The VROOM Blog #FrenchGP – Petrucci punches back in Le Mans

 In MotoGP, News

Well, if there was one thing missing from this wild 2020 MotoGP season it might have been rain. In fact, there hasn’t been a wet MotoGP race since 2018, meaning that many riders on the grid including Fabio Quartararo and Joan Mir – the top two in the championship chase – have no wet race experience in the premier class. As if the season couldn’t get any more exciting…

Before we get to this weekend’s action in France, there are a few bits and pieces of news to cover. Most notably was what now seems like ‘old news’ having been released around 30 minutes after my Barcelona blog was posted – Ducati have finally announced who is going where for 2021. Well for the Factory and Pramac teams anyway, the Esponsorama (Avintia) team has yet to announce plans for next season, but that’s another story.

Ducati announced (rather unsurprisingly) that Pecco Bagnaia will step up to the Factory Ducati team with current teammate Jack Miller, and that the two Pramac seats will be filled by Johann Zarco and Moto2 front runner Jorge Martin. The Pramac team has clearly fulfilled its role as a ‘junior’ team with both of their current riders being promoted to the factory team, and I have no doubt they will be able to do the same with Jorge Martin. Zarco of course is more experienced than you would expect for the Pramac team, but has been rewarded by Ducati for his performances on board the Esponsorama machine this season.

The Esponsorama team currently have a contract with Tito Rabat and Ducati also confirmed that Enea Bastianini would be joining them for next season. Seems simple enough, but as mentioned previously Luca Marini’s name has also been linked with that team for 2021, and Davide Tardozzi (Ducati Team boss) told Suzi Perry this weekend that the team “will race Ducatis in 2021 with young riders”, but that it was too soon to make any announcements. I would assume that that rules out Tito Rabat who at the age of 31 no longer counts as a ‘young’ rider in the paddock.

It wasn’t too long ago that said team ‘had a contract’ with Karel Abraham to ride for them in 2020, but he was replaced by Zarco, so it should come as no surprise that poor Rabat seems to be facing the same fate. All is not lost for Rabat however, with paddock rumour this weekend suggesting that he may be moving to ride a Ducati in World Superbikes. I think that would be a good move for him – hopefully he would be more competitive there than we have seen him be recently. We mustn’t forget – Tito is the 2014 Moto2 World Champion, and he beat some pretty impressive names to get there!

The Two Wheels for Life auction for Fabio Quartararo’s tear-off that ended Jack Miller’s race back in Misano ended this week, and the total raised was a whopping £4,250!

On Wednesday and Thursday directly before the Le Mans race weekend got underway, there was a two day test at the Portimão circuit. Only the MotoGP test riders (and the Aprilia team due to concessions) were on actual GP machinery as they worked to gather data on tyres, gearing and electronics that would help the teams when they arrive in the Algarve to round out the season in November.

The test was really more of a track familiarisation exercise for the MotoGP riders who attended, many of whom didn’t bother with transponders so there were no official times recorded as they lapped the spectacular circuit on ‘road bikes’. The general response from most of the riders was positive, with Valentino Rossi declaring the track “sweet” but “scary”! There were only three full-time GP riders who didn’t attend the test – Iker Lecuona, Cal Crutchlow, and most notably Championship leader Fabio Quartararo who stated that he didn’t want to risk injury with so many races coming up. Fabio has previous experience on the circuit having raced there 6 years ago and so didn’t think there was too much to be gained by riding the circuit on anything other than his race bike. Makes sense to me…

FP1 this weekend produced a surprise result that will have made many of us smile – Bradley Smith topped a cold and wet session. He followed this up with a massive crash in FP2, but luckily walked away unharmed. Qualifying on Saturday saw once again a number of riders that you would expect to have been straight through to Q2 having to participate in Q1 – Miller, Mir, Rins, Pecco and Petrucci included. In the end, it was the Ducati duo of Petrucci and Bagnaia that progressed through to a frantic Q2 session. Jack Miller, following a monster crash in FP3 looked set to take pole position only for home hero Quartararo to pip him at the very end of the session, leaving Miller in second with Petrucci rounding out the top 3. This was Petrucci’s first front row start since Mugello 2019 – he went on to win that race. Could he do the same in France?

