Archive for the ‘Le Mans’ Category

MotoGP 2017 Season Review

November 24, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Marc Marquez Proves It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

The final installment of this year’s diatribe should, one thinks, start with an examination of the season preview from back in February. Heading into Qatar, the conventional thinking was that Maverick Vinales, newly and firmly ensconced on the factory Yamaha, the best bike on earth of late, would challenge triple world champion Marc Marquez and his Repsol Honda—you remember, the one with the acceleration issues—for the world championship.

It didn’t work out that way, as the fight ended up being between Marquez and journeyman Ducati #2 (behind the newly signed Lorenzo) Andrea Dovizioso, with Marquez, as expected, taking home the hardware and Dovi displacing Jorge Lorenzo on the #1 Ducati, at a fraction of the price.

Here are some pertinent snippets from the season preview eight months ago:

• “The Big Three factory teams of Yamaha, Honda and Ducati will dominate much of the action, as they are home to the Aliens, those riders whose balance and instincts are a step above the rest of the field—Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and new Alien on the block Maverick Vinales.”

We ended the season in virtually complete agreement that in 2017 Marquez is the only true Alien, with Rossi, Dovizioso, and Vinales chasing, Pedrosa and Lorenzo hanging onto relevance by their fingernails. We discovered that the 2017 Yamaha M1 was inferior to the 2016 model, as the Tech 3 team of Zarco and Folger pressed the factory boys all year, especially in the rain. Vinales disappointed many, especially given his sensational start to the season.

Recall, after Le Mans, the top seven looked like this:

1. Maverick Vinales 85
2. Dani Pedrosa 68
3. Valentino Rossi 62
4. Marc Marquez 58
5. Johann Zarco 55
6. Andrea Dovizioso 54
7. Cal Crutchlow 40

Vinales was clear of the field by 17 points with three wins in the first five rounds. Had it not been for a regrettable crash out of the points at Austin his lead would have been even greater. Marquez had crashed out at Argentina and again at Le Mans, looking somewhat ragged early in the season. During the spring of 2017, it appeared the fans jocking Vinales might be right, that Marquez’s reign, like a 4th of July sparkler, could be blindingly bright and all too brief.

Let’s just be done with the castigation thing as re Jorge Lorenzo. Despite owning three premier class titles, he has a host of problems. He’s a narcissist, which means few people would be inclined to come to his rescue if, say, he found himself sitting in 18th place after two rounds, his season in tatters, his employers paying Triple World Champion salary prices and having gone public with their over-inflated expectations for 2017. If Lorenzo was on fire in the middle of the street Valentino Rossi wouldn’t stop to piss on him. Lorenzo stood there, smirking, and watched Rossi suffer for two years on the Ducati, then went and did the exact same thing for the same reasons, money and ego. I had expected him to be in the top five most rounds, which was not the case.

We’ll talk about Rossi later.

• “Keeping them honest will be the likes of Lorenzo’s teammate and wingman Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow on the LCR Honda, and Andrea Iannone on the factory Suzuki. Alex Rins, on the second factory Suzuki, and Johann Zarco on a Tech 3 satellite Yamaha are the Moto2 grads most likely to podium this year, with Rins looking, to me anyway, like the rookie of the year for 2017. Another Alien in the making.”

So we had Dovizioso ranked ahead of Lorenzo, about whom we had serious doubts heading into the season. We missed on Crutchlow, who had a forgettable year after a solid 2016 but will happily show you pictures of his daughter. We missed on Iannone, Rins and the whole Suzuki project, which we expected to take another step forward and which, instead, went the other way, moonwalking for the first half of the season. Rins got hurt, missed a bunch of races, but came back looking stronger at the end of the season than he had early. Iannone waited until the last few rounds to awaken from his season-long stupor and do some racing.

Rookie of the Year Johann Zarco stole the show in 2017, coming up from Moto2 with a trophy in each hand—the only rider ever to do so—and immediately taking to the 2016 M1 for the Monster Tech 3 team. The early part of his season was extraordinary, capped by a front row start and podium in front of his homeys at Le Mans. He then went into a bit of a funk during the middle of the season, but finished strong, with brilliant performances on the Pacific swing and in Valencia—started and finished second—that have him itching for 2018 to start tomorrow. Stories are emerging that suggest Yamaha wants him to take Rossi’s seat in 2019. He’s a hot property, but a little long in the tooth to be Alien material (he turns 28 in July.)

• “Pramac, Aspar and Avintia Reale get new old Ducati hardware, which could improve prospects for Hectic Hector Barbera and Alvaro Bautista.”

We suggested Danilo Petrucci, aboard the Pramac GP17 would likely be in the mix for some wet rounds, which he was until tailing off late in the season. Barbera was perhaps the single biggest bust of the year, injured during the last pre-season test and never finding his rhythm ever after an encouraging 2016 and offseason. Punched his ticket back to Moto2, his career no longer in what one might call the ascendant stage. And Bautista wasn’t much better, although he gets to stick around for at least another year. Loris Baz lost his ride, Redding trudged off to Aprilia in a headscratcher, a second one occurring when Pramac Ducati signed the lost-at-sea Tito Rabat to a deal for 2018, taking over for Redding. Moving the second seat on the team from the frying pan into the fire, if you ask me.

So, as regards the Ducati contingent, we were mostly wrong about Lorenzo, Dovizioso, and Petrucci. True, we were also wrong about Barbera, Bautista, and Baz. And we were surprised by (wrong about) Karel Abraham, who showed more this season than he has thus far in his entire career. Undeterred, we will point out that we expected next to nothing from Scott Redding and he delivered. He will now take his Stiff Upper Lip to Aprilia with his customary high expectations, although, having ridden the RS-GP in Valencia for two days, he spoke during an interview of the need for Aprilia to “make the bike more user-friendly.”

That didn’t take long.

Sure, Scott. Given the choice between redesigning the entire frigging bike or directing a mediocre rider to lose 20 pounds, Aprilia is probably more inclined to go back to the drawing board. You wanker.

• “It would take another Assen-type miracle for either of the Marc VDS riders, Jack Miller and Tito Rabat, to win this year.”

Just sayin’. Miller earned a promotion to the Octo Pramac Ducati team for his efforts, while Rabat somehow managed to talk the Reale Avintia team into taking a chance on him. It will be interesting to see if Miller can wheedle a GP18 out of Gigi Dall’Igna or whether he will have to pay his dues on a 17. Rabat, showing nothing of the greatness he possessed in Moto2, is lucky to still be employed. Okay, the second half of his 2017 was better than the first. There.

