Day one of the German Grand Prix is in the bag, and is Marc Márquez still the outright favorite for the win on Sunday? If you went by FP1 on Friday, you would say yes: the Repsol Honda rider took three flying laps to set the fastest time of the session, before turning his attention to working on race pace. He used one set of medium tires front and rear for the entire session, ending with a 1'22.334 on a tire with 24 laps on it. That lap would have been good enough for thirteenth place in FP1, just a hundredth of a second slower than Miguel Oliveira's best lap.
Oliveira made it clear that he considered Márquez to be the favorite at the end of the day as well. "For me since the beginning Marc is the clear favorite for the win on Sunday," the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider told us. "We have been trying to understand what he is doing different to the others on this track because he is so successful."
By the end of the afternoon, Marc Márquez didn't look quite so invincible. The Repsol Honda rider finished the day twelfth fastest, six tenths off the fastest rider Miguel Oliveira. The KTM man had achieved his first objective. "I believe together with him will come another couple of riders that are able to challenge for the win. I am working to be one of them," Oliveira said on Friday afternoon.
Reading the tea leaves
It is worth noting, however, that of the eleven riders ahead of him on the FP2 timesheets, only Jack Miller in ninth didn't use a brand new soft rear tire to set a quick time. Both Miller and Márquez set their times on new medium tires, used in a slightly longer run. In terms of pace, Márquez still looks strong, running 1'21.7s on used tires with half race distance on them. As Oliveira said, there are another couple of riders capable of running the same pace, including the self-same Miguel Oliveira, Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro, and LCR Honda rider Takaaki Nakagami.
Fabio Quartararo probably belongs in the same company, the Frenchman putting full race distance on a set of mediums in FP2, his 30th lap a 1'22.532, his 31st lap – that is, race distance plus one – a 1'22.697. At a track which eats tires, that is impressive.
And yet there is reason for concern for Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider hadn't used a soft tire to chase a lap time for Q2, but that was not because he was confident of being fast enough on Saturday morning. "It was in the plan to put a new tire. But I did two small long runs to understand the rear tire. Then I said to the team, I don’t feel ready to put a new tire. I don’t feel enough energy. Let’s wait until tomorrow," Márquez told us.
That was not in the plan. He had come to the Sachsenring expecting to ride without being hampered by his injured shoulder at all, he said, the track being all left handers. But it hadn't quite turned out that way. "I already said yesterday that here I feel less physical limitation," Márquez told us. "Honestly speaking I expected even less, I expected to have zero problems, but even like this I am not riding very well. I think you can see in the video my right elbow is very high all the time. I can’t ride like I want."
He comforted himself with the fact that his pace was so strong. "I am able to manage to be in good pace, but tomorrow I will try to improve that riding style." Was he still the favorite for Sunday? "Favorite?" he asked. "I’m not the favorite at the moment. I’m coming from a deep situation."
Friday at the Sachsenring was a reminder for Márquez that he still has some way to go before he is back to full fitness. "What they told me, all the doctors I visit, they said to me after three surgeries in the humerus, that is a single bone, it’s possible you have a small rotation because it’s so difficult to be precise. So the body needs time. When they say time, I asked, what does 'time' mean? One week? One month? One year? They said one year."
The complication is that the muscles in the arm need to reconfigure themselves to compensate for the misalignment of the bone in his upper arm. "The muscles will compensate," Márquez said. "Maybe some muscles that before worked less will now work more. But the muscles should compensate this lack of mobility or this different position of the arm."
That was his current problem, the Repsol Honda rider explained. "At the moment this is where I’m struggling. I have the mobility. I can go on the correct way but I don’t feel safe, I don’t have power. In Montmelo I was working a lot on that position. I was able to do it. But now here with more left corners, I’m not able to do it. But it’s not a high limitation in corner speed. In right corners it’s a limitation."
Marc Márquez faces a tougher Sunday than he expected. 30 laps are a lot around a tight and twisty Sachsenring, at a track where he has to work on his riding position once again. He has the outright speed, and he has the pace. But does he have the endurance?
