Archive for the ‘MotoGP Le Mans’ Category

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.

 

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 2014 Le Mans Results

May 18, 2014

Once again, it’s all Marquez, all the time 

Under a flawless blue sky in northwest France, 88,000 MotoGP fans witnessed the laying of another brick in the wall of fame being built by Marc Marquez.  The 21-year old Spaniard overcame a dicey start to become the youngest rider in this history of the sport to win five premier class races in a row.  Having shattered the all-time lap record at Le Mans in practice, the Repsol Honda phenom is re-writing the record books every time out.  Today, it appeared, was just another day at the office. 

Marquez the Man

Without wishing to suggest a conspiracy amongst the other top riders, the conventional wisdom for beating Marquez seems to have coalesced around the concept of “roughing him up” at the start of a race, pushing him back into pack traffic, allowing one of the other Aliens to jump out to a lead, and then praying collectively that he runs out of time going through the field.  This “anyone but Marquez” approach worked perfectly today, as he got off to a poor start—the sole remaining flaw in his otherwise flawless game—got pushed wide by Jorge Lorenzo early, and finished the Lap 1 in 10th place.  The thought crossed my mind that in order to make it interesting he occasionally allows this to happen, enjoying slicing and dicing the field on his way to the win.  Today at Le Mans it looked like this:

MarquezConquestCapture

So, with six consecutive poles under his belt dating back to Valenciana last year, he breaks the record set by Mike Hailwood in 1962 to become the youngest rider ever to take five premier class wins in a row.  Next up:  Casey Stoner’s record seven poles in a row set in 2008.  Next after that:  Mick Doohan’s incredible 10 wins in a row in 1997.  Once Marquez learns how to start these things quickly—recall Jorge Lorenzo was a terrible starter when he came up in 2008 and has become one of the best since then—he will have to find something else to hold his attention during races.  Capable of turning lap times over half a second faster than his nearest competitors—half a minute in dog years—he will be competing with himself for the foreseeable future. 

Elsewhere on the Grid 

Rossi 2014Valentino Rossi, who led the first half of the race and appears thoroughly rejuvenated, claimed his third 2nd place finish of the year and his 10th premier class podium at Le Mans.  Expect an announcement in at Mugello that Yamaha has signed the Doctor for two more years of chasing Marquez around the world.  The most surprising result today was the 3rd place finish of GO&FUN Honda pretty boy Alvaro Bautista, taking his third premier class podium ever and first since Motegi in 2012.  Starting seventh, Bautista quietly moved up the standings until Lap 12 when he went through on LCR Honda pilot Stefan Bradl into fourth position.  He then turned his attention to the surprising Pol Espargaro, who had placed his Tech 3 Yamaha on the first row of the grid and looked podium-worthy, going through on the rookie on Lap 18.  For me, seeing Bautista on the podium is about as jarring as seeing John Daly winning a golf tournament.

The two Honda surgical convalescents, Repsol’s Dani Pedrosa and LCR’s Stefan Bradl, fared surprisingly well today, less than two weeks after surgeries on their forearms.  Pedrosa, one of the toughest guys in MotoGP, spent a good part of the day in ninth position before his fuel load dropped, allowing him to recover to a respectable fifth place finish.  Alas, his string of eight consecutive podia came to an end today in a gutsy performance.  Bradl, seeming less affected by his own medical issues, spent a good part of the day in the top four before fading to seventh place at the flag.

Sandwiched in between the two Hondas at the end was Jorge Lorenzo—remember him?—who started and finished sixth, never Lorenzo at workappearing as much of a threat to anyone anytime.  Last year at this time, Lorenzo had two wins and four podia in five starts for 91 points and trailed series leader Pedrosa by 12.  This year, Lorenzo has appeared on the podium once, has managed 45 championship points, and trails Marquez by an unfathomable 80 points.  He is routinely getting schooled by teammate Rossi, and appears to have had his iron will broken by the untouchable Marquez.  Lorenzo desperately needs something—hypnosis, EST, perhaps a visit to a Jamaican voodoo practitioner—to get his fighting spirit restored.  He appears to be in a PTSD-like trance, and needs someone to slap him, piss him off, and get him to stop feeling sorry for himself.  Lorenzo needs to get mad; sad isn’t working.

