A Rossi landmark: his first-ever third consecutive crash

MotoGP

The Le Mans MotoGP round was the first time Valentino Rossi had crashed out of three races in a row – due to his own mistakes – in 25 years of GPs

Valentino Rossi crashes out of the 2020 MotoGP French Grand Prix at Le Mans

Rossi goes down in the middle of the pack at Turn Three on the first lap

Steve Wobser/Getty Images

Valentino Rossi crashing out of three races in a row? That’s unheard of! In fact it has happened twice before in his career, but neither of those black runs were all his own mistakes.

Except that the nine-times world champion did just that last year, crashing out at Mugello, Barcelona and Assen, although his Barcelona exit was Jorge Lorenzo’s fault, not his own.

He also crashed out of three successive races in 2011 – his first and most agonising year with Ducati – when he fell at Motegi, Phillip Island and Valencia, although that last accident was all Alvaro Bautista’s doing.

Going all the way back from 2010 to his 125cc rookie grand prix season in 1996 you won’t find another time he crashed out of another three races in a row.

“In the last three races I didn’t take any points even though my speed was quite good”

Which means that this most recent spate of tumbles is the first time in 25 seasons of GPs that Rossi has crashed out of three consecutive races due to his own mistakes.

That’s quite a grim landmark for the 41-year-old – especially because during his rookie GP year he threw his little Aprilia at the scenery with frightening frequency – but not necessarily significant.

“It’s a difficult moment,” said Rossi on Sunday afternoon. “I’m a bit unlucky because in the last three races I didn’t take any points even though my speed was quite good, especially during practice, so this is bad.

“Historically in these half-and-half conditions Yamaha suffers. I mean today was wet but not full wet. It was not dry enough for the slicks but there wasn’t a lot of water on the track, so it wasn’t full wet.”

 

‘That fight for ninth was like a fight for victory!’

Fabio Quartararo in the pack during the 2020 MotoGP French Grand Prix at Le Mans

Quartararo spent most of the race going backwards

Petronas SRT

It’s not normal to see the title fighters battling for ninth place on the last lap, but this is not a normal world championship.

Fabio Quartararo and Joan Mir both had nightmares at Le Mans but on different days. Practice and qualifying went like a dream for the championship leader, but the pole man’s speed turned to nothing in Sunday’s rain. On the other hand, Mir had a disastrous Saturday when he was 14th fastest in the dry, so the race-day rain was like a get-out-of-jail-free card for him.

If the race had been dry Quartararo was clear favourite to take victory and the 25 points, while Mir would’ve struggled to get into the top five because he had huge front-grip problems.

In the rain-affected race – a first for both riders since they graduated to MotoGP last year – they finished ninth and 11th, so Quartararo increased his championship lead by two points. Otherwise the Petronas Yamaha man likely would have moved 15 points further in front of the factory Suzuki rider.

“I was not fast enough in the dry to fight for victory so it’s okay like this.”

“In dry conditions Fabio had something more than everyone else, so he had the chance of victory and I was not fast enough in the dry to fight for victory,” said Mir. “Probably we would’ve been able to fight for the top five. But in the end, top five for me and him taking victory would’ve been a bigger points difference, so it’s okay like this.”

Both had disastrous early laps on Sunday afternoon. Quartararo went backwards from pole to 11th and Mir slumped from 14th to 20th – second to last, with only Tito Rabat behind him.

“At the beginning I struggled a lot to warm up the rear tyre – that’s why [Andrea] Dovizioso and [Danilo] Petrucci overtook me so fast,” explained Quartararo. “This is our main problem in these conditions – we struggle a lot to warm up the rear tyre on the edge and for the exit.”

Mir had the same problem, but his race started particularly badly, when he lost a lot of time avoiding Valentino Rossi when the Italian fell on the first lap.

“The crash lost me quite a lot of time,” said Mir. “Then the problem was that the rear was coming around going into corners, which was difficult to control. If you don’t have exit grip you can manage that with the electronics, but when you lose the rear going in you can’t.”

Mir was one of only three riders to choose the harder medium compound rear tyre, although one of the others was team-mate Álex Rins, who was on the charge from the start. Perhaps title-hopeful Mir was more cautious because he had more to lose – and if you are too cautious in the rain you won’t heat your tyres.

Joan Mir in the rain on his Suzuki during the 2020 MotoGP French Grand Prix at Le Mans

Mir had a disastrous first few laps, until his medium/medium tyre choice came good

Suzuki

Mir’s medium/medium worked better as the race went on and the track began to dry. By three-quarters distance he was four seconds and three places behind Quartararo. Halfway through the last lap he was right on him and dived past at Turn Eight, only for Quartararo to counter-attack at the next corner. That move pushed Mir wide and at Turn 11 he lost another position to Viñales.

“I think that’s the first time I’ve thought about the championship in a race,” said Quartararo. “When Joan overtook me I said, ‘No way!’. I could not finish like that without trying something, so I braked so hard into Turn Nine and overtook him, which pushed him a bit wide and also me, because I was over the limit and that fight for ninth position was like a fight for victory!”

So they finished ninth and 11th, giving Quartararo a 15-point lead with nine races done and five to go.

