Tue, 2022-06-28 23:03

The Circuit van Drenthe, or the TT Circuit, as the glorious ribbon of asphalt to the south of Assen is officially known, always delivers, and Sunday was no exception. We had an outstanding Moto3 race, where the main championship contenders and promising youngsters broke away and fought down to the wire. We had one of the best Moto2 races in a long time, with action all the way to the finish. And we had an eventful, dramatic MotoGP race that saw some incredible battles from front to back of the field. It was a good day.

Adding a little spice to proceedings was the kind weather which is so unique to Assen. The race started dry, but the rain radar showed a very light shower heading for the track and likely to hit at around the two-thirds distance mark. It rained alright, but it was the worst kind of rain: the kind that leaves lots of spots on your visor, but barely touches the track. If you can blot the rain out from your mind, you can keep pushing just as hard, but it takes enormous mental strength and conviction. Worth the effort, though: even in the midst of the drizzle, riders were still posting 1'32s.

"When I saw the rain, I saw it on the screen of the bike. I saw that it was very small. I tried to think that it was not raining," Marco Bezzecchi said after the race. "I was trying to stay focused, but anyway pushing like at the maximum that I could."

Under a cloud

Fellow Italian Ducati rider Fabio Di Giannantonio tried to think back to qualifying in Mugello, which took place in similar conditions. "I went in Mugello mood, let's say! So it's not raining, it's not raining, it's not raining! So I was just going full gas because I saw all the front group that was closing a little bit the throttle, was going a little bit slower and I wanted to push more."

That wasn't easy, though. "It's so hard to understand if it's going to rain more or not," Johann Zarco said. "There are the flags, you don't see too much rain on your visor, but you don't know and finally it was just a cloud."

The rain also created practical problems which made it hard to judge just how bad it was. Pecco Bagnaia found water creeping between his visor and tear-offs, creating vision problems. The fact that he was leading the race, and had no reference ahead by which to judge whether adhesion was lessening made things worse. "My problem was that I saw the rain and I was thinking it was more slippery than what in reality it was," the Ducati Lenovo rider said. "The problem is when it’s raining, also when it’s light rain, always also when you start light rain, and you have the tear-off, the rain comes from the tear-off and your screen into your visor. You start to see not clearly the things. So, I just removed the tear-off and I lost like six tenths, five tenths in this lap."

The spots of water did not turn into proper rain for the rest of the race, remaining what Chris Hillard of Alpinestars so eloquently dubbed "mental rain", rain which exists more in the mind of the rider than on the surface of the asphalt. Thankfully, as it allowed for a ferocious and fascinating finale to the MotoGP race.

Plenty to discuss in these subscriber notes. (With my apologies for their lateness, but as Aleix Espargaro said on Sunday night, "sincerely, I'm very tired. Super super exhausted. I need rest." 11 races in 17 weeks has been pretty punishing, given the level of intensity a GP weekend demands.)

  • Quartararo vs Espargaro
  • Aleix Espargaro's astonishing race
  • Why Fabio Quartararo crashed
  • Penalty? What penalty?
  • The Super Desmosedici
  • Why fans turn up

We start with the defining moment of the race. Pecco Bagnaia had gotten away at the start of the race, getting the holeshot and then taking advantage of Aleix Espargaro and Fabio Quartararo taking the first few corners to dispose of Jorge Martin's challenge – a challenge they opened the way for as Quartararo ran wide on the exit of the first corner. Espargaro and Quartararo were inching closer to Bagnaia as the laps ticked off, and at the start of lap 5, Quartararo saw an opening.

At the Strubben hairpin, he tried to slide his Yamaha M1 up the inside of Espargaro's Aprilia RS-GP. It was a move he had pulled off successfully on the opening lap, albeit briefly, the Spaniard using the speed of the Aprilia to draw level and enter the Ruskenhoek ahead of Quartararo.

This time, however, Quartararo was a little too optimistic: the front washed out from under him, and his bike slammed into the lower fairing of the Aprilia, pushing Espargaro wide and into the gravel. Thankfully, the Strubben hairpin is so slow that Espargaro was able to remain upright, driving his way out of the gravel trap to rejoin in 15th place.

That failed pass would have a profound effect on the course of the race. Aleix Espargaro saw his hopes of a race win evaporate, and believing that all was lost, vowed to try to recoup as many points as possible.

