MotoGP mutterings: Le Mans

by Mat Oxley on 23rd May 2018

What happened at Le Mans, and how and why

Le Mans: highside city // Rossi's problems // Lorenzo 'wasn't well advised' // Ducati and Dovi // Crutchlow powers through // Márquez wins with carbon swingarm // New KTM for Austria?  // Radical aero lives on // Marc VDS battle rages // Jonathan Rea to MotoGP? // Zarco cracks // MV Agusta returns 

Le Mans becomes highside city

This is the 70th season of motorcycle Grand Prix racing and the 2018 French GP established a painful new record: 109 crashes during a weekend untainted by a single drop of rain.

Compare those 109 tumbles to the first four rounds of 2018: at the season-opening Qatar Grand Prix there were 31 crashes over the three days and three classes, in Argentina there were 20 falls, at COTA there were 30 and at Jerez there were 56.

The Le Mans crash rate had older members of the paddock recalling the bone-crunching days of the 500cc two-strokes. The worst was Cal Crutchlow’s horrible crash at Turn 8 during qualifying, when the LCR Honda man was chucked over the highside as if he had been tricked by the merciless powerband of an NSR500, with no traction control to save him.

He wasn’t the only one. Red Bull KTM team-mates Pol Espargaró and Bradley Smith also went flying and many others only just escaped being ejected into orbit, including race-winner Marc Márquez. So what was going on? MotoGP bikes have traction-control systems that are supposed to prevent such dangerous accidents.

There were lots of reasons: a very grippy asphalt that perhaps gave riders less feel, decent track temperatures but a chilly wind that cooled tyres on the long straights, many off-camber corner entries, MotoGP’s lower-tech spec traction control, plus the tight, stop-and-go layout, which saw innumerable lap times cancelled for exceeding track limits during practice and numerous time penalties on race day for the same crime.

“And at a track like this, 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,” said Espargaró after his highside. “Also the track is tricky, because the track is hot, but the wind is cold. It’s like Phillip Island – when the wind is strong there, everyone crashes.”

Race-winner Márquez agreed. “The asphalt offers fantastic grip, which gives you great confidence, so you lean too much and push too much, but ultimately risk a crash,” he said.

Of course, riders don’t only risk everything at Le Mans, so why did Dorna’s traction control – which isn’t as clever as the old tailormade factory kit – fail to prevent some highsides?

“The Michelin rear has so much grip that we all try to run not so much traction control in the lower RPM range, to get the bike to pivot,” explained Smith. “We try to get the pivot naturally, which works fine when it’s consistent, but it’s catching out this weekend. We are all trying to get the bike turned as quick as possible to get up the straights, so the problem is exaggerated here.”

Espargaró’s crew chief Paul Trevathan went into further detail. “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. Also, the safety margin of the control software is less – the programme’s reaction time and so on. The key is to understand all that. when Pol had his highside he didn’t feel it and by the time he realised, he closed the throttle and the bike stepped back and threw him.”

Remarkably the 109 crashes didn’t cause a single broken bone; thanks to modern riding gear and circuit safety.

Rossi: our problems aren't over yet

Valentino Rossi’s return to the podium gave hope to some fans that Movistar Yamaha may have turned the corner in fixing its performance problems. Not so, said the nine-time world champion.

“I would like to say that our bike is now good for other racetracks but unfortunately it’s this racetrack that helps us, a lot,” he said after finishing third, two seconds behind Danilo Petrucci’s Ducati and five seconds behind Márquez. “We don’t have particular problems, the problem is that our opponents are a little faster, so we have to work.

“We arrived here from Jerez where we had a lot of problems; we put the same bike on the track here and it’s okay. On paper Le Mans is not a Yamaha track, but the bike works very well and we don’t know why, it’s difficult to say! It’s the marriage between the bike, the tyres and the track.”

Both Le Mans’ most important corners – Turn 8 that precedes the back straight and Turn 14 that precedes the start/finish – are tight corners, so riders don’t spend so long accelerating on the side of the tyres; instead they quickly pick up the bike to create a larger contact patch.

“You spin less here because the corners are shorter and also because the asphalt has more grip,” Rossi added. “With these two things, we suffer less.”

Next is Rossi’s home race at Mugello, the mecca of MotoGP. He has won seven MotoGP races there, the last in 2008. At Le Mans he didn’t seem too confident about climbing to the stop step of the podium at the 2018 Italian GP. “After Jerez we tested at Mugello and we were quite slow, so I was worried,” he said.

