The 2016 MotoGP championship has already been a cracker — and the battle is only just starting to heat up between Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi!
The latest field of combat will be at the tight and technical Le Mans circuit, after Rossi (Movistar Yamaha) joined his teammate Lorenzo and Marquez (Repsol Honda) on the winners' list in 2016 at the last round in Jerez, producing an imperious and brilliantly conceived performance.
And for the first time in his premier class career, Rossi took a flag-to-flag victory from pole position, the 113th win in a long and illustrious career. He also became the ninth oldest winner of a premier class race, with Aussie Troy Bayliss one spot ahead of him.
However, the fact remains that there isn't a real clear favourite at Le Mans, where Lorenzo won in 2015 ahead of Rossi, Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) and Marquez.
After four rounds, 'Mr Maturity' Marquez has been the only rider to finish on the podium in all four races, and he takes a 17pt (82 to 65) buffer over Lorenzo into round five, followed by Rossi (58), Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda, 40), Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3, 36) and Ecstar Suzuki pair Maverick Vinales (33) and Aleix Espargaro (32).
With the points so tight there's little room for error, although Lorenzo and Rossi have already blotted their 2016 copybooks with crashes while Marquez has been a bastion of consistency.
Rossi may be the man of the moment after his Jerez brilliance — as well as being the Le Mans lap record holder — but it's Marquez who is still in the driver's seat.
“I like the Le Mans track although it requires that you be ready to deal with many variables," Marquez said. "To begin with, the weather: you never know what it will do there. Last year the temperature rose significantly on Sunday and we suffered a lot with front grip in the race. Rain also isn’t unusual there.
"In addition, the track has a stop-and-go layout, with many slow turns where braking and acceleration are crucial. We’ll see if we find ourselves in a situation similar to Austin, where acceleration out of slow corners was a lot better than expected, or if we have to face a bigger challenge.
"Knowing how far we’ve come since this winter and how quickly we’ve been able to react to many situations, I feel confident and look forward to starting the next racing weekend.”
Lorenzo has a strong affinity with Le Mans, having won four times around the 4.2km circuit, while Marquez and Pedrosa have also tasted success at the famous French venue, 200km from Paris.
Since 2012, Lorenzo is the only rider in the leading three to take more than a single victory in Le Mans; Rossi not having won there since 2008.
The luckless Dovizioso will be hoping his fortunes turn around at Le Mans on the factory Ducati after three consecutive DNFs — all out of his control. His teammate Andrea Iannone will be looking for redemption after being off the pace at Jerez, while Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Yakhnich Ducati) is set to make his GP return, having withdrawn in Qatar due to aggravating his pre-season hand injury. He will attempt to ride during practice and assess his condition as the weekend progresses.
Iannone is 10th in the standings, one spot ahead of Dovizioso, and they are both behind two of the most impressive Independent Team riders so far in 2016: Hector Barbera (Avintia Racing) and Eugene Laverty (Aspar Team) on two-year-old Ducatis. Pol Espargaro is the leading Independent Team rider in fifth.
Britons Bradley Smith (Monster Tech 3 Yamaha) and Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) will also be pushing hard for Le Mans top 10 results, as will Australia's Jack Miller (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) who spent last weekend soaking up the action at the Imola world superbike round before turning his energies back on MotoGP.
Weather often plays a major role in the French GP, which is where Miller really has the ability to shine if conditions turn sour. The Townsvillian has just 2pts to his name in 2016, but a couple of solid point-scoring results will see him move up the standings.
The only French rider on the Le Mans grid will be Loris Baz (Avintia Racing Ducati), who's had a rough start to the season. Baz was 12th at Le Mans in 2015, but is now on a much more competitive machine and could give the home crowd something to cheer about.
Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini) has the momentum on his side after a second career win at Jerez, and he now leads the championship by 10pts over Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40), followed by world champion Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport).
It won't be easy for Lowes in France, with not only Rins and Zarco to try and tame but also Le Mans specialist Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten). The French GP is by far Luthi’s most successful event having won it on four occasions, including the 2012 and 2015 Moto2 races. Already Luthi has shown his potential as a race winner in 2016 and has followed it up with three top 10 finishes to sits fourth in the points.
Other fancied runners include Jonas Folger (Dynavolt Intact GP), Franco Morbidelli (EG 0,0 Marc VDS), Takaaki Nakagami (IDEMITSU Honda Team Asia) and Dominique Aegerter (CarXpert Interwetten).
At Jerez championship leader Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) produced arguably the most impressive ride since the class began in 2012 by carving through the field from last on the grid (as a result of a technical infraction in practice) to win the race — his maiden success and the first South African victory since Jon Ekerold in the 1981 350 GP at Monza.
Binder's now a 15pt (77 to 62) leader over Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Honda), with Romano Fenati (Sky Racing Team VR46 KTM) in third on 47.
Nicolo Bulega (Sky Racing Team VR46) and Francesco Bagnaia (Aspar Mahindra Team Moto3) will also be strong in France, while the GP will be a critical for Honda pair and pre-season favourites Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold) and Enea Bastianini (Gresini Team Moto3) who have both been struggling.
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)