The VROOM Blog – #FrenchGP – Bastianini blasts to third win of the season

 In Blog, MotoGP, News

This weekend, for the first time in history, we headed to France with a French MotoGP world champion on the grid, and the Le Mans circuit was packed with fans thanks to what was being called the ‘Fabio effect’. There were plenty of French flags flying as well as numerous El Diablo / 20 flags for Fabio, and a fair few of number 5 flags being flown for Johann Zarco too.

When asked about the importance of racing at home, Fabio batted away the pressure and said that while it was nice to have the support, he would stay calm and approach the weekend as he would any other race weekend. I’ve never understood the way (some) journalists put such pressure on riders at their home GPs – more often than not when they do it to the Brits, they roll out with a shiny new home flag livery and have the worst race of their season.

Johann Zarco took a slightly different approach to Fabio and said that he was hoping to have a great weekend at home. Zarco also unveiled a special helmet for his home GP which did look pretty cool to be fair!

Before we get to the on-track action, there have been a couple of big news stories this weekend.

Following on from the bombshell news from the Jerez test – without any official confirmation – that Suzuki are planning to leave the MotoGP championship at the end of the season, Suzuki did finally release a statement on Thursday before the French GP media day got underway.

The statement was brief but did confirm that “Suzuki Motor Corporation is in discussions with Dorna regarding the possibility of ending Suzuki’s participation in MotoGP at the end of 2022”, and went on to cite the current economic situation and “the need to concentrate its effort on the big changes that the Automotive world is facing” as reasons that Suzuki was having to decrease the costs related to racing and instead focus on “developing new technologies”.

In light of this news, Joan Mir and Alex Rins – along with a whole host of talented crew – have been left looking for new jobs for 2023. While nothing had been signed yet, both riders stated that they had been planning to stay with Suzuki, and Livio Suppo had said in previous rounds that he was keen to keep both Alex and Joan. Both riders were obviously shocked by the news, with Alex Rins telling the media on Thursday that he cried when he was told the news, but to their credit Alex and Joan showed concern not just for themselves, but for their teams who have also lost their jobs.

Speaking to the BT Sport team, Suzuki team boss Livio Suppo said that they had a problem which they must turn into an opportunity and that they aimed to use the disappointment of the news to fuel success for the rest of the season.

Over the course of the weekend, it has been confirmed that Joan and Alex have been in contact with other teams as they search for seats for next season. Honda boss Alberto Puig confirmed that he has had contact from both riders, while Alex Rins said on Sunday that his manager had also been in contact with Yamaha, KTM and Aprilia. While it remains to be seen where Mir and Rins will end up, I’m fairly certain we’ll see them on the MotoGP grid next season – Joan is the 2020 World Champion, and Alex Rins has his best start to a season in a while (if we don’t include this weekend!).

We also don’t know yet whether we will see a new (or returning) manufacturer take the slots, if they will go to an independent team with a current manufacturer, or indeed if the slots will be filled at all, but Carmelo Ezpeleta did release a statement at the French GP saying that there would be a meeting between members of the Dorna board and Suzuki team members some time this week.

The other big news story this weekend came from journalist Mat Oxley who had broken a story about tyre pressure rules being breached in the MotoGP class. Basically, some teams have been running tyre pressures that are below the minimum pressure recommended by Michelin. These minimum pressures are part of the regulations of racing in the premier class, but there is a long-standing ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between the MSMA and Michelin not to disclose or indeed sanction any breaches, which means that some teams are running a lower pressure in order to gain more grip and a better performance across full race distance.

Oxley reported that he had been approached by a senior engineer and a team manager from different teams about this issue, and then after the Jerez race, the engineer handed him a copy of the official post-race tyre pressure sheet which showed that four riders had been running illegal tyre pressures. Most notable of those running the lower pressure was race winner Pecco Bagnaia.

When asked about the lower tyre pressure by Gavin Emmett, Pecco simply said that they were “talking about nothing” because “if it was illegal, I would get penalised” but he didn’t. Emmett also asked current championship leader Fabio Quartararo how he felt about Pecco perhaps having gained an advantage to win the race, Fabio said that he thinks he may have been in the same situation when he won in Portugal.

In response to the news, MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge made a statement which said that they are “in the process of evaluating a new tyre pressure monitoring protocol” which “must include the introduction of a unified sensor and receiver system.” He went on to say that any changes would not be implemented before the start of the 2023 season.

