From Assen to Sachsenring, 700 kilometers in 7 days. One of the shorter hauls between back-to-back races, but a tight schedule nonetheless. Sachsenring's weird split paddock was full of tired looking faces on Thursday, as truck drivers and hospitality staff rushed to tear the entire paddock down in Drenthe, then build it all up again in Saxony.
It is hard to think of a greater contrast in circuits, too. Assen is flat, fast, and sweeping, the Sachsenring tight, slow, and with massive changes in elevation. There are similarities too: the bikes spend a lot of time on the edge of the tire at both tracks. At Assen, it's especially the right side of the tire, as riders sweep through the succession of right handers from Mandeveen all the way to the Ramshoek. At the Sachsenring, it's all left-hand side of the tire which takes the punishment, as the bikes come out of the Omegakurve, pitch into Turn 4, then hustle their way all the way down and then up and over the hill before Turn 11.
Turn 11 is a vicious beast, laying in wait for the unwary, its voracious gravel trap waiting to claim anyone who flicks the bike just a little too enthusiastically right after spending so much time on the left-hand side of the tire. The opposite right-hand side has had 40 seconds to cool off, while the right-hand side of the tire takes all the punishment. The transition from left to right, from scorching hot to cool rubber, from one of the hardest tire compounds of the year to one of the softest, is tricky. Switching between two very different feeling rubbers catches plenty of riders out, in both MotoGP and Moto2.
Grip and camber
The resurfacing of the track may have helped tame it a little. There is more grip - or at least, there should be, though as Dani Pedrosa said on Thursday, "we still don't know, we just want to get out on the track and try the new asphalt". More significantly, the turn itself has been slightly reprofiled, with camber added to the turn, banking right to add a little bit support through the corner. "They make it like this to avoid crashes," Aleix Espargaro reported, after having walked the track in the morning.
To handle the new asphalt, Michelin have brought a selection of four different front tires and four different rear tires, to be able to cope with every single condition. That includes it being cold in the morning, a frequent enough occurrence at the German track. That does not please the riders, who already struggle to work their way through three different tires front and rear each weekend. "I hate this," Aleix Espargaro complained. "It looks like this is a test."
Cal Crutchlow was rather more sanguine about it. "Put it this way, if it’s dry then it is going to be busy, if it is wet they’ll have a load left over. But they’ve done a good job to bring what they have…which is probably half of what they have in the factory," he joked. Teams and riders were already making plans to discard some of the tires, especially the softest of the compound, saying it is too soft to be used. The KTM riders would also liked to ignore the hardest of the two hard rears, as they believe the tire will be too hard for them. But Michelin have told the teams they all need to do at least five laps on the hardest tire. If the new asphalt turns out to be as grippy as suspected, that hardest tire may well be the best option for the race, and they want all of the riders to have put in a few laps on it, and learned to trust it.
Finding time to test it may well prove to be harder than normal. Crutchlow's comment about testing tires 'if it's dry' is not a hypothetical question. One more thing which the Sachsenring shares with Assen is a rather fickle climate. The weather is notoriously unreliable, with many different conditions throughout the day. Rain can arrive quickly, and depart just as fast, though the downpours in Saxony tend to be a little more torrential.
As of Thursday evening, it looks like the riders will get some dry track time before Sunday. Friday morning looks damp, as does qualifying on Saturday, but the FP2 and FP3 sessions should take place on a dry track. FP2 will be particularly important, as both sessions of free practice on Friday have been extended by 10 minutes, to allow the riders to spend a little more time tire testing. It will be crucial to make judgments quickly, and then focus on working for the race. That will take courage and conviction, though: the risk of choosing the wrong tire is much greater, so removing that doubt from your mind will be crucial.
Will the resurfacing make much difference to the outcome of the race? If history is a guide, then you can put a Honda down in the winner's box. A Honda has won the Sachsenring round of MotoGP every year since 2009, the last time a Yamaha won, when Valentino Rossi beat his then teammate Jorge Lorenzo by an ironic 0.099 seconds. From 2010 to 2012, Dani Pedrosa won the German Grand Prix. In 2013, his newly acquired teammate Marc Márquez won, and has kept that up ever since.
