Episode 73 of the Paddock Pass Podcast is uploaded and ready for your consumption.
Covering the French GP in Le Mans, this episode sees Steve English and Neil Morrison on the mics, talking about all the news from the MotoGP round in France, as well as what is happening in the WorldSBK paddock.
An eventful race for the MotoGP Championship lead, the guys talk about the on-track action briefly, before switching gears and looking ahead to 2019. There are a lot of lucrative seats up for grabs next season, and the very real possibility that we could see Pedrosa and/or Lorenzo without a job.
Discussing those possibilities, and the rest of the rider market, the MotoGP Silly Season is truly in full-swing.
Switching paddocks, the conversation then turns to the WorldSBK Championship, and what contracts are on the tables there. Could Jonathan Rea switch to Ducati? Sykes to Yamaha? What about the Ducati Corse team.
There is some enticing smoke coming from the World Superbike teams, so it will interesting to see what fire comes of it.
Of course the show ends with the guys picking their biggest winners and losers from the weekend’s events, which isn’t as obvious this week as one would think.
We think you will enjoy the show. It is packed with behind-the-scenes info, and insights from teams and riders in the paddock.
As always, be sure to follow the Paddock Pass Podcast on Facebook, Twitter and subscribe to the show on iTunes and SoundCloud – we even have an RSS feed for you. If you like the show, we would really appreciate you giving it a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening!
Looking back, it is always easy to identify the pivotal moments in a championship. Last year, it was the Barcelona test, when Honda brought a new chassis which gave Marc Márquez the confidence he had been lacking.
In 2015, it was arguably Motegi, where Valentino Rossi stayed ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, but the effort it took in the difficult conditions left him drained at the start of a long and exhausting set of flyaways.
In 2012 it was Misano, where a tire warmer got stuck to Dani Pedrosa’s brake disc, forcing him to start from the back of the grid, and leaving him in a position to get tangled up with Hector Barbera, and crash out of the race.
In the midst of a racing season, however, such pivotal points are much harder to identify. Or rather, all too easy to misidentify. After Estoril 2006, everyone thought that Nicky Hayden’s championship challenge was over.
Valentino Rossi’s heartbreaking engine blow up at Mugello looked like it would put paid to his shot at the 2016 title, but he still kept the fight alive for a long time.
Anything can happen during the course of a season, so when we look back at a season we can easily overlook the drama of a single race that seemed important at the time. 2015 is a case in point: there were so many twists and turns that it is hard to pinpoint a single turning point, so fans and followers tend to pick their own.
Looking at it now, just five races into a nineteen-race season, it is easy to believe that the races at Jerez and Le Mans will be the turning points we look back at when the bikes are packed up for the final time after Valencia.
The three-rider crash at Dry Sack two weeks ago, in which Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa managed to all take each other out without any obvious culprit being to blame, had a huge impact on the championship.
And Sunday’s drama-packed race at Le Mans will surely be spoken of in the same terms. Not just because of who didn’t finish the race. But also because where some riders finished is going to have a profound impact on their futures.
Pressure comes in many different varieties in motorcycle racing. There is always the internal pressure to perform, of course, but that is natural. Without that, there are no results.
There is external pressure from the team, who want to succeed just as badly as the rider does. There is pressure from sponsors, who want to know their money has been well spent.
There is pressure from friends and family, who want to see a rider succeed, and from the fans, who will on their favorite riders. How a rider handles this pressure is usually the difference between success and failure in MotoGP.
Then there are occasions when the pressure rises to bursting point. When fighting for a championship, for example, when riders both need to win, but at the same time, they can’t afford to fall off.
Or at a rider’s home race, when the fans, the media are all willing you on to win, and show a lack of understanding if that doesn’t happen. How a rider handles this pressure is the difference between being a very good rider and being a great champion.
Riding at home can create extra pressure, especially if you are the only rider representing your country of birth. When it comes to home races, Spanish and Italian riders are at an advantage.
The pressure they have on them is much less than some of the other nationalities in MotoGP. Firstly, they have multiple attempts at getting it right at their home race. With four races in Spain and two in Italy, riders know that if they don’t do well in their first home race, they will get another shot at a second race.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there are plenty of riders to share the stress with. At Mugello in two weeks’ time, fans will come to see Valentino Rossi win, but will be just as happy if Andrea Dovizioso wins, or Andrea Iannone, or Danilo Petrucci, or even Franco Morbidelli.
Two weeks after that the fans will be cheering for Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, the Espargaro brothers, Alex Rins, Tito Rabat. There isn’t the focus on one rider, who has one race to get everything just right.
Andrea Dovizioso’s manager arrived in Le Mans on Friday morning, and by Friday afternoon, the Italian had a new two-year contract with Ducati, provisional pole after FP2, and a new lap record.
Not a bad start to the weekend, and a harbinger of good things to come, you might think. This is after all not particularly a Ducati track, yet here he was, on top of the timesheets.
Perhaps having his future settled helped, but Dovizioso has been an expert at excluding distractions from his race weekends.
The simple fact is that the Ducati man was quick at Jerez, and is quick here, because he is in good form, and the bike is working really well. Dovizioso heads into qualifying feeling confident.
