Ahead of the HJC Helmets Grand Prix de France at the Le Mans Circuit in France, the MotoGP class made their way out on track for a slightly damp but drying and grippy circuit - as it had been resurfaced ahead of the weekend's racing, eliminating the bumps there previously.
Guintoli replacing Rins in Le Mans
The MotoGP class would be without Alex Rins on the Team Suzuki Ecstar GSX-RR as his injuries rule him out for another round. Instead, Frenchman Sylvain Guintoli was selected to replace him as the Spaniard recovers.
Keep fighting Nicky
The motorcycling world is also still coming to terms with the devastating news surrounding former MotoGP rider, Nicky Hayden, who was knocked off his push bike as he completed a training incident along the Rimini coast in Italy were he stayed after the latest round of the World Superbike championship.
Hayden made a heavy impact with the car and is in an induced coma to help him recover from his injuries which are said to include a bleed on the brain and a broken pelvis. The American rider was said to be in a serious condition in the Italian hospital. We would like to wish Nicky a speedy recovery; keep fighting!
Damp conditions meant wet tyres
On track, the damp conditions forced some riders into investigating the track with wet tyres on; some riders also opted for the shroud that covers the carbon disc brakes that are designed to retain heat.
Many returned to the pits quickly either not wanting to risk damage ahead of what is expected to be a dry race, but many stayed to complete a few laps and collect vital data in the mixed conditions. The MotoGP class are without the intermediate tyres this year supplied by Michelin tyres; the French manufacturer who are hoping to do well on home turf.
Within the opening minutes, several riders made a challenge for the top spot of the timesheets as they settled in. Although the newly resurfaced track was proving grippy, the riders were over 10 seconds slower than the record times set by the riders in the dry.
Lorenzo has the record in Le Mans with former team
The best ever lap in Le Mans was set by Jorge Lorenzo in 2016 when he was with the Movistar Yamaha team. The Spaniard scored pole position with a time of 1:31.975. The Circuit Record Lap however, set during the race, is held by his former teammate and nine times world champion, Movistar Yamaha rider Valentino Rossi in 2015 with a time of 1:32.879.
Miller keen to be out on track
Approximately halfway through the session, it was Rossi’s new teammate that replaced Lorenzo, Spaniard Maverick Vinales, who was leading the timesheets on wet tyres with a time of 1:42.546. In the opening laps, the like of Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) and Lorenzo (Ducati Team) had made their way to the top; Australian rider Miller was clearly having fun on track as he was seen pulling a wheelie as he looked to be happy to be back out on his bike.
The hot-headed Aussie experienced an abrupt end to the previous round in Jerez, Spain as he was knocked out of the race by Alvaro Bautista (Pull & Bear Aspar Team). Miller was angry and after coming to a halt in the gravel, quickly got up to his feet and pushed Bautista and gestured angrily at him, before kicking his Ducati. For his behaviour, Miller was handed a 1000 Euro fine despite being the victim of the incident.
All eyes on what Zarco can do on home turf
Determined to do well on his home turf, and after scaring the MotoGP paddock on his debut MotoGP round in Qatar when he led the race and pulled away, French double Moto2 champion Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech3) was looking to settle quick at Le Mans. The French man announced before the round that he and his team have extended his contract which leaves him employed up until the end of 2018.
But his new teammate, Jonas Folger (Monster Yamaha Tech3) had settled sooner and briefly led the timesheets before he was knocked off the top spot by 2016 MotoGP champion, Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) who was first to lap under 1:42 minutes with a time of 1:41.837.
Lorenzo caught out
Lorenzo was the first rider to almost get caught out at the French track where he has claimed the victory five times; four of those in the MotoGP class with Movistar Yamaha.
The Spaniard was seen having to abort his turn at turn six, and instead he ran onto the run off area to avoid crashing. After on, in an attempt to overcome the cool conditions, he had took to the track with an extra layer around his neck to keep him warm however it had come loose and was flapping around in the wind.
The sun came out and the track dried further
Although the sun came out from behind the clouds which aided the track in drying quicker, the riders still chose to take to the circuit on wet tyres. Rossi was the first to dare to venture out on slick tyres, soft compound front and rear, with 10 minutes of the session remaining.
The Italian teetered round on his first lap understandably, but Miller who had also dared to run on the same slick tyres, was pushing and soon went top setting the fastest time so far with a time of 1:40.173 which was 1.5 seconds quicker than anyone else.
There were still variations however, as riders returned to the track from the final few minutes in wet and slick tyres. As Miller improved further, other riders began displaying red opening sectors on their laps; however those who remained on wets soon returned to displaying yellow or grey sectors in the closing stages.
Miller’s times continued to tumble as he extended his lead at the top to over 2.7 seconds over second place man Vinales on wets. Although riders on wet tyres were still able to push, they began to make mistakes in certain areas as the tyres began to give in to the dry track.
Miller quickest at the end of Free Practice 1 in Le Mans
The early decision to make the switch did nothing but benefit Miller as he extended his lead temporarily to over three seconds, before his friend Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) caught him up towards the end of the session.
The flag went out, and Miller ended the session as the quickest man with a time of 1:37.467. Should conditions change for the worse, Miller’s time could potentially be enough to gain him pole ahead of the race as he took advantage of the track at the optimum time.
