With Yamaha having dominated the proceedings in France for the past few years, many fans, especially those with French accents, expected Johann Zarco to waltz into racing history today, starting from pole with those dreamy eyes. Alas, his unforced error on Lap 9 landed him in the gravel. Andrea Dovizioso’s “own goal” on Lap 6, crashing out of the lead, left the day to Marc Marquez. #93 enjoyed a walk in the park on his way to a 36-point lead in the 2018 championship race.
Practice and Qualifying
Friday’s two sessions featured the likes of Zarco, Marquez, Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow, Valentino Rossi, Jack Miller, Maverick Viñales, Pol Espargaro and Dani Pedrosa. In short, anyone who is anyone in the upper reaches of MotoGP. Everyone, actually. Except Danilo Petrucci and Andrea Iannone, who were dawdling with Alex Rins in the low teens. As in, bound for Q1. Track records started falling on Saturday morning, as Viñales, Marquez, Rossi and Zarco beat the 2017 mark of 1:31.994. By the end of the day, Andrea Dovizioso had joined that short list.
Petrucci and the amazing aching Pedrosa fought their way through Q1, leaving behind names such as Rins and Crutchlow. Like James Bond’s martini, Cal was shaken, not stirred, in a memorable high side in Q1 (after destroying his #1 bike in FP4), but was reported resting uncomfortably, no broken bones, in a local hospital and unlikely to be in any condition to be competitive on Sunday.
Question: Why would anyone with their #1 bike in pieces on the garage floor push their only remaining bike hard enough to highside, with a start on the first four rows already guaranteed? This, to me, is evidence of a rider who has lost control of his emotions or a rider with a low racing IQ. Just sayin’. Yes, there were over 100 crashes across all three classes this weekend. But discretion remains the better part of valor. No way Crutchlow should have been pushing that hard in Q2.
Qualifying, as exciting as it is, is, at this point in the sport’s gestation, much less meaningful than the start the riders get coming off the line. With the top ten or twelve riders separated by a mere second, it’s important to get to the first turn at or near the front. A front row starter who fails to get off can easily get lost in the sauce and enter Turn 2 in 12th place, having to burn up their tires to get back to the front. No way to run an airline.
For what it’s worth, Johann Zarco wrote his own story in French motorsports history on Saturday and started from pole in the 2018 French Grand Prix at the Bugatti Circuit in Le Mans, the first French rider to pole since 1988. There will be plenty of French babies born next February named Johann and Johanna. Joining him on the front row would be #93, looking dangerous as ever, and one Danilo Petrucci, making a case to join the factory Ducati team in 2019 rather than being trundled off to the struggling factory Aprilia endeavor. For Valentino Rossi, it was a good news, bad news day. The good news was that he broke the previous year’s track record in qualifying. The bad news was that he would be starting 9th on the grid.
Adding further weight to last week’s argument, the top eleven qualifiers were within a second of polesitter Zarco’s track-record time. The top nine qualifiers beat the former track record. Two conclusions: 1. Qualifying doesn’t mean nearly what it used to mean, if ever it did. 2. Our pre-season assertion that “track records would fall like dominoes in 2018” is proving to have been on the money. (Cue Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life”) Track records have been set at Jerez and now Le Mans. Qatar was a no, Argentina was a wet race, and the deteriorating condition of the self-proclaimed Circuit of the Americas will see lap times increase every year until the track is re-surfaced. So, I’m saying throw out Argentina and Texas and I’m two for three. Hall of Fame in baseball.
Another Master Class by Marquez
Jorge Lorenzo, currently earning something like €12 million from Ducati Corse, has been reduced in stature to that of a rabbit. Electing to race on soft tires, his job now is to get out front and push the early pace, in hopes of having 23 riders crash behind him. Short of that, he gets picked off over and over and over again, today ending up where we had him pegged, in 6th place. At the start of Lap 2, the lead group consisted of Lorenzo, Zarco, Dovizioso, Petrucci, Marquez and Rossi.
No Ducati has ever won a premier class race at Le Mans. Andrea Dovizioso kept that streak intact today, going through on homeboy Zarco into the lead on Lap 6 and immediately losing the front at La Chappelle. This left a top three of Lorenzo, Zarco and Marquez, who appeared very comfortable, keeping his powder dry. After trading places with Marquez several times on Lap 9, Zarco slid off at Turn 8, and it was like someone turned a switch. The sound of 105,000 blissful fans yelling their lungs out instantly became one of dead silence. There was no joy in Mudville today – mighty JZ had struck out.
