2014 Sachsenring Sunday MotoGP Round Up - Marquez' Perfect Record, Dangerous Starts, And A Spaniard-Free Zone
The former England soccer player Gary Lineker once described the sport as follows: "Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win." It feels somehow fitting to paraphrase that quote on the day that the Germans play in the World Cup final. Motorcycle racing is a simple sport, where 23 people ride a MotoGP bike as fast as they can, and Marc Marquez always wins.
He found yet another way to win at the Sachsenring. A heavy rain shower between the Moto2 race and the sighting lap for MotoGP left the grid in disarray, with about three quarters of the field heading in to swap from their wet to their dry bikes at the end of the warm up lap. That left fourteen riders to start from pit lane, five abreast, after jostling for position. At that point, the race should have been red flagged – more on that later – but instead, they all got out of pit lane safely. Just.
Marquez showed himself to be a master of improvisation, pitting quickly, swapping bikes and elbowing his way to the front of the pits. He took advantage of the chaos, exited pit lane first, and led the charge towards the shellshocked remainder of the pack who had started from the grid proper. He was 8.5 seconds behind the leader Stefan Bradl by the end of the first sector, a deficit which he had cut to 7.7 seconds by the end of the first lap. Before the sixth lap was completed, he had caught and passed the LCR Honda man, going on to win his ninth straight MotoGP race with relative ease. He faced an early challenge from his teammate Dani Pedrosa, but Marquez was more aggressive in getting past Bradl, where Pedrosa hesitated for a second. Pedrosa pushed hard once past, nearly caught Marquez, but faded towards the end.
2014 Sachsenring Saturday MotoGP Round Up - Marquez On Pole, Silly Season Shenanigans, And The Dangers Of Skipping Moto2
After he missed out on pole at Barcelona, and then again at Assen, people were starting to wonder if cracks were starting to appear in Marc Marquez's hegemony in MotoGP. His performance in qualifying may have faltered, but his reign remained intact when it counted, winning the first eight races in a row. On Saturday, Marquez hammered home his supremacy once again, taking pole by three tenths of a second – an eternity at the short and tight German circuit – and breaking Casey Stoner's pole record for the circuit from 2008, a record set on super-sticky qualifying rubber, tires which disappeared with the introduction of the spec tire a year later. Once again, Marquez moved the bar, posting the first ever sub 1'21 lap of the Sachsenring.
It was a goal he suspected was possible when he posted a 1'21.5 on used tires during FP4. Already fast on his first run, everything slotted into place on his second, and the new record was his. "I felt everything was perfect with the second tire, and I could get the record," Marquez said. His seventh pole of the season also sets him up to retain his perfect win record on Sunday. Starting on the front row is crucial at the Sachsenring. The track is tight, and passing places are few and far between. Starting from pole, especially for a relatively poor starter like Marquez, gives him a head start for tomorrow's race.
So who can challenge Marquez on Sunday? The list of candidates is short. There is of course his teammate, Dani Pedrosa always having been fast here at the circuit. Pedrosa post a fast lap on his first qualifying run, and looked set to improve it as he exited the pits for his second attempt. He was perhaps a little too eager, however, and the Repsol Honda man folded the front going into Turn 1 just as he started his second flying lap. "I think I hit a bump under braking," Pedrosa said. His race pace throughout practice was good, but could not match the pace of Marquez.
2014 Sachsenring Friday MotoGP Round Up - Marquez' Big Crash, Some Fast Yamahas, And Fixing Turn 11 Again
There are those who say that Marc Marquez is due a big crash soon. He is always riding so close to the edge of traction that at some point, he will go over the limit and suffer the consequences, they reason. They will therefore not have been surprised to learn that Marquez had a huge highside on Friday morning. What will surprise them is the cause of the crash. It was not due to pushing his Honda RC213V beyond the limits of adhesion, he explained to the media afterwards, but was caused by a minor slip of his foot. His toe touched the gear lever, clicking the bike into 3rd, and that caused the rear tire to grip momentarily and flick him off.
