The MotoGP civil war brewing on hallowed ground

Racing under the red, white and blue of the Tricolore provided the French connection for the two MotoGP riders at the top of the times at Le Mans. But as Johann Zarco and Fabio Quartararo prepare to battle for glory at the French Grand Prix, both could be relying on very different strengths and conditions to aid their victory charges

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

There aren’t too many circuits around the world that conjure up as much passion and drama when you mention their names. For motorsport fans, these two little French words never fail to send chills down spines: Le Mans.

Whether it’s the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans car race, or MotoGP’s now traditional yearly stop to the venue’s Bugatti Circuit, the place is dripping with history.

Often, however, it also tends to drip with rain, and that was certainly the case when MotoGP action got underway on Friday morning for the 2021 edition of the French Grand Prix. While the earlier showers had reduced to mere spots and the track did develop a dry-ish line, it offered a glimpse of what is likely to come for the rest of the weekend.

The forecasts for the French GP weekend make for grim reading if you happen to be made of cardboard, and so a repeat of last year’s wet theatrics come Sunday is extremely likely. That will be news to prick the ears of Ducati employees.

Fresh from a 1-2 at the Spanish GP a fortnight ago, Ducati now enters a phase of the calendar it tends to go well at. Jerez winner Jack Miller kicked off FP1 with the fastest time, though was the only one to do so on slick tyres on a drying track. Behind him was Pramac’s Johann Zarco, a man on a mission to have Le Marseille play out for him instead of Fabio Quartararo this weekend.

Johann Zarco, Pramac Racing

Johann Zarco, Pramac Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

In FP2, it was Zarco on his Ducati who got the better of Yamaha-mounted Quartararo by 0.095 seconds. Despite the opening stages of FP2 being reduced to a mini time attack, as the field tried to pre-empt any possible rain from the looming thick black clouds above the track and secure provisional Q2 places, some race running was offered up.

Zarco began the session on a fresh medium tyre and returned to the circuit for his second of three runs on that same medium tyre. Beginning stint two with eight laps on the rubber, he reeled off a couple of impressive laps – a 1m33.064s and a 1m32.768s. Quartararo's used tyre running was interrupted by a crash at the Dunlop chicane, one of four MotoGP riders claimed by the corner on Friday.

On fresh soft rubber, the Yamaha rider easily fired in a 1m33.025s two laps into his first FP2 run, following it up with a 1m32.689s and a 1m32.120s a couple of tours later. On his third run on a fresh soft rear slick, he could once again instantly get into the low 1m32s before dipping into the 1m31s – all of this putting his recently operated on right arm to the test following his Jerez arm-pump issues, his body standing up the punishment well.

"As Ducati riders, we need to be careful to don’t let him go [and escape out front] as he was ready to do in Jerez. But then with used tyres, maybe after half race [distance], we are more equal I would say - the Yamaha and Ducati" Johann Zarco

That ability to get down to business right from the off was set to win Quartararo the Spanish GP before his arm-pump struck, and it could be vital come the race.

Quartararo’s Turn 3 crash in FP2 was a result of his front tyre not being up to sufficient temperature. He branded tyre warm-up at Le Mans “a total disaster”, with a number of riders admitting to the same struggle. But even with this, Quartararo’s ability to lap quickly straight away means Zarco knows what his mission is come race day - should the rain stay away.

“We know the Yamaha is strong here in the dry and Fabio, the 1m32.1s he did in the first [part] of the session was very impressive,” a happy Zarco said after Friday’s running on home soil. “Fabio has this capacity to go immediately pretty fast, so in case of dry conditions for the rest of the weekend but at least the race, as Ducati riders, we need to be careful to don’t let him go [and escape out front] as he was ready to do in Jerez.

“But then with used tyres, maybe after half race [distance], we are more equal I would say - the Yamaha and Ducati. Our game in Ducati is to not let him go, because it will be hard to catch him back.”

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Should it be wet, however, the game changes somewhat. Quartararo’s first-ever wet MotoGP race, along with Joan Mir, Francesco Bagnaia, Brad Binder and Alex Marquez, came at Le Mans last year and it was a bit of a disaster for him. Having qualified on pole and looked odds-on favourite for victory, he had to paddle his way to ninth in the wet conditions.

Having finished the damp FP1 down in 16th, Quartararo admitted his feeling in the wet was okay but his speed is lacking.

“In the wet we have a good feeling but are missing some speed,” he noted. “I think I wanted to take way too much care of the tyre compared to the other Yamahas. We will have to check it well, but we miss not so much feeling - more speed.”

The fact two French riders topped Friday of the French GP was a moment not lost on Quartararo, who along with Zarco, in recent years has rejuvenated French passions for MotoGP.

“It’s special because I think to see two French riders on top… it’s not that we are six or seven French riders and we see on two on top,” he said. “It’s that we are two and we are both on top. So, I think that is a great feeling for France and I think we show our potential with two different bikes and I think it’s nice to see two different French riders on top.”

