Archive - 2009 - Race Story
The 2009 World Superbike season has been one for the ages. Close racing, victories snatched from the jaws of defeat (and vice-versa), heartbreak, triumph and an against-all-odds comeback from near-Palookaville. The ultimate protagonists were the stuff of central race-film casting: The lovable but aging hard-luck veteran who has been oh-so-close to the brass ring nearly too many times to count pitted against the hot young kid, a tall, cool Texan with a thousand mile stare.
As if according to a Hollywood script, our heroes came to the last round of the year in a virtual dead heat for the championship. All the ingredients for an epic confrontation were in place. Winning was essential, failure not an option. At the end of the day, one would saunter off into the sunset wreathed in victory and one would have the bitter ashes of defeat lingering on his palate, but they both would have fought the good fight and have acquitted themselves with honor. Unfortunately, real life has a way of being a bit more prosaic than what we would crave. Today's races, while hardly unexciting, were just that sort of reality check.
Race 1 -- All Fall Down
From the blustery shores of Phillip Island, the MotoGP paddock have headed north into the tropics, swapping Australia's chilly spring for Malaysia's hot and humid northeast monsoon, packing away their quilted jackets and retrieving their lightest cotton shirts once again.
The contrast is not just in the climate, however. The two tracks could hardly be more different, in just about every way imaginable. The Phillip Island circuit sits well away from civilization, at the edge of an island looking out over the great Southern Ocean. Sepang, on the other hand, lies just a handful of miles from Kuala Lumpur, one of the great cities of Southeast Asia.
Matching its isolated location, the facilities at Phillip Island are rather basic, to put it kindly. Not so at Sepang, which boasts ultramodern paddock facilities, large, well-furnished pit garages and an air-conditioned media center, as well as two striking grandstands lining the back and the front straight.
The track layouts are also perfect examples of the difference between the old and the new. While Phillip Island is still based loosely on the public roads which once hosted the racing, Sepang is a purpose-built Tilke-designed CAD masterpiece, with each corner carefully calculated by computer. In this aspect, though, the new simply cannot rival the old, the Malaysian track's complex layout no match for the glorious flowing ribbon of asphalt the rolls up and down Phillip Island's landscape.
There is an unspoken rule among motorcycle racers: you always ride, no matter what. Broken bones are shrugged off, bruises laughed at and only very severe injury is enough to keep riders off their bikes. There is one exception, and that is one honored more in the breach than in the observance: brain injuries (usually contusions and concussions) and broken vertebrae are taken deadly seriously, and if suspected will make the normally extraordinarily lenient medical staff of the Clinica Mobile hesitate to give a rider the all-clear.
So naturally, when Casey Stoner took two months away from racing to treat an illness that stubbornly refused to be diagnosed despite being examined by a trail of doctors around the world, a blaze of rumors swept through the MotoGP paddock. As there was apparently nothing wrong with the Australian, it had to be something else. Some said he was a broken man, and could no longer cope with the mental pressure being applied to him by Valentino Rossi. Others claimed that he hated Europe and wanted to leave MotoGP altogether, asserting that Stoner's preferred option was to go and race V8 Supercars in Australia instead. Some alleged that the problem was being caused by Stoner's poor diet and exercise routine, the 2007 World Champ surviving on chocolate and vitamins, rather than nutritionally-balanced meals. The most bizarre rumors involved friction within the team, caused by Ducati team boss Livio Suppo having made a pass at Stoner's young wife.
Whatever the real cause of Stoner's problem, opinion in the paddock was almost unanimous before Stoner's return to racing at Estoril. No one who had ever taken time away from racing to recover from a series of vague and poorly-defined complaints had ever returned to their pre-absence form, and, it was feared, much the same fate awaited Casey Stoner. Upon his return, the consensus ran, he might turn up at the front every now and again but he would never be the force that he was in 2007 and 2008. Nobody else before him had, so why would Stoner be any different?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the heart of MotoGP lies in Europe, and more particularly, in Spain and Italy. Most of the teams are based in one of these two countries, the riders are overwhelmingly from those two Mediterranean countries, and at least a passing knowledge of either Spanish or Italian - the two are similar enough that knowledge of one will allow you to get by in the other - is an absolute prerequisite for survival in the MotoGP paddock.
