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Jun 8, 2011

MotoGP Blog: Two Moto-Tourists Enjoy A Sunday At Le Mans

What were you doing at 16? Maverick Vinales was winning the 125cc French Grand Prix. Photo by Mixo/Klaus&Hammer.
FIRST PERSON/OPINION

By Joshua Steinberg

"Familiarity breeds contempt". I have no idea who this quote is attributed to because, well, because I am a lousy researcher and a smidge lazy today, but I do, however, know what it means. The first time a person ties their own shoes or drives a car or flies in an airplane or sits in the backseat of a car with their significant other and, and, erm, stargazes, it is a memorable event. It's a rite of passage or a milestone on the road of life. You know, it's a big deal. The more times these things happen in a person's life the less meaning they have.

A person ties their shoes every day and soon does it without even thinking. Contempt.

People drive a car every day and soon think they can talk on the phone or text or read the paper while driving. Contempt.

Take enough plane rides and it's easy to forget that covering thousands of miles in mere hours and dropping a 10-ton piece of metal from 30,000 feet onto a narrow strip of pavement is nothing short of amazing. Contempt.

Sit in the back seat of a car with your significant other enough times and, uhm, OK, "stargazing" may not be the best example. "Stargazing" pretty much never gets old.
There is an exception to every rule.

Mixo and I have been to a lot of motorcycle races, first as spectators, later as cornerworkers, then as race team crew members, and finally as racers. We have been to everything from minibike races in a parking lot to the pinnacle of the sport; MotoGP and everything in between. Twice. So theoretically, by now, we should be on autopilot, going through the motions, ho-hum another race. So why is it, then that we are up before dawn on a remarkably chilly morning in France and cannot wait to get to the track? Because we are motorcycle race fans and this is Sunday, race day, and this is what we love to do.

We are joined at the track a short time later by tens of thousands of like-minded individuals. These are our people. Sure, they may be still be drunk from the night before, dirty from camping, and talk funny from being born French, but they're motorcycle race fans and that's all the common ground we need.

There is so much excitement in the air surrounding the Le Mans circuit this morning it feels electric. Its like just before a big spring thunderstorm when the sky turns ominously black and green, the wind picks up, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight out. You don't know what is coming but you know it's going to be big.

Along every sidewalk, footpath, access road, deer trail, or just random spot where people had removed a section of inconvenient fence, people streamed towards the grandstands or the raised viewing areas or the vendor areas. They were quite literally coming out of the woods.

Giant flags with a favorite rider's number, flags of a favorite rider's country, and flags with designs that I have no idea what they mean were all being carried towards the track as if by some medieval army intent on sacking the place. Though I doubt there were many medieval armies comprised of men, women, and children wearing duck costumes, funny hats, and in one guy's case the worst mullet ever.

Air horns sounded, groups of young men sang French fight songs (who knew?), and everywhere was an unmistakable carnival atmosphere. It was the chaotic excitement only possible when tens of thousands of people are all having a good time.

Just like in Spain we happened to randomly bump into Finland's own Mika Kallio after we happened to randomly hang around his garage area. He was friendly as always despite another rough weekend. A clutch problem on Friday caused him to miss most of that day's practice. The lack of track time meant they hadn't found a good set-up for the bike so he qualified down in 23rd (of 40 riders entered in Moto2). He told Mixo in Finnish how difficult it is to start from that far back, but that they were hoping to improve the set-up in morning practice and you never know what can happen in the race. We wished him luck and headed off to watch 125cc GP warm up.

We decided to watch from the same grandstands as the day before partly because it's so rare that we have access to the stands and partly because we felt that they would provide the most optimal viewing experience and camera angle at this track due to the sun's glare on the, um, OK, look, the truth is our legs had turned to pain flavored Jello from all the walking we had done over the weekend and we just wanted to sit down for a bit. OK?

By the time the 125s took to the track at 8:40 a.m. the viewing areas and grandstands were packed, despite the unusually chilly temperatures of about 9 degrees C (48 degrees F). A half hour later the Moto2 bikes were out on course, it was still chilly, and the wind had picked up. Mixo and I had come prepared for rain and sun, but not really for cold so Mixo dealt with the conditions in the time-honored tradition of the Finnish people--by moving to a warmer place. In this case it was the uncovered back area of the grandstands that was not only sunny, but it overlooked the paddock as well as afforded a nice view of the section of track known as "Les Esses Bleus."

