There are some tracks MotoGP goes to where you can pretty sure of what to expect. Jerez will be sunny and warm, though some years are warmer than others. Motegi will be cold, with a good chance of rain.
The heat in Thailand and Sepang will be brutal, with a 4pm downpour in Sepang pretty much guaranteed.
There are other tracks where you are pretty much guaranteed a bit of everything. Sachsenring will invariably have one cold morning and one wet morning, and a sweltering afternoon.
The wind at Assen means there is a good chance of rain showers in any given session, but also a good chance they have swept over the circuit and the track has dried out before the session is over.
And crowning it all is Phillip Island, where it’s not so much four seasons in one day, as four seasons in one 15-minute qualifying session. Given the full 45 minutes of FP2, there’s a good chance of seeing a dozen or more seasons, including a couple you have probably never heard of.
Le Mans is a circuit in a similar mold. Packing for Le Mans invariably means taking a larger suitcase, as you will need something warm enough for the chill of a May morning, along with something light enough to handle the chance of a warmth Spring afternoon.
And you will definitely need your waterproofs. And possibly a second set, for once the first set gets drenched through.
The other thing that makes Le Mans special is the fans, both in the positive and the negative sense.
There is no more enthusiastic and lively crowd than at Le Mans on a Sunday afternoon. And no more sinister and threatening atmosphere than at Le Mans on Saturday night.
This year, Le Mans will be spared both the delight and the terror which emanates from the raw and untamed energy of a Le Mans crowd.
The race happens behind closed doors, and so the Ferris wheel and fairground which are landmarks in the Le Mans nightscape will be missing.
It may be inevitable as we traverse what we hope is the tail end of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the lack of fans at Le Mans is untimely, given the current strength of French riders in MotoGP. Johann Zarco was the early championship leader, having finished second in the first two Grand Prix.
Fabio Quartararo has already won two races in 2021, on top of the three he won last year, and was well on his way to winning a third at Jerez until he was struck down by arm pump, a problem he quickly had remedied the week after Jerez.
The lack of fans may make life a little easier for both men. The record of both French riders at Le Mans has been rather mixed. Both Zarco and Quartararo have qualified on pole at the French Grand Prix, but it did neither rider much good.
Zarco crashed out of second place in 2018, and Quartararo had a horror show of a wet race in 2020, finishing in ninth place. At least Quartararo beat his main title rivals, Maverick Viñales and Joan Mir, at the time.
Johann Zarco has at least been a little better at withstanding the pressure of the fans. In 2017, he led the first six laps of the race, before being passed by the two factory Yamahas of Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi. Zarco went on to score his first ever podium in MotoGP at that race, to the delight of the home crowd.
Can they do better this time out at Le Mans? Coming off the back of arm pump surgery may be a problem at some tracks, but at least the layout of the French circuit helps in that respect. Most of the braking at Le Mans is done with the bike upright, in a position where riders can lock their arms.
At Jerez, where Quartararo ran into the problem with arm pump, most of the braking is done while leaned over, and the rider is left trying to support more than their own weight, while also hanging off the bike. There, the effort is in the arms, rather than the shoulders at Le Mans.
Stop-and-Go or No?
Because of the way the corners are laid out, Le Mans has a something of a reputation as a stop-and-go circuit. There are certainly a lot of places where this would seem to be justified.
There’s the straight run from Musée corner to Garage Vert, the double right of Turn 8. That leads onto the back straight and another straight braking zone into Turn 9, the gloriously named Chemin aux Boeufs.
But there are plenty of places where the track flows too. The terrifying Turns 1 and 2 which comprise the Dunlop Curve. The sweep of La Chapelle, a long flowing right hander which runs downhill nonchalantly enough to catch out the unwary.
Get a little off line and realize that your tires don’t have the grip you were so confident of when you flung the bike into the corner at the top of the hill. Or Musée, the long left which follows it, and again creates a trap for the unwary.
Danilo Petrucci is insistent that Le Mans is not a stop-and-go track. “You have to brake hard but the corner after is quite open. You don’t have a lot of hairpins,” the Tech3 KTM rider explained.” It is not like Turns 1 and 2 in Jerez when you need to stop the bike. Here you need to stop the bike but then you can release the brake and follow different lines.”
The circuit flows more, Petrucci explained. “You have some hard braking areas but you don’t have to completely stop the bike. So, you need to brake hard but not really stopping the bike for let’s say a 60km/h corner.”