FP1 on Friday saw the return of the shoulder camera – we first saw it with Alex Rins last year, and this weekend it was Aleix Espargaro who ran it. They seem to have improved the positioning of the camera – it looks a bit higher than it did before – and it showed as we were treated to a cracking view as Aleix rode around the Le Mans track.

One thing that we know about Le Mans is that it usually sits pretty high up in the crash count across the season, and FP1 was no different, with Bastianini, Brad Binder, Miguel Oliveira, and Franky Morbidelli all taking to the gravel. Miguel crashed twice in FP1 in what was not a good weekend for him.

It was Pol Espargaro who topped the session ahead of Alex Rins, Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo.

FP2 was another session with a lot of crash drama and even some air time for Johann Zarco who ran across the gravel at high speed before clipping the kerb and basically jumping across the track at turn 4. While it may have looked impressive on TV, it was lucky that there was no one else near him on track as there was no way he was getting that bike stopped.

With just 1 second remaining on the clock, Enea Bastianini took the top spot with a new all time lap record before promptly crashing at turn 3. There were also crashes at the very end of the session for Morbidelli and Alex Marquez, while Enea was joined in the top 3 by Aleix Espargaro and Alex Rins.

FP3 on Saturday morning is now becoming the session of the weekend where Marc Marquez begins to look for riders to follow in order to get a tow and try to pull himself into the top 10 to gain passage to Q2. This weekend it was Fabio that Marc chose to follow as the final 15 minutes got underway. Fabio set a time that took him to 2nd place, while Marc followed him and went 4th. With his next lap Fabio went 0.3 seconds faster than Enea had gone yesterday to set another new all time lap record at the Le Mans track.

Towards the end of the session, Marc actually spent two full minutes sitting on top of his bike in pit lane waiting for Fabio to leave, before following the Frenchman out of the pits. They started their flying laps together and finished the session in 3rd (Fabio) and 4th (Marc), before shaking hands on their in-lap. There was a time when Fabio would have been flustered by Marc using him for a tow, but now he seems to take it more as a compliment – he knows he is fast and if Marc needs to follow him, he lets him.

As the chequered flag came out Pecco held the top spot, but Alex Rins and Johann Zarco were on fast laps, with Rins currently outside of the top 10. To the delight of the crowd, Zarco came through to top the times ahead of Pecco and Fabio, while Rins did manage to pull himself up to 8th place and secure a slot in Q2. Team mate Mir would have to face the gauntlet of Q1 against the likes of Jorge Martin, Brad Binder and Marco Bezzecchi.

Riders heading straight through to Q2 aside from the top 3 would be Marc, Jack Miller, Aleix, Taka Nakagami, Rins, Pol Espargaro and Enea Bastianini.

FP4 saw riders checking their race pace, and was topped by Fabio, Rins and Pecco.

After the first runs in Q1 it was Jorge Martin and Joan Mir who were holding the top two places, and they stayed firm in the second half of the session too, with Mir heading out earlier than the others to get a clear track and set the times on his own. As the session came to a close Marco Bezzecchi was on a decent lap and it did look as though he might pinch 2nd place from Joan, but he just missed out, meaning that he would be starting the race from 13th on the grid.

Q2 saw Fabio fastest from Pecco and Jorge after their first runs, and in the second run Pecco and Jack looked to be working together with Pecco leading the Australian around. Whatever they did worked a treat as Pecco took pole position with a new all time lap record, with Jack in 2nd place and Aleix 3rd ahead of Fabio, Enea and Zarco.

Johann Zarco was later handed a 3-place grid penalty for getting in Pol’s way during the session, meaning that he would start from 9th.

There had been much talk across the weekend that rain may come just in time for the MotoGP race, so during Warm Up on Sunday morning, we saw many riders head out for an out lap on wet tyres to scrub them in should they be needed later on. This also gave them the opportunity to practice swapping bikes as they came down pit lane to switch to slicks for the dry session.

Just as Pecco and Jack had done yesterday, Fabio and Franky headed out together at the beginning of warm up, and Franky was able to stick with his team mate for a good few laps, with the pair sitting at the top of the times for a while too. Franky eventually ended the session in 10th place, and it was Aleix Espargaro who was fastest as the session ended.

