Without a wheel being turned, Tuesday marked a significant milestone in MotoGP. Valentino Rossi and Ducati, the match seemingly made in Italian motorsport heaven, have now gone a full year since appearing on a Grand Prix podium. It was also the last time MotoGP visited Le Mans and the Doctor will be praying that a return to France will also kick start a recovery.
In truth, that's what we were all thinking ahead of Qatar. When was the Ducati/Rossi partnership finally going to bring success? Apart, they have outstanding records with victories and world championships on their CVs but together, a frustrating midfield dogfight has become the norm.
While Valentino was taking the positives from finishing seventh in Portugal, the man whose bike he took possession of was busy winning, as usual. Casey Stoner has now won at every circuit the MotoGP circus goes to and the comparison of his and Rossi's lap times at Estoril paint a very ugly picture for the Italian contingent.
Rossi, on the quickest of the Ducatis, didn't match Stoner's pace at any stage of the Portuguese Grand Prix. It must be pointed out that Stoner had the benefit of clear air for the entire race while Rossi was running in traffic in the early stages but from lap seven onwards, Rossi was over a second behind Alvaro Bautista's Honda and still couldn't break into the 1:37s, something Stoner did without fail.
A new weekend bring a new challenge though and Rossi is optimistic that he and the team will be more competitive at Le Mans. The 33 year old struggled to find a comfortable set-up all weekend at Estoril but seemed to find a solution for the race and will use that as base to start from in Friday practice here. Valentino is hoping for a dry weekend as he tries to understand the GP12 but not even he can control that, and the forecast indicates that he won't get his wish.
|Riders' Championship (3/18)|
Rain may be the best way of slowing down Casey Stoner at the moment. The World Champion leads this year's title race after back-to-back wins and has led 90% of all Grand Prix laps so far. Jorge Lorenzo has been right on his tail though and proved in Qatar that anything less than perfection from Casey will place him under pressure. The task for the Yamaha man this weekend is to try and get ahead, and force his rival to do the chasing.
Chasing has been an all-to-familiar task for Dani Pedrosa so far but like Lorenzo, the Spaniard has a perfect podium record so far in 2012, keeping him well in touch in the championship battle. This circuit holds awful memories for him with the collarbone-breaking collision with Marco Simoncelli destroying his title hopes 12 months ago, and Dani will be desperate to stay out of trouble this time.
Rossi and Ducati teammate Nicky Hayden will be hoping to lead the chasing pack this weekend but that honour has gone to the Tech 3 squad in the opening three races. Cal Crutchlow was defeated for the first time by new partner Andrea Dovizioso so the next chapter in that particular rivalry will be fascinating to watch. The Briton is still chasing his first podium as well and will be ready to pounce on any slip-ups ahead. Ben Spies, meanwhile, has been beaten by the satellite Yamahas at all three events on his factory machine and knows that he must respond.
Stefan Bradl hasn't done an awful lot wrong in his first three MotoGP starts, finishing in the top ten on every occasion, and the German followed Spies home in Portugal. Alvaro Bautista has established himself as the leading satellite Honda runner, something Stefan will want to change, and the Gresini rider will be in the thick of the action again.
The fourth race of 2012 sees the first rider change of the season. Despite reports since Estoril, it does not see Shane Byrne replace James Ellison on the Paul Bird CRT bike, with the Penrith squad seemingly performing a U-turn in the last fortnight. The change comes as a result of Colin Edwards' collarbone injury sustained in the qualifying collision with Randy de Puniet two weeks ago. The injury has seen Forward Racing turn to a former French GP winner in Chris Vermeulen who returns to MotoGP after two years away.
In Moto2, the thrilling championship battle between Marc Marquez and Pol Espargaro enters its fourth chapter with the two proving almost inseparable so far. The CatalunyaCaixa Repsol rider took his second win of the year after fending off his compatriot on the final lap and returns to the scene of his maiden Moto2 victory with a nine point lead.
Bradley Smith has had a tough start to 2012 with his Tech 3 Mistral lacking competitiveness but the Briton has scored points at every race so far, and will look to mark his 100th GP start with a return to the podium. Scott Redding has yet to experience that feeling in the intermediate class but remains on the cusp of breaking through while fellow countryman Gino Rea will see this race as a new beginning as Gresini make the switch from the lacklustre Moriwaki chassis to Suter.
Moto3 heads to France for the first time with Sandro Cortese holding a narrow advantage over Maverick Vinales in the standings. The two fought tooth-and-nail in Portugal with the Spanish teenager far from happy at the conclusion of the race but he has every reason to be cheerful ahead of this weekend. The Blusens Avintia rider announced himself as a future GP star with his sensational 125cc victory last year, beating eventual champion Nicolas Terol in a straight fight, and will begin the weekend as favourite to do so again.
The Monster Energy Grand Prix de France weekend gets underway with Free Practice on Friday morning and The Checkered Flag will have extensive coverage throughout the weekend.
Le Mans Former Winners:
|2011||Casey Stoner||Marc Marquez||Maverick Vinales|
|2010||Jorge Lorenzo||Toni Elias||Pol Espargaro|
|2009||Jorge Lorenzo||Marco Simoncelli||Julian Simon|
|2008||Valentino Rossi||Alex Debon||Joan Olive|
|2007||Chris Vermeulen||Jorge Lorenzo||Sergio Gadea|
|2006||Marco Melandri||Yuki Takahashi||Thomas Luthi|
|2005||Valentino Rossi||Dani Pedrosa||Thomas Luthi|
|2004||Sete Gibernau||Dani Pedrosa||Andrea Dovizioso|
|2003||Sete Gibernau||Toni Elias||Dani Pedrosa|
|2002||Valentino Rossi||Fonsi Nieto||Lucio Cecchinello|
|*No Moto3 races have been held at Le Mans|