As a parade of MotoGP riders traipsed into the media center at the Sachsenring, we had time to reflect upon the fact that it is a good thing we did not have access to strong drink. For if we had decided to play the "30-lap drinking game" – taking a drink every time a rider says "tomorrow is going to be a long race", half of the MotoGP media would be spending Saturday night having their stomach pumped. Each rider we spoke to used it at least once, and some did so multiple times within the space of a couple of minutes.
What conclusions can we draw from this? That 30 laps are a lot around the Sachsenring's tight and tortuous ribbon of asphalt, where the bikes are spending most of their time on the left side of the tire. Especially in the middle of a heatwave, where temperatures are more like Sepang than Assen, despite the Sachsenring being situated in the temperate north of Europe, rather than the sweltering heat of the tropics. The Sachsenring was sweltering on Saturday, and will swelter even more come Sunday.
In a way, that simplifies tire choice for a lot of riders. Anyone prevaricating between the medium and the hard rears are pretty much certain which way to go now. Some would have even liked a step more. "Hard-hard," Aleix Espargaro answered when asked what tires he would be racing on Sunday, before adding "I would like to go extra hard-extra-hard!"
The expected heat – track temperatures hit 50°C on Saturday afternoon, with the same to come on Sunday – did help a little around the Sachsenring. With hotter conditions, the chances of the right side of the tire letting go as you fired the bike over the crest and down the hill through Turn 11, heeled over hard right, were somewhat reduced. It is easier to put your faith in the tires gripping in the hot conditions, rather than having lost too much heat and letting go and firing you at high speed into the gravel.
That is especially important in qualifying, Remy Gardner explained, as the first flying lap was the lap where the tire gave the best performance. "That rear tire is super important, and for me, to get the best time it needs to be on the first lap. It's scary because you have the cold right side on your first flying lap and you just go ‘send it’!"
"It's pretty scary, especially when you get down to the waterfall," the Australian said. "I think it's just more the fact that you know the right side is going to be a bit iffy. You’re just going in praying ‘just grip please!’"
And sending it was exactly what anyone with podium pretensions had to do during qualifying. Whatever the pace they had in FP4 – more on that later – it would mean little at a track where overtaking is so difficult. Joan Mir, who suffered a vibration from somewhere in the bike during qualifying and which left him stranded down in 12th, pointed out the places where he believed passing was possible.
"We have the first corner, but it's really easy to go wide in that corner, so it's not a corner to overtake," the Suzuki Ecstar rider explained. "Last year I remember I overtook a lot of times in Turn 3. And then down the hill, if you take the inside in the last sector, then it's another option."
In reality, it will come down to the start, however. "If we can make a good start, it will be better," Mir said. "I think we have the pace to enjoy, that this is always what makes me a bit optimistic. Because if you start in this position but you don't have pace, 30 laps here will be long." And drink...
Sunday's race leaves the riders facing a string of impossible dilemmas. They need to make a good start, and make up as many places as possible, but they don't want to go too hard into Turn 1, where it is easy to go wide and end up in the gravel, effectively ending your race. "We know in MotoGP now in the first laps we are in a jungle," Fabio Di Giannantonio, who has once again put in a sterling performance to qualify in fifth, told us. "We overtake everywhere. We have to have the elbows out and fight."
Walking a tightrope
After the start, you need to go very steady in the first five or six laps of the race, to preserve your rear tire as much as possible, but in doing so, you risk getting stuck in traffic and seeing the temperature of your front tire spiral out of control. "When you do get right up behind somebody, the pressure goes up and the temperature goes up and it just starts to get like a balloon feeling in the front," Brad Binder told us. "And once that happens you can't brake, you can't stop and you can't turn in very fast."
If you have made it through the first six laps, then you have to knuckle down and preserve your tires, hoping to make the difference at the end of the race. But be too cautious and you stand to lose too much in the middle part to make up at the end. Up your pace and you stand to burn through your tires too quickly.
