There was a special atmosphere in Le Mans ahead of the HJC Helmets Grand Prix de France as the crowds were extra happy and excited as the pre-empted a fantastic performance from local rider, double Moto2 champion, and MotoGP rookie, Johann Zarco who was starting from the front row with just his fifth race in the class and with the Monster Yamaha Tech3 team.
Vinales on pole in Le Mans
Qualifying saw Movistar Yamaha newbie, Maverick Vinales take pole position ahead of his teammate and nine times world champion Valentino Rossi, and Frenchman Zarco joined them to make it an all Yamaha front row.
The warm-up session saw 2016 MotoGP champion, Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) who was to start the race from the front of the second row in fourth, as the quickest man on track as they finalised settings for the race.
Carnage in the Moto3 class prior to main race
Carnage had occurred prior to the race getting underway. A rider recovering from a crash on the first lap of the Moto3 race caused carnage on the second lap as a line of some substance was left on several turns. An absorbent powder had to be used to help make the track safe, and the marshalls and officials who worked so quickly to ensure that deserve commending.
After the riders assembled on the grid after an emotional national anthem, especially for Zarco and other local rider Loriz Baz (Reale Avintia Ducati), the awaited the lights to go out for the 28 lap race to start at the endurance circuit.
Vinales led into turn one, but lead was short-lived
Although it was pole position man, Vinales who led into the first turn, within corners it was rookie rider Zarco who took the lead much to the delight of the massive crowds that were present watching the race. Rossi soon pushed his way passed Marquez who got a great start to claim third and then unfortunately for Alvaro Bautista (Pull & Bear Aspar Ducati), he suffered his second crash in two rounds when he came off at turn seven on the opening lap; he appeared unhurt but angry.
Zarco led as they began the second lap of the race as the remainder of the field worked to get themselves into some sort of order. Hector Barbera (Real Avintia Racing) passed Jonas Folger (Monster Yamaha Tech3) to take 17th, and Andrea Iannone (Team Suzuki Ecstar), Tito Rabat (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) passed rookie, Sam Lowes (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) for 18th.
Rossi catches Vinales who ran wide who soon regained lead
At the front Vinales ran slightly wide which enabled Rossi to catch up; Marquez also ran behind them. On the third lap, Barbera went on to pass injured Karel Abraham (Pull & Bear Aspar Team) to take 5th; Abraham ended up retiring a couple of laps later. Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team) gained places, making his way up to 10th by lap three (from 16th on the grid). Folger was also progressing as he managed to make his way up through the ranks also.
By lap five, Rossi was right on Vinales’ tail. In response to the pressure, Vinales was able to push harder and catch leader Zarco. On the seventh lap, he overtook the French man through the chicane to take the lead.
Changes continued throughout the field in opening laps
Further down the field, Iannone had passed British rider Bradley Smith (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) to take 16th; the two continued to battle on changing positions throughout the race. Scott Redding (Octo Pramac Racing) who was promising throughout the weekend during mixed conditions, was forced to retire from the race as he had a gear box issue that he noticed when he entered the third gear.
Lorenzo continued making progress and had passed Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Racing) to take ninth. Baz also managed to overtake Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) placing him in 13th.
Personal best lap allows Rossi to catch Zarco
Rossi completed a personal best lap time on lap nine that enabled him to catch Zarco now in second. Zarco responded to the pressure in a similar measure when he completed his personal best time. The two were unaware that Marquez was closing in behind them.]
Behind him, race winner of the previous round in Jerez, Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) was powering through and on lap 10 passed Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team). He then came across Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) who was keeping the Italian at bay before Pedrosa caught him, and in an aggressive mood, Pedrosa touched Crutchlow as he passed him on the inside causing Crutchlow to sit up and he lost two places to Pedrosa and Dovizioso as a result on lap 11 which left him in seventh.
Personal bests for the Yamaha trio at the front
It was closer than ever at the front as they began the 12th lap. The front three riders all completed personal best lap times on their Yamahas, but then Rossi ran wide which enabled Marquez to catch up to him. On the next lap, Vinales once again went quicker; the Spaniard was clearly determined to return to his winning form that he began the season with.
