What makes for great racing? Many things, but great last corners really help. A great last corner, or sequence of corners, allows riders to attack the bike ahead of them, and take one final shot at victory. Even better is when the option to attack offered by the final corner comes with some risk attached: getting ahead is one thing, but staying ahead to the line is quite another.
MotoGP moves from one track with a last corner which guarantees spectacle to another. The final GT chicane at Assen produced fireworks with the clash between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, and the last two corners at the Sachsenring offer similar opportunities. At Assen, the hard-braking right corner is followed by a quick flick left, giving the defending rider the chance to counterattack if he is passed.
At the Sachsenring, the long drop down the steep, steep hill provides the ideal platform to launch an attack from, diving up the inside on the brakes on the way into the penultimate left hander. That line comes at a price, though, as it forces the attacker to run wide on the exit. That opens allowing the defending rider to strike back up the inside on the approach to the final turn, the last left uphill towards the line. Even entering that corner ahead is no guarantee of the win: like Turn 12, Turn 13 offers two lines, inside and outside, both of which can be used to pass.
The only other place to pass at the Sachsenring is the first corner, at the end of the front straight. The rest of the track is so tightly coiled that the bikes are spending too much time on their sides to try to line up a pass. If you're lucky, you can try to figure something out through the section between turns 7, 8, and 9, but from that point on, your mind is focused just on one thing. The crest of the hill just after Turn 10 and then the lightning fast flick right at Turn 11 heading down the Waterfall, and towards the last two turns again.
That corner, the fast Turn 11, causes the bikes, the riders, and especially the tire supplier, a whole raft of problems. The contortions of the track, forced upon the circuit by trying to fit the minimum Grand Prix circuit length into a very small physical surface area stuck on a hillside, mean that between the two slow right handers of Turn 1 and the Omegakurve lies a long sequence of lefts that give the right side of the tire plenty of time to cool off. That problem was solved for the rear tires many years ago with the introduction of asymmetric tires. Much softer rubber on the right hand side meant that the tire would still grip when flicked right through that fast section.
Asymmetric rears did not stop people crashing in Germany, though. The rear may have been gripping, the problem shifted forward to the front. With a single compound on the front tire, the front would either cool down on the right side and let go if you pushed it just a fraction too hard through Turn 11, or be too soft on the left and start losing grip and letting go in the longer left handers leading up to that corner. That, at least, was better than crashing at Turn 11: fast, off camber, down hill, you spend a lot of time tumbling through the gravel at high speed. If there is a place to get hurt, Turn 11 is it.
For this year, Bridgestone hope they have a solution. For the third time ever, the Japanese tire firm will be bringing an asymmetric front tire, with softer rubber with more grip on the right hand side of the tire. The softer rubber starts once the riders reach a lean angle of 30°, as the riders get well into the corner. The theory is that more grip on the right will reduce the number of morning crashes when the tires cool off most.
The asymmetric fronts had a difficult debut. They were used for the first time at Phillip Island last year, another circuit where the bikes spend most of the time on the left side of the tire. The race at the Australian circuit saw a lot of riders falling, most of who lost the front using the asymmetric tire. Conditions at Phillip Island were rather different, however: to better fit European TV schedules, the race starts at 4pm, with the risk that the temperature starts to drop rapidly around that time. Exactly that happened, with the ambient temperature dropping by around ten degrees during the race.
In Germany, the race starts at the usual time of 2pm in the afternoon, and with plenty of heat forecast for race day, both the asymmetric front and the more conventional symmetric option should both work well. Whether it is the race tire or not, if it can save a few riders from a nasty tumble through the gravel in Germany, it will be worth it.
Will the Sachsenring give Jorge Lorenzo to seize the momentum back from his Movistar Yamaha teammate and championship leader Valentino Rossi? The flowing nature of the track will certainly allow the Yamaha to shine, but history is against the Yamahas. The last time a Yamaha won at the circuit was in 2009, when Rossi beat Lorenzo at the line by an ironic ninety-nine thousandths of a second. Ever since then, a Honda has won: from 2010 to 2012, a Honda ridden by Dani Pedrosa; in the last two years, by Pedrosa's Repsol Honda teammate Marc Márquez.