Aleix Espargaro, who has the pace of Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia, but qualified off the front row for the second time in six races, laid this difficulty out for us. "I think it's not a matter of speed. I think I have the same speed as Pecco and Fabio," the Aprilia rider explained. "But the key is not going to be who is faster, the key will be the last 10 laps. For me the tire degradation will be higher than Barcelona."
FP4 gave a hint of what is to come on Sunday, Espargaro explained. "Today when we started FP4, all the bikes were sliding a lot. You could see the rest of the riders sliding, sliding. The grip will be very low because 50°C is quite a lot for Germany, and you are a lot of time in the maximum angle on the left side."
The problem was not so much wear, as it was performance dropping as the left side of the tire got hotter and hotter. "It's not just about the degradation, because the 10% of the tire degradation is less than in Barcelona. But the problem is that for a long time you are on the shoulder of the tire, so the temperature is super high, so every time it’s worse, worse. So the performance drops more than the tire consumption, but at the end where it counts is the performance."
Espargaro never got a chance to show what he was capable of in FP4, as he crashed at the beginning of the session. Shortly after, Jack Miller followed him into the gravel, crashing while the yellow flags were being waved. That earned Miller a penalty for crashing under yellows, meaning he will have to serve a Long Lap Penalty in Sunday's race.
The Australian spoke to use before he knew the extent of his penalty, but he was insistent he had done nothing wrong. "I saw the yellow flags and literally said to myself 'don’t crash…' and braked early and the next thing I know I was on the ground. I knew there was nobody in the gravel but it was yellow." The trouble was, there was a yellow flag, and he was still going fast enough to crash. That is most likely why he will have to do a Long Lap Penalty on Sunday.
In terms of race pace, it is clear that Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia are a cut above the rest, with little to choose between the two. Bagnaia destroyed the lap record in the morning, and then got into the 1'19s once again in the heat of the afternoon. That was enough to earn him pole ahead of Quartararo.
Bagnaia has been quick from the very beginning of practice. "From the start of the weekend, FP1, I started feeling great with my bike," the Ducati Lenovo rider said. "Everything was already there. I didn’t change anything in the setting. Normally when it’s like this, it’s just easy to focus more on the tires, on what to do in the race with used tires. It was great to start like this."
Things have been a little tougher for Quartararo, but the Frenchman is still capable of pushing out a fast lap when he needs to. "I’m pretty happy because all the Friday and Saturday morning, we were not able to qualify in the top five when we were with the soft tire," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "In the qualifying, I basically switched off a little bit the brain and tried to make the best lap as possible. Second place is great. Also the pace in FP4 was good with both tires. I think in any case, whatever our choice is, we will have great potential for the race."
That front row start will be vital. While Bagnaia has such vicious pace, Quartararo needs to either be with him at the start, or be ahead. Had he been forced to start from the second row or even further behind, the Frenchman would likely have struggled.
There is reason to be optimistic as well. Quartararo's starts have been phenomenal this year, and he is a veritable demon on the brakes. That should give him a very good chance of taking the holeshot and leading the race. If he does, he will be very hard to beat.
Fortunately for Quartararo and Bagnaia, the other riders who have shown pace are some way behind them. Aleix Espargaro is probably capable of matching the two title contenders, but his crash in FP4 meant he lost his chance to prove it. Takaaki Nakagami was surprisingly strong, but qualified down in 10th, while Joan Mir also had the pace to match the leaders, but had a dismal qualifying leaving him down in 12th.
Miguel Oliveira starts from 14th, but has the pace to run close to the leaders if the race falls his way. Last year, he finished on the podium. Red Bull KTM teammate Brad Binder showed last year just how good the KTM can be at slicing through the field, starting 13th and finishing eventually in fourth.
On paper, the course of the race looks pretty obvious: a dash to the first corner between Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo, the stakes a chance to lead the entire race from the front. But the reality, on a sweltering Saxony summer Sunday, will be a battle for survival. 30 laps around the Sachsenring are going to be very long and very hard in the tropical heat. "It's not a fight. It's a survival race," said Luca Marini. And who are we to argue with that?
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