This weekend, MotoGP moves from the site of one great motorcycle racing party to the location of another. But while MotoGP is at the center of the party at Jerez, in Le Mans, the party was over four weeks ago and lasted the entire duration of the race. The contrast illustrates the difference between France and its more southerly neighbor: both countries are mad about motorsport and motorcycle racing, but the Spanish love sprint racing, while for the French, if the race lasts less than 8 hours it's barely worthy of the name.
France is truly the home of endurance racing. Two of the two-wheeled discipline's greatest events take place here, the Bol d'Or, a 24 hour race currently held at Magny-Cours, and the Le Mans 24 hour race, as well as the biggest car endurance race in the world, the 24 Heures du Mans. The cars use the glorious 13.6 kilometer long Circuit de la Sarthe - including the once terrifying Mulsanne Straight, to which two chicanes have been added to slow the cars down - but that vast track is considered unsuitable for motorcycles, the bikes unlikely to last being thrashed down the Mulsanne Straight at full throttle too many times.
So the bikes run the shortened 4.2 kilometer Bugatti Circuit, a much more restrained, some might even say boring, affair. The track layout vaguely resembles a giant clothes peg, with the two prongs of the Chappelle and Garage Vert corners separated by the Musee hairpin, and a simpler section leading through Garage Bleu to the final turn at Raccordement, before hitting the front straight again.
Stop And Go
Like Motegi, which it also resembles, the track is mostly about stability under braking and hard acceleration out of corners. The front straight leads into the Dunlop Curve, and then the Dunlop Chicane, the Curve being the brave part, while the Chicane is the corner where the first lap pile ups tend to occur. It's then a matter of hard-on-the-gas, hard-on-the-brakes through La Chappelle, Musee, Garage Vert and the straights that connect them, before the long back straight down to Chemin aux Boeufs, a faster chicane which caught Nicky Hayden out so badly in 2007.
Another short straight takes you to the Garage Bleu Esses, and some of the best places to pass. The first spot is the sharp right-hander which starts the turn, but a carefully selected line allows a crafty rider to either slide up the inside of the left, or line up an opponent into the final sharp double right of Raccordement. With the finish line so close to the start, the first rider through the corner is usually the first across the line, but the width of the track means that you can run too wide, and let the rider you just passed come back underneath, your hard work undone.
The Time Is Now
The stop-and-go nature of the Le Mans track seems to suit one man perfectly. If there is one circuit where Colin Edwards is capable of taking his long-awaited first win in MotoGP, it is Le Mans. The Texan has been on the podium here twice, and if he hadn't got stuck behind Dani Pedrosa last year, he might have fought with Rossi for the victory. Quite why Edwards is quick here is a bit of a mystery: The other tracks where the American is quick are Assen and Laguna Seca, both of which have completely different characters to Le Mans, and indeed each other. Yet every year, Edwards looks like being capable of an upset at Le Mans.
Sadly, every year Edwards also keeps coming up short, the stars never quite aligning correctly for the Texan. But with the Tech 3 team celebrating their 20th year in Grand Prix racing, Herve Poncharal and Guy Coulon having started the squad back in 1989, Edwards will want to give his crew chief and his boss something to celebrate. No doubt they would be pleased with just a podium, but Edwards knows that he has to get a win some time, and this weekend is as good as any.
Fin De Siecle
If anyone is going to be standing in Edwards' way, it is his former team mate and reigning world champion Valentino Rossi. While Edwards is still waiting for his first victory in the series, Rossi is on course to score 100 victories in all classes. After winning in Jerez, his current tally stands at 98, and a win here would put him in place to take his 100th win in front of his home crowd at Mugello, a track he is unbeaten at since 2001.
However, to even get the chance to attempt to take his 100th victory, first he has to win at Le Mans. That did not prove too difficult last year, when Rossi took his 90th career win here, celebrating in style by taking Angel Nieto, the man whose record he had just equaled, out for a victory lap. And the Yamaha M1 is even better this year than it was in 2008, making Rossi a strong favorite to stay on track for a monster celebration at home. With history in his sights, Rossi is a very hard man to beat.
His team mate Jorge Lorenzo is capable of doing just that, though. Lorenzo finished 2nd at Le Mans last year, after dropping down to 11th on the second lap then fighting his way past everyone but Rossi. As fantastic a performance as that was, what made it truly remarkable was that Lorenzo came to Le Mans just two weeks after suffering the monster highside which broke both his ankles. If Lorenzo is capable of 2nd place with two broken legs, just imagine what he can do at Le Mans when he is fully fit.
The last of the Yamaha men looks to be less of a threat at Le Mans. James Toseland has had a torrid season so far, with two huge crashes ruining his preseason and a host of problems adapting to the Bridgestone tires. Toseland's main problems have centered around stability under braking, a factor which is absolutely crucial at the Bugatti Circuit. Though Toseland is unlikely to trouble the scorers unduly, the nature of Le Mans should at least give him time to find a solution to the problems his crew are desperate to deal with.
That very stability under braking could at last start to work in Nicky Hayden's favor. The team announced a shakeup of the crew on Hayden's side of the garage, former crew chief Cristhian Pupulin being shifted aside to concentrate on his role as track engineer for all of the Ducatis, while veteran crew chief Juan Martinez has been brought in to solve the communications problems Hayden has been having with his mainly Italian crew.
Like previous world champions before him, Hayden has struggled to tame the Ducati, but Le Mans has the potential to be a turning point for the American. The changes in his crew should help, as well as the fact that Le Mans plays to the Ducati's strong points: heavy braking and hard acceleration. But what Hayden needs most of all is more time on track, and with the practice sessions reverting to one hour, instead of 45 minutes, Hayden should finally get a chance to do some of the hard methodical work to figure out solutions to his problems again.
