Le Mans, France shares equal parts fame and infamy for motorsports fans. Famous for its renowned 24-hour car race, infamous as a result of the wet conditions with which it persistently plagues (or bestows, if you're a Ducati fan) the MotoGP series.
For the second year in a row, the skies above Le Mans opened up on the Sunday morning of the French motorcycle Grand Prix, but what would follow was not be a typically processional wet race with large gaps between the riders, each one seemingly content to ride at the pace with which he is most comfortable.
Instead, Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa and Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso would exchange the lead nine times in the first 13 laps of the 28-lap contest, and halfway through the race there were six riders with a realistic chance of finishing on the podium.
For some mysterious reason apparently not known to anyone, Ducati's Desmosedici loves riding in the rain. All of the flaws that have for years been irrevocably inherent in the Desmo are seemingly wiped away when there is water on the racing surface. Gone is the lack of front-end feeling when on the brakes heading into the corners. Absent too are the mid-corner understeer and brutish power delivery which ravages the Desmo on corner exits.
As a result, Ducati achieved their best finish of 2012 at a rain-soaked Le Mans when Valentino Rossi took second place after a brilliant battle with the now retired Casey Stoner.
For 2013, Dovizioso, Rossi's replacement in the Ducati garage after the Italian icon left his compatriot manufacturer to resurrect his career with Yamaha, secured the holeshot from third place on the starting grid and, incredibly, led the race into Turn 1.
From there, he would battle back and forth with Pedrosa until the elder half of Honda's Spanish duo was finally able to pull a gap with 10 laps to go. It was his second consecutive win. After a slow start to the season, Pedrosa appears back to the form that saw him win six of the final eight races in 2012.
As Pedrosa was pulling away from Dovizioso, Yamaha Tech 3's Cal Crutchlow was rapidly gaining on the Italian.
Watching Crutchlow stalk and measure his former teammate brought back memories of 2012 when the Tech 3 duo could more often than not be found in a fierce battle from which Dovizioso usually emerged the winner.
This time, Crutchlow got the better of the duel. Throughout his time in MotoGP, the biggest knock against the British rider has been a perceived unwillingness to make an aggressive overtaking maneuver to find a way past the top riders in front of him. He did it twice in Le Mans. With 15 laps to go, Crutchlow got past Rossi with a clean inside move for third place. Ten laps later, he took advantage when Dovizioso's Ducati momentarily lost traction with the rear wheel, allowing Crutchlow to get his power to the ground more effectively and zip past the surely frustrated Italian.
The second-place finish was Crutchlow's best in MotoGP, and perhaps provided a vindication of sorts as rumors have been swirling about the Tech 3 team already having lined up Moto2 star Pol Espargaro as a replacement for Crutchlow in 2014.
Repsol Honda's Marc Marquez has been a MotoGP journalist's dream so far in his rookie campaign. He started the season in impressive fashion by battling nine-time world champion Rossi for second place in Qatar. He then surprised everyone by not only winning the inaugural GP at COTA in Austin, but making it look easy in the process. Then, of course, came the infamous last-corner incident with reigning world champion Jorge Lorenzo in Jerez.
In Le Mans, the 20-year-old phenomenon qualified on pole and looked ready to once again dominate the headlines. However, this time he suffered a horrendous start and found himself mired in ninth place by the time he leaned into Turn 1. The middle of the pack is where Marquez would stay for 11 laps as he struggled to gain control of his RC213V in the wet conditions—Sunday being the first time the rookie had faced racing in the wet on a MotoGP bike.
Fittingly, once Marquez had it figured out, the first person in his sights was Lorenzo. The reigning champ had been struggling all race with stability under braking and traction with the rear. As a result, he was passed by just about everyone on a prototype machine as if he had a flat tire.
There would be no drama in their encounter this time. Lorenzo took a wide line indicative of his struggles through a left-hander, and Marquez flew by on the inside without incident.
Marquez would continue his methodical march toward the front until finally, with only one lap to go, he made it past the fading Dovizioso to claim third place, his fourth podium finish in as many premier-class races.
Yamaha needed success in the early part of the season. Qatar, Jerez and now Le Mans are all tracks at which the M1 has traditionally shined, while many of the later races are at tracks that seem to favor the Honda.
Yamaha took care of business in Qatar with a 1-2 finish, but Jerez, shockingly, saw Honda grab a 1-2 and Le Mans was nothing short of a disaster with Rossi crashing and Lorenzo finishing in seventh place. To put that in perspective, Lorenzo didn't finish lower than second throughout the entire 2012 season.
The next round continues the Yamaha-friendly trend at Mugello, another track that has been kind to the M1. They clearly have work to do if they hope to compete for the championship, but they still have the time in which to do it.
With the victory, Pedrosa displaced his teammate atop the overall championship leaderboard with 83 points. Marquez, now second, has 77. Lorenzo is a suddenly distant 17 points back in third place, and Crutchlow has leapfrogged Rossi into fourth place with 55 points. Rossi's 12th-place finish after rejoining the race was only good for four points, taking his total to 47.
For full race results, click here.
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