Exciting and heavy action at the HJC Helmets Grand Prix de France could not mask the fact that Marc Márquez and Honda have taken the measure of this series. That's their job, just as it was Mick Doohan's job to win five 500cc GP titles in a row from 1994 to 1998. For the past two seasons Le Mans was Yamaha country, but this year the Honda RC213V is powered up. Freed from having to make his braking compensate for the 2017 model's lack of acceleration, Marquez is using rounder, faster lines.

Johann Zarco on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha satellite YZR-M1 continues to be embarrassingly faster than the factory men. He set pole, looking and sounding ready to lead and win. Andrea Dovizioso, on the ever-so-gradually improving Ducati, was seen to have tremendous pace.

At the start, Jorge Lorenzo shot into the lead as he did so often in his years on Yamaha, leading for nine laps on the GP18 Ducati. Zarco dropped back momentarily, then took second. Away went the hectic group—Lorenzo, Zarco, Danilo Petrucci, Dovi, Márquez, and Valentino Rossi. It looked impossible that so many people could occupy so little space at such speed, all without touching each other.

Marc Márquez
Marc Márquez took the win at the HJC Helmets Grand Prix of France riding in a more calm manner than we often see from the Spaniard.Courtesy of Honda

Andrea Iannone crashed out at turn 6 on lap one. Dovi advanced, passing Zarco at turn 6 on lap four, then taking Lorenzo at turn 3 a lap later.

Márquez said later, “Before the race in the warm-up we were together for a few laps and we understood Dovizioso had something more, or we were very equal, and for that reason and the tire choice it was maybe his strategy to push at the beginning. He was pushing a lot, more than normal—normally Dovi pushes at the beginning but then stays there to manage the tires before pushing again at the end.”

Three corners after taking the lead from Lorenzo, braking for turn 6, Dovi went slightly wide, corrected, and lost the front on entry.

He said, “It’s difficult, very difficult for me to metabolize a mistake like that. I didn’t think that I could lose the bike at that moment. When you have more speed than the others like today, throwing away the race like that is unacceptable.

“I wanted to overtake Jorge because he was riding like at Jerez and I had Zarco behind me. Among other things, Zarco is not a nice rival. The only thing I cared about was getting past Jorge…plus I could tell Johann was rather agitated, whereas Marc was struggling.”

The “struggling” Dovi saw was Márquez’s big save.

Danilo Petrucci
Danilo Petrucci finished second at Le Mans after moving up the order after several crashes and a fading Jorge Lorenzo.Courtesy of Alma Pramac Racing

Of that save, Márquez said, “At a certain point I had one big moment in turn 3, where I had already crashed in FP3, which is why I was being extremely careful there: I think that helped me to avoid a crash in that moment.”

Petrucci saw it: “I was close to him when he lost the front at turn 3, so I thought maybe he is in trouble. But a lap later he did the lap record so I thought he wasn’t in so much trouble.”

Of Dovi’s crash, Márquez said, “When I crash it is because someone is pushing me. [Dovi] crashed because the others were pushing him.

“He tried to lead the race immediately because he knew that I was coming [as soon as my] tire had the correct temperature.” Márquez was the only rider on a hard rear—all others were on soft. “I was looking for him because he was the guy during the whole weekend who had a special pace.”

Márquez got past Zarco and then Zarco himself slid off.

Zarco said, “I had a good start and then with Lorenzo I had to go more than 100 percent to try to overtake him. I was losing too much on acceleration [this year’s Yamaha bugaboo. Is it the chassis? Or is it the electronics?] So then you have to push more on the brakes to catch him and maybe overtake him. I should maybe have waited to have less fuel and feel more comfortable.”

There was another reason for riders to push early. Through practice, it was easier to make quick lap times in the cooler mornings than in the warm afternoons as track temperature for the race was 113 degrees fahrenheit. This increased the perceived value of getting it done now rather than waiting for the tires to cook. Maverick Viñales said on Saturday, “I wish the race was at 9 a.m.!”

Valentino Rossi
Valentino Rossi returned to the podium at the HJC Helmets Grand Prix of France.Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha MotoGP

Why were there more than 60 crashes in the three classes this weekend? Márquez said, “During this weekend we’ve seen many crashes. I think the main reason is we have a lot of grip and then every rider pushes a lot. But when the tire is light it is so aggressive because the grip is there.”

Lorenzo dropped back. On lap 10 Márquez took the lead and a lap later Petrucci became second, followed by Rossi, Jack Miller, and Dani Pedrosa.

Petrucci didn’t need drama: “My tire didn’t drop a lot in the last five laps and I saw Valentino was two seconds behind and Marc was two seconds in front, so I said okay, maybe it is too late to win today. Second place for today is better than the gravel.”

Rossi and Viñales continue their puzzlement at Yamaha’s predicament. What is it? Rossi’s view: “Impossible to say now. We don’t have any particular problems. Our rivals are simply faster.”

Which is why he has been pointedly urging Yamaha to get a move on. Viñales just seems puzzled by the comings-and-goings of his Yamaha’s best capabilities.

Miller, third for the day, is clearly getting it. He said, “It wasn’t an easy day, but another really learning day for me. We struggled a little with top speed. I was losing a lot on the front straight, most from the acceleration. We’re not quite ready for the podium just yet, but I think I’m learning more every time.”

Lorenzo attributed his fade to a loss of stamina caused by poor ergonomics.

“My main problem today is that physically I didn’t have a good support with the full tank to keep my stamina up for the whole race. I am suffering with this from the beginning at tracks like Austin and here where there is a lot of hard braking.”

And the resurgent Cal Crutchlow? He suffered a tremendous crash in practice and didn’t know until Sunday morning that he could ride. Ride he did, into eighth place.

Márquez observed the early race drama, learning from it. He said, “When [Zarco] crashed my approach to the race changed, and then I was more calm and I took more time as I saw that the front tire was so critical.”

Of his early save at turn 3 he said, “When I lost the front I just put the elbow (down) and I picked up the bike.”

There is drama aplenty to come from future clashes among Dovi, Zarco, and Márquez. And who knows? Maybe Yamaha will find more chips to put on the table.