It was a disastrous start to the final MotoGP Free Practice session for the factory Ducati Team at Le Mans in France ahead of the HJC Helmets Grand Prix de France as although it was dry and sunny, both of their riders got caught out in the opening stages of the session.
Double Ducati crash
The Italian came off at turn 13 of the track as he completed his opening laps. What seemed like a rider error saw him and the bike slid into the gavel as he exited the right hand turn, but fortunately he appeared to be OK.
Moments later, Jorge Lorenzo crashed out at turn 10. He gestured when he returned to the pits that he was struggling with the steering when he approached the right-hand corner. He was also straight back up to his feet and ran to the nearest scooter which he seconded and returned to the pits on; the Spaniard was keen to get back out on track to try and improve on being last on the timesheets in Free Practice 3.
Huge smash for Miller
Then unfortunately for Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS), he had a huge smash at the first turn of the track. He and the bike appeared to have headed straight for the crash barrier. The front folded as he made his way to the right hand turn and pointed him in the direction of the crash barrier. The fact that it slid on the grass meant that he didn’t hit it completely head on, but when it connected with the barrier it catapulted both bike and rider through the air.
The bike was a mess, and understandably it took a few moments for Miller to recover from the impact. After initially receiving medical attention, he eventually was helped back up to his feet and was able to limp away and return to his pit garage more than likely feeling battered.
Several other riders caught out with dry conditions
The initial experiences of a dry track in warmer temperatures appeared to also be catching out the more experienced of the pack. Movistar Yamaha rider, Valentino Rossi was heading into turn 13 when he missed the apex as he struggled to brake and he was forced to run wide.
Moments later, MotoGP rookie Sam Lowes (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) who was collecting some of his best results so far on his machinery, fell off at turn seven. He slid off at the low speed left hand turn. Fortunately he appeared to be unhurt.
Marquez comes off at turn three
More crashes followed however as the 2016 MotoGP champion, Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) crashed out at turn three. When heading into the left hand turn, the front folded and he and the bike slid straight into the gravel. He landed on his feet and got straight to work with the Marshalls who were trying to get his bike going again, but he had to return through the back roads.
Folger was next to crash out at turn seven of the track. In a bizarre incident, his bike started to wobble. As he leaned into the left hand corner, it picked itself and snaked throwing Folger off the bike. When it hit the floor a part fell off and hit Folger in the chest and he also fell hard. Although he got up to his feet he appeared to be supporting his chest.
Lap times improved significantly in dry conditions
The driest session so far meant that the lap times had tumbled compared to previous ones set. Several riders took turns in visiting the top spot including the likes of Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda), rookie Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) who is on home turf, Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda), Rossi and his new teammate Maverick Vinales (Movistar Yamaha).
Vinales quickest during Free Practice 4
It was the new Yamaha rider that remained there when the session drew to a close as his time of 1:32.906 meant he was one of only two riders who managed to break through the 1:33 minute barrier. Pedrosa was the other rider, his last lap proved that he was ready for Qualifying 1 and looked like the hot favourite to progress through to Qualifying 2 after failing to automatically qualify after Free Practice 3.
Rossi was third quickest followed by the highest placed rookie and independent team rider, Zarco in fourth. Crutchlow followed in fifth ahead of Alvaro Bautista (Pull & Bear Aspar Team), Marquez, British rider Scott Redding (Octo Pramac Racing) who thrived in FP3, Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) and Dovizioso who completed the top 10.
Slight rain shower before intense Qualifying
Just prior to the first Qualifying session getting underway, as the riders prepared for it during a short break, it began to rain lightly however, it was far from enough to switch things up for the riders but hopefully it wasn’t going to catch any more out.
Qualifying 1 was set to be action-packed as several big names so far through the season were going to be battling it out for the top two spots on the timesheets that would allow them to progress through to Qualifying 2 were they were in with the chance to start the HJC Helmets Grand Prix de France from the front four rows of the grid.
Lorenzo hits out with quick lap
The riders were straight to business and it was Lorenzo who initially threw the hammer down with a mid 1:33 minute lap. It was soon beaten, first by Bautista, then by Zarco, and then by Andrea Iannone (Team Suzuki Ecstar). Anything could have happened though. The likes of Pedrosa, Aleix Espargaro, Dovizioso and the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing duo of Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro all had factory riders and should on paper be in the top 10 already… but this is partly why we love the MotoGP!
Quite the performance from Zarco on home turf
Zarco was looking amazing on his home track. Once again he appeared cool, calm, smooth and tidy as he flowed through the curves. He set a fantastic lap time of 1:32.697 which was midway through the session which was enough to beat the Circuit Record Lap pace set by Rossi in 2015.
