It seems entirely self-evident: the winner of any given motorcycle race on any given Sunday will be the best rider, on the best bike, with the best tires. The rider with the most horsepower, the sweetest handling and the stickiest rubber - and the skill to leverage this magic triptych - should, barring incident, win every race.
And that's what's so great about racing in the rain. Horsepower becomes irrelevant, as any surfeit of power simply disappears in wheel spin; electronic traction control quickly becomes so intrusive that it slows you down rather than speeding you up; handling characteristics which have been a major disadvantage in the dry lose their relevance, as the lower speeds being reached aren't pushing the handling envelope quite so brutally. The rain takes all those factors and throws them overboard, reducing the racing to its most basic elements: The rider who can judge the limits of traction most precisely - and more importantly, dares to go looking for just where those limits are - will win the race. His bike may be a stable-full of horsepower short, he may be struggling with grip in the dry, the bike may refuse to change direction on sticky rubber: These things no longer matter. The only question is are you brave enough to find the limit, and good enough to keep it there?
When you add soaking conditions to a tight and technical track like the Sachsenring, the truth of this axiom becomes even more obvious. With no straights to speak of, and with the bikes spending much of their time heeled hard over through an intricate set of turns, racing motorcycles here in the rain truly becomes a question of exploring the outermost limits of adhesion. There is nothing left to fall back on, no more odds stacked in anyone's favor, it comes down solely to the rider, and what they are capable of.
Here Comes The Rain Again
So despite the truly miserable conditions which greeted the MotoGP riders as they headed out for the sighting lap, there were a few happy faces among the riders and teams at the back of the grid at the Sachsenring on Sunday afternoon. The rain had been threatening to arrive all weekend, and after a brief downpour which disrupted Saturday morning's free practice session, then another shower during the warm up on Sunday morning, it finally started in earnest after the 125 race finished and as the 250 race got underway.
But the rain did not please everyone. The wet conditions left many teams worrying about a wet setup. Most of the riders, including Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, had sat out the first half of Saturday's wet session, waiting for the track to dry. Then there were the riders who just don't get on with the rain, riders such as Jorge Lorenzo. As fast as they are, the wet weather makes them tentative, and tentative means slow.
Finally, there were the tire men. Surprisingly, there has never been a proper, full wet race at the Sachsenring before, and so the men from both Michelin and Bridgestone were having to second guess themselves for tire choices. With so many left turns, too soft a compound would mean that tires not lasting the whole race, especially if a dry line started to form. The flip side of that coin was that too hard a tire would not retain enough heat in the right side of the tire, with so few right handers to cope with.
In the end, Michelin decided to play it safe, only providing their riders with a medium compound wet tire, hard enough to last the entire race, whilst Bridgestone gambled a little, supplying a mixed compound tire with a harder left and a softer right side. But if the rain eased up, a dry line started to form, the race would be up in the air once again.
Make Haste Slowly
As the red lights held the 17 men comprising the MotoGP grid on the starting line, their nerves were steadied by the knowledge that on a wet track, passing would be easier, and it was far less important to try and win the race in the first corner. So when the lights faded, the bikes roared off the line less like enraged hornets, and more like irritated blowflies, and raced off to the first corner a good deal more gingerly than usual, hoping to avoid disaster in the first turn.
The difference showed. The two fastest starters on the grid sat on the front row, Dani Pedrosa next to pole sitter Casey Stoner, but it was Colin Edwards on the notoriously slow-starting Yamaha that got off the line first. The Texan headed off towards the first right hander at the end of the straight ahead, but by the time he got there, Dani Pedrosa had resumed normal service, flying past Edwards and into Turn 1 ahead of the pack.
The Spaniard already had the start of a gap back to the man in 2nd place, Andrea Dovizioso, who had cut to the right to grab two places off the line. Dovi's move had shuffled Edwards back to 3rd, while Casey Stoner's decision to stay out wide ready for the first flick left saw him lining up with the Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi inside him, as well as the Tech 3 Yamaha of James Toseland, who had got a Pedrosaesque start, gaining 6 places into the first turn.