But MotoGP's Eurocentric nature begs an important question: Why fly a couple of hundred tons of equipment halfway around the world to race at an unearthly time, when the series' major television audience is still safely tucked up in bed and fast asleep after what is usually a very lively Saturday night in Barcelona, Madrid, Rome or Milan? Why on earth would a series which has its heart around the Mediterranean fly all the way to Australia, and close to that distant continent's most southerly tip at that?
The Edge Of The World
For anyone who has seen the track at Phillip Island, or watched a race at the circuit, the matter needs no explanation at all. Despite being perched on the very edge of Australia - or perhaps because of it - Phillip Island is probably the greatest motorcycle racing circuit on the planet, and certainly the finest track that the MotoGP series visits still left on the calendar. The track balances on the edge of the world, located beside the Bass Strait with only Tasmania between the runoff at Siberia and the great Southern Ocean.
The reason for the track's greatness is that it has been largely left untouched. The layout of the circuit is mostly unchanged since its construction in the early 1950s, taking the place of an earlier 10 mile circuit which had staged racing since the late '20s. The layout is therefore fairly simple: fast sweepers connected by a few short straights and a couple of tight corners, all flowing up and down the rolling hills of Phillip Island where once public roads ran. Yet this simplicity produces a thing of exquisite beauty; from the first corner to the last, the Phillip Island circuit challenges tires, machinery and riders equally, and has managed to generate some of the most exciting racing ever seen in the past couple of decades.
The 2009 MotoGP season has seen the advent of a remarkable period in motorcycle road racing. For the first time in perhaps twenty years, there are not one or two riders dominating the championship, but a grand total of four. On any given day, at any given racetrack, any one of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa or Casey Stoner can win, sometimes by a few hundredths, sometimes by a few seconds.
What is even more remarkable is the gap these four have over the rest of the field. Check each rider's fastest lap of the race at a particular circuit and the fifth fastest man is inevitably well over half a second slower than the leaders. While the leaders finish within seconds of each other, the race for fifth usually takes place half a minute or more behind the winner.
So dominant have Stoner, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Rossi become that they have spawned a veritable avalanche of nicknames: the Aliens, the Untouchables, the Fantastic Four, the list goes on and on. And because there are four of them operating at such a peak of performance in terms of talent, application and fitness, each must push himself to the limit not to get left behind by the other three, and come sailing back down to Earth with mere mortals such as double World Superbike Champion Colin Edwards or former 125cc World Champion Andrea Dovizioso.
Then There Were Three
The stress of having to push to the limit and beyond just to keep up was what was blamed by many, both inside and outside the paddock, when the Fantastic Four lost one of its number. After suffering stomach cramps, vomiting and extreme fatigue at Barcelona and at subsequent races, and after initial medical tests failed to yield a conclusive diagnosis, Casey Stoner returned to Australia to sit out the races at Brno, Indianapolis and Misano, and try to pinpoint an exact cause.
As the MotoGP paddock reassembles in Portugal after the enforced layoff of the canceled Hungarian round, all of the talk in the paddock will be of one subject: the return of Ducati's prodigal son. And that's a terrible shame.
For the place where MotoGP finds itself is at Estoril, one of the finest circuits on the calendar. The track is a mass of contradictions and ambiguities, best summed up by the old PERL programmer's motto, TIMTOWTDI: There Is More Than One Way To Do It. For the track is both the slowest circuit on the calendar and yet boasts some of the highest top speeds of the year. It has the slowest corner of the season, and a treacherously fast right-hand flick along the back of the paddock.
And it's not just that the corners are so diverse; it's also the lines through them. Three corners truly exemplify this: Turn 4, the Curva VIP; Turn 6, the Parabolica Interior; and the chicane at Gancho, comprising Turns 9 and 10. Turns 4 and 6 are very long hairpins, so long that there are two distinctly different lines through them: the classic out-in-out route through the apex, or the berm route so admirably demonstrated by Toni Elias over the past few years, whereby you hug the outer rumblestrip, maintaining corner speed to fire out onto either the back straight or the run into Orelha, carrying more pace than the riders you were behind when you entered the corner.
The chicane, however, is a beauty, one of the finest of its kind. You can either flick left then right, attempting to maintain momentum, or you can stuff your bike up the inside of the man ahead and execute that fan favorite, the block pass. If you're ahead, on the other hand, you can slam the door on anyone attempting to get under you, forcing them almost to a standstill if they wish to remain on the track.
