Le Mans, in the French countryside a couple of hundred kilometres South West of Paris, is one of the true legends of motorsport. Even though the MotoGP round takes place on the purpose built circuit to the East of the town rather than on the streets surrounding it, the track layout is exciting for spectators, demanding for machines and challenging for riders. This year, for once, it was also hot and sunny, and consistently so, too. Which is a pleasant change from the frequently less than predictable conditions we've enjoyed here in the past.
Valentino Rossi has had mixed experiences here, but certainly last year's catastrophe will be one he'll want to leave behind. He comes to Le Mans just four points behind his team-mate Lorenzo - not the best place to be but the championship is young and Rossi has overcome far bigger gaps than this before. So let's not write him off just yet. Casey Stoner, though, is a different story. Eighth in the championship, with less than half the points of his team-mate, the former World Champion is not in a happy place. Somehow the previously almost unbeatable combination of Ducati and Stoner has turned into a bit of a lame duck while Nicky Hayden, who had been all but written off by many paddock pundits after years in the wilderness, has turned his fortunes around and is currently Ducati's Great White Hope. Dani Pedrosa is suffering from press speculation as his perhaps mildly inconsistent performance and occasional tantrums have led to suggestions that his time at Honda is running out. Honda have admitted that they are interested in Stoner, who is pretty fed up with the Ducati, so maybe there's some justification behind the stories. But then again, the Spaniard is currently third in the championship, he says he's happy with Honda and he's the only person who can consistently challenge Rossi and Lorenzo. If I was Honda I'd probably be hanging on to him. Especially with the huge Spanish market to think about as well.
Practice and qualifying was a delight in some ways, as the weather remained warm and sunny throughout and times were refreshingly close, while in others it was a bit messy. Suzuki's Alvaro Bautista ruled himself out after a fairly big highside saw him injure the collarbone he broke in Jerez, common sense dictating that he sat the race out and got himself properly fit for the next round. Ben Spies also highsided spectacularly at the same corner, escaping real injury but well and truly demolishing the bike. A stretcher ride to Clinica Mobile revealed nothing worse than a bruised ankle, while Mika Kallio who arrived ina similar style a few minutes later was also lucky to get away with a bruised shoulder.
But as far as results went, honours were divided. Rossi headed up the first session form Lorenzo, while Stoner showed what may be to come by leading the second free practice, again from Lorenzo with Rossi third. Pedosa and Dovizioso traded places in fourht and fifth while Nicky Hayden, Colin Edwards and Randy de Puniet all battled around seventh.
Now of course free practice is one thing, but qualifying is something else. For most of the time it was astraight fight between Rossi, Lorenzo and Stoner, with Pedrosa making an appearance at the end. But we also saw Aleix Espargaro on the Pramac Ducati and Colin Edwards on the Tech3 Yamaha making an welcome appearance at the pointed end of the timesheets.
Qulaifying proceeded fairly normally until about twenty minutes from the end, when Rossi popped in a quick one. It was a full elevn minutes before anyone was able to beat him, Lorenzo taking pole for under three minutes before himself being pipped by Stoner. With just two minutes left to run, Pedrosa appeared and took the front slot,but in that last two minutes the Spanmiard was beaten first by Rossi and then by Lorenzo, going from provisional pole to third place in just thirty seconds.
And so it stayed. Rossi on pole from Lorenzo and Pedrosa. Stoner headed row two from Hayden and local boy de Puniet. Row three had Dovizioso, Colin Edwards and Loris Capirossi on the sole surviving Suzuki. And row four found Espargaro leading Marco Melandri on the Gresini Honda and Ben Spies.
Which had the potential to make an interesting race.
So lights out and for once it wasn't Dani Pedrosa streaking into the lead. Instead it was Rossi who got the holeshot from Lorenzo with Pedrosa in third and Hayden continuing his good form by out-dragging Stoner for fourth. This didn't last, though, as the Australian passed Hayden on the second lap before disastrously losing the front and sliding out, the bike ending up upside down in the gravel. So though unhurt, Stoner found himself with a second DNF in three races, which can't have improved his demeanour at all. Up at the front, Rossi was not breaking away from Lorenzo, though the pair of them were edging clear of Pedrosa. Hayden had been slowed up by his team-mate's demise and dropped back behind Dovizioso while he regrouped a bit. Behind, Loris Capirossi was climbing nicely through the field until he too slid off, while Ben Spies also crashed out unhurt but unable to capitalise on the points advantage he could have got over his championship neighbours.
Up at the front things had settled into the by now familiar firm but fair Rossi/Lorenzo tussle with feints, overtakes and re-overtakes aplenty. Certainly Lorenzo seeed faster but Rossi is a hard man to pass and it took a good few determined attempts before the young Spaniard was able to pass and make it stick on lap twelve. He'd managed a pass a couple of laps earlier but Rossi had responded immediately with a hard but safe block pass that gave the youngster nowhere to go but behind.
Now up until lap twenty the lap chart suggests noting exciting going on. And to an extent that's true as the situation at the front was fairly static. But in the middle of the field, veteran and gentleman Colin Edwards was getting very rudely assaulted by a bunch of thugs from last year's 250cc GP paddock. And though the Texan was doing OK, ultimately the combination of numbers and teenage attitude saw him oushed to eleventh while Bautista, Barbera, Aoyama and Simoncelli all beat each other (and anyone around) up in the quest for points.
Up at the front, Lorenzo got his head down and pushed really, really hard. And it paid off as he gradually eked out a margin over Rossi, creating a comfortable cushion for himself. Rossi, meantime, was also pushing. Just not quite as hard. Mindful, perhaps, of his injured shoulder and with the long game in mind the world champion was himself a safe distance clear of third placed Pedrosa and not really chasing for the win. Pedrosa, meanwhile, was in a world of trouble as he gradulaly slipped back into the clutches of the pursuing pair of Hayden and Dovizioso. Though the Spaniard fought like a lion, his team-mate passed him on the final lap to take the final podium position. And Hayden, too got through on the last lap.
So leaving France we see Lorenzo's lead over Rossi extended to nine points. Nice to have but hardly space to kick back. And Dovizioso has overhauled Pedrosa for third, though again by just two points. The real revelation is Nicky Hayden, juts a single point behind Pedrosa in fifth while Stoner is now back in fourteenth place, dawing with Ben Spies with barely a quarter of Hayden's points and a massive fifty nine points off the lead. Mugello is next - that's Ducati's home circuit but also Rossi's, and Rossi has only ever not won there once...
Le Mans MotoGP Results
1. Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha)
2. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
3. Andrea Dovizioso (Honda
4. Nicky Hayden (Ducati)
5. Dani Pedrosa (Honda)
6. Marco Melandri (Honda)
7. Randy de Puniet (Honda)
8. Hector Barbera (Ducati)
9. Alex Espargo (Ducati)
10. Marco Simoncelli (Honda)
MotoGP standings (after three rounds)
1. Jorge Lorenzo 70
2. Valentino Rossi 61
3. Andrea Dovizioso 42
4. Dani Pedrosa 40
5. Nicky Hayden 39
6. Randy de Puniet 26
7. Marco Melandri 21
8. Colin Edwards 16
9. Marco Simoncelli 16
10. Hector Barbera 15