But there is a fly in the ointment, and it is Márquez-shaped, as always. Dovizioso had been pretty quick throughout the first part of FP2, just a couple of tenths behind the leader Márquez.
Then in his final run, he fitted a new soft rear slick, dropped six tenths of a second off his best time and set a new lap record around Le Mans. It was an impressive showing of blistering speed.
Dovizioso had demoted Marc Márquez to second place, yet that still left Dovizioso much to fear. Márquez may have been nearly two tenths faster than Dovizioso, but Dovizioso had set his quickest lap on a new soft rear with just four laps on it.
Márquez had set his best time on an old hard rear tire with twelve laps on it. In terms of outright race pace, Márquez looks very hard to beat.
But it is still only Friday, and the difference between the soft and the hard rear tires is not as great as you might think.
After all, Dovizioso had set a 1’32.562 on an old soft tire with nineteen laps on it, or about two-thirds race distance. Race pace for both Dovizioso and Márquez looks to be very strong indeed.
Andrea Dovizioso will spend another two years in the Ducati Corse squad, signing a two-year contract with the Italian team, and announcing it today in Le Mans for the French GP.
That Dovi would sign again with Ducati is unsurprising, though the news took some time to come to fruition, likely as last-year’s MotoGP Championship runner-up wanted a paycheck more in line with what he was doing for Borgo Panigale.
This disparity comes because Andrea Dovizioso was supposed to be the #2 rider in the Ducati MotoGP team, playing second fiddle to Jorge Lorenzo, however that has not been the reality.
For the past decade or so, Le Mans has been a Yamaha track, with Yamaha riders taking seven wins in the last ten races. The answer to whether that situation can continue or is simple: it depends. Maybe a Yamaha can win at Le Mans on Sunday. Or maybe another bike will take victory here instead.
That answer is generic almost to the point of meaninglessness, but beneath it lies a kernel of truth. The first four races in MotoGP have taught us a few lessons which point to who and what could do the winning on Sunday.
The more precise answer? If a Yamaha is going to win, it is more likely to be be the Tech3 bike of Johann Zarco, rather than the factory Movistar machines of Valentino Rossi or Maverick Viñales.
If a Yamaha doesn’t win, then the Ducatis are in with a much better chance than you might expect, with Andrea Dovizioso and, who knows?, maybe even Jorge Lorenzo in with a shout.
But the lesson of the first four races of 2018 is that the most likely outcome on Sunday is that a Honda will win, and probably a Honda in the hands of Marc Márquez. That is clearly what most of the riders felt on Sunday.
The one recurring theme that came back from riders on every competing manufacturer was that they were both impressed and feared how much the Honda has improved since last year.
The French GP is seeing a number of announcements being made for the coming seasons, and one of the less surprising pieces in the silly season puzzle is finally in place, as Aleix Espargaró has renewed his contract with Aprilia Racing.
As such, Espargaró will ride with the factory Aprilia team through the 2020 MotoGP Championship season, as the Spaniard has shown himself not only capable of helping to develop the Aprilia RS-GP race bike, but also as a strong competitor on the machine.
Of course, the big question is who will be Espargaró’s teammate for the next season or two? As it seems increasingly likely that Scott Redding will not be returning to the Italian squad, after a number of poor results on the Aprilia.
Alex Rins has signed a new contract with the factory Suzuki Ecstar team for 2019 and 2020.
The young Spaniard will stay with the team for two more seasons, as he continues to show the growth expected of him, after a difficult rookie season marred by injury. Rins is now the twelfth rider to be confirmed for the 2019 season, and leaves one less factory seat to fill.
The re-signing of Rins had been widely expected. The Spaniard had spoken at Austin of positive progress being made, and the final details were hammered out at Jerez.
Rins’ first podium in MotoGP helped, taking third place in Argentina, but the fact that he has crashed out of the other three races held so far is a concern. Yet he has consistently shown he has the pace to compete at the front.
With Rins signed, Suzuki will now switch their attention to the second seat. It looks like a decision on who will ride the second Suzuki may yet take some time.
In a city where no sporting event is taken seriously if it lasts any less than 24 hours – Le Mans even has a literary festival that features 24-hour readings – MotoGP feels slightly out of place.
Yet over 100,000 fans come to watch what is surely the greatest motorized show on earth, flocking to what remains a legendary racing venue, despite the fact that MotoGP runs on the much shorter, tighter Bugatti circuit rather than the full length layout used by the 24-hour car race.
The race is very much a throwback to the past. The atmosphere is different to almost every other race: there is a constant edge, a sense of danger lurking just below the surface.
Some revel in that excitement, others – myself included – grow tired at spending the evening wondering if you will make it out of the track alive if you leave after dark. If Quentin Tarantino directed a movie about MotoGP, he would set it at Le Mans.
The track may be rather tight and stop and go, but it presents a unique and fascinating challenge.
Just making it through the Dunlop Chicane after the blisteringly fast first corner at Dunlop Curve is an achievement at the start, and it remains a favorite passing place throughout the race.
The downhill right hander at La Chapelle can be treacherous, as can Musee, the long left hander which follows.