"When Fabio hit me, I saw on my board P14. So in that moment I said, ‘your race is done’. Nothing will change if you score 2-3 points, it doesn't matter," Espargaro told us after a stunning comeback ride which saw him cross the line in fourth eventually. "You need to go for more than 10 points. If you crash, you crash. That's it. And I thought it's not going to be your fault if you crash, because it's going to be Fabio’s fault!"

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Sat, 2022-06-25 23:11

MotoGP riders have three primary objectives on their todo lists on the Saturday of a Grand Prix weekend. First make sure you end FP3 in the top ten combined times and ensure passage directly to Q2. Secondly, use FP4 to figure out which tires will work best for them in the race, and what to expect in terms of performance at the start, drop in performance after the first five or six laps, and then the second drop in the last third or so of the race. And finally, to find a way to exploit the potential performance of a soft rear tire to secure a spot on the front row of the starting grid. Pole position would be nice, but second or third will do almost as well.

There are plenty of hurdles to cross along the way, not least figuring out how to get the most out of the package they have underneath them. But some of the challenges are outside of their control. Such as the tendency for their fellow racers to crash in the final minutes of a session, bringing out the yellow flags and automatically costing them a chance at setting a fast lap.

When something happens outside their control, they can sometimes find it hard to control their frustration. That was the case with Aleix Espargaro, who lost a chance at improving his lap time in qualifying after Jack Miller crashed at Turn 5 on his final run, bringing out yellow flags and automatically ruling out any chance of the riders behind him improving their time, such as Espargaro.

The Aprilia rider saw Jack Miller slide off a little way ahead of him, and shook his head, waving his fist in frustration. It could have been interpreted as a sign of anger at Miller, but after qualifying, Espargaro made it clear that it was the situation, not the crash that had left him so frustrated.

"I was unlucky," he told us. "Unlucky because, I was talking with Jack later on, because he thought that I was blaming him. I was not blaming him at all, 100%, but he crashed on the big screen. So I watched the big screen. I saw 41 seconds left, so I realized I had no time and it was my second canceled lap for a yellow flag and I realized I had no time to improve my time."

As result of Miller's crash, Espargaro had lost his final shot at improving his time. "I was angry with the situation, but not blaming Jack, poor Jack he crashed, what can you say to him. But I was angry with the situation, because I know how tight is MotoGP and today my potential was higher than fifth place in the qualifying. So I was angry. And that's all."

The right rules

Later, on his Twitter account, Espargaro made it perfectly clear that he fully agreed with the yellow flag rule. The point of the rule is to protect the marshals who are helping a crashed rider. Even if the rider who crashed may bear some of the blame for ending in the gravel, they deserve to be able to retrieve themselves from the gravel safely. That is doubly true for the volunteer marshals who are helping both the rider and the rider's bike up and out of the gravel traps. Yellow flags are a warning to all.

That doesn't lessen the frustration, however. Joan Mir found himself in a similar boat, missing out on passage to Q2 when his final run in FP3 was lost to yellow flags. "Today was a difficult day, because I think we had the potential to go through Q2 directly in FP3, but I went out and I started to see yellow flags and I couldn't complete my lap," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "I was improving in sector 1 then I saw sector 2, roll off and then the same in sector 1 the next lap. So this is a bit what the… the important thing of today was this, that we missed Qualifying 2."

The thing is, the yellow flags were there for everybody, and yet in FP3, ten riders made it straight through to Q2, and in Q2, Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Quartararo, and Jorge Martin ended up on the front row, all three of them smashing the existing pole record, Bagnaia by three tenths of a second. Bagnaia and Quartararo were also fastest in FP4, with clearly the best pace.

Why did Bagnaia and Quartararo make it through to Q2 where Joan Mir failed? Why did Bagnaia and Quartararo end up on the front row while Aleix Espargaro, whose pace in FP4 was almost as fierce as that of the numbers 1 and 2 of the 2021 championship, fall short? The secret is the same as for great comedy: timing. With the yellow flag rules the way they are, you can no longer rely on getting faster and faster as the session goes on. You need to squeeze out as fast a lap as possible earlier in the session, just in case something happens.

And something will happen. In the last minute of FP3 or qualifying, everyone is all out chasing a fast time. That is bound to go wrong for at least one of the riders. And when it does, the yellow flags come out and everyone without a banker lap is lost.

In FP3, Fabio Quartararo put in a time good enough for Q2 on his first run with a soft tire. His second run was faster, but got canceled. Pecco Bagnaia was through to Q2 on his first flying lap of a long run, with plenty of time to spare in FP3. Even Aleix Espargaro set a quick time well before the end of the session.

