Maverick Vinales moved back to the top of the MotoGP world championship after winning a thrilling French Grand Prix that saw Valentino Rossi crash out in a gripping final lap.
Yamaha dominated the Le Mans event, with factory Movistar Yamaha stars Vinales and Rossi qualifying first and second, with local hero Johann Zarco completing the front row on another YZR-M1, in the colours of the satellite Tech3 squad.
From the start it was Zarco who set the pace. The double Moto2 champion led the first six laps as the three Yamahas pulled away at the front. Vinales pushed through to the lead on lap seven but was unable to make a break on his rivals.
Nine-times champion Rossi gave one of his greatest displays in recent years as he took over at the front on lap 26 of 28 and looked set for his 115th Grand Prix win, and Yamaha’s 500th, when he ran wide at turn six on the final lap – opening the door for his Spanish team-mate to retake the lead. The Italian legend set about retaking the lead but crashed out a few corners later, handing Vinales the win and championship lead, with Zarco and Repsol Honda’s Dani Pedrosa completing the podium.
Pedrosa’s third came after a difficult qualifying session that saw him start from 13th on the grid. The winner of the previous round in Spain, Pedrosa now lies second to Vinales in the championship, 17 points behind Vinales and six ahead of Rossi. Slipping back to fourth in the standings is Pedrosa’s team-mate Marc Marquez, whose title defence was made more difficult after crashing out in France. He lies 27 points behind the championship leader, with five of the 18 rounds completed.
Best of the British riders in France was Cal Crutchlow, who was happy to take fifth. There were points too for Bradley Smith and Sam Lowes, in 13th and 14th respectively, but there was disappointment for Scott Redding. The Gloucestershire rider had shone during practice and started seventh on the grid but was an early retiree with gearbox problems.
Data from Rossi’s team suggested that he entered the corner at which he crashed just 1kph faster than the previous lap. Speaking after the race, the Italian was philosophical. He said: “It was a great shame, because for my team it was the best weekend of the season, where I was more competitive on the track, also in the wet (during practice), but especially in the race. For sure, for me this could have been the best result of the season. It was very difficult because the pace was always very high, but at the end I felt comfortable on the bike, I had a good feeling, so I tried to attack. Unfortunately, on the last lap I made a mistake in turn six and I fell back a little, so Maverick could overtake me. I knew I had another chance, because we were very close and I tried to remain there, because in sector four I was good. Sincerely, what happened during the crash, we don’t understand. Usually you have to pay attention to the front, but I lost the rear when I crashed. Anyway, I made a mistake, and it’s like this. It is a great shame to go back home with zero points. First of all, I’m very sorry for missing out on the probable victory and also for losing the lead in the championship, because I lost points. For me, it still has been a good weekend, I was strong. Now we have to start thinking about the next race track, I hope to ride there like I did this weekend. We hope to continue like this.”
Zarco’s performance proved hugely popular at his home race. It was the 26-year-old’s first podium in the class and, speaking after the race, he said: “The result feels so good and there are many words that I could use, but today has been just great. The conditions were perfect for me in the race with the soft tyre and it was fantastic that I was able to run the pace that I did and to also lead a GP again. I had one flashback of Qatar in my mind (where he crashed out of the lead), yet, everything was better here than there! Vinales passed me on the seventh lap and from that moment I was just happy to stay with him, and he was fast, but I think that this was the key for me to getting the podium. Rossi was also strong, but it’s a bit complicated to fight in Le Mans because the track is tight, so I was thinking that even though third at the time was fantastic, if they fight like that, maybe something will happen and I can get a better position, and this came true. My result is super and it was so much fun today. The crowd made a lot of noise and there was positive energy. I didn’t feel it at the time, but now I realise that they brought me to the top and now I need to enjoy this moment. I’m a rookie and I am not looking at the championship and the most important thing is to finish races and collect points, and today I got 20, which is fantastic. I am living in the present and enjoying every round, so if this second place gives me a good advantage in the standing, then I will take it.”
But with pole position, the win and a new lap record, Vinales was once again the stand out performer in his first season as a Yamaha rider. He added: “Keeping up with Johann in the early laps of the race was hard, he was really fast and with the full tank we were not so strong as him. He was exiting from the corners really good and really fast. Then his tyre started to drop a little bit and our tyre started to work good on the rear, and lap by lap I was feeling better. Until the end, in the last lap, I gave everything I had here in the French GP and, honestly, I’m so happy and so pleased. The team was working on an incredible level this weekend, I hope we can continue like that. For sure the tyres were working really good here, we hope we can work like this also in Mugello.”
The next round of the MotoGP world championship takes place at Mugello in Italy on the weekend of 2-4 June.