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 Marquez did not have to beat either Pedrosa or Lorenzo, of course, both men having withdrawn with broken collarbones.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.
Will the Movistar Yamaha riders be able to gatecrash the Repsol Honda party? Both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo have gone well here in the past. The paths of the two men have diverged so far this season, Rossi's star rising as Lorenzo's continues to wane. At Assen, the Spaniard's season reached its absolute nadir. In treacherous conditions, Lorenzo had flashbacks of the pain he went through at the Dutch circuit after breaking his collarbone, and then returning. Those memories instilled a fear of riding that track in wet conditions, and saw him limp home a lowly thirteenth. For a double world champion and a man who has been a title candidate ever since he entered MotoGP, this was a profound humiliation.
Will Lorenzo's humiliation continue in Germany? At Assen, he insisted that his fear was tied specifically to the Dutch circuit and the weather conditions. That crash at the Hoge Heide in 2013, and its long and painful aftermath was to blame. But Lorenzo crashed at the Sachsenring last year as well, breaking his collarbone once again, and bending the titanium plate holding it together. The question is, does he also have bad memories of that crash? Will he be able to focus on racing in Germany, or will he be distracted by thoughts of long, sleepless and pain-filled nights?
The weather does not look like it will come to Lorenzo's aid. Friday may start out dry, but heavy rain is forecast for the afternoon session. As for race day, there is every chance of rain in the afternoon as well. The past few days have seen very changeable weather, which will not fill Lorenzo with confidence. What he really needs is a calm, quiet weekend where he can start to work once again, and build his confidence bit by bit. Only then can the real Jorge Lorenzo make a return.
He will need a good result. Lorenzo is in the middle of negotiating a contract extension with Yamaha, and with Dani Pedrosa taking the second factory Honda seat, Yamaha know that Lorenzo has nowhere else to go. Lorenzo needs leverage, and his string of miserable results is not providing any. He is pushing for a one-year deal, or at least a deal giving him the option to leave at the end of 2015. That would give him a chance to jump ship to Ducati, if the GP15 is as competitive as Gigi Dall'Igna promises. Yamaha would prefer some continuity, especially given the massive change coming up in 2016, when Michelin will enter the series and MotoGP switches to a single set of electronic hardware and software. With Lorenzo's results as they stand, Yamaha has the upper hand.
While Lorenzo is down in the dumps, Rossi is growing stronger, the Italian having found much of the form which saw him bag seven MotoGP titles. Rossi has been chasing Marquez hard all year, and will once again be looking for a strong result. The Sachsenring should give Rossi a decent chance to compete. The fast, long corners playing to the strengths of the Yamaha's handling. Rossi will be chasing the Hondas for all he is worth, but his best chance of success may come if he can force the Hondas into a battle. If he can get in the way of the two Repsol bikes, and turn Marquez and Pedrosa against one another, he is in with a fighting chance of beating the pair of them.
The Sachsenring comes at a crucial point in the season for much of the rest of the field as well. After an impressive start to the weekend here last year, Stefan Bradl could not quite follow through on race day. He followed that up with a pole and podium at Laguna Seca, but that turned out to be the high point of his career so far. Bradl has been stuck since then, too often caught in the battle for eighth rather than fifth. Honda expects much more of him, though his team manager Lucio Cecchinello remains loyal to the German. In front of his home crowd, Bradl will have to pull a result out of the bag. If he does not perform well, pressure from HRC may see him make way for another rider.
Bradl isn't the only rider fearing for his place. Bradley Smith finds himself in a similar position. The Tech 3 rider has been fast throughout practice, but all too often has fallen short in qualifying, and especially during the race. Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal is actively looking at his options, and Smith needs to start translating fast laps in practice into finishing close to, or preferably on the podium. With the Sachsenring the last race before the short summer break and the point at which much business gets done, a good finish here counts double.
There will be much interest here in the performance of the Open bikes as well. If there was one track which should suit the underpowered Open Honda RCV1000R, it is surely the Sachsenring. The circuit only has a couple of spots where hard acceleration is important, the emphasis being much more on holding a line and getting the bike to turn. The Open Hondas handle sublimely, and should finish a good deal closer to the satellite bikes than usual. If it rains, they might even make it well into the top ten.