It was one reason the Italian entered the weekend with some confidence, despite a difficult start with KTM. “In the last years I have always been quite good here because I like to brake hard and also the KTM bike means you need to brake really hard to make a good lap time.”
Something for Everyone
That odd hybrid nature of the circuit may explain why the track has seen so many victories by both Honda and Yamaha riders, despite the diametrically opposite character of those bikes. The Honda stops hard and turns in quickly, while taking longer to get on the power.
The Yamaha changes direction well, and sweeps through the fast corners, as well as accelerating well. Acceleration is important, and while the speeds reached are respectable – 315 km/h or more through the speed traps just before Turn 1 – they do not reach the horsepower-guzzling heights of a place like Qatar or Barcelona.
Le Mans is a track where both a well-balanced bike, and a bike with a particular strength can perform well. And as we have seen so far this year, such is the rude good health of MotoGP right now that all six manufacturers’ bikes can be competitive.
Ironically, the weather at Le Mans may render that irrelevant. As usual, the rain looks likely to play a significant role over the weekend. Rain is forecast for Friday, while Saturday could be dry, certainly in the afternoon. As for race day, well it could go either way. So in the end, the bike might not really matter.
“When you have not optimal conditions on the track, it’s more easy for the rider to make the difference, but also the gaps are bigger,” Miguel Oliveira explained. “So it’s more subjective when you ride on the rain, it’s not as accurate, the result or the performance of the rider and bike taken to the maximum.”
In the wet, it is not a matter of the ability of a rider to extract the maximum performance from the bike they are riding, it’s more a question of their ability to extract the maximum performance from themselves, and from their understanding of the grip available.
A Riot in the Rain
That can be a problem for rookies and recent MotoGP arrivals alike. It can be hard to get your head around just how much grip a MotoGP machine offers in the wet, Brad Binder told us.
“It was definitely a shocker how amazing these bikes are in the wet. The lean angle you use and the amount of grip you have available is incredible,” the South African said. “You just need to kinda forget that it is wet and get on with it because the grip that is available is huge.”
Once you understood that, then you would know soon enough how you would get on come race day, Binder explained.
“The thing with the wet is that you kinda know how the race will go by the second lap. If you feel super comfortable and you feel everything is good then it’s amazing, but you get times also when you are super stiff on the bike and you feel every slip. I always find in the wet that sometimes it’s great and sometimes its not. It depends on how that initial feeling comes.”
Once again, it all comes down to the enigma which is confidence. If you have it, you can be fast. If you don’t, you can forget it. “You’ve got to have a good feeling in the wet and the confidence or at least the trust to push,” Binder said.
“In the rain you never feel like you are pushing you limits. You feel, or at least it is for me, like it’s poking something and seeing what happens. You never really know! You don’t get much warning in the rain.”
Mixed Feelings on Mixed Conditions
Before breaking his arm, Marc Márquez was the undisputed master of variable grip. He had a preternatural ability to find the exact limit for the conditions in any given corner at any given time, and save himself if he ever tipped his toes just a little too far over the line.
But Márquez is still recovering the strength in his right arm and shoulder, and despite upping his training over the past couple of weeks, he is still some way off being fully fit.
That left him in two minds for the weekend. “On one side I’d like to ride in the dry, because like this I can continue in my evolution, on my personal rehabilitation,” the Repsol Honda rider said.
“On the other hand, in wet conditions, you never know. It’s more a lottery. Of course the limit I have now is about my physical condition. It’s true the wet is less demanding regarding physical condition. So this can help. But on the other hand my position on the bike is not the same like always.”
His fitness was also causing a problem in finding the right setup in the dry, Márquez explained, because his position on the bike was changing as he grew more tired as the weekend went on.
“First of all, we need to be careful on my side of the box,” he said. “I always try to be honest to the engineers and my technicians. My comments are not as precise as always. Every practice I’m riding different.”
The way he sat on the bike, and the way he balanced his body across the bike changed from Friday to Sunday, as he gradually lost strength from his still healing arm.
“I start the weekend riding in one way, and I finish the weekend riding in another,” Márquez explained. “It’s not because I want to change the riding style. It’s because I get tired. The weight position on the bike is changing. Then the set up is changing.”
This is why his huge crash on Saturday at Jerez turned out to be so costly. The pain and stiffness in his neck from the crash meant he was not fit enough to ride at the test on Monday, and that was valuable track time he sacrificed.