Pedrosa was starting to close in on Marquez as he had a clear track of head of him that allowed him to begin his pursuit. Lorenzo had made his way past Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) who was lucky to be racing, and who was doing incredibly well, after his spectacular crash on day two of the meeting in Le Mans. The push from Pedrosa caused him to break the Circuit Lap Record set by Rossi in 2015, later on Zarco claimed it as things settled down for a few laps.
Marquez crashes out in Le Mans
Then, disaster struck for the current MotoGP champion, Marquez who crashed out at turn three; his third crash at that corner throughout the weekend. He had a big tumble through the gravel, but it did not stop him from to try and get going again even though it was a struggle for him and the marshalls. He eventually was forced to retire, as did Petrucci at a similar time.
Keen to make up for losing two places earlier on, Crutchlow took a big look up the inside of Dovizioso to try and reclaim what was now fifth in the race. On the 21st lap, he was able to pass the Italian and make his move stick however a few laps later Dovizioso caught him and retaliated.
Rossi was on the move
By lap 22, Rossi was all over the back of Zarco. On the following lap he made a lovely overtake as they passed through the chicane at turn three claiming second from the French man. The nine times world champion then began closing in on his teammate for the lead in an attempt to protect his championship lead. In doing so he managed to increase a gap ahead of Zarco.
The gap between the two was reduced from 0.8 seconds to 0.4 seconds and on lap 24, he replicated the move he made on Zarco previously on the leader and passed Vinales through turns three and four, somehow managing to make the Yamaha turn in the smaller gap and led the race for the first time.
Vinales runs wide
Vinales, determined not to give up did what he could to stick with the Italian. On the penultimate lap, he ran wide onto the run off area, but managed to avoid contact with Rossi when he returned. He did not gain a position, but there is a possibility he gained a slight time advantage. Still they continued to push, the two remained close on track.
It all goes wrong for the Italian
Rossi was leading on the final lap, it looked that he was going to win, for the first time in a few years at Le Mans, and retain his championship lead at the same time. Rossi ran wide however and lost the lead to his teammate. He panicked and did what he could to recover it, but instead he found the limit and crashed out at turn 11. It was devastating for the Italian who was so disappointed that he ended up just stood with his head on the tank of his M1 as he was unable to get it going again despite trying.
Vinales collects Yamaha’s 500th Grand Prix win in Le Mans
Vinales won in Le Mans, his third win of the season and the 500th MotoGP win for Yamaha in the elite class. He also set a new Circuit Lap Record on the final lap and now holds it with a time of 1:32.309. Rookie Zarco collected a well-deserved podium, and placed as the highest independent team rider in front of his home fans when the French man finished second; but to him, it must have felt like a win. They were joined on the podium by Pedrosa who crossed the line in third, 7.717 seconds behind race winner Vinales.
Dovizioso was fourth after he won the battle between him and British rider Crutchlow who finished fifth in Le Mans as the second highest placed Honda. Lorenzo recovered from a tough weekend to finish sixth ahead of rookie, Folger in seventh, Miller in eighth, local rider who was ninth on home turf, and Iannone who completed the top 10.
Rabat was 11th ahead of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith who both ensured their new KTMs finished in the points. British rookie, Lowes collected his first MotoGP points finishing 14th in Le Mans. In last place, but still finishing in the points was wildcard Sylvain Guintoli. The Superbike rider completed a great weekend in Le Mans where he was standing in for injured Alex Rins for the Team Suzuki Ecstar crew collecting a point in the meantime.
The results mix up the championship
Rossi’s DNF meant that he los not one, but two positions in the championship dropping from first to third in one race. Vinales is now the championship leader on 85 points ahead of Pedrosa now in second on 68 points, and Rossi remains on 62 points in third. He is just four points ahead of Marquez who failed to collect any in Le Mans because of his crash, and Zarco is the highest placed rookie and independent team rider in fifth. Dovizioso, Crutchlow, Lorenzo, rookie Folger and Miller complete the top 10 five rounds in.