Given his usual modus operandi, Casey Stoner would probably be just as competitive with no practice as with three sessions of one hour. The Australian is usually the fastest man on track within a couple of minutes of leaving the pits, a position he concedes only rarely, and most grudgingly. Jerez saw Casey Stoner finish in third place, but celebrating the podium as if it had been a win. The Spanish track has always been a bogey track for Ducati, so Stoner's joy was down to that jinx finally having been shaken off.
Last year at Le Mans, Stoner looked to be on course for at least a podium until a broken crankshaft wrecked his chances. In the end, Stoner finished just outside the points on his second bike, bringing his unbroken string of points-scoring races on the Ducati to an end. With a better bike, and in better form than last year, Casey Stoner is going to be the man to watch at Le Mans.
Jusqu'Ici Tout Va Bien
The surprise of the weekend could well come from home rider Randy de Puniet. The Frenchman finished in 4th place last time out in Jerez, finally starting to turn his obvious talent into solid results. De Puniet has always been fast, often qualifying well ahead of men on far better equipment. But de Puniet has struggled to convert a decent grid position into a strong result. If Jerez truly did mark a turning point for the Frenchman, then he could well cause trouble for the front runners. But de Puniet's past history would seem to dictate that the Frenchman will start quickly, then let the excitement get the better of him and be tempted to sling the machinery into the scenery.
The other rider capable of a surprise at Le Mans is a former winner here. If the weather in the Sarthe region of France is its usual changeable self - and the forecasts so far show a 60% chance of rain - then Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen could be the man to capitalize on it. Despite his distaste for the moniker, Vermeulen is genuinely one of the very best wet-weather riders in the paddock, and if it rains on Sunday, Vermeulen has to be in with a good chance of victory at Le Mans.
Even if it's dry, Vermeulen should do well. The Suzuki has usually run well at the Bugatti Circuit, and the 2009 version of the GSV-R is clearly competitive if still struggling for speed. Both Vermeulen and Rizla Suzuki team mate Loris Capirossi have not produced what the early testing results promised, but at a track that suits the bike, they could well be a factor.
Jerez may well prove to have been a turning point for the Repsol Honda team too. The paddock was alive with rumors that Repsol were getting tired of waiting for Dani Pedrosa to win a championship, and that the Spanish oil giant had approached Jorge Lorenzo about taking Pedrosa's place. Any such plans were denied by Repsol's head of sponsorship Begona Elices, if not quite wholeheartedly, but what was more significant was head of HRC Shuhei Nakamoto's admission that Pedrosa's failure was mostly down to Honda's inability to produce a competitive 800cc MotoGP bike. Nakamoto has promised to improve the bike using Pedrosa's input, an unusual statement for a company which has revolved around engineers for so many years.
Pedrosa has given HRC every reason to listen to him. Despite still recovering from knee surgery, only just fit in time for the season opener at Qatar, Pedrosa has been on the podium twice, finishing 3rd at Motegi and 2nd at Jerez. Honda are still struggling for rear grip with the RC212V, the bike still not adapted to the Bridgestone spec tires. So far, Pedrosa has been finishing well above where the bike should allow him. With another two weeks of recovery time for his knee and more work done on the RC212V, Pedrosa should be at the front at Le Mans, with more to come over the next few races.
Team mate Andrea Dovizioso is struggling with similar issues to Pedrosa, and has also complained of aggressive throttle response on the Honda. Dovi has been fast and pretty steady so far, as he adapts to life as a factory rider, but he had higher hopes at the start of the year. Dovizioso's time will come, but it may not be at Le Mans.
For the rest of the satellite Honda and Ducati riders, Le Mans offers little joy. At Gresini Honda, both Alex de Angelis and especially Toni Elias have generally failed to deliver, despite de Angelis' impressive 6th place at Qatar. Elias seems to be the biggest casualty of the single tire rule, the featherweight rider struggling to get heat into the stiff spec tires. Unless the Spaniard can solve this problem, he is unlikely to have a long future in MotoGP.
Over at Team Scot, Yuki Takahashi is looking forward to the race at Le Mans. The Scot Honda rider won the 250 race here in 2006, and finished 4th in the 250 race last year. Takahashi had his first decent race of the season at Jerez last year, and will be carrying that confidence forward into Le Mans.
Like Nicky Hayden, the satellite Ducatis will be hoping to see the benefits of the Marlboro Ducati team shake up. With Cristhian Pupulin now focusing full time on analyzing the data from all five Ducati riders, the Bologna factory might find some solutions which will help Mika Kallio, Niccolo Canepa and Sete Gibernau ride the bike as well. Kallio has shown the most promise of the non-Australian Ducati riders so far, finishing 8th in the first two races of the season, but a mechanical problem at Jerez took him out of the race. At Le Mans, Ducati will be hoping for more confirmation from Kallio that it's not just Casey Stoner who can get the GP9 to fly.
Though both France and Le Mans are intimately linked with endurance racing, the French also have a long and proud history of sprint racing too. The history books are full of illustrious Frenchmen: Christian Sarron, the man who battled with Spencer, Lawson and Rainey; Jean-Philippe Ruggia, the original elbow-dragging rider; Olivier Jacque, the last French 250 champion; and perhaps even Mike di Meglio, the reigning 125 champion, currently contesting his first year of 250s. This weekend, they will be hoping to add the name of another local hero to that list, in the shape of Randy de Puniet. But with Valentino Rossi chasing history, Colin Edwards chasing his first win, and Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa chasing the pair of them, de Puniet has a tough task ahead of him.