Farther Down the Food Chain

The hapless Nicky Hayden—if it weren’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all—got tangled up with Andrea Iannone early in the first lap and saw his day come to an early end.  Iannone apparently failed to escape unscathed, as he went down himself on Lap 2, followed shortly thereafter by the increasingly irrelevant Hector Barbera.  With Ioda Racing’s Danilo Petrucci sidelined with a broken wrist, the battle for 16th place raged all day, eventually won by Michael Laverty on the PBM nag.  The saddest sight of the day was Colin Edwards pushing his bike, Fred Flintstone-like, across the line with his boots, having apparently run out of gas late on the last lap.

If Le Mans is the least abrasive racing surface on the MotoGP tour, Cal Crutchlow has become its most abrasive rider.  Crutchlow, who apparently believes the world owes him fame and fortune, barely got out of Q1, qualified last in Q2, started 12th and finished 11th.  He did manage to whip his factory Ducati to finish in front of Pramac’s Yonny Hernandez and three Honda “customer bikes”, winning the Taller Than Danny DeVito award again this week.  At my deadline, no explanation is available for how teammate Andrea Dovizioso managed to go from leading the race early from a front row start to an eighth place finish on a non-abrasive racing surface.  Praying he doesn’t attribute it to understeer, one of the hallmarks of the Desmosedici.  (Imagine an NFL quarterback attributing his five interceptions in a single game to the opposition having put 11 defenders on the field to cause him problems.)

On to Mugello in two weeks, one of the shrines of MotoGP racing, a track where Valentino Rossi could conceivably give Marquez a run for his money.  Rossi’s home race, on a Yamaha layout, with the crowd solidly behind him…  Wishful thinking?  Perhaps.  One of the few remaining obstacles to Marquez running the table in 2014?  Unthinkable, sure, but the word is rapidly losing its meaning as the Catalan onslaught continues.

LeMansTopTenCapture

2014TopTenCapture

 

 

 

MotoGP 2014 Le Mans Preview

May 13, 2014

All eyes on the streaking Marquez 

Repsol Honda #1 Marc Marquez sits atop the grand prix motorcycle racing world with expectations growing at a geometric rate.  Heading into Round 5, he has captured the last five poles, dating back to Valenciana last season, and has won every contest in 2014.  He has topped the timesheets in most of the practice sessions.  Aside from his boyish good looks, all he has going for him is timing, balance, reflexes, intelligence and a really good bike.  The only hope for the rest of the grid this weekend is rain and plenty of it. 

Luckily for the grid, the flying circus will be performing in France, where the last two races have been declared “wet.”  (When it’s heidi_klum_51raining pitchforks and hammer handles, having a marshal flashing a sign reading “WET RACE” is like watching Heidi Klum strut down a runway with some dweeb in the first row waving a sign reading “SUPERMODEL.”  Not exactly necessary.  Just sayin’.)

Recent History at Le Mans

The most recent dry race at the legendary Bugatti Circuit took place in 2011, when Repsol Honda chieftain Casey Stoner got away early on his way to a) the win, and b) that year’s championship.  Behind him, pandemonium reigned, as Marco Simoncelli put Stoner’s Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa out of the race and into the hospital with an ill-advised passing attempt on Lap 17.  Repsol #3 Andrea Dovizioso took advantage of Pedrosa’s misfortune to steal second place from Valentino Rossi, who put his Ducati Desmosedici on the podium for the first and only time that year.

In 2012, factory Yamaha stud Jorge Lorenzo ruled Le Mans in the rain, beating Rossi to the finish by 10 interminable seconds.  Rossi, in turn, punked Casey Stoner on the last lap, relegating the Australian, who had announced his surprise retirement that weekend, to third.  Afterwards, it was hard to tell whether Rossi was more jubilant over making it to the podium or sticking Stoner’s you-know-what in the dirt.

