finally getting back onto the podium in China. Last year, Stoner took a sensible and wily podium in the pouring rain, but he will need more than that here. Currently 4th in the championship, 25 points behind the leader, Dani Pedrosa, if Casey Stoner is to get his title defense back on track, he will need to make a start at Le Mans.
For Dani Pedrosa, the championship is going very much to plan. With a podium at every round so far, including a win at Jerez, Pedrosa is living up to the hopes of the Spanish fans. Though the Honda is the slowest bike on the grid in terms of top speed, it makes up for it in the corners, especially at the hands of former 250 champion Pedrosa. The Spaniard just needs to keep scoring podiums, taking wins when possible, and his dreams of bringing the MotoGP title back home to Spain grow nearer every day.
Shine On You Crazy Diamond
But pity poor Pedrosa's luck. Just as he looks in with a realistic chance of taking the MotoGP title, and is starting to win the hearts of Spanish fans, he is eclipsed by the meteoric rise of Jorge Lorenzo. The Spanish rookie has been nothing short of phenomenal this year, taking two podiums and a win in his first three races in the MotoGP class. Even more impressive was his 4th place at Shanghai, gained despite fracturing both ankles and bones in both feet in the biggest highside seen since the days of the 500cc two-strokes. Lorenzo is still hurting from that huge crash, but after China, no one can doubt his toughness. Lorenzo likes Le Mans and always goes well there. Injured ankles or no, the reigning 250 champion is a force to be reckoned with.
Nor can you rule out his Fiat Yamaha team mate. Now that Valentino Rossi has come to terms with his new Bridgestone tires, as witnessed by his victory in China, The Doctor is back in business, and on track to reestablish his place at the top of the MotoGP tree. The Yamaha M1 has been the revelation of the season so far, and having the world's best rider on arguably the best bike shod with what are probably the best tires is a recipe for a 6th MotoGP crown. Rossi is strong at every track on the calendar, and in this form will be the man to watch.
The strength of the Yamahas has only been underlined by the performance of the Tech 3 team. Colin Edwards has already taken one pole this year, and fell just short of a podium at Portugal. His rookie team mate James Toseland has been even more impressive, scoring consistently strong finishes at almost every race, despite having little or no experience at most of the tracks. Le Mans is another track the British rookie has never visited, but he learns tracks quickly and is an obviously gifted rider. He will be getting tips from his manager Roger Burnett, but also from his team mate Edwards. Le Mans is one of the Texan's favorite tracks, and a pole last year and a podium in 2005 bode well for him on Sunday.
Bring Back The Honda Lane
The speed of the Yamahas must grate with the Honda Racing Corporation, who regard the MotoGP class as theirs by right. But the RC212V in both factory guise and in satellite trim is no slouch, as Pedrosa's win and the strong finishes by Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso show. Hayden has run consistently close to the four title candidates, and is sure to break into the podium positions soon, while Dovizioso has made a stunning impact in his first few races, and is only unfortunate to arrive in the class at the same time as Jorge Lorenzo and James Toseland. Both Hayden and Dovizioso have already had a whiff of the podium, and that scent will be strong in their nostrils at Le Mans as well.
As for the other Hondas, the Gresini bikes of Shinya Nakano and Alex de Angelis and the LCR Honda of Randy de Puniet have had a more turbulent time of it. De Angelis and de Puniet have both shown a worrying tendency to park the bike in the gravel, sending carbon fiber factories all over Europe into overdrive, while Nakano has fared better on the Bridgestones than he did last year on the Michelins. With the satellite Hondas due to receive new parts for the Le Mans race, they will be hoping to be nearer the front this weekend, especially de Puniet, as it is the Frenchman's home Grand Prix.
Pray For Rain
For Kawasaki, the problem has not been the bike, so much as the riders. John Hopkins had only just recovered from a nasty groin injury he suffered during preseason testing, only to receive another nasty leg injury after a collision with Alex de Angelis in Shanghai. It will frustrate Hopper, who has historically gone very well at Le Mans. Depending on his fitness, he could well spring a surprise. And a surprise is exactly what Ant West will have to come up with. The Australian has had a dire season so far aboard the factory Kawasaki, and if he wants to retain his ride until the end of the season, West will have to find a solution to the lack of grip which has plagued him all year.
Ironically, it is a lack of grip which could save West at Le Mans. The weather forecast looks very mixed, with rain a strong possibility on every day of the event. Both Ant West and Chris Vermeulen will surely be hoping for rain, and a chance to shine in France. The weather is still very uncertain, however, so the Australian rain specialists had better step up their offerings to the rain gods, just to make sure.
The Le Mans MotoGP round sees the circus return to Europe, and marks the start of the guts of the season. With 7 rounds in just 10 weeks, the next couple of months will be crucial. Riders face the dual-edged sword of having to push as hard as possible to maximize their haul of points, while avoiding the risk of injury, which could see them sidelined during the busiest period of the year. The basis for the 2008 MotoGP championship will be laid over the next few weeks, and it starts on Sunday, at Le Mans. There's a long hard road ahead, and what better place to take the first step than at a track so steeped in legend?