Jorge Lorenzo was the first rider to find he'd pushed just a fraction too hard, his bike suddenly sitting up in the middle of the first turn. Forced to back off to recover his composure, he conceded 4th to Stoner, hanging on through the first part of the endless Omega Kurve to hold off a charging Toseland. But Toseland had the inside line, and once they flicked left again, for the first of the long sequence of lefts which would take them up to the top of the Waterfall, the Englishman was back past once again.
Lorenzo may have been the first rider to test the limits of grip, but he was not to be the last. First to follow was Colin Edwards, whose twitching rear lost him a place to Casey Stoner round the first of the lefts out of the Omega. A place further down the order, traffic was starting to accumulate behind Toseland, who was so far failing to convert his flying start into a flying lap. Like a trailer on a twisty mountain road, the Fiat Yamahas of Lorenzo and Rossi were bunching up, together with Randy de Puniet's LCR Honda and the Alice Ducati of Sylvain Guintoli. As they crested the hill to drop down towards the next left, Lorenzo was past the Englishman, with Valentino Rossi not far behind. But as Rossi sized up Toseland for the pass, he fell victim himself. Inside came Randy de Puniet, pushing Rossi back down to 8th, and with plenty to do.
At the front, Dani Pedrosa was making his intention amply clear. The Spaniard had stretched the tiny gap he'd had into the first corner with all his might, and despite his tiny frame, that proved to be plenty. By the time he was halfway round the track, Pedrosa already had a lead of a second over Andrea Dovizioso, and it was growing every yard. Another half a second through the next checkpoint, and by the time Pedrosa came back across the line at the end of the first lap, he had a lead over the chasing pack of nearly 2 seconds.
It is common knowledge that you can't afford to let Pedrosa get away at the start, as his strong point is riding smooth, fast laps on his own. But two whole seconds in just 3.5 kilometers was ridiculous. To add to the confusion, Pedrosa is not known as the world's finest rider in the rain. When he entered the class, his riding in the wet was a real weakness, and one which he has worked very hard at overcoming. Everyone in the paddock had been impressed by his progress, but he was now considered to be competent in the rain, and capable of holding his own. Taking half a second every quarter of a lap is not competent, it is devastating. The man thought to be just about good enough in the rain was making a laughing stock of the rest of the grid.
With his two main championship rivals out ahead of him, Valentino Rossi once again had some work to do, and just like last time out, he had Randy de Puniet to get past if he wanted to chase. Mindful of his costly mistake at Assen, this time, Rossi bided his time and waited for the bottom of the Waterfall, slipping through into 7th at the Sachsenkurve.
At the front, Casey Stoner was mulling similar tactics. Seeing Dani Pedrosa disappear into the distance, the Australian knew that his best chance was to get after the Spaniard as quickly as possible. As the bikes raced up the hill and across the line to end the first lap, Stoner used a squirt of power and a late dab on the brakes to get past Andrea Dovizioso, the man who stood between Stoner and Pedrosa, and into 2nd.
Dovizioso wasn't the only rider to lose out across the line. From his storming start, Tech 3 Yamaha's James Toseland was starting to go backwards. Valentino Rossi was past into Turn 1, with Randy de Puniet through half a lap later. By the time the 2nd lap ended, Toseland had slipped from back down to 12th, losing all of the gains he'd made at the start, and more.
With a clear track ahead of him, Casey Stoner set about trying to chase Dani Pedrosa down. But for the man who had utterly dominated practice so far this weekend, that task was starting to look more difficult than he had imagined. By the end of lap 2, Stoner had made progress, but his progress consisted of slowing the loss of time from a deluge to a torrent, giving up a mere 1.3 seconds.
For the next couple of laps, that was all that Stoner could manage to do. If, as MotoGP experts claim, that Dani Pedrosa's weakness is riding in the rain, it looked like they had forgotten to tell the Spaniard. Every lap, Pedrosa was taking out well over a second a lap from the rest of the field, and as he crossed the line at the end of lap 5, he was already nearly 7.5 seconds clear of the chasing pack. After Stoner had swept practice, no one had been expecting a repeat of last year's brutal domination by Dani Pedrosa, but that's exactly what the Spaniard was doing.