By Lap 11, it was the African savannah in microcosm. Lorenzo, the gazelle, was being pursued by Marquez, the cheetah. Cheetahs are faster than gazelles, and gazelles know this. Thus, it came as no surprise when Marquez went through forcefully on Lorenzo on Lap 11 and made it stick. Having been stood up by Marquez, Lorenzo could only seethe as Petrucci snuck through as well. Rossi took his turn with Lorenzo on Lap 14, Jack Miller had his way with the poor Mallorcan on Lap 15, and even Dani Pedrosa, held together with baling wire, punked him on Lap 22. Both riders vying for Lorenzo’s seat on the factory Ducati team next year beat him like a rented mule today.
Petrucci, having survived Q1 and later putting his GP18 on the front row, added a second-place finish to his resume, making a strong statement for the bosses. Rossi found his way to the podium for the first time since Qatar, looking relieved to still be relevant. Jack Miller continued to make me eat my words with a very credible fourth place finish. And Providence prevailed today as both Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia and Alex Rins on the Suzuki managed to take the checkered flag and a top ten finish. Maverick Viñales rallied late to earn 9 points, while Cal Crutchlow did a heroic salvage job to claim 8th place in a race he probably should have been watching from his hospital room.
The Big Picture
As the announcers noted, there are but 13 points separating second and ninth positions in the standings. But there are 36 points between Marquez in first and Viñales in second. The season has developed a whiff of 2014, when Marquez spun off 10 wins in a row to start the season, leaving the field to fight over second place. He has now passed Mike Hailwood and tied Casey Stoner with 38 premier class wins. He loves the 2018 RC213V, and it appears to love him. His closest competitors took a major step backward today. A few more of these, and we’ll have to switch our focus to Moto2 and Moto3. For the record, the Moto3 race was nothing short of amazing today, with an ending you couldn’t even make up. Moto2 wasn’t as entertaining, despite scintillating performances from Pecco Bagnaia and Xavi Vierga.
Two weeks to Mugello. This is what MotoGP is all about – the iconic tracks, the history, the traditions, the memories of remarkable fights from years past. If this were The Master’s golf tournament, this part of the season would be Amen Corner. Jerez. Le Mans. Mugello. Catalunya. And Assen. Marc Marquez has his boot on the windpipe of the 2018 season. Someone needs to knock him off in the next month, otherwise Valencia will be a fashion show.
Tranche 1: Marc Marquez
Tranche 2: Viñales, Rossi, Zarco, Dovizioso, Miller, Pedrosa, Petrucci, Iannone
Tranche 3: Lorenzo, Crutchlow, A. Espargaro, Rins, P. Espargaro, Rabat
Tranche 4: Syahrin, Morbidelli, Nakagami, Smith, Bautista
Tranche 5: Luthi, Simeon, Redding, Abraham
|2018 MotoGP Le Mans Results|
|1||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||41:49.773|
|2||Danilo Petrucci||Alma Pramac Ducati||+2.310|
|3||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||+5.350|
|4||Jack Miller||Alma Pramac Ducati||+6.314|
|5||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||+7.419|
|6||Jorge Lorenzo||Ducati Corse||+10.355|
|7||Maverick Viñales||Movistar Yamaha||+23.758|
|8||Cal Crutchlow||LCR Honda Castrol||+25.795|
|9||Aleix Espargaro||Aprilia Gresini||+26.206|
|10||Alex Rins||Suzuki Ecstar||+27.937|
|11||Pol Espargaro||Red Bull KTM||+32.304|
|12||Hafizh Syahrin||Monster Yamaha Tech3||+34.962|
|13||Franco Morbidelli||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda||+37.881|
|14||Bradley Smith||Red Bull KTM||+38.299|
|15||Takaaki Nakagami||LCR Honda Idemitsu||+41.986|
|16||Thomas Luthi||Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda||+45.260|
|17||Karel Abraham||Angel Nieto Ducati||+56.872|
|18||Xavier Simeon||Reale Avintia Ducati||+1:12.117|
|DNF||Scott Redding||Aprilia Gresini||17 Laps|
|DNF||Tito Rabat||Reale Avintia Ducati||17 Laps|
|DNF||Johann Zarco||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||19 Laps|
|DNF||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Corse||23 Laps|
|DNF||Alvaro Bautista||Angel Nieto Ducati||26 Laps|
|DNF||Andrea Iannone||Suzuki Ecstar||–|
|2018 MotoGP Top 10 Standings After 5 Rounds|
|1||Marc Marquez||Repsol Honda||95|
|2||Maverick Viñales||Movistar Yamaha||59|
|3||Johann Zarco||Monster Yamaha Tech 3||58|
|4||Valentino Rossi||Movistar Yamaha||56|
|5||Danilo Petrucci||Alma Pramac Ducati||54|
|6||Jack Miller||Alma Pramac Ducati||49|
|7||Andrea Iannone||Suzuki Ecstar||47|
|8||Cal Crutchlow||LCR Honda Castrol||46|
|9||Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati Corse||46|
|10||Dani Pedrosa||Repsol Honda||29|