At least the Honda is more competitive around the Sachsenring. Márquez' Repsol Honda teammate Pol Espargaro was working on a theory so that he could exploit the improved performance of the RC213V around the German circuit. "Here, like in T1 and T2, it’s long corners but not very fast corners," the Spaniard explained. "So normally we have problems in these long corners but when they are very fast and you need to carry corner speed and then accelerate and go again with lot of corner speed, in these places we are not very good."
There were fewer of that particular style of corner, Espargaro explained. "We have T1 where we are not too bad. Then we have other places where we catch the grip a much better than the other race tracks and this allows us to be a little bit faster. Even in the fast areas, where we should not be as fast, we are not so bad. I’m just trying to understand why we are better here than the other places."
The two Repsol Honda riders were both using a new aero package, with winglets that could perhaps charitably be called "Yamaha style", as the two photos below demonstrate. Above, the new Honda winglets, swooping and thin affairs, rather than the former blocky and angular mustache used. Below, the swooping and not quite so thin Yamaha version on Valentino Rossi's Petronas Yamaha.
Did the winglets make much difference? Not a great deal, but enough, according to Pol Espargaro. "We tried it in Barcelona," the Spaniard told us. "We homologated it. I used them in FP2. I wanted to go on track with the old spec and check how the bike was. Then I saw Marc went straight away with it, and he was performing well, so I wanted to try it and it was OK, it was fine."
It wasn't a huge difference, but at a track like the Sachsenring, where a fraction over nine tenths of a second cover the first eighteen riders, every little can help, Espargaro said. "Well, there is a little bit of difference. But nothing to say, wow. Already if you check the results lists you will see a lot of riders in less than 1 tenth. So even if it’s a little, it’s enough."
Takaaki Nakagami had used the old aero, and was fast enough to pose a serious threat to Marc Márquez, judging by his race pace. So the difference was certainly debatable. Nakagami had also tested the new fairing in Barcelona, but had not been convinced. "We tested it in Montmelo but honestly I didn’t feel a huge difference," the LCR Honda rider told us. "In some areas yes, some areas I preferred the old one. I think this weekend I will not use the new one and we keep the standard. I don’t feel any big advantage."
Being fast and having superior race pace was one thing, but that means nothing if you don't qualify on the front row at the Sachsenring. "Here is it very important, the starting position, and we need to focus on that to be able to then use the good pace," Miguel Oliveira opined. "If you start behind – even with good pace – it will become difficult to make progress. I believe here particularly we need to work on our grid position. This will be so important for the race on Sunday."
Maverick Viñales underlined the importance of a good qualifying position. "Yeah, we MUST qualify on the front row," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider insisted. "This is the real objective of the weekend. Because like in Montmelo, when I got free in the front, I was riding fast, we closed nearly 2 seconds to the top guys. So we need to try to work for one lap."
At least his single lap pace had improved since Barcelona, Viñales told us. "It seems much better than in Montmelo. In Montmelo, for me it was difficult to keep in front, to keep doing red helmets. Here in Sachsenring, it seems much better to do red helmets. So it's a sign that we are taking the right way."
Viñales, of course, is still in the middle of adapting to his new crew chief, Silvano Galbusera, and was adjusting his goals accordingly. "For us right now, the results aren't important, the feeling is important, and the feeling I can give back to the crew chief," the Spaniard told us. "That is starting to build up, but I'm confident, I'm confident and I think sooner or later, but I think sooner we are going to go fast, and this is the most important."
Much has been made of Miguel Oliveira's improvement since Mugello, but the Portuguese rider bridled at the suggestion this was all down to KTM signing a new fuel deal with ETS, who were supplying a more efficient synthetic race fuel, and the new chassis which the Austrian factory had brought to Mugello. Sure, those had helped, Oliveira acknowledged, but we weren't to overlook the fact that the KTM RC16 had already showed more than a few flashes of speed, he insisted.
"Yes, KTM did a good job bringing a good improvement on the frame," Oliveira said. "I don’t know how much it is giving us and I don't believe it is giving everything but small details count a lot in this category nowadays and the rider who arrives and understands better how to get the maximum of each detail is the one who can be faster at the end. I managed to do it at the moment a bit better than the rest but I don’t think it is giving us a lot of advantages."
