Has there been a power shift back towards Honda in the 2017 MotoGP™ title? We'll know more after this weekend's round five at Le Mans in France, but after the domination of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez in the last round at Jerez the ledger now appears to be well and truly tightening up between the Honda and Yamaha factory teams.
Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha, 62pts) still leads the championship ahead of teammate and dual 2017 winner Maverick Vinales (60pts), but Marquez (58pts) and Pedrosa (52pts) are now closing in. That creates all the ingredients for a tantalising battle at the 4.2km Le Mans circuit on Sunday.
Pedrosa is particularly keen to build on his Jerez success, which was his first win in the premier class since last September.
“After a great weekend in Jerez we now head to Le Mans in a very positive mood," said Pedrosa. "The French GP is always challenging. To begin with the weather is usually quite changeable which makes it difficult to find rhythm in the practice sessions or to plan how to improve run by run as it may be too cold or the total opposite, very hot.
"The track itself is very short and the smallest differences in the lap times can make a great difference in the standings. I hope the bike works well on the new asphalt. You need good acceleration and good braking, but consistency is the real key. We are working well with the team and we’ll try to maintain the same level also there."
In 2016, Jorge Lorenzo scored a runaway victory at Le Mans on the Movistar Yamaha, a feat which he is unlikely to repeat on the factory Ducati in 2017 – although he did prove a lot of doubters wrong at Jerez with a brilliant third place. And with five MotoGP™ wins at Le Mans, way more than anyone else in the field, Lorenzo could be in the mix to win his first MotoGP™ race on the Ducati.
Lorenzo (28pts) sits ninth in the championship, behind teammate Andrea Dovizioso (41pts), Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3, 35pts), Cal Crutchlow (29pts) and Jonas Folger (Monster Yamaha Tech 3, 29pts) in positions 5-8.
“Following the good vibrations we had at Jerez, we are now at Le Mans which is another circuit where I have good memories because I have managed to win a number of times and in different categories," said Lorenzo. "I have to say however that every circuit has its own story, and here we’ll have to see how my Desmosedici goes with the new tarmac.
"The most important thing however is to maintain the positive spirit that helped us to get onto the podium at Jerez. I am optimistic for this race, because from Austin onwards there has been considerable improvement, especially in terms of sensations, and I’m starting to feel the Desmosedici increasingly mine.”
Zarco has particularly been a revelation in his rookie season, showing not only tremendous pace but liberal doses of audacity. That got him into a little hot water with Rossi a few rounds ago, but he'll be keen to put on a show at Le Mans in front of his home crowd.
"I am excited about racing in my home country because the beginning of this season has been superb so far in MotoGP™ with the Monster Yamaha Tech3 team," said Zarco. "As a result, I think that the French fans are waiting for me and for this event. There is some pressure but I tried to manage it at home, in the week before the GP, where I rested and saved the positive energy.
"I will fight for the best position and possibly even a top three because I am always getting closer and closer to the rostrum, which is the main target. I aim to have a strong race and then fight for the podium to make the Tech3 team, myself and all the French fans happy."
The second French rider on the grid will be Loris Baz (Reale Avintia Racing Ducati).
Meanwhile, after a disastrous outing at Jerez when he fell through the pack with tyre problems, Rossi is determined to bounce back at the circuit where he currently holds the lap record.
"After the difficulties during the Jerez weekend, the Le Mans GP will be very important," said Rossi. "It is true that we are still first in the championship standings, and this is nice for us, but we need to improve the bike to be really competitive.
"The test in Jerez was important and we understood some positive things. Now we will have to work well from the first session in Le Mans and we have to try to be immediately competitive. We are feeling positive and we want to get back to working on the bike right away."
Australia's Jack Miller (EG 0,0 Marc VDS Honda) was a DNF at Jerez after being taken out by Alvaro Bautista (Pull&Bear Ducati), but he showed enough in the opening three rounds to suggest that he'll again be well inside the top 10 at the freshly resealed Le Mans – if not higher. Miller is 12th in the championship on 21pts.
"I'm feeling really positive, as we had good pace in Jerez before I was taken out of the race," said Miller. "We also found a few more things during the post-race test, which was good for us.
"We learnt a lot during the wet test with Michelin at Valencia that could help us this weekend at Le Mans, where the weather is typically unpredictable this early in the year. Since then I've been able to do some solid training at home and I'm looking forward to the weekend ahead in France where, hopefully, we can rediscover our pace from Jerez."
After winning the first three races of the year, Franco Morbidelli (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) was seemingly unstoppable until the paddock arrived at Jerez – but that's where it ended as he crashed and teammate Alex Marquez won his first Moto2 race.
Both riders will surely be amongst it again, but Tom Lüthi (CarXpert Interwetten) could be the man in the way. With four wins at the track – two in 125cc and two in Moto2 – the Swiss veteran is a force to be reckoned with in France.
Luthi is second in the standings, 11pts behind Morbidelli and 5pts in front of Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Ajo).
Francesco Bagnaia (Sky Racing Team VR46) took his first podium at Jerez, and he will be looking to keep his form going and stay in with the frontrunners – with ‘Rookie of the Year’ the goal. But there’s another rookie ready to get in his way in France: home hero Fabio Quartararo (Pons HP 40).
Oliveira will be pushing hard once again on the new KTM, while Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia), Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Racing Team) and Dominique Aegerter (Kiefer Racing) are also ones to watch.
Australia's Remy Gardner (Tech 3 Racing) will be pushing harder at Le Mans after allowing his recently broken right ankle more time to heal.
Joan Mir (Leopard Racing Honda) continues to dominate at the top of the standings. The men behind him – Jorge Martin (Del Conca Gresini Moto3 Honda) and John McPhee (British Talent Team Honda) were the ones who suffered a little more under the Spanish sun at Jerez, with a ninth and a crash respectively, and they will be looking to hit back hard in France.
The big winner at Jerez was Romano Fenati (Marinelli Rivacold Snipers Honda), who came second – ahead of Mir once again. The Italian is second in the standings, 9pts down on Mir.
Aron Canet (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Honda) was a first time Moto3 winner at Jerez, while a big story is the return of Danny Kent (Red Bull KTM Ajo) as a wildcard. The 2015 Moto3 world champion tested with the team in Jerez, and now returns.
Jules Danilo (Marinelli Rivacold Snipers Honda) flies the home flag in France.
The three world championship races at Le Mans will be held over the following distances and times:
- MotoGP™: 28 laps, 117.2km, starting at 2:00pm local time (10:00pm AEST)
- Moto2™: 26 laps, 108.8km, starting a 12:20pm local time (8:20pm AEST)
- Moto3™: 24 laps, 100.4km, starting at 11:00am local time (7:00pm AEST)