Another MotoGP event, another weekend full of speculation about the weather. The rain clouds that seem to follow the MotoGP circus around since it landed in Europe are hanging over Germany, though opinion among both local experts and the weather professionals is divided as to whether it will actually rain or not. The best guess at the moment is that Friday and Saturday should be dry - Saturday expected to be especially good weather - while several hours of rain are expected on race day. Or not, depending on who you believe.
Regardless of the weather, we could see a decent race on Sunday: the Honda riders are as buoyant as you would expect at a track where Dani Pedrosa has dominated for the past couple of years, while Jorge Lorenzo is convinced that going back to the 2010 chassis - or parts of it - and last year's settings have given him the comfortable feeling that he needs to be competitive. Casey Stoner is as confident as you might expect a championship leader to be - though when asked directly whether he expected to win on Sunday, he would say only that he was "more than capable of running at the front." With a stable front end and the drive to help keep the bike turning around the Sachenring's tight and technical layout, Stoner looks like being the hot favorite here, especially as Pedrosa is still recovering from the aftermath of his crash at Le Mans.
Pedrosa's condition is improving every day, he told reporters, and the fact that the Sachsenring is mainly left-handers and has few hard braking spots means he will be hampered less here than back in Mugello. The additional two weeks' recovery time is another reason for Pedrosa's confidence, but even a podium was more than the Repsol Honda rider was prepared to guess at.
That tight, technical layout is one of the reasons the track is unloved by many of the riders. While the riders in the pre-event press conference were too diplomatic to put the boot in, Andrea Dovizioso, speaking separately, had no such qualms. What was wrong with the Sachsenring? "Too short, too slow, too many left corners," the Italian summed the track up neatly, adding that coming to somewhere as tight and slow as the Sachsenring directly from the fast and flowing glory of Mugello made the contrast even starker.
Dovizioso also had an interesting insight into going fast around the German circuit. The key, he said, was not to use too much traction control - a mistake he and his team made last year. "You need to spin to keep the line," he said, or in other words, by spinning up the rear, you help get the bike turned, sliding the rear to bring it around. As anyone who has seen the fantastic super slowmo footage of Casey Stoner put up recently by Red Bull USA can attest, sliding the rear is an integral part of riding an 800, but it is done with such finesse nowadays - helped in part by the electronics - that it is hard to see without watching in slow motion.
Dovizioso was ebullient, very confident that he could be right at the sharp end on Sunday. Their traction control problems from last year had been solved, and the test at Mugello had provided a lot of data to help with engine braking, the other key part of going fast on a MotoGP bike. With the solutions cooked up by Dovizioso's engineers between then and now, the Italian felt he could cause a bit of a surprise.
Of course, the Italian causing most of the surprises this year is Valentino Rossi. The nine-time world champion continues to struggle on the Desmosedici, the GP11.1 (basically the GP12 with a destroked motor to bring it to within the 800cc limit) notwithstanding. The revised rear end of the GP11.1 had solved the pumping that the previous bike had suffered at the rear, but the front-end issues remain. "This is not a good moment for us," Rossi said during the press conference, "and we have to keep working." Rossi will once again be without his long-time crew chief Jeremy Burgess at the Sachsenring, as the Australian is staying at home once again to be at the bedside of his wife, who is recovering from cancer surgery. Rossi hoped that Burgess would be back at Laguna, but much depends on how Claudine progresses. There are still some things more important than motorcycle racing.
Some of Rossi's frustration at the situation seeped out during the pre-event press conference. When asked about the Italian's favorite race - the Sachsenring marking Rossi's 250th Grand Prix, and occasion which Rossi was less than delighted to mark, as it made him feel old, he said - he said he had difficulty choosing. The two favorites were Welkom 2004 - Rossi's debut race on the Yamaha M1, in which he beat Max Biaggi on the Honda after a scintillating duel - and Laguna Seca 2008, in which he took an outclassed Yamaha M1 and got in the way of Casey Stoner so much that he forced the Australian into a mistake. In the past, Rossi has always favored the race at Welkom. However, sat next to Casey Stoner on the podium, he changed his mind, saying he would have to choose Laguna '08 "because it was closer in time." And of course, this had nothing to do with the frequent references that the fans and media make to the fact that Rossi has failed to subdue the Desmosedici in the way that Stoner did for the past four years.
Rossi's difficulties with the Ducati have been obvious to even the casual observer of the sport. In preparation for this race, I went back and watched the 2010 German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring. That was the race at which Rossi returned after breaking his leg at Mugello, some 40 days before. But despite a weak leg - and a weak and painful shoulder, Rossi still struggling with the shoulder injury he picked up riding a dirt bike after the Qatar season opener - Rossi looked like a completely different rider to the one who has struggled with the Desmosedici. Rossi flowed on the Yamaha, able to put it wherever he wanted almost effortlessly, on the Yamaha, Rossi looked imperious and majestic. On the Ducati, Rossi looks tentative, cautious, conservative, not the nine-time world champion that he is.
Andrea Dovizioso put the difference he saw between the two into words. After following him for a few laps during warm up at Mugello, Dovizioso said it was clear that Rossi had no feeling with the bike. "I think this is the first time he loses the feeling on the bike," Dovizioso said. Looking at Rossi's results during practice and the race made the situation clear. "If you see riders that don't go fast in the practice, and in the race go better, but not with a good result, it is because they have no feeling with the bike. When you have the mentality of the race, you can do the best result in the race. But if you are slow in the practice, it is because you don't know what you need to know, so you lose the feeling."
Did that change the way that he saw Valentino Rossi, I asked of Dovizioso. "This is the first time I see Valentino like this," Dovizioso said, "So this means that he is like every other rider." There was one key difference, though. "He is like every other rider, but with 9 titles," Dovizioso added.
The Ducati has earned the reputation as a career killer over the past few years. When the reputation that is being assassinated is that of the greatest rider of his generation, and at least one of the best, if not the greatest ever rider of all time, then it is clear that the problem is not the riders, but the bike.