Same again in qualifying: Pecco Bagnaia set his best lap on his second run, with 4 minutes left in the session. It was such an outstanding lap that he returned to his garage and waited out the final couple of minutes, knowing he had done enough. "It’s the same reason I stopped in the box," he told the press conference. "Because I said more than this is impossible for me. So, if someone will overtake, it’s okay. I’m very happy for this qualifying."

Fabio Quartararo set his best time on his penultimate lap in qualifying. It didn't stop him from trying again on the last lap, but it was pretty clear there was nothing more to be had. The biggest indication of that was the fact that he lost both wheels entering the Strubben hairpin, always a sign that the limit has been reached, and is keen to start biting back.

If you doubt this is deliberate strategy, just look at the statistics. Fabio Quartararo leads the championship comfortably, and Pecco Bagnaia is the rider who has challenged him hardest. (Unfortunately for Bagnaia, he has also made a string of mistakes, crashing out three times of his own accord, and being taken out on a fourth occasion at Barcelona.)

Quartararo has qualified on the front row on five occasions out of eleven this year, one less than Bagnaia. Quartararo has qualified on the front two rows at every race bar the season opener at Qatar. Bagnaia has qualified on the front two rows eight times out of eleven, as has Aleix Espargaro. There is clearly a pattern here.

Will that translate into the race? Judging by the pace set in FP4, it looks to be a direct battle between Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia. Both men were doing mid 1'32s on used hard rear tires. Jack Miller and Aleix Espargaro were doing high 1'32s on very used hard soft rears, but Espargaro starts from the second row, and Miller has to serve a Long Lap penalty for riding on the racing line after remounting after his crash.

There is also the first lap to get through. The tight first section is known to be a particular danger on the first lap, the riders staying close through the first right handers before being funneled into the Strubben hairpin. "The first laps here are always a bit of chaos, because the first corners are alright, and then it comes into that little hairpin left where you can literally ride on the inside kerb or you can enter from the side," Brad Binder told us. "So it's always good if you can get through there. But I think by the time we get down that back straight for the first time, things will have already sorted themselves out, and then the racing will start."

It was hard to pick a line, as whatever plan you had, it never survived the first contact with reality. "I think you've just got to kind of go where you can. There's so many people that you can't say I'm going inside or going outside, because if you go inside, someone else comes up your inside. You've always got to adapt," the Red Bull KTM rider told us. "The big thing is I think you can have an idea in your head a hundred times over and do 100 starts a night, but then the next morning it all goes to **** the second you pull off, so I think you've just got to be flexible." As the legendary boxer Mike Tyson likes to say, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

Beyond the front two rows – Bagnaia and Quartararo, and the Pramac Ducati of Jorge Martin on the first row, the surprising Marco Bezzecchi of the Mooney VR46 Ducati team in fourth, with Aleix Espargaro and Jack Miller beside him – there are a few surprises. Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira finally found some speed in qualifying, passing through Q1 and into Q2. Oliveira starts from eighth, Binder from tenth.

Both Red Bull KTM Factory riders did their best to temper expectations, however. "The reality is we are 0.7 behind pole position, so it's quite a gap, that's what it is," Oliveira told us. "But there are people worse than us." The gaps in qualifying are surprisingly large, Miller already six tenths behind his teammate Bagnaia, despite being on the second row.

If there is a wildcard for Sunday's race it is tires. The loss of Friday to wet conditions means there are still questions remaining. The medium has been discounted, being slower than both the hard and the soft, but the riders only had a chance to evaluate either the hard or the soft properly. Both seem competitive, leading those who spent time with the soft rear in FP4 eyeing the times of those who used the hard and thinking they will need to reevaluate tomorrow morning during warm up, and vice versa.

Aleix Espargaro was one of those who had focused on the soft rear. "My pace in FP4 was surprisingly fast. The tire didn't drop and I managed to do I think 10 laps in ‘32s, which is very very fast sincerely!" the Aprilia rider said. But he had seen what Quartararo and Bagnaia had done on the hard. "It look likes the hard gives you a little bit more stability. I didn't try. I will try in the warm up."

Alex Rins, on the other hand, had used the hard for most of FP4. "We will try the softer compound tomorrow in warm up, because in the first run with the hardest compound I had some problems on the bike. so we swapped the bike and then I was more stable, more fast and the pace was not so bad," the Suzuki rider told us.

