The home heroes head the ranks as MotoGP returns to historic Le Mans
It’s what we’d been waiting for since the start of the season and at Jerez, it was finally delivered: a showdown between the top two in the 2021 Championship and the duo tipped to fight it out again for the crown this season. And in the end, Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™) couldn’t quite find an answer for Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team), with the Italian back to his serene best and back on the top step for the first time this season. Now it’s home turf for the reigning Champion as we head for the SHARK Grand Prix de France though, so will we get a repeat or can the rest close that fairly sizeable gap behind the duel last time out?
Last year, the weather made it a different challenge and the challenge was met by Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) as he made it back-to-back wins in a flag-to-flag spectacular. The year before a Ducati was also victorious, in the full wet, as Danilo Petrucci took to the top step. A Ducati – or more than one – was on the front row each time too, with the Borgo Panigale factory showing all-weather pace at the venue and that a threat in itself… but we’ve never seen Bagnaia on full song – the form he found from the latter half of 2021 – take on Le Mans, so that may well be a hand Ducati have not yet been able to play at the track.
Home hero Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) will also be pushing to the maximum, having been on pole and the podium at the venue but never the top step. That’s true of more than just Le Mans as he searches for that elusive first premier class win, but on home turf he’s come close and this year the Frenchman will be one to watch again. An inconsistent start to the year could mean his mentality goes either way: there’s a little less to lose so it’s full gas, or there’s an even bigger incentive to settle for a safer points haul. We’re about to find out which he’ll choose…
Teammate Jorge Martin, meanwhile, needs some points. When the number 89 has put it together he’s been fighting at the front, but he’ll want a finish this weekend as he fights to recover in the standings from some DNFs. Bagnaia and Martin started the season with some similar hurdles – not least that incident in Qatar – but the number 63 is already into the top five overall on his recovery mission. Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing MotoGP™), in the battle of the sophomores, will also want to bounce back, although the Italian remains third in the Championship as it stands. Can he pull something out the locker in Sarthe?
Quartararo, however, will be the star of the show. The Frenchman’s stated 2022 mentality is to fight for fifth, seventh or 14th like it’s for the win, and he’s more than bearing that out on track as he proves a lonely Yamaha at times in the upper echelons – and he’s now extended that hard-fought Championship lead. He’s been the fastest rider at Le Mans with some impressive – and popular – pole positions already, and he’s finished on the podium, even in that flag-to-flag. But the best laid plans of El Diablo have not been simply podium pace. Until the weather has intervened, they’ve been an assault on the win… so will 2022 be his year?
Franco Morbidelli (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™) and Andrea Dovizioso (WithU Yamaha RNF Racing) continue to struggle to cut that gap to Quartararo, the former with similar experience on the Yamaha and the latter trying to leverage his experience elsewhere to push himself forward. Can they start to build back up in France?
For Aprilia, meanwhile, every weekend is a positive one for Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing), it seems. The podiums keep on coming and those concessions are now a thing of the past, with the project reaching full circle as the Noale factory join their competitors. Will that have an effect? If it does it will be a while in showing, and in the meantime the grid have a very fast, very consistent pairing of Aleix Espargaro on the RS-GP to contend with. He’ll be aiming for the podium once again, and teammate Maverick Viñales will be aiming to move forward again too. The starts are one key focus for the factory, can they take a step forward there after the test in Jerez?
Since that test in Jerez, Suzukihave been in the headlines off track, but on track the Hamamatsu factory team will retain that singular focus of taking to the podium and top step. Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) had a dip in form in Jerez and a run off put paid to the kind of recovery we saw at COTA, but the number 42 remains fourth in the Championship and equal on points with Bastianini just ahead of him. We’ve seen some fearsome wet weather speed from Rins at Le Mans, can he bring that come rain or shine, and all the way to the finish line? For teammate Joan Mir, meanwhile, that bad luck in Portugal became a solid but not podium-threatening ride in Jerez, and the 2020 Champion will want more. Qualifying also remains a more difficult task for both Rins and Mir, so Saturday will once again be a key focus.
As 2022 goes on, so does Honda‘s push with the new RC213V. The all-new bike started life on the podium and it’s since been a tougher season, but taking a fresh philosophy to race-day ready – and MotoGP™ race-day ready – is no mean feat, and it’s a long term commitment. Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) was back to his old tricks in a couple of ways at Jerez too; first in being the lead Honda by some margin and second, fighting for the podium with his elbows out and down in a spectacular and classic save. The number 93 said just before Jerez that it’s about making the package all work together – including the rider – and Sunday seemed to say a step had been made. As with nearly every venue, Marquez is no stranger to the top step at Le Mans either.
Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) arrives a little off fully fit after hurting his knee ligaments in testing, Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team) wants to make s big step forward and Alex Marquez (LCR Honda Castrol) – who’s had some serious form at Le Mans including that wet-weather rookie podium – will want more Portugal form than Jerez. What can they do , and has Marc Marquez made a break from his fellow Honda riders with the new machine?
Finally, Jerez was a tougher one for KTM. After the Algarve was a solid ride and result for Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) but a first crash out in nearly a year for teammate Brad Binder, the South African turned the tables again in Spain but neither were in the postcode they’ll want. After having won multiple races in the wet and dry, with both riders, KTM won’t settle for being denied the podium fight. A new, eyebrow-raising exhaust was spotted at the Jerez test as the most outward sign of their push to regain ground, although the factory also reported they’d be trying something that would be a little harder to see. Can they make another step forward in getting that consistent form in France?
The SHARK Grand Prix de France will be a headline-maker for more than just Quartararo and Zarco, although the crowd is pretty much guaranteed to be partisan. Can Bagnaia, MIller, Marquez or more spoil the party? We’ll find out at 14:00 (GMT +2) on Sunday, so make sure to tune in!