After days of apparently talking about everything except motorcycle racing, the Sachsenring - nestled in the wooded valleys of Saxony, to borrow a phrase from elsewhere - served up a triple helping of thrilling, fairing-to-fairing racing. All talk of Japan and tires was temporarily forgotten, at least until the warm afterglow of a fantastic day's racing had diminished.
The day began with a riveting 125cc race, with a group of six battling for most of the race, dropping to just three, and then Hector Faubel and Johann Zarco crossing the line at exactly the same time. A video and photo finish could not separate them, and Faubel was finally awarded the win on the basis of having set a faster personal best lap during the race. There has to be some way of separating the riders in the event of a tie, but it was cruel for it to be settled this way. Faubel fully deserved the win - the Bankia Aspar rider rode the wheels of his Aprilia - but then so did Zarco. There was a sigh of disappointment through the press room as the popular Frenchman was denied, but there were few who begrudged Faubel the victory.
Next up was the Moto2 class, and by the standards of the day, it was relatively tame. Marc Marquez wrapped up yet another win - his fourth of the season, matching Stefan Bradl's total - with two laps to go, but the Spanish youngster was made to work hard for it. Marquez, Bradl and Alex De Angelis - the Italian always goes brilliantly at the Sachsenring - swapped the lead for 27 laps before Marquez made the decisive push, dropping the hard-charging Bradl with two to go. Though Marquez only narrowed the gap in the championship by 5 points, the fact that the Spaniard has now won three on the trot, four out of the last six races, and finished second in another one of those, Bradl's 47 point lead is looking anything but unassailable. Despite Marquez' strength, Bradl also rode superbly, taking everything he could from his home Grand Prix. This championship has all the makings of a thriller.
It also raises the question of what to do about Marquez next year. The Spaniard is firmly ensconced under the Repsol wing, but there is no room at the Repsol Honda MotoGP team for the foreseeable future. Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa are firmly ensconced in the factory Honda garage, both holding contracts through 2012. Andrea Dovizioso is not under contract for next year, but he is doing everything in his power to make it clear that the Italian deserves to be kept. Which leaves Marquez in Moto2 for 2012, but the experience of Toni Elias and, to a lesser extent, Karel Abraham has failed to demonstrate that Moto2 prepares riders for MotoGP. The lack of electronics, the extremely limited adjustments available to the purposefully rudimentary Suter clutch, and the inability to change the gearing leaves a lot for Moto2 riders to learn, and the fundamentally different nature of the Dunlops compared to the Bridgestones used in MotoGP means the riders learn totally different habits in Moto2. Another year in Moto2 may mean Marquez learns too many bad habits before going to MotoGP.
The main course - or was it the dessert? - was the best MotoGP race we have seen for quite some time. Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo rode a close, tense race with plenty of passes for the lead. The winning pass came with plenty of laps left to go, but the victory was far from certain until the end. An elated Pedrosa took victory, relieved to have his career back on track and delighted that a win had come so early after his return. The Spaniard is still suffering the after-effects of the collarbone surgery - his fractured right collarbone is being held together with a specially-made and much smaller plate and screws than is usual, making his recovery a significantly lengthier process than normal - and had hoped he might be able to get on the podium in the next couple of races, but had certainly not expected to win so soon.
Jorge Lorenzo took second ahead of Casey Stoner, with a wily and brave pass in the final corner. Lorenzo had seen his original plan to pass at the top of the hill go awry when he made a small mistake, but as he closed on Stoner at the bottom of the hill, he saw Stoner close the door rather firmly, and scented his chance. He pinned the throttle "like a 125" and held the line through Turn 12 to dive up the inside of Stoner, crossing the line in second and clawing back 4 important championship points from the Australian.
Both Stoner and Lorenzo had problems, however; Stoner with his Honda RC212V, and Lorenzo with a bad habit he picked up from riding two-strokes. Stoner said that he was still struggling with edge grip, and that spending so much time on the very edge of the tire meant that by the end of the race he had no more grip to defend against Lorenzo's move with. He was drained after the race with the effort of holding the bike up when the rear wanted to come round, and worried that he and his team have not yet found a solution to the problem. The problem is in the choice of clutch they are using: it eliminates the bulk of the chatter they have suffered in the past, but the downside is that it can sometimes be a bit harsh and lock the rear. The workaround to the problem is to keep the power on, but this chews through the tire too quickly.