"We are, I think not so far away. But Aleix and I think Jack, were with the soft tire," Rins said. "They made a lot of laps and were super constant. So in the end the problem is that if you choose the hardest compound and are suffering in the beginning, the race is over. So I prefer to suffer in the end than in the beginning."

In truth, the margin is relatively small. This is not going to be a race where managing the tires will be a big issue. Assen is not the Sachsenring or Barcelona, there is plenty of grip and tire wear is within manageable limits. "For sure, in the FP4, it was like doing fastest lap every lap," Pecco Bagnaia explained in the press conference.

It wasn't usual to be able to push so hard from start to finish. "You can push just in two or three races you can do like this, like in Misano or Jerez, more or less," the Ducati Lenovo rider told us. "This track I feel that the grip is very high and the consumption is very low, so you can push and let slide the rear tire. The consumption is very low."

The rider is more the limit than the tire. "This type of race is for sure more difficult because you have to don’t relax yourself. It’s a different way of doing a race," Bagnaia said.

"This track is for me one of the most physical of the calendar," Quartararo agreed. "I will push 100% from the first to the last lap. Maybe I will have to recover the all five weeks. We will be all in the same situation tomorrow. I’m feeling good physically. I feel ready."

Bagnaia saw it the same way. "I’m happy that it’s like this because I like to push. I never stop pushing," the Italian said.

Sunday is setting up to be a historic duel between the two riders who went head to head in 2021. Last year, Quartararo clearly had the upper hand, but that is far from certain this year. Bagnaia is in better form now than he was last year, and as he showed in Jerez, is capable of leading from the front and laying down a pace that is hard to follow. But Quartararo has shown himself more than equal to that task, as long as he gets a good start. The first five or six corners will be important, as will be the first couple of laps. If there isn't a breakaway early, it is going to be a long race, the decision finally falling on the last lap. We have seen many an instant classic race at Assen's Circuit van Drenthe. There is every reason to hope we will get a repeat of that on Sunday.

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Fri, 2022-06-24 22:57

It has been a typically Assen start to the weekend of the Dutch TT. Thursday's stifling heat lingered through the night, windows left open throughout the province in the hope the cool air sweeping in from the south would arrive and bring relief. The heat lingered long into the night, until a summer storm arrived. A massive downpour around 8am dumped a lot of water on the track, the weather instantly turning gray, wet, and blissfully much cooler.

It made for a tricky morning out on track. Conditions were manageable for both MotoE and Moto3, a steady drizzle persisting. The rain picked up a little at the start of the MotoGP session, and made riding increasingly difficult. Assen drains pretty well – a legacy of its ancient roots starting as a race held on public roads, which means there is a crown to several parts of the track, the center of the track a little higher than the sides, to facilitate drainage.

That works fantastically up to a point, but once the rain starts to reach a certain point, water starts to accumulate along the sides of the track, on the inside of the kerbs. Even that would not be an issue, but for the fact that it happens at a couple of the fastest points on the track. The front straight, the Veenslang, the back straight between Turns 5 and 6, and, most terrifyingly, in the sweeping section through Meeuwenmeer and Hoge Heide, Turns 13 and 14.

Lessons from history

That section is taken at high speed, and the best line passes through the edge of the track, right where water accumulates. Just ask Jorge Lorenzo: the three-time MotoGP champion crashed there in similar conditions to today back in 2013, breaking his collarbone, during Thursday practice. He was flown to Barcelona, had his collarbone plated, and returned to race on the Saturday, in the time when the race was held on Saturday rather than Sunday, crossing the line in a remarkable fifth position.

It was an incredible achievement, and sparked a change in the medical regulations, it being deemed unsafe for riders to participate in practice or races within 48 hours of having a general anesthesia. It didn't end up making much difference either. Two weeks later, at the Sachsenring, Lorenzo fell again, bending the plate on his collarbone and requiring a second surgery. He missed the race, and that would end up costing him the championship, Marc Marquez lifting the 2013 MotoGP crown in his rookie season by a margin of just 4 points.

The memory of that lingered on, still. "it’s funny, no lie, you've seen that, you know that and every time you go past there you think that too! So, not cool," Brad Binder told us. "I mean, it's not that it's super unsafe, you can manage it. But it's in really fast places and if you crash there, you're going to know about it. So it's not worth the risk, especially in FP1."

