Starting on pole, or at least on the front row, is important at every race track, but at the Sachsenring, it is doubly so. There are very few passing opportunities at the German circuit: Turn 1, though it is not easy. Turn 12, after the run down the hill. And if you are smart, Turn 13, the final corner, but that is usually only possible if you have just been passed on the way into Turn 12, and the rider who passed you is now off line.
So a strong qualifying is crucial. Normally, that means the fastest riders make their way to the front of the grid. But not on Saturday. At the Sachsenring, a series of crashes meant that the grid had a strangely unfamiliar look. Three satellite riders on the two front rows, and two riders universally acknowledged to have the strongest pace well down the field.
At least they weren't crashing in Turn 11. With the sun out, the asphalt significantly warmer, and with riders having learned the hard way that they need to get the line right through that viciously fast corner, riders were instead finding different ways to crash. Andrea Iannone went down unexpectedly at Turn 1. Jorge Lorenzo hit the deck at Turn 8, then again at Turn 1, bringing his crash total for the weekend to three.
A topsy-turvy grid
The crashes put Iannone back to ninth on the grid, and Jorge Lorenzo way down in eleventh. That is hardly representative of the real speed of both men. When asked to sum up the riders who had the best pace, both Maverick Viñales and Pol Espargaro reeled off the same list of names: Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Iannone. Márquez is on pole for the seventh year in a row, albeit in three different classes. Valentino Rossi starts from third, a crucial position and yet more confirmation that his problems with qualifying are in the past. But Iannone starts from ninth, while Pedrosa starts from tenth, neither rider able to make an impression during qualifying.
Iannone's problem was obvious: crashing on his first tire in Q2 disrupted his rhythm and robbed him of one attempt to go fast. Pedrosa's problem is a little more arcane: though he had the pace in FP3 and FP4, he is still unable to push on with a new tire and improve his times by much. So even though both men have the race pace to match Valentino Rossi, and probably even Marc Márquez, they start from so far down the grid they face a massive challenge.
Márquez' pole position makes him the favorite for Sunday. This is the seventh year in a row that he has started a Grand Prix from pole, first in 125s, then two years in Moto2, and now this, his fourth MotoGP pole at the Sachsenring. Each of the previous six races Márquez started from pole, he won. The opposition have been warned.
The old fox?
The real danger could come from Valentino Rossi. Though is race pace in the dry is a little off that of Márquez, it is still well within what should be considered competitive for the seven-time premier class champion. With the weather forecast looking decidedly difficult for Sunday, Rossi has a chance to break Márquez' long chain of victories.
The most intriguing news were the three riders from independent teams on the front two rows of the grid. Hector Barbera used the Marc Márquez as a target to make his way onto the front row of the grid, but that belies the fact that he feels comfortable around the Sachsenring, and can be fast. The one thing the Ducati GP14.2 of Barbera does not do well is change direction, but the Sachsenring has very few places where you go from one side to the other.
Danilo Petrucci was fourth, though he had exactly the same time as Rossi. But Rossi's second fastest lap was better than Petrucci's putting the Pramac Ducati rider back to the second row. Petrucci has been having a strong weekend, and was in good spirits. After speaking to reporters describing his qualifying, he turned to them, grabbed a voice recorder to see how long it had been running, and announced, "I have been talking bull**** now for six minutes, and you are all still here!" The Italian has been growing stronger each race weekend, feeling ever better despite having missed much of testing and several races due to his hand injury. A wet race would play right into his hands.
Pol Espargaro is fifth on the grid, the Tech 3 Yamaha rider surprised to be there. "It's a strange day. Strange that there are three satellites in the top five. That's not normal." They were helped by Dani Pedrosa not being able to improve, and Andrea Iannone's crash. The fact that both factory Ducatis were suffering from a lack of confidence with the front Michelin also opened up opportunities for them.
The two Suzukis had looked stronger at the start of the weekend, but had gone backwards as the weather improved. This was normal, and frustrating, Maverick Viñales explained. "Like always, when the temperature goes up, we are struggling with the grip. When it's cold, we have grip and the bike is really really fast. Then when the temperature goes up, it's so difficult to ride the bike."