According the program guide this section of the track is, well I have no idea because my program guide is in French.

The MotoGP bikes were getting ready for their 20-minute warm up and, viewed from above, the paddock became a blur. There were crew guys hustling equipment around, riders zipping through traffic to get to their garages, and a crush of camera-laden fans lucky enough to score paddock passes. The sound of MotoGP bikes being warmed up permeated the air and drowned out everything else with their carefully orchestrated and rhythmic revving. Occasionally the entire paddock, awash in constant, frenzied motion would seem to instantly freeze as a pair of leggy umbrella girls would wander through.

As the bikes took to the track the crowd reached a fevered pitch. The PA system crackled to life as the track announcers yelled a lot of French words that I did not understand. Less than two laps into warm-up Yamaha factory rider and current points leader Jorge Lorenzo fell at "Le chemin aux boeufs" when his YZR-M1's engine let go in a massive cloud of white oil smoke. Two Yamaha mechanics ran to one of their four tractor-trailers and busied themselves with readying a spare motor. MotoGP teams are allowed to use only six engines in a season, without penalty. This is only round four of 18 so this could prove influential on the Championship.

Lorenzo was uninjured in the crash and made it back to his garage as the ruined motorcycle was being unloaded in a separate area of the paddock. Oil was visible on the bike's rear tire and the engine looked as though it may have caught on fire briefly.
There was an hour until the first race was scheduled to start and though our legs protested we went for a stroll, though we did stick to the closest campground. People gathered around smoky grills to cook, or at dinette sets ingeniously fashioned from old pallets. The signs of a days-long motorcycle party were everywhere; deep ruts where someone attempted a dirt burnout, several bikes sealed in shrink-wrap or caution tape, and someone had even set up a mobile dynamometer in the woods. Out of some campsites wafted the scent of gourmet food while others smelled like the corner bar after the power had been off for a week. Everywhere people carried loaves of French bread. Technically this being France any bread would qualify as "French" bread, but I mean those long, skinny loaves. Baguettes, as they're known were being carried by the armload everywhere. It was odd because I never saw a place selling them. Yet there they were, stuffed by the dozen, into backpacks and under arms everywhere. Weird.

The start of World Championship level racing is a real show. They don't just line up, wave a flag, and take off. First there is a sighting lap--this is a slow lap for the fans to see the riders and bikes. Next all the riders line their bikes up in their grid positions and are surrounded by team mechanics, umbrella girls, photographers, and journalists. TV commentators interview the frontrunners and riders wave to the fans back home. Once everyone clears off the riders are given a green flag and then go off for a warm-up lap. This is for them to get the tires and engines up to temperature and to get their race faces on. When the return to the grid this time it's all business as they wait for the start of the race. The revs come up, the red lights go out and the race has begun.

First race of the day was for the 125cc GP bikes. When the red lights turned off, 33 bikes disappeared in a cloud of two-stroke smoke. It sounded like a swarm of pissed-off bumblebees all dive-bombing the same flower simultaneously. The typical 125cc GP race is like a chess game being played at triple digit speeds. Because these bikes don't develop big, sweating gobs of horsepower the riders rely on corner speed and momentum to make a fast lap. There are changes of position in almost every turn and on every lap. It is not uncommon for the guy in fifth place at the start of one lap to be leading by the last corner. Positions can be lost just as quickly. If a rider fighting for the lead makes a slight mistake and selects the wrong gear for a turn he can easily find himself at the back of the bus with no chance for a good result. Leave too much gap to the rider in front and lose the draft making an overtaking maneuver impossible, but not enough gap and a rider could pass too early giving up his secrets and strategy or allowing the other rider time to re-pass for position.

By the end of this race Spanish teenager Maverick Vinales had beaten fellow Spaniard Nicolas Terol by just 0.048-second. Yes, 0.048-second, take a minute to think how fast that is. That was the difference between first and second places after 24 laps of racing.

The Moto2 race saw a first-time winner when Spaniard Marc Marquez beat Japan's Yuki Takahashi and pole sitter Stephan Bradl of Germany. Mika Kallio's race was over after only a few laps after he was forced to retire with yet another clutch problem, which left him unable to accelerate out of the corners.

