At Mugello, a large number of pieces in MotoGP's Silly Season for 2013 are expected to fall into place. The long-expected announcement of the Repsol Honda team will be made on Thursday, according to Catalunya Radio, with Marc Marquez taking his place alongside Dani Pedrosa, who has inked a two-year extension with HRC. Pedrosa acknowledged at the Sachsenring that there were only details left to clear up, and after winning Germany, the Spaniard appears to have cleared the final hurdles to a new deal.
Mugello also looks like being the deadline for Cal Crutchlow. The 26-year-old Coventry man has offers of two-year deals from both the Factory Ducati and his current Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. What Crutchlow would really like is a seat at the factory Yamaha team, but with that seat probably unavailable - either being held open for a possible return to the fold of Valentino Rossi, or else retaining current rider Ben Spies - Crutchlow is instead likely to accept Ducati's offer of a factory ride, believing that factory equipment is his only chance of winning races and a championship. According to British motorcycling journal MCN, Crutchlow has been given until Mugello to make up his mind.
There was one glaring omission from the post-Sachsenring round up I wrote on Sunday night. Well, two actually, but the biggest was that I neglected to give Dani Pedrosa the attention he deserved for a fantastic win, his first in over nine months. Pedrosa managed the race brilliantly, starting on a bike which had seen massive changes ahead of the race, and which he took a few laps to get accustomed to. He did so by dropping behind Stoner, and following in the wake of the reigning World Champion, until he was comfortable enough to make a pass. He accomplished this with ease, and the pair engaged in some synchronized drifting to the end of the race, when Pedrosa upped his pace and forced Stoner into an error. The Australian may have believed that he had the pace and the move to beat Pedrosa, but the fact that he crashed would suggest that Pedrosa was forcing Stoner much closer to the limit than the champion realized.
Bold and fearless or brash and ill-advised? There was a lot of that sort of thing at the Sachsenring on Sunday, in all three classes. The most obvious example begging that question was what would have been Casey Stoner's last-corner lunge past Dani Pedrosa, had it not gone horribly wrong as he lined the pass up the corner before. We'll come to that later, but with a Moto3 race run in drying conditions and a Moto2 race where one of the favorites had to start from well down on the grid, there were plenty more to choose from.
Moto3 turned into the usual war of attrition among the more psychotic contingent of the paddock - or more precisely, teenagers on fast motorbikes - with the coolest head of the front runners eventually prevailing. With Luis Salom and Alexis Masbou pushing Sandro Cortese down to the wire, it could have gone horribly wrong, but Cortese had saved his tire for the last few laps, pushing to break his two wild-eyed pursuers before he crossed the line, and preventing any late lunges which could have ended in tears. It was a race worthy of a champion, by Cortese, despite the massive pressure on him at his home round. In the press conference, he thanked his team manager Aki Ajo, for bringing some Finnish coolness to calm Cortese's Italian heritage.
2012 Sachsenring MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Why The Ducatis Aren't Fast In The Wet, And Why The Germans Could Be Happy On Sunday
It poured at the Sachsenring on Saturday afternoon. It absolutely hosed down, rivulets of water running across the track to make the conditions treacherous. Ideal conditions for Ducati, you would say, given their form so far this year in the wet, with Valentino Rossi on the podium in the downpour at Le Mans, and a 1-2 during the first session of free practice at a drenched Silverstone. But Nicky Hayden is 7th and Valentino Rossi 9th, a second or more off the pace of polesitter Casey Stoner. What went wrong?
The answer, to put it succinctly, is the Sachsenring. The bike is leaned over for a lot of the time, and whereas the Ducati's strength is in getting drive out of corners in the wet - ironically one of their biggest problems in the dry - the lean angle prevents the bike from driving forward. "This track has a lot more lean angle," Nicky Hayden explained. "The strength of our bike in the rain is driving off corners, getting it picked up and driving off corners; this isn't really the case here." The rear was sliding too much, Hayden added. "I'm struggling a lot in the long corner to not have the rear come round. Especially on corner entry, there's some places I have to stop a little early and then actually open the throttle and lean it over to set the bike."
The tire problems experienced by Valentino Rossi and Ben Spies at Assen, where great chunks of rubber came off the right side of the rear of the tire, slowing Spies up severely and affecting Rossi so badly he was forced to pit for a new tire, have been the subject of much speculation and discussion since the event. Spies was particularly shaken after the race, the tire problems bringing back bad memories of the 300 km/h tire failure and monster crash he had at Daytona back in 2003, which he still has the scars to show from.