Let’s Take a Closer Look

We need to talk about Valentino Rossi. Before we do, let’s tip our hats to the 2017 riders who have escaped mention thus far.
• Dani Pedrosa. Another competitive season, two more wins on Spanish soil. Low maintenance and a serviceable wingman for Marquez. I just keep thinking that there is a lot of young talent on its way up and that sooner or later Honda will make a change. I thought they would last year. I think they will after 2018. But that’s just me.
• Cal Crutchlow. Ninth for the year, no wins, another year older—33 next year—appears to have reached the high water mark of his career last season. His body is beaten up and older than he is. Will have a rookie teammate next year to corrupt. He gets quoted in the press way too often for a mid-pack rider. Probably because he gets to speak in his first language, unlike most of the contenders. I imagine he’s not the hot interview target on Telemundo that he is on BBC Sports.
• Jonas Folger. Zarco’s rookie J&J Tech 3 buddy, he podiumed in Germany before his season was ended prematurely by injury and illness. Folger showed way more than I expected early in the year, possibly because he, too, was piloting the 2016 Yamaha M1, perhaps the best bike on the grid. If he improves even a little and can stay healthy, his bank account could get laced in 2019, too, along with frère Johann.
• Aleix Espargaro again brought his “win or die trying” spirit to Aprilia, and paid the price. Though showing moments of brilliance, he failed to finish eight races and failed to start another due to crashing out, getting hurt, and suffering a number of mechanical letdowns. His 2017 bike was better than his 2016, and 2018 should be better yet. But dude needs to stay on the bike. Next year he’ll have Scott Redding instead of the departed Sam Lowes to make him look good.
• Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith. The rookie KTM tandem had an encouraging year, despite accumulating 8 DNFs and no podiums, with top ten finishes hard to come by. Espargaro had the better of Smith most of the year, crashing out more often but finishing on top for the season. KTM, according to rumor, covets Zarco for 2019, too, and is said to be over Bradley Smith.
• Finally, Sad Sam Lowes. Sam failed to accumulate the required 10 points during an entire 18 round season, for God’s sake, necessary to qualify for a final disparagement in this column, and so we simply wish Sam good luck and Godspeed in Moto2.

Last but not least, Valentino Rossi. I seem to be something of a rare breed in that I neither love nor despise The Doctor. He went into the 2017 season as a dark horse for the title and sat grinning in first place during those halcyon days after Jerez and before Le Mans, where things started going downhill for the nine-time world champion. Crashing out of the front row at Le Mans, then breaking his leg later in the year, and it was all she wrote. He was never comfortable on the 2017 Yamaha, and was uncompetitive in the rain. Objectively speaking, despite having some brilliant moments, he was not the Rossi we have watched over the years, even as recently as 2015.

There are people out there—smart, otherwise-lucid folks—who sit in delirious anticipation of Rossi’s triumphant exit from MotoGP on the heels of his 10th world championship in 2018. Seriously, there are. But it’s simply not going to happen. He is old enough to have fathered most of the riders in Moto2 and all of the riders in Moto3. He is accumulating scar tissue at an accelerating rate. Yamaha needs to give him and Vinales a better bike for 2018. Even if they do, it won’t be Rossi hoisting the 2018 trophy, although it could be his teammate. Which would really piss him off. I believe next season will be his last as a full-time rider. One could easily see him as a Yamaha wildcard at Mugello and Misano in 2019 and beyond.

The 2017 Season in One Paragraph

The opening third of the season was owned and operated by the factory Yamaha team, which held first place for the first seven rounds. During the middle of the season, Rossi and Vinales began to falter somewhat, Marquez started finding his breathtaking rhythm and Andrea Dovizioso started winning races. By the last third of the year, it was a shootout between Marquez and Dovizioso, one which appeared to have been settled at Phillip Island but was, arguably, settled at Aragon, in that the standings of the top eight riders after Round 14 matched the final 2017 standings.

2017 Season Graph color snip

Although we enjoyed the drama of the Pacific swing and Valencia, in hindsight those four rounds ended up having little to do with the final results. Which is not to say that a number of us weren’t pretty geeked up at Motegi and Phillip Island. It was nerve-wrenching to watch Marquez playing defense and Dovizioso on offense. In the end, the title was decided at Valencia, just not in the manner for which most of us had been hoping.

As an aside, the spreadsheet appears to support the old golfing adage that you drive for show and putt for dough. Spraying the ball off the tee, then making long putts for saves and, finally, the win, is how the smart ones do it. In contrast to his fabled 2014 season, it took Marquez a while to understand the new bike and find his rhythm. Once he did, in Barcelona, and as he got closer to the 18th green in Valencia, he started making those putts. From then on he was essentially unstoppable.

Final Tranches of 2017

Tranche 1: Marc Marquez
Tranche 2: Andrea Dovizioso, Maverick Vinales, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, Johann Zarco
Tranche 3: Jorge Lorenzo, Cal Crutchlow, Jonas Folger, Alex Rins, Pol Espargaro, Aleix Espargaro, Andrea Iannone, Jack Miller, Danilo Petrucci, Alvaro Bautista
Tranche 4: Bradley Smith, Scott Redding, Loris Baz
Tranche 5: Sam Lowes, Tito Rabat, Hector Barbera, Karel Abraham

The Last Word

MotoGP 2017 confirmed several pre-season predictions and missed on a few others.
Marc Marquez is the rider of the decade, discussion closed. The sun is setting on Valentino Rossi. Jorge Lorenzo made a huge mistake taking his game to Ducati. Maverick Vinales is going to be a premier class champion, just not right away. Andrea Dovizioso still has plenty of gas in his tank. The KTM team is going to be nails in the near future. Johann Zarco is the class of the rookie class of 2017, with Folger and Rins not far behind. And, with plenty of hot young talent in the pipeline, MotoGP in 2017 is as good as it’s ever been.

 

MotoGP Le Mans Results 2017

May 21, 2017

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Rossi kicks it away; Viñales leads series 

vinales-on-yamahaedited

Today at the 30th running of the French Grand Prix at Le Mans, youth triumphed over experience.  Yamaha Top Gun Maverick Viñales withstood a classic last lap challenge brought by teammate and legend Valentino Rossi to capture Yamaha’s 500th grand prix win.  The youngster ended his day on the top step of the podium, the grizzled veteran his, prostrate in the gravel.  Ten years ago, Rossi would have won this race.  In 2017, the tide she is maybe beginning to turn.

Practice and Qualifying

FP1, on a wet but drying track, provided the usual comedic results found in wet sessions, with Jack Miller over a second clear of Marquez and Zarco, with the Espargaro brothers, Pol on the KTM and Aleix on the Aprilia, finishing dead last together, not having it.  FP2, wetter yet, saw Andrea Dovizioso put his Ducati in front of Marquez and Danilo Petrucci, another mudder.  FP3, still soggy, was topped by Scot Redding, Cal Crutchlow and Miller again.  FP4 was dry—Viñales, Pedrosa, Rossi, and Zarco–but by then the lambs and goats had been separated.  That things were out of kilter was exemplified by Scot Redding leading the Q2 lambs.

The goats relegated to Q1 included some recognizable names—Tech 3 rookies Zarco and Folger, plus Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dovizioso.  Dovizioso led Zarco into Q2 after an exhilarating 15 minutes, with the Frenchman climbing into second place at the tail end of the session.  But both KTM bikes—Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro—had already passed straight into Q2, along with a few other surprises—Karel Abraham and Loris Baz among them.  Go KTM.  Go GP15s.

When the dust and fumes cleared after Q2, we were left with an all-Yamaha front row of Viñales, Rossi, and Zarco, followed by Cal Crutchlow, Marquez and Dovizioso.  The announcers were so caught up in homeboy Zarco’s last lap push for the front row—crowd going mental—it barely registered, to me anyway, that Viñales had taken his second pole of the season, his first since Qatar.

Meanwhile, Pedrosa and Lorenzo, both having podiumed at Jerez two weeks ago, found themselves starting 13th and 16th, respectively, having failed to pass through Q1.  The cool temperatures, one believes, hindered Pedrosa, who always has trouble heating up his front tire.  The possibility that it was raining somewhere in France appeared to affect Lorenzo, whom one reader has described as suffering from aquaphobia, not to mention bipolar disorder, gobs of self-recrimination, and in need of a full reset.  His ride today, from 16th to 6th was respectable, his Friday and Saturday not so much.