Despite the weather forecast, and the fact that the Moto3 race had to be red flagged due to a rain shower, the MotoGP riders lined up on the grid under sunny skies. The atmosphere was fantastic – the grandstands (and all spectator areas) were rammed – and we were treated to a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise before the race kicked off.

As the lights went out, Jack Miller took the lead and headed into turn 1 while home hero Fabio appeared to have hit reverse – he was way back in the pack into the first corner. Well, he was 7th, but still, I’m sure that wasn’t the start he was hoping for.

Aleix Espargaro hadn’t made the best start either, but was starting to make amends as he passed Taka Nakagami for 6th place, and as Taka then tried to keep Fabio at bay, Marc Marquez sliced past them both.

At the beginning of the second lap, Zarco and Brad Binder collided and while both remained on board, Binder lost a wing from the front of his KTM – although he would still be the only KTM to finish the race!

As Miller and Bagnaia began to pull away from Bastianini at the front, Alex Rins found himself in a similar situation to Zarco in FP2, except that Rins was unable to keep his Suzuki upright and he crashed. Somehow everyone made it safely past the Spaniard and his bike, and Rins was able to remount, although he did soon pull into the pits and retire from the race.

Out front, Miller ran a little wide at turn 7 and Bagnaia pounced on the opportunity to take over the lead of the race, while further back Remy Gardner crashed out of the race following contact with fellow rookie Fabio Di Giannantonio. Fabio Quartararo was up to 6th and was pulling away from Marquez as he attempted to reel in Aleix Espargaro ahead of him, while the Tech3 team’s home GP came to a disappointing end as Gardner’s team mate Raul Fernandez also crashed out of the race.

By lap 12 Pecco had started to pull a slight gap on Jack and Enea, but Enea was on the move and he soon made his way through on Jack Miller for 2nd. As Johann Zarco started to close in on Marc Marquez, Joan Mir crashed out of the race at turn 14 – not an ideal weekend for the Suzuki team mates as they look for new jobs!

A few laps later, the crowd roared as Zarco made his way up to 6th at the expense of Marquez, before Jorge Martin crashed out of another race.

As we made our way towards the end of the race, Enea and Pecco had a bit of back and forth for the lead on lap 21. Pecco then ran wide into the long lap loop area, handing the lead to Enea before crashing out at turn 14. Miguel Oliveira crashed at turn 4 on lap 25 and Pol Espargaro did incredibly well to avoid hitting Oliveira’s KTM as it spun across the track.

Fabio Quartararo was tantalisingly close to Aleix on the final lap of the race, but he just couldn’t seem to find a way past the Aprilia man. Enea Bastianini was leading Miller by over 3 seconds as the final lap got underway and he went on to take his 3rd win of the season, with Miller in 2nd and Aleix Espargaro 3rd for his third consecutive podium.

This is the first time ever that Aprilia have had 3 consecutive premier class podiums. Once again, the cool down lap after the race was a highlight of the weekend – mostly thanks to Jack Miller who launched his gloves into the crowd (he would add his boots and knee-sliders to the list of things the crowd took home after the podium), and engaged in some ‘goon-riding’ around the marshals before doing a ‘stoppie’ into parc ferme.

There were shoey’s aplenty on the podium, with Enea pouring prosecco from his boot into Jack’s mouth as they celebrated their results.

The result did nothing to take away the rumours surrounding Jack’s future at Ducati, with Enea Bastianini now joining Jorge Martin in being suggested as a team mate for Pecco for next season. When asked about it in the post-race press conference, Jack simply shrugged and said “he’s won three races and he’s Italian, so it makes sense, doesn’t it?”

And it does make sense, but at the same time, Jack and Pecco work really well together in that team. Whichever way Ducati decide to go, we should have answers next time out as Davide Tardozzi said that they are aiming to make an announcement at Mugello.

There were rumours on Sunday evening that KTM are looking to poach Jack from Ducati, which makes sense in that KTM team boss Francesco Guidotti was Miller’s boss at Pramac Ducati, but I wouldn’t be looking to leave Ducati to ride a KTM at the moment!

As we leave France, we have a weekend off before we reach Mugello, and the top 3 in the championship are separated by only eight points. Fabio Quartararo is four points ahead of Aleix Espargaro, who in turn is four points ahead of Enea Bastianini. Who had Aleix Espargaro down as a title contender at the beginning of the season? Certainly not me, but he has been really impressive so far this season, and if he continues this form, we could well see him in contention for the title towards the end of the season…

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