Dovizioso looked to challenge the Frenchman, but then a slower final sector let him down. He returned to the pits for a final quick change to soft Michelin Power Slicks. Meanwhile, out on track completing a long run and probably not wanting to spoil his own momentum, Zarco continued to improve on his own time. An aggressive fourth sector from Pedrosa however, enabled the Spaniard to go top with a time of 1:32.415.
Aleix Espargaro crashes out
Plenty more action followed however. Aleix Espargaro unfortunately crashed out at turn three of the circuit with around two minutes remaining; fortunately he was unhurt. It remained intense on the timesheets as several riders were in contention of going top.
Dovizioso and Zarco progress through to Qualifying 2
Bautista came incredibly close, but he just missed out placing third but managed to sneak another lap in. Moments later, Dovizioso crossed the line behind him and managed to go top with a time of 1:32.298 with his final effort. Zarco had a chance of stealing second position from Pedrosa, but was displaying grey, yellow and grey in the first three sectors.
He crossed the line and his time was enough to secure him a top two finish behind Dovizioso, much to the crowds delight. The Italian and the Frenchman were going through. Pedrosa just missed out and disappointingly for the Jerez race winner, he would be starting the race from the front of the fifth row.
Things grew even more intense as the top 10, and now Dovizioso and Zarco returned to the track for the final time of the day to sort out the grid positions on the front four rows for the HJC Helmets Grand Prix de France.
Disaster for Marquez
It was the worst start that Marquez could have hoped for as he crashed out at turn three when he passed through the right hand turn of the chicane. He slid out, landing on the tarmac; the Spaniard did what he could to keep hold of his Repsol Honda. He did not return to the pits, instead he stayed out to complete a lap that placed him second temporarily before-hand.
Pole position in high demand
Meanwhile, once again there were several contenders trying to claim the top spot. Crutchlow, Dovizioso, Redding, Vinales and Baz were all challenging. And midway through the short 15 minute session, he went top with a time of 1:32.644. He continued on at the pace and reduced his time by another 0.240 seconds.
Rossi was next to strike, his fast lap placed him in second instead behind Crutchlow which in turn knocked Marquez down to third. Redding appeared to be faster than he Italian on track however, and the two tussled through the turns. Redding overtook Rossi on the inside of a right hand turn but overshot the apex and ran wide. He was angry at Rossi for spoiling his lap when he forced him to brake late and threw his hand up in the air.
Zarco ‘s determination came through
As they entered the final five minutes, Zarco was displaying two red sectors at the beginning of a fast lap, he dropped to a personal best (yellow) sector in sector three, however when he crossed the line he had still done enough to temporarily secure second. He continued on, and was once again displaying a faster first sector as he was determined to secure pole on home turf.
Through the third sector he was back up to displaying red it came down to the last few corners but he once again remained second. Vinales was challenging however and crossed the line stealing pole position from Crutchlow with a time of 1:32.148 with just over a minute to go.
Miller and Redding crash out in closing stages
Rossi was fast however his lap was spoiled by Miller in front of him. But then, unfortunately for the Australian who has been amazing so far this weekend, he crashed out at the final turns and once again ended up in the gravel ending his day early. Behind him, Redding also crashed out at turn 13, he did what he could to recover his bike but it was game over for the impressive Brit.
Vinales on pole for the HJC Helmets Grand Prix de France
Vinales improved further on his penultimate lap breaking through the 1:32 minute barrier setting a pole position time of 1:31.994; which was just 0.019 seconds slower than the fastest lap record set by Lorenzo in 2016 (1:31.975). It looked like he would be joined by Rossi and Crutchlow on the front row, but then Zarco had one lap left and managed to complete a personal best that secured him third and knocked Crutchlow down to the front of the second row and making it an all Yamaha front row.
Crutchlow in fourth is joined by Marquez and Dovizioso who make up row two. Redding leads row three in seventh and is joined by Pol Espargaro who has secured Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team’s best ever qualifying in eighth. Another fantastic performance from injured Karel Abraham (Pull & Bar Aspar Team) means he has qualified ninth completing row three. Smith, Miller and Baz complete row four behind him.
Pedrosa leads the fifth row
After being knocked out of the second spot in the closing stages of a dramatic Qualifying 1, Pedrosa was left to start the race from 13th on the grid leading the fifth row away ahead of Bautista and rookie, Folger in 15th. Lorenzo qualified in 16th ahead of the Ducati’s former pilot, Iannone in 17th. The two are joined by Aleix Espargaro on the sixth row in 18th.
Petrucci, Barbera and Lowes make up row seven ahead of Tito Rabat (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) and wildcard replacement rider for injured Alex Rins, Sylvain Guintoli (Team Suzuki Ecstar) who completes the grid in 23rd.