MOTOGP: Round 4 – Le Mans, France – 17 May

Jorge Lorenzo arrived at Le Mans determined to make amends for crashing out in Jerez and telling all and sundry that he absolutely had to win at Le Mans if he was to keep his title hopes alive. So that’s exactly what he went and did.

It didn’t seem like it was going to be Lorenzo’s day at the start, when Dani Pedrosa got his trademark flying start to go into the first turn in the lead. Casey Stoner had a sluggish getaway from the line but made up for it with phenomenal late braking, and that meant Lorenzo was in third ahead of team mate Valentino Rossi.

But it was soon clear that Pedrosa and Stoner were not comfortable in the damp conditions after morning rain that had afflicted both 125cc and 250cc races earlier in the day. It was no longer raining, and th track had largely dried out, but there were still damp patches and it was too wet to start on slicks: Pedrosa’s never liked wet races, while Stoner’s set-up simply seemed to be off the mark – hardly surprising as none of the teams had been given much chance to test wet set-ups this weekend in the ever-changing conditions.

But Lorenzo had both the innate confidence and the best set-up out there today, and as Pedrosa and Stoner fell away it was Gorgeous George who took the lead – and proceeded to blast away from Rossi in second.

Now the big question was, when would the track dry out enough to justify putting for a change to click tyres? Rossi found his wet weather tyres (there are no intermediates in MotoGP anymore) were going off as early as lap 5, and so to the amazement of many he was the first to come into the pit lane, dismount and jump onto the bike with the dry weather set-up. Dani Pedrosa was close behind him, and their dual precedent meant many other riders were soon in for slicks as well. But was it too early?

For Rossi, the answer was quick in coming: yes, catastrophically. Just a few turns into lap 6, Rossi lost the bike and crashed into the gravel, the bike rolling over causing significant damage to the machinery. Rossi crawled back to the pits and jumped back on to his original wet settings bike while the team took the dry settings bike into intensive care to patch it up. Rossi would have to return to the pits twice, once for a drive-thru penalty for speeding in the pit lane and then again to return to the slick-shod bike ocne it was patched up. He was two laps off the lead by now and only circulating in case there were other retirements that left him in the points, but in the end the only retirement of the race was Mika Kallio (unseen by the TV feed) leaving Rossi with a completely pointless Le Mans.

After seeing that, it was no surprise that Lorenzo wasn’t coming anywhere near the pits. He built up a huge 10s lead which meant that he could afford to be conservative and stay out for as long as there was any doubt about the slicks being faster, or until his own wet tyres degraded beyond hope.

It almost seemed as though he was too cautious and may have stayed out a lap too long. Marco Melandri had also made up a lot of positions early on by being good on wets, and then simply had a better set-up for the nearly-dry conditions than many of the others that allowed him to set fast times after the changeover too. By the time Jorge finally came in and then spent a couple of laps struggling to adjust to the slick settings, his lead over Melandri in second was down to 4s. But once the transition was bedded in, Lorenzo was away again and flying even faster than before; by the end of the race he was over 17s ahead of Melandri, who by now was concentrating on managing his effort to retain second spot – a superb fairytale result all of its own for the rider who was crushed and written off following a nightmare year at Ducati and who then had his works Kawasaki team walk away form the sport over the winter.

Behind Marco, Andrea Dovizioso had been having a strong day but he was starting to struggle after opting for a soft front tyre in the change to slicks, which had given him initial flying pace mid-race but which now was struggling. His lead over team mate Dani Pedrosa was savagely cut until in the final lap Pedrosa caught and swept past the Italian. No wonder that Dovizioso looked dejected after the race despite securing 4th spot, which he would have grabbed with both hands if you’d offered to him at the start of the day. Pedrosa on the other hand should be thrilled with the podium, and the fact that he finished so highly despite pitting at the same time as the ill-starred Valentino Rossi showed that the strategy could work and wasn’t the complete mistake that the world champion had made it seem, especially with Melandri doing even better pitting a mere one lap later than Dani.