There's just something about Italy and motorcycles. The culture and economy are suffused with the love of all things two-wheel. Chances are, if you are a motorcylist at least a bit of your kit is produced in Italy or maybe your garage is populated by machines that were designed and built by people who have a preternatural passion for motorcycles. Italians love racing, too, and when you combine the two on Italian soil you always have the opportunity for something special. Italian riders feed on this passion and the energy and intensity they absorb makes them try just a bit harder than they might at, say, Sepang or Motegi. Of course, that energy and intensity can have a flip side as well, just ask Colin Edwards, he'll give you a profane mouthful about Italian riders in Italy.
Coming into Imola, 2 riders not from Italy but who have been virtually adopted by the paisanos as their own and whose teams are from the country, came into ths round in a dogfight for the world title. Amercan Ben Spies had clawed back from an 88 point deficit to lead the series by 18 points on the back of 2nd place man Noriyuki Haga's crash in race two at the Nurburgring. This capped a misbegotten string of mostly mediocre races that saw Haga slipping in the points spread, partly due to injuries to his shoulder and arm.
Race One: Old Age and Treachery
Lately, the flow of racing endorphins has dried up for motorcycle junkies. There hasn't been any bike racing on the world scene since Labor Day weekend (OK, so there has been BSB and *yawn* endurance racing). The sight of once-proud motorcycle journalists posting trivia like a list of the ages of racers as news items is a pitiful one and the most heated topic of discussion is the silly season. Cold Turkey is an ugly experience indeed.
Luckily for us, the drought is nearly over and the World Superbike series will resume this weekend at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, near Imola, Italy. When we last met at the Nurburgring, American rookie sensation "Big" Ben Spies had wrested the lead in the series from Xerox Ducati's "Nitro" Noriyuki Haga as a result of the Texan's win in race one and second place in race two while Haga
was knocked went down as a result of contact with Ten Kate Honda's Jonny Rea. At the end of the day, Spies found himself atop the leader board, 18 points ahead of Haga.
With 6 races left in the season, the championship has become Spies' to lose. The Yamaha Italia team tested at Imola last July and Spies was at or near the top of the time sheets most of the time. Spies was also fast at the season-ending Portimao test last year on a bike he'd never seen before. That leaves Magny Cours as the only track that the American has no prior seat time at, not that lack of track knowledge has been much of an impediment to his meteoric rise to the top.
Nori looks to have mostly recovered from the broken wrist and shoulder blade incurred at Donington Park in June. Haga finished a close second to Spies in Race one in Germany and was running at the the front before he was taken out. Haga's Xerox Ducati team mate, Michel "Mr. Fabulous" Fabrizio hasn't provided much of an assist to Haga, other than his failed pass in race 1 at Brno that sent both himself and Spies into the kitty litter.
On the face of it, MotoGP is in trouble. There are just 17 bikes on the grid, the lowest number in recent memory; a factory has withdrawn due to financial problems, as has a satellite team; another team has had to swap riders mid-season to bring in someone with sufficient sponsorship to allow the team to continue. Every couple of races MotoGP's rule-making body meets, trying to find new ways to cut costs and looking for rule changes that might make the series cheaper. And contract negotiations have switched from being about riders extracting large salaries from the teams that are trying to hire them to teams finding the riders who will ride for free and bring in the most sponsorship cash.
Yet take a step back and throw off the shroud the global recession has cast over the MotoGP paddock and the series is looking as healthy as ever. Sure, there may be only 17 bikes on the grid, but there are four riders who are capable of winning at any racetrack we visit. The margin of victory is falling again and last-lap passes and gaps of under a second are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Crowd attendance is up, as are TV audiences; team merchandise sales are extremely brisk; and new outside industry sponsors are trickling into the sport, finding valuable opportunities to promote their brands.
Best of all, perhaps the greatest rider of all time is up against a young apprentice, a rider whose speed matches his and who is learning the master's tricks at incredible speed. Both men have an insatiable appetite for victory, a keen intelligence, and otherworldly levels of ability. What's more, both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are on exactly the same bike - though Lorenzo might occasionally dispute that assertion.
Injury and illness have kept Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner from interfering too much in this rivalry - Pedrosa and Honda's progress delayed by the Spaniard's leg injury suffered during the preseason testing, and Stoner and Ducati's fierce challenge blunted by the Australian's mystery illness and his absence from the last three races - but that has only served to make the match up between team mates all the more intense. After two costly mistakes by Jorge Lorenzo gave Rossi the upper hand in the title race, a similarly expensive error at Indianapolis by The Doctor handed back half his championship lead and gave Lorenzo hope of the title once again.