Behind Pedrosa, the rain claimed its first victim. Valentino Rossi had already passed his Fiat Yamaha team mate down the long left hander at the back of the track, and Jorge Lorenzo was regrouping, getting ready to chase The Doctor again. But conditions were treacherous, and as Lorenzo pushed round the second half of the Omega, his tires called time, dumping the reigning 250 world champion on the ground. The saving grace for Lorenzo was that this was a slow part of the track, and the Spaniard got way unscathed, without adding to the damage he has suffered in so many other crashes this year.
While the conditions were punishing Lorenzo, others were taking full advantage. The paddock's two greatest rain riders were charging through the field. Chris Vermeulen had started from 14th on the grid but had already grabbed 5 places by the end of lap 2. Within 2 more laps, Vermeulen was one of the fastest men on the track, and was up into 6th and starting to chase Valentino Rossi, the man ahead of him. Like his compatriot over at Suzuki, wet weather wunderkind Ant West was on a similar charge. From 17th and dead last on the grid, the Kawasaki man was gaining handfuls of places every lap, with only a few riders quicker than him on the track. With the weather conditions perfect for the amphibian Australian, West looked capable of pulling off another miracle.
Slip Sliding Away
With so many fairy tales take shape up and down the grid, cold hard reality was bound to rear its ugly head at some point. It chose lap 6 of the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring to start shattering dreams, intervening first at the front of the field. As Dani Pedrosa crossed the line to start lap 6, with a 7.5 second lead, and seemingly on course to win by an embarrassing margin, fate intervened. The Spanish championship leader braked at the end of the short front straight, as he had at every lap, but this time, the front wheel of his Honda RC212V locked and folded underneath him, sending him crashing to the ground. The water-slick track barely slowed the Spaniard's progress as he slid towards the gravel, and Pedrosa started to tumble as he hit the gravel trap at high speed, smacking horrifyingly into the air fence at the end of the run off area. In conditions as wet and slippery as on Sunday, friction takes a good deal more time to build, and Pedrosa had slowed very little when he hit the air fence.
Luckily for Pedrosa, the air fence did its job, saving the Spaniard from worse, but his injuries were serious nonetheless. With a broken finger in his left hand and a suspected fractured right ankle, Pedrosa's momentary misjudgment had cost him not just the win in Germany, as well as the chance to consolidate his championship lead, but had also put his participation in next week's US GP at Laguna Seca in doubt. His 4 point lead was surely gone, and he could be heading into the summer with a big deficit.
Small comfort, but Pedrosa wasn't the only rider to suffer in the rain. Two laps later, Ant West's fairy tale came to an end, the Australian dropping his Kawasaki in the final turn as he battled with Chris Vermeulen and Alex de Angelis. Luckily for West, he could remount, and get back in the race, but any thoughts of a top 5 finish, or even a podium, were gone.
Two more laps later, and another fairy tale bit the dust. Marco Melandri, the paddock's most troubled denizen, had been mounting his own charge up the field, eventually fighting his way to a respectable 7th from starting 16th on the grid. But on lap 10, Melandri too was gone, caught out by the weather after setting the fastest lap of the race. With his chase through the field, Melandri had shown a glimpse of the rider that he once was. With his contract with Ducati for 2009 now officially dissolved, his charge was the first of his auditions for a ride with another team next year.
Pedrosa's crash had thrown the race into Casey Stoner's lap. All the Australian had to do was stay calm, not push too hard, and respond to anyone coming through from behind, and the race was his. But Pedrosa's crash also made the dangers all too graphic: a single error could be the difference between getting his title defense back on track and throwing it all away. Stoner pushed, but only a little, risking only what he needed, and put his head down for the rest of the race.
If Pedrosa's crash had worked in Casey Stoner's favor, it wasn't helping Valentino Rossi, still stuck behind Andrea Dovizioso and Colin Edwards. Though a DNF for Pedrosa would hand back the lead to Rossi, the way things were at the moment, he would lose 12 valuable points to Stoner, points he couldn't afford to lose before a run of tracks at which Stoner shines. Once on Edwards' tail, it took The Doctor 3 laps to get past his former team mate, finally outbraking the Texan into Turn 1. A lap later, the same move saw him past Dovizioso, and into 2nd. With a clear track ahead, Rossi had minimized the damage and could set about chasing down Stoner.
