Le Mans Moto GP: The PUMA Perspective

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This weekend sees France host the fourth round of the 18–leg 2011 MotoGP World Championship, with the Bugatti circuit, situated five kilometres south of the city of Le Mans – itself 200 kilometers south-west of Paris – doing the honours.

This tight, 4,180-kilometre circuit, which shares part of its layout with the famous 24 Hour track, is epitomized by a host of straights of varying lengths connected by first gear corners that demand late braking and instant acceleration, placing a premium of rear-end traction. Able to comfortably accommodate 100,000 enthusiastic spectators, the venue also host rounds for various international and national series.

The race for the championship could hardly be closer at this stage, with title holder Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha) leading Honda’s pairing of Dani Pedrosa, winner in Estoril a fortnight ago, and Casey Stoner by 65 points to 61 and 41 respectively. The Ducati duo of Valentino Rossi (31) and Nicky Hayden (30) is next up.

Unlike the last round, which was hit by unpredictable weather over the full grand prix weekend, the skies above Le Mans are forecast to be dry but overcast, with the mercury hovering around 17°C at midday on all three days. Wind speed – that other scourge of MotoGP – is expected to be mild. Thus the event should provide valuable track running time for all competitors – vital in a season with restricted testing.

PUMA’s partner team Ducati travels after a successful test session in Estoril, where the team honed both engine and chassis. Various upgrades have been fitted to the Desmosedici GP11, including revised front end and engine components, with the chassis also receiving attention.

Said Rossi afterwards: “We’re coming off a test that confirmed that we’ve started to go in the right direction, and although we’re still in the first phase, we hope we can find a good setup for Le Mans so that we can be faster in the qualifying session.”

Historically Le Mans has proven a challenge for Ducati, although Rossi has taken seven podiums here, including three victories at the top level – in 2002, 2005 and 2008. Valentino currently holds the lap record, having set it back in 2008.

That said, Le Mans is not one of the Italian legend’s favourites, highlighting “hard braking and chicanes” and the difficulty of stringing together a flowing lap due to its “stop-start” nature as just some of its challenges. The nine-time world champion is, though, determined to improve on fifth, his best placing this year to date, this weekend.

Nicky Hayden, world champion in 2006, last year achieved his best-ever placing (fourth) at this circuit aboard the Ducati, and is relishing the task of getting back on terms with the front-runners after a tough start to this season.

“One good thing I look forward to is that I think the best strength of our bike right now is stability under hard braking, and Le Mans has a lot of hard braking. Traditionally, the grip there isn’t very good, so that’s something we’re probably really going to have to work on. We’ll go there and see what we’ve got,” said the American rider.

Sunday’s 28-lap race starts at 14 00 (CET), with qualifying at 13 55 – 14 55.

Motorsport