MotoGP Le Mans Preview 2017
Fresh off his convincing win in Jerez, Repsol Honda mighty mite Dani Pedrosa has been reinstated in The Alien Club, looking relaxed, comfortable and fast on his RC213V. For the first time in five years, his name is coming up in conversations about who might take the 2017 title. Given his age, his panoply of surgical scars and generally lousy karma, I make him a longshot for the championship. But other than a few Americans with pathologically long memories, there are a number of fans who wouldn’t mind seeing Dani Pedrosa win a premier class title.
Pedrosa is unlikely to gain much ground on his rivals this weekend, as his record in France is decidedly poor – one win, back in 2013, to show for 11 premier class starts, along with two other podia. Jorge Lorenzo, having won decisively at Le Mans the past two years, is unlikely to threepeat, unless the progress we saw in Jerez, where he flogged his Ducati GP17 to third place, accelerates as fast as the bike itself. Movistar Yamaha legend Valentino Rossi and defending world champion Marc Marquez will almost certainly be in the mix on Sunday, along with Maverick Vinales, the prodigious youngster and his big blue YZR-M1. A healthy number of other riders – Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow, and the two ridiculous Tech 3 Yamaha rookies – are entertaining visions of sugarplums dancing in their helmets.
For some unknown reason, Le Mans has always felt to me like kind of a hole in the schedule. Iffy weather, strange results (remember Pedrosa getting Simoncellied there in 2011?), all these people speaking French; just never been a big fan. But this weekend feels different. We have four contenders, all healthy. Michelin has had a year to address its embarrassment from last year. One shrill voice in my head is drowning out all the others, screaming something about Aleix Espargaro putting an Aprilia on the podium for the first time in recent MotoGP history. And Johann Zarco, in front of his and his team’s home crowd, is bound to have some extra motivation, which could find him challenging for the podium or limping out of the kitty litter.
Recent History at Le Mans
In 2014, The Year of Marc Marquez, the French Grand Prix was a dry race. 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. Alvaro Bautista – yes, THAT Alvaro Bautista – on the Gresini Honda, worked Tech 3 Yamaha pilot Pol Espargaro by 6/10ths at the finish to deprive Herve Poncharal’s team of what would have been an oh-so-sweet podium at their home race. Purely out of spite, Espargaro did the same to Pedrosa by a paper-thin quarter second.
The following year, on another idyllic 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 cakewalk in Jerez last time out, got away early and was never challenged on the way to his 35th career win in MotoGP. Rossi, starting on the third row, 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, in the year of his discontent, crossed the line fourth, while teammate Pedrosa, just back from radical arm pump surgery, hung on to finish 16th.
The record books will show that declared Yamaha defector Jorge Lorenzo won last year’s French Grand Prix by 10 seconds over teammate and rival Valentino Rossi. Maverick Vinales, starting to flex his muscles, did what no Suzuki rider since Loris Capirossi in 2009 could do – put a Suzuki on the podium, courtesy, in part, of having eight riders crash out in perfect conditions, three of whom probably would have beaten him. Michelin, the new tire supplier for MotoGP, had a miserable day, as the consensus on the grid was that nobody was in control of their machines on that track on that rubber.
Faster Times Likely This Weekend
The Bugatti Circuit at Le Mans, which ought to be a national historic monument in France, has been the object of complaints from riders for several years, due to the slick, bumpy, patched-and-then-patched-again asphalt, some of which was ten years old. Management bit the bullet during the offseason and contracted to have the entire track re-surfaced. In that it was a three-day paving job (pretty amazing in itself!), there are now only three seams, and none in or around the turns.
Circuit spokesman Pepe LePew predicted that lap times will be one to two seconds faster than last year, referring to the new surface as “très grippy.” He also predicted fewer crashes, many of which had been caused by riders hitting seams or bumps in and around the turns. Last year, Lorenzo took pole with a 1:31.975 (half a second clear of Marquez in second). If Monsieur LePew is correct, it will take a time closer to 1:30 to secure pole this year. All in all, it appears the main beneficiaries of the new surface will be the Hondas, in that it should allow them to use the hard front tire with fewer concerns than usual.
Bout of Political Correctness Hits Catalunya
Perhaps the worst bit of news to hit the calendar this week concerns the Catalunya Round 7 in June, as Spanish politicians mull the purpose of grid girls in MotoGP. Since politics is all about whose ox is getting gored lately, this piece helps me understand what life must feel like to Republicans. Injecting this particular morsel of political correctness in a male-dominated atmosphere reeking of money, gasoline, hospitality rooms, paid escorts, flatulence and testosterone is like expecting an eyedropper of bleach to clean up Lake Erie. One man’s visual objectification is another man’s simple admiration.
Your Weekend Forecast
Weather.com predicts cool, cloudy conditions for the weekend with temps in the 60’s and patches of rain in the area. With dry races here over the past three years, it figures that the weather might play a part in the weekend’s festivities. And since we haven’t had a wet race yet this season, it is doubly hard to foresee whom fortune will favor on Sunday. One thing is fairly certain: If it’s a wet race, Jorge Lorenzo will be freaking out on his GP17.
If the track is dry on Sunday, the voices in my head tell me, it will be Marc Marquez, Maverick Vinales and Aleix Espargaro standing on the podium. For those of you who feel such a prediction could only come from a schizoid, you may be right. I prefer to think of myself as normal; it’s the voices themselves that have issues.
As usual in most of Europe, the race goes off at 8 am EDT in the U.S. We’ll have results and analysis right here later in the day.