The ease with which Rossi passed the two Michelin men was an omen of things to come, one which had been presaged by the sight of Nicky Hayden entering the pits for a new rear tire. The American was having a nightmare of a race, dropping to last on the first lap, and losing time hand over fist, with an obvious problem. As freakish as Hayden's problem may have been, it was a sign of the general malaise among Michelin riders. While the men on Bridgestones started to speed up, as the rain started to let up a little, and the track went from being awash to merely wet, the riders on Michelins were right off the pace.
Two laps after Rossi got past, both Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen and Gresini Honda's Alex de Angelis were past Edwards and Dovizioso, with Dovi starting to lose time in big chunks. Edwards picked up his pace a little, and was limiting his losses to the Bridgestone pair ahead, but even the Texas Tornado would succumb in the end. On lap 21, Edwards lost the rear at the downhill left-hander, and was out of the race.
Cat And Mouse, Again
This left 4 Bridgestone men to contest the win. Casey Stoner led by a seemingly comfortable margin, while Valentino Rossi chased from behind. From the moment Stoner took over the lead, a pattern was established that repeated itself to the end of the race. Stoner would set a fast lap, and gain half a second or so from Rossi, stretching his lead. Each time Stoner pushed, Rossi responded on the next lap, taking 3/10ths from the Australian, and reducing the lead. Seeing Rossi come back on his pit board, Stoner would push again, and take another half a second, and again, Rossi would respond, clawing back a few more tenths.
The problem was, that while Rossi's attacks were strong, they were still losing an average of a couple of tenths a lap. Everything Rossi did was in vain, and not wanting to risk throwing it all away by crashing, in the end, Rossi conceded defeat. Casey Stoner crossed the line to win once again, taking his third victory in a row, and reasserting his claim to the title. It was not the dominant display that we had seen during practice or at previous races, but as Stoner had been feeling "a bit crook" since Saturday, it was as impressive as ever. If this is what a sick Casey Stoner can do, then a healthy one is a very worrying prospect indeed for the rest of the paddock.
Home in 2nd came Valentino Rossi. The Fiat Yamaha man did exceptionally well at the Sachsenring, far better than he could have expected after some dismal qualifying and free practice sessions. Taking 20 points after starting from 7th on the grid at a tight track like the Sachsenring will come in very useful if he is to reclaim the World Championship crown. Yet Rossi did not look happy, despite taking back the championship lead from Dani Pedrosa, and limiting the damage from Stoner. After the race, he commented that the team needed to improve their qualifying performance, to be nearer the front of the grid, and that the Yamaha needed more horsepower to be able to compete. His comments made it amply clear that Rossi considers that he has one main adversary in the title race, and that adversary is an Australian on a Ducati.
While the race for 1st and 2nd was soon sorted out, the final spot on the podium wasn't settled until the bikes crossed the line. Chris Vermeulen led the chase, with Alex de Angelis sat right on his tail right through the race. Every lap, de Angelis tried to line Vermeulen up for a pass down the Waterfall, closing steadily through the series of left handers that led to the top of the hill. But every lap, de Angelis couldn't quite get close enough, and the San Marinese rider was forced to start all over again once they crossed the line.
Haring round the track on the final lap, de Angelis looked closer than ever. But as they headed down the hill, they were rapidly closing on the hapless Toni Elias, who'd been lapped a few laps earlier. Vermeulen headed de Angelis coming out of the final corner, but Elias was in the way of both the Suzuki and the Gresini Honda. And so Chris Vermeulen crossed the line to take 3rd and get back on the podium, in a typical piece of wet weather wizardry. Vermeulen may not like riding in the wet, but that doesn't stop him from excelling at it.
