The Sachsenring treated us to its usual surprises on Thursday, with rain and squally winds blowing through the paddock in the morning, and the sun coming out as the day went on. Fortunately, the only people out on track were the riders doing reconnaissance laps on the scooters, and safety officers cutting fast laps during their usual pre-weekend track inspection. As an observer, it is hard to tell the difference between a circuit safety inspection and hooning round the track in one of the many high-end BMW sports cars which the German car maker provides to Dorna, but I'm sure that as ex-racers, both Loris Capirossi and Franco Uncini know what they are doing.
Weird weather has already had its effect on the tire allocation. Originally, Bridgestone had brought three specifications of front tire, the soft to deal with the cold mornings, the medium to deal with the warmer afternoons, and the asymmetric tire with soft rubber on the right and a compound closer to the medium on the left, to handle the wind gusting to cool the right side of the tire. But when Bridgestone's engineers turned up at the track a week ago, Saxony was in the middle of a heatwave, with air temperatures of 38° C or more. Bridgestone rushed a small compliment of their hard front tires in to the Sachsenring, just in case temperatures reached the high 30s again. It does not look like they will, but it looks like being a complicated weekend for the riders.
Will the asymmetric front tire prevent a lot of crashes on Friday? It should help, but it won't prevent them altogether. "We all know that Turn 11 is dangerous," Bradley Smith said of the blind and blisteringly fast right hander at the top of the hill, which has caught so many riders out in the past. "But we all see people forget in FP1, they have their wake up call, and then they don't crash again." One crash there is enough to remind everyone to treat the turn with the respect it deserves. "We know it's dangerous, but they crash in FP1 and then they don't for the rest of the weekend. That's not because the conditions suddenly get better, it's because they were more wary and showed it more respect. Maybe if they had a sign at the end of pit lane saying be wary at T11..."
Bridgestone's work on the asymmetric front has not found favor with everyone. Dani Pedrosa had tried the tire in Phillip Island, not liked it, and not even touched at Valencia, when it had its second outing. "I prefer not to use it, because the feeling is a little bit strange," he said. On the left and in braking the tire gave one feeling, but when you rolled over onto the softer rubber that feedback changed. Differences in feel such as that are exactly the sort of thing that riders don't like, their finely-tuned reflexes expecting to get one type of feedback from the tire, then suddenly receiving something different instead. To address that, Bridgestone have slightly changed the transition between the two different types of rubber on the front, to provide a more consistent feel.
Whether it will help remains to be seen. All of the riders we asked about the tires said they would be giving the asymmetric tire a try, as the Sachsenring is the one track where the tire makes the most sense. Despite his aversion to the tire, even Dani Pedrosa saw the sense of giving it a whirl. "Most probably I will use it, because you never know if it's going to be an advantage over the other tires," the Repsol Honda rider said.
The Sachsenring is a track where Pedrosa has been very strong in the past. Why is he so good here? "You need to be quite precise," he explained. "It's a track that you are spending a lot of time on the edge, so you have to have a lot of feeling." Progress with the Honda RC213V made at both Barcelona and Assen had helped make the bike much more competitive. "Already we did some steps, some improvement from Barcelona to Assen, and we can see Marc was riding with Valentino to the end in the last race, which means that the improvements are helping us to be closer. I had problems in Assen race, but in the practice I was also there, even though Assen is not a Honda track," Pedrosa said. "The track here, you need quite a good feeling and quite a good feeling with the slide control, and Honda has always a good slide control."
Marc Márquez was also bullish, despite his loss at Assen. "Honestly Assen was the first weekend maybe this year that I don’t change many things on the bike, because we start to find some base," he told the press conference. After the disasters of Mugello and Barcelona, battling with Rossi for victory had restored some of his confidence. "Now I have a bike that I start to, I don’t say it is a better or worse bike, but I feel the bike and gives me more confidence and this helps me to believe more in the bike and to be more constant," he said. "So I will try to continue on the same way this weekend."
Márquez did reveal that the Repsol Honda team will be heading to Misano next week for two days of private testing, and a third day of testing with the Michelins. Márquez spoke only in the broadest terms of what they would be testing in Misano, but he did drop a few hints. "We have many things to try and to be clear, especially for the future, for the next year." No doubt they will have some things to test for the remainder of this year, and trying to find solutions to the bike which is still more aggressive than the riders would like. But the hint at testing for next year suggests they may have a new engine, with a different engine character to test, hopefully one with a little less power and a bit more feel.
