After four rounds of the 2018 Moto2 World Championship, it is Francesco Bagnaia who is leading the standings. It has not been a perfect start to the number 42’s season, a ninth place in Argentina definitely proving something of a blot on the copy book at the moment, as well as providing reason to doubt his championship credentials. But two wins in Qatar and Texas, as well as a third-place last time out in Spain, have proven enough, so far to be able to land Pecco the top spot in the championship at this stage. Le Mans has proved fruitful for Bagnaia in the past too; he scored his second Moto2 podium there last year with a second place, just 1.7 seconds off winner and eventual champion Franco Morbidelli, and he took third place in the 2016 Moto3 race on the Mahindra behind the KTMs of Romano Fenati and Brad Binder. With that in mind, the championship leader could be tough to beat this weekend, but as ever in Moto2, and especially this weekend, there is no shortage of riders who will fancy their chances this weekend.
None fit that description more, perhaps, than Bagnaia’s flatmate, and fellow VR46 Academy rider, Lorenzo Baldassarri. The Pons HP40 rider won the last race at Jerez in convincing fashion, with superior pace across the whole weekend that he put to use in the race on Sunday to win by nearly three seconds. It was his second win of his career, and an important one, because he had been knocking on the door of a victory in the first two races, but struggled a bit more in Austin. The victory took him back to second in the championship standings, nine points behind Bagnaia – so the Italian is firmly in the hunt. But it has been two crashes in the last two years for Balda in Le Mans, and he will need to change that if he wants to remain in the championship fight which, this year, seems tighter than ever in the intermediate class.
Miguel Oliveira announced in Jerez that he will be moving to MotoGP in 2019 with the Tech3 KTM team – a smart move by all accounts. However, the announcement seemed to disrupt the Portuguese’s rhythm on Saturday in Spain, when he qualified fourteenth. Clearly frustrated by the poor result, he fought back viciously in the race, to come back to the top positions in five laps, and end up finishing a fairly comfortable second. However, Jerez proved that, at least in the case of Baldassarri and the Pons team, it is possible for the Kalex chassis to keep hold of the rear Dunlop just as well, if not better, than the KTM, and this was an area which was thought to be a particular strong point of the Austrian chassis. The loss of this advantage could prove pivotal in the title battle, and furthermore the Le Mans layout proved a difficult one for the KTMs last year: Ricky Cardus (who was replacing Brad Binder) finished thirteenth and Oliveira could only manage seventeenth. It is possible that the high grip surface (which was new for last year) disadvantaged the KTMs with their soft-on-tyres chassis, and if that is the case then this year it should not be as bad since the surface has lost a little bit of grip since last year. Either way, the KTM teams will have last year’s data to work with to solve any issues, which should help them if they encounter similar issues. If they struggle like last year, it could be a critical weekend for the Kalex riders to make an advantage to the likes of Oliveira and Binder.
Fifteen points separate Mattia Pasini from the top of the championship. The Italian veteran has a sniff at this title, and when Paso senses the door ajar, he requires no invitation to charge through it. Not only that, but Le Mans is the round before Mugello; Pasini’s home race and a special one for him. He will be looking to head to Mugello in good form, to hope to fight for the victory like last year.
Le Mans is one of Marini’s favourite circuits, and last year he scored his best ever qualifying position with fourth. He made a bad start, though, and was trying to come back through the field when he fell trying to pass Pasini at the first part of Les Esses Bleu. Last race in Jerez, Marini crashed into Jorge Navarro on lap one at Dry Sack, and as such he will start 6 places lower than his qualifying position this weekend. To add to the number 10’s woes, he has suffered a dislocated shoulder in the run up to this weekend, so it will be a tough one for the Italian, but he could spring a surprise.
The likes of Xavi Vierge, Alex Marquez and Joan Mir should all be competitive this weekend. Vierge was in the fight for the podium in Jerez but just ran out of time to launch an attack on Bagnaia at the end. Marquez, in Spain was the only rider who, over the course of the weekend could match Baldassarri’s pace, but a strange crash in the race prevented him from challenging for the podium. Joan Mir would likely to have been in that podium fight as well, if he was not feeling ill with a stomach bug. The Swiss Innovative Investors KTMs of Sam Lowes and Iker Lecuona could be there too, if the KTM has a better time of it this year in France than it did last. And with all of those considerations, it is fair to say the French Moto2 Grand Prix is shaping up to be an exciting affair, and perhaps we will see the first non-Italian intermediate class win of 2018.