There is a firmly ingrained belief in Europe that the United States, as a young country, has neither history nor any sense of it. The view back in the Old World is formed almost entirely - and almost entirely incorrectly - from Hollywood and the TV studios, of gleaming glass-fronted buildings, huge and hugely complicated freeway interchanges, and gated communities consisting of a vast sprawl of identikit houses, in the words of the Malvina Reynolds song, little boxes made of ticky tacky.
While it is true that Americans tend to treat their history with a little less respect than Europeans - many a fine 18th or 19th century building has been torn down and replaced with something modern without a second thought, where in Europe zoning regulations and building preservation orders would have made such destruction incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible - the US does have plenty of physical history and a deep understanding and respect for the markers of that history.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a prime example of this European misapprehension. Europe, with its long history and tradition of motorsports, boasts such classic tracks as Monza, Assen and Brooklands. But Brooklands fell into disrepair after the Second World War, the last piece of the original Assen track was pulled up in the changes in 2006, and while both Monza and Assen have a long history, they "only" date back to the 1920s. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on the other hand, hosted its first race in 1909, some 13 years before Monza and 18 years before racing first took place on the roads south of Assen.
Probably the best-known aphorism in motorcycle racing - or racing of any sort, for that matter - is that the first person you have to beat is your team mate. Your team mate, after all, is on exactly the same equipment with the same support, and so there are no excuses. If you beat him you're the better rider, if he beats you, he is. No argument.
Reality is always a little more complicated than a simple aphorism, of course. Just because you're in the same team doesn't necessarily mean that your bike is the same as your team mate's; development parts filter through at different rates. You may be on the same team, but like riders, not all team members are equal; your crew chief might be a genius or he might be just very, very smart, which can be the difference between finding three tenths of a second during the warm up on Sunday and losing the race because you're a tenth a lap too slow.
All the more reason to beat your team mate, then. After all, if you do so regularly, then it is you who will get the pick of the development parts, use of the genius crew chief and hopefully, a serious chunk of the team budget. You get the glory, but more importantly, you get the power. The bike is developed to your tastes rather than anyone else's, so that the bike naturally suits your style. This in turn allows you to get the most out of the bike, more than anyone else, increasing your advantage over your competition - and especially your team mate - and further tipping the balance of power in your favor.
It is this goal which has been driving Jorge Lorenzo since being beaten by Valentino Rossi at his home race in Barcelona. His contract with the Fiat Yamaha team comes to an end this season and talks on its renewal are in full swing. There are a lot of reasons for Lorenzo to stay with the squad - the bike is clearly the best on the grid, the team is probably the best run team in the paddock, and Yamaha's R&D department are dedicated to building a motorcycle that riders can win on, rather than a winning motorcycle - but there is one major downside: At Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo is the number two rider, not the number one.
For a young man as ambitious as he is talented, that is not good enough. Lorenzo wants to be number one, and the drawn out negotiations, the posturing, the flirtations with other manufacturers, all are aimed at securing that undisputed number one status, preferably with Yamaha. The one minor obstacle in his way is that at Yamaha he shares a garage with a rider who has 101 victories, 8 world titles and 6 MotoGP championships under his belt. Receiving preferential treatment over the man widely reckoned to be the greatest motorcycle racer ever is a very serious, and rather presumptuous, demand to make. There is only one way to ensure that such a demand is heeded: by beating your team mate, and beating him regularly.
Over the past few races, Jorge Lorenzo's intention to do just this has been increasingly clear. The young Spaniard has gone out at every practice and laid down a ferocious pace, challenging Rossi - and anyone else - to follow. He has demonstrated emphatically that Jorge Lorenzo is the fastest man on the track, and as such, is the man to beat.
MotoGP, like all things in life, has its seasons. As an outdoor activity taking place in the northern hemisphere, those seasons closely mirror the seasons of Europe: When the series starts racing in April, there's the thrill and excitement of things new and full of boundless possibility. In July, as summer hits its peak, the MotoGP field has taken shape, and the title chase is in full flow. In October, the championship starts winding down, and titles are mostly settled. And finally, in December, all activity ceases, as MotoGP embarks on its annual winter hibernation.
So by rights, as the riders return to the paddock at Brno after their short summer break and the championship well into its stride, the season should be rushing headlong along the course already laid out before MotoGP took its summer vacation after Donington. But some shock news and new rules coming into effect have thrown the series into confusion, leaving riders, teams and followers floundering for explanations and with a good deal more to think about than they were expecting.
