So far, so good. That seems to be the story from the first day of practice at Le Mans. A full day of dry weather – except for the last few minutes of FP2 for the Moto3 class, where the rain turned briefly to hail, only to blow out again as quickly as it came – means that everyone had a chance to work on their race set up.
With the top four separated by just 0.166 seconds, the top five are within a quarter of a second, and Alvaro Bautista, the man in ninth, is just over seven tenths from the fastest man Dani Pedrosa.
A good day too for the Hondas. Dani Pedrosa was immediately up to speed, as expected. Marc Marquez was also quick in the afternoon, which was less expected. Unlike Jerez and Austin, this was the first time he rode a MotoGP machine at Le Mans, and getting used to hauling a 260 hp, 160kg bike around the tight layout of the French track is a different proposition to riding a Moto2 bike with half the horsepower here.
He took a morning to get used to the track, asked for a few changes to the base set up inherited from Casey Stoner, and then went and blitzed to second in the afternoon, 0.134 seconds off his teammate.
More important than Marquez’s speed is his consistency, however. In the afternoon, he posted seven laps of 1’34, which looks to be the pace to expect for a dry race. Only two men did more, Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo having posted nine laps at that pace, with both men also consistently a tenth or two quicker than the Spanish rookie.
Though Valentino Rossi had the same number of laps in the 1’34s as Marquez, and was on a similar pace, the Italian was still delighted to have finished ahead of his teammate for the first time in a race weekend.
Labeling it as “psychologically important” to be ahead of Lorenzo – “he is on the same bike as me,” Rossi explained to the Italian press – he said they had finally solved some of the issues he had been having with braking.
Rossi would not reveal exactly what they had changed, only that it had something to do with the geometry of the bike to alter the weight distribution. The bike had got better and better, and he had set his fastest time in the final run of the session.
Does this mean that the Doctor is back? It’s a little too early to be jumping to conclusions, but it is clearly important to be right in the mix with the front four, rather than lagging a few tenths behind as he has done more or less all year.
Finding a solution for the area he had been suffering most is even more crucial. Yet the question is, can he match the race pace of Pedrosa and Lorenzo once the race starts? Lorenzo ended the day behind Rossi, but the gap – 0.028 seconds – is negligible, and Lorenzo’s pace is already strong, let alone that of Pedrosa.
And of course there is Marquez. The speed at which he is learning is just breathtaking. He arrives at a new track with a deficit, having no clear idea of how he will need to change his style to adapt to the new track. At Le Mans, it basically took him forty-five minutes, and he was up there and on the pace.
This was the area which had concerned him most, and where he had struggled in the pre-season, coming to the Jerez test in March with little data and struggling. He has since learned to transfer the lessons learned at other tracks and apply them to new tracks, a very special skill indeed. With Marquez learning this quickly, he is looking more and more like a genuine title contender every time he hits the track.
What is clear after day one is that there is little to separate the front four, and that Rossi looks capable of qualifying in a decent position, at least. Those two ingredients should provide the necessary spice to make for an intriguing race at Le Mans come Sunday, especially if the weather stays dry. That, though, cannot be relied upon: the weather forecast seems to change every hour or so, with the amount, timing and frequency of rain predicted changing each time.
Behind the front four, there is also plenty of interest. Stefan Bradl is finally back on the pace, having found a better solution for braking and improving his corner entry, two areas where he suffered particularly at Jerez. The LCR Honda man also tried a different electronics set up which modified the power delivery, making it more aggressive, a setting used by the factory riders.
That helped, but was now a little too aggressive, and needed to be softened. Still, being fifth, a tenth behind Lorenzo and a quarter of a second off the pace of Pedrosa is much closer to where he had expected to be at the start of the season.
Cal Crutchlow, on the other hand, is much less happy. Though he is still sixth, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man is nearly half a second slower than Pedrosa, and two tenths slower than Bradl, a position he is not used to being in in 2013.
His problem was all in braking, he said, his brakes overheating despite the cool temperatures at the circuit. Added to that, the Englishman also has some kind of a head cold, having woken up with breathing problems and blocked up passages. The first priority is to fix the brakes, the second to fix himself, he said.
And then there are the Ducatis. Both Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden are closer to the front than they have been all year, the Ducati suffering less at the Le Mans circuit than elsewhere. Dovizioso was pleasantly surprised, most of all at the consistency of his pace. His fastest lap had come at the end of a long run of eleven laps, five of which had been 1’34s.
He likes the track – “So everything comes easier,” he quipped – but the layout really helps. The Ducati’s problem is turning the bike, and the longer and faster the corners, the worse the problem is.
At Le Mans, it’s mostly short, tight corners, where you can stand the bike on its nose, get it turned at low speed, then fire it out of the corner again. That works for the Ducati, and it works especially well for Dovizioso.
If the race in MotoGP is looking tight – as it is in Moto3, with little to choose between the usual suspects of Alex Rins, Maverick Viñales, Luis Salom and Jonas Folger – Moto2 almost looks over before it has even begun. Scott Redding turned up to France on a mission, and has so far fulfilled all his objectives.
The Marc VDS Racing man topped both sessions of practice, and was particularly impressive in FP2. He lead by three quarters of a second for most of the session, with Tom Luthi and Julian Simon only closing in towards the end. Where Redding was cranking out 1’38s at will, only Simon managed more than one lap at that pace. With tire wear looking less of a factor at Le Mans, so far, Redding looks like seizing back the lead in the Moto2 championship.
His transformation is down to his state of mind, he told MotoGP.com, and this is something which has been apparent to anyone who speaks to Redding all year. The impudent teenager has gone, replaced by a young man, driven, and focused on his goals.
He knows there is pressure on him to succeed, but he is thriving on that pressure, not buckling under it. We will have to see how he deals with a real setback – a crash, a mechanical DNF, there is always something which will go wrong at some point in the season – but so far, Redding has looked the most title-worthy of the Moto2 riders.
And it would be good for MotoGP to have a race winner who isn’t Spanish. So far, all nine races – three each in the three Grand Prix classes – have been won by Spaniards, and there are fast and talented Spanish riders in every class. This is a cause for concern to Dorna, who need a broad range of nationalities to be able to sell TV rights around the globe.
In an interview to be broadcast on Italian radio, Ezpeleta has raised the idea of imposing a quota, restricting the number of riders from each country in the premier class. He is also rumored to be putting pressure on Yamaha not to sign Pol Espargaro, to prevent the threat of the factory Honda and Yamaha seats being taken by four Spaniards once Valentino Rossi retires.
Whether a quota will work is open to question, but this is a question which will resolve itself in the not too distant future. Though there are still a host of fast young Spaniards coming up through the junior classes – Moto3 being a prime example, with Alex Rins, Maverick Viñales and Luis Salom showing every intention of monopolizing the title chase – there are also other nationalities on their way up.
The Italians are finally taking the job of bringing young riders through an academy system more seriously; the Dutch federation is concentrating a lot of effort into bringing on competitive young riders, which is paying off with promising youngsters like Bryan Schouten, due to wildcard at Assen, and the Belgian Livio Loi, who did much of his racing in Holland; and the Red Bull Rookies continues to throw up a mix of nationalities, with the Czech Karel Hanika the current red-hot property.
We are going to hear a lot of the Spanish national anthem over the next three or four years. But by the time a quota system is in place, the problem may already be solved…
Photo: Yamaha Racing
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.