“It’s true that one of the plans on Monday’s test in Jerez was to try to come back a bit to what I raced with in 2020 Jerez for example,” Márquez said. “But I was not able to test. Because of my physical condition it was impossible. Maybe it’s one of targets of this weekend also: try to understand where we are now and where we were in the past.”
The Blame Game
The six-time MotoGP champion expressed some frustration at losing test time and not being able to give direction to the development of the Honda RC213V, while at the same time unintentionally revealing a lack of confidence in Honda’s line up from 2020.
“In the end Honda is working a lot. They bring a lot of new items. We are trying many different things. Everything becomes more difficult when we don’t have a very fast rider,” Márquez said.
“If you have a very fast rider in the front and at riding every practice, every session on the top, everything is easier for the engineers,” the Repsol Honda rider said.
“They are coming, or we are coming, because we are inside the team, from a very difficult season in 2020, when they had a rookie in the garage, then Crutchlow was not in his best level, he was struggling too, then Nakagami was riding the 2019 bike. All these things didn’t help.”
The Evils of Technology
It wasn’t just last year’s stablemates that Marc Márquez was taking potshots at. At Le Mans, the Spaniard continued his attacks on the use of holeshot devices, or rather, the use of holeshot devices as ride-height altering devices or shapeshifters during the race.
He blamed a litany of problems on the shapeshifters, from arm pump to circuit safety.
“When you use the holeshot on the bike, you have more power, the bike is faster, the feeling of wheelie exiting the corner is different, so it’s normal that so many riders have to have operations on their forearms, because the human body has a physical limit,” Márquez said.
He also blamed the devices for making the racing less exciting. “I noticed that the races in Portimão and in Jerez were more static,” Márquez pointed out. “Everyone is in their own rhythm, and finally for the show we need more overtaking. I think that for the fans, for the spectacle on the television, these systems are worse.”
Whether the static races at Portimão and Jerez are down to the use of holeshot devices and shapeshifters is open to debate.
Portimão is notorious for producing processional races in WorldSBK, where holeshot devices and shapeshifters are completely unknown, and despite the occasional last-corner pass at Jerez, the same is true for the Andalusian circuit over the years.
A Matter of Perspective
Márquez underlined that his issue was not with the devices at the start of the race. “I think these are good systems for the start, because it’s safer to have the bike lower at the start, and it makes it more stable,” the Repsol Honda rider said. But using them during the race was bad.
“It’s one more thing for the riders to think about on the bike, and you can see at Jerez that we go faster and there is less space at the tracks. But it’s not like that, it’s because we are going faster and faster, and with the holeshot we are increasing the time we are going faster and reducing the time we are braking. You arrive in the corner with more speed, and for this reason I am against them.”
It is worth noting, of course, that the strength of the Honda lies in braking, and the weakness of the bike is in acceleration. So it is unsurprising that Márquez would be against anything that detracts from the strong points of the Honda RC213V, and his own strengths, and improves the strong points of his rivals.
Valentino Rossi made a rather astute point on perspective. “For me the different ideas of the riders depends very much on the factory,” the Petronas Yamaha rider explained.
“If you ask Ducati riders they are all very happy with the start device because the Ducati device works very well. But on the other side if you ask the Honda riders, the Honda riders are against the start device because the Honda one doesn’t work very well! So more than safety, it depends factory by factory. At the end, if you ride a Ducati, you are happy or if you ride a Honda, no.”
Rossi didn’t particularly like the feeling of the devices, but he couldn’t see the safety issue. “For me, it’s a strange thing, new, a strange feeling when you ride, but I think that for the safety to have or not the start device doesn’t change very much.”
The Racing Arms Race
For reigning champion Joan Mir they were simply a fact of life, an inevitable result of factories looking for ways of making their bikes faster. “It’s necessary if one manufacturer uses it then we have to also, because the development starts,” the Suzuki Ecstar rider said.
Mir certainly didn’t expect it to end with holeshot devices, nor was there much point in trying to ban them. “If it continues like this then we don’t know what will be the ‘next start device’, the technology also improves day by day.”
Maverick Viñales backed up Joan Mir’s perspective. “I think this is technology,” the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. “Everything is going forward. But at the end, we don’t make the rules, so we can’t say too many things. But honestly, it’s not hard to use. It’s not that it’s super complicated to use on the bike. It’s something that finally you make automatically in your head.”
Removing the holeshot devices would take away a potential weapon for riders who knew how to use it, Mir said. “If people start like normal than without any device it will be easier for everyone.” Starts were now a complex affair.
