Three rounds into the 2011 season and the MotoGP World Championship has already delivered a wealth of thrilling on-track action, as well as a dose of intense competitive rivalry off it which has added spice to what is already shaping up to be a fantastic title battle.
The drama will continue this weekend at Le Mans where reigning World Champion Jorge Lorenzo heads into the Monster Energy Grand Prix de France holding a slender four-point advantage over Dani Pedrosa at the top of the standings, after three rounds. Yamaha Factory Racing rider Lorenzo is preparing for his 150th GP start this weekend, which would make him the youngest rider ever to reach the milestone (taking the record off Pedrosa), and he won last year’s race at Le Mans. Lorenzo knows that his Repsol Honda rival is feeling fit and sharp after taking his first win of 2011 at the previous round in Portugal however, and the pair are now level on 36 career GP wins each.
Casey Stoner stands 20 points adrift of his Repsol Honda team-mate after three races and will bid to take what would only be his second ever podium finish at Le Mans across all classes this weekend. The Australian is closely trailed by Valentino Rossi, who has won at Le Mans three times in the premier class (seven podium finishes in total), and the Italian will be pushing for his first Ducati podium at a circuit at which the factory has never before won a MotoGP race.
Rossi’s Ducati team-mate Nicky Hayden and Repsol Honda’s Andrea Dovizioso are level on points and finished fourth and third respectively in last year’s Le Mans race, and Hiroshi Aoyama has enjoyed a good start to the season with the San Carlo Honda Gresini team, something he will aim to maintain in France.
The Japanese rider’s team-mate Marco Simoncelli’s current points haul belies the Italian’s form so far this season. After placing fifth in Qatar he has crashed out of the last two races; at Jerez whilst leading and at Estoril after displaying a pace throughout the weekend which had indicated that an elusive first premier class podium was more than attainable.
British rookie Cal Crutchlow’s debut season continued on an upward curve in Portugal and the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rider will make his racing debut at Le Mans. Team-mate Colin Edwards has twice stood on the podium at the track and the pair will be confident of following up an impressive previous round in Portugal at their team’s home GP.
Héctor Barberá (Mapfre Aspar) crashed out of a premier class race for the first time in his career in Portugal and will be determined to make amends in France, as will rookie Karel Abraham (Cardion AB Motoracing), and Toni Elías (LCR Honda) has twice won at Le Mans (once in 250s and last year in Moto2).
Ben Spies’ (Yamaha Factory Racing) season has not started as the American would have expected after two crashes in the last two races, and his target will be a points-scoring finish at a circuit at which he did not finish last year’s race. Pramac Racing duo Loris Capirossi and Randy de Puniet will try to follow up their Portugal results with another encouraging step forward, whilst Álvaro Bautista has had further time to recover following his incredible comeback from injury at Estoril.
The Moto2 show arrives at Le Mans with German rider Stefan Bradl (Viessmann Kiefer Racing) the form man in the category. Bradl has started each of the opening three rounds of the 2011 season from pole position and has taken two victories (Qatar and in the previous round at Estoril), and currently leads the Championship standings by 13 points ahead of Andrea Iannone.
The Italian surrendered the Championship lead to Bradl in Portugal when he slid out of the group fighting for victory in the race with three laps to go, and will aim to recover lost ground at Le Mans. It is a circuit at which Iannone has a best-ever finish of fourth, which came in last year’s Moto2 race.
Simone Corsi (Ioda Racing Project) has had a consistent start to the season and scored a podium result at Le Mans last year in the Moto2 race, and Thomas Lüthi (Interwetten Paddock Moto2) returns to the scene of his last-ever GP victory (in the 125s in 2006) determined to take his first Moto2 win having crashed out of the Portugal race when in the leading group.
Julián Simón took his first podium of the year in Portugal and was second in last year’s Moto2 race at Le Mans, and the Mapfre Aspar rider is also seeking a maiden Moto2 win, whilst Yuki Takahashi also stood on the rostrum for the first time this year at Estoril and goes back to the site where he won his first ever GP race in 2006 in the 250cc class.
Bradley Smith (Tech 3) and Scott Redding (Marc VDS Racing) experienced difficult races in Portugal and will be eager to put the third round behind them with strong results in France. The latter of the two is still in search of his first Championship points of the season, as is reigning 125cc World Champion Marc Márquez (Team CatalunyaCaixa Repsol). Italian rider Claudio Corti (Italtrans) will undergo a medical check on Thursday to asses his fitness after suffering a shoulder injury in Portugal.
Two wildcard riders will also participate this weekend, with Australian Alex Cudlin riding a Moriwaki for the QMMF Racing Team and South African Steven Odendaal on a Suter and riding under the MS Racing banner.
Nico Terol remains the man to beat in the 125cc category, having opened up a 25-point lead at the top of the Championship standings after just three rounds. The Bankia Aspar rider has won the first three races of the campaign – the first rider to do so since Masao Azuma in 1999 – and at Le Mans will line up for his 100th GP start, all of which have come in the 125cc class.
With the Spaniard in such strong form a chasing pack has formed in his wake, with German duo Sandro Cortese (Intact Racing Team Germany) and Jonas Folger (Red Bull Ajo Motorsport) and Frenchman Johann Zarco (Avant-AirAsia-Ajo) a trio of riders battling one another.
Cortese leads the threesome whilst Folger and Zarco are level on points, and the French rider will be eager for a strong home result after stepping onto the podium for the past two consecutive races. His competitors are also in rostrum-finishing shape after the opening three races of 2011.
Spaniards Efrén Vázquez (Avant-AirAsia-Ajo) and Sergio Gadea (Blusens by Paris Hilton Racing Team) know that they will need to produce strong results in France to maintain contact with those ahead of them, even this early in the season, whilst Gadea’s rookie team-mate Maverick Viñales will have taken great encouragement from his display in Portugal where he was denied a first podium in only his third GP by just two-thousandths of a second. Other rookies in the shape of Danny Kent (Red Bull Ajo Motorsport) and Miguel Oliveira (Team Andalucía Banca Cívica) continue to impress, whilst British rider Taylor Mackenzie (Phonica Racing) will hope to be fit to ride after a crash in QP at Estoril ruled him out of the race with a shoulder injury.
Three wildcard riders will supplement the field at Le Mans with French youngsters Kevin Szalai (Maxiscoot MVT Racing) and Kevin Thobois (Team RMS) and Swiss rider Patrick Meile (Albatros Racing) riding.
The on-track action at the Monster Energy Grand Prix de France commences on Friday at 9.15am local time, when the 125cc class takes to the track for the opening practice session of the weekend.
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