Dani-dani-pedrosa-9702356-435-380Last year was Dani Pedrosa’s One Shining Moment, as the diminutive Spaniard, who had struggled all weekend and started out of the six hole, put the hammer down at the start and led the last 23 laps of the very wet race, launching himself into first place for the season.  Cal Crutchlow, in his final (competitive) year aboard the Tech 3 Yamaha, managed second place, despite having his entire body held together with Bondo and strapping tape.  Rookie Marquez made it to third place after a three day escapade during which he spent roughly as much time in the runoff areas as on the track.  The two factory Ducati bikes managed fourth and fifth, unable to shake the cursed “mudder” label.

Feast or Famine for Rossi at Le Mans

In his last six visits to the Loire River valley, Valentino Rossi has experienced the highs and lows of his chosen profession.  He followed up his win in 2008 with the comical flag-to-flag outing in 2009 in which he finished 16th.  In 2010 he finished second to Yamaha teammate Lorenzo, and podiumed in both 2011 and 2012 while wrestling the Ducati.  Last year, back again with Yamaha, he crashed out of third place in the middle of the race under pressure from Crutchlow and ended up finishing 12th.

Some years chicken; some years feathers.  After watching his teammate Lorenzo get overtaken late in the day in Jerez by Mr. Pedrosa, Rossi is probably looking forward to a little payback this weekend, especially with Dani coming in at less than 100% fitness.

Latest Honda Fad—Arm Pump Surgery 

Last week both Dani Pedrosa and LCR Honda strongman Stefan Bradl underwent surgery to repair muscles in their forearms that want to bust out of their casings like bratwursts on a hot grille.  Pedrosa, whom we weren’t aware was having any physical problems on his way to another solid third place finish in Jerez, might simply miss going under general anesthesia, as it’s been almost a year since his last collarbone surgery.

Bradl, it will be remembered, had problems in Jerez that indicated something was wrong; now we know what it was.  Although both riders have been cleared to race this weekend, Le Mans is one of those stop-and-go joints that demands a lot of hard braking.  Pedrosa will have his work cut out for him to keep his own personal string of eight consecutive podium finishes alive.

There is no truth to the rumor that Alvaro Bautista requested permission to have surgery on one of his forearms, in order to do a little bonding with the factory Honda riders who aren’t embarrassing themselves this season.  Bautista is not having arm pump issues, just every other issue imaginable.

This Just In—Cal Crutchlow Frustrated with DucatiCrutchlow

Last year, after four rounds, a fractious Cal “I’m Good Enough for a Factory Ride” Crutchlow sat in fourth place for the season with 55 points.  Later in the year, he achieved his goal of becoming a factory team rider, abandoning the Tech 3 Yamaha squad and hooking up with Ducati Corse to take on the badass Desmosedici.  Sure, the Big Red Machine was widely seen as a career buster.  Sure, even the Doctor was unable to get it to work right, suffering through two of the worst years of his life.  But, it was argued, Cal is big and burly and strong enough to bend the Ducati to his will.  He was going to show the world that it wasn’t just about the money.

Um, no.  Heading into Round 5, Cal sits mired in 16th place, a mere two points ahead of Karel Abraham, for God’s sake, with ten (10) championship points to show for his season thus far.  He’s now mouthing off in the media about the junk he’s being forced to ride.  He is the least productive of the four Ducati pilots, two of whom aren’t making “factory” money.  At this point, Cal needs to man up and start running with teammate Andrea Dovizioso, who podiumed in Austin and currently sits in fourth place for the year.  Having made his bed, the Brit needs to lie in it and STFU.  As they say back home, “Hard cheese, old boy.”

New Rubber Coming in 2016

Having grown weary of being the whipping boy for every rider from Valentino Rossi to Gabor Talmacsi since 2009, Bridgestone has announced that it will no longer be the sole supplier of tires to MotoGP after next season.  This leaves the field open for the other three candidates—Pirelli, Dunlop and Michelin—to step up to what is a thankless job.  Never mind all the data the company collects and then ostensibly uses to improve its retail lines.  Not a race goes by without some rider or 12 whining about grip, deterioration, etc.   From what little I’ve read on the subject, Michelin appears to have the inside track.  Similarly, there seems to be little debate that the change in tires will have a greater impact on the sport than the forthcoming changes in the ECUs.

What About the Weather in France This Weekend?

