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Spills, Thrills and a Battle of the Wills: Recapping the French GP

I have *just about* recovered from Sunday’s race now, and honestly there’s so much to cover, it feels impossible to give a fully comprehensive overview. That said, I’m going to give it a try.

Sunday saw the first Flag-to-Flag race in MotoGP since 2017; meaning that over half of the grid had never experienced such a phenomenon while racing in the premier class.

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What is a flag to flag Moto GP race?

Simply put, a Flag-to-Flag race is one where, a change of weather happens suddenly during the MotoGP race, and when the marshals wave a white flag (and now there is the addition of the white LED panels) the riders on track are allowed to come into the pit lane and change to their second bike – which is set up to favour the changed conditions.

Now, in Formula 1, tactics and strategies are very important – a perfect example is the recent Spanish GP wherein Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes team made a brilliant strategy call to come in for fresh tyres early enough into the race that Hamilton was able to hunt down Max Verstappen and overtake him in order to win the race. In MotoGP, I would argue that strategy is less important – for the sole reason being that very rarely do the riders pull into pit lane during the race.

Wet Moto GP races are always full of action!

Moto GP
An embrace in Parc Fermè – MotoGP

Of course, we do see strategies in MotoGP: such as when riders are told to change to a specific mapping or the different tyre choices that are chosen for the riders to use during a race. However, when the lights go out, it is predominantly up to the rider’s skill and talent to produce a result – there is no team strategy call halfway through. In Sunday’s race, however, strategy and skill were combined due to the unique Flag-to-Flag situation.

In this tricky situation, I think it is clear that Ducati had the best strategy in place to handle all the different weather permutations. Jack Miller taking the win is very clearly indicative of that, but Johann Zarco and Pecco Bagnaia taking 2nd and 4th respectively are also very strong results.

The difference in results came about solely due to the varied performances that the riders put in during qualifying on Saturday. Had Bagnaia been more fortunate in his grid positioning, I have a feeling that it could have been an all Ducati podium.

But ifs, whats and maybes don’t matter much after the fact.

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Jack Miller rode a brilliant race, and it was a mixture of talent and strategy. His excellent qualifying position put him at an immediate advantage, with the superior Ducati holeshot device up against the feeble (by comparison) Yamaha equivalent, easily giving him the race lead by turn 1. This was important because it meant that, whilst he was overtaken by Fabio Quartararo in the dry conditions when the rain came, he was in the leading group, which meant he was one of the first 5 riders to take to the pit lane (even after a mistaken trip through the gravel trap).

As such, he didn’t lose touch with the leading group, which due to the anomalously long pit lane at the Bugatti circuit, was a concern, and thus could still fight for the lead of the race in more challenging conditions – which have historically been the ones that the Australian has shown an affinity for.

The opening lap was filled with drama – MotoGP

He then had to take 2 long lap penalties after speeding in the pit lane, but due to his affinity for wet weather riding (not to mention his pigheaded bravery) this was no concern – especially because he had gotten his tactics spot on, and knew there was a comfortable gap back to the chasing pack.

Similarly, for Johann Zarco, his good qualifying position ensured that he was close enough to the leading riders to not be overly disadvantaged when it came time to swap bikes, and even more than that, he and his team had chosen the perfect tyres, which were more able to perform even after the track changed from wet to dry.

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Finally, in Pecco Bagnaia, I would argue that rider talent was more important than the Ducati strategy, if only because of the negative impact of Bagnaia’s poor start. However, the Ducati team still ensured that they had a strategy in place to give Bagnaia a competitive bike, which has kept him very well placed in the early championship standings.

All in all, I would say that Ducati were easily the biggest winners of the French GP because they were the most competent in the circumstances. However, I was most impressed by Fabio Quartararo and his team’s strategy.

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It was very clearly demonstrated in last year’s French GP that Fabio Quartararo struggles in wet conditions. Of course, he has little experience of riding in such conditions due to his short career, however; other riders such as Pecco Bagnaia and Joan Mir (who also have little experience in wet conditions) displayed an improved affinity for the tricky conditions during free practice sessions, Quartararo did not. In fact, the Frenchman was 19th in the standings during the fully wet practice sessions and that was surely a worrying prospect for him and his team, with all the forecasts predicting showers at some point during the race.

Fabio MotoGP
Fabio Quartararo leads the championship by a single point – MotoGP

This is where their tactics impressed me. Quartararo started the GP from pole position after he braved slick tyres during a vaguely rainy qualifying session – which is where the tactics started. He and his team knew that if he were to stand any chance of taking good points finish in the race. No matter the conditions, he had to have a good starting position. He displayed impressive speed in the dry conditions, and so starting from pole meant that he was comfortably in the podium positions during the opening lap, and then he was well placed to take the lead of the race. When the rain came down he was the first rider into pit lane, and the third out of it, plus he had a buffer of over 20 seconds back to the chasing pack. As such, those tactics offset his dismal abilities in poor weather, and so he took a podium finish, and also the championship lead.

