#FrenchGP Le Mans, race weekend preview: MotoGP, Moto2, Moto3

 In MotoGP, News

MotoGP

A short way into the Spanish GP, it looked like Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) was going to be heading into his home Grand Prix with three wins in a row and a nice cushion of points at the top of the Championship. But the course of true racing never did run smooth, and arm pump put paid to that as Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) swept through to take an emotional first win in red. His teammate, Francesco Bagnaia, further compounded the Ducati delight in second, and he’s now atop the table to boot. That makes an interesting equation in the standings, with Quartararo already back training after surgery, Yamaha and Ducati sharing the wins so far… and another home hero in Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) waiting in the wings.

Starting with that Ducati 1-2 – the factory’s first since 2018 – there’s plenty to say. First, because it wasn’t the Red Bull Ring, Motegi, Qatar… it was the Circuito de Jerez-Angel Nieto, where in recent history few have managed to get the Italian machine to look like the best bike on the grid. That’s a warning shot as Miller fired back following his tougher start to the season and Bagnaia just keeps on being quick, but so was Quartararo’s pace before he ran into trouble. Yamaha have a great record at Le Mans, but Ducati can also find plenty in the Sarthe circuit to suit. In 2019 it was a Borgo Panigale 2-3-4 behind only Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team), last year it was a Ducati win.

That will have Miller, Bagnaia and home hero Zarco very eager to get engines on. The Frenchman has also already been on the podium at Le Mans on different machinery, and on the podium this year with Ducati… so it could be a good mix as the red wall looks to continue its march. But Quartararo is no stranger to going from arm pump surgery to podium, and he’ll really, really want to bounce back this time. Can he?

Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), meanwhile, has had a more muted run since winning the first race of the season, but the last time he won in Qatar he also won in France. Franco Morbidelli’s (Petronas Yamaha SRT) momentum has gone the other way this season and he arrives building on each previous race, so he’ll be eager to show once again why he was runner up in the title fight last year. Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha SRT) wants to get on that bandwagon too, and the ‘Doctor’ said big positives were found in the post-Jerez test…

At Suzuki there are also some mixed fortunes. Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) has now been one of the fastest riders out there on Sunday only to slide out of contention, so there’s either keeping it together this time around or easing off a little on the table. In MotoGP™ the latter isn’t often likely – as Rins himself showed last year in France with one of the most direct approaches to a three-in-one overtake attempt ever. The Spaniard was spectacular in the tough conditions before he then overcooked it… with rain possible this year, could redemption be on the cards?

Reigning Champion Joan Mir, meanwhile, has been consistent as ever. He’s had a podium in Portugal but otherwise put in solid rides for points at venues he says don’t suit him or the bike quite perfectly. Now into the top four overall, Le Mans is another where he doesn’t expect to be slicing through to win from pole, but the Spaniard has been the best at balancing risk, reward and brutal overtakes for some time now, so he can’t be counted out.

As 2021 rolls on, Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) has become a fixture nearer the front too. The Noale factory continue to home in on the race win in terms of time, and it’s a mark of how big the step forward has been that Espargaro was slightly disappointed with their actual position in Jerez.

Also disappointed in Jerez for different reasons was Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) after the South African’s upward trajectory from a difficult first race out ended in an early crash, so can KTM fight back in Le Mans? Both Binder and teammate Miguel Oliveira were upbeat after the Jerez test, saying they’d spent a lot of time focusing on getting the bike to work better with the softer tyres without compromising their positives. That does seem a key for the factory in 2021 so far. A KTM was on the podium last year in the wet at Le Mans, but the Austrian factory were also in the top six in the dry in 2019 – a year before their breakthrough fourth premier class album full of chart toppers. What will we see this time around?