Glad you asked.  As of Tuesday afternoon, the forecast is surprisingly good, calling for fair skies and mild temps, with next to no chance of rain.  Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it.  If it turns out to be a dry race, I suspect there’ll be more Yamahas on the podium than Hondas.  If it’s wet, expect Andrea Dovizioso to find his way to the rostrum.  The race goes off at 8 am EDT on Sunday, and we hope to have results right here that afternoon, even though our favorite Motorcycle.com editor will likely be on his honeymoon.  Congratulations Dennis and Jackie.

MotoGP Mugello 2013 Preview

May 27, 2013

by Bruce Allen

Team Yamaha Needs to Assert Itself 

As Round Five of the 2013 MotoGP championship season steams toward us, the very air crackling in its wake,  we are reminded of one of the oldest truths in motor sports.  We are reminded that championships are rarely won in the first quarter of the season.  They can, however, be lost.  Such is the inconvenient truth facing Yamaha pilots Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi this weekend at the circuit that will almost surely bear Rossi’s name someday. 

For Team Yamaha, finishing one-two at Mugello would be like holding serve—great, yeah, but nothing to really celebrate.  Anything less will range from a disappointment to a disaster, neither of which would be helpful at this point of this season.  Or, actually, any point.  Of any season.  Not helpful at all.

Expectations for Team Blue are high this weekend.  As are the stakes.

For the ebullient Repsol Honda team, fresh off their French triumph, putting one bike on the podium at Mugello is both necessary and sufficient.  Two would be a big win.  Zero only happens if someone fails to finish the race.  Two Hondas on the Italian podium spells trouble for the factory Yamaha team.  Trouble we might have seen coming, had we been paying closer attention to the season and less attention to Losail.

Losail gave us a false sense of Lorenzo/Rossi/Yamaha security.  Look at the points earned by the primary factory teams round by round:

Round/Venue

Repsol Honda Team

Factory Yamaha Team

     

One – Losail

29

45

Two – COTA

45

26

Three – Jerez

45

29

Four – Le Mans

41

13

 

Average (less Round One)

44

23

Losail affected our thinking, putting the end of last season, and the entire offseason testing program, out of our heads.  That was an error in perception. My error, though I’m probably not alone.  But Losail is, after all, the outlier, the season opener under the lights in the desert, and doesn’t really have much of anything to do with anything else.  So Lorenzo and Rossi’s surprising 1-2 at Losail obscured the fact that Honda appeared to have it very much going on heading into the season.  Other than at Losail.

Since then, that has been the exact case.  One/two, one/two and one/three in three “normal” rounds.   Yamaha might insist we throw out Le Mans as the second outlier—France in the cold and wet—but even doing so, the blue bikes are not keeping up.  Not in Texas or Jerez, which isn’t really surprising, given the layouts.  But not in Le Mans, either, where Yamaha success has generally come easily.  True, Rossi was flying when he crashed in France and looked to have podium written all over him, but such is life running with the big dogs.

Scoreboard. 

Changing of the Guard Underway?

If, as expected, Pol Espargaro signs a one year deal with Monster Tech3 Yamaha, it suggests the Rossi era at Yamaha will end, again, after the 2014 season, in The Doctor’s 35th year.  It will point to Lorenzo and Espargaro fronting the factory team versus Pedrosa and Marquez on the Hondas.  It means Yamaha will have to find more acceleration, while Honda seems to have found all it needs.

There is, too, the outside possibility Dani Pedrosa would not be offered a new contract at the expiration of his current deal after 2014. Lorenzo - Marquez To ride the Repsol Honda for nine (9) years, with all those wins, but no titles…And it doesn’t get any easier at age 30, which will be the age he turns in the first year of his next contract.  There must be those at Honda Racing HQ who have run out of patience with the gutsy little Spaniard.  They want titles; they don’t get all choked up listening to the Spanish national anthem.

Anyway.  If Marc Marquez is, indeed, The Next Great Thing and, by extension, Espargaro the Next Next Great Thing, then whom, we wonder, is the Next Next Next Great Thing?  Scott Redding?  Alex Rins?  Alex Marquez?

It was only 2011 when Marco Simoncelli looked like The Next Great Thing.

