French MotoGP Preview

Will Ducati deliver at Le Mans?

2012 French MotoGP Preview

2012 French MotoGP Preview

This coming weekend is the fourth round of the 2012 MotoGP championship. The race takes place at the French Bugatti circuit, located inside the longer, 8.47-mile Sarthe course on which the legendary 24-hour Le Mans sports-car race takes place. The French have loved racing since the dawn of motoring; last year’s crowd was 88,000.

Much speculation attends Ducati’s announcement that a “big change” will be revealed at this French GP. Some hope it will be a V-Four engine with its Vee angle narrowed from Ducati’s traditional but bulky 90 degrees. The cylinder-bank angle of the currently dominant Honda RC213V is substantially less than 90, concentrating engine/gearbox mass, allowing both rapid direction changing and good placement of weight up front to keep the front tire steering during rapid off-corner acceleration. Ducatis, ridden this year as last by Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden, have been sixth-to-seventh-place finishers, about one second per lap off the pace. Many changes have been made to the machines in the interest of improving front-end feel and moving mass forward.

Bugatti circuit has been called the “least-technical” on the MotoGP calendar, owing to its six slow, second-gear corners connecting a few short straights and a moderately fast main straight with the super-fast Dunlop Curve at its midpoint. Spec-tire-supplier Bridgestone describes this track as generating “the least-severe dynamic forces on tires of any MotoGP circuit.” What this means is that the bikes are not turning at high speed, with a lot of cornering and traction power going through the tires. This, plus generally low track temperatures, results in the tire choices for Le Mans being soft and medium front, with an extra two-per-rider issue of new-specification medium front, and soft and medium asymmetric rears.

Bear in mind that terms like soft/medium/hard are relative, for at operating temperature, tires become much softer. A softer tire generates more grip because its rubber can more easily deform to fill the texture of the road surface, generating more real area of contact. But softer rubber also loses strength faster as its temperature rises. A compromise is necessary to achieve fast warm-up and grip that lasts through the event.

Another aspect of having so many lower-speed corners is that it requires mental discipline from riders. Kenny Roberts said years ago, “Ride fast corners fast and slow corners slow.” What he meant was, don’t be tempted by how close the man ahead looks in slow corners—a quarter-second lead is a long 66 feet at 180 mph, but in a 55-mph chicane, that drops to just 20 feet. That has tempted many a rider to think that a superhuman effort in a slow corner can make up the difference. “Ride slow corners slow” means cool it in slow corners; every idiot tries hard there. “Ride fast corners fast” means many riders fear fast corners, so that’s where you can make up time.

When there were many fallers in 2010, Bridgestone decided to provide asymmetric tires for 2011 to make falling on the cooler left-hand sides of the tires less likely.

Here are the top-five finishers in the MotoGP class for the past three years:

|2011|2010 (Stoner crashed out)|2009 (wet race)| |---|---|---| |1. Stoner|Lorenzo|Lorenzo| |2. Dovizioso|Rossi (on Yamaha)|Melandri (on Kawasaki)| 3. Rossi (on Ducati)DoviziosoPedrosa4. LorenzoHaydenDovizioso5. SimoncelliPedrosaStoner (on Ducati)

Casey Stoner and Honda are the favored combination, but Le Mans weather is described as “unsettled.” Honda, after intensive R&D to smooth out the power of its engine by mid-2010, gave Stoner a fine tool with which to dominate 2011 at the head of a new “Honda wrecking crew,” then consisting of Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso and the late Marco Simoncelli. Romantics hope that Ducati’s new development—whatever it may be—can magically restore Rossi to what they see as his rightful place up front. Dorna management must be included in that group! They well know Rossi’s value in promoting the sport.

Last year, the smoothed-out yet class-leading power of the Hondas enabled them to win the repeated drag races off the slow corners. Jorge Lorenzo is just a point behind Stoner and continues his practice of matching Honda lap times with extreme concentration on shaving all margins to nearly nothing. A top rider on a motorcycle that is almost fast enough to win is a situation of dangerous temptation.

2012 French MotoGP Preview

2012 French MotoGP Preview