It is always the wild races that we remember – the crazy, wonderful ones that begin with a sense of normalcy, until the lights turn red and the riders take off leaving chaos in their wake. Le Mans did that in 2012.
It was when Casey Stoner stunned everyone with his I-am-retiring-now announcement, which of course was momentarily forgotten when Valentino Rossi suddenly turned his Ducati into a racing machine (for a change). So, honestly speaking, I was expecting fireworks on Sunday, at the fourth race of the 2013 season at Le Mans.
I don’t mean rocket-and-a-few-sparkles kind of fireworks. I mean 4th of July – the sort that leaves your mouth open, thirsting for more, turning you into Oliver Twist.
Guess what? I got exactly what I wanted. That’s pretty rare these days. However, I didn’t account for the sheer unpredictability of the race. I mean, who would have thought it? A Ducati leading from the front and matching the Honda’s pace – which, even a non-Honda fan like me admits, is super fast this season. It sure looks like the Ducati and Le Mans have a little bit of a love affair. It is that, or the rain – take your pick.
Speaking of, the weekend started off with much hope for the Vale fan in me. Rossi was faster than his teammate on Friday. Saturday rolled around though bringing disappointment in its wake. Rossi, who hasn’t had a very successful season so far, barring the podium finish in Qatar, took 9th on the grid ahead of former teammate Nicky Hayden.
It was the front row that was astonishing. Young gun Marc Marquez took his second pole, followed by Jorge Lorenzo and (drum roll please) Andrea Dovizioso. Cal Crutchlow recovering from a nasty crash that left him with a small fracture in the tibia, took 4th while Dani Pedrosa took 6th.
The scene was set and the rain was coming down. That’s just the way we like it in Le Mans. The lights went red and oh, wait, madness ensued. Our neat grid was in complete chaos.
Dovizioso was in the lead, Pedrosa was fast approaching, and Lorenzo was trying hard to stay on pace and catch up. Wait, what? Meanwhile, Rossi had snuck out of ignominy and was now chasing down the lead pack. Would we see Rossi the Phoenix rise up to stun us all? Fingers were of course, tightly crossed. Besides, I was starving to see that Vale smile on the podium. It has been such a long while.
Boy wonder Marquez had obviously lost out to the rain. He was stuck in the back somewhere, trying to find his way through a soggy, slippery track – a first for him on a MotoGP bike. A series of mistakes left him 9th on the grid.
For the first time, in a long, long time, I was confused. Who do I watch, who do I track, what was going on? And what happened to the Yamahas? It was as if someone had stolen their engines and replaced them with duds. There was Lorenzo within reaching distance, at 3rd (yes, Pedrosa passed him), barely holding on, left watching Pedrosa and Dovizioso exchange places. A Honda and a Ducati trading places and fighting for position at the front of the pack? Who would have ever thought? I would have loved to be inside Lorenzo’s head at that moment.
Meanwhile, behind, a charging Rossi was riding like a pack of hellhounds were chasing him. In this case, an injured Crutchlow, doing his best impersonation of a honey badger. Then, just when we couldn’t take it any longer, it happened. The unforeseeable. Lorenzo lost position. He slipped down the grid, again and again, overtaken by slower bikes. He never could catch up and ended the race at 7th. It has been a long time since we have seen that from Lorenzo.
The Yamaha rider, now 17 points behind championship leader Pedrosa, later said, “Then, after three or four laps the bike got worse and I got problems everywhere; in the braking, because in the middle of the corner I didn’t trust the rear tyre, and in acceleration because the rear was spinning so much I lost nearly half a second compared to the others. Races are like this sometimes; last year I won by 20 seconds with a very good bike and this year was completely the opposite. I couldn’t do much more without crashing.”
Rossi wasn’t very lucky either. Le Mans was supposed to have Vale’s magic touch all over it. But it was not to be. Nicky Hayden (yes, yes, another Ducati) was chasing him down. Vale was pushing his bike to the limit. Then, it happened. Running at 4th, the nine-time world champion lost the front and crashed, ending his race finally at 12th. I groaned. Oh Vale, I wept. Oh Vale!
But not for long. The Honey Badger was attacking Dovizioso. The Italian slipped to 2nd after playing footsie with Pedrosa. Crutchlow was racing like he didn’t have a broken leg, was on a factory-spec bike, wanted the podium and knew he was going to get it. In a superb move, he swept past the Ducati and grabbed the 2nd position. Oh wait, what’s that coming up behind at 4th? Is that…is that? Holy smokes! I leapt up and screamed.
Marquez had obviously learned how to ride in the rain in half a race. He bore down on Dovizioso, swept past him and began to hunt Crutchlow. In the post-race interview, Crutchlow said, “Marc was coming at the end and I was a little scared (laughs) and had to keep pushing on…I think we did a good job and we definitely deserve this podium. We have been fast all year and have finally managed to reach it.”
There was no doubt. Le Mans had the race’s best riders at the podium: Dani Pedrosa, Cal Crutchlow and Marc Marquez.
I took the deepest breath this season. All I could do was clap in glee. What a race! What a brilliant, brilliant race! Now, this is racing.
Of course, I, like everyone else, was looking forward to a Lorenzo-Marquez face-off. It is coming, I tell you. They may have shaken hands and pretended to make up, but I am sure the two-time MotoGP world champion is unlikely to forget that little Jerez nudge. But that, I am sure, is a tale for another time.
The circus now moves on to the biggest party of the season: Mugello. I will be there, courtesy the 2012 Eni – Energy for Success Press Award for best article under 36. There are promises that need to be fulfilled in Mugello. Rossi and Lorenzo are eager to put Le Mans behind them. Pedrosa is eager to win his first championship. But there is Marquez who is learning, yes, but hungry too. Italy, here we come!