And as frustrated as Alex de Angelis must be at being kept off the podium, it was another outstanding ride from the Gresini Honda rider. De Angelis has faced a lot of criticism for crashing so often, from both the press and his own team. But in weather that was made for crashing, and which saw some big names fall off, de Angelis kept his cool and rode another brilliant race. If he could be this good consistently, he would start to be more than just "the 4th rookie".
One of the rookies currently getting all the press attention crossed the line in 5th, Andrea Dovizioso the first Michelin rider home. Like all the other Michelin runners, Dovi had started strong, but had faded as the race went on. A 5th place finish is a solid performance under difficult circumstances.
Difficult circumstances certainly brought out the best in Alice Ducati's Sylvain Guintoli. After a big crash on Saturday, and a miserable qualifying session, taking 6th in the rain is Guintoli's, and the team's best finish. Like anyone not called Stoner, the Frenchman has struggled to with the Ducati, but he has made some progress recently. A 6th place will give him some confidence for the rest of the season.
7th place went to Loris Capirossi, after another race-long battle with Randy de Puniet. The pair crossed the line just 0.1 seconds apart, after swapping places for much of the second half of the race. Capirossi was pleased, as he is still carrying injuries to his back and arm suffered in crashes at Catalunya and Assen. But de Puniet, who is often fast during practice, needs some higher place finishes if he is to stay in MotoGP.
Shinya Nakano came home 9th, another rider not particularly keen on the rain, and another average performance by the Gresini Honda rider. Nakano is another man who needs to step up his game as the musical chairs of silly season approaches.
In 10th, ruing his stupid mistake, came Ant West. His crash on lap 8 had damaged the foot peg of his Kawasaki, so to remount, pass James Toseland and take 10th is a strong performance. But West was closer to so much more. A podium might have saved his job at Kawasaki, a 10th place finish will not. West is another name likely to be missing from the 2009 MotoGP roster.
James Toseland finished 11th. His lightning start had come to nothing, but on his first rain race aboard a MotoGP bike, the Tech 3 Yamaha man had learned a lot. But like those who finished ahead of him, Toseland needs to up his game if he is to regain the admiration his early season form engendered.
Toni Elias came home a thoroughly miserable 12th. The Spaniard had had a poor race, and had never got going. With the future of the Alice Ducati team in some doubt, Elias will have to do more if he wants to stay in MotoGP.
But even Elias' day wasn't as bad as Nicky Hayden's. The former World Champion was the biggest loser from Michelin's gamble. Pitting after just 7 laps for a new rear tire brought a little relief, but not much. Finishing two laps down, Hayden's difficult season continued. This was not what Hayden needed going into his home Grand Prix, a race he's won twice in the past.
Racing in the rain turned out to be the great leveler, as we have come to expect. Stripped of any advantages of horsepower and handling, rain racing sees talent and bravery rising through the ranks to finish ahead of those who rely on their machines to overcome their riding deficiencies. And so while some of the names at the top of the field might be surprising, the winner and 2nd place man should not surprise anyone. Finishing well ahead of the field, in exactly the same place as they would have if it had been dry, Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi confirmed their status as the best riders in the world, whatever the weather.
But the weather also showed that adhesion has two components: the tires, and a rider who knows how to use them. Last year, Bridgestone came to the Sachsenring and were thoroughly humiliated by Michelin, the Japanese rubber failing utterly to cope with the extraordinarily hot conditions. This year, the tables were turned, with Bridgestone finding a solution to the cold and slick conditions produced by a downpour, while Michelin riders either crashed out or struggled to compete.
And the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring exposes another factor, one which is usually overlooked when discussing how racing has changed over the past few years. Discussions high and low, in bars, on message boards and in esteemed publications, have been full of how electronics are changing racing. But those electronics don't mean anything if the rubber hoops connecting the bikes to the tarmac aren't functioning correctly. Colin Edwards said that Michelin has produced tires which are "50% better" than last year, and the fact that tires no longer seem to go off towards the end of the race back up that conclusion.
Perhaps, instead of demanding that electronic rider aids be banned, fans of "pure" racing should take aim at the tire companies, and start demanding tires with much less grip. That, surely, would return riding to its purest form: a rider, in search of the limits of adhesion at every corner.