It was a wild and weird weekend at the Sachsenring. The second in a row, after the bizarre and thrilling two-part race at Assen three weeks ago. The weather proved to be decisive, favoring the brave and the smart. And, perhaps, the lucky, but luck is always a part of racing. Sometimes the conditions come to you, and when they do, you have to capitalize.
That is precisely what happened in the MotoGP race at the Sachsenring – and in the Moto3 race as well, come to think of it. For motorcycle racing's big guns, they started on a soaking wet track with a light drizzle falling, but by the halfway mark, the first hints of a dry line were starting to form. That line would start to grow over the next few laps, and then it came down to two judgment calls: when to come in and swap bikes, and whether to gamble on slicks, or play it safe with intermediates.
Bike swaps are governed by circumstances as well as choice. Windows of opportunity open quickly, but they are often overlooked. The information the riders have to base their decision on is limited to what the team can convey via the pit board, and what they can glean from the jumbotron screens that line the circuit. They find themselves locked in battle with other riders, something which can easily devolve into a game of chicken. Unlike the game of chicken, though, it isn't the rider who blinks last who wins. It's the rider who blinks at exactly the right time.
As for tires, the addition of the intermediate tire has been both a blessing and a curse. Introduced at the request of Dorna, to encourage riders to go out during half-wet, half-dry conditions, to help fill otherwise dead air, the intermediate tire has become a viable race tire. That has presented teams with something of a dilemma: they now have to try to second guess the weather, and judge whether a drying track will dry fast enough for slicks to be safe, or stay damp enough for the intermediate tire to be the better choice.
There is, of course, a simple way around this dilemma. "For our team, the intermediate doesn’t exist," Marc Márquez explained at the press conference at the Sachsenring. "We go from wet to dry." That removes a lot of confusion from the communication, and from the minds of the team and Márquez. "How do I tell the team, I want intermediate or I want slick?" That could be solved by allowing two-way communication between riders and teams, but more of that later.
Change tires, change feeling
The bigger issue for Márquez is that he has not tested the intermediates a great deal, and has little information about them. That is a bigger deal than you might think: Pol Espargaro had never tried the intermediates before, and crashed out while he had a golden opportunity to take a podium. Scott Redding missed out on a podium because he lost so much time in the first few laps trying to comprehend how the intermediates behaved.
Even Bradley Smith had been surprised by the difference in feel, and he has used the intermediates several times before. "It's amazing how you go from the wets to the slicks, and the profile is completely different, the bike feels 100kg heavier. It no longer turns into the corner, so it's a really odd feeling to the opening laps," he explained. "It's worthwhile trying to train that, because we're getting more of these types of races."
This, perhaps, is where the genius of Marc Márquez won him the race. "I take a lot of risk because the dry line was very, very tight," he said at the press conference. "But I manage well these first three laps and then when I saw that I was faster already than the wet tires I say okay, now it takes time and I will arrive." The ability to ride at the very limit for several laps without crashing is what allowed him to survive those first laps on slicks, when the track was not perfect, and what gave him the win.
Forcing your hand?
But luck, or something like it, helped Márquez too. He briefly ran in too hot to Turn 8, and had to gas it through the gravel to get back on track. That set him thinking about the right time to pit as the track started to dry. A few laps later, it was time, and once the slicks got up to temperature, he started to fly.
Perhaps it was not so much the gravel excursion as his plummet through the field which helped make up his mind. Starting on pole, but having chosen the extra soft front wet which Michelin had brought when the weather forecast turned cold and wet, Márquez was losing ground almost every lap. By lap 13, he had settled in eighth position, but was going backwards. On a drying track, he had nothing left to lose.
This was the point where he won the race. Though he lost 24 seconds in the pit, he was faster than the leaders on his first full lap out of the pits, lap 19. A lap later, he was 4 seconds faster, then 6 seconds faster, then 7 seconds faster, then 7 seconds faster again. In the space of four laps, he had made up the time he had lost in the pits and was back up to sixth. He was 10 seconds behind the leading group, and closing fast.
Follow the leaders
That was the point the leading group decided to pit. Danilo Petrucci had crashed out after an incredible display of wet weather riding in the early laps, leaving Andrea Dovizioso in the lead. As the track started to dry, Dovizioso's lead started to shrink, and Valentino Rossi, Hector Barbera, and Cal Crutchlow closed on the Ducati. Fresh from his maiden win at Assen, Jack Miller had been with the front group from the start as well, while Crutchlow had gotten a terrible start, going slow to warm the harder front wet up, but had sliced through the field to join the leaders.