Team-mate Maverick Viñales was in even worse shape, at the track where he won his last MotoGP race, almost exactly one year ago. On that day he set a new lap record that went unbeaten by Márquez, whose best lap on Sunday was 0.009sec slower. Meanwhile Viñales’ best 2018 race lap was 0.562sec slower than his 2017 best and 0.488sec slower than Rossi’s Sunday best. No wonder he was apoplectic after the race.

“I was trying to crash at every corner, because I don’t want to finish in seventh. I want to win, so I didn't care if I crashed or not,” said Viñales.

Lorenzo 'wasn't well advised'

By Sunday evening at Le Mans most people were convinced that Jorge Lorenzo’s time at Ducati will end at Valencia 2018, his seat most likely to be taken by Danilo Petrucci.

That may or may not be true, but work continues between the Spaniard and the Italian factory. At Le Mans Lorenzo raced a new chassis for the first time, except that this wasn’t actually a new chassis. It was the same chassis that team-mate Andrea Dovizioso adopted following February’s Buriram preseason tests, but Lorenzo didn’t try it at that point because he ran into all kinds of problems with the GP18. Ducati management believe it was Lorenzo’s failure to take the same decision that has compromised the start of his second season with the factory

“At Buriram Jorge wanted to test the 2017 chassis again,” said team manager Davide Tardozzi. “He was not well advised and he lost his way, because if he had tested this frame I’m sure he would’ve stayed with this frame.”

The frame has different stiffness in different areas, to improve mid-corner performance, the Desmosedici’s weak point for many years. “The chassis improves the feeling in the middle of the corner and absorbs the bumps better,” said Lorenzo during practice.

Lorenzo’s race day was not dissimilar to Jerez. He led the first nine laps, whereas he had led the first eight at the previous race. His problem wasn’t so much poor performance as poor ergonomics.

“My main problem was that physically I don’t get good support from the fuel tank to keep my stamina during all the race,” said the three-times MotoGP champion. “At tracks like Austin and here, where you have a lot of hard braking, I suffer more. Last year’s bike had different ergonomics, so I suffered less. The fuel tank on this year’s bike is shorter and further forward, so it doesn’t support me and it’s more demanding for my arms.

“We have good acceleration and good braking, but we need to fix this problem and the turning. I have this particular style of braking, so I need more leg support to suffer less with my arms. If Ducati can give me what I need with better corner speed, better turning and better ergonomics then I can lead more laps to the end of races.”

Ducati and Dovizioso do the sensible thing

When Rossi quit Ducati at the end of 2012 and the factory signed Andrea Dovizioso, Rossi’s crew chief Jeremy Burgess had this to say about the situation

“I don’t think Ducati are expecting Dovizioso to outperform anyone who’s been here in past. They have realised that they need to work in a systematic way to develop the bike and they’re going use Andrea to do that. They’ll take a lot from this and maybe come back with a good bike which may hurt us all in a couple of years."

Five years later, Ducati and Dovizioso very nearly won the MotoGP championship. Despite all the rumours of recent months, it was only ever a matter of time and money before they agreed terms for 2019 and 2020. On Saturday that deal was finally announced.

It’s been a long road for Dovizioso, now the longest-serving Ducati GP rider in history. His best dry-weather result during his first season on the Desmosedici was a fifth-place finish at Mugello, almost one second a lap slower than the winner.

“The 2013 bike? I can’t even say it was a bike!” Dovizioso told me recently. “The difference between then and now is huge – I can’t compare anything on that bike to what we have now.”

Last year he took six race wins and this year he started with another superb last-corner victory over Márquez. That’s a huge difference from 2013.

“At that time no one believed that I was able to fight for the championship and after the Valentino story nobody believed in Ducati,” said Dovizioso at Le Mans. “We started from the bottom together and we struggled for many years but in the end we came back together and this is something special.”

Sunday wasn’t so special for Dovizioso, who crashed out moments after taking the lead in the early stages. When things go wrong Dovizioso is usually cool, calm and collected, because he knows he is always learning. However, this race crash was different: his error was unforced and the no-score may have ended his title hopes.

“Consistency is always my style,” he said. “I wasn’t pushing at that moment. I was pushing at 80 per cent; that’s why I’m disappointed. It’s heavy for me because when you are pushing 100 per cent to get an important result then these things can happen, but if you crash when you’re not pushing then it’s bad.

“The crash is really bad for the championship. Forty-nine points behind Marc is very bad because he is very good at managing every situation. But anything can happen at every race. The really positive thing is our speed, at Jerez and here, where last year we were far behind. I’m so happy with the feeling I’ve got with the bike. Today for sure I was able to fight with Marc and maybe also to make a gap on him; that’s why I’m very disappointed.”