Oliveira insisted that by focusing on the new frame, journalists were missing the bigger picture. They were looking for easy answers to complex questions. "I said yesterday that it is misleading this conclusion. Of course you maybe don’t analyze each session that we do, but we do it!"
Variables in the equation
There had been previous signs that the KTM was good, but they hadn't manage to put all of the individual pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, Oliveira said. "We often have very good pace and the potential to be fast on many tracks, and every GP we managed to be strong in one practice or another but we never managed to finish the race. It gives the illusion that we only came up in Mugello but it’s not quite like that. We have been working, we have been ‘there’ in the shadow, not in the spotlight. Maybe that gives the feeling that whatever we brought to Mugello was a game-changer and it was not. It was a help but it was not everything."
The new chassis had shifted their attention to other weaknesses of the bike, Oliveira explained. "I think we have arrived to the point where we could improve the bike in how we use the front tire and this is a key point for us for how we turn it in the corners. It’s being able to use the softer compound for the front and make it to the race distance safely. The rest is small things, fine-tuning and set-up what is enhancing what we already had good in the past with the 2020 bike."
While the Portuguese rider looks to be capable of winning at the Sachsenring, teammate Brad Binder is struggling with getting his head around riding a MotoGP bike at the German circuit. The speed and horsepower of a MotoGP bike turned an already tight track into a very difficult and challenging proposition, he explained.
"Today’s been a lot more challenging than expected. It was harder than I anticipated," Binder told us. "It’s quite different because you arrive with a lot more speed than in certain places. The way you need to use the throttle to keep the speed going with not too much spin is quite different in general. It’s been a bit of a learning process today."
The change was much bigger from Moto2 to MotoGP than it had been from Moto3 to Moto2, he explained. "I think the step for me has been more difficult. I remember being not bad here on the Moto2 straight away. The main thing for me today is you have to try and keep the level of spin under control. You don’t want to spin too much."
That ran counter to everything he had learned when he last rode here on a Moto2 bike two seasons ago. "That was one of ways I used to ride this track in Moto2 was to turn a lot with the rear tire. That on a MotoGP bike isn’t a good plan. Once it starts to spin you don’t stop and you spin the whole way up the straight."
Despite having a year of experience on a MotoGP bike, Binder was having to relearn almost every aspect of the track, he admitted. "This morning my main issue was I was trying to roll in places where I should be closing more aggressive, pulling the front brake and letting go. Where I was just trying to make it smooth and round. I was really struggling with the front end this morning and I kept losing the front in these places and it took away a lot of confidence. I only figured it out when I looked at the data, what I was doing wrong, what was giving me such bad feeling. This track is small. It’s a tiny track. Getting close to 300hp around here is not easy. It’s definitely going to take a little bit of time to figure out."
There was so much to learn, Binder told us. "I think the biggest thing here is you spend so much time on edge. As soon as you pick the bike up, the temperature you reach on the tires on the left changes the way the bike feels a lot. When the tires start to cook it’s more challenging to get into the corners and get it transfer onto the rear tire and to exit well."
It was like being a rookie all over again, the South African told us. "It’s been a bit of a challenge today trying to figure out all these things. I remember this feeling quite well, when I had it many, many times last year when I went to a new track and I felt super lost. It was difficult. But you tend to go to sleep at night and work things out. I’m hoping that’s the case here again."
At least there is one challenge that Binder and the other Sachsenring rookies – in addition to the MotoGP rookies, last year's intake of MotoGP riders have never ridden the German track on a MotoGP bike either – do not have to face. Normally, Turn 11, the right hander at the top of the hill dubbed 'The Waterfall' catches a fair few riders out. The transition from left to right at speed, switching to the right side of the tire for the first time in half a lap, was easy to misjudge if you have allowed your tires to cool off too much.
The summer heat had eliminated that particular danger. "Did you see the degrees on the ground?" Maverick Viñales retorted when asked why no crashes at Turn 11. "That's the reason, man. That's the reason. The right side is warm enough during all the lap."
Conditions are set to stay that way. The heat is here to stay. And that is probably a good thing.
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