Is the run of Yamaha domination about to come to an end? After winning seven out of eight races, the Yamaha YZR-M1 certainly looks like the best bike on the grid, so on paper, it should continue to crush the opposition beneath its wheels at the Sachsenring. After all, the strength of the Yamaha is its ability to carry corner speed and get drive out of corners, and the Sachsenring has barely a straight line in its 3.7 kilometers. Yet after two days of practice, it has been the Hondas which have ruled the roost in Germany. The bike which is supposed to have problems looks untouchable, with Marc Márquez looking untouchable, Dani Pedrosa the best of the rest, and both Scott Redding and Cal Crutchlow showing real promise.
Why is the Honda so fast at the Sachsenring? Two reasons. Firstly, the circuit only has a couple of the types of corners where the Honda has struggled. It is only in Turn 8 and Turn 12 where the riders are braking almost straight up and down, the rear stepping out and becoming difficult to control. "Where we have a problem here is only two corners," Marc Márquez said at the press conference. "The rest is just with the gas, and there we don't have the problem." Those other corners are where the Hondas are making up the time. And they are making up the time because the track lacks grip.
One of the enigmas which we in the media center have been struggling with is whether the Honda does better in cold weather or in hot weather. But after much discussion with a bunch of people who are much smarter than we are, we came to the conclusion that the temperature of the track is irrelevant. It is not whether it is hot or cold that matters to the Honda, but whether the track actually has any grip. On a good track with plenty of grip, the Yamahas can carry corner speed and use the excellent mechanical grip of the bike to their advantage, and make a break. If such a track then also has a lot of sharp corners, where the Honda riders are struggling to control the rear under braking, and get it to slide controllably, then the Yamaha simply walks away, as do the Ducatis, and perhaps even the underpowered Suzukis. All three of those bikes can exploit mechanical grip, to carry corner speed and get drive as the riders lift the bike up from the edge of the tire into the traction area, where it can dig in and push the bike forward.
The Honda doesn't have any of that. The bike spins the rear until it grips, and then it launches the front wheel towards the sky. It behaves the same whether the track has grip or not, unable to take advantage of the conditions. When the Yamahas have drive, they disappear into the distance. But at a track like the Sachsenring, which is lacking real grip in most of its corners, they can neither carry the corner speed, nor get the drive on to the next corner. The Honda doesn't lose any grip, because it never had any in the first place, whereas the Ya maha is fast when it can get the rear hooked up. The performance of the Honda is the same, regardless of the conditions. The Yamaha goes better the more grip it can find, and if it can't find much, it loses out.
This is also why both the Suzukis and the Ducatis were struggling. It was a particularly frustrated Aleix Espargaro who spoke to us after qualifying. The Spaniard had expected to be fast here at the Sachsenring, the Suzuki able to carry corner speed and exploit its ability to turn, while not losing out due to their lack of horsepower. When he arrived here, and they couldn't get the bike to turn: the lack of edge grip means they can't use the rear tire to help turn the bike, and the compromise they have to make on braking for Turn 12, at the bottom of the hill, means they can't soften the suspension to create a bit more grip. The front end needs a lot of support to survive the vicious braking forces as they swoop down the hill and start braking for the corner at Turn 11. But that support means it can't be made more compliant to compensate for the lack of grip.
Even the Aprilia has a similar problem, the rear wheel just floating in corners, rather than digging in on the edge of the tire. It was, said Alvaro Bautista, probably a lack of mechanical grip, with a little drop of electronics thrown in. Whatever the cause, the result was the same: a lot of headscratching over why the bike won't turn, while not thinking too heavily about the type of asphalt involved.
All this leaves Marc Márquez in a very comfortable position. Márquez has been unstoppable here in recent years, taking five wins in a row, each of them starting from pole. His pole time was deeply impressive, but his advantage over his pursuers is equally disconcerting. Márquez' race pace, his ability to string together long runs of low to mid-1'21s mean that this race could be over by the time the bikes get to the first corner.
