Nine races down, nine to go. The Sachsenring marks the mid-point of the season, and in all three Grand Prix classes the outlines of the championship are becoming clear. In Moto2 and Moto3, there is one rider who can dominate, winning often, taking a hefty points haul when he can't, and having luck work in their favor and against their opponents. In MotoGP, the title looks to be settled between the Movistar Yamaha teammates, with the Repsol Hondas playing a decisive role.
The three races in Germany all played out following the broader patterns of their respective championships. In the Moto3 race, Danny Kent steamrollered his way to victory, his teammate Efren Vazquez helping him to extend his lead in the championship to 66 points by taking second ahead of Enea Bastianini. In Moto2, Johann Zarco narrowly missed out on victory, the win going to Xavier Simeon. The Belgian plays no role in the championship, while Zarco's nearest rival Tito Rabat was taken out by Franco Morbidelli in the final corner. Rabat's crash means Zarco now leads Moto2 by 65 points. Both Kent and Zarco can start to pencil their names in for the respective championships, their leads starting to edge towards the unassailable.
In MotoGP, the title chase is still wide open, with both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo easily capable of winning. The championship started strongly in Rossi's favor, then the momentum swung towards Lorenzo, before creeping back towards Rossi in the last two races. At Assen, Rossi put a big chunk of points between himself and his teammate. In Germany, the Repsol Honda men played more of a role in the championship than the two Yamaha riders, limiting Rossi's points gain to just three. He now sits thirteen points ahead of Lorenzo, with everything still to play for, and neither man capable of dealing a decisive blow.
The race played out almost as expected, with both Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa clearly superior to the Yamahas. It looked to take a more interesting turn at the beginning, when Jorge Lorenzo made a brave and slightly forceful move round the outside of the first corner to take the lead. For two laps, Lorenzo pushed hard and looked like dropping the Hondas, but that was as long a period of grace as his rear tire would give him. "I made just two good laps," Lorenzo told the media. "I could accelerate in a good way, with good traction, with good drive and not losing so much on braking. But unfortunately very soon I started losing the rear, especially on traction. I started spinning very soon and losing a lot of speed. On braking also with less grip on the rear in the center I could not stop as well as at the beginning."
He went from leader to sitting duck, being picked off by Márquez, Rossi and Pedrosa in order. When Rossi passed, Lorenzo first put up a fierce fight, passing him straight back in the next corner. It was only delaying the inevitable, however, and a lap later Rossi was past. Pedrosa, too, passed Lorenzo, and then it was Rossi's turn to think of the championship. Márquez was long gone, but if Rossi could keep Pedrosa between himself and Lorenzo, he would have opened a handy gap in the title chase. Just as he thought that might have been possible, Pedrosa dispelled that illusion. The Honda man went by, Rossi went with him, making use of Pedrosa's speed to put some space between himself and his teammate. If seven extra points were not possible, then Rossi was going to make sure of the three which are the difference between finishing in third and finishing in fifth.
Does the Repsol Honda one-two mean that the Hondas are back, and that Márquez could once again become a factor in the championship? Though it is tempting to think so, the Sachsenring rather flatters the Honda. The track only has two corners where the Honda suffers, two places with fast entry into a high speed corner. The circuit masks the problems the bike still has, and allows its strengths to come to the forefront. If we raced nine more times in Germany, then maybe Márquez could get himself back into the title race. But instead, we go to tracks like Brno and Silverstone, where the RC213V will suffer again.
Still, the Sachsenring was important for both Repsol Honda riders. For Marc Márquez, it removed any lingering self-doubt he may still have had, and allowed him to enjoy riding once again. That was a process which had started at Assen, but getting the same feeling again in Germany boosted his morale. He has now achieved both of the targets he had set himself at Assen: to enjoy riding the Honda again, and to win a race. Now that those were both achieved, which targets would follow, he was asked? "To win again."
Dani Pedrosa, too, saw the Sachsenring as confirmation. Confirmation that the radical surgery he had elected to have after Qatar had been the right choice, and confirmation that he was almost close to full fitness once again. There was still room for improvement, though. He had got a good start, but had not been able to push hard enough in the first few laps to stay with Márquez. He got caught up behind the Yamahas, and by the time he got past, Márquez was gone. Pedrosa has his sights firmly set on victory again, but that was not on the cards at the Sachsenring.
For Valentino Rossi, there was a sense of relief that he had beaten his teammate, and happiness at having made the right step after warm up. He and his team had understood that what was needed was a little more braking performance, and after a cursory test during warm up, where he had been hampered by traffic, they gambled on an even bigger change. It came off, allowing Rossi to push harder than he had expected.
Not enough to match the Hondas, though. "From Friday we understand that here we are not at the same level of Marquez and Pedrosa and the Honda. We suffer a bit," Rossi said at the press conference. But the team had worked well, and had made good progress, and this, once again, had given him the confidence to gamble on set up. Valentino Rossi may not have been able to beat the Hondas, but he had his eye on the prize of another championship, and kept his string of podiums alive. Rossi has been on the podium in every race this season, and in fact has been on the box for the last thirteen races, last missing out at Aragon last year when he crashed out in dangerous conditions. It is this consistency which is giving him the upper hand in the championship. The margins, however, are very slim.