The Race – A Yamaha Cakewalk.  Almost.

Zarco, starting from the middle of the front row, put his head down at the start and, entering the second turn, had taken the lead, with Viñales, Rossi, and Marquez comprising the front group.  It appeared that Marquez was working harder than the Yamahas and that Viñales and Rossi were keeping their powder dry, waiting for their fuel loads to drop before taking on the rookie.  On Lap 7, Viñales went through cleanly on Zarco while Marquez began dogging Rossi.

A second group had formed up consisting of LCR Honda hooligan Cal Crutchlow, factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso, and Repsol #2 Dani Pedrosa who, having started 13th, was busily slicing his way through the field.  Pedrosa pushed his way past Crutchlow and into 5th place by Lap 15, turning his attention to teammate Marquez.  Suddenly, on Lap 17, under pressure from Pedrosa and with the Yamahas getting away, Marquez lost the front in Turn 3 (for the third time in two days).  His two DNFs in the first five rounds have a decidedly 2015 flavor to them.

Rossi went through Zarco on Lap 23 and unsurprisingly began lining up Viñales.  Thus began five laps of primo quality racing, as the veteran and the wünderkind squared off, one on one, for bragging rights.  Rossi went through into the lead on Lap 26, a scene we’ve witnessed scores of times over the years.  But Viñales took it back as Rossi ran wide midway through the last lap, trying to block Viñales, then laid his M1 down in a gentle low side late in the lap trying to overtake him yet again.

Valentino Rossi was not interested in finishing second today.  It was his for the asking, and he politely refused. Upon his departure from the racing surface, Zarco got promoted to a silver while Dani Pedrosa suddenly found himself on the podium, through almost no fault of his own.  One more time, class: “In order to finish first…”

Those of you who recall my prediction that Aleix Espargaro would put his Aprilia on the podium today undoubtedly share my angst at seeing him parked by the side of the track, head lowered, smoke wisping from his engine. After a terrible qualifying session, he had been climbing the order all day from 18th place at the start and, to my thinking, could have easily snagged third place had his engine not given out.  Just sayin’.  No need for anyone to point out that he crashed out of 8th place on Lap 24.

Ranking the Bikes

Sparing no expense, we here at MO have commissioned a non-scientific study ranking the overall capabilities of the various machines found on the grid.  In doing so, we relied on mood more than methodology.  The following rankings emerged:

2017 Yamaha

2016 Yamaha

2017 Honda

Ducati GP17

2017 Suzuki

2017 KTM

Ducati GP15

2016 Honda

2017 Aprilia

Ducati GP16

Readers are encouraged to take issue with these rankings.  We will re-rank the riders in our preview of the upcoming Mugello round.

Sidebars

The fact that Jack Miller is still with us after the crash he experienced on Saturday is nothing short of a miracle.  He later qualified in 11th place in the dry Q2 after dominating FP1 by a second and a half, having gambled on slicks late in the session.  [I wonder if the “mudders”—Miller, Petrucci, etc.—regret having developed a reputation for riding well in the rain at 190 mph.  Comparable to those guys who make a living tying themselves to the back of an enraged bull and trying to stay attached for 10 seconds after someone touches an electric prod to his nuts.  That moment when you think, “Am I really doing this?  Is this at all sustainable?” ]

Was it my imagination, or did pretty much every satellite Ducati in the field crap out today?

Finally.  The grippy new racing surface was supposed to lower qualifying times by a second or two.  Last year Lorenzo qualified at 1’31.975.  This year, on a dry, perhaps somewhat dirty track, Viñales qualified at 1’31.994.  But at the end of the 28-lap race on medium tires, Viñales and Rossi were trading lap records every time around.  Viñales set the newest lap record on the last lap of the race. So, the new asphalt appears to meet the ideal spec of non-abrasive with good grip.  And Michelin appears to have figured out Le Mans.

The Big Picture

Watching all three races today, I got the distinct impression that MotoGP is on the verge of being taken over by the ludicrously fast young riders populating Moto3 and Moto2.  Viñales beats Rossi and Zarco beats Pedrosa today, and one gets the impression that leadership amongst the premier class is on its way to turning over.  The Rossis, Pedrosas and Lorenzos seem to be in jeopardy of being pushed off center stage by names like Viñales, Zarco, Bagnaia, Morbidelli, Mir and Fenati, among others.

Until you look at the 2017 standings and see Dani Pedrosa and Vale Rossi grazing near the top of the food chain.  Veteran riders occupy four of the top seven spots for the year, five if you count Marquez. Maverick Viñales has put himself 17 points clear of his nearest competitor as the season turns toward Mugello.  He will have to keep eating his Wheaties if he intends to stay there.

PS–I neglected to post the Le Mans preview, which you can find right here.

 

2016 MotoGP Top Tenner

December 29, 2016

 

©Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com, who, in accordance with their editorial calendar, have elected to hold it until January 6, 2017.

Here are the top ten “things” that defined the 2016 season, in rough order. Not all of them are actual events.

  1. Danilo Petrucci earns promotion over Redding to a full factory ride at Pramac for 2017. The moment?  Valencia.  Started 14 races, finished in the top ten eight times.  Flirted with a front row start at The Sachsenring, tied Rossi, in fact, but fell to fourth over some obscure tie-breaker. At 26 and relatively burly he’s not Alien material, but he can handle the Desmosedici as well as any of the satellite riders and is a baller in the rain.  On a full factory bike Mr. Petrucci could easily challenge for a podium or three in 2017.

    iannone-and-dovi-in-argentina

    Iannone collects Dovizioso in Argentina

  1. Andrea Iannone gets his first premier class win in Austria while working himself out of a job—slide-off at Losail; collects Dovi at Rio Hondo; crashed out of second place at Le Mans; crashes at Catalunya, Silverstone and Sepang. By mid-season the fearless Italian was being encouraged by Gigi to consider a change of teams for next season, with Suzuki eventually drawing the winning number.
  1. The decline of Dani Pedrosa. The moment?  When the lights went out at Losail.  More losailDNFs in 2016 than wins.  Another Motegi collarbone, this time in FP2.  But a brand new contract nonetheless.  Dani peaked in 2012 (seven wins, finished second to Lorenzo by 18 points), and is definitely on the back nine of his career.  An entire career spent with one manufacturer is impressive in itself.  Pedrosa, although well-liked in the paddock, has always struck me as a kind of brooding guy, when he wasn’t displaying his “little man” complex and beating hell out of the field at joints like Laguna Seca.  To embark upon another two years of non-Alien level competition may prove to be a mistake.  The next Colin Edwards.
  1. The Silly Season. Jonas Folger, Johann Zarco, Sam Lowes and Alex Rins earn promotions from Moto2. The return of the prodigal lawyer, Karel Abraham, to Aspar Ducati, his pockets bulging with sponsor money.  Out the door are Eugene Laverty to WSB in a very raw deal (I thought he earned another MotoGP season), Stefan Bradl, taking his declining game to WSB as well, and the unfortunate Yonny Hernandez, who had a great 2015, a lousy 2016 and not enough backers to keep his ride.  A healthy number of current riders changed scenery, as usual, but a 23- bike grid with six manufacturers offers a number of alternatives for those journeymen seeking the elusive factory ride.  Paging Bradley Smith.
  1. Cal Crutchlow rises from the dead after a difficult start to the season (five points incrutchlow the first four rounds) with wins at Brno and Phillip Island. The moment:  Brno, Lap 16, on a drying track.  Crutchlow goes through on Iannone and quickly gets away, having made the correct tire choice in one of the 2016 rounds that started wet and ended dry.  First win by a British rider since the earth cooled.  At Phillip Island he went out and thumped the field (Marquez having already secured the title), establishing himself as a credible podium threat in 2017, when he will have even more microphones shoved in his face, to which we look forward with great enthusiasm.
  1. Marquez titles after a difficult 2015. Uncharacteristically settles for third in Jerez marquezbehind Rossi and Lorenzo, showing a maturity that wasn’t there in previous years.  The moment?  Motegi, when both Rossi and Lorenzo crashed out.  His win on Honda’s home field suddenly made him world champion for the third time.  Some people will say his save in practice at Assen was the moment, but he has made a career out of impossible saves.  Winning titles is what makes him go.

