2017 Le Mans winner Maverick Vinales made the perfect start to the French GP on a warm and mainly sunny first day of practice, slotting the Monster Yamaha into top position by almost two tenths ahead of Marc Marquez’s Repsol Honda.
Vinales, his confidence boosted by his first podium of the year at the previous round at Jerez, remained cautious. “I like the track, and we found our set-up very fast, and I felt good with the bike, also with the tyres … but we need to keep working.
Marquez was also comfortable, especially since electronic setting improvements had solved the slow-corner problem that caused him to crash out of the lead at the GP of the Americas.
Fabio Quartararo’s satellite Petronas Yamaha had been fastest in the morning, and the 20-year-old French rising star was quicker again in the afternoon to place a strong third.
It was a good day also for new Repsol Honda rider Jorge Lorenzo, who credited reverting to a standard seat with “a small step” in his adaptation to the Honda. He was fourth, just over three tenths off Vinales; with the top 12 all within one second.
The factory Ducatis were next, rebranded with just the riders nicknames on the fairings replacing the Mission Winnow. Andrea Dovizioso was fifth, ahead of Danilo Petrucci. Dovi felt he could have ridden better. “It’s easy to use too much power here,” he said; Petrux lost time after crashing
Pol Espargaro, who crashed the Red Bull KTM twice, was seventh, ahead of his Aprilia-mounted brother Aleix; with Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda) ninth.
Jack Miller (Pramac Ducati) was next, the only rider not to improve in the afternoon session, but still scraping into tenth.
The positions could be crucial for tomorrow’s qualifying, because once again, as at every race so far this year, rain is forecast for tomorrow. This means that today’s top ten will go straight into Q2.
Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha) missed the cut by one thousandth of a second; also 12th-placed Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) and Valentino Rossi (Monster Yamaha) in 14th, blaming unexpectedly bad feelings, the loss of a broken chain in the morning, and that he had “only done one lap on the soft tyre”.
Also out of the group, Ecstar Suzuki rider Alex Rins and last year’s pole starter Johann Zarco (Red Bull KTM).
A brand-new chassis let Brad Binder put the Red Bull KTM at the top of a batch of ultra-close Moto2 times – but with an advantage of only 0.049 of a second and the top 20 riders all within the same second, there was little margin of comfort for the South African former Moto3 champion, who was concerned with a loss of rear grip as the tyres wore.
Australian Remy Gardner (ONEXOX Kalex) was a close second, then title leader Lorenzo Baldassarri, whose Flexbox HP40 Kalex team-mate Augusto Fernandez was fourth.
They headed a phalanx of Kalexes, filling from second to 11th places.
Supersub Mattia Pasini, this time in place of injured Petronas Kalex rider Khairul Idham Pawi, was fifth. It is the Italian veteran’s third different team this year.
Marcel Schrotter (Dynavolt Kalex) was next, then morning leader Andrea Locatelli (Italtrans Kalex) from Simone Corsi (Tasca Racing Kalex) and Alex Marquez (VDS Kalex). Enea Bastianini (Italtrans Kalex) was tenth; with Nicolo Bulega (SKY VR46 Kalex) and Bo Bensneyder (RW NTS) rounding out the dozen potentially straight through to Q2 tomorrow.
American KTM rider Joe Roberts was 25th.
Japanese rookie Ai Ogura was top Moto3 rider on the Team Asia Honda, better than a tenth ahead of Jerez winner Niccolo Antonelli and his SIC58 Honda team-mate Tatsuki Suzuki.
Times were again close, with 21 riders within a second, promising the usual brawl on Sunday.
Next came the KTMs of Bester Capital’s Andrea Migno and the Sama Nieto team’s Albert Arenas, in his second race back from injury.
Tony Arbolino (Honda) was sixth, then Aron Canet (KTM) and Gabriel Rodrito (Honda). The KTMs of Raul Fernandez and Dennis Foggia completed the top ten.
By Michael Scott