The display of such tactics, which took into consideration Quartararo’s mixed skillset, and accorded for all the possibilities is a very promising indication of Quartararo’s chances in this year’s championship because if he can take podium finishes, even in unfavourable conditions, his talent in favourable conditions will have an even larger impact on his competitors.

And he is going to need the bolster of such strategies because he is very much the lone rider competing with the Ducati boys in this early stage of the world championship.

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The Yamaha riders were possibly the most disappointing performances of the weekend, as none of them showed much affinity for poor weather conditions – a drawback of the M1’s supreme corner speed advantage manifests in a struggle to keep heat in the tyres underneath them. In the race, Maverick Vinales finished 11th, Valentino Rossi finished 12th and Franco Morbidelli finished 16th (although he was disadvantaged by a crash and a knee injury).

When removing Morbidelli’s performance as anomalous due to mitigating circumstances, we have to focus on the less than stellar achievements of Vinales and Rossi. Vinales looked as if he would have been a contender for the race victory had the rain not fallen, but he let his emotions of disappointment rule his performance and he dropped back through the pack very quickly when the rain came down – which was the opposite strategy to his teammate who ended up on the podium. This is just the latest in a string of sub-par results for Vinales and it’s a very worrying sign. Even more so is Valentino Rossi’s result, when you consider his vast experience, his previous affinity in such conditions and put that against the fact that over half of the grid were disadvantaged by never having dealt with a Flag-to-Flag situation before. To only come 12th in such conditions… how many more signs does the man need?

Valentino Rossi 2021
Valentino Rossi – Alex Farinelli

Also disappointing was Suzuki. Alex Rins and Joan Mir made great starts off the line, and Rins especially ensured that he was well placed when the rain came, but both riders crashed in treacherous conditions, resulting in 0 points – the third such occurrence for Rins this year. With both riders having displayed impressive pace in the wet conditions in practice, it was a massive blunder for them to take no points in this race, especially with the distinct advantage the top 4 in the championship managed to eke out.

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Honda had mixed fortunes in the mixed conditions. Marc Marquez and Taka Nakagami both made impressive starts in the dry weather, and Marquez even took an early lead when the riders emerged from the pit lane bike swap – which was another impressive display of tactics, and clearly aided by Marquez’s experience of Flag-to-Flag racing. However, Marquez crashed while leading which was a shame as it seemed to be the best opportunity he may have this year to take an unopposed race win as he continues to recover. Taka Nakagami took a 7th place finish, which was fortuitous after the early disappointing performances in Qatar, however, it looked like he may have been more competitive in the dry conditions and could even have taken his first premier class podium. Pol Espargaro too was able to claim good points in 8th, but in the dry conditions it seemed as though he may have been expecting a top 5, thus he registers as another disappointing performance. Conversely, Alex Marquez came 6th and was the best Honda finisher – a welcome result I’m sure after having already registered 3 DNF’s this season.

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KTM also experienced mixed fortunes, with Danilo Petrucci (who has always been incredible in wet weather conditions) taking a 5th place finish, and Iker Lecuona (who could be facing a demotion to Moto2) taking 9th. However, Miguel Oliveira crashed out, and Brad Binder could only salvage a 13th place finish.

Finally, Aprilia’s golden run came to an end on Sunday, as both Aleix Espargaro and Lorenzo Savadori’s bikes suffered engine failures – which was unfortunate in the extreme as both riders were looking set to take points finishes after Savadori’s incredible display of talent in the wet conditions. It is worth pointing out that after the race in Le Mans, Aleix Espargaro underwent arm pump surgery with Dr Mir.

moto gp crash
Alex Rins’ 3rd DNF – MotoGP

As a postscript, if you will, I do want to commend Luca Marini and Enea Bastianini’s performances. As rookies this year, the French GP would have been the most torrid learning curve weekend they have experienced thus far in the premier class, especially after their very limited experience with 2-year-old Desmosedici’s. However, both managed to finish in the points, which is an incredible achievement.

The French GP contained enough drama for an entire season’s worth of races, and now we stare down the impending doubleheader of Mugello and Catalunya – where Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia are separated by just a single point. This season has only just begun.

This article was written by the fantastic Rebekah Lee, our resident Motorsport nut and MA Creative writing graduate. She’s been fascinated by all things motorsports since childhood – follow her on Twitter at @bekahjlee

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