“When you think about the start then you also have to think about the launch control, engaging the front – and I only have to do the front, others have to do the rear also – then watch the lights for the start: there is a lot to think about and you can miss one and have a dangerous situation.”
“This is true. But if someone starts to use a device like this then it is normal that others take it too and they want to stay on the same level.”
Trickle Down Tech
Aleix Espargaro had already discussed the matter with Marc Márquez, though he disagreed with him. “I actually chatted with Marc about this,” the Aprilia rider said. “He’s against it, I respect that, but I’m not against it at all.” The lessons learned from this technology were exactly the sort of thing that would trickle down to road bikes in the future.
“I’ve been at the Aprilia All Stars day two weeks ago and if you check our new ‘king’ street bike, the RSV1100, you could spot many small details are coming from my MotoGP bike,” Espargaro noted.
“I’m not saying we will put these devices on the street bike, but the technology we are developing is important for the engineers because then it arrives to the street and they can sell more bikes.”
It was the natural course of racing development, Espargaro opined. “To try to stop the technology and progression is like to try to hold back the sea. It’s impossible. The bikes every time accelerate more and more and we have more devices.”
“Yes it’s true that it’s very difficult for the rider to start now because there are many things to remember – mechanical devices, plus the button for the electronics, the clutches are getting more difficult so you have to be careful not to burn the clutch when you do a practice start.”
That was just part of being a racer, Espargaro pointed out. “Yes, it’s difficult, but this is MotoGP. We are the best riders in the world, so we have to get used to it. And I think Honda is one of the best bikes for sure but their starting device is not the best yet, so I think this is why Marc is not very happy about the starting devices!”
Washout at Mugello
Espargaro was also asked about Andrea Dovizioso’s test at Mugello earlier this week, and lamented that the test had been something of a washout.
“Unfortunately he was not able to ride in the dry and I still have no information, because we have a little bit of mess with engineers due to the covid situation, we will have a little bit less engineers because we had some problems last week. So I still have to talk with Romano about Dovi’s test.”
On Thursday, Andrea Dovizioso had been just as elusive as ever on the Aprilia test, understandable given that the Italian had had no time in the dry on the RS-GP.
“Unfortunately, the weather was really bad,” Dovizioso said. “We did two exits yesterday [Wednesday]. There were some drops but we could do two exits in the dry in the morning and that was enough to try a different position. So that was very important but I couldn’t push.”
The rain on Wednesday had been much heavier than on Thursday, Dovizioso explained. “We had the chance to ride in the wet a bit yesterday, but there was a lot of water.”
“Today the conditions were a bit more normal for the wet and we did a lot of exits because we wanted to use the time we had. Also because the grip, it wasn’t special, about the track. So it was good to do some tests and try to understand what worked and not.”
In short, it was a bit of a waste of time, Dovizioso said. “At the end we have been very unlucky because two days in Mugello, it was very important and it’s a really wonderful track, I was really happy to do this test here. But we couldn’t try the bike in the dry.”
“Anyway we used this morning, 3 hours, to try and give feedback. Happy about that. The feeling was good. But I can’t say much more unfortunately.” There was no word from Dovizioso on his future with Aprilia, nor on the possibility of a third test on the RS-GP.
Tuscan Hillsides – Rolling, But Empty
If a wet Mugello is not the way that spectacular Tuscan circuit is supposed to be experienced, then an Italian Grand Prix without fans is even worse. Today, the Mugello Circuit management announced that due to the health situation in Italy surrounding the pandemic, the Italian Grand Prix would be held behind closed doors.
That is truly a tragedy. Le Mans may have a special atmosphere, but the atmosphere at Mugello is indescribable. Without fans, the Italian circuit remains one of the most spectacular on the calendar, both in terms of layout and setting, but the natural bowl in which it sits, with the hillsides overlooking it, makes the lack of fans a glaring affront to the spirit of MotoGP.
There are plenty of tracks where not having fans is a shame, and an inconvenience, but where the racing itself suffices. At Mugello, despite the fact the track has produced some great racing in its time, the fans are an integral part of the experience.
For Valentino Rossi, there was no worse track to race at without fans. “I think that Mugello is the place where having no fans is the biggest problem, because the track is a natural stadium,” the Italian said. “Maybe Jerez is like this, or Assen. But in Mugello you see the people when you ride, it’s one of the only tracks.”
However, the lack of fans would not directly influence any decision on his future, he insisted. “So it’s a great shame to not have any fans also this year but depends very much from the results, if I continue in 2022.”