Whomever he turns out to be, he will enter MotoGP at a time when it is becoming homogenized.  When the prototype bikes will be getting slowed and the CRT bikes faster.  When teams will likely experience more sudden success and more thorough financial failure.  Where the rules will continue to bend in favor of the more democratic CRT bikes, and away from the monolithic factory behemoths and traditional sponsors who have funded and ruled the sport forever.

The revelation that Dorna Big Cheese and magnate Carmen Ezpeleta is a closet socialist is too sweet.  He’s starting to make MotoGP sound like kids’ rec league soccer, wanting “EVERYONE to get a trophy!”  “Yes, we would like 30 bikes that all go the same speed and that cost the teams €100,000 each only.  They can use as much fuel as they like and are limited to 12 engines for the season.  No other rules.  We don’t need no more steenkin’ rules.  12 engines.  €100,000 each.  Plenty of gas.  Brolly girls.  That’s IT.”  Which, in the opinion of a lot of purists, is in fact desirable.  Delusional, but fun to think about.

MotoGP is morphing, squeezed by economics , resembling World SuperBikes more each year.  Now, if Aprilia would step up with a two bike factory team, and if Suzuki could become relevant again.  Wouldn’t it be fun to see, say, Nicky Hayden and Ben Spies united on a hot new Suzuki MotoGP team.  If not Hayden, then perhaps Spies and Redding, who currently rides 9kg over the weight floor in Moto2 and would be a force on 1000cc.    How about Big Brother Aleix Espargaro and Crutchlow fronting a factory Aprilia team?  If Little Brother gets a prototpe, it’s only fair that big brother gets one too.

Back to Mugello

MotoGP success for team Yamaha in Italy—both bikes on the podium—would move the focus to the following three rounds,  spaced bi-weekly, more or less, in Catalunya, Assen and the Sachsenring  heading into the heat of the summer.  Catalunya favors Yamaha.  Assen and Germany both favor Honda, at least recently.  Let’s review.  Team Yamaha needs to score a lot of points in Italy and Catalunya, keep it close in northern Europe, and hope to still be in it heading for the U.S. in July and August.

Otherwise, we’ll be reduced to arguing Marc vs. Dani or Dani vs. Marc.  When we’re not scratching our heads over whatever became of Stefan Bradl.  Or ruminating about why Cal Crutchlow doesn’t get any respect from owners.

As to our hope for two competitive factory teams at the top of MotoGP in 2013, one of two possible answers will emerge in Tuscany:  If Pedrosa and Marquez continue their hot streak at Mugello, it will probably mean Honda all the way in 2013.  That would be a No.  If Lorenzo and Rossi find what they need and dominate the proceedings, that would be a Maybe.

Let’s not forget the 2010 race.  Mugello that year was Round Four.  After Round Three in France, Lorenzo led Rossi 70 to 61, Dovizioso trailing in 3rd with 42.  Rossi had his high side in practice and was suddenly down and out of the chase for the title.  After Mugello, it was Lorenzo 90, Pedrosa 65, (Rossi 61), Dovizioso 58.  It was essentially over, suddenly Lorenzo’s to lose.  In the blink of an eye.

At 200 mph on two wheels with the best in the world on the best of the world, as observed in Forrest Gump, “(stuff) happens.”  Marquez, to his credit, has been off his bike only once thus far in his premier class debut.  Pedrosa, on the other hand, has been separated from his too often to count over the years, generally with bad and lasting effects.  Marquez’s style seems to invite the close encounters he’s enjoyed over his brief career.  But he, too, has memories of Sepang, where he hit his head hard enough in 2011 to have double vision for the next six months.  While the rest of the world grieved for Sic, Marquez also dealt with the possibility that his promising professional career had ended before it fully started.

As we’ve already seen, such worries were misplaced.

See live coverage of the Italian Grand Prix Sunday at 7:30 am EDT on SpeedTV.  We’ll have the results of the race here on Sunday afternoon.

MotoGP News: Pedrosa Wins at Le Mans

May 19, 2013

This article is now published on Motorcycle.com.

Dani Pedrosa Wins Shocker in the Rain 

At the start of the 2013 French Grand Prix, the Alien with the faintest prospects had to be Repsol Honda minuteman Dani Pedrosa.  Since joining the premier class in 2006, he had never finished higher than third here.  Though his free practice sessions were good, he crashed in qualifying, putting him back in the 6 hole for the start.  He was eighth in the wet morning warm up practice.  But when the red lights went out, it was Pedrosa who dropped the hammer on his rivals, won the race, and put himself in the lead for the 2013 world championship.  Bravo, Dani! 