This chaotic championship may just break some records, certainly modern MotoGP records. Quartararo leads the way on 115 points, an average score of 12.8 points per race. Compare that to last year when Marc Márquez won the title with an average score of 22.1 points per race.

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“Some people said nobody wants to win this championship, but everybody wants to win it!” said Quartararo, who had perhaps his scariest moment during the slowdown lap.

“When I looked at the big screen I saw a red guy on the screen, so I said, ‘Dovi won today, so he’s getting way closer,’ but then I looked again and it was Petrucci, so I said, ‘Oh, this is good!’. Then I looked at second place; it was Alex [Márquez] and third was Pol [Espargaro]. I was angry but happy because our first race in the wet could have been worse and we are still leading the championship. We can say that this is a really a strange year!”

Mir’s problems in the dry were significant, because this was the third year in a row that Suzuki struggled at Le Mans. Last year Rins arrived at the track standing second in the championship, one point behind Marquez, a genuine title contender. But he couldn’t get heat into his front tyre at Le Mans, so he struggled to tenth place and left France 20 points down

Rookie Mir had an even worse time at Le Mans 2019. He crashed twice on Friday and Saturday and three times on Sunday before the race had even started (two in morning warm-up, one on the warm-up lap) and of all of those crashes were at the same corner. You guessed it – Turn Three – where he fell again last Saturday morning and where Rins crashed out of the race.

Suzuki engineers don’t understand why their riders can’t get heat into the front tyre at Le Mans, so perhaps it’s the asphalt.

 

Le Mans is a MotoGP accident black spot – why?

Cal Crutchlow is helped by marshals after crashing out of the 2020 MotoGP French Grand Prix at Le Mans

Cal Crutchlow and some busy Le Mans marshals after his race crash

Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images

Le Mans has always been a weekend where riders get battered and bruised, while mechanics spin spanners to fix the damage.

The French track has topped the MotoGP crash league no less than four times in the last 11 years, which is significant when there are 18 or 19 circuits in the championship.

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the layout is tight and unforgiving. In the old days Le Mans would’ve been called a scratcher’s circuit, the kind of place where riders who are prepared to take maximum risks can make the difference. Which means at MotoGP level everyone is on the edge, all of the time.

Second, the weather is often bad, with most Le Mans weekends affected by rain and some point. Third, the asphalt. Most riders say it’s very grippy, but with a thin line between grip and no grip, so riders get little warning of impending disaster.

Heading towards Turn Three on a chilly day is purgatory for riders, because they simply don’t know if the front tyre will be hot enough to grip

Last weekend at Le Mans there were 100 crashes, last year there were 90 and in 2018 there were 109, an all-time record for a fully dry weekend.

Both riders and engineers had their theories about how a grippy track could cause so many accidents in the dry.

“The Michelin rear has so much grip that we try to run not so much traction control in the lower rpm range, to get the bike to pivot,” explained Bradley Smith, a KTM rider at the time. “We try to get the pivot naturally and we are all trying to get the bike turned as quick as possible to get up the straights, so the problem is exaggerated here.”

KTM engineer Paul Trevathan had another theory. “There are a lot of corners here where riders are using low rpm here and when the rpm is low the guys can’t feel the rear step out so much,” he said. “When it’s high rpm the rear is more connected to the throttle. There’s good grip here, so the guys feel they can carry good corner speed, but the rpm is so low they don’t feel the tyre go so early in corner.”

In fact front tyre grip is usually the biggest issue at Le Mans, especially into left-handers, because the layout is quite asymmetric, with nine rights and only five lefts. Last year 32 of the 90 crashes were riders losing the front into the track’s first left-hander, making Turn Three the most crashed-at corner of the year.

Last weekend 30 of the 100 accidents were at Turn Three. This isn’t a Michelin or a Dunlop problem. Years back, on a chilly Saturday morning during the Bridgestone spec-tyre era, I watched FP3 from Turn Three and watched the marshals pile up the wrecked bikes against the circuit wall.

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Heading towards Turn Three on a chilly day is purgatory for riders, because they simply don’t know if the front tyre will be hot enough to grip when they attack the corner. The last time they fully loaded the left side of the tyre was at the end of the back straight, where they brakes from 175mph to 70mph for the Turn Nine/Ten left/right. Through Turn 12 the left of the tyre gets some gentler use, but then loses a lot of heat on the long run up the start/finish.

Last weekend was particularly scary because the mornings were so cold, with a track temperature of just ten degrees for FP3. Michelin brought the same spec tyres they would’ve used if the race had gone ahead in its usual May slot, so should they have brought softer tyres?

Michelin said its engineers brought the softest range of tyres possible, because there’s a limit to how soft you can go when you’re trying to get 300-horsepower motorcycles to last a 40-minute race. The riders weren’t so sure, however, because even the softest compound slicks weren’t degrading much.

What about asymmetric tyres? Again Michelin said no.

“There is only a ten-degree difference between the left and right side of the tyres here,” said the company’s MotoGP chief Piero Taramasso. “For asymmetric tyres you need a difference of between 25 and 30 degrees.”

Le Mans may claim a lot of victims and damage a lot of bikes, but its safety record is good. This year there wasn’t a single broken bone from those 100 tumbles.