Le Mans -- arguably the world's most famous motorsport venue -- welcomes the motorcycling World Championships onto its hallowed tarmac for the 22nd time this weekend. France's motorsport Mecca has been hosting the French Grand Prix on and off...
Le Mans -- arguably the world's most famous motorsport venue -- welcomes the motorcycling World Championships onto its hallowed tarmac for the 22nd time this weekend. France's motorsport Mecca has been hosting the French Grand Prix on and off since 1969, and in recent years has been the scene of some thrilling races, several of them influenced by rainy conditions. Indeed three of the last four French GPs have been run on a wet or damp track!
Honda has enjoyed much premier-class success at Le Mans, with ten victories achieved by Fast Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan, Alex Criville, Valentino Rossi, Sete Gibernau and Marco Melandri. This year Honda's six RC212V riders will be doing everything they can to continue that record of success, while keeping a very watchful eye on the weather.
The Repsol Honda team of Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda RC212V) and Andrea Dovizioso (Repsol Honda RC212V) is chasing its first victory of 2010 after scoring a podium finish at each of the first two GPs of the year, Dovizioso taking a third-place finish at the season-opening Qatar GP on April 11 and Pedrosa scoring a second-place finish at Jerez on May 2.
Following his strong showing at Jerez, Pedrosa has high hopes for Le Mans, where he has scored three GP victories (125 in 2003, 250 in 2004 and 2005), with each of those successes leading to world title glory at the end of the season.
Pedrosa also has strong Le Mans form in the big class, having taking three pole positions on his last four visits to the track. If Pedrosa can turn that speed into another victory on Sunday, it will augur well for his 2010 championship challenge.
Dovizioso has also tasted glory at Le Mans -- winning the 2004 French 125 GP, which led him to that year's 125 world title -- and will be gunning hard for another visit to the podium, especially following a successful post-race test at Jerez.
Dovizioso will use the revised RCV chassis he evaluated during those tests.
Le Mans is a big weekend for Randy de Puniet (LCR Honda RC212V), France's only rider in the premier category. The former 250 challenger goes well at the circuit, having scored four 250 podium finishes at Le Mans between 2002 and 2005, but he has yet to repeat that success in the big class. Nevertheless, de Puniet is feeling confident following a successful day of testing at Jerez, during which he worked at honing the chassis set-up of his RC212V. He also focused on improving his starts, after a less than perfect getaway in the Jerez race left him with so much work to do.
Marco Melandri (San Carlo Honda Gresini RC212V) is also in positive mood and looking to continue the upward trend of the last two races. The Italian had a challenging winter readapting to Honda machinery after two years with other manufacturers, but he has now found a good direction, which allowed him to secure an encouraging eighth-place finish at Jerez. Melandri won the wet-and-dry 2006 French MotoGP race for Honda and has since finished on the Le Mans podium in 2007 and 2009.
Team-mate Marco Simoncelli (San Carlo Honda Gresini RC212V) is learning fast about MotoGP. The Italian rookie has showed his racing prowess in his first two outings in the class and is now getting the hang of squeezing extra performance from his RCV. During the Jerez tests he worked at improving braking stability, which is of huge importance at Le Mans, a track dominated by slow corners.
Fellow rookie Hiroshi Aoyama (Interwetten Honda MotoGP RC212V) also has much to learn about MotoGP. With so little off-season testing time available due to new cost-cutting regulations, every extra lap for Aoyama and the other rookies is crucial, which is why the reigning 250 World Champion reckons the post-race tests at Jerez have helped him so much.
Another dogfight of a race is expected from the new Moto2 World Championship. The Moto2 race at Jerez was an edge-of-the-seat affair, with the lead changing on innumerable occasions, the Honda CBR600-powered machines all so equal on performance. Winner at Jerez was Toni Elias (Gresini Racing Moto2, Moriwaki), but Shoya Tomizawa (Technomag-CIP, Suter) finished second to maintain his lead in the series. This will be an extra special weekend for Tomizawa, winner of the historic first Moto2 race in Qatar, because he now lives in France during the season, nearby his French team, where the technical department is run by former HRC crew chief Gilles Bigot.
