Le Mans , one of the all time classic names in motorsport. And indeed, one of the all time classic circuits. The GP circuit is a very different animal from the woodland track that most people think of, though. It's technical, challenging, demanding of just as much skill as the daunting road circuit used for the 24 hour races, and over the years it's given us some of the best, closest, most exciting battles we've yet seen. Happily, 2011 was not going to prove disappointing.
Practice was completely dominated by Casey Stoner, to the extent that nobody else really got a look in. The first session saw him chased, albeit unsuccessfully, by his team-mate Pedrosa while the other two presented his nearest challenge from another Honda - that of Marco Simoncelli. The privateer rider was on fire all weekend, consistently challenging for the top spot and riding with the controlled aggression that is the hallmark of a rider ready to take that next step up. Andrea Dovizioso, too, seemed to be on fine form. In fact the top spots were taken by Hondas of one colour or another throughout practice. I can't remember any time in recent history - probably not since Rossi went to Yamaha in fact - that Honda has been so utterly dominant. Jorge Lorenzo didn't seem to be having such a great time, never getting higher than fifth, while the Ducatis of Hayden and Rossi bumped around the midfield as well, jostling with Cal Crutchlow and Colin Edwards on the Tech3 Yamahas and Ben Spies on the other factory machine.
Practice is especially important if you're someone like Cal Crutchlow, who has never ridden on the circuit before. But it still pales into insignificance compared with qualifying. No superpole in MotoGP remember - this one hour session is it as far as deciding just how hard you're going to have to work on race day is concerned. Jorge Lorenzo made an early challenge, setting the first three fastest laps before being deposed by Stoner. Then Simoncelli upset the applecart, edging Stoner back. The Australian responded straight away, of course, going back on top but immediately being displaced by Pedrosa. That didn't last, with Stoner then taking four consecutive fastest times to cement pole position. But not from Pedrosa. The Spaniard was relegated to the second row, as Simoncelli was second by just fifty nine thousandths of a second, nearly half a second ahead of Dovizioso. Then came Pedrosa in fourth, six hundredths of a second behind his team mate and two hundredths ahead of Lorenzo. Bringing up the rear of the second row was Cal Crutchlow. Just under a tenth of a second behind the World Champion in his rookie year? I'd say that the lad is pretty good. Row three had Colin Edwards ahead of Ben Spies, who was tied with Valentino Rossi on exactly the same time but outgunned the multiple champion on his second fastest time.
Warmup doesn't really have any major significance other than it being an opportunity to mess with your rivals' heads if you happen to be into that sort of thing. But this time a couple of things happened that really showed the tension and pressure that everyone in the championship is under. As an aside, it's worth remembering at this point that even the last qualifier, bimbling along at the back of the grid, is still at least one of the thirty or so best motorcycle racers in the world. Which I guess puts the pressure into some sort of context. Anyway, the first major development in this short warmup session was the huge crash enjoyed by Jorge Lorenzo. Though the world champion was essentially uninjured, his number one bike was left in flames by the side of the track and, I'd suggest, his confidence might have been just a little scorched at the same time. The other incident, perhaps even more telling, occurred between Stoner and local boy de Puniet. De Puniet was touring, keeping good lookout and doing everything he should have been when Stoner came out of the corner behind him on a hot lap. De Puniet saw him coming and moved over to get clear. Unfortunately, he moved the same way as Stoner, causing the Australian to have to brake extremely hard in order to avoid a collision. Unfortunate, yes. Scary, for sure. But Stoner's reaction, coming alongside the Frenchman and punching him, was extraordinary and richly deserved the five thousand Euro fine slapped on the Australian by race control. Both riders apologised to each other afterwards, though what de Puniet had to apologise for is a mystery, and the incident was over and done with. But it does give an indication, as I said, of the pressure these guys are under to perform.
So there was hardly any tension in the air at all when the riders lined up on the grid for the start of the race. Well, maybe just a little. Lights out and it was Stoner and Dovizioso who got the best start off the front, with Simoncelli dropping in behind. But it was Pedrosa, starting from the second row, who worked his magic again and took the lead into the first corner. Simoncelli soon took advantage of the melee to slide through into third behind the two Repsol bikes while, behind Dovizioso, Lorenzo was just ahead of Rossi who had also made a great start to jump three places. Two corners into the second lap saw the early departure of Randy de Puniet, the likeable (yes, really) Frenchman left scratching his head after the front on his Pramac Ducati folded without warning. And at the other end of the field, Lorenzo made what has to be the most aggressive pass of the season, virtually elbowing Dovizioso out of the way in an attempt to get back in touch with the lead pair. Not wishing to overstate things, but it really wasn't riding becoming of a world champion, and puts his earlier criticisms of other riders in a different light.
Anyway. Next lap saw him draft past Simoncelli on the main straight in a clean pass that left a lot of room. It didn't last though, as that pesky Italian fought back and was back on the podium within half a lap. And behind Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi was getting ever closer. It seemed that perhaps Jerry Burgess and the rest of the Ducati camp had finally found that elusive something to make the Ducati work properly under the nine times world champion.
