After he missed out on pole at Barcelona, and then again at Assen, people were starting to wonder if cracks were starting to appear in Marc Marquez's hegemony in MotoGP. His performance in qualifying may have faltered, but his reign remained intact when it counted, winning the first eight races in a row. On Saturday, Marquez hammered home his supremacy once again, taking pole by three tenths of a second – an eternity at the short and tight German circuit – and breaking Casey Stoner's pole record for the circuit from 2008, a record set on super-sticky qualifying rubber, tires which disappeared with the introduction of the spec tire a year later. Once again, Marquez moved the bar, posting the first ever sub 1'21 lap of the Sachsenring.
It was a goal he suspected was possible when he posted a 1'21.5 on used tires during FP4. Already fast on his first run, everything slotted into place on his second, and the new record was his. "I felt everything was perfect with the second tire, and I could get the record," Marquez said. His seventh pole of the season also sets him up to retain his perfect win record on Sunday. Starting on the front row is crucial at the Sachsenring. The track is tight, and passing places are few and far between. Starting from pole, especially for a relatively poor starter like Marquez, gives him a head start for tomorrow's race.
So who can challenge Marquez on Sunday? The list of candidates is short. There is of course his teammate, Dani Pedrosa always having been fast here at the circuit. Pedrosa post a fast lap on his first qualifying run, and looked set to improve it as he exited the pits for his second attempt. He was perhaps a little too eager, however, and the Repsol Honda man folded the front going into Turn 1 just as he started his second flying lap. "I think I hit a bump under braking," Pedrosa said. His race pace throughout practice was good, but could not match the pace of Marquez.
Jorge Lorenzo believes he has a strong race pace, perhaps the second strongest behind Marquez. "I think we are a little bit slower than Marc, but we have the second race pace," Lorenzo said. His job would have been considerably easier if he had started from the front row, but he had a problem with the second soft tire he used during qualifying. "The second tire we put in was much worse than the first one," Lorenzo said. He tried to improve his lap time, but he gained only hundredths, rather than the two or three tenths he had been hoping for, and which would have put him on the front row.
Lorenzo is looking strong at the Sachsenring, but he is still not happy with the 2014 Bridgestone tires, especially during qualifying. "As soon as I want to open the throttle a bit more, or be a bit more aggressive, the rear starts spinning and I cannot make a good drive in acceleration," Lorenzo told reporters. "When I am smooth, and in my race pace, it's not so bad, but as soon as I want to open a bit more and make a lap time, I have this spinning." This is the reason Lorenzo has not qualified as well this year as he did last year, he believes. And starting from the second row leaves him with more work to do than if he can start from the front row.
Lorenzo wasn't the only rider to suffer with the tires, however. Movistar Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi also had a problem with his second tire during qualifying. "Fortunately, I did quite a good lap with the first tire," he said. But the second tire had no grip at all, and he could not improve his time. The good news for Rossi was that he could now use the medium front tire, which is likely to be the tire he will want to use in the race. On Friday, he had been forced to use the hard tire, as the riders only had three of the medium fronts. The layout of the Sachsenring, where the bikes spend a lot of time on the left-hand side means that the right-hand side of the tire cools off quickly. On the harder front tire, the right-hand side of the tire never really gets up to temperature, unless the track temperatures are very high. So far this weekend, with high winds and a mix of clouds, sunshine and even scattered showers, that just hasn't happened.
The weather may have intervened and ruined FP4 for the crowds – rain started falling at the end of Moto3 qualifying, intensifying afterward and leaving the track wet for the start of the MotoGP session – Stefan Bradl soon lifted their spirits. The German has been riding very strongly at his home Grand Prix, and a front row start was just reward for his effort, and the efforts of his team. Bradl was astounded by the support. "People are really emotional and were supporting me very well," he told the press conference. "For me it is a bit strange, MotoGP not so important in Germany, just this area where they love it. Where I live in the south it's not so important."
Bradl really needs to top his weekend off with a strong result in the race. It is no secret that his position at LCR Honda is under threat, with Honda considering withdrawing support. But Lucio Cecchinello is very keen on Bradl, and would like to keep Bradl for next year. "Lucio's first choice is to keep me in the team and my first choice is to stay in the team," Bradl said. "Of course you all know that we got supported by HRC and at the end, they also have to agree. I think they are still waiting for some performance, that's clearly their answer. I can understand that. That's my focus at the moment, just to show a good performance and the rest, I don't know."
Who would replace Bradl? Rumors continue to circulate that Dorna would like Jack Miller to take his place, moving straight up from Moto3 and into MotoGP. Dorna need a fast and attractive Australian to help sell the TV rights to the series in a country which remains an important market for the sport, and the Spanish organization has taken a keen interest in Miller's contract situation with Marc VDS Racing. That is still unresolved, despite a press release from the Belgian team claiming they have a binding contract with the Australian for the next two seasons. Asked about the situation during the front row press conference, Miller skirted around the subject. "[I have] no contract. Not binding, anyway," he said. "You know about as much as I do, I have no idea where I'm going next year." It was all in the hands of his manager, Aki Ajo, who also manages the Red Bull KTM Ajo team Miller rides for in Moto3.