The most astounding news was Casey Stoner's astonishing announcement that he will be missing at least the next three races, in a bid to discover the cause of the mystery ailment that has plagued him since Barcelona in mid-June. Although riders will often miss a couple of races to recover from a physical injury, to allow a broken leg or fractured wrist to heal, pulling out because of an undiagnosed complaint whose main symptoms are nausea and fatigue has set paddock tongues wagging. Though both Ducati and Stoner are certain the problem is down to some form of viral infection and the fact that since catching it shortly before Catalunya, Stoner has had no time to recuperate, the paddock gossips are putting it down to mental problems. Stoner and Ducati vehemently deny this, and although the Australian is undoubtedly dejected about being forced to pull out, he is back in his native country working on a training program and consulting doctors. Not the behavior of a broken man.
Whatever the causes of Stoner's problems, on the face of it, his withdrawal should make the title race somewhat simpler. With one of the three main candidates eliminated, the championship will surely go to either Valentino Rossi or Jorge Lorenzo. Nothing new in that of course, but in his quest to beat his team mate, Lorenzo had been counting on a little help. The 25 point deficit the Spaniard has to Rossi is a real mountain to climb, especially with just 7 races left in the season. And so Lorenzo had been hoping that Stoner could get between Rossi and himself and take extra points away from the reigning champ, allowing the young pretender to get closer to snatching Rossi's crown. With Dani Pedrosa back to full health and rapidly regaining fitness, Lorenzo had two potential allies capable of stealing points from his championship rival.
Of course, that's a sword that cuts both ways. With Valentino Rossi in the rampant form he is in and a resurgent Dani Pedrosa, Lorenzo could just as easily find himself losing 9 points to Rossi instead of just 5. At the Sachsenring, and again at Donington, Lorenzo saw the title slip away from him while Rossi extended his advantage. Lorenzo needs to break that trend right now.
Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things to do. At the end of a relationship, no matter how badly it ends, it is all too easy to look back at the good things, the happy memories, and gloss over the cracks and flaws that caused it all to end.
So it goes with Donington, which hosts the MotoGP series for the last time this year, for at least five years and probably longer. The track, located on the fringe of Leicestershire, has a long and glorious history of racing, dating back to 1937, though the circuit was closed after the Second World War, only hosting racing again in 1977. But based on the roads that ran round the grounds of the estate the track is built on, it still has the feel of an old-fashioned road circuit, like the best parts of Assen or Phillip Island.
The run down the hill through Craner Curves is still legendary, one of the finest sections of track still on the calendar today, and Schwantz, McLeans and Coppice are as challenging to get right as anywhere. The track has seen some memorable moments, from the affable Simon Crafar winning his only Grand Prix here in 1998 on the WCM Yamaha, to Valentino Rossi's battles with Loris Capirossi, or with Kenny Roberts Jr and Jeremy McWilliams, to Scott Redding's first victory for a British rider in the 125 class just last year.
Then there are the bad points. Most of the riders - all except Casey Stoner, rather surprisingly - hate the Melbourne Loop, calling it dismissively the "car park section", which is basically a set of esses and two short straights joined by hairpins. But even the horrors of the Melbourne Loop have their bright side: The Foggy Esses, the Melbourne Hairpin and Goddards are all excellent places for passing, generating plenty of spectacle despite the lack of respect they are regarded with by the riders.
The Aliens. That's what Randy de Puniet calls them. The Frenchman can find no other logical explanation for why Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner should be so much faster than the rest of the field. Certainly, the Yamaha is the best bike of the field, but in the hands of two-time World Superbike Champion Colin Edwards, it isn't half a second a lap or more faster. The Honda was the best bike of the 990 era, but only Dani Pedrosa has been able to win races on its 800cc cousin, even podiums being a rare event for anyone else riding the bike. And as for the Ducati, it has been the kiss of death for anyone who isn't called Casey Stoner.
Even better than the fact that these four are faster than the rest of the field is the fact that they are all pretty evenly matched. They may be half a second quicker than the 13 other MotoGP riders, but there's only tenths or fractions of tenths separating the four of them. The results reflect this: the margin of victory has been falling, from an average of 4.5 seconds for the first 9 races last year to just over 4 seconds this year, but that includes the monster 17.7 second victory by Jorge Lorenzo at Le Mans this year, where last year the largest gap was just 10 seconds.
