The success of the reigning world champions at Ernée today was matched only by the thunderous degree of volume from a largely partisan support. The amphitheater setting at the Grand Prix venue west of Le Mans was almost full to capacity for three practice sessions and qualification races, and the comprehensive victories by Gautier Paulin (MXGP), Marvin Musquin (MX2), and Romain Febvre (MX Open) duly wet appetites for a repeat of their success in Latvia last year—and on the best possible stage.
The French were always going to enjoy the home-field advantage (while also dealing with the pressures, demands, and microscope effect that it brings), but the wall of noise that greeted the trio stopped all possible adversaries in their tracks. Paulin, Musquin, and Febvre—victors in that order in their respective categories under pleasant sunshine and around a rutty track—met little resistance, with only Paulin needing some laps to catch Ben Townley (the New Zealander making an exceptional start and evoking memories of his run behind Ricky Carmichael a decade ago at the same venue and event) and Febvre engaging in another close spat with Cooper Webb before leaving the American behind.
Townley’s outing to second place in MXGP was the most eye-catching run beyond the Team France whirlwind, but most of the news revolved around the implosion of Team Great Britain’s latest attempt to make the top three for the first time this century. After being given first pick in the gate for the ballot, the Brits initially saw Shaun Simpson crash out of third in MXGP when a backmarker drifted across his line over the double jump at the bottom of the hill and the two collided. The Scot picked up, but with a jammed rear wheel, he barely reached the flag on the last lap to take twelfth with a sore left arm.
In MX2, Max Anstie stalled his Kawasaki at the top of the hill, and as he was rolling down the double and the longest and fastest section of the course while off the racing line, he was apparently caught on his head and upper body by Austrian Pascal Rauchenecker. The resulting tumble was sickening, as the Grand Prix winner was knocked unconscious. Anstie suffered a broken bone under his shoulder blade as a result, and with his hospitalization, the British hopes were also irreparably fractured (as were Anstie’s hopes for finishing off the national British series at the final event next weekend, a competition he currently leads by 44 points).
While the formbook rang true on Saturday, it is still hard to call what might transpire on Sunday. Britain’s misfortune was a harsh example of how things can go wrong, and there is no escaping the fact that Ernee is a narrow, tight, and restrictive layout. Those with the best starts should profit handsomely. A nod must go to the organizational team at Ernee (some 1,200 volunteers strong among them), who worked over the French hard-pack to make a typically frugal track more attackable and further removed from the static affairs seen over the years in MXGP.
"They have prepared the track really well, and there are many long ruts because it is pretty soft," Paul said of the experience. "I struggled to pass riders because the ruts are so long that if you get stuck behind a rider, then it is easy to lose time."
"The track is tricky with many lines, but it is bumpy and rutty, and it is really easy to make a mistake," offered Musquin, who beat the two Jeremys—Martin and Seewer—in MX2.
Febvre started in fourth as Cooper Webb put Team USA at the front for the first time, and the Frenchman was assisted by a tip-over on the first lap by FIM MX2 World Motocross Champion Tim Gajser. The MXGP #1 had to shut down a gap of four seconds to the American, and the pair swapped positions three times in a repeat of their close tussle at Glen Helen last week. Webb bobbled out of a rut at the bottom of the hill, and with the full heat of the French crowd upon him (Paulin: "The public is just crazy. Every time you get close it is just 'wah!' It is like a great energy in your body and a lovely feeling. A great atmosphere."), Febvre was away, but Webb mounted a comeback to retake the lead, with the Frenchman then fighting back to make a final pass. From there, he was away and en route to completing a French sweep of all three qualification heats.
With Barcia third, Martin second, and Webb second, Team USA is the nearest challenger to Team France, who, if they win the event, would get back-to-back wins for the first time in the sixty-nine-year history of the competition. Team Belgium is third, with Jeremy Van Horebeek moving up to third place past Glenn Coldenhoff and Dean Wilson in Open, and Ken De Dycker surprisingly fast and constant for fifth in MXGP. Julien Lieber had a hefty crash in practice and is nursing two damaged groin muscles, but still managed to guide his Standing Construct Yamaha to fifth in MX2.
The public was waiting at the Ernée gate from 7:30 a.m. in the dark this morning, and the majority of people and staff who have packed hotels within a fifty-mile radius of the circuit will be looking for an early entry tomorrow, as the French site is expected to heave for the international season curtain closer.