80,000 soaked French spectators received more shocks today than a nun in a cucumber patch:

  • Andrea Dovizioso led more laps on his factory Ducati than Valentino Rossi did in the last two years, before fading to fourth place.
  • Cal “It’s Only a Flesh Wound” Crutchlow drove his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha to an exhilarating second place finish, providing his French team with its best result in years, with a cracked shinbone and too many contusions to count, courtesy of yet another hard fall on Saturday.
  • Rookie sensation Marc Marquez finished third—not a surprise—after driving his Repsol Honda all over the park, skirting the gravel more than once, and spending a good part of the day in eighth place.  Marquez is very good.  He also seems to be very lucky, a powerful combination.
  • Valentino Rossi, who struggled all weekend, started eighth on his factory M-1 and was looking strong, running third on Lap 14 when pressure from a streaking Crutchlow forced him into a lowside and an eventual 12th place finish.  Rossi can ill afford more disappointment at Mugello.  In the words of Satchel Paige, he’d best not look backwards, ‘cause something may be gaining on him.
  • Even Nicky Hayden had a good day, moving up from the 10 hole at the start to finish fifth, putting more Ducatis than Yamahas in the Top Five.
  • Yamaha #1 Jorge Lorenzo will, at some point, tell us what the heck happened to his race today.  As our deadline looms, we’re left to wonder.  See below.

For the second year in a row, the race was run in the rain.  Last year, Lorenzo ran away from the field to win for the third time in four tries in France.  The Mallorcan started well today, dogging race leader Andrea Dovizioso and his red Ducati for two laps before dropping like a stone for a dozen laps to as far back as ninth place on Lap 17.  He would ultimately finish seventh behind Fun & Go Honda slacker Alvaro Bautista, for God’s sake.  Was it water vapor inside his visor?  A slow leak in his rear tire?  The heartbreak of psoriasis?  Whatever it was, it left him with a nine point day, buried in third place for the year.  Not exactly a momentum booster heading to Mugello in two weeks.

A Quick Word about MotoGP Qualifying

Across the board in motorsports, everyone makes a big deal about how important it is to qualify well.  MotoGP, buying heavily into this theory during the offseason, decided that it needed two qualifying sessions to sort out the finer points of determining who starts where.  Granted, the 15 minute qualifying sessions are a hoot, resembling a Chinese fire drill, especially at the longer circuits, where coming up with a single fast lap can be a challenge.

Today was a good example of the folly of such thinking.  The first three qualifiers were Marquez, Lorenzo and Dovizioso.  By the midpoint of the first lap, your race leaders were Dovizioso, Lorenzo and Pedrosa, who had started sixth, while Marquez was dawdling in 10th.  On the silliness scale, this ranks just behind the National Basketball Association, where teams play 82 regular season games to secure homecourt advantage in the playoffs, then go out and lose the first game in the series.   Just sayin’.

Elsewhere on the Grid

LCR Honda’s Stefan Bradl crashed today for the third time in four outings in his rookie season onboard the Honda RC213V.  After winning the Moto2 title last year and tearing it up during offseason testing, young Stefan and Company must be shaking their heads, trying to get the taste of ashes out of their mouths.  The six points he earned today by finishing 10th are but cold comfort.

Perhaps the best eighth place finish of the year was turned in today by Michele Pirro, subbing for Ben Spies on the Ignite Pramac Ducati.  Pirro, called up two rounds ago when Spies’ physical problems put him on the shelf for Jerez, started in 14th place and moved steadily up on the field all day.  It must be said that Le Mans, especially in the rain, is a Ducati-friendly circuit.

Today’s race put the vast difference between the prototypes and the CRT bikes in clear perspective.  All 12 of the prototypes finished today, occupying the top 12 spots at the flag.  Five of the 12 CRT bikes failed to finish, including homeboy Randy de Puniet, whose Lap 17 crash left him with six (6) points for the season, as compared to teammate Aleix Espargaro’s 20.  De Puniet confirmed this weekend that he will be in Japan this coming week testing the 2014 Suzuki prototype, causing me to wonder who’s in charge of the racing program at the Hamamatsu factory, and what’s in his medicine cabinet.