marquez-season-graph-jpeg

  1. maverick-vinales-wiki-profile-picture

    The Next Great Rider == Maverick Vinales

    Maverick Vinales gets first podium at Le Mans, wins at Silverstone on his way to the factory Yamaha team. The Next Great Rider secured Suzuki’s first podium since 2009 at Le Mans, then broke their 10-year non-winning streak with a scintillating win at Silverstone.  Nature, and Yamaha executives, abhorring a vacuum, he was the only real choice when Lorenzo announced his impending departure.  Vinales’ Alien Card is stamped and waiting.  The best part?  See him in civilian clothes and he looks like a cabana boy at the Ritz.

 

  1. Nine race winners. Moment—when Dovizioso crossed the finish line at Sepang to become #9.  I expect some of you to quibble about whether an entire season can be somehow characterized as a “moment.”  If this really bothers you, I encourage you to read Nietzsche, and to remember that, when considered across the eons of time in the frigid vacuum of space and an expanding galaxy, the entire 2016 MotoGP season is the blink of an eye.  So go quibble somewhere else.

lorenzo

  1. Jorge Lorenzo to Ducati announcement on April 19. One of the worst-kept secrets entering the season was that triple world champion Lorenzo would defect from the factory Yamaha team to Ducati in 2017.  It was confirmed prior to the Jerez round, with Big Blue having already signed teammate and rival Rossi through 2018.  The forthcoming changes amongst the Alien contingent in 2017 produced undertones that seemed to color the entire season.  A number of factors conspired to limit Lorenzo to a disappointing third place finish in 2016, but he seems certain the grass is greener on the other side of the hill.  We shall see.
  1. Rossi blows an engine at Mugello. The turning point of the season.  Despite a careless slide-off in Austin, Rossi entered Italy with the scoreboard reading Lorenzo 90, Marquez 85, Rossi 78.  A three-man race.  He left Italy bereft, with Lorenzo 115, Marquez 105, Rossi 78.  He had completed Lap 8 checking out Lorenzo’s back wheel when, at the bottom of the main straight, his engine went up, just as Lorenzo’s had without consequence during practice.  Control of his 2016 future went up with it, in the thick white smoke pouring from his bike.  The bad luck he needed caught up with Lorenzo in the Teutonic territories of Holland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, but Marquez sailed through the season unscathed.

valentino-rossi-mugello

2016 was a season Rossi could have won.  Coulda?  Woulda?  Shoulda?  Didn’t.  Dude will be fired up for next year.  That makes two of us.

 

MotoGP 2016 Le Mans Results

May 8, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Lorenzo Romps; Chase Tightens at the Top 

The record books will show that Yamaha defector Jorge Lorenzo won today’s French Grand Prix by 10 seconds over teammate and rival Valentino Rossi.  The mainstream racing media will be busy slavering over young Maverick Vinales, who put a Suzuki on the podium for the first time since Loris Capirossi did so at Brno in 2009.  The real story of today’s race, however, was the eight riders, including at least three contenders, who crashed out as if the race had been run in the wet, marking the first time the Rain Gods have ruined a race on a clear sunny day. 

Q2 on Saturday was a study in contrasts.  Defending world champion Lorenzo lay down a 1:32.2 early in the session, which would have sufficed to put him on his first ever premier class pole at Le Mans, in front of Marc Marquez.  Later, he pitted, changed the rear tire, trimmed an annoying hangnail, then went back out and casually posted a 1:31.975, becoming the first rider ever to crack the 1:32 barrier on two wheels.  Meanwhile, Dani Pedrosa, suddenly the “presumptive” #2 rider on the factory Yamaha team for the next two years, lost the front entering the Dunlop Chicane, narrowly avoided getting creamed by several following riders, and ended the session sucking canal water in 11th place.  Rossi, for his part, struggled through a flashback to 2015 while securing 7th, mired on the third row on a narrow track not terribly conducive to overtaking, as if that made any difference to the Italian icon.

[Lorenzo’s lap begs the question:  What’s all the fuss about the standard ECU?  If qualifying lap times were two seconds slower than last year, opponents might have an argument.  From here, it doesn’t appear to make any difference in qualifying.  That it makes things more difficult at race distance is somewhat more credible.]

28 Laps of Mayhem

As expected, when the lights went out, Lorenzo took the hole shot, assumed the lead, withstood a minor early threat from the factory Ducatis, and ran away from the field.  My notes on Lap 2: “race over.”  Fans were thus reduced to enduring a battle for second place, comparable to spending 45 minutes to see who would lose The Super Bowl.  For the record, the early first group was comprised of Lorenzo, Ducati teammates Dovizioso and Iannone, Marquez and Pol Espargaro on the Tech 3 Yamaha, who got swallowed up by Rossi on Lap 3.

Marquez appeared to be struggling, while Rossi was recovering from a poor start.  Iannone went through on Dovizioso on Lap 6, and it appeared Dovi was ready to strike back until he perhaps remembered the newly issued and oppressive team rule prohibiting such a move until the next lap.  Fortunately for him, Iannone, who seems to be developing some kind of adversarial relationship with success, crashed unassisted out of second place on the Lap 7 in a replay of his bonehead move in the season opener in Qatar. The hapless Scott Redding’s Pramac Ducati retired at about the same time when his engine, in his words, “simply stopped.”

Iannone’s crash moved Marquez up to 3rd and Rossi to 4th.  On Lap 8, Cal Crutchlow crashed out of Tranche 5, as did Tito Rabat.  By now, Lorenzo’s lead over Dovizioso was 1.5 seconds.  Yonny Hernandez, working his way out of a good job, crashed on Lap 9.  On Lap 12 my only note was “here comes Rossi.”  Vale went through on Marquez at Garage Vert on Lap 13 and passed Dovizioso one lap later to take over 2nd place, with Lorenzo barely visible in the distance.

Marquez was losing great gobs of yardage to Lorenzo and Rossi exiting the corners, forcing him to brake late and hard entering the turns and putting a big load on his front tire.  My sole note on Lap 15: “Marquez going down.”  Sure enough, on Lap 16, both he and Dovizioso went down simultaneously at the Museum Corner.  The remarkable visual reminded me of an old James Bond movie in which his tricked out Aston Martin, at the mere touch of a button, sprayed oil on the road, causing the bad guys chasing him on motorcycles to slide off into the woods.  The net effect of the Lap 16 double dip was to elevate Vinales to third place, from which he would hold off Dani Pedrosa.  Otherwise, aside from Jack Miller’s customary crash on Lap 18 and Bradley Smith’s unfortunate off on Lap 20, that was that.

