One thousand grands prix ago, on the Isle of Man in June 1949, the first MotoGP race (OK, the Senior TT) was won by Harold Daniell, a short, beer-bellied Londoner who liked a drink and whose sight was so bad he hadn’t been allowed to fight in the Second World War.
Honda tried its new German-built chassis during last week’s Jerez tests, so the next step is to race it, possibly this weekend. But what engineering secrets is Moto2 dominator Kalex using to make the RC213V faster?
This wasn’t Bezzecchi’s first MotoGP win. That came last month at the rain-soaked Argentine GP, but most racers don’t consider victories in the rain to be real victories, so Le Mans was the 24-year-old’s real MotoGP breakthrough, which he celebrated by shaving off his moustache that he’d started growing while waiting for this big day.
The thought of waving goodbye to the moustache seemed to make him happier than winning the race. “Because I’m very ugly like this,” he grinned.
Bezzecchi’s victory was as perfect as it could’ve been. He took the lead just before half-distance, using his Ducati GP22’s horsepower advantage to sweep past Jack Miller’s KTM into the mega-fast Turn 1 sweeper.
From there the VR46 Ducati man got serious and did a disappearing act. “I put my rhythm on,” he said. That rhythm was red hot and he quickly opened a 1.8 -second gap over second-placed Marc Márquez, effectively riding his first GP race since Malaysia last October. (Because he barely made one-third distance at Valencia.) And, as usual, the six-time MotoGP king had brought a spoon to a knife fight.
Le Mans is a nasty little track – not a grand prix circuit in the true sense of the word. It’s populated by nadgery little corners and cursed with several downhill entries into hairpins, where it’s so easy to make mistakes. It’s stupid.
This is why there’s usually a ton of (very TV-friendly) chaos at Le Mans, just like there was on Sunday, with two pile-ups, one of which certainly helped Bezzecchi’s push to the front, and more than a third of the grid crashing out.
And this is why Le Mans holds GP racing’s record for the number of crashes in the dry: 105 tumbles during the sun-blessed 2018 event. Compare that to 109 accidents at Portimao last year, where it rained on all three days.
The racing is crazy, which is how we like it, but the penalties being handed out now are even crazier, which is why MotoGP’s stewards and race direction are losing the trust of riders, team managers, factory bosses and fans
Thus Bezzecchi’s ability to comfortably increase his lead, riding inch-perfectly lap after lap, was a thing of beauty. He only really made one mistake – while behind Marquez while they braked into the track’s nastiest downhill hairpin (the double-right Garage Vert), when there was a bunch of riders queuing up behind Miller. He copped a drop-one-position penalty for that.
“Honestly, I didn’t want to pass Marc there, but I made a mistake in braking,” he said. “I braked just three metres later and saw I wasn’t going to stop, so I had to go inside Marc to not hit him in his back. So I pushed him wide and I also went outside the kerb. I expected the penalty, so I was already saying to myself, ‘For sure in one or two laps I have to drop one position’.”
At the chequered flag Bezzecchi’s VR46 team were ecstatic, especially crew chief Matteo Flamigni, who was Valentino Rossi’s data engineer from 2004 to 2021 before he took on his new role with Bezzecchi at the end of 2021.
“Marco is just a very talented guy with a great bike – it’s a perfect marriage,” said Flamigni. “Marco can be fast with new tyres and he can be fast with used tyres. Also, he’s just very excited to be here and to be a part of MotoGP.”
Once again, like his mentor.
“Marco really enjoys it, he stays with me all day in the box, just walking round, looking, just being here and breathing the atmosphere. He loves it.
“Today he was unbelievably fast and he was also under control because every lap was 31.8, 31.9, 31.8, 32.0. He is always very precise with his lap times when the situation is under control.”
Tyre pressures are still a big issue in MotoGP – probably the biggest single performance factor – as the category works towards enforcing minimum-pressure regulations, which were due to be introduced at Le Mans. But the teams are simply not ready to enter this world where the rider’s front tyre pressure will need to stay above 1.9 bar, to avoid disqualification, and below 2.1 bar, after which the tyre’s contact patch shrinks, the rider loses grip and most likely crashes. An impossibly small window.
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So I asked Flamigni about Bezzecchi’s pressures, purely out of interest, to see how different teams and riders are trying to get into that zone.
“You have to take many risks to stay within the rules.” said Dall’Igna.
In other words, if you are under, you get disqualified, and if you’re more than a couple of bar over, you probably crash. This is why the rule may never be enforced.
“Honestly, did you expect such a race from Marco – staying in front for most of the race, because I didn’t!” added Flamigni. “So I set up his pressures to be in the slipstream [where the front tyre gets hot and the pressure rises, so you set the pressure lower], so I’m sure we are lower than the limit.”