At Honda, there was plenty, plenty to see in the test. A brand-new air intake, chassis, exhaust and more added to five different aero combinations made quite the impression, although last time out it was someone reverting to their 2020 chassis that made the biggest dent in the race: Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu). The Japanese rider equalled his best ever result in fourth and will be looking to keep that rolling, and he had a solid Le Mans last year. His teammate Alex Marquez (LCR Honda Castrol), meanwhile, is still looking to get back to where he left off last year… but last year, the then-rookie put in an absolute stunner for his first premier class podium in France. Will good memories see him take a step forward? And has the Jerez test helped Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team) do the same?

Finally, there’s Marc Marquez. His return in Portugal was incredibly impressive after so long on the sidelines, and his speed remained at times in Jerez. But it was undoubtedly a more difficult round for the eight-time World Champion as he suffered two fast crashes that saw him then only complete seven laps in the test on Monday. But that was then and this will be now, with Marquez having always been one of the sport’s best at resetting. What can he do with some more time to recover and more time on the bike? We’re about to find out…

Moto2

After four races, there are five riders starting to make some breathing space at the top of the Moto2™ standings. But it’s been far from a predictable season, and Le Mans offers those on the chase another chance at taking a bite of the podium, victory or top five cherry. So what are we expecting in Sarthe?

Remy Gardner (Red Bull KTM Ajo) heads into Le Mans with the points lead despite his worst finish of the season so far last time out, although that was a fourth place, which goes some way to explaining his impressive position in 2021. He’s still looking for a win though and with podium form last year at the venue, will likely be feeling pretty confident of at least fighting for the rostrum once again. Can he go one better and tick off the victory box this season? Or is there still no rush to be rash when you’re top of the pile?

The one man ahead of him in 2020, however, was the man just behind him in the standings now: Sam Lowes (Elf Marc VDS Racing Team). Judging it perfectly at the front and moving through to lead after a heartbreaker for Jake Dixon (Petronas Sprinta Racing), the number 22 will be looking to at least head Gardner home. He’ll also likely have a bit more of a spring in his step in France after recovering from his sky-high DNF in Portugal to take a solid third place and re-engage consistency mode under a little more pressure. Rookie Raul Fernandez (Red Bull KTM Ajo) is only as far behind Lowes in the standings as Lowes is behind Gardner, however, so can he move forward again after running out of grip to hold onto the podium in Jerez?

Marco Bezzecchi (Sky Racing Team VR46), meanwhile, did the opposite and steamed away from the squabble for second to take it pretty comfortably by the flag. He took a podium in France last year and after a more muted opening three races, arriving back in Sarthe fresh from his first rostrum of the season is a good springboard to start getting back into the fight for the win. Speaking of which, there’s another Italian with the ultimate springboard on the way into Le Mans: Fabio Di Giannantonio (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2).

Diggia has come close to the top step before in Moto2™, but the dream finally came true in Jerez as the Italian got the perfect launch and then showed perfect poise – and speed – all the way to the flag. It was pretty much faultless and brings him back into within striking distance of the top, so can he push on from here? Sometimes, a win can unlock more than just a bottle of prosecco, and the Italian already had a podium earlier this year so it was far from a surprise to see him in the fight for glory.

From there and the five fastest riders so far, there’s a small gap back to those on the chase, so who can break the stranglehold near the top? So far, only Aron Canet (Inde Aspar Team) has done so; the Spaniard taking second place in Portugal. Can he find that form again and iron out his ups and downs? Joe Roberts (Italtrans Racing Team) is actually ahead of Canet overall though, the American with one DNF but some solid consistency otherwise, and he’s been close – rubbing-is-racingly close – to the podium this season. Never having found Jerez the best match, will Le Mans bring the American further into the fray? Augusto Fernandez (Elf Marc VDS Racing Team) is another looking for a step forward and he has podium form at Le Mans, as well as having come close to it again last season, and Ai Ogura (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) is now in the groove after a tougher first race. The Japanese rookie has made a few waves of late getting in the mix near the front…

And then there’s also, of course, the 2020 man of the moment… for a while at least. Jake Dixon had never led a Moto2™ race before or been very close to doing so until his incredible display of form in 2020 before disaster struck, but that moment saw the Brit kick on and bounce back to greater heights for much of the rest of the season. He’s already been quick in 2021 despite still being on the comeback from his wrist injury and surgery, so will the good memories outweigh the bad? The Sarthe weather could also play into his hands, and those of Lowes; the others who’ve shown pace in tougher conditions… and cause a bit more of a headache for the likes of Raul Fernandez and Ogura.