Lorenzo's problem was much more simple, but a lot more difficult to solve. All through his racing career, he has learned to ride with a finger over the clutch ready to save the greatest fear of any two-stroke rider: the seized engine. By the time he switched to the four-stroke MotoGP bikes, it was too late to unlearn the reflex. The problem is, that at a left-handed track like the Sachsenring, where the bike spends so much time on its left-hand side, and the riders put so much pressure on the left handlebar, keeping a finger on the clutch causes the left arm to lock up. Lorenzo experimented with taking his finger off the clutch, but as soon as he did that, he found himself running wide, his normal posture unbalanced. Arm pump is just something he has had to learn to live with, and having gained 4 points on Stoner, the pain was less than it could have been.
There was great racing all throughout the field, and one of the most remarkable races came from the man making the most headlines on Saturday. After the worst qualifying result he has ever set while fully healthy, few were giving much for Valentino Rossi's chances. Yet the crew worked their usual Sunday-morning magic - even without chief wizard Jerry Burgess, still back in Australia with his wife as she recovers from surgery - and found a weight distribution change that allowed him to brake harder and enter the corners with more confidence than he had managed all weekend. His fastest race lap time was half a second quicker than he went in practice, and the improved braking performance was visible as a return to more prolific leg-waving on the brakes, Rossi's leg being mostly kept tucked tightly into the fairing so far this year.
The reversal in fortunes was warmly welcomed by the Italian, but the Ducati is still a long way off being competitive. Rossi's best time was half a second quicker than his own best practice time, but still nearly a second off the fastest lap set by Dani Pedrosa. The first half a second may be easy to find, but the next second may prove a real mountain to climb.
The situation also leaves both Rossi and Hayden in something of a quandary. Rossi had been thinking of waiting until the test on Monday after Brno - which, Mike Webb told Moto Journal's Thomas Baujard they were still eligible to do, as Ducati had not tested at Mugello - but he and his crew were now thinking of running a back-to-back test on Friday at Laguna Seca. Nicky Hayden was considering the same option, taking one GP11.1 and one GP11 on Friday to compare the two bikes, then electing to go with two of a particular type on the basis of that test for the rest of the weekend. That is completely legal: you can bring as many bikes as you want to the race track, but you can only have two bikes scrutineered at the same time, meaning that if Hayden tried both bikes on Friday, and decided to go with a GP11.1 for the rest of the weekend, they would have to take the sticker off the GP11 and have the second GP11.1 checked out by Mike Webb's technical staff and approved to ride. The real problem is one of engines, as the engine from the GP11.1 is completely different to the engine from the GP11, so Hayden would have to take two more engines from his allocation. At the halfway mark of the season, Hayden and Rossi would be certain of starting from pit lane at least once this year, but the experiment might be worth it if they collected enough data for next year's bike.
And this is where the big worry is. At the test on the Monday after Mugello, Casey Stoner ran a lap of 1'47.326. Hayden confessed earlier during the week that the Ducatis weren't doing 1'47.3s when they tested the 1000 at Mugello, and given the fact that Ducati believe that a 1000cc bike will be half a second quicker round the Italian circuit than an 800, Honda's dominance looks to be guaranteed into 2012. Paddock rumor - times from the 1000cc test are jealously guarded, though everyone seems to know them - suggests that Casey Stoner was two seconds quicker on the 1000 than he was during the race weekend earlier in the year. Though conditions were markedly better during the 1000cc test, that probably only accounts for half of that improvement, suggesting the RC213V - that's twenty-one three, not two thirteen, according to Honda's MotoGP head Shuhei Nakamoto - is a genuine rocketship.
Though neither Valentino Rossi nor Nicky Hayden would give much away, it is clear that Ducati are considering radical solutions to ease their predicament. Though Valentino Rossi denied he had asked Ducati for a traditional frame for the bike - "I am not an engineer, I am a rider" he said - nothing has been ruled out. When asked if Ducati were considering a deltabox frame, or changing the engine configuration, Hayden denied that Ducati had anything in the works, but did say that the MotoGP chief had a few ideas chalked up on his whiteboard. Team boss Vito Guareschi told Italian journalists at Mugello that he did not think that a traditional deltabox frame would be a good move for Ducati. The Japanese have twenty or more years with the design, while Ducati have never built such a frame, and would be at a huge disadvantage - in effect, twenty years of data - to their Japanese rivals.
It may turn out to be necessary, though. The front feeling with the 1000 is much better than the 800, but both Hayden and Rossi admitted that it is still a problem. Merely enlarging the engine capacity may not be enough to solve the front-end feel, and a total rethink could be what is needed. There are 9 more MotoGP races to go - leaving the thorny question of what will happen at Motegi to one side for the moment - and that's a lot of time to try to perfect the combined airbox/subframe concept before abandoning it for something else.