So.  Someone please tell me the last time a race run under perfect conditions featured eight riders crashing out, not counting Redding’s retirement.  At the post-race press conference, Lorenzo said it was an ongoing issue with the Michelins, with riders not being fully under control at any time on the track.  Rossi said it was just racing.  Vinales said it was having less control on the brakes with a full fuel load.  I wasn’t asked, but my belief is that the Rain Gods planted the expectation of a wet track in the riders’ heads and it stuck.  Having gone out on slicks, the results were almost predictable.

Yamaha to Settle for Dani Pedrosa? 

The latest rumors in the media suggest that Vinales, having played too hard in his negotiations with Yamaha, has been turned away in favor of…Dani Pedrosa?  It may be that today’s podium will cause Yamaha to up the ante again, but, if not, it seems Yamaha has taken a very short term, conservative and dull approach to filling Lorenzo’s seat.  Yes, Dani is still a good rider; that his best days are behind him is pretty clear.  Yes, he will be a threat to podium most weekends, with perhaps a few wins left in him, but he will not win a title.  Instead of taking a bold step, choosing a young gun, a Vinales or Rins, to serve as Rossi’s wingman and #2, primed to take over the top spot in 2019, Yamaha appears to have kicked the can down the road.

If Iannone, Dovizioso and Marquez had not collapsed mentally today, Pedrosa would have finished seventh.  Just sayin’.

If Pedrosa signs with Yamaha, it raises a larger question concerning who will take over the #2 seat at Repsol Honda.  Iannone would have been the logical choice last year, but has proven himself thoroughly unpredictable, a personality trait not highly prized in Japanese culture.  Marquez would object to Rins, and Rins might not be enamored of the idea of wrestling with the RC213V in its current state.  Pol Espargaro could be a good candidate, except he’s always been a Yamaha guy.  (Why Yamaha has not given Pol more consideration is a mystery.)  And any reader who suggests that Cal Crutchlow is the obvious choice should immediately seek therapy.  Five points in five rounds; the scoreboard doesn’t lie.  Honda might as well promote Alex Marquez, who himself has managed four crashes and five points in five rounds in Moto2.

Looking Ahead

A recent Facebook meme, directed at women, said, “Sure, it’s all fun and games until your jeans don’t fit anymore.”  The same could be said for the MotoGP calendar, with Mugello, Catalunya, Assen and The Sachsenring looming.  Two weeks from now the season will be a third gone, and the standings at the top are as tight as wallpaper.  The Movistar Yamaha team loves Mugello; I’m not sure Marc Marquez loves any circuit other than Austin right now.  The factory Ducati team will be looking for something, anything good to happen at their home crib in a season racked by disappointment and bad luck.  Team Suzuki Ecstar, brimming with optimism, will want to build upon their recent success.

We have arrived at the heart of the 2016 MotoGP calendar.  The silly season will be heating up, too, with Tech 3 Yamaha having this week signed Jonas Folger from Moto2.  (Folger celebrated his promotion by crashing four times at Le Mans, providing a reasonable impression of Toni Elias at his most lethal.)  Even on days like today, when the race was a snooze, there’s always something to argue about in MotoGP.

MotoGP 2016 Le Mans Preview

May 3, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Lorenzo vs. Marquez vs. Rain Gods in France

Round 5 of the 2016 MotoGP championship brings those daring young men on their wingleted machines to the French countryside for the Monster Energy Grand Prix de France.  The Loire river valley is wine country and, as most folks know, you need rain and mild temperatures to grow a decent sauvignon blanc.  What’s good for the grapes is, unfortunately, bad for motorcycle racing.  Without a clue who might win Sunday’s race, it’s a safe bet that the Rain Gods will play a part in the outcome.

Before we start, let’s address this writer’s predictions concerning Round 4 in Jerez.  I suggested that Rossi might be under-motivated, being handsomely contracted through the end of 2018, and that Lorenzo could be inclined to hold back in order to punish Yamaha for lovin’ on Vale so much that he jumped ship to Ducati for the next two seasons.  Accordingly, the two finished one-two in a Yamaha rout.  We’ll just set all that on a side burner to simmer for a while; I’m much better at discussing past events than predicting future ones.

Recent History at Le Mans

Early in 2013, Dani Pedrosa was having the best premier class season of his career.  Starting the year with a 4th in Qatar, he chased race winner and rookie Repsol Honda teammate Marc Marquez all over the joint in Austin before settling for second.  He followed that up with a decisive win in Jerez.  Somehow, in a steady downpour, he outran Cal Crutchlow and Marquez to the flag at Le Mans, extending his lead for the year.  He held this lead until a heavy crash in practice at Round 8 in Germany, clearing the way for Marquez to eventually take the title.  At Le Mans that year, Lorenzo and Rossi floundered, so to speak, ultimately finishing seventh and 12th, respectively.

The 2014 French Grand Prix was a dry race, during The Year of Marc Marquez. The defending champion continued his historic run of poles and wins in France, although the top six finishers—Marquez, Rossi, Alvaro Bautista, Pol Espargaro, Pedrosa and Lorenzo—were separated by a mere seven seconds.  Bautista, on the Gresini Honda, worked Tech 3 Yamaha pilot Pol Espargaro by 6/10ths at the finish to deprive Herve Poncharal’s French team of what would have been an oh-so-sweet podium at their home race.

Last year, on a perfect afternoon, Movistar Yamaha delivered a clear message to the grid, notably Marquez:  anyone contemplating, say, a third world championship in 2015 would need to go through The Bruise Brothers.  Lorenzo, in a replay of his win in Jerez two weeks earlier, got away early and was never challenged on the way to his 35th career win in MotoGP.  Rossi had to slice his way through several Andreas on Ducatis to secure his ninth podium in a row and 13th out of 14 dating back to 2014.  It was a forgettable Sunday for team Repsol Honda, as Marquez crossed the line fourth, while Pedrosa, just back from radical arm pump surgery, hung on to finish 16th.

Les Étrangers en France 

Of the three current Aliens—Pedrosa’s membership status is under double secret probation—Lorenzo has enjoyed the most success at Le Mans.  Since his promotion to the premier class in 2008 he has won four of his eight starts at the Bugatti Circuit, including last year.  Marquez, with eight starts across three classes (the first when he was 15) has stood on the top step twice, in 2011 (Moto2) and 2014.  Valentino Rossi, with 16 MotoGP starts has tasted victory only three times here, the most recent in 2008.  If history is a teacher, one would be reasonable to expect Lorenzo, Marquez and Rossi to appear on Sunday’s podium.  Pedrosa could upgrade his Alien status with a podium finish, especially if he were to knock one of the Yamahas off.  Most especially if that Yamaha bore #46.

