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."
Corner entry was also a problem for Valentino Rossi, the bike sliding too much going into the turns. Rossi believed this was down to a mistake with the setup, a slight mismatch between the rear spring and the weight distribution of the bike. "When I enter, I slide and lose a lot of speed," Rossi said, the two fast middle sections of the track giving him the most trouble.
Despite qualifying 7th and 9th on the grid, things could have looked a lot better, Hayden believed. The American finished his last lap just at the wrong time, he said, his crew telling him he had missed the chance at another qualifying lap by just 4 seconds. In those conditions, Hayden explained, you wanted to be the last man across the line when the flag fell, as the track was getting easier with every lap. It was not that the track itself was improving, however: Casey Stoner told the press that the surface was actually getting greasier as the rain let off and the standing water disappeared. But rider confidence and feeling with the circuit was getting better every lap, making it easier to get closer to the limit each time around.
That growing confidence had made for one of the most thrilling qualifying sessions in a while. To start off with, and to cheer the hearts of the locals who had braved the torrential conditions to watch qualifying, Stefan Bradl grabbed provisional pole at the halfway mark, and the prospect of a German rider taking pole for the German Grand Prix sent a buzz around the circuit. With eight and a half minutes to go, Jorge Lorenzo took over from Bradl at the top of the timesheets, but the LCR Honda man was far from done. Bradl struck back immediately, but then so did everyone else. Pole position changed hands 15 times in the last 10 minutes, with 7 riders having a shot at pole: Lorenzo took over from Bradl, Nicky Hayden took over from Lorenzo, then swapped fastest times with Bradl again. Ben Spies then joined the fray, Bradl parrying again, before Cal Crutchlow also threw his hat into the ring.
In the final minute, the Repsol Hondas added to the mix, Casey Stoner the first to take a shot, Dani Pedrosa taking over from Cal Crutchlow again a few moments later. That last minute saw 5 or 6 riders in with a shot at pole, Casey Stoner finally coming out on top, ahead of Ben Spies and Dani Pedrosa. The effort had taken its toll on the front row sitters, all three looking very blank and flat during the TV press conference after qualifying. One photographer, tasked with getting pictures of a smiling front row press conference, was so concerned about the situation that he approached a journalist to get them to try to make the front row riders smile. They needn't have worried: once Stoner, Spies and Pedrosa filed in, along with Marc Marquez and Sandro Cortese, they were giggling like schoolgirls Whether it was the presence of a Miss Germany finalist, drafted in to hand out the Tissot watches each polesitter receives, but something had them all whispering among themselves and sniggering.
A weird qualifying session - though the front row line up is anything but unexpected - does not necessarily mean much for the race, however. Anyone not on the front row was worried, as the Sachsenring only has a few passing opportunities. Cal Crutchlow was particularly concerned, for though he qualified in 4th, and was very fast around the rest of the circuit, the Tech 3 rider has a problem in Turns 1 and 2. On Friday, he said he was losing four tenths there, but was just about the fastest man through the rest of the track. They'd improved a lot in those two corners on Saturday - insofar as that was relevant in the soaking wet conditions - but with passing so difficult, getting a good start would be crucial. And given that the first place Crutchlow has to get around is his two worst corners on the track, it is not going to be easy.
The conditions could help. The weather forecast is for it to be dry on race day; rain should start falling around 3pm, or sometime during the Moto2 race, with MotoGP moved up an hour early to 1pm local time due to the calendar clash with Formula 1 at Silverstone. But with just one dry session so far this weekend, getting tire choice and setup right could turn out to be a bit of a gamble. Nicky Hayden found the whole prospect quite intriguing. "It should be an interesting race tomorrow, rain or shine," the American said. "We really had very little dry time. The first session Friday morning went pretty quick, but you know, only a few guys compared tires. You don't really know about tire wear and life from 20 minutes in the morning warm up. Even if it is dry, you're not going to learn a whole lot, so in some ways it's a bit of a lottery. It's kind of exciting to go into the race with so much unknown and see what happens."
There has already been plenty of intrigue this weekend - both on track and off, but the on-track stuff has been quite remarkable. The diluvian conditions saw Casey Stoner pull up with a dead engine, killed by damp in the electrical system somewhere. Not a problem for the engine, but a pain for Stoner, who had to make his way back to the pits and then jump onto his second bike. The morning session had been odd indeed, neither one thing nor the other, another typical half-wet, half-dry session. Stoner along with Crutchlow and Lorenzo had sat out the morning session entirely, all with some justification. All three took the chance to recuperate a little, Stoner from the beating his body had taken during his practice highside at Assen, Crutchlow sparing the ankle he injured at Silverstone, and Lorenzo saving both his knee, hurt in the first-corner crash with Alvaro Bautista in Assen, and miles on the old engines he has been forced to use since losing a nearly new one in the same incident. Thanks to changing conditions on the track, two CRT bikes took the top spots on Saturday morning, Michele Pirro and Mattia Pasini benefiting from slightly improved conditions right at the end of FP3.
In Moto2 and Moto3, things are looking good for both Marc Marquez and Sandro Cortese, as both their main rivals qualified a long way down the grid. Pol Espargaro could manage only the 17th fastest time in qualifying, and will start back on the 6th row on the grid, giving Marquez an outstanding opportunity to grab some more points starting from pole. Cortese is even better off, with Moto3 championship leader Maverick Vinales all the way down in 24th. Cortese was under no illusions, however, expecting Vinales to have made his way through the field and be fighting at the front within a few laps.
While all the talk in Moto3 has been of Maverick Vinales, Cortese's pole lap was a thing of beauty. On his very last attempt, Cortese squeezed out a scorching lap, pushing harder than anyone else had in the conditions, running the very ragged edge in the wet. The German ended qualifying nearly a second and a half ahead of the man in 2nd place, his Red Bull KTM teammate Danny Kent. If he can repeat that again in the dry on Sunday, he could be well on his way to his first home victory, at a track where he has never even been on the podium. With Bradl looking good in MotoGP, and Cortese's name being penciled in for the win in Moto3, it could be a very good day for the Germans at their home Grand Prix. As long as it doesn't rain until the racing is over ….