The Big Picture

Today’s race shuffled the Top Ten standings for the year, elevating Crutchlow and Dovizioso at the expense of Bautista and Rossi, respectively.  The Repsol Honda team must smell blood with Mugello, historically a very Yamaha-friendly circuit, next up.  Everyone expects Yamaha to do well in Italy, with its wide, sweeping curves, thousands of Rossi supporters, and eight wins (plus two seconds) in the past 10 years.  But if Pedrosa and Marquez end up on the podium in suburban Florence, the 2013 constructor’s trophy is likely to go to Honda for the third year in a row.

2013 Champ Standings after 4 Rounds Top Ten

Next Up:  Mugello

MotoGP makes its annual pilgrimage to Tuscany in two weeks, to the legendary Mugello circuit outside Florence.  Ground Zero for the Renaissance is always one of the favorite stops on the MotoGP calendar.  This year, the pressure on Lorenzo and Rossi is enormous, as the season is starting to get away from them.

In our Le Mans preview last week, we compared the premier class battle between the factory Honda and Yamaha teams to the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, and found ourselves leaning toward the tortoise.  Perhaps we’ve been misled by this story for generations.  Perhaps, indeed, young and fast beats consistent and experienced.  We’ll find out in two weeks.

MotoGP Le Mans 2013 Preview

May 14, 2013

An edited version of this article, complete with hi-rez photos, is now available at Motorcycle.com.

Team Yamaha Ready to Rumble in the Rain 

As the fastest sport on two wheels heads into France for Round Four, one thing is certain—the stakes for the 2013 championship are higher than they’ve been in years.  The Repsol Honda team of Dani Pedrosa and rookie sensation Marc Marquez has youth and speed going for it.  The factory Yamaha duo of defending champion Jorge Lorenzo and prodigal veteran Valentino Rossi has consistency and experience in its corner.  And while it’s not quite the fabled Tortoise and the Hare, the analogy works. 

Sure, rookie Marquez has been setting the world on fire thus far.  And sure, Dani Pedrosa came through in Jerez when he really needed a win, aided by an assist from his young wingman.  Lorenzo, though, is a double world champion, and Rossi, who is still getting used to the factory M-1 on which he dominated the game for years, has another seven premier class trophies lying around his man cave back in Italy.  It’s just too early in the season to suggest that this is Marquez’s year, or Pedrosa’s year, or even Honda’s year.

In 2013, He Who Remains Upright will win the title.

Take a look back at the last four champions.  Rossi won in 2009 despite a comical wet/dry 16th place finish in France and crashing out in Indianapolis.  In 2010, Lorenzo didn’t crash all year, but won the trophy by 140 points and could have easily absorbed a few lowsides without damaging his championship prospects.  Casey Stoner in 2011 crashed out early in the season at Jerez and won the title convincingly.  And last year, Lorenzo repeated despite getting de-biked by Alvaro Bautista at Assen and falling unassisted in Valencia.

Let’s pile on a little.  Here is the spread in points between first and third place, by year since 2009, after three rounds:

Year            Leader/points     Third place/points       Spread 

2009               Rossi – 65          Lorenzo – 41                 24

2010             Lorenzo – 70        Dovizioso – 42              28

2011             Lorenzo – 65          Stoner – 41                   24

2012              Stoner – 66          Pedrosa – 52                14

2013           Marquez – 61             Lorenzo – 57                 4 

All of which is a rather long way of saying that a DNF this season, by any of the top four riders, will put him squarely behind the eight ball.  If Rossi can find a way onto the podium at Le Mans, surprising no one, it will make things that much tighter at the top of the class.  And, judging from Marquez’s comportment in Jerez, I would say that he is the most likely of the four to get separated from his machine in the first half of the season.  Even at 320 kph, slow and steady wins the race.

