Le Mans Preview: Zarco Leads French Fightback


France has never produced a Grand Prix champion in the premier class, with only five in the entire history of the world championship across all classes, but with the next annual Grand Prix on the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans upon us, so could be a French revolution on two wheels.

The last rider from French soil to clinch a world championship currently plies his trade in the MotoGP class, Mike Di Meglio having that honour after proving to be the cream of the 125cc crop in 2008. Benefitting from the tutelage of Aki Ajo, Di Meglio claimed four victories to see off nearest rivals Simone Corsi and Gabor Talmacsi in a season which also included names such as Bradley Smith, Pol Espargaro, Scott Redding, Andrea Iannone and a certain Marc Marquez.

It’s fair to say that those riders have all gone on to bigger and better things than Di Meglio since missing out on that title but the intermediate class could be about to provide another bright talent ready to take on the MotoGP establishment.

For years, Johann Zarco has left us in doubt as to the phenomenal pace he possesses but his temperament has always threatened to hold him back. 2011 was his breakthrough year as he pushed Nicolas Terol to the limit for the 125 crown but an overly aggressive last corner move at Catalunya and a frankly brainless episode at Misano where he effectively waved Terol through to victory would ultimately cost him.

2015 looks to be the birth of the new, mature Johann Zarco though with some exceptional rides so far. But for a faulty gear lever, victory in Qatar would have been his and the 24 year old used his racing brain to consolidate second in Texas despite the obvious temptation to chase after a rampant Sam Lowes. In Argentina, no-one could touch him as Johann romped to his maiden Moto2 win from pole position and despite a poor qualifying in Spain, he sliced through the field to second to extend his championship lead.

A rapturous welcome is guaranteed for Johann on his homecoming this weekend but how likely is a French victory? Jonas Folger will be leading the pack of riders looking to spoil the party after taking his second win from four starts in Spain. The German stunned polesitter Tito Rabat, defeating the reigning champion in a straight fight, and took his one-and-only Moto2 pole position at Le Mans last year, giving the AGR squad every cause to believe that they can challenge again on Sunday.

Zarco’s two immediate championship challengers prior to Jerez both had disastrous afternoons with Alex Rins throwing away a certain podium by tripping over Rabat at the final corner while Sam Lowes lamented a problematic Dunlop rear tyre which left him with no grip, and no points. Both will surely come back stronger at Le Mans.

The last French winner of a French Grand Prix came in 2012 when Louis Rossi splashed to victory in a soaking wet Moto3 race and the lightweight class also provides a realistic shot at home success. Fabio Quartararo has already served notice to his rivals that he will be a major force in his rookie season, storming to pole at Jerez and despite a rookie error at the last corner, the 16 year old challenged for the win throughout.

The biggest obstacle to a first Fabio victory comes in the shape of runaway championship leader Danny Kent who arrives at Le Mans on the back of three straight wins, two coming by the biggest margin ever seen in a dry Moto3 race. Lessons appeared to have been learned by Jerez as the Red Bull Ajo KTM riders came to an agreement with Quartararo that they couldn’t let the Briton escape and a typical Moto3 bunch sprint looks likely.

In the MotoGP class, Marc Marquez may now have a helping hand in his title battle with the Movistar Yamahas and Andrea Dovizioso as Dani Pedrosa makes his return from injury. The 29 year old has spent the last three races recovering from surgery on his right arm, a procedure which some thought might spell the end of his career, and this weekend will provide the acid test of its success.

Ducati will be targeting a return to form after a disappointing weekend at Jerez although their chances haven’t been helped by an injury to Andrea Iannone. Despite suffering a dislocated shoulder earlier this week, Iannone will partner Andrea Dovizioso as the Bologna squad go in search of that elusive first win in four years.

With Mike Di Meglio and Loris Baz likely to be found in the bottom half of the field, the best chance of home success in the premier class will come from the French Tech 3 squad, with Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro charged with the task of taking the satellite Yamaha YZR-M1 to glory. Victory may be too much to ask, but a podium finish might just be achievable.

There aren’t many more glorious sights in motorsport than a home win and as anyone who witnessed Louis Rossi’s maiden Moto3 victory will tell you, the Le Mans faithful are unrivalled for joy and emotion when one of their own stands on the podium. The pressure is on for Monsieur Zarco, but he finally appears ready to handle it.

 

2015 MONSTER ENERGY GRAND PRIX DE FRANCE SCHEDULE (UK TIME)

FRIDAY
Moto3 FP1 08:00 MotoGP FP1 08:55 Moto2 FP1 09:55
Moto3 FP2 12:10 MotoGP FP2 13:05 Moto2 FP2 14:05
SATURDAY
Moto3 FP3 08:00 MotoGP FP3 08:55 Moto2 FP3 09:55
Moto3 QP 11:35 MotoGP FP4 12:30 MotoGP Q1 13:10
MotoGP Q2 13:35 Moto2 QP 14:05
SUNDAY
Moto3 WUP 07:40 Moto2 WUP 08:10 MotoGP WUP 08:40
Moto3 RACE 10:00 Moto2 RACE 11:20 MotoGP RACE 13:00