Nearly a week on, and after examination by Bridgestone technicians back at the factory in Japan, we can start to draw a few preliminary conclusions as to the cause of the problems. Bridgestone have issued a press release and briefed the press directly, and riders have weighed in with their thoughts and impressions of what happened. Before pointing fingers and apportioning blame, let us first walk through what we know of what actually happened.
Silly Season has hit full swing in Germany, not just for the MotoGP class but for the support classes as well. And while movements in MotoGP are mainly about what is happening next year, in Moto2 and Moto3 - and even among the CRT machines - there is some serious rider swapping going on for the rest of this season.
In MotoGP, the next two key movements just got a lot closer. Dani Pedrosa is now very close to staying with the Repsol Honda team, telling Spanish journalists that he would sign a new two-year contract with HRC either here in the Sachsenring or at Mugello at the latest. His priority had been to stay on a bike he felt he could win with, telling the Spanish newspaper ABC earlier this week that Honda and Yamaha had been his only realistic options. The Ducati, he said rather pointedly, was more something a rider might consider before their retirement.
With Pedrosa just days away from signing with Repsol Honda, and Marc Marquez almost certain to be placed alongside him, options are starting to close up for those still seeking a seat. But Pedrosa's signing would make no difference to Valentino Rossi, the former World Champion told the Italian media. "I never had any contact with HRC, so going there was never a possibility for me," Rossi said, despite rumors in the English-language media that placed the Italian in the Repsol team.
There is a danger to thinking any championship is a foregone conclusion, especially this early in the season. Just as there is a danger to thinking that a race will pan out the way you thought it would after practice and qualifying. At Assen, everyone was afraid of three things: the weather, Jorge Lorenzo and Pol Espargaro. All three turned out differently than expected.
Best of all was the weather. After treacherous conditions on Friday, with rain falling, stopping, wetting the track just enough for Casey Stoner to bang himself up badly in the morning, though that did not stop him from blasting to pole, Saturday dawned bright and only got better: the big skies of flat-as-a-board Drenthe were mainly blue, with the occasional sighting of fluffy white clouds to provide a little cover and prevent egregious sunburn. But best of all, it stayed dry: no complications, just sunny, dry and calm weather.
Assen's surface is pretty good when it's dry, and it's not too bad when it's wet, but this is 2012, and there's a MotoGP race this weekend, so of course, the conditions are as bad as they can possibly be. For Assen, that means a few spots of rain here and there, just enough to create patches damp enough to catch out the unwary, or even the wary, as Casey Stoner found out this morning. Heading down the Veenslang Stoner noticed the first spots of rain on his visor. Through the Ruskenhoek, it turned into drizzle, and he had already backed off into De Bult when he was flung from the bike in what he described as one of the worst crashes of his career. He took a knock to the head, banged his left shoulder and left wrist, and suffered a big and very painful contusion to his right knee, that left him hobbling around like an old man in the afternoon.
The times were close after the first day of practice, closer than they have been for a very long time. Just 0.471 seconds separates the top 11 MotoGP prototypes (Karel Abraham is barely fit enough to ride, after breaking fingers in his left hand, and is way off the pace), with Ben Spies leading Cal Crutchlow by just 0.006, just a tenth separating Nicky Hayden in 3rd from Dani Pedrosa in 6th, and less than a tenth between Andrea Dovizioso in 7th and Stefan Bradl in 11th. It has all the makings of a great race, right?
Not according to Cal Crutchlow. "Lorenzo will run away with it," the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man opined. Everyone except for Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa had set their fastest time on the soft tire, Crutchlow explained. Lorenzo's best time, a 1'35.057, was set in the middle of a run with a used hard tire, his race rhythm in the 1'35.0 while everyone else was running 1'35.3. Lorenzo was looking very smooth on the bike, team manager Wilco Zeelenberg saying he was pretty pleased with the bike and the way the first day had gone.
Three races in 15 days, right in the middle and most important part of the season. MotoGP lines up at Assen with one third of the season gone. By the time the triple header is finished at Mugello, just over two weeks' later, we are half way through the season and the title is a lot closer to being settled. These three races are crucial.
Not that it changes anyone's approach. During the press conference, I asked the riders if they took a more cautious approach, knowing that the cost of injury is much, much greater now than it is when there is more time to recover between races. They looked at me as if I were stupid - a conclusion they have some justification for drawing - and told me that they treat these three races the same as the first race, the last race, and every other race in between. Flat out, and trying to win. It is impossible to win championships without winning races, as Casey Stoner likes to point out, so it is better to focus on that than on worrying about what might happen.