There was another long break until the MotoGP race and since we hadn't actually eaten yet, I went in search of food. The good news is that there were tons of delicious looking and smelling food on the lower levels throughout the grandstands. The bad news is that it was all for catered parties in the rented luxury suites reserved for VIP's and therefore was not available to me. My history is a bit fuzzy, but isn't that pretty much how the French Revolution started? Mental note: Next time pack some sandwiches, or a guillotine.

If the 125cc and Moto2 races are a show then the MotoGP race is an all-out Vegas extravaganza. On the sighting lap the riders are sure to acknowledge the crowd with a wave. They may even take the opportunity to pull a wheelie if the moment seems right. The fans love it and a cheer goes up along with signs and flags when one of the favorite riders goes by. Once the bikes are back on the start grid they are roped off like some exclusive nightclub and a throng of photographers, cameramen and reporters jockey for position with crew members, the occasional celebrity and, of course, umbrella girls. Rock guitar guy Slash from, uh, that rock band that he's in, was also wandering around the grid. I saw him walk over to Honda Gresini rider Marco Simoncelli and offer a good-luck-nice-to-meet-you-yes-I-really-am-Slash handshake. Simoncelli seemed unimpressed.

As the grid was being cleared of everyone except the riders and the race was about to get underway the Patrouille De France, which I'm guessing is part of the French Air Force, did a low-altitude flyover in formation and trailing red, white, and blue smoke in the pattern of the French flag. That was pretty damn cool and a complete surprise as I had no idea France even had an air force. I'm kidding, I'm kidding, but seriously I had no idea they had planes and everything.

After all the pomp and circumstance was over after the entertainment part of the show had ended it was time to race. The riders lowered their faceshields, put their bikes in gear, and steadily brought the revs up. When the red lights turned off all 17 MotoGP bikes launched down the straightaway towards Turn One. This is something every fan of motorcycle racing owes themselves to experience. This is where eardrums come to die in an explosion of spent exotic hydrocarbons. There is enough combined horsepower here to launch a '59 Cadillac into orbit. OK, that is probably not true at all, but that's what it feels like.

The commentary coming over the PA was breathless, excited, and completely in French. At one point Mixo asked me why the guy kept screaming about "croissants and carrots, croissants and carrots." I'm pretty sure that's not what he was saying, but for all I knew he was giving us the evening's menu options.

When lone French rider Randy DePuniet crashed his Pramac Ducati and was out of the race the crowd issued a collective sigh of disappointment. And when the uninjured Frenchman returned to his garage afterwards the fans along the front straight gave him a standing ovation. The crowd also erupted in cheers whenever Valentino Rossi passed another rider. Any other rider. If there was ever held an election for Supreme Leader of the Planet I think Rossi would have a shot at it.

Meanwhile at the front, Australian Casey Stoner had passed his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa and was quickly getting away. Possibly in an effort to catch Stoner before he was gone, Marco Simoncelli attempted an outside pass on Pedrosa. The two made contact and Pedrosa fell hard, breaking his collarbone.

Just like at Jerez there would be controversy surrounding a pass that went horribly wrong when it ended with one rider's helmet filling up with dirt. Unlike at Jerez the judgment and justice was swift and Simoncelli was issued a ride-through penalty. That took him out of second position and effectively ended any chance he had at a win. It also gave Stoner a 15-second lead at the front and lit a fire under Rossi and the third Repsol rider Andrea Dovizioso who were now battling each other for second and third instead of fourth and fifth. In the end the Honda rider edged Rossi's Ducati for second, but Rossi took home third marking his return to the podium after a very long absence. The 2011 MotoGP season is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory.

On the way back to our hotel we decided to take the back roads instead of the toll road we had been using. By the way, France, the country, made all toll roads leading to Le Mans free for all motorcyclists just for the race weekend. How cool is that?

The road we took was a nice, winding, two-lane blacktop. It snaked through forests and into villages with stone houses that dated back to, uh, a really, really, long time ago. As we were passing through one such village we stopped at a tiny café on the side of a cobblestone street that was packed with bikers fresh from the track. We sat outside at a long table, sipped delicious coffee and listened to the people around us retelling every pass, every crash, every crazy thing that they had witnessed over the past three days. They talked about the shared experience of being at the track with so many like-minded people. They talked about the importance of these life's adventures. At least that's what I think they were talking about, it was in French, after all. For all I know they were ordering croissants and carrots.