The Return of the Tranches

A tranche, as some of you will recall, is just a fancy word for stratum which, itself, is just a fancy word for a level or layer in a stack of widgets, which is a word economists use in place of “whatever.”  Back in the day, I used to assert that the grid would divide itself into rather discreet tranches based upon rider performance and character, or lack thereof in the case of Alvaro Bautista.  For the past few seasons it was difficult to discern natural breaks in the standings.  Not so after four rounds in 2016:

  • Tranche One: Marquez, Lorenzo and Rossi.  The crème de la crème.
  • Tranche Two: Pedrosa, Pol Espargaro (Tech 3), and Team Suzuki Ecstar, Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales.  Vinales figures to jump up sometime in the next year or two.
  • Tranche Three: Four Ducati pilots—Hector Barbera, Eugene Laverty, and the two Andreas, plus Tech 3 Yamaha slacker Bradley Smith.  Barbera and Laverty are punching above their weight, while Iannone and Dovizioso actually belong in Tranche Two, where they would reside were it not for bad luck (Dovizioso) and oversized testicles (Iannone).  Smith, so far this season, is making KTM as nervous as Mike Tyson in a spelling bee about having tapped him for the next two years.
  • Tranche Four: Stefan Bradl (Gresini Aprilia), Scott Redding (Pramac Ducati), Alvaro Bautista (Gresini) and Tito Rabat (Marc VDS Honda).  Redding and Rabat are underachieving while heading up; Bradl and Bautista are overachieving while heading down.  Imagine how these standings would look had Gigi Dall’Igna stayed at Aprilia.
  • Tranche Five: Cal (lol) Crutchlow (LCR Honda), Loris Baz (Avintia Ducati), Yonny Hernandez (Avintia) and Jack Miller (Marc VDS).  These four just can’t get arrested.  Crutchlow, especially, has top ten talent and a world of excuses to go along with his five (5) points for 2016.  Baz has potential but must overcome a height problem, a tall order indeed.  Yonny appears to have peaked a year or two ago, while Miller really has no business in the premier class at this point in his career.

Pramac Ducati hard luck case Danilo Petrucci is, as yet, untranched, having missed the entire season with injuries.  He is slated to return this week and is said to be anxious to claim a spot in Tranche Two.  Readers are encouraged to feign outrage over the tranching (?) of their favorite riders in the Comments section below.

What to Expect This Weekend

Wine in cardboard boxes and goatskins.  Rain at least one day.  Breathtaking brolly girls.  Lorenzo and Marquez in a cage match, with Rossi and Pedrosa tangling in the undercard.  Dovizioso on the podium if it rains on Sunday.  Herve Poncharal playing the “home race” card.  Michelin people everywhere, the dopey anachronistic Bib getting seriously outdrawn by the paddock gals.

People riding scooters smoking Gauloises.  Heavy security—guys in shorts and Jimmy Buffet t-shirts wearing black steel-toed boots, with machine pistols sticking out of their waistbands.  And at least one trio of Brits in those ridiculous head-to-toe Union Jack outfits, drunk out of their gourds, thinking they had bought tickets to a football match in Germany.

As of Monday evening, the weather looks promising, partly cloudy with temps in the 70’s and a slight chance of rain.  Rain is forecast for Monday and Tuesday; if it arrives early, Jorge Lorenzo will not win the race.  The Rain Gods, currently working overtime in the U.S., have yet to turn their attention to France.  If and when they do, anything can happen.

The race goes off early Sunday morning in the states.  We’ll have results and analysis right here later in the day.

MotoGP 2016 Jerez Results

April 24, 2016

© Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com

Rossi reigns in Spain 

Just when we thought we knew what to expect from the 2016 MotoGP season, today happened.  The practice sessions leading up to the (first of four) Spanish Grand Prix found the factory Yamaha team consistently at or near the top of the charts. Repsol Honda wonderkid Marc Marquez was competitive while struggling with rear grip.  Valentino Rossi waited until the last lap of Q2 to lay down the fastest lap of the weekend, for his first Jerez pole since 2005.  Today, The Doctor made a house call on Lorenzo, “administering a dose of his own medicine” in winning at Jerez for the first time since 2009. 

Today’s race was a reversal of form in several ways.  How many times have we seen Jorge Lorenzo or Marc Marquez get out front, try to leave the field behind, only to have #46 materialize on their rear tire looking for a way to steal their lunch money?  Today Rossi took this approach, withstanding an early challenge from Lorenzo on Lap 2, surrendering the lead for roughly 50 meters, before striking back and leading the rest of the race.  My trusty Dial-A-Cliché tool suggests “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” would fit well here.  (Look for the quotation marks this tool generates, much like a watermark.)

For the first half of the race, Lorenzo dogged his teammate, seeing red, personal animosity vying with grudging professional respect, looking desperately for a way through which never appeared.  Marquez, likewise, tailgated Lorenzo for many of the first 14 laps and looked to be lining his countryman up for what would have been a risky pass.  Having learned the hard way last year that “discretion is the better part of valor,” he decided to settle for third place, in front of his home fans, a bitter pill to swallow which left him leading the 2016 race “at the end of the day.”

Viewing the 2016 championship from a distance, the dynamics of the Honda/Yamaha rivalry have changed dramatically over the past few years with the reunion of the Bruise Brothers at Yamaha and the gradual fading of Dani Pedrosa on the #2 factory Honda.  On a personal level, the loathing existent between Rossi and Lorenzo, and Rossi and Marquez, has resulted in some strange bedfellows. Between 2011 and 2013 it was Lorenzo routinely getting double-teamed by the Hondas. In late 2013 and 2014 it was Marquez’s turn to get doubled by Lorenzo and Rossi.  Now, the personal having overshadowed the corporate, it is Rossi expecting resistance from Lorenzo and Marquez. During the podium ceremony, if you just watched Marquez and Lorenzo, you would have sworn Rossi wasn’t even there, the body language of the three screaming contempt, Latin-style.

All sports thrive on rivalries.  Team sports are far more predictable than individual sports like MotoGP because teams, despite the pronouncements of commentators, really don’t have personalities.  Highly competitive individuals, notably the three occupying the front row of today’s grid, most assuredly do.  These rivalries become more intense as they become personal; at this point they appear to be driving the 2016 season, “much to the delight” of the fans.

Elsewhere on the Grid 

Readers of a certain age will recognize the blues standard “Born Under a Bad Sign” by William Bell, the best version of which was recorded by Cream back in the 70’s.  Factory Ducati pilot Andrea Dovizioso should consider having the main lyric—“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”—stitched onto his leathers.

Dovizioso, who could easily occupy one of the top three spots for the season, finished a strong second in Qatar.  But he got flattened by teammate Andrea Iannone in Argentina while running second, and was pancaked by Pedrosa in Austin while contending for yet another podium.  Today, having qualified fourth, with the entire Ducati contingent struggling, he was running seventh when his bike emitted a puff of smoke, causing him to pull off onto the shoulder, turn on his flashers, and call AAA, his day over “through no fault of his own.”

Dani Pedrosa managed another low impact 4th today, a complete non-factor after Lap 6 despite a decent start.  The Suzuki Ecstar team, “on the other hand,” made it happen, with Aleix Espargaro taking 5th place, two seconds ahead of soon-to-be-Yamaha hotshot Maverick Vinales.  Ducati’s Andrea Iannone enjoyed an atrocious start, falling from his qualifying slot in 11th to 14th place by Lap 5.  His hard front tire, installed while he sat on the tarmac and untested all weekend, finally warmed up, and he clawed his way back to 7th at the flag.

Tech 3 Yamaha’s Pol Espargaro, the rider NOT joining the factory KTM project next year, kept his ride vertical again for an 8th place finish, falling from 4th to 5th for the season as Pedrosa stole his spot. Eugene Laverty, overachieving yet again, finished 9th as the #2 Ducati behind Iannone, with Hectic Hector Barbera completing the top ten on another second-hand Duc.