The Sachsenring also sees the start of the software freeze, where development of new functionality is halted as the factories switch their focus from 2015 to developing the spec electronics which are to be used by everyone in 2016. Will it make much difference? The general consensus is that it would not. "From now, for this championship, it doesn’t change anything," said Valentino Rossi. At Barcelona, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis told me that he did not expect it to make any difference. "We can't develop new functionality, but we can still adjust the electronics a lot, to make the bike work for the track," he explained. The range of adjustment and possibilities within their current software was already more than sufficient to keep the occupied to the end of the year.
The real interest will come next year, of course, when the spec software is introduced. "It will be very interesting and I think everybody is very curious about what will happen with the electronics of the bike for next year," Valentino Rossi summed up the general feeling.
We may be racing in Germany, but there were many more journalists than usual crowding into the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha hospitality to listen to what Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro had to say. Not about their respective MotoGP seasons, both of which are fascinating tales in themselves. Instead, we came to be told tales of Suzuka, the legendary track in Japan, where the two teammates had tested ahead of the Suzuka 8 Hour race in a couple of weeks time.
Both men were full of praise for the layout of the track. "The most fun track I ever rode,"said Pol Espargaro. "It is amazing. Amazing," said Bradley Smith. "By far the closest to Mugello, it's that type of level." Pol Espargaro concurred. "This is a true track. You have to work on it, you have to work on the line. It’s not easy. You have to make some laps to understand what to do. There are some specific places that if you are used to do it you are much faster. For example we were behind Nakasuga the first laps and on the two chicanes he take 0.7/8 from me. Just in two chicanes he takes two seconds." Such is the reputation of the Suzuka circuit that Pol's elder brother Aleix had almost stopped talking to Pol out of jealousy. "When I came back, he didn't ask me so many questions!"
Despite their love for the layout of the track, both Espargaro and Smith recognized that the track was simply too dangerous to be used in MotoGP. "The walls are so close. The speed in a lot of corners is so high. The walls are too close for this speed. This is the worst point, especially in wet," Espargaro said. "It is dangerous," Smith agreed. "I can see why we don't go there in MotoGP. The Safety Commission have made the right decision not to go." The problems cannot be easily solved. "Everything has been built up around there," Smith explained. "It's a world. It's not like a circuit in the middle of somewhere where you can move that, that and that. If you move that, the Big Wheel is in the way. Then behind the Big Wheel is the theme park, the hotel, etc etc. Me and Pol walked around and we were like, OK, don't crash here, don't crash there, be careful there. It's that type of place."
Both Smith and Espargaro praised the work of Katsuaki Nakasuga, the Japanese superbike rider who will be partnering them in the 8 Hour. Nakasuga's experience as a MotoGP test rider, a wild card rider and a replacement rider had stood him in good stead, and had helped him put together a bike that all three riders could use. "He has done a really great job," Smith said. The new R1 was an impressive bike to ride, feeling more like a MotoGP bike than they had expected, especially with the electronics package. Pol Espargaro was especially impressed. "I was scared because when I see the Superbike races, I see the bikes moving a lot and spinning so much. The character of the bike that I hate," Espargaro said. "My mentality was going for this line but I found a bike that is so stable, grippy and hard. It’s not moving as I expect. It’s quite MotoGP. It’s really similar."
Working together was having a curious effect on the relationship between Smith and Espargaro. The two had always had a fierce rivalry in the junior classes, creating a determination to try to beat each other. As Tech 3 teammates, they were not really working together, they were just on the same team. "In MotoGP, your teammate is your first enemy," Espargaro said. Now, they had to truly work together. "As a team you are not selfish. If you win he wins. If he wins you win. If you want him to go fast – sure you want to be the fastest rider in the team – but if he’s fast I’m fast. This is probably the different character of these races. It’s funny because we speak as friends and work as friends. This is good."
On Friday, they will not be friends, but once again be fierce rivals. In MotoGP, your teammate is just the first rider that you have to beat.
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