The Open bike which everyone expects to get a result is surely the NGM Forward Yamaha ridden by Aleix Espargaro. Espargaro the Elder has shown just how competitive he can be this year with several strong results, including a pole position at Assen. Now, he is angling for a ride on a factory bike, with either a satellite or a factory team. It is getting harder for him to resist the siren call of Suzuki, but he must first buy himself out of his Forward contract. That means finding 400,000 euros. Finding that kind of money is easier when you can show you are capable of fighting for a podium. Given the Forward Yamaha's lack of top speed, the Sachsenring offers Aleix an ideal opportunity.
In the support classes, the battle of the Marc VDS Racing teammates will continue in Moto2, with Mika Kallio providing a strong challenge to championship leader Tito Rabat. Pons riders Maverick Viñales and Luis Salom will continue to push the Marc VDS teammates hard, as they make progress in their rookie season.
Moto3 looks more intriguing, with the field tightening up after Jack Miller ran away with the early part of the season. Two costly mistakes have opened the championship right up again, the Australian being saved by the fact that his main title rival early on, Romano Fenati, has made just as many mistakes as he has. Now, the two KTM riders find themselves dealing with the Hondas of Alexes Marquez and Rins, the younger Marquez having made big steps forward. The two bikes seem fairly well balanced at the Sachsenring, but the key may come in the final couple of corners. The braking stability of the KTMs may just give them the edge over the Hondas into the final couple of corners, coming down the Waterfall and into turns 12 and 13. If the Moto3 race is decided on the final lap – a racing certainty, judging by most of this year – then you would have to say that the KTM has the upper hand.
That final part of the circuit is a favorite of the fans, and also of many riders. The tight first part of the track is about making fast changes of direction and holding a tight line. It is, in the words of Marc Marquez and many others, a bit of a go-kart track, but the further the riders leave the Omega-kurve behind, the better the circuit gets. Speed builds through the endless series of left-handers from Turn 6 up to Turn 9 and 10. From that point, it gets spectacular, the bikes cresting the hill after Turn 10 before flicking right at very high speed and plunging down a hill so steep it has been nicknamed the Waterfall. The riders face immense braking stresses braking for Turn 12, the front wanting to wash out on the turn in. A straight short enough just to poke your nose ahead of the man in front follows, before a final chance to defend into the last corner, Turn 13. The rider entering the last corner first usually wins, though the steep uphill climb means that if you enter too slow, you can still lose out on acceleration. The Sachsenring may be the shortest circuit on the calendar, but it is not the worst by a very long stretch of the imagination.
That final section of the track is under threat, however, and especially the spectacular Turn 11. The bikes turn right at very high speed at that point, and a number of very big crashes have happened there in recent years. Race Direction have been concerned by that corner, and would like to slow it down if possible, to reduce the risk of crashing there. To that end, they had some of the satellite riders – Stefan Bradl, Andrea Iannone, and Bradley Smith – test a revised layout late on Thursday afternoon. The apex of Turn 11 was moved further left, making the corner tighter. The overall consensus was that it was no improvement, however. Making the corner tighter just meant that you had to use more lean angle to get through the corner, the riders said, meaning the risk of crashing was just as great.
The real problem is that the bikes enter a fast right hander after a long series of lefts. There are only three right handers around the Sachsenring, and the fastest, Turn 11, comes after the bikes have spent a long time on the left-hand side of the tire. That gives the right side a long time to cool off, reducing grip. The problem is temperature rather than compound; no matter how soft you make the right-hand side of the tire, it spends too much time exposed to the wind and not being heated by contact with the tarmac. No matter how they try to adapt Turn 11, it won't make any difference to the number of crashes.
The only real solution to the problem would be to radically revise the layout of the track, either adding another right hander between turns 5 and 9, or moving the Waterfall so it heads much more north west, rather than west. That would make Turn 11 longer, thereby slowing it down more naturally, while leaving it still one of the best corners in the world.
That solution is not realistic, however. The Sachsenring track layout uses just about all of the land owned by the circuit owners, the ADAC. The track runs close to the boundaries of the property, meaning that expansion would only be possible if more land was purchased, and for the section between turns 8 and 10, buildings would have to be demolished, as you can see in below from the Google Maps satellite view. Demolishing buildings is simply not option.