While Championship leader Quartararo qualified on pole, his nearest rival Joan Mir had a nightmare and found himself qualifying in 14th position on the 5th row of the grid. Hardly ideal for the Suzuki man, whose teammate Alex Rins was two places further behind. In a switch of fortunes in the LCR Honda camp, it was Cal Crutchlow who was the top Honda in qualifying this week – finishing in 4th while teammate Nakagami failed to progress through Q1 and would start the race from 13th position.

Race day dawned and things were already mixed up because the MotoGP race would run between the Moto3 and Moto2 races to once again avoid a clash with another event. The pictures coming in from the grid showed ominous looking clouds filling the sky as La Marseillaise rang out across the circuit. I do love that anthem – would we be hearing it again when the winner took to the podium? Reports started filtering through that there were spots of rain falling in Le Mans, and then it was pouring. Cue a red flag situation on the grid with a wet race being declared. Bikes and riders were cleared from the grid and a new race start time and distance were declared. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait too long, and they were back out for the quick restart procedure on wet tyres. The race being declared wet means that the riders can return to the pits at any time to switch to their second bike with different tyres – would we be seeing our first flag to flag race of the season? In the end it remained wet enough for the wet tyres, so no, but the anticipation was there even briefly!

As mentioned earlier this was the first wet race of the season, and the first wet race of no less than 7 riders’ premier class careers! Obviously the 3 rookies – Binder, Alex Marquez and Lecuona – haven’t raced in the wet yet as this is the first one of the season, but by my reckoning neither have Bagnaia, Oliveira or – critically – championship top two Quartararo and Mir.

As the lights went out, it was Miller who grabbed the holeshot from Crutchlow who then hit reverse and was back in 4th by the time Valentino Rossi crashed out at turn 3, and 6th a few corners later. Bradley Smith from 19th on the grid was up to 9thby the end of the first lap as Petrucci took the lead ahead of fellow Ducati riders Miller and Dovizioso with Fabio and Pol Espargaro having a mini battle behind them.

Lap 3 saw Pol pass Fabio, closely followed by Alex Rins. Fabio then found he had Crutchlow swarming behind him, and the Brit made his move stick on the Frenchman on the following lap. Things got quite busy and we saw Rins pass Pol, Bradley Smith pass Fabio and then when Miguel Oliveira made a pass on Fabio, Alex Marquez dived past them both! Nakagami was the next rider to pass a struggling Quartararo, and both Alex Marquez and Oliveira passed Bradley as Rins began to string together a number of fastest laps, reeling in the leading trio of Ducatis.

Ducati were clearly worried about the pace Rins was setting because by lap 10 Petrucci, Miller and Dovi had all had dash warnings that he was coming! Lap 10 saw Bradley Smith crash out of what would surely have been his best result of the season. Further back, Fabio Quartararo was running in 11th, with championship rivals Viñales and Mir back in 15th and 17threspectively.

A few laps later, Rins had caught Miller and passed him for 3rd, but Miller was having none of it and passed him straight back as Petrucci began to pull a little bit of a gap at the front. Alex Marquez passed Crutchlow to become top Honda in the race, and Tito Rabat crashed out at turn 4. It looked to me as though Aleix Espargaro was holding up the trio of riders behind him – Mir, Viñales and Morbidelli – and as we watched Rins pass Miller, only for Jack to get back through, we returned to see that all 3 had stormed past the Aprilia rider.

Alex Marquez began closing in on Pol, and the front four we beginning to bunch back up as Franky Morbidelli crashed out of the race. This race didn’t seem to settle down at all, and lap 18 was a wild one! Dovi made a move on Petrucci for the race lead, as Rins and Miller switched places back and forth behind them. Petrucci passed Dovi to re-take the lead, only for Dovi to pass him straight back before Petrucci made the move stick and Rins flew past both Jack and Dovi. With all of this going on, Pol and Alex Marquez had caught up with Dovi…

Having made a move stick on Rins, Miller suddenly slowed up, raised his hand and was out of the race and a potential podium finish. On arrival back in the pit lane, Miller was understandably frustrated and threw his glove across the pit box. He said later that he did feel he could have gone on to fight for the win had his bike not packed in.