"Honestly, I was expecting much more from the bike," Viñales told reporters. "Normally it happens the same, we start Friday on top, Saturday a little bit less, and then Sunday is difficult." The lack of grip meant that he was losing time in every part of the corner. "The sliding starts on corner entry. On braking into the corner, I have a small slide. And then when I go to touch the gas, it starts to slide again. Maybe if I have better grip to enter the corner, I don't need to use so much gas, I can use more corner speed."
What's up with Lorenzo?
Then, there is Jorge Lorenzo. The reigning world champion started off the weekend on the wrong foot, crashing at Turn 11 on just his sixth lap of the circuit. That, and the unusually cold weather which meant the tires were not really getting up to temperature, left the Spaniard struggling with confidence. Lacking feel in the front of the bike, he had been worried on Friday.
I went out to watch from trackside on Saturday morning, along with John Laverty, brother of Eugene. Lorenzo looked to be trying really hard, trying to physically force the bike through the corners. It was completely atypical of the Spaniard: normally, he is so smooth on the bike that you can't see him move, transitioning from side of the bike to the other and leaving you thinking, how did he get there? On Saturday morning, all of his movements on the bike seemed exaggerated, very visible.
Yet the Spaniard recovered confidence as the day went on. The bike improved through every session of free practice, and Lorenzo was fast with fresh tires as he started Q1. He set his best time on his first run, securing his place in Q2 before crashing on his second run. In Q2, he went out on old tires, set a lap he was happy with, and expected to take half a second off his lap time with new tires. But he pushed too hard into Turn 1 on the first flying lap of his second run, and he lost the front in Turn 1, the right side of the tire not fully up to temperature.
Lorenzo took all of the blame on himself. "Yesterday I pushed too much in this corner for the cold conditions. And the first crash today was because I entered the corner with too much kerb. I was used to entering the kerb with the Bridgestone and with the Michelin it was not possible. The second one, I didn’t brake so deep but maybe in the previous lap I didn’t warm up the right side of the tire enough. I just lose the front. So three mistakes on my part. It is not normal that I make so many mistakes."
Yet he put his lack of pace on Friday down to a setting change the team tried which hadn't worked. When they returned to a more normal set up, Lorenzo immediately felt better, and was faster. "I’m happy that we understood why we were so slow yesterday. I crashed many times - once yesterday and twice today - but I prefer to crash two or three times and be more or less competitive, than not crash and not be competitive."
Q1 grows tougher every race
Lorenzo's qualifying position belies the pace he had. That is in part down to just how competitive Q1 has become, with so many equally strong bikes on the grid. The time Jorge Lorenzo set in Q1 was the sixth fastest set during both qualifying sessions. The time Danilo Petrucci set in Q1 to get through to Q2 was the fifth fastest of both sessions. Put together a combined grid using both Q1 and Q2 times, and Petrucci stays in fourth, but Lorenzo moves up to fifth. Cal Crutchlow, who failed to get through to Q2, would have been seventh on a combined grid, and ahead of Maverick Viñales.
So the MotoGP grid is not an accurate reflection of the relative strengths of the riders. Unfortunately for everyone who didn't get it right in qualifying, they face an uphill task trying to get past other riders.
If the MotoGP grid is a little strange, the Moto2 grid is a lot more accurate a reflection of events. Taka Nakagami took his first pole since 2013, building on the success of his first win at Assen last time out. He has been fast all weekend, and Johann Zarco and Alex Rins will have a tough time trying to catch him. Third man in the championship Sam Lowes made life difficult for himself by qualifying a lowly tenth.
Qualifying was hardest for the Moto3 class, a red flag coming out after oil dropped from Danny Webb's Mahindra and caused Romano Fenati to crash. Once the track was cleaned, it was Enea Bastianini who took the honors, beating Andrea Locatelli by nearly a third of a second. Two rookies impressed in third and fourth, Aron Canet taking the final slot on the front row of the grid, while Dutchman Bo Bendsneyder finished ahead of his Red Bull KTM teammate Brad Binder to take fourth. Binder starts from sixth, which given the South African's very strong form this year, should be enough to defend his comfortable lead.
In the end, the races are likely to be determined by the weather. Rain is forecast for race day, with some uncertainty over when the rain will fall. Some could fall at around 11am, just as the Moto3 class is about to get underway. Even more is predicted to come at around 2pm, right at the start of MotoGP. It is going to be three nerve-wracking races at the Sachsenring on Sunday.
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