If there is such a thing as a Honda track, then the Sachsenring is surely it. Of the nineteen premier class races held at the tight, tortuous circuit, Honda have won twelve. That includes the last six races in a row: From 2010 through 2012, nobody could touch Dani Pedrosa around the circuit. From 2013 onwards, Marc Márquez has been unbeatable at the track.
What makes the Sachsenring such a Honda track? Maybe it's the two key braking points at the circuit, going into Turn 1, and at the bottom of the hill for Turn 12. Maybe it's the ability to use the Honda horsepower going up the hill out of the final corner, across the line and into Turn 1. Or maybe it's the tight corners, the Honda always a strong bike in turning.
The Sachsenring circuit is invariably described in disparaging terms – "Mickey Mouse", "a go-kart track" – but that does not do the track justice. It may not challenge the bikes in terms of horsepower, but it demands an awful lot of the riders. From the moment they arrive at the end of the short, uphill front straight, brake hard for the sharp right-hander of Turn 1, and pitch it into the corner, the bike barely leaves the edge of the tire until the plunge down the Waterfall after Turn 11. There is a brief moment of respite between Turns 7 and 8, before heeling the bike over again for another series of lefts going up the hill to the circuit's crowning glory.
Fast, furious, frightening
Turn 11 is both terrifying and exhilarating. The fast right-hand flick down the hill towards the two final corners would be tough enough on any circuit. But coming after a long series of left handers, giving the right-hand side of the tires plenty of time to cool off and drop below their operating temperatures, riders have to flick the bikes right as fast as they dare, hoping that the front will grip and guide them down the hill. If it doesn't, then a very fast tumble through the gravel ensues, at a corner which has wreaked physical mayhem on the bodies of many young riders.
To deal with that most treacherous of turns, Michelin have brought their first ever asymmetric front tire. The French tire maker has brought three different fronts to the Sachsenring: soft and hard asymmetric fronts, and a symmetric medium front. Though the tires will be new to most of the riders, both Suzuki and Ducati have already tested them at private tests at Valencia and Misano respectively.
The key question about the Michelins is how they manage the middle of the tire. Bridgestone's first attempt at an asymmetrical front tire stranded at Phillip Island when they used the harder compound from the left side of the tire for the middle section. That saw a lot of riders crashing under braking. The next year, they came back with a front tire which used the softer compound in the middle section of the tire, a solution which worked extremely well.
Bike or rider?
Do all of these factors add up to making the Sachsenring a Honda track? Maybe it isn't so much a track suited to the Honda RC213V, as to the men who ride it. Both Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez have won a total of six races in all three classes at the track, Pedrosa in 125s, 250s and MotoGP, Márquez in 125s, Moto2 and MotoGP. Márquez' record is even more impressive, given that he has not been beaten at the circuit for the last six seasons. All of those races he won from pole position. Marc Márquez is unbeatable around the Sachsenring, whether it be for one lap, or for thirty laps.
Should Márquez make it seven in a row in Germany, then he will gain an even firmer grip on the 2016 MotoGP title. As I wrote in a recent column in On Track Off Road magazine, the rider who leads the championship after eight races almost invariably goes on to win the title. That was not the case in 2015, which was an extraordinary and anomalous year in many respects, thanks to the bizarre events of the last two races. But before 2015, you have to go back all the way to 1992 for the last time the championship leader after eight races did not win the title. That was the year when Mick Doohan destroyed one of the strongest 500cc line ups of all time, winning five of the first seven races, before smashing his leg in a crash at Assen.
Yamaha playing catch up
Does that mean that the Yamaha riders are out of the championship chase already? Both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo made life incredibly difficult for themselves. After working so hard to ride as precisely as possible all weekend, Rossi made a single mistake in the race and crashed out. Lorenzo hit another mental brick wall in the rain at Assen, wobbling around to finish in tenth. With Márquez finishing second in Holland, Lorenzo's deficit grew from 10 to 24 points, while Rossi's grew from 22 to 42 points.
