Conventional wisdom has it that the Sachsenring is a tight and twisty track. Slow, tortuous, and difficult. "It's like a riding on a Supermoto track!" Raul Fernandez said after his first experience riding a MotoGP bike around the German circuit. What had felt like a short straight between Turns 7 and 8 on a Moto2 bike was an entirely different experience on a MotoGP machine. "In MotoGP it's like super fast. It's like not a straight, like a corner."
As is usually the case, the conventional wisdom has only a passing acquaintance with the reality of the situation. Yes, the Sachsenring is tight and twisty. But as Tech3's Fernandez points out, it is also much faster than it seems. Jerez has a lower top speed, for example. And Jerez, Le Mans, Valencia all have slower average speeds.
Conventional wisdom also has it that at tight and twisty tracks like the Sachsenring, the Ducati must struggle. That this is no longer the case is obvious from the results of day 1 at the German Grand Prix. The three fastest riders are all on Ducati Desmosedici GP22s. Places five and six are also occupied by Ducati GP22s. There is a Ducati GP21 in ninth, Fabio Di Giannantonio building on his strong recent form to show his pace at the Sachsenring. And the worst Ducati is Marc Bezzecchi in 16th, which means that half of the top 16 bikes are Ducatis.
It's not that the Ducatis are only capable of squeezing out a fast lap either. A quick dive into the race pace – with the proviso that it is only Friday, and that temperatures on Saturday promise to be 10°C higher than they were today – shows that Pecco Bagnaia, Jack Miller, and Johann Zarco all have very strong pace on used tires. The Ducati GP22 is a weapon, fast just about everywhere.
What happened to transform the Ducati into such a fast machine around the Sachsenring? "For a lot of reasons," Pecco Bagnaia said. "Smaller fairing, better handling. We worked a lot last year for the GP22 to improve the handling of our bike because it was not turning. With me and Jack we did a really good job in this area because last year the bike was completely the same as the 2020 and it was not turning or picking up. So we worked a lot on what we had. We even improved it for this year with the new fairing that is helping a lot here and also in Assen it can help us and it was in Mugello."
The new fairing makes a difference because it is narrower and easier to move from side to side. The side pods are smaller, providing less lateral resistance, while still producing downforce. And a new fairing tried at Barcelona is another step in that direction.
Jack Miller agreed with his Ducati Lenovo teammate. "The turning's good, grip's good. We can always use more grip of course, but around here it's kind of difficult when you're on that side of the tire for 60% of the lap. But apart from that, the new bike is working really well."
The improvement was most apparent in the first part of the circuit, where the track wends right then left then right again into the Omegakurve. "Especially that first sector, down to Turn 3, I can remember some years ago wheelying into there and it was like trying to turn a London bus around there, whereas now it feels more like a Mini Cooper, so it's good," Miller said.
What had helped was having so many bikes on the grid to collect data from. "We know Ducati has this high potential," Johann Zarco told us. "Last year we were already quite fast. To have these many riders, we can compare our style. You improve a lot your own style. Just for this reason we can go quite fast here, it’s handling the grip better."
Stuck in between the five Ducatis is the Aprilia of Aleix Espargaro in fourth. But Espargaro's position is no fluke, the Aprilia RS-GP has come on in leaps and bounds. His Aprilia teammate Maverick Viñales sits in eighth, again showing potential for the race.
Espargaro spent a lot of time answering questions about the mistake he made at Barcelona, where he misread the lap counter on the circuit scoring tower and celebrated the end of the race a lap early. The Spaniard was adamant it would not happen again – he pointed out that it hadn't happened before, in 15 years of racing, so the chances of it happening again are slim – but the more interesting point he made was how he had regained his focus and put his mistake behind him.
Normally, he would go out training and punish himself physically to prepare for the next race. But that had not helped this time, Espargaro growing short tempered with his family as he brooded on what he had done wrong. That had taken him aback.
