Sunday Summary at Le Mans: Head & Heart

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Funny how things turn out. On a weekend that looked like being overshadowed by one subject – Casey Stoner’s shock retirement announcement and its repercussions – along came the rain and provided spectacle to cheer the hearts of racing fans of every persuasion. Rain offers new opportunities, and such opportunities light a fire in the breasts of racers being kept from running at the front under ordinary circumstances. At the same time, should that fire burn too fiercely, those same racers can fall prey to their own overreaching ambition, and fall within sight of glory.

Sunday at Le Mans saw plentiful examples of both. In three outstanding, if rain-sodden races, the fine balance between head and heart that racing requires was demonstrated several times over. Riders took the chances on offer: those who wanted it too much suffered the consequences and crashed out ignominiously; those who did not want it enough floundered around miserably at the rear; those that got it just right were richly rewarded.

Things started off well for the French crowd – over 80,000 braved the torrential conditions to watch the races – as local boy (and he is truly local, born in the city of Le Mans) Louis Rossi took his first victory in the Moto3 class. The race was an object lesson in the excitability of the junior class, with three men crashing out of the lead. From the first, we have come to expect it – why else would Hector Faubel still be in Moto3 at the age of 28? The second was also not a surprise, Miguel Oliveira crashing out of the lead. He deserved better, but it is not unusual for a 17-year-old to allow his excitement to get the better of him when he has the prospect of his first victory in the class ahead of him. The circumstances of the third were similar, though you would expect that Maverick Viñales would be used to leading races, already having 4 victories to his name.

With the three men ahead of him having fallen, all Louis Rossi had to do was to keep calm and stay upright. Easy enough if you have a lead of over 20 seconds, you would think, but that probably just made things worse. Rossi forced himself to concentrate, to maintain his rhythm, to keep braking and opening the gas at the same point of the track every lap, always holding a little bit of a margin for the changing conditions. But the last lap was long, “very, very long” he told The win was deserved, and the crowd were ecstatic. The joy of finally getting a win was visible on the podium, when Rossi sang the French national anthem at the very top of his lungs. And if any anthem feels just right being sung at the top of your lungs, it is surely the strident call to battle that is La Marsellaise.

One thing that did become evident from the massive number of riders who fell: the Moto3 bikes are much, much more difficult to bump start than the old 125cc two-strokes. Both Viñales and Oliveira tried to persuade the marshals to help them to bump start their bikes, but after a few desultory attempts, they gave up. Sandro Cortese was a fraction luckier, and a fraction more sensible, holding on to the throttle as he fell to keep the engine running, rejoining to come home in 6th and take a comfortable lead in the championship. But with engines so difficult to start, we are likely to see more riders try to hold on to the clutch as they fall. And as a possible consequence of that, more fingers badly damaged as they get caught between handlebars and ground.

In Moto2, Thomas Luthi gave an object lesson in maturity, going fast but remaining calm. His main rivals for the title both faltered, Pol Espargaro having a big moment and losing touch, while Marc Marquez managed to crash out of the race. Luthi’s win closes the title fight right up, just three points separating leader Espargaro and Luthi, with Marquez a single point behind Espargaro. Behind Luthi, Claudio Corti and Scott Redding were also rewarded for their calmness in the face of poor weather, scoring podiums while others fell by the wayside.

Others shone brightly too. For Gino Rea, the weekend had been tough, having switched to a new chassis at the event without any testing. Getting the new Suter chassis to work with the Showa suspension which Gresini uses instead of the paddock-standard Ohlins had been tricky, but when the rain came Rea seized his chance, shooting up through the field to dice at the very front. Unfortunately, a rather boneheaded move by Johann Zarco dumped Rea out, the Frenchman wiping out Rea’s front wheel after passing him in the final corner. Race direction looked at the incident, but though unfortunate for Rea, found that Zarco had not made an illegal maneuver.

As with Rea, Bradley Smith showed a similar amount of commitment and passion, firing up through the field to dice at the front, after starting from a lowly 19th spot. Smith gambled and lost, crashing out at the final corner, though he remounted to still cross the line in 10th. Though Smith’s commitment and heart cannot be questioned, they pale in the face of Julian Simon. Simon crashed in the same place, but unlike Smith, could not get his bike started again. So he picked it up, and ran, pushing his BQR bike all the way across the line. Simon has proven many times in the past to be a man of great heart, as exemplified by the magnanimity he showed after being taken out and shattering his leg thanks to a bonehead move by Kenan Sofuoglu, but pushing his bike across the line was an impressive piece of sportsmanship, passion, and an unwillingness to ever concede defeat. Simon finished 13th, scoring 3 precious points.