I’ve heard that pretty much the entire grid – or at least the riders packing the top ten – are under pressure at most races.
“There’s nobody keeping to the rules,” affirmed KTM engineer Paul Trevathan, who works with the GASGAS Tech 3 team. “You try but you can’t go racing like that!
“We’re not cheating on purpose – we try to get to 1.9, everybody does. The problem is that you don’t know what’s going to happen in the race – the difference in pressure between leading the race and being buried in the pack in fifth place is just too much.”
During the Le Mans weekend there were 79 crashes across all three classes. Compare that to 50 at Jerez, 69 at COTA, 23 at Termas de Rio Hondo and 56 at Portimao.
There are a few reasons why Le Mans is so unforgiving.
“The asphalt offers fantastic grip, which gives you great confidence, so you lean too much and push too much, but ultimately risk a crash,” Marquez told me a couple of years ago.
Also, this from Pol Espargaró, still recovering from his ugly accident at Portimao in March. “At a track like Le Mans, every corner, every braking point and every tenth matters so much that everyone needs to risk to the maximum or go to the back of the grid.”
Trevathan has a couple of other theories. “There are a lot of corners where riders are using low RPM and when the RPM is low they can’t feel the rear step out so much,” he said.
“Also, Michelin bring the softest rear here because it’s usually pretty cold, so the grip balance is a bit out because the rear tyre is so grippy that it pushes the front. The big problem is the grip balance.”
Sprint-race winner Martin, who fought back from tenth after colliding with Luca Marini on lap two, enjoyed battling for second with Marquez. His Ducati was better than the Honda but he was unable to make a move stick, until he attacked Márquez on the penultimate lap. The former champ crashed at that moment, his tyres and body shot, because spoon versus knife doesn’t really work.
“After what happened at Portimao [where Márquez collided with Martin, before taking out Miguel Oliveira] this was how to solve our problems, on the track,” said Martin, after his first GP podium of the year. “Marc is one of the toughest guys to battle with, so after the sprint I studied his race with Pecco [Bagnaia, who had fought with Márquez for a podium] to try to understand how to pass him… but that was mostly useless!”
Márquez was chasing his first podium since Phillip Island last October. He didn’t make it, but he was happy anyway.
“I’m very, very happy about the race,” said the Honda rider, who raced with a Kalex chassis for the first time. “It’s a long time since I felt like this – riding well, going into the corners with some slides, braking late, fighting against other riders.
“Maybe I wasn’t ready to fight for the podium, but anyway I prefer to lose a race like this than to finish tenth.”
Márquez crashed because his RC213V was still unsettled from a big moment at the previous corner – as usual the bike’s biggest problem is acceleration traction.
“The chassis is a small help but it’s not the solution,” he added. “We need to change something to be more comfortable and safer, because every year Honda riders are in the top rankings of crashing.”
Zarco’s third-place finish, right behind his team-mate, came from tenth place on lap one, and gave the vast crowd – MotoGP’s biggest weekend in decades – an excuse to chug back a few more beers to complete a wild weekend. They needed that, because 2021 champ Fabio Quartararo had another weekend to forget with Yamaha, finishing a distant seventh.
Bezzecchi may have been the man of the race, but what about rookie Augusto Fernandez, who finished fourth, just six seconds back? This was a work of genius from the 25-year-old GAGAS rider, who duelled for the result with Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaró.
Trevathan sees huge promise in the youngster. “It’s his humility and the need and the want to learn,” he said. “He didn’t come into the team being a superstar – he came to learn. ‘I’m a rookie, I’m zero, so please help me’. He expected it to be hard, and this is the key. There is so much to learn in MotoGP, and if you’re not willing to learn, forget it.”
Fernandez’s result also underlined the giant leap forward that KTM has taken into 2023. The RC16 was competitive from the get-go at Le Mans, a hugely different track to Jerez, where Brad Binder and Jack Miller raced with Bagnaia for the GP win, finishing a close second and third.
Miller qualified on the front row on Saturday but crashed out of both French races, commenting in true-blue Aussie style that he’d been, “a f**king idiot”. Binder got punted down to 16th in Sunday’s first-lap mayhem and was fighting back as only he knew how, until a long-lap penalty dented his charge. All things considered, sixth was a good result.
Bezzecchi now stands one point behind championship leader Bagnaia, who ended his Le Mans weekend trading punches with Maverick Viñales in the Turn 12 gravel trap, after they’d collided and fallen.
There was much hoo-ha about their brief bout of fisticuffs. But really, how can anyone expect two racers, both as high as kites on adrenaline and seeing through a red mist, expect anything else?