As the gaps have closed, so the racing has become tenser. On any given day, any one of the Aliens can win, something they have all done at least once this year. It's clear that the Fantastic Four are on a showdown for the title and that a clash between the four is looming, but each time it looks like the fans might be in for the treat they've been waiting for, something has always conspired to prevent it. At first, it was Dani Pedrosa's recovery from a skin graft on his knee that left the Spaniard out of contention. Then Pedrosa had another crash, fracturing the top of his femur, and leaving him to struggle in races.
As Pedrosa began to recover, Casey Stoner suddenly started to suffer from vomiting and chronic fatigue, and was diagnosed with anemia and gastritis. The effort of racing beyond half distance has become too much for the Australian, taking him out of contention too early. And last time out at Laguna Seca, Jorge Lorenzo threatened to take himself out of the equation, dislocating a collarbone in a giant highside.
And so MotoGP fans have been left wanting, kept hungry at the prospect of the proper four-way battle they know awaits them. Like Tantalus, the race that would sate their appetite seems forever to be just out of their reach.
That did not stop MotoGP fans descending on the steeply wooded valleys of Saxony in their hundreds of thousands. The German track has provided great spectacle before, and the fans hoped it would do so again, and maybe this time, Rossi, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner would put on a race.
In every form of competition requiring a track, the participants travel around the track in a counter-clockwise direction, making a sequence of left turns. In track cycling, athletics, flat track, speedway, greyhound racing, horse racing, NASCAR and a host of other forms of racing, the competitors just keep turning left. There have been many theories advanced for just why this should be - this was the way the Greeks raced; right-handed people prefer to turn left, as they have more strength in their right leg than their left; even the Coriolis effect, which also causes water to go down a plughole counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere - but none have ever proved satisfactory.
The puzzling exception to this rule are road race circuits. The vast majority of racetracks around the globe buck the counter-clockwise trend, going against almost every other form of racing. Of the 17 tracks on this season's MotoGP calendar, 12 run clockwise, and just 5 run counter-clockwise, containing a majority of left handers. The MotoGP circus has just come from one of them - Laguna Seca - and now heads into the next, the tight and tortuous Sachsenring circuit.
As if to compensate for the excess of right-handers which the MotoGP circus faces, the Sachsenring crams a whole raft of lefts into its short 3.67 kilometer length. Just three right handers - the sharp right Coca Cola Kurve of Turn 1, the endless right of the Omega Kurve, as it rounds the tree-crested hump at its heart, then a single, blisteringly fast kink at the crest of the hill which runs down to towards the final two corners. That one right hander makes up for a lot, though. Nicky Hayden described it as one of the best corners the MotoGP circus visits, fast, blind, downhill, 5th or 6th gear; It is a corner to test the mettle of any rider.
Left Turn, Clyde
Joining those three right handers are a long sequence of lefts that start at the exit of the Omega Kurve and make their way over a crest, then up the hill again to that one fast right, before plummeting back down towards the final two lefts, the Sachsenkurve and Quickenburgkurve. The last two corners are the most crucial part of the track, the place where most of the passing gets done.
The Sachsenkurve is the most obvious candidate for a pass, as it offers the longest braking zone on the circuit. But it is also a risky move, the plunge down the hill leaving a lot of weight on the front wheel, and little room left to absorb the extra load of outbraking an opponent. Beyond the corner lies a large gravel trap, manned by a lot of tired marshals whose weekend consists of extracting the bikes of overoptimistic riders who have just discovered where the limit was.
But even if you get past at the Sachsenkurve, there's one more corner to go. And a pass underneath at the Sachsenkurve leaves you on the outside for the Quickenburgkurve, and open in turn to attack. The corner is tight and steeply uphill, and any drive you lose from a pass at the Sachsenkurve kills your speed through the Quickenburgkurve. More than one rider has got past at the first of those two left handers only to find themselves trailing out of the second, and considering a desperate attempt into the tight first right-hand turn.
The abundance of left handers favors riders with a history of turning left. And few have more history in that art than the former flat tracker and son of a flat tracker, Nicky Hayden. Hayden has had something of a resurgence of form over the past few races, his results improving until he scored an impressive 5th place finish at Laguna Seca. Prior to the Sachsenring race, Hayden said that he was finally starting to feel comfortable with the Ducati, after getting off to a terrible start, and regularly struggling just to score points.