The MotoGP race lifted the hearts of the fans even further. Though the race was won on the first lap, by a brilliant and committed Jorge Lorenzo, the Yamaha man passing Dani Pedrosa at Garage Vert and never looking back, his performance was lost in the excitement of the battle for 2nd. That was undeserved; Lorenzo’s race was a masterclass in riding in the rain, pushing when needed, being smooth when possible, and maintaining concentration for 28 long laps. Lorenzo’s brake and clutch levers have the words “Mantequilla” (butter) and “Martillo” (hammer) engraved upon them; his race today was purest Mantequilla.

The excitement behind came from the group of four chasing, the two Tech 3 bikes of Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow, along with the Repsol Honda of Casey Stoner and the factory Ducati of Valentino Rossi. Both Dovizioso and Crutchlow looked in with a shot of their first podium, but both had their own problems. Dovizioso lacked traction, and so was making it up on the brakes, and wearing out his front tire, while Crutchlow had problems with power in a straight line (despite being fastest on the speed charts) causing the Englishman to push too hard into the corners. Both men crashed, but both men rejoined, the Tech 3 men proving that they are the toughest opposition behind Stoner, Lorenzo and Pedrosa.

But the battle of the day was surely between Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner. The two men whose rivalry has defined the last 6 years – and divided motorcycle racing fans into two, increasingly vituperative camps – came together with 4 laps to go, and fought a tense and thrilling battle until the penultimate lap, when Rossi finally got the better of the Australian. The result thrilled the crowd and lifted the spirits at Ducati – not least, for Rossi himself, reigniting a fire that has sometimes seemed to have guttered out in the Italian. It was gratifying to see Rossi fighting with the gusto which we know he possesses, and proving that he has not lost the skill he once had.

The problem is that the clash was exceptional, rather than ordinary. Circumstances played a massive role in bringing it about, as exciting as it turned out to be. The Ducati works superbly in the wet, paradoxically, as in the dry it lacks front-end feel and suffers from overly aggressive throttle response. That all goes away in the wet, even though logic dictates it should get worse rather than better. The paradox has baffled everyone, including Ducati, though they will take whatever they can get.

This does not mean that Ducati is out of the woods yet, however. “For sure, when you want the rain, you are in the sh*t,” Rossi told the press conference. Getting a podium had been important for morale, but more important will be the test at Mugello on Wednesday and Thursday, when Rossi will test a new engine with some modifications to tame the power delivery. If that works, then they will have made real progress, and start to get closer to the front. The first target, Rossi explained, are the Tech 3 Yamaha bikes; if the Factory Ducatis can run with them, then that will already be major progress.

While the Ducati is faster in the wet, the Hondas appear to be struggling. Both Stoner and Dani Pedrosa complained of a complete lack of edge grip, the problem appearing to be an inability to get temperature into the tires in very cold, very wet conditions. Though Honda’s engine is impeccable, and their chassis is both agile and stable, HRC appear to have completely misjudged the 2012 Bridgestone tires. In the dry, the Hondas have severe chatter where the Yamahas have very little, as do the Ducatis. In the wet, they struggle to get the tires to the correct temperature, either failing to get heat into them or else getting too much heat in, with the tires destroying themselves as a result. Honda really need more testing time if they are to fix this, but their first opportunity will come at Barcelona.

If the clash between Rossi and Stoner had demonstrated their passion – Stoner still has some, but the clash with his old rival was not enough to change his mind about racing, he said – Ben Spies appears to be almost entirely lacking. His performance has been dismal all year, and Le Mans was no different. A problem with his visor misting meant that he could not see while riding, and so he returned to the pits to get the problem fixed. He returned to the track once again, but by then, he was already a very long way down, and scored another forgettable result. Spies’ problems have just about all been attributable to misfortune this season, but even then, Yamaha will start to lose patience at some point. Spies may be paying for his incredible run of luck during his AMA years, with the misfortune now coming as bunched together as his good luck in the AMA. Whatever the reason, he needs to turn his season around fast.

It was also pleasing to see James Ellison score his first points, also finishing as the first CRT bike. Though the practice of wheeling the first CRT bike into Parc Fermé serves more to underline the separate status of the class, disparaging the bikes rather than promoting them, having Ellison there was a moral victory for the Cumbrian. Two weeks ago, team boss Paul Bird had told British Eurosport that he would be moving Ellison aside to make way for Shane Byrne. That idea failed utterly to address the problems which Ellison was having, which center around chatter, and would merely have put another rider in exactly the same situation. Fortunately, PBM got help, in the form of a new set of electronics settings, from Aprilia which went a very long way to curing the problem. With the new electronics and a bit of help – not least from Randy de Puniet, who highsided on the grid when his launch control failed to deal with the treacherous conditions created by a pool of water – Ellison showed his boss just how wrong his thinking had been. The head, it is clear, is just as important as the heart.

Photo: Ducati Corse

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.