It was a wasted day at the Sachsenring. The day started cold but with a dry track, then, ten minutes into MotoGP FP1, a fine mist of rain started to fall, making already tricky conditions positively terrifying. A few journalists walked through the Sachsenring paddock up towards the end of pit lane, where the fences give you great views of Turn 1 and Turn 11.
Just as we arrived, Scott Redding's battered Pramac Ducati returned to the paddock in the back of a recovery trailer. When we turned around to watch the bikes coming through Turn 11 again, Jorge Lorenzo slid through the gravel towards us, his foot caught up in his bike for a while. While we were watching Lorenzo hit the gravel, we heard another bike scrape across asphalt and into the gravel. It was Stefan Bradl's Aprilia, the German having lost the front at Turn 11, just as Lorenzo had.
The rain continued, never really heavy enough to soak the track properly, only lifting towards the end. A few riders went out on wet tires to check their repaired bikes, coming straight back in again. The morning session was lost to the weather conditions. The afternoon session was a little better – at least it was dry – but the track temperatures meant that the tires never really got to the operating range they were designed for.
Cold, miserable, and in the gravel
"The problem of this year is the temperature is critically low," Valentino Rossi explained. "The temperature on the asphalt is less than 20°C, and usually the MotoGP tires don't work when the asphalt is less than 20°C." The softest asymmetric front tire which Michelin had brought was meant for track temperatures which had been seen earlier this week: low twenties in the morning, with temperatures of 30°-40°C in the afternoon. But it was exceptionally cold all day Friday, feeling more like October than July.
So MotoGP bikes tumbled through the gravel at Turn 11, five in total. Just to mix things up a bit, Eugene Laverty fell at Turn 1. He crashed for the same reason – cold tires in a right-hand corner. In an attempt to find a workaround for the exceptionally cold weather, Laverty and the Aspar Team (now with new title sponsor Pull & Bear, a Spanish fashion brand which also backs Aspar's Moto3 team) decided to try the intermediate front.
"I know it's quite soft, it's something more like a wet, but I wanted to see how it would feel," Laverty said. "Braking and everything else was fine, but it was actually strange in the turning. The bike wouldn't turn as well, the bike was just moving. I didn't expect that, so we learned that we also need the front tire as much as the rear. Because when I was on the gas, that's when it felt strange with the intermediate front. It wasn't gripping and hooking round."
But the gamble was not entirely without merit. Laverty's lap times were not as far off as he feared. "I was only about 0.6 what I was able to do on the slicks, so it wasn't too far away. It wasn't bad, it was just at full lean. That's where I was struggling to get the thing hooked round, and I was trying to drag the bike round and that front tire wasn't helping. That was the biggest problem on the long corners."
Sachsenring – love it or hate it
The many crashes at Turn 11 kicked off the discussion about the safety of the Sachsenring once again. The riders fall broadly into two schools of thought. One group, including Suzuki riders Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales, and Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso, believe that the track is simply not safe, and MotoGP should not be racing here. The other group are happy to come to the Sachsenring, though their opinion of the track varies from neutral to savoring the unique challenge posed by the track.
"We really need to think about whether we can race at the Sachsenring, because it's very dangerous," said Aleix Espargaro. "We were very lucky that nothing has happened here in the last years. It's not about the Bridgestone, it's not about the Michelin, it's about the design of the track."
Bradley Smith sees it completely differently. "If there was a wet patch or something like that, then people would take care," he told us. "You have to treat Turn 11 like there's a wet patch, and nobody wants to. If we had a wet patch on the apex of Turn 11, no one would crash. But the problem is, everyone treats it like it's dry, goes in hot and crashes."
Managing risk, and facing up to challenges
Others saw it the same way. "I have enough experience to know not to take risks at Turn 11," Cal Crutchlow said. "For me, the bigger problem is also, already the situation is difficult, but with the used tire from the morning, I never have the feeling to push," Rossi said. "I have the clear feeling if I try more, I can lose the front. The Turn 11 is a very dangerous point, very fast, so maybe it's better to wait a little bit and hope for a better condition tomorrow."
