MotoGP: Grand Prix Of France Wrap-Up

Valentino Rossi makes victory at Le Mans “too easy” for Marc Marquez.

Marc Marquez race action shot

Marc Marquez won Le Mans, making it five in a row this season. Could this young man be aiming to win them all? Wouldn’t you, if circumstance permitted?

MotoGP this year emphasizes the problem of controlling how your tires work. If you work the front too hard, making it hot, it will give up mid-corner, resulting in understeer and running wide as you try to accelerate. But if you fail to get temperature on that side of the tire on the way into the corner, it might give less grip for that reason, and the result will be the same: running wide as you try to accelerate.

Marquez is a master at widening the range of usefulness of his tires. Sunday was warmer than predicted, with track temperature peaking at 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Jorge Lorenzo’s corner-speed riding style works best in a narrow temperature range—warm enough to get the tires working, not so hot that edge grip begins to fade.

“The start was not so bad,” Lorenzo said after finishing a disappointing sixth, “but I could not overtake any rider in the early laps, and it left me riding with not such a good pace.” Drama! “Maybe I was too relaxed off the line,” Marquez said of his slow start, “then when Jorge passed me, I had to take a wide line. Otherwise, we would have touched. As a result, many riders overtook me.”

Whatever the cause, Marquez was way down in 10th. Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso, meanwhile, made a great start and led Stefan Bradl and the others. The snake of closely spaced machines rose and fell with magical grace through the corners. For several laps, Dovizioso pushed hard, but his tire drop arrived and, after a few pass/re-pass cycles, Valentino Rossi came under him as easily as he had just oozed past Bradl. Dovi’s early low 1:34 lap times became 1:35s.

Andrea Dovizioso race action shot

Bradl slowed, too. “At the beginning on a new tire, I was pretty fast,” the German said, “but after six or seven laps, I was not able to use my rear tire out of the corners.”

Marquez ran a series of fast laps, making a hectic pass every other lap. His style finds grip when others are losing theirs, or else it is just less dependent upon peak grip.

Think of what happens as a bike enters a corner: The part of the tread on the pavement rises rapidly in temperature and its grip rises, as well. If the rider does this thoughtfully, when it’s time to turn the throttle, the tire is “done to a turn”—nicely at peak grip across a wide zone, ready to handle the thrust of acceleration. But if the rider remains on one band of tread the whole way in, while that band gets hot and sticky, the rest of the tire may not. Mid-corner grip or acceleration may suffer. The ideal is like a roast: nicely browned all over.

Le Mans is an accordion—a stack of short straights joined by tight corners. There are no long corners to push tire shoulder temps very high, which is why the tire offering was the softest of the year, and top riders all ran the softer of two available rear choices. Throughout Friday and Saturday practice, riders were deciding if the soft would do the job.

Marquez arrived, and Rossi, leading, went too deep on brakes and obligingly ran wide. Thus there was to be no drama, no cut and thrust. “In the crucial moment of the race, I made a mistake in braking,” Rossi said. “I braked a little too deep and went wide. It’s a great pity, as it was too easy for Marc.”

Third was Gresini Honda’s Alvaro Bautista, a rider of talent for whom this would be his first podium of 2014. “I kept calm and slowly I took my pace, recovering many positions,” he said. “Once I reached the third position, I tried to push to catch Rossi, but the gap was too high.”

Valentino Rossi race action shot

Rossi’s second places this year are the result of his realizing that more of what won races before Marquez cannot win them now. He saw last year that he must discover what is working for Marquez and add that to his own wide experience. When we saw Rossi fail to adapt to the Ducati, we thought his career was closing, but now he shows that he can adapt.

What? Dani Pedrosa fifth behind Pol Espargaro? Pedrosa said that the early push and shove that resulted in Nicky Hayden’s falling and Andrea Iannone doing the same shortly thereafter wasn’t the main problem. “I had an issue with the front tire preventing me from making my way up the order,” he said. “Every time I tried to be more aggressive, I had a lack of grip, and it took many laps to move forward.”

Other riders had front grip issues, as well, but grip is not a thing or a number. It is a garden, which must be tended carefully in order to bear fruit. Pilots tell me that each higher level of license requires that you learn to do more things simultaneously. Racing is very much the same: an N-dimensional chess game played at a high tempo. Non-thinkers need not apply.

Espargaro was ecstatic, calling his weekend “a small dream,” and saying, “After qualifying , I thought things couldn’t get better. But, luckily, I was also able to perform well over the whole race distance.” It’s not luck! These are the new faces we will see more often.

Rossi and Marquez enter parc ferme

Dovizioso finished eighth. How many times have we heard this realist, after qualifying high up, say that one fast lap is not a race? But to go so fast for five laps on this Ducati is definitely progress.

Both Rossi and Marquez spoke of Lorenzo’s evident unhappiness with his situation. “This year,” Rossi said, “Marc has more experience and is riding like this, and at this moment, technically, the Honda is a little bit better than the Yamaha. So, for Jorge, it is a bit frustrating because he knows it is quite impossible, and he doesn’t want to arrive second. He is not happy. So, maybe for this reason, he has some problems.”

“It looks like Lorenzo is struggling a little bit more,” Marquez said, “but I think he will find a way, and when he begins again to enjoy it on the bike, he will be fast. But if you don’t enjoy it, it is impossible.”

Fausto Gresini has had success returning struggling riders to their true abilities by reviving their enjoyment. Speaking of Bautista’s excellent third place, he said, “I talked a lot with Alvaro after the GP of Argentina, and I think that it’s been useful for him to find the right attitude.”

When slick tires arrived in 1974, any rider who failed to exploit their new capabilities fell behind. The top rider of any era is the one who grasps new possibilities, which machine and tire evolution always bring. Now it is up to the others to grasp them, as well—and enjoy it.

Andrea Dovizioso qualified on the front row and led three laps of the race.

Marc Marquez set the quickest lap of the race on his eighth go around.

Valentino Rossi earned his third podium of the 2014 season.

Marc Marquez caught and passed Valentino Rossi for victory.

Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo were not factors in the outcome of the race.

Valentino Rossi leads Pol Espargaro and Stefan Bradl.

Rossi and Marquez enter parc ferme.

Four-time 500cc GP runner-up Randy Mamola.

Marc Marquez has five wins from five starts this season.

Dani Pedrosa is second overall in points.

Nicky Hayden did not finish the first lap, a victim of Andrea Iannone's overexuberance.


Bright sun replaced last year's rain in France.

Elf sponsors the LCR Honda team with rider Stefan Bradl.