As the end of the session, Marquez was second fastest behind Miller after reducing the gap to over 1.2 seconds. A late lap from Zarco placed him third quickest ahead of Crutchlow and French man Loris Baz (Reale Avintia Racing) who was fifth quickest on home turf.
Karel Abraham (Pull & Bear Aspar Team) was sixth ahead of British rider, Bradley Smith now with the new team making its debut, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing. Rossi managed to improve from down in 20th to finish Free Practice 1 in eighth ahead of Bautista and Vinales who completed the top 10.
Rain ahead of Free Practice 2
A heavy rain shower over the lunch break meant that the track went from almost dry to completely wet, and the Moto3 Free Practice session was unable to change it as the rain continued to fall. A full wet setup and waterproofs was needed for the second session, and some riders chose not to go out with the forecast expected to change ahead of race day for the better.
Pol Espargaro crashes out on out-lap
Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) crashed as he completed his out-lap as he prepared to make a run during the wet second free practice session. At turn eight, he missed the braking point and was forced to use the run off area.
But as he touched the edge of the gravel he tripped and dropped the bike slowly. After he and the Marshalls tried to recover the bike, they could not get it going so he had to get a lift back to the pits instead.
As Lorenzo tried to get to grips with the Ducati in the wet, he was almost thrown from his seat as he passed through turn 13. The Spaniard is already lacking confident in the wet understandably and incidents like that he experienced in the opening minutes would not help his situation.
The taller the better….
The rain appeared to be benefiting the likes of the taller riders out of the elite field. Typically, one British rider I particular was running really well as his career before MotoGP more than likely consisted of many race meetings in similar conditions having grown up over here.
Scott Redding (Octo Pramac Racing) was fast, and was battling out with Miller for the top place of the timesheets. Rossi was also benefiting from his extra height and length on his limbs, as was local rider Baz; being taller meant that they did not have to crank it over as far to begin putting their knee down in the wet conditions.
Soon enough, the smaller riders of the pack began to build their confidence and joined the leaders at their lap time. With less than 30 minutes to go, Redding was quickest with a time of 1:43.878, and after having initially a gap of over a second between him and the competition, he was soon caught. He kept pushing however and again improved his lap time by almost 0.6 seconds making 1:43.275 the time to beat.
Some riders, such as the likes of Crutchlow, were reluctant to go out on track and instead chose to wait in the pits for conditions to improve, or maybe the traffic to clear on track. Eventually, everyone completed some practice time in the wet to collect the data that could prove vital should the conditions continue through to race day; although this weather was not expected.
Redding performing great in the wet
Redding was soon joined at the top of the timesheet by his teammate Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Racing) who soon stole the prime position on the leaderboard when he improved on his teammate’s time by 0.472 seconds with his time of 1:42.478.
The Italian continued to improve further on the 2017 evolution of the Desmosedici and soon smashed through the 1:42 minute barrier when he improved by another half second reducing his time to 1:41.906.
Rain began to fall again in Le Mans
Just over 10 minutes remained and the dark clouds struck again as rainfall began to once again fall in Le Mans. It appeared the Ducatis were performing well at the French track as Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) was able to bring his bike up to second on the leaderboard.
Sam Lowes (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) who was running with the new fairing that accommodates the lack of winglets designed to keep the front end down and distort the drag behind, engaged in a little battle on track with Hector Barbera (Reale Avintia Racing).
The two did into let the rain stop them from overtaking at several corners as they fought to be in front and out of the spray of the other. Lowes was successful and was able to shoot up to 10th in the wet with five minutes remaining; see what I mean about the Brits in the wet? Lowes then improved further and jumped up to sixth with a few minutes to go.
Dovizioso appears confident in the wet
Dovizioso appeared confident in the wet and with less than two minutes remaining he went top after setting a time of 1:41.673. Marquez then came out and set a flying lap that allowed him to catch the Italian right up. A mistake by Dovizioso meant that he not only crashed and made a great save, he was unable to improve on his flying time.
Further improvements were made as the session drew to a close, from the likes of Redding and Rossi, but none significant enough o change the top of the leaderboard. Dovizioso remained quickest at the end of the wet Free Practice 2 as he finished 0.043 seconds ahead of Marquez in second. Petrucci had to settle for third quickest as he experienced difficulties at the end of the session as he was seen free-wheeling his bike the wrong way down the pit lane at the end of the session.
Redding was the highest placed Brit in fourth ahead of Andrea Iannone who was fifth with Team Suzuki Ecstar. Bautista made it four Ducatis in the top six as he was almost a second of the pace of leader, Dovizioso in sixth. Miller despite his efforts throughout the session was seventh quickest ahead of Vinales, Lowes in ninth and Rossi who completed the top 10.
Miller remains quickest on combined times at the end of day one in Le Mans
However, when times were combined from the two sessions, only two riders, Dovizioso and Petrucci were able to improve on their times from Free Practice 1. Despite leading Free Practice 2, the two Italian Ducati riders were placed down in 13th and 16th respectively. It meant that at the end of day one, Miller remained the quickest rider on track at Le Mans.