The Monster Grand Prix de France is anyone’s race

MotoGP 2015 Le Mans Preview, by Bruce Allen.  Exclusive to

This Sunday, MotoGP makes its annual pilgrimage to France’s Loire River valley for Sunday worship services at Le Mans, one of the shrines of motorsports. The main combatants in this week’s tilt—Movistar Yamaha teammates Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, and Repsol Honda phenom Marc Marquez—have won the last three rounds of an intriguing season. If it rains as per usual, the fourth Alien, Andrea Dovizioso, on the factory Ducati, a known mudder, could contend as well.

podium-mugello-2014As for the second member of the Repsol Honda team, Dani Pedrosa, the silence emanating from HRC since Jerez had been deafening. Pedrosa raced at Losail in Round One despite a flare-up of his chronic arm pump issue which, some folks say, is a result of his simply not being big enough physically to handle 1000cc of brute force. After the race, he returned to Europe for radical/experimental surgery on his arm, and had been absent for the last three races. At Jerez, we were led to believe he would make his return this week. Lo and behold, on Tuesday Pedrosa finally announced he would be at Le Mans. His release fell just short of predicting he would race on Sunday.

Dani-dani-pedrosa-9702356-435-380There seems to be a growing sense at HRC HQ that Pedrosa’s injury may be a career-ender. Call it the sound of distant thunder, or idle speculation. What is clear is that Pedrosa, one of this most accomplished riders in MotoGP history, will not win a championship in this lifetime. Too much Rossi, too much Lorenzo, and now too much Marquez. Moto2 is bursting with young talent—Tito Rabat and Alex Rins leap to mind, with Johann Zarco, Jonas Folger and the currently-struggling Alex Marquez not that far behind. One of these guys is going to end up on the second Repsol seat at some point.

With all the money Honda has tied up in MotoGP, they cannot simply stand around if Pedrosa, despite his 15 years of loyal service across three racing classes (and three world titles) starts showing his age. Even the biggest Pedrosa fans must admit that his best years are behind him. Though he will not turn 30 until September, he is old for his age, having had enough titanium inserted and removed from his body to build Lance Armstrong’s bicycle.

If someone were to ask me what I think–an unlikely occurrence–I would expect him to show this week, secure a top ten finish, and make some kind of announcement after the race concerning his future with the team. If the fiercely proud Pedrosa feels he is no longer able to compete at an elite level, he may call it quits. On the other hand, I suppose it’s just as likely he could go out, qualify on the front row, and finish on the podium, his health and confidence fully restored. But Le Mans has never been his favorite circuit, and if it rains, as expected, he may get a case of the yips, as has befallen Jorge Lorenzo. I don’t know about you, but if I’m nursing a surgically-repaired limb, I’m not eager to walk down a flight of stairs, much less go eyeball-to-eyeball with the likes of Valentino Rossi in the rain.

Recent History at Le Mans

Back in 2012, it was dry on Friday and early Saturday, but the rains arrived in time for qualifying, and the race itself was run in a deluge. Lorenzo’s crew dialed in a perfect wet setting for his M-1, and he had one of those outings, not unlike Jerez two weeks ago, where he seemed to be on rails. He was joined on the podium by Rossi, who pushed his Ducati through the mud for the first of his two podia that season, despite finishing almost ten seconds behind his once and future teammate. Defending world champion Casey Stoner, days after announcing his impending retirement at the end of the year, hydroplaned to a third place finish, apparently having been convinced by his pregnant wife that she would take a dim view of raising their child as a young widow.

In 2013, it was Pedrosa who beat Tech 3 Yamaha tough guy Cal Crutchlow and rookie Marc Marquez to the finish in another French downpour, putting himself in the lead for the season, where he would remain until a cursed Round Eight at The Sachsenring, when he fractured his collarbone—again—clearing the way for Marquez to eventually take the title. The reunited factory Yamaha team of Lorenzo and Rossi floundered helplessly that day, Lorenzo crossing the line seventh and Rossi a distant 12th.

Last year, it was a dry race in which Marquez continued his historic run of poles and wins, although the top six finishers—Marquez, Rossi, Alvaro Bautista (Alvaro Bautista?), Pol Espargaro, Pedrosa and Lorenzo—were separated by a scant seven seconds. Bautista, who averaged one third-place finish a year for his three seasons under Fausto Gresini’s lash, pimped Tech 3 Yamaha pilot Pol Espargaro by 6/10ths at the finish to deprive Herve Poncharal’s French team of a desperately-desired podium at their home race.

Have I mentioned how old it gets having these riders go all squishy in the media when their “home” races roll around? pol-espargaro-bradley-smith-tech3-yamaha-motogp“Right, we view Le Mans as a home race for our team, in that our chief mechanic’s cousin’s sister-in-law used to be married to a cop in Toulouse.” Please. The Tech 3 team has an American sponsor, a Japanese bike, a Brit and a Spaniard in the saddles, but because the team’s management is French, this is their home race. Really? Using this logic, Tech 3 Yamaha could actually count the four Spanish races, the two American rounds, Le Mans, Donington Park and Motegi as home races, giving them a grand total of nine, or half the season. With such an advantage, it’s surprising they aren’t the leading team on the grid.

Enough already with the home races.

Quick Hitters and Your Weekend Forecast

The Jerez test the day after the race was mostly uneventful, other than Marquez turned some laps rather than resting his hand. He says he will be stronger at Le Mans, which doesn’t actually rise to the level of “news.” Andrea Dovizioso’s pre-Jerez prediction that the factory Ducati team wouldn’t do well there stood up pretty well, with Iannone coming across sixth and Dovi, after his brief detour early on, ending up ninth. Both are confident heading to France (name one rider who’s not) although Iannone will compete with a recently dislocated shoulder suffered at the Italian team’s private testing session at Mugello. Aprilia tested their version of the seamless shift gearbox at Mugello and pronounced it a success, though it won’t be ready in time for this weekend. #1 rider Alvaro Bautista is confident it will improve their results going forward, raising the question: What wouldn’t?

As for the weather, the forecast for the greater Sarthe area calls for temps in the 60’s all three days, with the best chance of rain on Friday. I’m not saying I don’t trust the French—well, I guess I actually am—but I would be surprised if it doesn’t rain on Sunday. The race goes off at 8 am EDT Sunday, and I’m sure most of you join me in hoping for more action like we saw at COTA and Rio Hondo. Anyone with a prediction for the podium Sunday is welcome to comment; I, for one, have no idea. Unless it rains, in which case Jorge Lorenzo won’t be around for the celebration.Lorenzo in the rain at Le Mans

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