The Sachsenring offers an opportunity to learn two things in 2022. Firstly, who is the second best rider around the tight and twisty German track, now that Marc Marquez, whose name is provisionally penciled into the winner's column when the calendar is announced, is absent. And secondly, will crowds return to pre-pandemic levels at MotoGP events?
To start with the second question first, perhaps it is best to rephrase it: will the Sachsenring be Mugello or Le Mans? That is a gross simplification of course, but gets to the root of some of the issues facing MotoGP, post-pandemic, post-Valentino Rossi. Mugello was a washout, with an official attendance of less than half pre-pandemic numbers. Le Mans was a sellout, a capacity 110,000 people turning up at sunny Le Mans.
There is good reason to think Sachsenring will be more like Le Mans than Mugello. In a recent and fascinating interview with respected Spanish journalist Juan Pedro de la Torre, published on the Motociclismo website, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta blamed the poor attendance at Mugello on a lack of promotion by the organizers, a point which has some merit. The promoter for Le Mans, the GP de France organization run by Claude Michy, is widely viewed as the very best at promoting a motorsports event.
(As an aside, I highly recommend reading all three parts of the Ezpeleta interview. There is a whole heap of fascinating insights in there, including the state of the championship, the number of races, why the MotoGP Unlimited series flopped, the history of how Ezpeleta came to run MotoGP. In Spanish, worth using DeepL or Google Translate to translate it into your native tongue.)
24 hour party people
The German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring is a well-promoted and popular event in the heart of the German motorcycling culture, with much to recommend it. Tents litter the hillsides in all directions, with funfairs, beer tents, music stages throughout the town and well into the countryside. As I rode through the town and past the circuit on Wednesday night, the town was already buzzing, bands playing, fans drinking, eating, generally having a good time. Through the window of the bed and breakfast where I am staying, some 7km from the track, I can hear the faint sound of bands playing.
All the signs are this will be a sellout, though some of the crowd will be attending on their tickets bought for the 2020 race which was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But still, with fans heading there from all over Northern Europe, the atmosphere should be more like 2019.
What won't be like 2019 is the name of the winner. Nor like 2021, or 2013, '14, '15, '16, 17', or 2018. Marc Marquez has had to admit defeat and have surgery to correct the bone in his upper arm which became twisted in the long and disaster-stricken recovery period from his crash at Jerez in 2020. Marquez had surgery which should fix the problem once and for all after the race in Mugello, and will not be in any state to compete for the next few months.
Which means we will see a new winner at the Sachsenring for the first time since before Marc Marquez joined the class. And the thing is, it is really difficult to identify a favorite. Pick a rider, or a bike, and you can make a case for them winning. The bikes are close enough, and the circuit peculiar enough, to make it hard to pick a winner.
The layout is truly unique. Just under 3.7km of asphalt twisted around on itself like a pretzel, squeezed into a tiny piece of land inside an industrial estate. What makes the challenge even greater is that it is stuck on the side of a hill, meaning there is barely a meter of flat surface: you are always climbing or descending, and most of the time you are either on the edge of the tire, or trying to flick the bike from one side to the other.
Compressing so much track into such a small area poses a challenge for the tires, especially as the track is severely lopsided. The circuits 10 left handers have only 3 rights to counterbalance them, and one of those right handers is one of the most terrifying turns on the calendar. The short front straight leads to the slow first right of Turn 1, the track immediately turning back on itself to head to Turn 2. The second right hander follows, the never-ending Omegakurve, which snakes round on itself by well over 180 degrees.
Then the circuit turns left, climbs a brief crest at Turn 5, then drops down through Turn 6 before starting to climb to the highest part of the circuit, with a series of fast lefts. Once the riders arrive at the top of the circuit, and prepare to plummet down the so-called Waterfall to the lowest point, they have to pick the bike up off the overheated left side of the tire and flick it over a light crest and fast left of Turn 11.
Just how difficult that corner is, is obvious every year from the list of crashers there. The front end is light over the crest, the bikes are traveling fast, and they are flicking the bike onto the right side of the tire, which hasn't seen the asphalt for the best part of a kilometer. They are at the top of a hill, where the wind can pick up and either suck heat out of the right side of the tire (especially in the mornings) or catch underneath the fairing as the heave the bike over. There are plenty of ways to get Turn 11 wrong, and plenty of riders manage to do just that.
If Turn 11 doesn't get you, there's a good chance Turn 12 will. The bikes hammer down the back straight heading for the first of the two lefts which take them back to the finish line, and one of the best places to overtake. But you are heading down a steep hill with a lot of weight already on the front, and in your eagerness to take a dive up the inside of someone, it is easy to ask just a bit more from the front tire than it is willing to give, and end your race in ignominy in the gravel.
