It is a dangerous thing to write a rider off. We learned that with Valentino Rossi, the old man currently leading the championship after two terrible years at Ducati, one tough year at Yamaha and then the first sign of resurgence from the middle of 2014. Rossi adapted, learned, progressed, and came back stronger. After the first seven races of 2015, the wolf pack in the media center had written off Marc Márquez and HRC. The Honda RC213V was too aggressive an engine to be tamed by electronics, the chassis too stiff to contain the stampede of horsepower contained in the 90° V4. The bike span, wheelied, and worst of all, slid the rear wheel unpredictably when it touched down ready for braking into the corner. Márquez was trying, but perhaps a little too hard, riding every lap as if it was his one shot at pole, overloading the front tire to compensate for the lack of braking at the rear. Márquez was pushing his luck, and it kept running out during the race, the Repsol Honda man either finishing down the order, or ending up in the gravel once the front cried enough.
Márquez crashed out at Barcelona, but that crash did not tell the whole story. Márquez and his crew had made a step forward that allowed him to control the rear under braking a little better, taking the sharpest edge off the area where the Spaniard was suffering most. At Assen, they made another step forward, and for the first time this year, Márquez started to enjoy riding the bike again. He knew he could be competitive, making his disappointment at being beaten – and outsmarted – by Valentino Rossi all the greater. "The first target was to try to feel again that confidence with the bike," Márquez said after practice on Friday. "In Assen I did and I felt it well. Now the second target is win a race."
Two races ago, a bet against Márquez winning would have been a safe one to take. After two sessions of free practice at the Sachsenring, Márquez has once again assumed the mantle of favorite for victory. He was fastest in the morning with a consistent pace, but was downright intimidating in FP2. The gap may have been reduced from a third of a second to just a single tenth over the man in second place, but nobody has the pace of Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider hammered out nine laps of 1'21, more than all the other riders on the grid put together. His nearest rival in terms of consistency is his teammate, Dani Pedrosa, and Pedrosa could only string together three 1'21s.
"Honestly, I’m happy because it was a long time ago that I feel like this on the Friday," Márquez said. "In Assen I had that feeling with the bike but only in qualifying and on the race, but today from the beginning I feel good and this is important." The feeling was the same at Assen, the knowledge that he had better control over the bike. "I’m able to stop better the bike and I’m able to be more constant. The bike is less critical on the front. Then I’m able to be more constant in some laps. If I do some mistakes I can keep the line and this is important."
The reigning world champion explained how his strength could also turn itself against him. "The thing is, I’m a rider that even if I don’t feel the bike like I want, I’m able to be fast. OK, I’m able to be fast, but with a lot of risk." This is exactly what had happened in the first races of the season, where Márquez had crashed trying to keep up at the front. Maintaining your confidence through such periods was key, he said. "When you are in that situation, you try to be fast, and you don’t have the confidence, then you crash. You lose many points in the championship, and it’s hard," Márquez confessed. "But if you want to be a good rider you must understand these moments. After a moment like this, you have to come back stronger." It was something he had seen others do in the past, and had tried to emulate. "Lorenzo did that in the past. When he had some problems he come back much stronger. Also Valentino. Also Casey in the past. It’s important to learn about it and come back even stronger." The rest of the field have been warned.
Who can match Márquez' pace? At the moment, it is hard to tell. Only Dani Pedrosa, Bradley Smith and Jorge Lorenzo had posted more than one lap of 1'21, and only Lorenzo and Pedrosa had strung those laps together into a longer fast run. Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi all looked capable of lapping consistently in the low 1'22s, the rest were a little further off the pace. Rossi may not have dipped into the 1'21s, but he had focused on working with an old tire, rather than stick on a new tire and getting a quick lap.
Whether Márquez can maintain his margin remains to be seen. Jorge Lorenzo struggled with a wrong electronics setting in the morning, which they started to solve in the afternoon. Valentino Rossi tried a different setting which he did not get along with, losing time while finding that out. Dani Pedrosa saw room for improvement in braking, with more support needed to cope with the stresses, especially at the bottom of the hill braking for Turn 12. They will surely get a lot closer by Sunday, with FP4 on Saturday being the canary in the coal mine betraying the real relative strengths of the riders. With the weather set to warm up significantly on Saturday, that too could throw a spanner in the works.