James Toseland had made the same tyre choice as Dovizioso and similarly had a strong mid-section of the race before falling prey to both his team mate Colin Edwards (in a tough-but-fair overtaking muscle move) and Loris Capirossi, but at least the Briton managed to finish in the top 10 in something of a return to form after a difficult close season and start to 2009.

Hopes for a renaissance for the second Ducati came to nought after an anonymous race for Nicky Hayden, but his team mate Casey Stoner didn’t have a good race either. He struggled on the wet settings, and improved on the slicks but was never able to fight for the podium places again. In one strange moment, he seemed to slow down the start/finish straight and glare at his pit crew, costing him a position on track; his team manager put that down to a missed gear.

But the race belonged utterly to Jorge Lorenzo, who was untouchable today despite never having had to change bikes mid-race in any series before. “It was a very difficult race because I am not used to changing the bike in the middle of the race,” said Lorenzo. “This was the first time in my life. So I am completely grateful for this victory.

“It was difficult because you had to change the bike at the right moment,” he said, adding: “If you changed one lap too late, you could lose the race. We changed at the right point and we won again.” The victory at Le Mans means that Lorenzo is the first rider to win more than one 2009 event.

But it was also a big day for Melandri, for whom second would have been too much to dare hope for. “It’s awesome to be here. It’s so much nicer being back up here now than any past podium,” he said. “Five or six months ago I thought I’d be watching the races on TV.”

Rossi and Stoner, meanwhile, disappeared into their pit areas not to be seen again, as it became increasingly clear just what a hard battle both of them had on their hands for the 2009 title.

Race result

Pos  Rider             Bike             Time
 1.  Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha           47m52.678s
 2.  Marco Melandri    Hayate Kawasaki  +  17.710s
 3.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda            +  19.893s
 4.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda            +  20.455s
 5.  Casey Stoner      Ducati           +  30.539s
 6.  Chris Vermeulen   Suzuki           +  37.462s
 7.  Colin Edwards     Tech 3 Yamaha    +  40.191s
 8.  Loris Capirossi   Suzuki           +  45.421s
 9.  James Toseland    Tech 3 Yamaha    +  50.307s
10.  Toni Elias        Gresini Honda    +  53.218s
11.  Alex de Angelis   Gresini Honda    +  53.550s
12.  Nicky Hayden      Ducati           +  56.647s
13.  Yuki Takahashi    Scot Honda       +  56.688s
14.  Randy de Puniet   LCR Honda        +1m11.299s
15.  Niccolo Canepa    Pramac Ducati    +1m15.385s
16.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha           +   2 laps

Retirements:

     Mika Kallio       Pramac Ducati    11 laps

Championship standings

After losing the championship lead in Jerez, Lorenzo jumps right back to the top after his dominance in Le Mans. But it’s incredibly tight, with Rossi and Stoner both only a single point off him and Pedrosa just 9pts behind.

Marco Melandri and Andrea Dovizioso are also well served by this week’s result and pop into equal points on 5th and 6th.

Pos Driver  Points
1   Jorge Lorenzo       66
2   Valentino Rossi     65
3   Casey Stoner        65
4   Daniel Pedrosa      57
5   Marco Melandri      43
6   Andrea Dovizioso    43
7   Colin Edwards       35
8   Chris Vermeulen     31
9   Loris Capirossi     27
10  Randy de Puniet     26
11  Toni Elías          21
12  Alex de Angelis     20
13  James Toseland      17
14  Mika Kallio         16
15  Nicky Hayden         9
16  Sete Gibernau        8
17  Yuki Takahashi       8
18  Niccolò Canepa       3
        
Pos Constructor Points
1   Yamaha      95
2   Ducati      65
3   Honda       63
4   Kawasaki    43
5   Suzuki      38
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