Lung and heart worries can't stop Crutchlow

Crutchlow was no doubt the hero of Le Mans. His monster highside hurt so much that he thought he had broken his pelvis. The Le Mans hospital found no fractures, but they did find blood on his lungs and a build-up of abnormal proteins in his heart, which – in a worst-case scenario – can lead to organ failure.

This is why the doctors woke him every two hours throughout Saturday night to check his blood. The 32-year-old refused to say if he had discharged himself on Sunday morning, but it’s highly unlikely the doctors would have allowed him to leave, considering his condition.

Crutchlow is well known for his teak toughness, so his main complaint after the race had nothing to do with his injuries. “We were planning to check out of the hotel at 6.30am but I didn’t get out ‘til 8.40,” he said. “To be honest I didn’t think I’d be racing, for a few reasons. I thought we were either going to get arrested or be in a car crash with the way Lucio [Cecchinello, LCR team owner] was driving. We were trying to get back to see the doctors.”

The circuit medical centre passed Crutchlow fit to race. “I did what I could,” he added. “I wasn’t willing to push at the beginning, because if I’d crashed I would’ve been in trouble. Once I started feeling comfortable with 10 laps to go, I started to push and was able to pick some riders off.”

Incredibly, he got the better of Suzuki’s Alex Rins and Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaró to finish eighth.

Crutchlow was angry with himself for his Q1 crash but he was much angrier with race direction, who didn’t red flag the session, even though he was lying motionless on the Turn 8 kerb, surrounded by circuit staff.

“The crash was my own fault,” he explained. “The problem was that I lost the rear, then I shut the throttle and the rear came around so far around that I flew big time. Then the drama started because I couldn’t breathe at all. I was really upset that the red flags never came out, because I was laid at the side of the track with bikes coming past my head, with marshals around me who were also in danger. I was unable to breathe but the medics couldn’t attend to me because they were watching where the bikes were coming from. The red flag went out when the chequered flag went out!”

Márquez wins again with carbon swingarm

Márquez’s Le Mans victory was his third in a row and his third in a row using HRC’s new carbon-fibre swingarm. Ducati was the first MotoGP factory to successful use a carbon-fibre swingarm some years ago and Aprilia is likely to switch to a carbon-fibre swingarm at Mugello next week, following tests at Jerez, Mugello and Barcelona.

Márquez won’t reveal too much about the new swingarm, but its different flex characteristics are supposed to look after the rear tyre better; a vital advantage in the Michelin era.

Team-mate Dani Pedrosa used the alloy unit at Le Mans, because the Jerez pile-up wrecked one of his carbon-fibre swingarms. “The behaviour of the materials is different,” said Pedrosa at Le Mans. “Basically you have to ride differently because you get a different feeling from the tyre. Some points are better, some are not. We are still learning a lot because at every track the asphalt is different and the tyre compounds are different.”

Honda was one of the first factories to put carbon-fibre to serious use in GP racing. In 1984 it equipped its first NSR500 with carbon-spoked wheels, but the spokes collapsed in practice for the first race of the year, putting reigning champion Freddie Spencer out of the race and forcing Honda to switch back to conventional wheels.

The cause of the breakage remained unknown, until Spencer cast his mind back to the NSR500’s first race outing at the Daytona 200. “That exact wheel was the same one I ran the last part of the 200,” says Spencer. “I remember the bike moving around, going up the banking. At that time I through it was the rear tyre, but it was probably the rear wheel starting to go. I never raced carbon wheels again.”

New KTM for Austrian GP?

KTM riders Espargaró and Smith tested the reverse-rotating crank RC16 following the Jerez race and may contest KTM’s home GP with the new bike, which turns quicker and changes direction more easily.

“The new bike fixes the majority of our problems,” said Smith. “It does everything a bit more naturally. It’s a combination of everything, but general bike handling is the main thing.”

KTM has also made big strides forward with the speed of its Moto3 bike, with long-time Le Mans race leader Marco Bezzecchi able to fly past the Hondas on the straights. Moto3 engines are sealed for the year, so the improvements have come from airbox and exhaust modifications.

Radical aero isn't dead, after all

Reports of the death of radical MotoGP aerodynamics have been exaggerated. In April, I wrote that the MSMA had come up with a proposal to ban the controversial kit, which they presented to the Grand Prix Commission at Jerez, with the idea of returning to more conventional bodywork from 2019.

Not so. It seems that I was misinformed. The MSMA is still working on its proposal which will be considered by the Grand Prix Commission at Assen at the end of June.