The chances of another Honda victory in Germany are surprisingly strong. There are only a couple of places where the excess aggression of the RC213V count against it, with more flowing corners and fewer hard braking sections. That proved to be the key to success for Marc Márquez at Assen, a track which is much longer and much faster, but which like the Sachsenring is all about conserving momentum and carrying speed through the corners. Márquez came within half a bike length of claiming victory at Assen, the Spaniard coming up just short in his attempt to dive up the inside of Valentino Rossi into the final chicane. Had he entered that penultimate corner ahead of the Italian, the result may have been very different.
It gave Márquez the morale boost he so desperately needed, though. After crashing out of the two previous races, and struggling to be competitive everywhere except Austin, Márquez needed to feel he was capable of winning. He felt that at Assen once again, and comes to Germany with some confidence restored. Márquez' biggest challenge is the fact two of the best places to overtake at the Sachsenring are Turn 12 at the bottom of the hill and Turn 1 at the end of the straight. Both require a lot of straight up braking, the exact area where Márquez suffers most with the Honda.
Dani Pedrosa suffers a lot less with this, and the Spaniard is now pretty close to full fitness after the operation on his forearm. Pedrosa has been slowly gaining form, but has been plagued by a host of small errors which have prevented him from getting a strong result. Given Pedrosa's incredible record at the Sachsenring over the years, this is the track you would expect to see him make a come back. Pedrosa knows that he is out of the title chase, and right now, he is only riding for wins. Germany is probably his best chance of grabbing a win and kickstarting his season ready for the second half of the year.
Pedrosa could prove to be a dangerous ingredient for the factory Yamaha riders. Valentino Rossi extended his championship lead to ten points at Assen, putting an end to a long streak of wins from Jorge Lorenzo and halting the Spaniard's momentum. If Dani Pedrosa takes victory, that reduces the difference in points available from five points to four, taking Jorge Lorenzo from needing a single win to take back the lead, to two more victories. If Pedrosa and Márquez get in the mix, that could disrupt the title arithmetic significantly. The difference between first and fourth is twelve points, which could see either Valentino Rossi extend his lead to nearly a full race win's worth of points, or Jorge Lorenzo just edge ahead of Rossi in the championship. With either man capable of finishing in any of the top four places, it makes working out what either Rossi or Lorenzo have to do nigh on impossible. It places the impetus on the two men to try and win, and to win at almost every cost.
The Rossi vs Lorenzo battle has all the makings of a classic. A resurgent Rossi is proving to be the man to beat in MotoGP, while Lorenzo has proved to be imperious on his day, which is more often than not. The last time the two men battled it out for victory here was in 2009, with the close-call finish. It would not be surprising to see those two slugging it out all the way to the line once again in 2015.
Even those calculations could go askew if the Ducatis and the Suzukis manage to stick their oars in. With the understeer gone from the Desmosedici GP15, the two Ducati factory riders could be a factor at the Sachsenring. The bike turns and stop, though it is still plagued by teething problems and a lack of track time and data. That has caused the season to be a bit hit and miss for the Ducatis. Andrea Dovizioso had a strong start but has gotten slower since then, but will want to turn his season around. Andrea Iannone injured his shoulder but has ironically become faster as he has been forced to ride more smoothly. Iannone is still struggling with weakness in the shoulder, but it has not yet started to slow him down much.
If there is one track you would choose for the Suzukis to be fast at, it would surely be the Sachsenring. The track is so short and tight that a surfeit of horsepower is a disadvantage, rather than a benefit. The GSX-RR has fantastic handling, can turn on a dime and brake on a dollar bill. What it can't do is accelerate, but the only place that is a disadvantage is up the hill out of the final turn.
So the challenge facing Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales is to try to make a break from the first corner of the track, all the way to the final corner. If they can enter the final corner half a second ahead, they will never be caught. Any closer and they will get blown away by the competition, not just by the Hondas but also by the Yamaha and by the Ducati. Aleix Espargaro has a couple of races of pent-up frustration to dispose of, and the free-flowing Sachsenring might just be the right place for him to dispense with it. Maverick Viñales has gone from rookie mid-packer to constant top ten threat, with his recent races being particularly strong. The Sachsenring could well be the breakthrough moment for the Spanish youngster. It is certainly Suzuki's best chance of operating at the pointy end until the Hamamatsu victory can find a working seamless gearbox and a stableful of horsepower.