Should someone else pass you into Turn 12, all is not lost. Attacking at Turn 12 usually means sacrificing the exit, and the rider that can anticipate that can plan a counterattack. Passing at Turn 12 leaves the door open on the run into Turn 13, and a chance to gain back the place just conceded. From there, it is just a short drag race to the finish line, up as steep a climb as you have just come down, but squeezed into a much shorter distance.
Feeling the front
What is the secret to going fast around the Sachsenring? Confidence in the front end, and the ability to manage your tires without cooking them. Get overzealous and you can chew through the rear in half a race, something which the sheer number of laps makes even easier. "It’s a really short track and the race here is one of the longest, because when you complete 15 laps and there are still 15 remaining, it’s super long, mentally," Fabio Quartararo said. "We are always turning left, and it feels like we are racing for two hours." Burn through your rear in the first 15 laps, and the second 15 will feel like even more than two hours.
"The front feeling is so important, because it's low speed and a lot of corners in Sector 2 and Sector 3," Takaaki Nakagami said. "It's really important to have a good front feeling and also the tire management is so important because here, for the 30 laps, you need to manage very well on the left side."
Fast Fabio's front-end feel
Front-end confidence is something which Fabio Quartararo has, enough to find himself leading the championship. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider is good at everything the Sachsenring requires: managing the throttle to not burn up the rear, using the front to carry corner speed, and braking hard enough to withstand any challenges. Last year, he finished third, after losing a few places in the opening laps. The fact that he could take those places back at a track where passing is difficult is a sign of how strong he is at the Sachsenring.
Even more important is the ability to qualify well. At a track where passing is limited, starting from the front row is key. Quartararo has started from second on the grid in his two MotoGP appearances at the Sachsenring, and has only been off the front two rows once, at the season opener in Qatar.
Reset and restart
There is every chance he will have to face off against Aleix Espargaro. Fresh from the embarrassment of miscounting laps at Barcelona, the Aprilia rider is out for revenge. It took him a long time to shake off the shame and frustration of his Montmelo mistake, but two days away at Disneyland in Paris, breaking with his ascetic training regime, let him forget and reset, to look forward instead of fixate on what has gone before.
The Aprilia RS-GP is a more than capable motorcycle now, as witnessed by the fact that Espargaro is comfortably clear in second place in the championship. The bike stops, turns, and manages tires well, and is capable of pumping out a fast lap. Espargaro has started from the front row in four of the five races, including pole in Barcelona. He had a strong race last year, only struggling once drops of rain appeared and is confident. He needs a good result, and will be chasing one.
Then there's the fleet of Ducatis which grace the front of every race. Unfortunately for Ducati, it is a different fast Ducati at the front each race, making mounting a consistent title challenge more difficult than necessary.
Once upon a time, the long, fast Ducati was not a bike which liked tight corners, making it a handful for the Desmosedici. No longer, according to Pramac Ducati's Jorge Martin. "I don't think so," he responded when asked if this was the most difficult track for the Ducati. "Nowadays all the bikes are really close. Also last year, Zarco was in pole position and also Pecco did an amazing pace coming from the back almost for the win. So I think we can do a great job here and with the new fairing also, that is a bit more easy in the corners, we can be fighting I think."
The question is, which Ducati? It is hard to pick one, because they are all so fast.
Dark orange horse
The KTM has struggled this year, but the Sachsenring is a track where Brad Binder has always been strong. Last year, Miguel Oliveira kept Marc Marquez honest for most of the race, though Oliveira seems to have lost his shine in 2022. Binder, however, seems capable of coming through when others are coming up short.
"I'm feeling confident coming into the weekend," the South African said. "It's a track that I've always enjoyed. I got my first podium here in Moto3, first win here in Moto2 and one race here so far in MotoGP where I finished fourth. So it's a track I've always gone well at and I really love racing here. So yeah excited to start again tomorrow."
One down, one unknown
Suzuki has Alex Rins carrying an injured left wrist after his crash with Takaaki Nakagami in Barcelona, Rins far from uncertain he will be able to race. And they have Joan Mir, who found some confidence and turning at the Barcelona test, which might be the missing ingredient to going fast at the Sachsenring.
On paper, at least, the Suzuki GSX-RR should be fast here. The bike can turn, carry corner speed, and has the horsepower to take on the steep climbs at the track. But it has been lacking in braking, and feedback from the front, crucial for a fast lap at the Sachsenring. The Barcelona test may well prove to play a key part in Joan Mir's success or failure in Germany.
Finally, the manufacturer who has won every race at the Sachsenring since 2011, Dani Pedrosa winning 2011 and 2012, Marc Marquez taking victory ever since. The 2022 Honda RC213V sacrificed front-end feel and confidence for a bit more rear grip, which at the moment seems to have resulted in the bike having neither. Without Marc Marquez, Honda looked to be doomed to failure.
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