French MotoGP Preview
Four races into the 2008 Moto GP season and we have had four different race winners. The race for the title is wide open and this weekend's French Grand Prix at Le Mans gives one of the 'big four' a chance to stamp themselves on the championship.
|MotoGP is as competitive as ever|
Dani Pedrosa currently leads the way after putting himself on the podium in every race so far, but rookie sensation Jorge Lorenzo lurks just seven points behind, while Valentino Rossi, fresh from his drought-breaking win in China a fortnight ago, is another two points back.
But the big question is whether Casey Stoner, who is currently 25 points adrift of the lead, can resurrect his title defense. The championship hits top gear over the next seven weeks with five races and Stoner can not afford to be off the pace or he risks losing touch with the top three.
While he would have been relieved to have secured a podium in China, he was way off the pace set by the FIAT Yamaha of Rossi and the Repsol Honda of Pedrosa and needs to find some extra pace from his Ducati if he is to get a much-needed win. His record at Le Mans is solid without being spectacular. He was fourth as a rookie in 2006 and third in the wet last year.
Pedrosa has won three Grands Prix here in lower classes and was fourth in his MotoGP debut here last year while Lorenzo won here on a 250cc last year. Rossi was won two French MotoGP events, but his best effort in the past two years is sixth.
The pattern of the recent races, despite the varied winners, has been fairly consistent. As mentioned, Pedrosa hasn't missed a podium, Lorenzo's worst effort to date is fourth and Rossi has had three podiums in the past three races.
With the exception of Stoner, back in the field they don't seem able to bridge the gap to those three. Colin Edwards took pole in Shanghai and went backwards to finish seventh, while Pedrosa's team-mate Nicky Hayden seems to always find trouble and is currently eighth in the championship.
Stoner's team-mate Marco Melandri produced his best effort of the year to date when fifth in China, in a sign that he is getting used to the Ducati set-up. But it's another giant step to mix it with the front four.
Chris Vermeulen's season has been a disaster so far with his Rizla Suzuki experiencing all manner of problems. He retired in China but will hoping he can use the confidence of his shock win here last year to propel him up the placings. Team-mate Loris Capirossi's consistency sees him in fifth spot in the championship, but 23 points behind Stoner and 48 adrift of championship leader Pedrosa.
Also on 33 points is Tech 3 Yamaha's James Toseland, who has been slowly getting accustomed to the MotoGP set-up. Team-mate Edwards is two points behind him in what should be an interesting intra-garage battle for the two former World Superbike champions for much of this year.
Last year the fickle French weather put a spanner in the works and the riders were forced to change bikes mid-race. Vermeulen drove a superb race to win in the wet and enhance his reputation as the 'Rain King'. The leading teams will be casting a nervous eye at the forecast which predicts thunderstorms on Sunday.
Should it rain during the race, then a lot of the pre-planning will go out the window, meaning we could well have a fifth winner in as many races. But should it stay dry, you'll most likely see Pedrosa, Rossi, Lorenzo and hopefully Stoner fighting out the finish.
Le Mans - Track Preview
The Bugatti circuit at Le Mans is one of the world's most famous racetracks. But its fame is derived from its durability in the four-wheeled world, rather than on two-wheels.
The spiritual home of French touring cars and GT racing, it has endured a checkered history as a venue for the world's premier motorcycle class and spent five years in the wilderness after a serious accident involving Alberto Puig in 1995.
The circuit for the MotoGP race now only takes in part of the track for the famous 24-hour car race, but it is still an immensely challenging course for the riders. With so many first gear corners, it's the ultimate 'stop-and-go' track.
It tests the riders' bravado as much as their skill, with late braking and rapid acceleration rewarded around the 4180m circuit, which consists of four left hand turns and nine right hand turns.
The layout of the track has changed continually over the past few years, focusing on safety, but the overall characteristic of a truly demanding ride for all remains. There is little time to relax with a longest straight of only 450m, and riders will be looking to the fast corners to gain their advantage and make their moves.
The short front straight gives way to a long right, which is interrupted by the Dunlop chicane, a right-left-right, which slows the riders considerably.
It's then hard on the brakes into La Chappelle, a right-handed hairpin. This is the slowest area of the track, with the riders then going around a tight parabolic left hander known as La Musee. Garage Vert is actually a quick double right hander which looks much like La Chappelle, which takes the riders into the back part of the track.
After a straight, riders wind left-right through Chemin aux Boeufs before its back sharp right through the first of the S Blues bends, then left again. The final turn, Raccordement, is a tricky right hander which links back on to the home straight.
Last year, Chris Vermeulen claimed his first-ever Moto GP victory prevailing in wet and wild conditions over Marco Melandri and Casey Stoner. Jorge Lorenzo won the 250cc race, while Sergio Gadea took out the 125cc event.