The 30th running of the Grand Prix de France at Le Mans – Round 5, for those of you keeping score at home – arrives at a critical time for the factory Yamaha team. Both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales have been struggling with the YZR-M1 this year, searching in vain for feeling in the front and grip in the rear. Le Mans has been très Yamaha-friendly of late, M1s having gone three-for-three since 2015. Sunday would be a really good time for a replay.
Last year at this time, Rossi and Viñales sat 1-2 in the standings, at 62 and 60 points respectively. (Marc Marquez, who had gotten off to a relatively slow start, was right there at 58 points.) This year, it’s Marquez and his formidable Repsol Honda at the head of the class with 70 points, atop Viñales in third (-20) and Rossi in sixth (-30). With super soph Johann Zarco sitting second on the Tech 3 Yamaha, a surprising Andrea Iannone fourth on the factory Suzuki, and hard luck Andrea Dovizioso fifth on the factory Ducati, it’s crowded at the top of the food chain. Not to mention Cal Crutchlow’s favorite rider, Cal Crutchlow, lurking a mere two points behind Rossi.
Marquez’ dominant performance at Jerez pumped some unwanted air into the standings. Heading to Andalucía, the top five riders were separated by a mere eight points. Today it’s 24. With the factory Yamaha team struggling, bitching and moaning, it may be up to Monsieur Zarco to carry the flag for the Hamamatsu brand on Sunday. A win by Marquez here in Yamaha Land would send a chill through the entire paddock.
Recent History at Le Mans
Back in 2015, on an idyllic Gallic afternoon, the Movistar Yamaha team delivered a clear message to Marc Marquez: any Catalan plotting a third consecutive world championship in 2015 would need to first dislodge The Boys in Blue. Jorge Lorenzo, in a replay of his cakewalk in Jerez the previous round, got away early and was never challenged. 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. Dovizioso whipped his GP15 to third place. It was a forgettable Sunday for the Repsol Honda team, as Marquez, wrestling the nasty 2015 Honda chassis, crossed the line fourth, while teammate Dani Pedrosa, just back from radical arm pump surgery, hung on to finish 16th.
The record books will show that Jorge Lorenzo, who had announced his departure for Ducati at the end of the season, won the 2016 French Grand Prix by 10 seconds over teammate and rival Valentino Rossi. Maverick Viñales, starting to flex his muscles, did what no Suzuki rider since Loris Capirossi in 2009 had done – put a GSX-RR on the podium, thanks to eight riders crashing 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 in the paddock was that nobody was in control of their machines on that track with that rubber.
Zarco was a debutante here last year, leading the race for the first six laps until Viñales stole his lunch money on Lap 7 and Rossi followed suit on Lap 23. Rossi, looking like his old self, went through on Viñales on Lap 26, but unaccountably laid it down on the last lap, to the dismay of those who still thought he had another championship in him. Rossi’s brain fade promoted Viñales to the win and Zarco to the second step of the podium. At the end of the day, rather than looking like his old self, Rossi simply looked old. With Marquez having gone walky on Lap 17, Dani Pedrosa was there to claim third place.
Bits and Pieces
If the Marc VDS team weren’t the sorriest outfit on the grid, more people would be interested in the kerfuffle currently raging between owner Marc van der Straten and team manager Michael Bartholemy. Allegations of financial impropriety, meetings scheduled and cancelled, dueling press releases, etc. News outlets are reporting that interest in the team from Suzuki headquarters has cooled recently, due in part to the ongoing static. And while Honda is reportedly interested in keeping the team in its camp, for whatever reason, Yamaha appears to have the inside track to supply the team beginning in 2019. As an aside, rider Franco Morbidelli began to show signs of life at Jerez, having collected his first premier class top ten finish.
Plenty of drama is emanating from the Ducati contingent, as the grossly underpaid Andrea Dovizioso is playing hardball on salary negotiations for 2019-2020. He has them over a barrel. Gigi “Unibrow” Dall’Igna, the Grand Gouda for the Italian factory, can’t wait to unload Jorge Lorenzo and therefore must sign Dovizioso. Dovi knows this, and is holding all the cards. Dall’Igna is quoted as saying the issue will be resolved by the Mugello round, making it sound like they will have a deal by then or it’s no deal. Right. Meanwhile, Dovi is busy wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. Dude’s bank account is gonna get laced.
Poor Bradley Smith. Confronting the fact that he’s just not very fast, he seems to be trying to talk his way onto the Tech 3 KTM satellite team for next year. Team principal Herve Poncharal put that idea to rest this past week, pointing out that it makes no sense to put a (mediocre, tapped-out) veteran rider in a developmental role on a satellite team. Look for Bradley in Moto2 or World Superbike next year. If he’s not bagging groceries at your friendly local Piggly Wiggly grocery store.
Your Weekend Forecast
The extended weather forecast for the Sarthe river region calls for dry, cool conditions all three days, with the warmest temps of the weekend, on Sunday only reaching the low 70s. We will assert this to be Yamaha weather, as the Hondas like it hot and the Ducatis like it wet. (The Suzuki, KTM and Aprilia riders are not fond of weather period, being averse to any and all conditions. Cool, warm, dry, wet – all present problems. This is patently unfair to the Suzuki team, where Andrea Iannone is resurrecting his career at the same time Alex Rins is demolishing his.)
As for the race, we all know that predicting race results is a fool’s errand. Which is why I’m going to predict not one but two Yamahas on the podium. Rooting, as usual, for the championship to come down to a shootout in Valencia, I would enjoy seeing Zarco get his first win at home, followed by a factory Yamaha and Marc Marquez. Dovizioso deserves a good outcome, but I think Pedrosa will have trouble heating his tires. It would also be fun to watch Lorenzo and Crutchlow fighting it out for sixth place; the post-race interviews would be a conditional verb tense food fight.
Check back on Sunday afternoon for results and analysis. Feel free to chime in on the DISQUS comments section below to confirm Allen’s Corollary to Newton’s third law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism.