Compared to the gold standard among recent MotoGP events – the 2015 Australian Grand Prix at Philip Island – yesterday’s French GP at Le Mans would not go down as a classic, but nevertheless it was not only highly entertaining, but also a crucial turning point in the story of this year’s FIM MotoGP World Championship.
Yamaha’s Maverick Vinales takes a 17 point cushion over Honda’s Dani Pedrosa into the sixth of 18 rounds of the championship. And that was a turn of events that many would have deemed unlikely.
The sight of Valentino Rossi’s Yamaha sliding off into the gravel on the last lap of yesterday’s race not only came as a shock to his cult-like followers, but also set up a very interesting scenario where the riders from second to sixth place in the standings are separated by just 14 points. And keep in mind, that a win, second place and third place in a MotoGP race are worth 25, 20 and 16 points, respectively.
All it takes is incidents like Rossi’s fall or of Honda’s Marc Marquez to change the championship scenario. Vinales has not been immune either, with the Spanish sensation crashing out at the United States GP earlier this year.
BEST FOOT FORWARD
Many fingers have been pointed to MotoGP’s control tyre supplier Michelin after many incidents of riders falling or having serious grip issues with the front tyre compounds. This includes Rossi and most importantly Marquez, whose extremely aggressive riding style paired with Honda’s relatively inferior chassis has led to the defending champion struggling to find confidence.
Even Dani Pedrosa, whose smaller frame and lower bodyweight has often led to him outshining Marquez on circuits where front end stability is key, has reportedly been in favour of a change.
And a change is exactly what is coming from the sixth round of the championship at Mugello in Italy on 2 to 4 June.
Michelin have announced that the tyre construction used for last year’s front tyres will be re-introduced to the championship from that round onwards.
It could lead to a change in the current pecking order in the championship standings and may reduce the gap between the factory Yamaha riders Vinales and Rossi and the chasing Hondas of Marquez and Pedrosa.
But looking away from the top factory squads, the move could possibly even lead to yet more opportunities for the rider who has been even more of a revelation than Vinales this year.
That rider would be France’s Johann Zarco, who made his MotoGP debut this year at the age of 26 after winning the title in the last two Moto2 campaigns.
His charges to the sharp end of the field, stunning qualifying laps and ability to even manage tyre wear despite choosing early race pace by using softer tyres has allowed the Frenchman to score four straight top five finishes after his retirement in the first round of the championship.
In France he qualified on the front row and finished second while Rossi crashed out and he was fourth in the previous round at Jerez, ahead of both the factory Yamaha riders.
His aggressive, yet smooth riding style has allowed him to not only drag his Tech 3 Yamaha bike to results way above its capability but also show genuine signs of being a legitimate challenger for the title on a factory bike of his own.
After a decidedly difficult start to the championship, Ducati’s Jorge Lorenzo has scored three straight points finishes as he works to make Ducati’s wild GP-17 into a more compliant bike that can give him something close to the mid-corner feel he has been used to at Yamaha.
The Italian manufacturer has a design approach to its grand prix bikes that vert much focuses on engine performance and electronics to manage its prodigious grunt while expecting a rider to be instinctive enough to control it.
That approach has never been compatible with how Lorenzo goes about his racing but a podium at Jerez was enough of a lift for the former three-time champion to feel that his inputs can make a difference someday.
All of this points to a European leg – that started at Jerez in May and will go on till the Aragon GP till late September – that could be very different than how the season has gone so far.
It should be fascinating.