"What happened in Barcelona for me, apart from the mistake, was the reaction," he told us. "So my feelings after the mistake, it was something very strange. It never happened before. I couldn't sleep on Tuesday, I couldn't sleep on Wednesday, I was angry during the lunch time with my wife, I never sincerely felt like this. I don't know why I felt like this. Because this season has been extremely good, everything is fantastic in my life, but I don't know, so I react like that."
His normal routine wasn't working, so he threw it overboard and tried something new. He booked a trip to Disneyland Paris with his family, forgot about racing, training, and diets completely, and just enjoyed the moment. He was surprised at how well this approach had worked.
"Normally for me it's the opposite, normally the more I train, the more I'm focused, the more hours I spent training or in the gym or in the bicycle, the better I feel, more happy I am," he explained. "If I can arrive with half kilo less, one race to the other, I'm super happy. But this time was the opposite. This time I arrive with 1 kilo more but I'm more happy." Though eating disorders and a generally unhealthy attitude towards food are widespread through the paddock, Espargaro is one of the most extreme in obsessing about his diet and his weight. For him to realize that there is a benefit to letting go, living in the moment, and reinvigorating himself through relaxation rather than intense training is a revelation in and of itself.
Under normal circumstances, the Yamaha would be favored around a track like the Sachsenring. In 2022, of course, there is only one Yamaha which is competitive: the Monster Energy Yamaha M1 in the hands of Fabio Quartararo. So competitive, indeed, that he has a comfortable lead in the championship. The reigning champion ended the day in seventh, but felt more would be possible on Saturday.
As the Sachsenring is so rarely used, the change in grip levels is much higher here than at most other circuits. As more rubber gets laid down, grip levels increase, and Quartararo believes that will help him in his fight with the Ducatis and the Aprilias.
"Comparing with them we are slower, but if we check Friday in Barcelona we were slower also," Quartararo pointed out. "My impression is that they struggle much less with low grip condition and we struggle much more. Then when the grip is higher, I would say we have a similar grip, but when it's low grip they go super fast. We can see in the top 6, so yeah, both are doing really fast."
Why is Quartararo capable of getting more out of the Yamaha? Teammate Franco Morbidelli had a theory. Morbidelli felt his race pace was not far off Quartararo's, but his problem came when chasing a fast lap. "Today he was able to use the new tires better," the Italian said. "On used tires, hard tires we were on a similar pace."
The difference is the approach to riding, and the ability to push the Yamaha to go fast with the extra grip of fresh rubber. "With new tires he’s more of an animal," Morbidelli said of Quartararo. "This Yamaha requires an aggressive riding style. Not so gentle. So when you go on new tires he’s on that style. I’m more of a fine guy. I cannot use the tires well."
For Joan Mir, Friday at the Sachsenring was a relatively positive experience, better than in recent races. The Suzuki Ecstar rider put himself provisionally through to Q2, and he had confidence in his pace on used tires as well.
The improvement had come with a change made at the Barcelona test, he explained. "I'm happy about today because we could recheck again what we tried at the Barcelona test and looks like the bike improved, my feeling with the bike improved. I was able to be more or less strong with every tire," Mir told us.
His race rhythm was solid, though he still lacked the outright speed for qualifying. "Especially with the medium rear in FP2, I was able to be fast, then with the hard, I was constant but I was not able to have the lap, you know, the grip. So we have to analyze everything," he said. But this had been a good first day, Mir insisted. "Happy, because for first time on Friday in a long time, we are more or less there. Not about fast lap time, but about the pace and everything we are not far. So I'm optimistic about this GP and let's continue working on this line."
One of the improvements he had found was with the new aerodynamics package he tried at Barcelona and used at the Sachsenring. Though the changes were small, they were significant, giving a bit more downforce to help with wheelie at the German track. "We tried it in the Barcelona test for the first time and I like it," Mir said. "We knew that for our bike, the aerodynamic package is something that we had margin to improve, and this is a step. Especially here you have a lot of wheelie in some corners, especially the last corner and the downforce is a little bit more so it’s a bit better and I want to keep it here."