The majority opinion was that the session should have been red flagged. "This is over the limit for me, yeah," Miguel Oliveira said, summing up what most riders felt. "Start of FP1 was not rideable. I could not even see the lights on the back of the riders. Definitely, to even go alone it's hard with the aquaplaning and to race for sure it's impossible." The bikes were spinning in sixth gear, impossible to rev over 14,000 RPM (to put that in perspective, that's where the big torque bump starts for most MotoGP bikes, the engines revving to something approaching 19,000 RPM).

One reason the session was not red flagged was because, well, most of the riders headed into the pits of their own accord, waiting for track conditions to improve. Johann Zarco didn't, he stayed out and kept improving his time.

Jack Miller was one of the few dissenting voices. "At the end of the day, everyone's got their own common sense," the Australian said. "If you want to go out and ride in it, go out and ride in it. If you don't, sit in the box. Simple as that." Given that it was just FP1, a meaningless session on the wettest day of the weekend, the rest of the sessions expected to be dry, there was nothing to be gained by riders going out. Had it been qualifying or the race, when riders have no choice but to ride, then perhaps it would have been different.

It is something that riders vowed to discuss in the Safety Commission, however. Whether that will bring about change remains to be seen. And whether change is even necessary, as Jack Miller said, is another question.

The rain let up in the afternoon, and Assen showed just how quickly the track can dry. FP2 started off damp, but it was clear before the session was even a third of the way in that slicks would work. Luca Marini and Darryn Binder were the first to try the slicks, and the rest quickly followed suit. In the space of 25 minutes, Marini slashed 10 seconds off his best time. Pecco Bagnaia got down to a 1'33.274, roughly half a second off the best race lap, and 2 seconds off the pole record. The track was pretty much dry bar a few damp patches by the end of FP2.

The rapidly changing conditions did not leave much time to work too much on bike setup. Up and down pit lane, garages were littered with rear shocks and collections of fork springs. It is common in a dry session to see teams swapping fork springs in pursuit of the ideal balance between support and absorption. But that usually means there might be one, or maybe two springs in tool trays.

During FP2 at Assen, I spotted several teams where the trays held five or different springs, with spring rates varying between 7-11 N/mm. That is a wide range to cover a lot of different situations.

You would think that with such variations that there would be a great deal to be learned for the riders and teams, but most disagreed. "Already we are quite fast, the 1'33.2 of Pecco is proof the track was dry, not perfect everywhere," Johann Zarco pointed out. "But you can get used to it because the change in direction in 6-7 and 13-14, you don’t have this kind of layout anywhere else in the world. So to get a bit of references on Friday is useful."

The loss of Friday means a change of approach in FP3, Fabio Quartararo said. "FP3 will be another story with two time attacks," the Frenchman said, underlining the importance of qualifying directly for Q2. "We will use a new tire to really push on the pace to see how is the potential of the tires. But today was just a normal session."

The changing conditions caught out Aprilia in a surprising way. All of the bikes started this morning and the first part of FP2 with the wet setup, including the water deflector attached to the lower swingarm, which is added to keep water off the rear tire. Aleix Espargaro's team forgot to remove the rain spoiler once he switched to his bike on slicks, and so he had his entire run on slicks canceled, his official best lap reduced to a 1'41.360 rather than the 1'33.452 he did on slick tires.

What was his sin? Rule states that parts such as rain deflectors and hand guards are regarded as add ons, which can only be used when at least one rain tire is fitted. That was not the case, and so Espargaro was in clear breach of the technical rules. It is not something Espargaro has anything to do with, of course, in the end, it is down to his team. Aprilia are not the first squad to get caught out by skipping over some of the less common parts of the rulebook. But such mistakes really shouldn't happen, especially in a factory team.

Did we learn anything about who is likely to be strong come Sunday? Not really. A dry Saturday should help clear up a few question marks, but we are most likely headed into the race on Sunday with more than one unknown.

Speaking of mistakes, Pecco Bagnaia had had time to dwell on his error at the Sachsenring. He had immediately acknowledged it was his error, but had failed to understand what he did wrong, he told us.

Bagnaia had used the time between the Sachsenring and Assen to reflect, and try to figure out what he had done wrong. And he thought he may have found a clue. That was in the level of intensity with which he was focusing on the race.

"The three times I crashed this year, the first time in Qatar I was pushing. I was pushing because I was behind, I was trying to recover and I crashed," Bagnaia said. That was straightforward, entirely comprehensible. There had been a good explanation for the crash.