Recent History at Le Mans

2009 was the epic flag-to-flag affair that saw Lorenzo run away from the field, joined sometime later on the podium by one Marco Melandri on the Hayate Racing Kawasaki— I know, right?—and third place finisher Dani Pedrosa.  The following excerpt from that day’s coverage remains one of my all-time favorites:

The first rider to pit was Valentino Rossi, who was busily watching Lorenzo lengthen his lead until, on Lap 4,he couldn’t stand it anymore, and pitted to swap his wet bike for the dry.  Thus began one of the worst days of his premier class career.  In chronological order, he immediately executed a rousing lowside, limped back to the pits, traded his tattered dry bike for his original wet bike, got flagged for speeding on pit row, took his ride-through penalty, turned a few slow laps, pitted again, traded back his wet bike for his now-repaired dry bike, returned to the track and finished 16th, two laps down. He might as well have gone to Baltimore to watch the Preakness.

In 2010 it was Lorenzo again, joined onstage by Rossi and Dovizioso.  Stoner’s early crash left the door open for the Mallorcan.  At the end of the day Lorenzo led the Australian by 59 points, and Stoner’s dream of a title in 2010 lay in ruins.

Two years ago, Casey Stoner took his first career win at Le Mans with an easy stroll past Dovizioso and Rossi.  This was the race in which the late Marco Simoncelli undercut Pedrosa in one of the lefthanders and sent him flying off his bike and out of the 2011 championship race.  For Rossi, the 2011 French Grand Prix podium would be the high water mark in a brutal inaugural season with Ducati.

Finally, in 2012, Lorenzo again led the way, this time in a driving rainstorm, while Rossi enjoyed one of his two podiums last year, finishing second, ten seconds behind Lorenzo and two seconds in front of Casey Stoner, who had announced his impending retirement only days earlier.

Having enjoyed three wins out of his last four outings in France, in the wet, the dry and in-between, Jorge Lorenzo should be the favorite going into the weekend.  With weather conditions expected to be cold and damp, it’s not that hard to envision Rossi on the podium and Marquez in the gravel.  And with but one third place podium finish at Le Mans since 2007, not to mention his season-ruining crash in 2011, Dan Pedrosa’s expectations for the weekend are bound to be fairly modest.

Ben Spies MIA Again

As was the case last time out in Jerez, Ben Spies will be reclining in Texas this weekend, nursing his shoulder, chest and ego.  Michele Pirro will again be riding a Ducati on Sunday, this time as a substitute rider for the Ignite Pramac team.  Last time out he was a wildcard.  The difference being, this time he’s into Spies’ engine allotment, which can’t make Ben all too happy.  According to SpeedCafe.com, “After a medical check in Dallas, American Spies was advised that it was in his best interests to delay his comeback.”  Um, perhaps until 2014, in World SuperBikes, running around with Nicky Hayden and becoming relevant again.  Everyone’s pointing to Mugello, but we’re taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Quick Hitters

Hectic Hector Barbera received a bit of community service as his punishment for getting beat up by his ex-girlfriend a few weeks ago in Jerez.  One wonders what the sentence might have been had he WON the fight…

Most of the CRT bikes are getting a software upgrade for their ECU units this weekend.  The exceptions are the ART entries of Espargaro, de Puniet, Abraham and Hernandez.  (No one seems to know, or actually care, whether Bryan Staring will be getting new software or not.)  One of the upgrades to the package is referred to as “anti-jerk”, which came along too late to be of any use to James Toseland…

The rumors of Cal Crutchlow’s impending demise at Monster Tech 3 Yamaha just won’t go away.  Stunning, in my opinion, that Pol Espargaro is being groomed to take the place of the gutsy Brit.  This could mean, of course, that Nicky Hayden is toast at Ducati, and that he will be consigned to promoting the Ducati brand in WSB, while Crutchlow will get his long-awaited factory ride.  (You gotta be careful what you wish for, Cal.  Ask Andrea Dovizioso.)  Following the dominoes, it suggests the brass at Yamaha corporate see the end of the Rossi era approaching, especially if Espargaro signs a one year deal with Tech 3.

The cool part will be watching the Espargaro brothers go at each other next season.  Recall 2011 when both were working in Moto2, as older brother Aleix punked Pol by a single point for the season.  Take that, bitch.

It’s a pretty good bet that last sentence won’t make it past the editors.  J