Should the race be dry, home hopes of a French 1-2 could be dashed by Maverick Vinales on the sister factory Yamaha. Having made a step forward from a disappointing Spanish GP in the post-race Jerez test, those gains carried forward into Friday at Le Mans. Though he was as similarly disappointing to Quartararo in the wet race at Le Mans last year and was a low-key 12th at the end of the damp FP1, Vinales was encouraged by the fact he could quickly rediscover a good feeling on his bike in the conditions just a few corners after a low-speed tumble at the Dunlop chicane.

And in the dry FP2, Vinales fired in a 1m32.793s and a 1m32.548s on a soft rear tyre that had done 12 laps already by the start of that three-lap run. It seems the Qatar-spec Vinales is back.

“I just concentrated a lot today to make race rhythm, because we don’t know when again we’re going to get another dry session and in case Sunday is a dry race I tried to understand the race set-up a little bit,” Vinales said of his Friday. “But overall, I feel really good. We need to improve a few things on the bike, which is not difficult – I think it’s more about details – and then we are ready to fight. So, very happy to be back on a good level.”

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing crash

Maverick Vinales, Yamaha Factory Racing crash

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Having noted on Thursday that Yamaha’s way of working during race weekends needed to improve so that it can find set-ups a bit quicker, Saturday will put this to the test.

The potential wet conditions could offer Honda an opportunity to tally up its first podium of a so far difficult 2021 campaign. Pol Espargaro guided his KTM through the spray to the rostrum at Le Mans last year and ended Friday as the Honda’s top runner in fourth, 0.390s off Zarco’s pace.

PLUS: The impossible problem Honda faces with its 2021 MotoGP bike

The Honda rider has been boosted by steps forward made at the post-race Jerez test with the bike, though conceded it’s not 100% clear yet that the track is just playing into his hands more. On a 14-lap-old soft slick in FP2, Espargaro managed a 1m32.915s, hinting at a return of the strong race pace he showed in Qatar but ultimately couldn’t convert into any special results due to poor qualifying form.

Reigning champion Mir is convinced he can turn his fortunes around at the venue which turned up his worst finishing result of 2020, but he doesn’t believe it will be enough to fight for the win and has set his sights on top five being a good day

But with FP3 set to be wet, Espargaro’s given his Sunday hopes a big boost by bagging himself a provisional Q2 place. If he can take profit of the step forward shown at Le Mans – as well as the confidence brought by the return to the paddock of HRC team boss Alberto Puig – then Espargaro could be in for a strong race wet or dry.

However, not strong enough to win, believes Marc Marquez, who admitted on Friday he “doesn’t see any Honda rider close to victory” right now. Eighth fastest on Friday, Marquez will be one of the main beneficiaries of a wet race owing to their less strenuous nature on a rider’s body, having admitted he was “struggling” in dry conditions.

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Another rider who isn’t predicting any victories in Suzuki’s Mir, who was left in 13th on Friday after a late crash. The reigning champion is convinced he can turn his fortunes around at the venue which turned up his worst finishing result of 2020, but he doesn’t believe it will be enough to fight for the win and has set his sights on top five being a good day. Whatever the weather, the world champion’s title defence continues to underwhelm.

One rider who can’t afford to underwhelm at Le Mans is Miller. He says he struggled to ride consistently in the windy conditions on Friday and was seventh on the timesheets. But admitting to carrying less stress this weekend following his Jerez win, there won’t be any mental barriers blocking his advances towards the front of the pack come Sunday. And in sketchy conditions, there are few better than Miller at navigating them – as his FP1 effort reminded.

Expect championship leader and Miller’s Ducati team-mate Bagnaia to come on stronger as the weekend progresses, having been consigned to 11th after a spill and a dodgy rear tyre for a late time attack after that halted him in FP2.

The key unknowns moving forward remain KTM and Aprilia. Miguel Oliveira feels his bike needs only minor tweaks after ending Friday sixth fastest, but team-mate Binder struggled to trust the front of his RC16 which led to him losing 0.7s in the third sector and left him 16th. Trying set-ups closer to his KTM counterparts, 2020 Le Mans winner Danilo Petrucci was an anonymous 2.7s off the pace in last.

Aleix Espargaro crashed twice in FP2 at the Dunlop chicane, which dropped him to 14th. But these were a result of him having the confidence in his improved 2021 RS-GP to push from the off, which is a positive in itself. The stop/start nature of the Le Mans circuit should suit the RS-GP, so it’s imperative Espargaro qualifies well – though it remains to be seen how well the current Aprilia works in full wet conditions.

How the rest of the Le Mans weekend plays out looks likely to be dictated by what the weather decides to do. In the dry, Quartararo and Zarco look strongly matched to engage in a civil war for their home fans, though Vinales can’t be discounted to spoil the fun.

Should it rain, Ducati instantly become odds-on favourites and Yamaha has to hope its 2021 M1 still has margin to be unlocked for it to also be a strong wet weather motorcycle. Should it do that, though, Friday at Le Mans at least hinted both of its riders will be much stronger in the wet than last year.

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing, Johann Zarco, Pramac Racing

Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing, Johann Zarco, Pramac Racing

Photo by: MotoGP

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