French fans should find plenty of home hero interest in Moto2, with three riders in the class: Jules Cluzel (Forward Racing, Suter), former 125cc World Champion Mike Di Meglio (Mapfre Aspar Team) and Valentin Debise, (WTR San Marino Team, ADV).
Interwetten Honda 125cc rider Marcel Schrotter scored his first points of the season at Jerez aboard his RS125R and goes into the French GP in confident mood, despite having never raced at Le Mans. The 125cc class is ultra-competitive and the young German will need to get in as many laps as possible during practice and qualifying if he is to challenge for a top ten finish in the race. Schrotter has excelled himself in several wet-dry races and the unpredictable Le Mans weather conditions will not dim his enthusiasm.
Honda's premier-class success at Le Mans covers almost three decades and a variety of riders and bikes. In 1983 Fast Freddie Spencer won Honda's first 500cc success at the track aboard Honda's NS500 triple. Between 1985 and 2000, Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan and Alex Criville all won 500 GPs with Honda's NSR500 V4. And since the switch to four-stroke MotoGP, Valentino Rossi, Sete Gibernau and Marco Melandri have won at Le Mans with the RC211V.
Legendary for its 24-hour races, Le Mans hosted its first bike GP in 1969. The Bugatti circuit, very different from the much longer 24-hour car circuit, returned to the GP calendar in 2000 after an absence of four years, during which time the French GP was run at Circuit Paul Ricard in Provence. Since 2000 the event has built a huge following in bike-mad France, with tens of thousands of bikers making the two-hour trip to the Sarthe from Paris.
Le Mans underwent safety modifications before the 1999 GP, partly as a result of Alberto Puig's injurious turn-one crash during practice for the 1995 French GP. The daunting right hander was tightened and the Musee left-hander was also modified to lower speeds. Further modifications have been carried out during subsequent years in an ongoing programme of improvements.
The track's character is very stop-and-go, with plenty of slow turns where braking and acceleration performance are primordial. Riders and their engineers therefore concentrate on honing their machines' stability during braking, as well as improving rear-end traction for the numerous hairpin exits.
HONDA MotoGP RIDER QUOTES
Repsol Honda rider Dani Pedrosa says: "After the Jerez race I'm looking forward to arriving in Le Mans and continuing with our recent progress. We were able to complete a good weekend in Spain, being fast from the first practice and building up to the best set-up possible for the race. This is the pattern we have to achieve again in France. Le Mans is one of those circuits where you need to be prepared for any track conditions because the weather can play a big part during the weekend. In fact, last year's wet-dry race was a good example of this. So it will be very important to make maximum use of the practice sessions and be ready to set the bike up for a wide range of weather conditions and temperatures. Le Mans will also be my 150th Grand Prix in the World Championship, and I would really like to mark this with another great result there."
Repsol Honda rider Andrea Dovizioso says: "I'm looking forward to racing at Le Mans this weekend. It's a circuit that I like and where I always tend to get good results so I'm confident for this race. After the improvements we found during the Monday test in Jerez, I think we will be very competitive. In fact we will use the new chassis we tested in Jerez and I'm very positive about our potential. Le Mans is a slow racetrack.
It looks easy on paper but in reality it's quite a tricky place to interpret, and riding at maximum pace is a good challenge. There are many variations of camber and elevation changes that make things difficult -- and this is what I like about it. Last year I fought for the podium and I lost out on the very last lap so my motivation is high for this race. I'm confident we can fight with the front riders this year."
LCR Honda rider Randy de Puniet says: "Of course, Le Mans is a big event for me and the team. You always want to do your best in every race, but having so many fans urging you on is an extra boost, so I want to get the best possible result for all the people who support me all year round. I think we can have a better race at Le Mans than we did at Jerez. We made some good improvements to the bike during the tests at Jerez, so I want to say a big thank you to my crew for all their hard work. I like Le Mans -- it's quite stop and go and there's a lot of hard braking into the hairpins, which I enjoy."