Of course there is still everything to play for. A single DNF for Márquez would bring both Movistar Yamahas right back into the fray. But they must first face Márquez at his most formidable circuit. A good result is vital for both Yamaha men. They need to disrupt Márquez' title chase as soon as possible.
A more intriguing prospect could be the Suzukis if Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro. The Suzuki GSX-RR does a couple of things better than just about any bike on the grid: it is more agile and easier to hold a line round tight corners. Those characteristics will stand the bike in good stead around the Sachsenring, while the distinct lack of hard acceleration points mean they will not suffer too badly. A seamless gearbox and more horsepower should give them a better shot than last year at both climbing the Sachenring's hills and keeping the bike as smooth as possible through the corners.
Viñales has been nudging the podium for a long time, and the Sachsenring could be another opportunity to get on the box. Aleix Espargaro still has unfinished business and a point to prove, and will be chasing his teammate hard this weekend. Espargaro finished ahead of his teammate by just under two hundredths of a second in Germany last year. He would like to have a bigger margin in 2016.
All powered up and nowhere to go
If the Suzuki is well suited to the Sachsenring, the same could not be said for the Ducati. Though the Desmosedici GP is an outstanding motorcycle, the things it does well will be of little help at the Sachsenring. The Ducati has great rear traction, and plenty of horsepower to spare, but that power is likely to be more trouble than gain. Those ferocious Bologna stallions will spend most of their time tearing up the rear Michelins, and not enough driving the bike smoothly round the track.
Yet the Sachsenring is very important for both Andreas at Ducati. Dovizioso has to make amends for his early exit from the second race at Assen, losing the front like so many riders in the restarted conditions. Iannone has been a picture of simmering resentment since losing his ride at Ducati, and it has not always reflected well on his results. A solid ride at Assen saw him finish in fifth. He will want more in Germany, to drive his point home.
Bradl at home
The Sachsenring should be a special race for Stefan Bradl. It is the German rider's home Grand Prix, and a track where the Aprilia RS-GP should at least stand a chance against the more powerful bikes. Aprilia have brought new components to the Sachsenring, a new swingarm to help the bike turn, and more importantly, changes on the inlet side to give the bike more midrange. What Aprilia aren't bringing is the new engine which has been promised, which should be a major upgrade in terms of power. That will have to wait until after the summer break.
Whether Bradl announces his future at the German Grand Prix remains to be seen. The German has been talking to teams in both the MotoGP and World Superbike paddocks. His main option in MotoGP is to race with Avintia, but his choice rests on the availability of Ducati GP16s next year. Otherwise, he could be off to WorldSBK, to either the Honda or the Ducati teams.
One rider who is likely to announce his future is Johann Zarco. The Frenchman is believed to have signed a contract with Tech 3 for the coming two seasons, but contract complications over a prior deal signed with Suzuki are taking a while to untangle. That situation should be resolved in time for Thursday, and a chance to announce the news in front of the world's press.
That winning feeling
All eyes will be on Jack Miller at the Sachsenring. After a glorious win in awful conditions at Assen, it will be interesting to see what change that has made to Miller's mindset. There was never any question over the Australian's talent, but his dismal start to his MotoGP career raised questions about his attitude. That changed in the middle of last year, under the guidance of Alberto Puig. His move to the Estrella Galicia team has also helped, the team pushing him in the right direction, and channeling his talent.
A win can help to change the focus of a rider, and Assen should do just that for Miller. A repeat of Assen seems vanishingly unlikely (though not, of course, impossible), but a strong result inside the top ten would cement his position in the class.
The battle in Tech 3 will also be worth keeping an eye on. Last year, it was Bradley Smith who rode calmly but brilliantly to be the best of the non-factory riders. This year, teammate Pol Espargaro has taken over that role. Espargaro continues to show his form on the Michelins, while Smith is slowly taking his time to get to grips with the new situation. Smith has been turning his season around, but another crash at Assen made his life hard. He was comfortably sixth at the Sachsenring last year. Sixth won't be so comfortably obtained in 2016.
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