At the bottom of the premier class food chain today were two Marc VDS Hondas, Jack Miller, he of the splintered ankle and redneck facial hair, and Tito Rabat, getting consistently KO’d “punching above his weight.”  By far the saddest sack of the day was Scott Redding, who finished last, over a minute behind Rossi, the optimism of an outstanding offseason having become but “ashes in his mouth.”  Having announced this past week that his ultimate goal was a seat on a factory Ducati, he backed it up with perhaps his worst performance ever in the premier class.  Gigi, one assumes, was not overly impressed, much as my wife is when I announce that my ultimate goal is to get jiggy wit’ Heidi Klum.  Not sure which aspiration is less likely, though my wife does not suffer such uncertainty.

“Precious” Points

While I steal liberally from race announcers Nick Harris and Matthew Birt, both of whom “have forgotten more about MotoGP than I’ve ever known,” I need to register a protest over their oppressive use of the adjective “precious” when discussing championship points.  Points are important.  Points are, well, the point of competing for a championship.  Points are never refused—“No thanks, I’ve got plenty already.”  But “precious,” other than its alliterative value, is best reserved for describing babies—kittens, puppies, penguins, etc.  Banging on about the precious 13 points Dani Pedrosa earned today, or Cal Crutchlow’s first five of 2016, makes me long for an American announcing team, who would probably refer to them as “points.”

A Look Ahead

The grid returns to the historic Bugatti circuit at Le Mans in two weeks, the standings at the top somewhat tighter than they were yesterday.  Tomorrow’s test at Jerez may offer an opportunity for the Aliens to work on the rear grip problems they all complained about—loudly–after today’s race.  The three Brits—Smith, Crutchlow and Redding—need to work on doing more racing and less talking.  Gigi Dall’Igna needs to give some thought to upgrading the machines on loan to Laverty and Barbera. Finally, with Lorenzo looming on the horizon, the two Andreas of the factory Ducati team “need to fish or cut bait.”

Lorenzo leads Yamaha rout in France

May 17, 2015

MotoGP 2015 Le Mans Results, by Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com 

On a picture-perfect afternoon in the French countryside, Movistar Yamaha bruise brothers Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi delivered a clear message to the grid, notably Repsol Honda upstart Marc Marquez:  anyone even hallucinating about a world championship in 2015 will need to go through us.  Lorenzo, in a replay of his win in Jerez last time out, took the early lead and was never challenged on the way to his 35th career win in MotoGP.  Rossi had to slice his way through several Ducati GP15s to secure his ninth podium in a row and 13th out of 14 dating back to last year.  Meanwhile, it was another forgettable Sunday for Repsol Honda. 

Rossi & LorenzoLorenzo had been fast during the three dry practice sessions, got himself a mani-pedi during a wet FP4 (led by the Great French Hope Loris Baz), and qualified on the front row despite electronics issues.  Marquez, appearing rather unsettled all weekend, rallied during QP2 for a blistering pole lap, half a second clear of factory Ducati #1 Andrea Dovizioso, in what would be his high point of Round 5.  Rossi, once again unable to get anything going in qualifying, started from the front of Row 3, as if it matters where he starts.  With 200 201 podia under his belt, The Doctor knows it’s where you finish that counts.

A typically hectic start to the race saw The Rider Formerly Known as Crazy Joe, recently Maniac Joe, and now Ironman Joe (racing despite a dislocated shoulder suffered on Monday) Andrea Iannone immediately trade paint with Marquez, the Spaniard getting the worst of it.  Once the dust settled, it was Lorenzo, Dovizioso, Iannone, Marquez and Rossi forming up the first group.  Repsol #2 Dani Pedrosa, in his first race back from arm surgery, started eighth and was running seventh on Lap 2 when he lost the front in Turn 4.  He re-entered the race in 24th place, and spent the day testing his arm, finishing 16th.  His condition heading to Mugello in two weeks is anyone’s guess.

The race announcers speculated it was braking problems that were causing Marquez to climb from fourth place early to sixth place by Lap 5, as he ran wide several times, seeming, with a full fuel load, more out of control than usual.  Rossi, once again looking young and dangerous, pushed Marquez out of the way on Lap 3, bolted past Iannone on Lap 11 and stole Dovizioso’s lunch money on Lap 13, appearing eager to set up a battle with Lorenzo for the win.  And though that joust did not materialize, an epic battle behind Dovizioso for fourth place did, the combatants being Marquez, the wounded Iannone, and Last Brit Standing Bradley Smith on the Tech 3 Yamaha (countrymen Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding having by this time ended up in the gravel).

With the race three-quarters over, whatever had been bugging Marquez early on appeared solved as he stalked Smith, Marquez in Sepang 2013who was himself preparing to go through on Iannone into 4th place. Over the last seven laps of the race, Marquez and Iannone conducted a cage match reminiscent of their days fighting in Moto2.  Smith, who on Lap 21 was lining up Iannone for fourth, found himself, instead, in sixth place on Lap 23, sucking air, while Marquez and Iannone went at each other with bayonets, changing places at least a dozen times.  Some of the best racing of the year was going on here, with Smith waiting for the seemingly inevitable crash of one or both riders that never came.  Marquez crossed the line on Lap 24 in fourth position, where he finished, while Iannone held Smith off long enough to claim fifth in as gutty a performance as one is likely to see, his left shoulder held in place by adhesive tape and popsicle sticks.  One might argue that Smith deserved a better result today, but in the end the factory bikes prevailed over his satellite entry.  Hard cheese for sure; no apology needed.

Elsewhere on the Grid

Aleix Espargaro and his factory Suzuki called it a day with mechanical issues early, the rider nursing a world of hurt suffered in a brutal high side in FP4.  Brother Pol on the other Tech 3 Yamaha finished quietly in seventh, with an overachieving Yonny Hernandez driving his Pramac Ducati to a gratifying eighth.  Maverick Vinales, who seems to be getting the hang of things on his own Suzuki Ecstar, punked Pramac’s Danilo Petrucci at the flag for a very decent ninth place finish, with Petrucci, promoted up from the hapless Ioda Racing team after last season, showing us why, ending the day in the top ten.  Nicky Hayden took top open class honors on his Aspar Honda in 11th place, followed by Baz, Avintia Ducati plodder Hector Barbera 13th, Eugene Laverty 14th (for his first premier class points) and Alvaro Baustista closing out the points on his Gresini Aprilia.

The Big Picture

After five rounds, Movistar Yamaha owns the top two spots in the standings, Rossi clear of Lorenzo by 15 points, both looking ready to rumble into Mugello.  Dovizioso, sits four points behind Lorenzo in third, while Marquez, in a completely unexpected turn of events, saw his 2015 season deteriorate even farther, trailing Rossi by 33, his swagger and apparent invincibility of the past two years missing in action. Iannone, who with Dovizioso figures to do well in Mugello, sits eight points behind Marquez, with Crutchlow and Smith waging The Second Battle of Britain in seventh and eighth places, separated by a single point.

RossiA word about Valentino Rossi—podium #201 was his today, leading me to project when he will reach #300 (2022), #400 (2030) and #500 (2039), just in time for his 60th birthday.  I hope that whomever is writing this column at that time remembers to give him props.

Seriously, this is getting ridiculous.  At age 36 he shows no signs of slowing down, dominating a young man’s game like no other before him.  Had he not gotten his nose out of joint and accepted the millions offered him by Ducati for two years of perdition, he would already have a leg up on podium #300.  Much like Michael Jordan after his two season train wreck/experiment with baseball, Rossi has been welcomed back by the Yamaha team he should never have left, picking up right where he left off at the end of 2010.  Better, in fact, than he was at the end of 2010.  His next venture after MotoGP should be the marketing of The Valentino Rossi Diet, one which guarantees to take five years off your appearance every ten years. The diet, one imagines, will preclude alcohol, tobacco and chasing women.  And while strict adherents to the plan will not live forever, it will certainly seem that way.