Where the soft tire was expected to be an advantage during qualifying, so far that hasn't worked out. Possibly because the track was already in quite good condition when morning practice started, the pace very quick from the outset, and the track not having much room to improve. Whether it was this or something else is hard to say, but the Suzuki riders complained of a lack of grip, an uncharacteristic problem for the GSX-RR. The lack of horsepower was only a minor inconvenience going up the hill, Aleix Espargaro said, the real problem was that the Suzuki lacked grip on the edge. This has always been the strongest point of the Suzuki, and until they can fix that, neither Aleix Espargaro nor Maverick Viñales will be pushing the fast guys in MotoGP. The Ducatis, too, were struggling, only occasionally posting a single fast lap. You have to believe that the push for Q2 on Saturday morning will be hectic, and the riders on the soft tire will pull something out of the bag during qualifying, but surprisingly, it looks like the factory bikes with the harder tires are in charge in Germany.
The biggest surprise on the timesheets was Scott Redding. The Marc VDS rider has struggled ever since getting the Honda RC213V bike he had longed for all last year, finding the bike much harder to go fast on than he had ever thought. Redding, like so many riders who come up from Moto2, are finding that racing a factory MotoGP bike is almost diametrically opposite to the approach needed in Moto2. In Moto2, the harder you push, the faster you go, whereas in MotoGP, the smoother you are, the more precise you are, the more conscious you are with your movements, the faster you go. Try to push, and you go slow. Try to relax, and you find yourself flying.
"We made a couple of small changes with the front of the bike but nothing big," Redding explained. "I feel good with the bike. I’m not fighting with it. I’m a bit more relaxed. It’s kind of doing what I want it to do. But nothing major has really changed. It’s not like now I’ve got a new chassis or swingarm or I’ve gone to rehab. Just a couple of small things and I got off on the right foot. You get a little bit more confidence with the feeling. Then the confidence with riding gets better. Then your lap time improves, your position improves and you can start to improve. You start building your confidence rather than starting from the floor all the time." Redding's confidence was clearly visible, a calmer, cheekier rider telling us about the change which had happened.
Trying to go fast clearly didn't work, Redding told us. "To be fast you have to be slow," he said. "The most bizarre thing you could have is the more you think, right, now I’ll make it, the slower you go. Now I’m making these fast laps you’re not like, ‘****! I’m on the brakes!’ You’re like, ‘Ah, I’m on the brakes, now gently release it. Gently on the gas, pick it up.’ You can’t think, get on the gas quick or you’ll lose everything. That’s the situation, to be fast and smooth." That was not easy when you are not confident, but when you have some confidence, it comes almost naturally. "The thing is to know that if you relax you’re going to go fast but also to be smoother and slower. Like when you come out of a corner instead of going on the throttle when you want you have to say, ‘Ok, wait.’ And you’re fighting to stop your hand from going. You have to have the confidence to know that’s going to make the difference. But still sometimes you’re like I can go now, but you don’t make the lap time. And that’s the hardest part."
This is the paradox at the heart of MotoGP. From the outside, especially on the Hondas, it looks like Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Cal Crutchlow are trying to subdue a raging bull. In reality, they are coaxing it into playing along, rather than bullying it into submission, no matter how things look from the outside. Watch the bike underneath Marc Márquez and it looks like a beast which is tough to tame. But look at Márquez and what he is doing with his body, and you see he is moving fluidly, almost floating over the bike, caressing its controls and being gentle with it. It is not trying to break a wild stallion, it is Zen and the art of motorcycle racing.
With the Sachsenring being so short, it would appear to be the ideal spot to attempt a three-run qualifying strategy, swapping bikes and trying to push hard for a single lap three times. Some riders might attempt it, but Cal Crutchlow felt the nature of the Sachsenring worked against trying to do that. "The right hand side of the tire is so bad that you need to keep doing the laps to build the confidence, to build the heat, to build everything," Crutchlow explained. "But tomorrow is supposed to be a lot better than today, which is going to be better for all of us."
If Márquez looks in control of MotoGP, Danny Kent once again looks to have Moto3 in a stranglehold. Nobody can get within half a second of the British rider, and his championship rivals appear to be taking themselves out once again. After closing the gap to Kent, Red Bull KTM's Miguel Oliveira had a big crash in the morning and broke a metacarpal in his left had, and was immediately flown home for surgery. Enea Bastianini was fast in the morning, but crashed in the afternoon and spent a lot of time in the pits. Confidence is important in motorcycle racing, and when everything is going your way, the momentum almost sustains itself.
The situation in Moto2 was far more complex. Sam Lowes was fast in the morning, but a little slower in the afternoon, when he was trying the new Speed Up chassis. It gave the bike more feel, but needed more work to be ready for prime time, Lowes insisted. In the afternoon session, the grid turned topsy turvy, with Mika Kallio making a sudden comeback to top the timesheets, and a host of surprise names at the top of the timesheet. You would have to believe that normal order will be restored on Saturday, with Lowes up against Tito Rabat, despite the Spaniard's surgery, and Johann Zarco. But this is motorcycle racing, and anything can happen, and probably will.
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