Moto3

The races keep coming and Pedro Acosta (Red Bull KTM Ajo) just keeps stealing the headlines. He’s now the only rider in history to have ever taken four podiums in his first four Grands Prix, despite saying of Jerez that it’s somewhere his riding style doesn’t suit, but now it’s Le Mans in the crosshairs and that’s unfamiliar turf for the number 37. Qatar was, of course, the same, and that went pretty well for the now-Championship leader. But with pre-season testing beforehand there was a little more time to get to know the venue, so the Sarthe circuit is most definitely a whole new challenge in terms of both the track itself and the position the history-maker finds himself in.

With such a mammoth 51-point lead, however, there’s room to “relax”. The Spaniard enjoys the highest leading margin after the opening four races of a 125cc or Moto3™ season since the current point system was introduced in 1993. But even before that was the case, the words of Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) in the Jerez pre-event Press Conference ring true: tenth is ok. A win is ok. A point, a crash… it’s all ok. Because regardless of the records set already, he’s still a rookie.

That said, there are a few riders who’ll be ignoring that and heading into Le Mans looking to depose the new ruler. Niccolo Antonelli (Avintia Esponsorama Moto3) arrives closest on the chase thanks to his consistency – and a Doha podium – followed by Andrea Migno (Rivacold Snipers Team), who has one 0 but two fourths and a third. Their ability to stay out of trouble, in terms of either causing it or getting tangled in it, has paid dividends and they’ve both been quick to boot. Migno also took a top five in France last season, and the year before, prefaced by a podium in 2018. On both past and current form, the Italian has arguably the best CV at Le Mans.

Then there’s Romano Fenati (Sterilgarda Max Racing Team), fresh from a podium and some similarly artful dodging of the drama that befell many at the final corner. The veteran seemed to consciously stay out the melee before striking late, and he’s another who’s been consistent. He also has form at Le Mans and although it’s from 2016, he finished just 0.099 off the win in second. The fact that a 0.099 deficit has to be quantified as being second place also speaks to how incredibly close the class is. The man who followed him home in Jerez, meanwhile, is looking for a little less drama in a different manner: Jeremy Alcoba (Indonesian Racing Gresini Moto3) may once again have impressively recovered from a Long Lap Penalty to take a rostrum finish, but he’ll want to head into race day with a clean sheet this time round and rid himself of some Sunday hurdles.

So what of that aforementioned drama? Deniz Öncü (Red Bull KTM Tech 3) would have made different headlines in Jerez if not for that late move that set off the skittles, but the Turk nevertheless put in an impressive performance and will be looking for more of that race-leading feeling. Jaume Masia (Red Bull KTM Ajo) and Darryn Binder (Petronas Sprinta Racing) will also be focused on bouncing back as soon as possible; both also fuelled by the knowledge that they were once again fast, just unlucky. Experience remains on their side.

Ayumu Sasaki (Red Bull KTM Tech 3) was another who was fast and after his late race blunder first time out in 2021, the Japanese rider has since been a consistent force in the front freight train on his best roll of continual form pretty much ever. Can he crank that up even further this time? Gabriel Rodrigo (Indonesian Racing Gresini Moto3) will also want redemption after a highside out the lead, and John McPhee’s (Petronas Sprinta Racing) bad luck only continued in the Spanish GP. But the Scotsman is the only man in the field who’s won before at Le Mans… so could this be the turnaround he needs?

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