Lap six saw the unfortunate departure of Cal Crutchlow, exiting stage left in a welter of sparks. Though the young Englishman was able to remount, the bike was too battered to race and he retired. Afterwards he was man enough to admit that it was his mistake, having clipped the kerb with his front wheel. A shame, as his lap times weren't far off the front runners, and a good finish could have been on the cards. Mind you, it was his first DNF of the season, and he was competing rather than making up numbers so shouldn't be too disappointed.
Casey Stoner had taken the lead from Pedrosa on the second lap, and immediately set about trying to capitalise on it. But Pedrosa wouldn't be dropped off, and the pair set a crazy pace for the next dozen laps, both consistently running in the one minute thirty threes, and consistently the only riders so to do. Then the pace started to get to Pedrosa, perhaps as a result of his lack of fitness after his closed-season surgery, and a gap started to appear between the two Repsol machines. More importantly, the gap back to Simoncelli's San Carlo Honda started to shrink. And after half a dozen more laps Simoncelli and Pedrosa were properly scrapping. There was no doubt at all that the Italian was faster, but it was also pretty clear that Pedrosa's factory machine had the grunt, aided no doubt by the Spaniard's lack of weight, to out-drag Simoncelli on corner exits. So after a spirited tussle, Simoncelli lined up a pass around the outside and went for it. Pedrosa was already massively committed and may even have gone in too hot, but Simoncelli got past and dived for the apex. Unfortunately Pedrosa had either elected not to yield or hadn't been able to brake any more, and ended up on the inside of a rapidly closing gap. Simoncelli kept coming, as was his apparent right as the leading rider, Pedrosa's front wheel was pushed up against Simoncelli and physics took over, sitting Pedrosa's bike up and firing him into the gravel. Simoncelli also went off but stayed on the bike and only lost a fraction of a second. But Pedrosa crashed hard, breaking his right collarbone. The crowd went crazy, as Simoncelli is popular, as much for his spirited press conferences as his riding. But more of a shock was to come as the stewards decided that Simoncelli's move was illegal (as opposed to simply ill-judged) and slapped a ride through penalty on him. That pushed him from second to seventh, though at least he was sporting enough to take the penalty, re-emerging behind Ben Spies and Nicky Hayden with a lot of work to do and a whole bundle of attitude.
This little bit of excitement suddenly put Valentino Rossi into second place, something The Doctor is unused to being grateful for but a pleasant change to see him back. Barring rush of blood to the head or a mechanical derangement, Stoner was untouchable with a fourteen second lead, but the other two podium steps were definitely up for grabs. We were then treated to some seriously hard but respectful racing between the faster and perhaps more responsive Honda of Dovizioso and the fine handling but ultimately underpowered Ducati of Valentino Rossi. A dice that was really only decided with a couple of corners to spare.
Behind, Tech3 Yamaha's home round turned into a bit of a mess as Colin Edwards crashed out, though the Texan did manage to remount and circulate at the back, picking up a couple of points at the same time. Loris Capirossi, too, departed in a cloud of broken carbon fibre having overbraked to avoid a slowing Alvaro Bautista. Talking of bautista, the scrap of the day seemed to be that taking place for the seven points awarded for eleventh. Bautista, Barbera, Elias, Capirossi and Abraham were all in the running and all gave it their best. Toni Elias very nearly ended up in orbit after a massive slide that sheer skill and a huge dollop of luck allowed him to save, and Capirossi as we know did take an early bath.
But riding a lonely race, Casey Stoner took an easy win to reduce Lorenzo's lead significantly. Dovizioso just pipped Rossi to the line, taking the flag by three tenths of a second, while Lorenzo came home a distant fourth, seven seconds behind Rossi. Ten seconds further back, Simoncelli had clawed his way back to fifth, ahead of Spies by just half a second, with Hayden four seconds adrift in seventh. Hiroshi Aoyama came a solid eighth ahead of Barbera and Abraham.
So while the controversy will rage for ages about Pedrosa and Simoncelli's coming together, the real news is that Ducati and Valentino Rossi are nearly back on form. I can't wait until they really are...
Next round is at Catalunya in a fortnight. See you there...
1 Casey Stoner (Honda)
2 Andrea Dovizioso (Honda)
3 Valentino Rossi (Ducati)
4 Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha)
5 Marco Simoncelli (Honda)
6 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
7 Nicky Hayden (Ducati)
8 Hiroshi Aoyama (Honda)
9 Hector Barbera (Ducati)
10 Karel Abraham (Ducati)
after four rounds:
1 Jorge Lorenzo 78
2Casey Stoner 66
3 Dani Pedrosa 61
4 Andrea Dovizioso 50
5 Valentino Rossi 47
6 Nicky Hayden 39
7 Hiroshi Aoyama 36
8 Marco Simoncelli 22
9 Hector Barbera 21
10 Colin Edwards 21