After dominating MotoGP last year, Marc Marquez has endured a tough start in 2015 - could Le Mans provide an opportunity for the reigning champion to get back on top?
The MotoGP circus heads to the Le Mans Bugatti circuit for the fifth round of the season this weekend, with Valentino Rossi leading the title race by 15 points after underlining his resurgence with wins in Qatar and Argentina.
The Yamaha rider, three times a winner at the French circuit, says he is confident of another strong result – but singled out Repsol Honda’s Marc Marquez as his main threat.
"Le Mans is a nice track, but every year it‘s different," said Rossi. "Usually it‘s a good race for us, Yamaha and me, but last year our competitors were very strong. I imagine that Marc will also be strong this year."
It’s been a tough start to the season for Marquez, whose only win of the year so far came in dominant style at Austin.
After crashing while trying to defend his lead against Rossi in Argentina, the Spaniard wisely chose to play it safe last time out at Jerez carrying a finger injury, settling for second behind a dominant Jorge Lorenzo and admitting his compatriot was unbeatable in the circumstances.
But Le Mans is quite a different circuit to Jerez – its tight hairpins and chicanes make it much more of a ‘point-and-squirt’ circuit, which has traditionally favoured Honda over Yamaha.
Also having had an extra week for his finger to recover, Le Mans could be just the place for Marquez to mount a fightback and make further inroads into the 26 point deficit that separates he and Rossi in the standings.
"I visited Dr. Mir for a check-up and my finger is definitely improving and healing well,” said Marquez. “I haven’t trained much this past week in order to give my finger a chance to restore back to 100%, which was our main goal.”
Lorenzo bullish after first win
But Marquez will once more have to contend with an on-form Lorenzo, who, fresh from his first victory of 2015, says that he’s confident of another strong showing despite Le Mans being less favourable to his high minimum corner speed style than Jerez.
“Le Mans is always a tricky circuit depends on the weather but in the past I won three races in MotoGP and the bike is usually good for this track even if it’s a kind of stop-and-go track,” Lorenzo told Motorsport.com.
“The last two years we suffered external issues that stopped us from getting a better result, but I'm quite confident we can do much better. The bike is working really well from the beginning and I feel in perfect shape.”
Conversely, expectations will be low for the returning Dani Pedrosa, who returns to action for the first time since Qatar after a three race lay-off while he recovered from forearm surgery.
The Honda rider is looking forward to getting back into action to assess his fitness, saying: "I’ve been doing a lot of therapy in the past few weeks since the operation and I am improving step-by-step.
“I’m beginning to feel stronger and looking forward to getting back on the bike - after all, this is the best way to check the feeling after all the rehabilitation work.”
Ducati makes progress in test
Ducati meanwhile will be looking to rebound from a subdued outing at Jerez, having made progress in a private test in Mugello earlier this week - although things didn’t go entirely according to plan, as Andrea Iannone dislocated his shoulder in a crash.
Despite that setback, Andrea Dovizioso, who currently holds second in the championship, 15 points away from Rossi, says the Mugello test confirmed a number of positive steps in the set-up of the GP15.
"The test confirmed to us that at Jerez we did not go in the right direction, and so we made a few modifications, found the right feeling again and we are fast here once again," said the Italian.
"For sure, we still have room to improve, but we’ve done a good job in any case and so we go to Le Mans feeling pretty confident."
Two other riders to watch are Pol Espargaro, who enjoyed by far his best result of the season at Jerez and will be hopeful of another good showing at his Tech 3 team’s home track, and Suzuki’s Aleix Espargaro, who could find himself in the mix if the inclement weather Le Mans is known for strikes again.