Back on track, Petrucci was still leading from Rins, Dovi, Pol and Marquez and it wasn’t long before Marquez had moved past Pol. Alex Rins crashed out, moving Marquez up into a potential podium position. Rins was able to remount and was subsequently shown the ‘meatball’ flag due to the marshal strap that had wrapped itself around his rear camera flapping dangerously close to his rear wheel. He pulled over, realised and rectified the problem before re-joining the race.

Alex Marquez wasted no time in closing down Andrea Dovizioso and was soon on his back wheel, while further back, Fabio had made his way up to 8th, with Viñales and Mir in 10th and 11th. Out front, Petrucci had responded to those behind him and was now leading by 2 seconds from Dovi and Marquez, with Pol and Oliveira a further 0.5 seconds back. The final couple of laps saw plenty of action behind Petrucci – Marquez passed Dovizioso, as did Pol and Oliveira although Dovi was able to get back through on the Portuguese rider.  Fabio, Mir and Viñales were having a ding-dong battle that could’ve been mistaken for a podium battle but was in fact for 9th position, but vital championship points could be won or lost here!

Petrucci stormed across the line to take only his second MotoGP win – Ducatis first at Le Mans – and become the 7th different winner of the season. Alex Marquez crossed the line in 2nd to take his first ever MotoGP podium, and Honda’s first of the season, with KTM’s Pol Espargaro keeping Dovi at bay to take 3rd.

Petrucci dedicated his win to everyone who has believed in him through this difficult time, top of that list I’m sure will be his Mum. Watching Danilo receive a surprise video call from her during his media debriefs was surely a highlight of the weekend, and he told the press that “she believes more than me” and “she is my extra power!”

I have long had a soft spot for Danilo Petrucci – I knew who he was from his time in the World Superbike paddock when he raced in the Superstock 1000 class, and I remember seeing him at the Day of Champions way back at the beginning of his GP career and he was just lovely – and at a time when I wouldn’t say I had a favourite rider in MotoGP, he is my favourite winner of the season so far. Having said that, my rider of the day would have to be Alex Marquez. The rookie started in 18th position with no wet race experience on that nightmare of a Honda and rode a fantastic race to finish 2nd.

And I know that those who believe he is only on that bike because of his brother will be saying ‘oh but it was wet’ and ‘but people fell off in front of him’, and yeah it was wet and people did fall off but he still rode his own race and had to make passes of his own to get that podium. It’s not as though he started 18th and 16 people fell off in front of him – he worked hard for that 2nd place, and it’s been coming. I said earlier in the season that Alex more of a ‘slow-burn’ rider and I think that was right – he has been steadily improving all season and was fast in morning warm up – I reckon that if he can work on qualifying higher up the grid, we will see him continue to have strong results.

Somehow – maybe because it is 2020 – Fabio Quartararo increased his championship lead despite finishing in 9th. Following a battle with Viñales and Mir, Fabio was able to finish ahead of them claiming what could prove to be vital championship points on his closest rivals. His lead is now 10 points from Joan Mir, with Dovi a further 8 points back and Viñales 1 behind Dovi – there are 19 points covering the top four in the championship as we head to Spain for 2 back to back rounds at the MotorLand Aragón circuit.

This weekend also saw the conclusion of the MotoE world cup which saw rookie – I have found it very strange this season seeing Jordi Torres and Dominique Aegerter referred to as rookies – Jordi Torres crowned Champion following a couple of hectic races in France.

And I know I don’t usually comment on the Moto2 or Moto3 races, but I absolutely have to mention Sam Lowes and Jake Dixon’s fantastic performances in Moto2 this weekend. Jake lead the race for so long, and was able to respond when his pit board told him Sam was closing in but he crashed out with 5 laps remaining and it was devastating to watch him return to the pits and apologise to his crew, but I have no doubt that win is coming! Jake’s misfortune meant that Sam went on to take the win in his 100th GP start. This was also Sam’s first win since Aragón 2016, which funnily enough is where they’re off to next…

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