"In the other two times, in the same moment I say ‘I will be more calm, breathe and then come back’, I crashed," Bagnaia reflected. Maybe easing off a fraction was the wrong decision, the Italian said. "So for sure say something that, maybe with our bike, I don't know the other bikes, but my feeling is that when you are not pushing on the tires maybe it's more easy to crash. Something strange to think, but it's the only thing that comes to me when I'm thinking why I crashed."

It was not quite a lapse in concentration, but perhaps a slight easing off. Pushing hard from the beginning was easy, it requires 100% focus right from the beginning. "It's easier, also for the concentration," Bagnaia told us. "I want to say that I never lose my concentration during the race, but maybe thinking to be more calm and to breathe is not a thing that helped me."

Throughout his past, the races where he had eased up, he had not won. "If we look at the races when I started first and I pushed, I didn't have this type of problem. Just controlling the gap from the rear and it's not a problem. So I have to concentrate on being more focused in a situation where I'm not first, when I'm not a gap of 6-7 tenths and working on that moment."

He may well get a chance to put his theory to the test sooner than than later. If a weekend without setup favors those with a good base setup, things are looking bright for Pecco Bagnaia. But they are also looking good for Fabio Quartararo, for Aleix Espargaro, and more. Saturday should shed more light on just where everyone stands.

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Thu, 2022-06-23 07:52

Maverick Viñales has always been something of an enigma. While his talent was beyond doubt, it was also mercurial, the Spaniard winning one week before riding around anonymously the next. When he had the tools he needed, he was unstoppable, winning 9 MotoGP races with both Suzuki and Yamaha. But if he didn't, he would struggle, go backward and end up frustrated and angry.

Throughout the period Viñales was at Yamaha, in the period when rider media debriefs were held in team hospitality units making it impossible to attend all of them, the small group of journalists I share debriefs with would draw straws for who would have to go to speak to Maverick Viñales. That was usually a depressing experience, sitting through Viñales' simmering frustration at not getting the results he believed he was capable of.

It was no surprise this would all come to a head, though I don't think anyone imagined it would end in such a dramatic fashion. Maverick Viñales was suspended by Yamaha after he stalled the bike on the grid in Austria, then in frustration, rode around overrevving it. A few days later, it was announced the contract Viñales had with Yamaha had been terminated with immediate effect, by mutual consent.

Since Viñales found a home at Aprilia, things have turned around completely for the Spaniard. Viñales is calmer, more serene, more content. Less easily frustrated, despite the result not quite coming as quickly as he might otherwise want. He has settled in to Aprilia to work, to grind out the learning process of adapting to a new machine, and slowly finding the pace he needs if he is to chase his ultimate objective: winning a MotoGP title.

That might have looked impossible at the end of last year, but Viñales has become ever more competitive through the 2022 season. At the Sachsenring, he was sat right on the tail of his teammate Aleix Espargaro as they battled for the final podium place until his rear ride-height device failed, getting stuck in the down position. And when he spoke to the media, it was not the old, angry, frustrated Viñales who faced us, but a calmer, happier rider who could see the potential of his bike, could see a road forward.

It has been a remarkable transformation, and a story I have followed with some interest throughout this year. In Barcelona, I sat down with Viñales to ask about this remarkable transformation. We talked about what changed in his life to give him a different perspective, how that has changed his approach to racing in general and to his role in Aprilia in particular, how his wife has brought stability to his life, and the challenges all young racers face, and must adapt to.

What changed?

I started off with the biggest question which I had when seeing the transformation of Maverick Viñales. What exactly had changed? "It's a very good question," Viñales reflected. "I was just feeling I was not able to give my maximum. And there are certain results, like sometimes I was winning races in superb form and outstanding performance, normally winning by 3 or 4 seconds, or sometimes more. Arriving at the next track and being last. It's the kind of situation where you don't understand anything."

I reminded him of the Sachsenring 2021, where he had finished last, then gone on to Assen a week later and taken pole and finished second. As if that was hard enough to understand, throughout the weekend of Assen, there was a stream of rumors that Viñales was about to leave Yamaha, and switch to another factory, something which was confirmed over the summer break.

The radical change in fortunes between Sachsenring and Assen made no sense to us, the media and the fans, I told Viñales. It didn't make much sense to him either, he replied. "Also from my side!" It had been hard to deal with. "Day by day it gives you a lot of negative thoughts, because you don't really understand, you don't really know what's behind it. It's kind of difficult to keep believing in yourself when you see all these kind of things."