Would going to straight to MotoGP from Moto3 be a good idea? Marc Marquez was sceptical. "I think from my experience, you need to pass to Moto2," Marquez said. A more gradual approach had more merit, he added. "I have the experience, of crashes in Moto2, then arriving in MotoGP, have the crashes in MotoGP. Maybe if you go to MotoGP you can learn, but you need to go step by step." Miller was quick to display the wit which has endeared him to many fans. "I feel I've had enough crashes already," he joked.
He was more cagey about whether he would actually go to MotoGP or not. "Like Marc said, it's a massive step, but I believe it's a motorbike, and if you can learn on this, then why not? But I don't think it's going to happen." It would be an incredibly risky move, throwing Miller right in at the deep end and leaving him to sink or swim. Jack Miller is clearly one of the greatest talents of his generation, and has the prospect of a long, successful and remunerative career in Grand Prix racing. Moving straight into MotoGP risks putting too much pressure on the Australian at a very young age. If he struggles for too long, he could end up being written off early, and losing his slot in the class. There are precious few second chances in MotoGP, so it is better to try to ensure you get it right first time.
There is no doubting Miller's potential. The Australian secured pole position in the Moto3 class with another display of fast and smart riding. He went out early, laid down a fast lap, and benefited when the rain came halfway through qualifying. The weather gave him a clear advantage over his rivals in the title chase. Alex Marquez sits on the front row alongside Miller, but the Estrella Galicia Hondas of Rins and Marquez have not shown much sign of having the pace to challenge at the Sachsenring. Romano Fenati was the biggest loser from the rain, qualifying way down in 25th. In the past, Fenati has fought his way forward from a long way back, but that is particularly difficult at the Sachsenring.
Moto2 was the big winner when it came to the weather. Qualifying for the intermediate class took place on a dry track without any intervention from the heavens. The session turned out another episode of the internecine war of the Marc VDS Racing team, Mika Kallio coming out on top his teammate Tito Rabat this time. Yet neither man snagged the Tissot watch for pole this time, that prize going to Dominique Aegerter. The Swiss rider has shown very steady progress this year, and while still a very long way behind Kallio and Rabat in the championship, is slowly consolidating his 4th spot in the title race. Aegerter and Simone Corsi have been the men to challenge the Marc VDS riders all weekend, and could well have a say in the outcome of the race. That would be a welcome addition to the intermediate class, as the domination of Kallio and Rabat has left the Moto2 class feeling flat and uninteresting. In years' past, Moto2 was the race of the weekend. This year, it feels more like filler between the breakneck thrills of Moto3, and the racing masterclass of MotoGP.
As the Sachsenring is the last race before the summer break, the pressure is on for a number of riders. That pressure, and the treacherous nature of some parts of the track caught a number of riders out. Cal Crutchlow crashed at Turn 11, in almost a carbon copy of his crash at the same place last year. The big difference is that he was 30 km/h slower through Turn 11 than last year, and still managed to crash. "I am willing to push that little bit harder in what is a very fast corner. But this year, when you don't have confidence with the bike and the bike won't let you do what you want to do with it, it is difficult to go through that corner," Crutchlow said. The fault had been his own, as he didn't have enough of the softer tire, which he needed in the cooler conditions at the Sachsenring.
While Crutchlow has the luxury of knowing he has a two-year contract with Ducati – though it is still not certain he will remain there, or will succumb to the siren call of Suzuki – others are not so lucky. Bradley Smith showed signs of the pressure on him, crashing four times so far in Germany. He has been lucky to escape relatively lightly so far, though he managed to puncture his shin with a footpeg. He remained laconic about the whole affair, saying that fortunately, there are not too many nerves in that area, so he was not in too much pain. He also crashed on the hand he damaged last year at Mugello, but because of the nerve damage he already has there, he doesn't feel much pain there either. Smith can't afford another crash on Sunday, yet he must push for a result if he is to ensure his future.
Will Smith retain his Tech 3 ride? It seems increasingly unlikely. Despite the protestations of Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal, it looks possible that Smith and Aleix Espargaro will do a straight swap next year, with Smith going to Forward and Aleix joining brother Pol at Tech 3. Poncharal likes to say that what MotoGP needs are subjects for the fans to talk about, something to stir the spirits. Racing brothers is a rivalry which would certainly generate a lot of publicity for the team.
What of Aleix on Sunday? The Forward rider heads up the second row after qualifying, and has been fast throughout the weekend. His pace has been strong, and he has posted some fast times on the soft tire available to the Open class teams. Whether he will race that tire or not remains to be seen, but Espargaro believes he can get the tire to last. In the end, tire choice will depend on the weather conditions on Sunday. It looks almost certain to be dry all day, but the question mark is over the temperature, and just how much it heats up.