Two Repsol Hondas, then two Movistar Yamahas, and then the rest. On Saturday evening, I had a conversation with the manager of a private team who observed that the same thing seemed to happen every year. At the start of the season, the satellite riders were capable of finishing close to the four MotoGP aliens. But as the season went on, the top four all seemed to be able to make a step forward, leaving the rest of the field behind. Earlier this year, the Ducatis were scoring regular podiums. But over the last few races, they had been forced to let the front guys go. Such was also the case at the Sachsenring, where Andrea Iannone got a strong start, before riding home to a lonely fifth place, twenty seconds behind the winner.
Ducati MotoGP team manager Davide Tardozzi was at pains to remind us that the GP15 is still a very young bike. "This bike was only born in February this year, and so it is still just a baby." The good results in the first few races had led people to jump to conclusions. "The bike is still a baby, but the problem is the baby was too fast too early," he joked.
Ducati, Suzuki and Honda all head to Misano later this week for a three-day test. The first two days are regular test days, while the third is a Michelin test at the track. All three factories are looking forward to the first two days, as they all have major work to do. The improvements at Honda had come just from changes to set up, HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto told us. Marc Márquez said that they had already made one step to improve the problem with engine braking into fast corners, but that the test would be crucial to take the next step. They had limited the problem on braking at Assen. At Misano, they hoped to eliminate it altogether.
For Ducati, the Misano test also comes as a godsend. Davide Tardozzi summed up what the Italian factory was missing with the GP15 with a single word. "Experience." The bike was new, and so far, much testing had gone on in free practice on a race weekend, but that is very far from ideal. Two solid days of testing at Misano should allow both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone to work through a full program, testing a range of set up options to try to figure out what works and what doesn't. If they are to regain their competitiveness, the Misano test is crucial.
It is also crucial for Suzuki. An exasperated Aleix Espargaro expressed his frustration at trying to work out why the GSX-RR was struggling so badly with the slow corners. They had come to the Sachsenring with high hopes, this being one of the circuits where their lack of horsepower would be less of a handicap. But they had been shackled by a lack of turning in the slow corners, and had been at a loss to try to explain why. Misano, Espargaro said, also had lots of slow corners. They would be trying to solve the mystery there.
In yet another solid sixth came Bradley Smith. The British rider is being an absolute paragon of dependability. Smith has had four sixth places and two fifths so far this season, and is joint fifth in the championship level on points with Andrea Dovizioso. Smith was annoyed not to have ended in fifth, but had lost time battling with Yonny Hernandez and trying to get past. Every time he passed Hernandez, he would run just a fraction wide and that would leave the door open for Hernandez to come back. By the time he got past, Iannone had been too far ahead, despite the fact that Smith was marginally quicker than the factory Ducati man. He had practiced his passing all weekend, working on set up for the three overtaking spots on the track, Turns 1, 12 and 13, and that investment had paid off. But while Hernandez still had fresh tires, he had been able to counter any attack Smith had placed.
If MotoGP is still wide open, both Moto2 and Moto3 seem to be almost sewn up. The reason for that is simple, and the parallels between the two championship leaders worth drawing. Both Danny Kent and Johann Zarco are brimming with confidence, which gives them the freedom to ride without worrying. Both riders are supremely fit, which is allowing them to keep thinking even at the end of a long race. In the Moto2 press conference, for example, both winner Xavier Simeon and the man who lucked into third, Alex Rins, were drenched in sweat, red-faced, puffy-eyed, and clearly exhausted. Johann Zarco looked as if it was the pre-event press conference, and he was yet to lift a finger. Zarco had not broken a sweat, despite losing out to Simeon in the just the final corner. Both he and Danny Kent are taking full advantage of their proper preparation.
On a side note, it was a good day for Belgium in Grand Prix racing. The last time the Belgian national anthem had been played at a Grand Prix had been 1983, nearly 32 years ago. Then, it was for Didier De Radigues, racing in the 250 class. Now, it was for Xavier Simeon, one of De Radigues' protégées. With a Belgian, a Briton and a Spaniard taking wins, MotoGP is once again showing its international face. The days when it was dominated by Spaniards are long gone.
With the halfway mark reached, the MotoGP paddock goes on a brief hiatus. On Sunday night, pit lane was a hive of activity as bikes and equipment were packed into shipping containers ready to be flown to Indianapolis. That activity was only temporary: for the next three-and-a-half weeks, teams and riders will be taking it a lot easier. A few days rest – coming after the test for the Suzuki, Honda and Ducati men – and then they will return to training once again, looking for yet more fitness with which to attack the second half of the year. The summer break may seem like a long time, but Grand Prix motorcycle racing is an itch that soon needs scratching once again.
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