The crash happened at Turn 2. "You turn with the gas in second gear," Marquez said. "I didn't know at the time, but I was touching a little bit the gear lever." In the last part of the corner, he accidentally engaged third, and as he kept the throttle in the same position, the bike highsided. Marquez was thrown upside down, and landed on his neck. He was lucky to walk away, but walk away he did. He returned to the garages and was straight back on the bike again, posting the sixth fastest time, six tenths off the pace of Aleix Espargaro, and a third of a second behind Jorge Lorenzo.
By the afternoon, Marquez was back at full speed, and second quickest behind Aleix Espargaro once again. He still had some stiffness in his neck, he said, but it was not really hindering him. "The neck feels a bit locked in some corners, but it is not a problem," he said. Intensive physiotherapy kept his neck warm, and prevented it from seizing up and becoming painful. That only happened after the session was over, and his neck started to cool down.
2014 Sachsenring MotoGP Preview - On Breaking The Streak, Fighting For Contracts And Keeping The Waterfall
After winning the first five races of the season, Marc Marquez said he feared the trio of Mugello, Barcelona and Assen, which were to follow. He would surely be beaten at one of those tracks, given they favored the Yamaha M1 and were strong tracks for both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. Three races and three wins later, and Marquez is looking increasingly invincible. The Repsol Honda man keeps inventing new ways to win, and keep his opponents at bay.
So if Marquez is impossible to beat at a Yamaha circuit, perhaps he can be beaten at a Honda track. So far, Dani Pedrosa has been the only rider to get close to beating his teammate, after pushing him all the way at Barcelona. The Sachsenring is a track where Pedrosa has reigned supreme in recent years, having won four times in the last eight years. Impressive as it is, that does not do his record at the track justice. In his rookie year, he finished fourth in Germany, missing out by just three tenths of a second in one of the closest and most thrilling races to be held at the circuit. In 2008 he crashed out of the lead in the wet, a result that would lead him to concentrate on improving his riding in the rain. In 2009 he finished third, close behind the battle between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, and in 2013, Pedrosa was absent after breaking a collarbone during practice.
There is just one minor problem. If you think Dani Pedrosa's record at the Sachsenring is strong – and numbers don't lie, Pedrosa is the man to beat in Germany – just wait until you see what Marc Marquez has done at the circuit. For the past four years, in three different classes, Marquez has won the race after starting from pole. The Spaniard won here in his last year in 125s, won both Moto2 races he contested here, then took victory in his first MotoGP race at the circuit. It was his second win in the class, after becoming the youngest ever winner at Austin earlier in 2013. Marquez did not have to beat either Pedrosa or Lorenzo, of course, both men having withdrawn with broken collarbones. So this race is a straight fight for Sachsenring supremacy. The winner in 2014 may rightly call himself King of the 'Ring.
The Comprehensive MotoGP Silly Season Update: How Things Stand For Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, Suzuki, Kalex, And Even Moto3
The current status of MotoGP's silly season? Two down, plenty still to go. Valentino Rossi may have joined Marc Marquez as the only other factory rider to have put pen to paper for 2015 and 2016, the rest of the grid is still in the middle of negotiating their riders for next year. Even Cal Crutchlow, who has a contract to race with Ducati in 2015, but more of that later.
Who will join Rossi at Movistar Yamaha and Marquez at Repsol Honda? Most likely, the two men who are already there. It is hard to see either Dani Pedrosa or Jorge Lorenzo jumping ship to ride anywhere else. Though HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto flirted with Lorenzo late last year, he understands that it would be terrible team politics to upset his number one rider, and the man who is likely to bring a fleet of titles to Honda over the next few season.
What HRC needs is a reliable number two rider, and Pedrosa has proven to be perfect in that role. Fast enough to win races of his own accord, and a solid force in the team, not the kind of character to kick up a fuss. He has six podiums this year, as well as a pole position, and can win should Marquez falter. Spanish media are reporting that Pedrosa is close to wrapping up a contract with the Repsol Honda team, with talks having gone at Assen. The new contract would mean less salary for Pedrosa, but at least at Honda, he has a chance of winning races. Big money offers from Ducati and Suzuki are much more of a gamble, with neither bike yet having proven capable of winning.
With the win at Assen, Marc Marquez brought his tally for the season up to eight, and a clean sweep of the races so far. After the race, many fans remarked on Marquez' remarkable pit swap strategy, jumping straight from one bike to the other without touching the ground, rather than hopping off one and onto the second bike, as the other riders on the grid do. It looks spectacular in photos, such as this one tweeted by Marquez himself, though if you watch the video from MotoGP's Youtube channel, it's clearly more of a hop than a leap.