The big worry for Márquez is that he is a rather mediocre starter. Even starting on pole doesn't guarantee taking the lead in the short drag to the first corner. At a track with only a couple of places to pass – down the hill into Turn 12, on the cut back into Turn 13, or at the end of the short main straight going into Turn 1 – the one thing you don't want to happen is to get stuck in traffic behind a slower rider. Given that, on the basis of race pace in FP3 and FP4 (and FP1 and FP2 as well, come to think of it), every rider is a slower rider than Márquez, the reigning world champion will have to be alert at the start, and try to enter the first corner in as good a position as possible. Once he does take the lead, the pace he has so far shown suggests that it will only be a couple of laps before he has gone. The race could be over very quickly on Sunday.
Three men are close to Márquez' pace, though still clearly his inferior. Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, and Jorge Lorenzo all have a very similar pace, and a very high pace indeed. All three look capable of taking the fight to Márquez, though none of them look very likely to come out of such a fight in any way, shape or form triumphant. Of the three, Pedrosa looks to be the most competitive, though Rossi is not very far behind. On paper, Jorge Lorenzo looks to be in slightly worse shape, but as his Yamaha teammate Rossi said, on race day he will be there.
Behind the aliens, the battle for supremacy among mortals will be very close indeed. Any number of names could be in the mix: Bradley Smith has shown solid pace all weekend, though he managed to slam his face into the top yoke this afternoon, as he got a little over eager on the gas going out of Turn 12 and ran wide. Cal Crutchlow, the two Factory Ducatis of Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso, Pol Espargaro, even Scott Redding, finally coming in from the cold. Even Yonny Hernandez – dubbed by Cal Crutchlow Hero of the Day, for putting on an excellent display under difficult circumstances – could be in with a shot. Hernandez is doing well for the same reason the Hondas do well: he has such a particular style that likes the bike to be spinning and turning, which means he thrives when grip levels are low. Hernandez is a rider to watch on Sunday.
In Moto2, Johann Zarco is once again on pole, and once again looking to have the measure of the field. Zarco put in a calm and collected qualifying performance, also knowing when to back off and let the riders trying to follow him – Franco Morbidelli and Sandro Cortese – break their tow and go find someone else to hassle.
Such hassling will now come at a price, though the price is much higher in Moto3 than it is in the other two classes. On Saturday evening, Race Direction handed out a bumper crop of penalties, punishing a grand total of seventeen penalties for waiting for a tow during qualifying. Four men got hit in Moto2, all of them picking up a single penalty point. Mike Di Meglio also picked up a single point, for exactly the same offence. Only Hector Barbera incurred the further wrath of Race Direction, being handed down two points rather than one, as he is a bit of a serial offender.
It was Moto3 which bore the brunt of Race Direction's anger, with a grand total of 11 riders punished, all of whom were put back three places on the grid, and barred from the first 10 minutes of morning warm up. It was a harsh penalty, but after the severe talking to which all of the Moto3 class were given at Assen about the dangers of waiting on the racing line, it was a crystal clear message. Do not mess with us, Mike Webb and his team were saying. We are deadly serious about preventing this behavior.
Will it make a difference? It might, but the trouble is that the punishments are being handed out just before the summer break. Once the Moto3 paddock reconvenes, there will have been a four-week break from racing, and the riders will have had time to forget about many things, including how harsh the punishments which were handed out at the Sachsenring were. They might need to go through the whole process again at Indianapolis, hoping this time that the punishment will stick.
Danny Kent has never needed a tow. The young Englishman is leading the Moto3 title chase, and is looking back to his old, invincible self at the Sachsenring. Kent was six tenths a second or more faster than the rest of the field during free practice, and just half a second quicker during qualifying. He remained thoroughly unfazed by crashing out of Moto3 QP, when the combination of a sticky soft rear and a well-worn medium front turned out to be a little too optimistic, especially when was pushing hard to trying to get past a backmaker. Kent sat watching, knowing that nobody would get anywhere near his qualifying time. He needn't have worried. If Kent gets away cleanly on Sunday, the race is pretty much over.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2015 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.