The satellite riders will be just as active as their factory counterparts at the Sachsenring, though for entirely different reasons. The 2016 factory rider line up is all but settled already, but that doesn't mean that there is nothing up for negotiation. Sachsenring has traditionally been the scene of many clandestine meetings – well, clandestine: as clandestine as rider managers making the rounds of the team principals' offices in a crowded and chronically inquisitive paddock can possibly hope to remain – and this edition looks like being more of the same. There could still be plenty of moves in the rider market to be announced once the teams and riders return from the summer break. Though the official announcement would come only at the next round in Indianapolis, the leg work to secure the contract will be done here, at the Sachsenring.
There has already been one major move, with Marco Melandri finally getting his way and being allowed to leave the factory Gresini Aprilia factory team. For the moment, Aprilia test rider Michael Laverty will take the place of Melandri, though Aprilia are insisting that the contract with Laverty is on a race-by-race basis. With the rest of the season only clashing once with BSB, where Laverty is racing this year, it is safe to assume that Laverty will be filling in on a race-by-race basis at every race for the remainder of the year.
For 2016, the second Aprilia slot is still open, and with big money on offer – upwards of €4 million, according to one source – it is a popular destination for a number of MotoGP privateers. Who will take the second seat is far from sorted, though, with riders weighing up a substantial payout against the risk of the bike not being competitive. Aprilia's brand new RS-GP, due to be rolled out at the end of the year, will be much more competitive than the bike they have for 2015, but will it be good enough to take on the Hondas, Yamahas, Ducatis and Suzukis?
Both Tech 3 riders' contracts are also up this year, though the noises emanating out of the offices of the French-based team are that both riders will be kept. With so much changing in 2016, a new tire manufacturer coming and the advent of fully spec electronics, changing riders makes things even more complicated. The safe option is to stick with what you have got, change as few variables as possible.
So Bradley Smith's seat at Tech 3 is looking more and more secure, especially given his strong performance so far this year. The question mark is more from Smith's side: other factories are starting to take notice, and could try to tempt Smith away. Pol Espargaro's seat is in more peril, largely because he is on a factory contract with Yamaha. At the moment, Yamaha are not looking inclined to keep the Spaniard, which puts both Espargaro and Tech 3 in a difficult position. Hervé Poncharal may decided to keep Espargaro, but as Yamaha have the right to put a rider of their own choosing in the seat, the Tech 3 boss may not have much to say about it. Espargaro's manager has been a busy man at the past couple of races, in and out of hospitality units up and down the paddock.
The Pramac Ducatis will be very much in trek in 2016, though it is not certain exactly which spec bike they will have at their disposal. The chances are that they will have GP15s, as opposed to GP16s, but Gigi Dall'Igna has already said that the differences between the two will be limited. Again, but Yonny Hernandez and Danilo Petrucci have shown they have the talent to be kept on, but the question mark is whether a more attractive rider comes on the market.
The biggest question mark is what happens to the Hondas next year. Scott Redding has struggled far more than anyone expected, including himself and team manager Michael Bartholemy. In principle, Redding has a two-year deal, but there are rumblings that Redding is not meeting the performance criteria to be kept on for the second year. Should Bartholemy decide to replace Redding, then his bike would be a very attractive option, despite the obvious difficulty the Honda RC213V presents to riders. There is also the question mark of whether Marc VDS decides to expand, from a one-rider team to two. The additional cost of running a second bike is much lower than the initial jump to MotoGP, and if the right rider became available, there might even be help from HRC.
If Marc VDS were to expand, it would almost certainly come at the expense of the LCR team. Their title sponsor CWM brought a lot of money, but several reputational headaches. The financial services firm has been engulfed in allegations of fraud, and it is open to question whether the sponsorship will continue into 2016. That would make running two bikes an almost impossible proposition for Lucio Cecchinello. With Jack Miller on a three-year HRC contract and Cal Crutchlow's one-year deal coming to an end this season, it is the Englishman whose position is in danger. However, he has proven to be a very desirable target, as he has been competitive on the RC213V, and has experience on both the Yamaha and the Ducati. It would make sense for Honda to keep him on in some capacity, as he is the only "mortal" rider capable of taming the Honda. With two freaks of nature at Repsol Honda, having a normal human being to help develop the bike is an asset. Especially when that rider is fast enough to bag podiums.
These behind-the-scenes machinations place extra pressure on the satellite riders to bag a good result at the Sachsenring. Deals become a lot easier to tie up for managers when their rider has been fighting for the podium, rather than fifteenth. That should spice up the Sachsenring race nicely.