Did Marquez get any benefit from it? The best way to answer that is to measure it, and fortunately, the MotoGP.com website offers us two ways to do that. The results section of the website holds a PDF with an analysis of every lap done by each rider, broken down into sector times. By taking the times posted by each rider for the last sector of the lap on which they entered the pits, and the first sector of the lap on which they exited the pits, we get a clear idea of how much time riders lost in swapping bikes. In addition, the video of the race on the MotoGP.com website (MotoGP.com subscription required) shows on screen the times riders actually spent in the pits, from crossing the pit lane entrance line to the pit lane exit line. Using these two numbers, we can get a fair idea of who comes out best after making their pit stops.
2014 Assen Post-Race Round Up - Of Tire Gambles, The Wisdom Of Thinking For Yourself, And Lorenzo's Fear
A veritable galaxy of stars may have lined up on the grid for the 84th Dutch TT at Assen, but the real stars of the show were the elements. After the rain wreaked havoc on qualifying, shaking up the grid, it was back on Saturday for two of the three races. Riders and teams were forced to rethink their strategy, make decisions quickly, and gamble on tires and the weather. It made for intriguing races, rather than sheer thrills like the MotoGP race at Barcelona. Changing conditions offered the brave and the smart opportunities, and mercilessly punished anyone who got it wrong. You felt for the 45 minutes of the races that anything could happen.
The Moto3 riders had it easiest of all, conditions cool but relatively consistent. The track did not allow for mistakes, however: Jack Miller's strategy of trying to pull a gap early backfired badly, the Australian crashing out of the lead. Miller's saving grace was that Romano Fenati, his main rival in the title chase, made even bigger mistakes than he did, crashing out twice, and failing to score points. The day belonged to the Hondas, with Alex Marquez controlling the race from the front, despite challenges from teammate Alex Rins and a quickly closing Miguel Oliveira. With two Hondas and a Mahindra on the podium, this was the first time since Le Mans 2012 that a KTM was not on the podium, and the first ever Moto3 race where a KTM engine did not power any of the podium bikes.
Conditions were much trickier for the Moto2 riders, rain falling heavily before the race, but then quickly starting to dry. It was clear that if the rain held off, a dry line would soon appear, and a few riders gambled on fitting a slick rear. The rain did not hold off, however, falling heavily again in the early laps. That put riders like Dominique Aegerter, who had reckoned on using a slick rear, a long way behind the leaders, his tire only coming good in the second half of the race. The rain allowed Simone Corsi and Sam Lowes to get away at the front, pulling a big lead in a short period. The pair looked set to dispute victory between the two of them, but Lowes pushed a little too hard, losing the front and going down. Corsi could have just cruised to victory, but that proved too much to ask, the NGM Forward rider crashing out of a commanding lead at the halfway mark.
Success in motorcycle racing is a fickle beast. Getting everything just right to get the best out the bike and rider is a difficult undertaking, with a thousand factors standing ready to throw a spanner in the works. The bike has to have the right balance of stability in braking, nimbleness in corner entry, and strength in acceleration. The rider has to be in peak physical condition, mentally on top of his game, and ready to seize any opportunity which presents itself. When track conditions are ideal, the rider has to be able to find the limit of adhesion. When track conditions or the weather are not playing ball, the rider has to guess the right time to attack, and the right time to hold off. They have to judge how the conditions are changing and when they are ripe to be exploited. Get it right, and you dominate. Get it wrong, and you are lost in the pack.
You also have to be lucky, or know how to make your own luck. The qualifying session for the MotoGP class at Assen showed just how big a role luck can play, the weather playing a massive role in proceedings. The weather changes fast at Assen. In a country as flat as the Netherlands, the wind blows cloud and rain in quickly, and carries it away just as fast. Bright sunshine can change to heavy cloud in a few minutes, with rain following on behind. Which is just what happened on Friday afternoon. Sunshine made way for gray skies, the air pregnant with moisture. It spotted with rain in the morning, briefly during FP4, but only really struck during Q2. It threw the plans and running order of MotoGP into disarray, with smart and lucky riders winning out, the ill-starred ending up well down the grid.