The stress of not knowing what to expect, not understanding why he was fast one week and nowhere the next, pushes him almost to think about stopping altogether. "At a certain point, I talked very clearly to myself," Viñales told me. "I said OK, if you continue like that, you will not race any more, because you will get burned out from racing."

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Mon, 2022-06-20 00:17

With the Sachsenring done and dusted, we have reached the halfway point of the 2022 season. A quick dash from the east of Germany to the northeast of The Netherlands, and then MotoGP goes on a longer than scheduled summer break.

If the German Grand Prix marked the halfway point of the 2022 season – the median, if you will – then the result might be classified in statistical terms as the mode: the most frequently occurring value in a set of results. If you had to sum up the MotoGP season so far, this is what it would look like.

I have a long motorcycle journey on Monday, so below are a few quick notes after the German GP, and what precisely makes it the modal MotoGP race. But also, some of the factors which make it atypical. And a sign of hope for the future of the series.

In these notes:

  • Fabio Quartararo puts on a masterclass in how to win a championship
  • Why his rivals failed
  • Why Pecco Bagnaia crashed out
  • The Ducati conundrum
  • When ride-height devices go wrong
  • Hot-hot-hot Hondas
  • Races vs events, and why the fans turn up at one race, but not another.

But we start with what made the German GP so representative of the season so far. Obviously, Fabio Quartararo winning convincingly and extending his championship lead is pretty much par for the course. His rivals finding ways to beat themselves, trip themselves up, or just suffer plain bad luck is also pretty typical for this season. Ducatis being successful, but in ever-changing configurations and orders, is very 2022. Suzukis crashing, Honda being nowhere without Marc Marquez, technology letting everyone down, riders blaming the Michelin tires (rightly or wrongly), the second Yamaha finishing 29 seconds behind Quartararo (Franco Morbidelli was nearly a second a lap slower than his teammate). A familiar story indeed.

The king is dead, long live the king

But first, to the 2022 MotoGP champion-in-waiting, Fabio Quartararo. How does the Frenchman come away from a race where he faced a strong challenge from Pecco Bagnaia having extended his lead in the title chase and reinforced his dominance in the championship? Two factors.

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Sat, 2022-06-18 22:14

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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Sat, 2022-06-18 12:49

A wander up pit lane at the Sachsenring shows teams and factories still hard at work trying to figure out ways of going faster. Here's a quick note of the things I have seen so far, with a few very poor photographs.

The Barcelona test proved to be a chance to try out new aerodynamic packages, and some of those have made an appearance at the Sachsenring. On Friday, Maverick Viñales spent most of the day on Aprilia's new fairing, with Aleix Espargaro following suit today.

As you can see, the lower part of the fairing is wider, creating a ledge around the middle of the bike. That should bring the side of the bike closer to the asphalt when the bike is leaned over and create something of a ground effect. It also provides a certain amount of downforce at a very useful point, close to the center of mass.

The fairing redesign does have a disadvantage, however: the neat sliding hatch on the standard fairing where the starter motor engages has been replaced with a latch.

There is new aerodynamics for Suzuki, with both riders using different packages. Joan Mir has side pods added to the side of the fairing, providing more downforce, an important factor around the Sachsenring, where wheelie out of the final corner can hamper the lap time.

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Fri, 2022-06-17 22:25

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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Thu, 2022-06-16 22:22

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.

Coiled tarmac

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.

Danger zone

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.

Desmo conundrum

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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Tue, 2022-06-14 16:41

Is the 2022 Yamaha M1 a good MotoGP bike? It is a simple question with a simple answer: it depends. If Fabio Quartararo is riding it, it is good enough to have won two races, get on the podium in three others, and lead the 2022 MotoGP championship by 22 points.

But if anyone other than Fabio Quartararo is riding it, it is not quite so good. The best result by the trio of Franco Morbidelli, Andrea Dovizioso, and Darryn Binder is a seventh place, by Morbidelli at Mandalika. That seventh place is one of only two top tens for the other Yamahas, Darryn Binder being the other at the same race.

Together, Morbidelli, Dovizioso, and Binder have scored a grand total of 40 points. Fabio Quartararo has 147, over three times as many. And he has never finished behind any of the other Yamahas throughout the season. In fact, the closest any other Yamaha rider has gotten to Quartararo is Franco Morbidelli's eleventh place, two places behind his teammate, at the season opener at Qatar. Since then, Quartararo and the other Yamaha riders have been operating on different planets.

