Le Mans, France – Marc Marquez took a milestone win at the French Motorcycle Grand Prix, equaling Casey Stoner’s 38 premier-class wins, and also surpassing Mike Hailwood's tally of 37.
Brad Binder gave South African fans something to cheer about with a solid ride to ninth in Moto2, while Steven Odendaal brought the new NTS home 17th after qualifying 26th. It’s worth remembering that the bike had never been raced at Le Mans before, so the team had no baseline settings to start from when practice began on Friday, which makes Odendaal’s achievement in finishing two places ahead of team-mate Joe Roberts all the more significant.
Binder’s younger brother Darryn rode a gritty race in Moto3 to finish 11th despite considerable discomfort from the shoulder and ankle ligaments he tore in a huge crash at Jerez just two weeks earlier.
Honda’s defending world champion stamped his authority on the 4.185km Le Mans Grand Prix racetrack, which shares its main straight, paddock and the first and last few corners with the iconic 14km Le Mans 24 Hours endurance racing circuit, winning by 2.31 seconds from satellite Ducati rider Danilo Petrucci, in his first podium of the season after a magnificent ride, and Yamaha veteran Valentino Rossi.
The French fairytale was unfortunately not to be for hometown hero Johann Zarco (Yamaha Tech 3), who crashed out at Turn 8 on lap eight after re-passing Marquez for second. Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone also fell out of contention on lap one at La Chapelle after making a good start, and championship contender Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) made a rare error at the same corner four laps later, just after passing team-mate Jorge Lorenzo - who once again got a magnificent start - for the lead.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo held firm at the front with Marquez in close company and Petrucci, Rossi and Petrucci’s team-mate Jack Miller chasing them both. Marquez made his move on lap 10, and Petrucci relegated Lorenzo to third a lap later.
Soon after, Rossi and Miller also carved their way past Lorenzo, with Dani Pedrosa on the second works Honda Team waiting in the wings.
The gap between Marquez, Petrucci, Rossi and Miller stayed consistent until Marquez pulled the pin on lap 16, setting the fastest lap of the race to open a one-second lead, which he eked out tenth by tenth while Petrucci concentrated on keeping Rossi behind him.
Pedrosa finally managed to pass Lorenzo for fifth, while 2017 winner Maverick Viñales on the second factory Yamaha worked his way back up to seventh after being outside the top 10 for the first half of the race. Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro had a great ride, holding onto eighth until the last lap to earn his best result of the season, but was passed on the final tour by walking wounded Cal Crutchlow (Honda), who put up a superb effort to finish eighth from 13th on the grid.
It was a quiet but important race for Suzuki rider Alex Rins, who battled with Vinales and Espargaro throughout the race, eventually rounding out the top 10 after three DNF’s. Pol Espargaro picked up another solid result to bring the new KTM home 11th, with Hafizh Syahrin (Yamaha Tech 3) eventually getting the better of Honda privateer Franco Morbidelli to finish as top rookie.
Franceso Bagnaia was simply unstoppable at Le Mans, converting pole position into a commanding victory to take his third win of 2018 - the first winner from pole in Moto2 at this circuit. Alex Marquez was the Bagnaia’s closest challenger in second, with team-mate, 2017 Moto3 champion Joan Mir securing his maiden intermediate class podium in third.
There was drama before the race began for the man who qualified second, with Xavi Vierge having to start from the back of the grid due to a mechanical problem.
Bagnaia made the perfect launch from pole and took the hole shot, with Marquez moving straight into second. Third on the grid, Lorenzo Baldassarri didn’t get the start he would have wanted, and crashed out at Turn 2 on lap seven while pushing hard to make up positions.
Bagnaia and Marquez opened a gap to Marcel Schroetter in third and Bagnaia was able to pull away from Marquez in the closing stage to win by almost three seconds, while Marquez kept it calm to take second and twenty points towards the championship and turned his impressive pace throughout the weekend into his first podium in the class - in only his fifth race.
Schroetter came home fourth, his best Moto2 result yet after a weekend of top pace and despite still recovering from injury. Meanwhile, team-mate Vierge was a man on a charge; he caught and passed Miguel Oliveira (KTM) by lap 14, and then reeled in rookie Romano Fenati to get up into fifth, holding off a late charge from Oliviera to finish in that position.
Rookie Fenati was a season best seventh as his adaptation to the class continued, with Fabio Quartararo (Speed Up) giving the French fans something to cheer about in eighth - also his best result of the year so far. The local hero was locked in a battle with Binder’s KTM in the latter stages of the race; the South African finished ninth ahead of Stefano Manzi (Suter) who came up from 23rd on the grid to 10th at the flag.
The key name missing from that fight at the front was championship contender, who crashed, but got going again to finish 18th, leaving a Grand Prix with no points for the first time this year.
Albert Arenas claimed his first lightweight class win in what was nothing short of a spectacular race, with team-mate Andrea Migno second to make it a perfect day for the Angel Nieto Team and Marcos Ramirez making it an all-KTM podium.
The big drama came in the final laps of the race, culminating when championship leaders Marco Bezzecchi (KTM) and Jorge Martin (Honda) - the two leaders for most of the race - crashed out with just one corner to go. Bezzecchi, after being passed by Martin’s team-mate Fabio Di Giannantonio, highsided trying to cut back through; Martin, right behind Bezzecchi in third, had nowhere to go, and crashed out of a podium position.
Di Giannantonio went on take the chequered flag, delighted with he thought was his maiden Moto3 race win - until a three second penalty for running over the chicane at Turns 10 and 11 midway through the race took it from him and handed it to Arenas.
Niccolo Antonelli (Honda) thought he’d claimed his first podium of the season – until he was also penalised for running straight over the first chicane, which promoted Ramirez (who finished fifth on the road) to third, making this the second consecutive race in which Ramirez wound up on the podium after crossing the line outside the top three.
Di Giannantonio’s penalty dropped him to fourth, leaving him second in the points standing , with Antonelli classified fifth after his penalty.
Jakub Kornfeil, who was in the leading group throughout the race showed off some outrageous motocross skills when Honda rider Enea Bastianini went down right in front of him in the final corner of the second last lap. Kornfeil’s KTM was launched into the air, but spectacularly managed to land upright in the gravel - Kornfeil crossed the line sixth.
Tony Arbolino (Honda) had a strong showing in seventh, with Aron Canet (Honda) carving his way from the back of the grid to finish eighth, and leave Le Mans third in the standings, ahead of Martin and only seven points behind Bezzecchi.
Tatsuki Suzuki (Honda) came home ninth, with rookie Jaume Masia (KTM) rounding out the top 10.