The weather demonstrated how sometimes, disarray can turn to your advantage. Skies had been getting heavier all throughout Q1, though it was never more than a few drops which fell. That changed as Q2 got underway. Rain started falling more heavily at De Bult, the mid-section of the southern part of the circuit, just as Q2 got underway. That caused a sprint race from pit lane exit, the riders battling more like a bunch of Red Bull Rookies than experienced veterans of motorcycle racing's premier class. The sprint soon turned into jockeying for position: nobody wanted to lead, as being the first rider into a corner turned you into the guinea pig, testing grip for everyone following. Following was not much better: though you could at least see what the conditions were for the riders ahead, you did not want to get stuck in the traffic behind. Eleven riders left the pits together, getting stuck watching each other, speeding up, slowing down, and constantly trying to figure out what the best strategy might be.
If there was one factor that surprised everyone on the first day of practice at Assen, it was the weather. Everyone had been prepared for rain, and had contingency plans for when the rain would eventually come. But it didn't. It rained all around the circuit, severe weather warnings were issued for several surrounding towns, heavy rain fell in nearby Groningen, and local beaches were evacuated because of thunderstorms, but the TT Circuit at Assen stayed dry all day. The wind blew the morning clouds away, and the sun shone down gloriously on the circuit, catching out the unwary, and giving all three Grand Prix classes, plus the many support series a full day of excellent weather.
The riders made good use of the conditions, and the unexpected track time threw up a couple of serious surprises. In the morning, Pol Espargaro set the fastest time, finishing ahead of his brother Aleix. In the afternoon session, it was Aleix who was quickest, though this time Pol could not match the pace of his elder brother. That he should not be able to is hardly surprising; Aleix Espargaro's FP2 time beat the existing pole record from 2012, held by Casey Stoner. Pol could not improve as much as Aleix did, going just a tenth of a second faster, rather than well over a second. But as a satellite rider, Pol does not have the soft tire which Aleix used to set the fastest lap, Pol was quick to point out.
May I be permitted a little bias for the MotoGP round held in my adopted country? There are many magical motorcycle races around the world. The Isle of Man TT has speed, danger, and one of the most remarkable backdrops in motorsports. Mugello has an astounding track, a hothouse atmosphere, and breathtaking scenery. Jerez has an intensity among the fans without equal, hosted in a beautiful part of the world when Andalusia is at its best, in the spring.
But I think I would still swap them all for Assen. Once, it was the greatest racetrack in the world. Fast, flowing, with challenges favoring any rider with the perfect combination of bravery and skill. Full of fast kinks, banked turns, and with a camber and crown to the surface that was a throwback to the public roads which once comprised the circuit. Throughout the years, the circuit was pruned back, from 16 kilometers, to just under 8 kilometers, to 6 kilometers. In 2006, the track was neutered altogether, as a combination of financial necessity and encroaching housing development saw the North Loop, the jewel in Assen's crown, surgically removed and replaced with the much smaller, much shorter loop which now quickly folds back on itself and takes the riders back to the old southern section, where the old glory of the track lives on.
Hard braking for De Haarbocht, named for the village now absorbed by Assen's urban sprawl, the everlasting right hander through Madijk and Ossebroeken round to the Strubben hairpin. A hard, short turn onto the Veenslang, the back straight. Straight? Not so much: the literal translation is 'turf snake', and snake it does, down to the blistering right-left-right of the Ruskenhoek chicane. Through the right at Stekkenwal, and another snaking straight down to De Bult – 'the lump' and a very lumpy corner it is indeed. From there it is all rights, building speed through Mandeveen, Duikersloot, and Meeuwenmeer, on to perhaps the most perfect piece of race track in the world. First, there's the Hoge Heide – 'High Heath' – the right-left flick that looks like nothing at all on a track map, but is one of the most intimidating corners on the planet. Making that change of direction at over 270 km/h is not easy, especially as you still have to lift the bike over the crown of the track, avoiding the dip on the far end of the flick. The run through the Ramshoek, a hot-and-fast left, before the Geert Timmer bocht, the chicane named after the legendary racer and circuit commissioner.