For round one, the stellar start to the fourth season of the Encel MotoE World Cup, click here. On to round two.
By Michael Blaustein
From sunny southern Spain, we move to the iconic Le Mans circuit, a name synonymous with motorsport and as classic a venue as anyone could ever hope for to see competitive racing. A layout that consists of tight hairpins and some hard braking zones, this stop-and-go track provides many opportunities for overtaking. All of which lends itself very well to MotoE racing. With the latest Energica machines all outfitted identically for each team, it comes down to three things to determine who comes out best in show and who is the mutt in this dog fight.
Conditions on the day are very important, with rain, wind, and other weather factors creating opportunity for the cunning riders that can adapt to slick surfaces or changing conditions. Suspensions are all the same coming from Olins, the venerated suspension manufacturer, but the setting up of that suspension is down to rider preference and can have both positive and negative effects. Any given track has a variety of surfaces that provide high grip, high abrasion, bumps, and an optimal race line on which the riders will have the best chance to shave a little time and gain advantage. Which brings us to the tires.
Tires are the biggest factor. As we talked about previously, the all new Michelin tires are a completely new concept in sustainable manufacturing and offer the rider a much different feel on the track than conventional tires. Understand that for a motorcycle (particularly at this level of competition), the tire is paramount. It is not just a rubber doughnut that you roll over; these race tires have to withstand up to 1.4 g under braking and must provide traction at up to 60 degrees of lean angle. Unlike in other race championships where a rider might have soft, medium, and hard compounds from which to choose, the MotoE bikes are provided with only one compound at each venue, with an alternate in case of rain. But given that every track is so different, each set of tire is engineered specifically for a given track and so may be asymmetrical (hard on one side and softer on the other) as dictated by how many turns to the right or to the left there may be and also how abrasive the track surface is known to be. This means that the riders that can learn how the tire structure, sidewall flexibility, and compound grip works will make out the best.
A lot goes into the race weekend, and with limited track time before each race, it really does come down to how well each rider can adapt to: track, conditions, and tires.
Coming into the French GP weekend, all eyes were on Eric Granado, #51 LCR E-Team, who was able to string back to back wins on the opening weekend in Jerez. But it was during the second qualifying session that we got our first good glimpse at Kevin Zannoni,#21 Ongetta SIC58 Squadracorse, who topped the timesheets early on. In the closing minutes there was a late charge from Mattia Casadei, #27 Pons Racing 40, but he had a lap time canceled for taking a shortcut at turn 10 in the “Chemin aux Boeufs” S’s. Casadei was able to regroup and fire in a 143.559, which was enough to put him on provisional pole, while the experienced Swiss rider Dominique Aegeter, #77 Dynavolt Intact, was hot on his heels and looking like he just might have the time to beat.
Ultimately, Casadei did hang on by a mere one thousandth (.001) of a second over Aegeter, with Zannoni just barely keeping his spot on the front row. Granado topped the second row in fourth position, and reigning champion Jordi Torres, #40 Pons Racing 40, secured the 5th spot ahead of Hikari Okubo, #78 Avante Ajo, in 6th.
The Energica Corsa racing bikes make the competition so tight that the riders know that you really need to be in the front two rows if you want to be able to compete for a podium finish. With the top 6 riders split by just two-tenths (0.2) of a second, it really is clear just how close this race championship really is.
With the grid set, Saturday afternoon could not come soon enough for many of these riders, and with the quality of the Energica machines on full display, it was time for race number one. There is no engine roar when the lights go out, just some gear whine and the chirp of tires as the bikes stretch out for turn number one. With Zannoni getting a good start off the line, he led Casadei through turn one and into the Dunlop Chicane, but there was contact. Drama behind involved Torres, who going down was hit on track by two bikes following. On the tarmac, Torres was clipped once and then run over by Xavi Fores, #12 Octo Pramac. Thankfully, we could see Torres sitting up and conscious.
Other action involved Marc Alcoba, #70 Openbank Aspar, leaving the track and the winner from two weeks ago dropping 3 places. Once Casadei was able to get himself around Zannoni, he quickly opened up a gap of about three quarters of a second and, running his own race, put his head down to click off the few remaining laps of this sprint-style race. For the championship leader Granado, it was all about damage limitation as he fell more places to 9th. While Aegeter was pushing hard to catch the final podium position held by Okubo, Domi was doing the race’s best pace and took the third spot with one lap to go as Zannoni slowly reeled in his compatriot for the lead.
Making a move at the end of the short start/finish straight, Zannoni couldn’t hold on and Casadei, who is strong on the brakes, kept the lead. Into the tight turn 8, Garage Vert, Casadei held his braking to the last possible moment, risking a run-off at the hairpin. Zannoni, having a look up the inside of the left-hander turn 11, couldn’t make it stick and then his inexperience showed in a hard push through the double-right-hand final corner. He put the beautiful Modena-made Energica Corsa machine into the kitty litter as Casadei finished first, with Aegeter and Okubo rounding out the top three. Eric Granado salvaged a seventh place finish. The bad news was for Jordi Torres, who will have to sit out race four.
Sunday afternoon was another perfect day for racing, with the stands packed with more than 110,000 fans for the premier class MotoGP race and many of the spectators staying to watch the exciting MotoE sprinters. The lineup was held over from the previous qualifying session and the race was on. Casadei jumped off well and Okubo pushed Aegeter wide, but everyone got through the first set of turns cleanly, which is an improvement on the previous race. Casadei opened an early gap over Zannoni in second, and then Okubo, Aegeter, and Matteo Ferrari, #11 Felo Gresini. Eric Granado again fell to eighth. Aegeter braking late took over from Okubo at the start of the second lap. Domi was very constantly turning in fastest laps as the race moved on. Casadei had a full second gap over Aegeter when he took second from Zannoni as Granado clawed back a couple of positions. But Domi was on fire and was cutting deeply into Casadei’s lead. Slowly, Granado was moving up and there was some chopping and changing between him, Obubo, and Niccolo Canepa, #7 WithU GRT RNF, for 4th position. With two laps to go, Dominique Aegeter was twisting and folding the Energica machine into all kinds of shapes in his attempt to get by Casadei, who very expertly was protecting his line.
Meanwhile, Canepa was dicing up the points leader Granado, and between the Musee turn seven and the Garage Vert turn eight, they swapped places three times, which is as exciting as you like for us spectators. But it really does take time away from the racers, making it harder to advance, and Zannoni in third just ahead widened the gap. Going into the last lap, Aegeter was carrying so much speed into the Dunlop chicane that he could pass Casadei around the outside, sacrificing a little bit of the drive on exit but managing to hang on. Casadei with a minor mistake gave up a little and it was Aegeter for the win. But the the battle to watch in the drive for the line was Canepa, as he lined up a move on the inside of Zanonini at turn 13 where Zanonini crashed just the day before, and Zanonini tried to fight back this time, keeping upright, but Canepa held on, taking the podium by a wheel length with less than one hundredth (0.01) between them. Eric Granado, close behind, finished in fifth.
Granado, no longer the championship points leader, gave up 8 points to race winner Dominique Aegeter, with Mattia Casadei and Matteo Ferrari in third and fourth, respectively. They now head to the Gran Premio d’Italia Oakley in the heart of Italy in two weeks time for two more exciting Energica Ego Corsa MotoE races. Whew, I need a shower.
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