Marco Melandri (San Carlo Honda Gresini RC212V) says: "Things are looking much more optimistic after the last race at Jerez and I was happy with the test we did there on the Monday. I think my feeling with the Honda RC212V is much better compared to the first two races and we are starting to learn about the things we need to change to improve it. We're heading to some circuits where we have no winter testing data so it will be more difficult for everybody to find a set-up. You also have to consider that the weather can be decisive at Le Mans so is important to find a race setting as quickly as possible in practice. Le Mans is traditionally my strongest circuit in MotoGP -- I won there in 2006, I was on the podium in 2007 and 2009 and only just missed out in 2005 so I have lots of good memories of France. Naturally I'm not going to Le Mans feeling totally convinced we will come away with a great result but I feel confident that I can put up a fight, like I did at Jerez, but this time higher up the order."
Marco Simoncelli (San Carlo Honda Gresini RC212V) says: "I was a little disappointed to have an extra weekend off because I wanted to race straight away. I'm confident after the work we did at Jerez, especially the test because we improved a lot under braking and that will be decisive at Le Mans. I can't wait to go racing again and I head to France in high spirits and hopeful of improving on my race from Jerez. I had fun in Spain and even though I would have obviously preferred to finish at the front of the group I was fighting with it was a great battle. Maybe with a little more determination I could have finished seventh and if I could make that my objective at Le Mans it wouldn't be bad. It isn't one of my favourite circuits but I always seem to have done well at Le Mans, including one of my best results of the 2007 season, a second place in 2008 and a victory last year, so I am confident. You never know what will happen with the weather but with the new track surface it should be less of a concern."
Interwetten Honda MotoGP rider Hiroshi Aoyama says: "I expect a lot from Le Mans. I know the track and don't mind it, but the weather is very critical there. It is always dry/rain/dry/rain and never all dry or all wet. But the layout of the track is very close to the Motegi track with a lot of stop-and-go sections and that suits the Japanese riders somehow. We have tested a lot in Jerez the day after the race and I have a much better feeling with the bike now. I hope the feeling will be there from the first practice on and to improve during these sessions to be strong in the race. Nevertheless I never had a podium there, so we will have to wait and see what happens."
Moto2 RIDER QUOTES
Technomag-CIP rider Shoya Tomizawa says: "This is my team home GP so I am quite happy about that. Beside this, I like the Le Mans layout and my only worry so far is what kind of weather we will get, because last year it rained a lot and this year I would prefer to race in the dry. This weekend may be different from Jerez because no one has been to Le Mans with a Moto2 bike, so the target is to have a good race, finish and score points."
Gresini Racing Moto2 rider Toni Elias says: "We can expect another crazy Moto2 race, I think, because there are a lot of hairpins and slow corners at Le Mans, which means there will be some big battles on the brakes. I hope that everyone understands that the race is more than 20 laps, not just one or two laps! My injuries get better every day, so I hope that I can race with less pain than I had at Jerez."
Interwetten Moriwaki Moto2 rider Thomas Luthi
says: "The Le Mans track is not bad for me. I already had several successful races there, my last win included. But this last win was another story as it was in 125cc and a long time ago. My target is to be part of the front group. I will not focus on anything else than riding in the leading group. Once you are there really anything can happen in Moto2."
Honda 125cc rider quotes:
Interwetten Honda 125 rider Marcel Schrotter says: "I have never been to Le Man s before, also not as a visitor. I hope I can keep improving there and my target is to ride faster. I was too grim in the last two races and expected too much.
I hope I can get rid of that in Le Mans. My target is again to gain more points in the championship and I will try to improve in each session. I heard that it's usually wet in Le Mans. Rain is not a problem for me though. My first win in the Junior-Cup was in the Wet and last year at Sachsenring, when I had a wild card ride, I started the race from front row on the grid and that was also in the rain. Riding under rainy conditions can be fun. I am looking forward to Le Mans."