MotoGP: Le Mans Awaits, France Expects at Round Five

This weekend the MotoGP World Championship heads to the Bugatti Circuit at Le Mans, the home of the 24 Heures Motos and 24 Heures du Mans.

In the last two years, it has been Johann Zarco aboard a satellite Yamaha who has been the poster boy on which the hopes of the French fans have been pinned. However, with the #5’s transfer over the winter to Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, which has yet to yield much other than frustration for both parties, it is Fabio Quartararo on the Petronas Yamaha SRT YZR-M1 who is the home fans’ best hope of a podium this weekend.

Johann Zarco at Jerez 2019. Image courtesy of Philip Platzer/KTM

Indeed, a podium this weekend for the #20 would be his first in the premier class, although it should have arrived two weeks ago. Assuming the Frenchman’s rear tyre was not about to suffer a similar fate to that of his Petronas Yamaha SRT teammate, Franco Morbidelli, Quartararo was on for third place at least in Jerez a fortnight ago. A gear shift problem halted his charge, and forced him to retire. But between taking pole position and seeming to be on for a debut rostrum in just his fourth MotoGP start, it was a stunning weekend for the star Frenchman, who twelve months ago finished eighth in the French Moto2 Grand Prix, nearly fifteen seconds behind dominant winner Francesco Bagnaia. After the devastation of Jerez, Quartararo will be more determined than ever to arrive on the rostrum this weekend, and maybe even climb to the top step.

The Frenchman was certainly more competitive in Jerez than his Yamaha stablemates, especially the ones in the factory Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP team: Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi. Whilst Vinales was impressively able to make a rostrum – his first since Australia 2018 – out of a severely messy weekend, Rossi was only able to salvage sixth from thirteenth on the grid. There were several issues for both the factory Yamaha riders throughout the weekend, so Vinales’ third place was a positive sign, especially at a track which has been so tough for the factory M1s since 2016. Compared to Jerez, the Yamaha riders have been strong in Le Mans in the last few years.

In fact, Yamaha’s history in Le Mans is impressive in general. Since 2008, Yamaha have won seven times in France, and have had a rider on the podium at the French GP every year since 2008 with the exception of 2011 when Jorge Lorenzo was the top Yamaha in fourth. Still without a win in 2019, the YZR-M1 riders will be targeting the top step this weekend and, especially for Vinales and Rossi, it will be important to win for their respective championship chances.

Marc Marquez en-route to his 2018 Le Mans win. Image courtesy of Box Repsol

The championship chances of Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) are rarely in doubt, and he reclaimed the championship lead he surrendered in Austin last time out in Jerez with a dominant win. When Marquez won in Jerez in 2018, he backed it up with a win in Le Mans, a circuit where it was not expected that he could win. It was Marquez’ second premier class win in France, after he took victory in 2014, and continued the run of Spanish winners at the French track which stretches back to Lorenzo’s wet weather victory in 2012.

Last year’s win for Marquez was easier for him than it perhaps should have been. It was not easy, by any means, hence the widely-shared slow-motion shot of him losing the front through the first part of the Dunlop Chicane, but Andrea Dovizioso was expected to put up more of a fight. The Ducati Team bikes will look a little different this weekend, as they will be without their Mission Winnow sponsorship, but for the first time since Qatar we are arriving at a circuit where the Ducati is expected to be one of the best-suited bikes, if not the best. However, the factory Ducati team has not had a podium in Le Mans since Dovizioso was third behind the two factory Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi.

On the other hand, Danilo Petrucci (Ducati Team) was second for the Pramac Racing Ducati team last season, two seconds behind Marquez and three in front of Rossi. Additionally, Jack Miller (Pramac Racing) had the pace for third last year, to be in front of Rossi, but a series of mistakes let the veteran Italian off the hook. Certainly, the signs are good for Ducati this weekend but, as always, the task of defeating Marc Marquez will be a tough one to negotiate.

For Suzuki, Le Mans is a circuit of good memories. In 2007, Chris Vermeulen won in the rain for the Hamamatsu marque’s first MotoGP win. Nine years later, Maverick Vinales scored his first MotoGP podium for Suzuki, which was also the first of the GSX-RR since it was introduced in 2015. Now, as Team Suzuki Ecstar look to be entering into their first championship fight since their return to the World Championship just four years ago. They arrive in Le Mans, two weeks after a second place about which they would have been excused for being disappointed, and will no doubt be targeting the victory with their emerging star, Alex Rins. Le Mans also holds good memories for the Spaniard, who has four podiums;  including a win in the Moto2 race back in 2016, which was one year on from his debut Moto2 pole position in 2015.

Whilst Rins has a good history in Le Mans, Jorge Lorenzo (Repsol Honda Team) has the best history of anyone. No one has seen more success than Lorenzo in Le Mans. Perhaps that seems strange – such a stop-start track should surely suit a hard-braking rider, but Lorenzo’s wide, sweeping, arcing lines combined with his obsessive focus on corner exit means he is able to maximise the straights, and get onto them better than anyone else. Jerez did not go to plan for Lorenzo, he admitted he is still not comfortable with the RC213V, but perhaps Le Mans will be the place where he finally discovers his potential on the Honda.

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