Facing the future

Can this be fixed? And what is Yamaha doing to address this? On the Monday after Barcelona, Yamaha had just a few parts for the riders to test. There was a new swingarm, which offered only marginal benefits, there was another chance to try the new low-downforce aero package used by Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo at Mugello, which Quartararo subsequently dropped. And there was a chance to try new engine maps in pursuit of more horsepower, though that was limited.

On the face of it, the test was of limited use in finding the power Fabio Quartararo says he needs if he is to successfully defend his 2021 MotoGP crown. But with engine development frozen for 2022, any major advances will only come in 2023, and the first hint of that bike won't appear until the Misano test in September.

More horsepower will come, however. That is the guarantee Yamaha gave to Fabio Quartararo to convince him to sign a new contract for the next two seasons. They are backing this up by bringing in new engineers, some from Formula 1, to help find extra horses from the Yamaha M1.

"For me I always push, and more now, we needed to push to have more power," Quartararo told us after the test. "I'm sure they are working super hard to bring us a new engine for 2023 and have much more power because I always say the same, but because it’s true that if you make everything perfect, you can win. It's not a problem of power or whatever."

"But when you are in a tough situation, power is something that changes your race," Quartararo pointed out. There had been times where he had been stuck behind bikes that were faster on the straight, despite being capable of faster lap times, and that had been frustrating. "I was sixth or seventh and I could not overtake and I was faster. I could fight with Pecco for the win but. But we are behind, so this is why I think it's the most important to have the power and not really think about other things."

All this focus on horsepower comes at the expense of areas which could help the other Yamaha riders. While horsepower is always a good thing, they need help with the rear tire spinning up while the bike is at full lean angle and chewing through the rear quickly. They need help with turning and more feedback. They need help with braking, to carry more speed into the corner.

Should Yamaha be doing more to address the concerns of Franco Morbidelli, Andrea Dovizioso, Darryn Binder, and focus less on what Quartararo wants? "Yamaha is involved to improve what Fabio requests, and this is normal and this is the right thing to do, because he’s leading the championship, they won last year," Andrea Dovizioso replied when asked. "That is the priority and this is normal."

That creates problems, of course. "What he requests is different than most of the riders, because he is able to use the potential of the bike where it’s good, but the others can't," Dovizioso explained. "So we are requesting different things. But what we are requesting is something very difficult to create. It is very difficult to know what you have to change. It takes time, takes money and if I put myself in Yamaha’s place, maybe I make the same decision."

There is perhaps a fear of change as well, Dovizioso acknowledged, when the comparison with Casey Stoner at Ducati and Marc Marquez at Honda was made. Perhaps Yamaha are afraid of killing the goose which is laying them golden eggs if they change the bike to suit the other riders.

"I think one of the reasons they are not investing a lot of attention or money on that is for that they are scared about that," Dovizioso told us. "And I can understand because when you change something, nobody knows the right things to do. You have to try lots of things, so that is dangerous in their situation. So it’s difficult."

The consolation is that Yamaha have a proven path to winning races, which runs via Fabio Quartararo. "It's positive because they have something, it's working, but it’s difficult for sure," Dovizioso said.

Was throwing money at Fabio Quartararo was a simpler and faster route to success?"Ha! That’s for sure," Dovizioso laughed. "But you know you have to choose a strategy, so if this is your target, it's good to do that." In the long term, building a better bike was a more sustainable proposition. "It's always better to have a bike work for more riders because you can play as a manufacturer," Dovizioso explained." But it's not easy to create that situation and is not the situation they are in now."

And so Yamaha find themselves in a quandary. They have a rider who is winning and leading the championship, and understands the bike exactly and precisely, knowing how to extract every drop of performance out of the M1. And they have a bike which, for riders who can't ride the way Fabio Quartararo does, making up time on the brakes and managing acceleration with subtle throttle control, leaves them unable to compete.

If they change the M1 to make it more competitive for Morbidelli, Dovizioso, Binder, they risk defanging the bike for Quartararo, taking away the strengths he is using to be successful. But if they leave the bike as it is, and only listen to Quartararo, they risk being left with a bike that isn't competitive if, for some reason, the Frenchman leaves Yamaha or is unable to race.

In the short term, Yamaha are better off putting all their eggs in one basket, the one marked Fabio Quartararo. After all, Honda did that for Marc Marquez and ended up with six MotoGP titles. Whether it is successful in the long term, only history will reveal. But racing is a very short-term business, so that is a bridge they will cross when they have no other choice.

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