“A decision will be taken at Assen,” said Ducati’s Gigi Dall’Igna, the man who introduced radical aero to MotoGP. “If the MSMA reaches a unanimous position to keep the aerodynamics then our position is stronger, but if we only have a majority either way then the Grand Prix Commission must say yes or no. The majority of the factories want to keep the aerodynamics, so I think aerodynamics will stay. But for sure, the rules need to be better written.”

MotoGP director of technology Corrado Cecchinelli sees a similar outcome at Assen. “Most likely I think we will see a clarification of the current rules,” he said.

Cecchinelli would not say if Yamaha’s aerodynamics, which look more like old-style wings than integrated aero (and have now been copied by Honda), will be allowed to stay. Honda’s new aero worked well, with both Márquez and Pedrosa using it in the race.

Crutchlow also tried the new bits in practice but didn’t race with them. “This really is a wheelie circuit, so with better aero you can have less wheelie, so you can try different strategies with the electronics to get more power. The new aero gives more stability in fast corners but it also heats the front tyre more, which is exactly what I don’t want.”

Marc VDS: the Belgian battle continues

The unseemly Marc VDS furore was the main talk among paddock gossipers throughout the Le Mans weekend. All kinds of rumours circulated, most of them untrue, but it seems that the MotoGP and Moto2 team is still on shaky ground.

Days before practice got underway Belgian team owner Marc van der Straten terminated the contract of compatriot and team principal Michael Bartholemy for alleged financial misconduct, which Bartholemy strenuously denies.

Both men were at Le Mans, with a meeting in court expected soon. On Sunday Bartholemy released this statement, via his Swiss-based company MM Performance & Racing AG, suggesting that he has complete control of the team, rather than van der Straten.

“I have made the decision to step back from the team for the duration of the French Grand Prix weekend,” he wrote. “Rather than exercise my right to halt racing activities this weekend, which is well within my power to do because of the legal situation, I decided instead on a more rational approach. To escalate the situation further would have damaged not just the team, the sponsors and the riders, but also the image of the championship and this I did not want to do. I hope that deescalating the conflict in this way will provide the impetus for finding a resolution that is acceptable to both parties.”

No one knows for sure if anyone has stolen millions from billionaire van der Straten, but the bigger concern is surely the livelihoods of the 60 or so team staff and their families.

Rea comes knocking again

Jonathan Rea’s manager Chuck Aksland was at Le Mans, seeking a 2019 MotoGP deal for his rider. Rea has dominated the last four World Superbike championships and is already making 2018 all his own, so he’s still considering a switch, even at 31-years-old.

“There are teams that want to talk to us, including factory teams,” said Aksland. “All through the year I’m in touch with people in the MotoGP paddock. Jonathan is happy doing what he’s doing and he’s in the prime of his career. It’s fine if he wants to stay there but without a doubt he’s interested in coming here if we can find the right ride. It’s a big thing for us that all the bikes are very close now, so the rider can make the difference.”

Rea is married with two children and admits that the 14-round World Superbike series makes for a better family lifestyle than would next year’s 20-round MotoGP championship, which will include a Finnish round.

Zarco finally cracks under pressure

More than 100,000 people turned up at Le Mans on Sunday, hoping to see homegrown hero Johann Zarco win his first MotoGP race from pole position.

The Frenchman seemed to carry the expectations easily. “I can manage the pressure well and I’m happy to see all the fans screaming my name and supporting me,” he said during practice. “I can manage the pressure better than before – I can close myself off before I get on the bike to do my job.”

But on Sunday the pressure did get to him, according to Dovizioso, who was desperate to get out front after Zarco had nearly taken out him and at least one other rider.

“My strategy was to get away from Zarco, because he almost hit Jorge and I saw him lose the rear two or three times,” said Dovizioso. “Maybe he was too excited.”

MV Agusta returning after 43 years

The paddock’s second most famous septuagenarian – after Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta – will play his part in the return of MV Agusta to GP racing next year.

Carlo Pernat has a history of working with Italian factories, including Aprilia, Gilera, Cagiva, Ducati and Vespa. He has also been personal manager to Max Biaggi, Loris Capirossi, Marco Simoncelli and Andrea Iannone, but recently split from Iannone.

MV Agusta is still the fourth most successful manufacturer in GP racing, with 275 wins achieved between 1952 and 1976. The factory will build a chassis for the Triumph-powered Moto2 series, with the bikes entered by Forward Racing.

MV is now owned by Giovanni Castiglioni, the son of Claudio Castiglioni, one of the brothers who saved Ducati and MV Agusta. Castiglioni’s major investor is Russian Timur Sardarov, son of billionaire oligarch Rashid Sardarov, famous for paying Robbie Williams a reputed £1.6 million for singing at his daughter’s wedding.

 

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