There are those who say that Marc Marquez is due a big crash soon. He is always riding so close to the edge of traction that at some point, he will go over the limit and suffer the consequences, they reason. They will therefore not have been surprised to learn that Marquez had a huge highside on Friday morning. What will surprise them is the cause of the crash. It was not due to pushing his Honda RC213V beyond the limits of adhesion, he explained to the media afterwards, but was caused by a minor slip of his foot. His toe touched the gear lever, clicking the bike into 3rd, and that caused the rear tire to grip momentarily and flick him off.
The crash happened at Turn 2. "You turn with the gas in second gear," Marquez said. "I didn't know at the time, but I was touching a little bit the gear lever." In the last part of the corner, he accidentally engaged third, and as he kept the throttle in the same position, the bike highsided. Marquez was thrown upside down, and landed on his neck. He was lucky to walk away, but walk away he did. He returned to the garages and was straight back on the bike again, posting the sixth fastest time, six tenths off the pace of Aleix Espargaro, and a third of a second behind Jorge Lorenzo.
By the afternoon, Marquez was back at full speed, and second quickest behind Aleix Espargaro once again. He still had some stiffness in his neck, he said, but it was not really hindering him. "The neck feels a bit locked in some corners, but it is not a problem," he said. Intensive physiotherapy kept his neck warm, and prevented it from seizing up and becoming painful. That only happened after the session was over, and his neck started to cool down.
There was some question of why Marquez was allowed to continue straight away. After what was obviously a very serious crash, Marquez was not subjected to a physical examination to check for signs of a concussion. This is a recurring problem in MotoGP, with pressure on riders to get back on the bike as soon as possible. Only in very severe and obvious cases does the circuit doctor intervene, and so far this has not caused any problems. How long it will continue without a rider hurting themselves by going back out too soon remains to be seen. There may be a role here for more forceful action by the Medical Director and circuit doctor.
If the Sachsenring was supposed to be a Honda circuit, the Yamahas did extremely well. Aleix Espargaro was especially impressive, and though he set his fastest time on a set of the super soft tires which the Open bikes are allowed to use, Aleix was competitive in race trim as well. The soft tire was not necessarily just good for a single lap, he said, saying he had posted good runs with both the soft and medium compounds. That soft rear could well be the race tire if conditions are right.
Espargaro also gave both chassis a work out, switching between the Yamaha chassis being used by Forward, and the Forward chassis designed by former FTR guru Mark Taylor. Espargaro had been impressed by the Forward chassis, saying it worked particularly well at the Sachsenring. That frame works better than the Yamaha chassis in the slower corners, though it loses out in the fast corners to the stiffer Yamaha frame. "This is a special track, a bit slow," Espargaro said, and that worked in favor of the Forward frame. He will test both frames again in the morning before making a decision on which one he will use in qualifying and the race. He had set his fastest time on the Yamaha chassis, but his time on the Forward chassis had been more than respectable.
The performance of the Forward chassis had given Aleix Espargaro pause for thought. After testing the bike at Barcelona, he had felt the disadvantages in the fast corners would work against it in 2015, when the Forward team will have to hand back the Yamaha chassis which he has been using. Friday at the Sachsenring had given him confidence that the bike could be competitive, making the decision to stay at Forward or leave for another team – his name is often linked with Suzuki, due to enter next year – that much more difficult. He was not ready to make that choice just yet, he said, and would spend some time thinking about it over the summer break.
It wasn't just the Open Yamaha which was quick, however. Both Movistar Yamahas were fast in the morning session, and Jorge Lorenzo carried that speed through to the afternoon. Lorenzo has found some confidence, both in the bike and in himself, and is keen to wipe the slate clean after the debacle at Assen. The bike is better too, though it still remains nervous when leaned over and at the first touch of the throttle. That is a symptom of having a liter less fuel, a problem which Yamaha has worked hard to solve. The new exhaust, which provides better response off the bottom end, helps in this regard, but it is still not as buttery smooth as Lorenzo would like it to be.
Lorenzo was also feeling better on the bike because he felt better in his leathers. Alpinestars had been working with him on how his leathers fit, having supplied him with a suit which fit a little more tightly earlier in the season. That suit had extra protection in the shoulders, Lorenzo explained, but in consultation with the Italian leathers manufacturer, that protection had been removed. That did not raise any safety issues, as he still had the standard protectors and the airbag to save him in the event of a crash, but the space which was freed up allowed him to move more freely in his leathers. In turn, this made him more confortable, and that allowed him to ride better.
Valentino Rossi is now also using the new, shorter exhaust, as he finally has two units, one for each bike. His problem, however, is not power delivery, but tires. In the afternoon, Rossi was forced to use the extra hard front tire, which he could not get to work. The bike suffered understeer, and it would not turn. They need to work on a better weight balance to try to get the bike to work with the extra hard, but so far, they had not succeeded.
The simple solution is to run the hard front tire, but because of the way the tire allocation works, they only have three of those fronts. Rossi needs to save his allocation for possible use in qualifying and for the race, and so practice with the hard front is limited.
Where does that put the Italian? It leaves him looking worse than he really is. The key for Rossi will be on Saturday during qualifying. At the tight Sachsenring circuit, he needs to start from as close to the front row as possible, and so a strong qualifying session will be crucial.
Understeer is a word which is all too familiar in the Ducati garage. As they had expected, all of the Ducatis struggled on Friday. Andrea Dovizioso was fastest in one sector of the track – the first sector, with the front straight, hard braking for Turn 1, and then the first left of Turn 2 – but any gains there were minimal to the time lost at the rest of the circuit, which needs the bike to turn. They were much where they expected, Cal Crutchlow said, though there was some small improvement from a revised seating position. That made riding the bike a little easier.
That the pressure is on at the Sachsenring for everyone who doesn't have a contract was made clear by Bradley Smith. The Tech 3 rider crashed twice during FP1, going down at Turn 11, the most difficult part of the track. Smith is pushing hard for a result, and when you push hard, you are likely to crash. He needs a result this weekend if his Tech 3 is not to slip out of his hands, if it hasn't already.
There was also some discussion of the tests done on Thursday at Turn 11, especially as several riders in all three classes crashed at the corner. Asked to explain what the problem was, Marc Marquez said the tarmac there is bumpy, and it lacks grip. That problem is made worse by the fact that the track drops away after Turn 10, taking weight off the front and making it easy to wash out and crash.
The revised layout had not helped at all, was the general consensus. Moving the apex of Turn 11 to the left merely meant that you needed more lean angle to make the corner. Speed was reduced, but more lean angle meant that the front was as prone to washing out as before. There really is no simple solution to that corner.
Cal Crutchlow pointed out that it isn't just that corner which has a problem. There are several points around the circuit where the walls are close, and riders are hitting air fences. As I wrote yesterday, there really are no quick fixes to that problem, however: the walls around the track are for the most part close to the boundary of the property. Moving them back is almost a physical impossibility.
The Sachsenring is illustrative of the problems facing MotoGP at many circuits. Bikes are travelling further, and hitting walls, and walls are getting harder and harder to move. Slowing the bikes down may help, but where they really need to be slowed down is in the corners. But I can't help but feel that a solution could be found by approaching the problem from a different direction altogether. If rider safety is paramount, and riders have to be protected when hitting barriers, then perhaps the solution is to concentrate on rider protection, rather than on changing the circuits. Both Alpinestars and Dainese are working with much larger airbags, which protect back and sides as well as the shoulders. This is the direction where real improvements in rider safety will come from. But it is a long and difficult process.