Old jokes are good jokes.

On to Mugello

As if the Repsol Honda team didn’t have enough to worry about already, the next stop on the schedule rests in the picturesque Tuscan hills overlooking the fabled city of Bologna, Italy, home of Mugello, a Yamaha track if ever there was one.  These days, it must also be considered a Ducati track.  Today’s result at Le Mans—a top ten comprised of four Yamahas, four Ducatis, a Honda and a Suzuki—came at a neutral site.  Mugello, as most of you know, is anything but neutral.

The Monster Grand Prix de France is anyone’s race

May 13, 2015

MotoGP 2015 Le Mans Preview, by Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to Motorcycle.com.

This Sunday, MotoGP makes its annual pilgrimage to France’s Loire River valley for Sunday worship services at Le Mans, one of the shrines of motorsports. The main combatants in this week’s tilt—Movistar Yamaha teammates Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, and Repsol Honda phenom Marc Marquez—have won the last three rounds of an intriguing season. If it rains as per usual, the fourth Alien, Andrea Dovizioso, on the factory Ducati, a known mudder, could contend as well.

podium-mugello-2014As for the second member of the Repsol Honda team, Dani Pedrosa, the silence emanating from HRC since Jerez had been deafening. Pedrosa raced at Losail in Round One despite a flare-up of his chronic arm pump issue which, some folks say, is a result of his simply not being big enough physically to handle 1000cc of brute force. After the race, he returned to Europe for radical/experimental surgery on his arm, and had been absent for the last three races. At Jerez, we were led to believe he would make his return this week. Lo and behold, on Tuesday Pedrosa finally announced he would be at Le Mans. His release fell just short of predicting he would race on Sunday.

Dani-dani-pedrosa-9702356-435-380There seems to be a growing sense at HRC HQ that Pedrosa’s injury may be a career-ender. Call it the sound of distant thunder, or idle speculation. What is clear is that Pedrosa, one of this most accomplished riders in MotoGP history, will not win a championship in this lifetime. Too much Rossi, too much Lorenzo, and now too much Marquez. Moto2 is bursting with young talent—Tito Rabat and Alex Rins leap to mind, with Johann Zarco, Jonas Folger and the currently-struggling Alex Marquez not that far behind. One of these guys is going to end up on the second Repsol seat at some point.

With all the money Honda has tied up in MotoGP, they cannot simply stand around if Pedrosa, despite his 15 years of loyal service across three racing classes (and three world titles) starts showing his age. Even the biggest Pedrosa fans must admit that his best years are behind him. Though he will not turn 30 until September, he is old for his age, having had enough titanium inserted and removed from his body to build Lance Armstrong’s bicycle.

If someone were to ask me what I think–an unlikely occurrence–I would expect him to show this week, secure a top ten finish, and make some kind of announcement after the race concerning his future with the team. If the fiercely proud Pedrosa feels he is no longer able to compete at an elite level, he may call it quits. On the other hand, I suppose it’s just as likely he could go out, qualify on the front row, and finish on the podium, his health and confidence fully restored. But Le Mans has never been his favorite circuit, and if it rains, as expected, he may get a case of the yips, as has befallen Jorge Lorenzo. I don’t know about you, but if I’m nursing a surgically-repaired limb, I’m not eager to walk down a flight of stairs, much less go eyeball-to-eyeball with the likes of Valentino Rossi in the rain.

Recent History at Le Mans

Back in 2012, it was dry on Friday and early Saturday, but the rains arrived in time for qualifying, and the race itself was run in a deluge. Lorenzo’s crew dialed in a perfect wet setting for his M-1, and he had one of those outings, not unlike Jerez two weeks ago, where he seemed to be on rails. He was joined on the podium by Rossi, who pushed his Ducati through the mud for the first of his two podia that season, despite finishing almost ten seconds behind his once and future teammate. Defending world champion Casey Stoner, days after announcing his impending retirement at the end of the year, hydroplaned to a third place finish, apparently having been convinced by his pregnant wife that she would take a dim view of raising their child as a young widow.

In 2013, it was Pedrosa who beat Tech 3 Yamaha tough guy Cal Crutchlow and rookie Marc Marquez to the finish in another French downpour, putting himself in the lead for the season, where he would remain until a cursed Round Eight at The Sachsenring, when he fractured his collarbone—again—clearing the way for Marquez to eventually take the title. The reunited factory Yamaha team of Lorenzo and Rossi floundered helplessly that day, Lorenzo crossing the line seventh and Rossi a distant 12th.

Last year, it was a dry race in which Marquez continued his historic run of poles and wins, although the top six finishers—Marquez, Rossi, Alvaro Bautista (Alvaro Bautista?), Pol Espargaro, Pedrosa and Lorenzo—were separated by a scant seven seconds. Bautista, who averaged one third-place finish a year for his three seasons under Fausto Gresini’s lash, pimped Tech 3 Yamaha pilot Pol Espargaro by 6/10ths at the finish to deprive Herve Poncharal’s French team of a desperately-desired podium at their home race.

Have I mentioned how old it gets having these riders go all squishy in the media when their “home” races roll around? pol-espargaro-bradley-smith-tech3-yamaha-motogp“Right, we view Le Mans as a home race for our team, in that our chief mechanic’s cousin’s sister-in-law used to be married to a cop in Toulouse.” Please. The Tech 3 team has an American sponsor, a Japanese bike, a Brit and a Spaniard in the saddles, but because the team’s management is French, this is their home race. Really? Using this logic, Tech 3 Yamaha could actually count the four Spanish races, the two American rounds, Le Mans, Donington Park and Motegi as home races, giving them a grand total of nine, or half the season. With such an advantage, it’s surprising they aren’t the leading team on the grid.

Enough already with the home races.

Quick Hitters and Your Weekend Forecast

The Jerez test the day after the race was mostly uneventful, other than Marquez turned some laps rather than resting his hand. He says he will be stronger at Le Mans, which doesn’t actually rise to the level of “news.” Andrea Dovizioso’s pre-Jerez prediction that the factory Ducati team wouldn’t do well there stood up pretty well, with Iannone coming across sixth and Dovi, after his brief detour early on, ending up ninth. Both are confident heading to France (name one rider who’s not) although Iannone will compete with a recently dislocated shoulder suffered at the Italian team’s private testing session at Mugello. Aprilia tested their version of the seamless shift gearbox at Mugello and pronounced it a success, though it won’t be ready in time for this weekend. #1 rider Alvaro Bautista is confident it will improve their results going forward, raising the question: What wouldn’t?

As for the weather, the forecast for the greater Sarthe area calls for temps in the 60’s all three days, with the best chance of rain on Friday. I’m not saying I don’t trust the French—well, I guess I actually am—but I would be surprised if it doesn’t rain on Sunday. The race goes off at 8 am EDT Sunday, and I’m sure most of you join me in hoping for more action like we saw at COTA and Rio Hondo. Anyone with a prediction for the podium Sunday is welcome to comment; I, for one, have no idea. Unless it rains, in which case Jorge Lorenzo won’t be around for the celebration.Lorenzo in the rain at Le Mans