Suzuki weren't the only team playing with new aerodynamics. Alex Marquez tried the new low downforce fairing on the Honda, as did Pol Espargaro before he had a massive crash at Turn 1, his second of FP1.
The new aero for the Honda was never going to work at the Sachsenring, but they needed to test it, which is what the teams do on a Friday. "We tried the new aero, and we know that the new aero would not work in these kind of places," Espargaro said. "It will work in places we think like Assen. Not in Sachsenring, which is the opposite, up and downs. You need quite a lot of drag in the front, which the new aero package removes some drag from the front."
Espargaro's big crash had come as a surprise, an off-throttle highside on a new hard tire, but one which had been preheated at another race. "We don't know when it was preheated, but I wanted to take it out from my tire allocation so I would not have it again in another weekend," Espargaro said. So I needed to do 3 laps and I didn't reach them! Because I crashed. I was very slow. I do not understand. We do not understand really why it happened," he told us.
It had been his second crash of the session. "The first crash for sure I was pushing a little bit more and the track was not ready for that and I crashed. I did a mistake. The second one, we don't understand why it happened. So no answer," Espargaro said.
It is easy to blame preheated tires. Preheated tires are ones of the same specification which have already been put on tire warmers but never actually used on track. But simply putting them through a heat cycle, warming them to 90°C and then allowing them to cool to ambient temperature again, changes the chemical composition of the tire in a very subtle way. For the most part, it just takes the edge off of the performance of the tire, making it slightly less useful for chasing a fast time, but reasonable to assess tire wear and basic bike setup. That's why the tires tend to get used on Friday, to get them out of the way.
But whether it is fair to blame this particular crash on the use of preheated tires is questionable. The crash was an off-throttle highside, a crash peculiar to the Honda this year, as Marc Marquez can attest from his monster smash in Mandalika. But it also came on Espargaro's second flying lap on the tire, at a right hander which is particularly sensitive to tire temperature, in the morning session using the hardest compound. Crashes on the right side of the tire are easily done at the Sachsenring, but this one was particularly vicious given the nature of the incident.
The crash left the Repsol Honda rider feeling battered and bruised. "I felt physically not good," Espargaro said. "I crashed and my elbow stayed on my ribs and then when I impacted it hit my ribs. I have quite a lot of pain in my elbow but the ribs I cannot breathe. And I feel like I have a knife every time I try to breathe, there is something that is pushing inside and especially in the brakes on the left, which there is pretty much a lot of here! It hurts quite a lot, but I don't feel it's going to be a big drama tomorrow. Tomorrow I'm going to be much better and I will ride OK, so I don't feel it's going to be a big deal tomorrow."
Riding might be a big deal for Alex Rins on Saturday. The Suzuki Ecstar rider posted a fairly impressive time, despite being in extreme pain from the freshly pinned bone in the wrist he broke in the first corner crash with Takaaki Nakagami.
"It's painful, is more painful than I was expecting sincerely," Rins said. "In FP1 I suffered a little bit, but I was thinking, OK, maybe in FP2 the wrist is a little bit more warm and I can do better. But I suffered more in FP2 than in FP1. Maybe because of the hot temperature… for the fastest lap time, but I don't know. Tomorrow let's see how the night goes and how I feel in FP3. Together with Livio [Suppo, team manager], with Suzuki guys, we will decide tomorrow after FP3 if we continue or not because it's a little bit hard for me, I think, to complete all the full race right now."
The heat is going to be something of an issue. Temperatures on Friday were balmy, mid-20s, perfect for motorcycle racing. The mercury is set to rise to the low 30s on Saturday, and mid-30s on Sunday, a daunting prospect. Despite its northerly location, the Sachsenring is far enough from the coast to have something resembling a continental climate. When it gets hot, it seems to feel hotter than the tropical heat of Sepang, despite the fact that the sun has a bit less power and leaves the asphalt below the critical 50°C barrier.
That doesn't make it any easier on the riders, of course, but they will get their first taste of Sachsenring's searing heat on Saturday.
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