Hondas have owned the podium, too. With Márquez winning from 2013 to 2016, Pedrosa ended up second in 2014 and 2015. He missed out on the race in 2013, when he fell at Turn 11 during practice and broke his collarbone, and lost out on the podium in 2016, though on that occasion, Cal Crutchlow picked up the slack to take second on the LCR Honda.
But it is Marc Márquez, above all, who has dominated at the Sachsenring. In his first two years in Grand Prix racing, he finished ninth and sixteenth, but since 2010, he has won every race he has competed in at the Sachsenring, in every class he has competed in. Not only did he win in Germany, he also did it from pole, being fastest in qualifying seven times in a row. Márquez is surely favorite to extend that streak on Sunday.
Back ups for Márquez
If Márquez can't pull it off, for whatever reason, there are plenty of other riders ready to step into the fray. Pedrosa has already won at the track, and is clearly capable of winning there again. Cal Crutchlow, too, is quick around the Sachsenring, 2016 being his second podium at the track. Jack Miller felt he could have been on the podium in Germany too last year, though he missed the right window to swap bikes. The Honda is strong round the Sachsenring, and the Honda riders are strong there too.
He may face stiff competition from the Yamahas. More grip should help the Yamahas hustle round the circuit, in conditions which suit them. The new chassis Rossi used to claim victory at Assen should also help, the frame helping on corner entry and the bike turning better as a result. The problem is that both Rossi and Viñales only have one of the new chassis each, their second bike still using the original 2017 frame. If it is wet on Sunday – which it may well be – the Yamaha riders will be faced with a dilemma.
"If it is a flag to flag it will be interesting," Rossi told the press conference. "It is like this because we don't have time, so maybe the situation will change for Brno. Now, it is like this and for sure if it is flag to flag it can be a problem, but I will start with the new one because I feel good, but we always try to use also the other one to have a reference and to be ready in these conditions."
Mav needs a win
For Maverick Viñales, the only thing that matters is to get back to winning ways. He has faltered badly in recent weeks, first suffering with the lack of grip in Barcelona, then last week flinging the bike into the gravel at the GT Chicane, being a little too aggressive on the change of direction through that part of the track. He was a little more upbeat in Germany on Thursday than he was in The Netherlands, and a more positive demeanor should bear fruits for the young Spaniard.
The more intriguing question is just how championship leader Andrea Dovizioso will fare. The Ducati has historically been weak at the German track, suffering in the long corners where the bike suffers the most. But Dovizioso ended on the podium in 2016, a repeat of the feat from 2012, on the Tech 3 Yamaha. The Ducati is a greatly improved bike, and is easier to turn now than it has been in the past. And Dovizioso is brimming with new-found confidence, a mixture of taking a different approach to racing, and to finding himself leading the championship.
Much attention will also be focused on his teammate. Jorge Lorenzo has never had a great deal of luck at the German circuit, never having won at the track in any class. To add insult to injury, he broke his collarbone at the Sachsenring in 2013, two weeks after breaking it in Assen. Yet in theory, this could be a good track for Lorenzo, wet or dry. Lorenzo thrives on grip, and a new surface should give him just that.
Lorenzo ought to be capable of a decent result even if it's wet. The track should be grippy, even in the rain, and that should help Lorenzo. "I tried the bike four or five times in the rain and in four from five I feel more competitive," he told us on Thursday. It was just qualifying at Assen where he suffered, and he does not expect a repeat of that. If there is grip at the track, then Lorenzo could finish higher up the order than many fear.
Lorenzo will have a gaggle of other Ducatis to contend with, not the least of which is Danilo Petrucci. Coming off two podiums in three races, as well as believing he had a shot at the win at Assen, all eyes will be on the Pramac Ducati garage. If Petrucci does not do well, then the gaze will switch to Scott Redding, and his attempts to master the GP16. Both Petrucci and Redding are quick in the rain, but both are longing for a dry race, and both could be competitive in either condition.
Whatever the weather, the MotoGP riders face their toughest challenge so far this weekend. With limited dry track time expected, and a major program of tire testing to get through, the Sachsenring looks set to throw up a surprise or two. Add in unstable weather and you get a heady cocktail indeed.
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