The track's fans all praise the unique layout, and the challenges it poses. It requires exceptional precision to get the best out of the track. "You need to be inch perfect," Smith said. The track is so technical that being off line in one corner puts you off line for the next three or four corners. "You've got to be really smooth here, because there's no point in being radically in applying the brake or the gas," Eugene Laverty explained. "So you don't feel like you're going anywhere fast through the sections, like Turn 5, Turn 6 where you're building there, so you've got to be patient. You've got to piece a few apexes together. It's a different type of circuit, that's for sure. There isn't any other that feels so much like a go-kart track, but that section really does. "
That, too, is what was catching some riders out. Cal Crutchlow was following Maverick Viñales before the Suzuki rider crashed. "I saw he would crash when he came out of Turn 10," Crutchlow said. The Spaniard was a fraction wide, and would not hit the apex perfectly. He paid the price, though it did not prevent him from getting back on his bike and going faster again, ending the afternoon session on top of the timesheets.
The issues with the track were doubtless raised at the usually Safety Commission meeting on Friday night. There was a good attendance: as I walked by the Dorna offices at 5:30pm, I saw Valentino Rossi arriving, followed shortly by Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez, joining the regulars at the meeting. They will rehash old ground: the track really needs another right hander somewhere, but there is no room inside the circuit to insert one. There is no space outside the track for the circuit to expand into, as it sits in the middle of an industrial estate, enclosed on all sides by roads, warehouses and car dealers.
The continuing battle over budget has seen other tracks suggested as a replacement. There is talk of MotoGP going to the Nurburgring, perhaps alternating with the Sachsenring. There is also talk of a switch to the Lausitzring, some 140 km northeast of the Sachsenring.
The trouble is that the Sachsenring is an incredibly popular venue. The crowds always top the 90,000 figure, and even on Friday, the grandstands were filled. At most tracks, crowds are pretty sparse on a Friday, most people only turning up on Sunday. Hohenstein-Ernstthal, the town where the Sachsenring is situated, is genuinely mad about bike racing, the town also housing a small museum which is well worth a visit. There is also plenty of accommodation in nearby Chemnitz and the surrounding towns.
The alternative tracks are less well suited in that respect. Attendance at the Nurburgring was never very good, and the track could not hope to get anywhere near the crowd figures for the Sachsenring. The Lausitzring is much more isolated, with much less accommodation in the direct area. The atmosphere at the Sachsenring is one of the very best all year, and the race has a real racing vibe to it. "Cheerful madness," is how the owner of the Bed & Breakfast I am staying in described it to me. That is definitely how it feels.
Maverick & Marc
Despite the difficulties, there was some action on track today. Despite his crash, Maverick Viñales was just plain impressive. The laps he put in at the end were three or four tenths faster than the rhythm of anyone else. Andrea Iannone ended the day in second, but it was Marc Márquez who looked the most threatening. Viñales may have been faster, but Márquez put in a long run of laps in the high 1'22s, low 1'23s. The Repsol Honda rider is clearly comfortable.
The same could not be said for the Yamahas, though Valentino Rossi was not so far off as his headline time suggested. He hit traffic on his final lap which would have been good enough for ninth, but he was not really pushing. There was too much to lose, as teammate Jorge Lorenzo demonstrated.
Lorenzo was lacking confidence after his crash in the morning. This is hardly a surprise, given the Spaniard's history at the Sachsenring. Everyone understands Lorenzo's difficulties at Assen, as his heroic effort in the race in 2013 is still fresh in their memories. His massive crash, the midnight flight to Barcelona to have surgery to fix his broken collarbone, and his amazing performance to finish the race in fifth.
What fans forget is that two weeks after his crash at Assen, he also crashed at the Sachsenring on the Friday. He broke his collarbone once again, and bent the titanium plate holding his collarbone together nearly into a right angle. There were no heroic returns to Germany after surgery that time. But the crash at the Sachsenring left just as indelible a mark on Lorenzo's mind as the one in Assen.
The same could be said for Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider suffered a similar fate on the same weekend as Lorenzo. Pedrosa, too, admitted he lacked confidence at the track after that incident. Exceptional conditions like those on Friday could only make things worse.
In the end, the Moto2 class probably had the best of the conditions at the Sachsenring. The morning session was mainly dry for Moto2, and the afternoon was even better still. Fresh from his maiden victory at Assen, Taka Nakagami dominated both sessions. Johann Zarco and Sam Lowes were close in both FP1 and FP2, while Alex Rins was strong in the morning, and Jonas Folger strong in the afternoon.
The weather for the rest of the weekend is looking markedly better. Sun is expected on both Saturday and Sunday, but more importantly, track temperatures should be well above 20°C. That should be enough to help the MotoGP bikes keep their front tire on the ground through Turn 11, and provide the fans with the spectacle they hope for. Friday may have been a wasted day, but Saturday should be much better for everyone.
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