The way the leaders made their decision to pit stood in stark contrast to Márquez. Their teams had been signaling frantically to pit for a couple of laps, but the blind uphill crest before the start of pit lane made it hard for the riders to see the pit boards, especially for the teams in garages at the beginning of the straight, like Crutchlow and Miller. But the group was so caught up in their own battle, and their own game of bike swap chicken, that they really entered too late.
"I honestly didn’t look at my pit board. I just followed the two guys in front of me which were Dovi and Vale," Cal Crutchlow said in the press conference. "I knew they have the experience to be at the front in MotoGP and I just followed them." Rossi believed that he had little to gain by pitting earlier. "For sure, about the strategy, I can stop two or three laps earlier, but it doesn't change a lot. I think that if I change earlier, I can arrive in sixth place, but I entered the pit together with Crutchlow and Dovi."
For Rossi, the bigger problem was the tires. He had no feeling with the intermediates in the first laps out of the pits, and lost ten seconds feeling his way around. He had chosen the intermediates in a meeting with his team, after their experience with the slicks on Friday. In the cold and damp then, the slicks had been terrifying, not giving any grip or feedback. The intermediates seemed like the right choice during the meeting. But practice turned out to be very different from theory.
From wet to dry
The pit stops became the turning point of the race. Scott Redding had pitted early and swapped to intermediates, and was soon reeling in the leaders. He could not follow the pace of Márquez, but he took over second position when the leaders went into the pits. He looked comfortable in second, but Andrea Dovizioso was fast arriving, with Cal Crutchlow hot on the Ducati's tail.
It was clear that Crutchlow was the fastest of the group. As the laps wound down, Crutchlow passed Dovizioso and started hounding Redding, pouncing with a brilliant pass round the outside into Turn 1 on the final lap. "We were side-by-side going into the braking area and I had an intermediate. He had a slick. He was going to win," Redding said. He had accepted there was nothing he could do about Crutchlow, but losing a podium to Dovizioso was a bitter pill to swallow. The Italian simply had more speed down the hill before Turn 12 to set up a clean pass on Redding, and there was nothing Redding could do about it.
Honda vs the rest
So where did the speed of the Hondas come from? Perhaps there was an ideal performance window for the tires to come to the riders on the RC213Vs. The Hondas stress the front tire more than most other bikes on the grid. Crutchlow's crew chief, Christophe 'Beefy' Bourguignon, told Neil Morrison, "We always use a harder front tyre than other people and probably we generate more heat. This is a disadvantage in normal conditions but I would say also that when Marc and Cal go for it, they go for it. They can ride on the limit and they have the talent to do those things. The conditions also suited their riding style at this race track."
The Honda is short and tall, meaning the bike pitches forward much further under braking, stressing the front tire. This meant the front slick would come up to temperature much quicker despite the cool and damp conditions. Other bikes, especially the Yamaha and the Ducati, are longer and lower, and use less weight transfer in braking. This means they don't get the heat in the tire the way the Hondas do.
The Yamahas and Ducatis were condemned to use the intermediates, which in the conditions were a second or more slower than the Honda on slicks. The bitter irony for the Yamahas, especially, is that they probably would not have been faster on slicks than they were on intermediates. Conditions came together just right.
Half the information
After the race, there was some controversy over whether Márquez' bike was in neutral during the bike change. A new rule change forbids teams from having the second bike in gear when the rider swaps to it, something Márquez and his team had been doing, as it saved them a few precious milliseconds. However, when Márquez came in to the pits, his mechanic was holding the clutch of his second bike, causing the internet to explode with conspiracies.
Myself, Peter McLaren and Neil Morrison from Crash.net all went to ask Race Director Mike Webb about the incident. Mike Webb told us they had seen the incident, and sent Technical Director Danny Aldridge down to the Repsol Honda garage to check the data from the second bike. That, Webb told us, showed clearly that first gear was engaged a fraction of a second before Márquez rode away. That could only have been done by Márquez.
Later that evening more proof arrived in the form of a video. Twitter user Hans-Uwe Wiedemann posted a video on his Twitter feed, showing conclusively that it was Márquez who engaged first gear. The Spaniard's foot visibly moves just before the bike pulls out of the garage.
It would be foolish to think that Márquez would have gained any advantage from having his bike already in gear, however. It may have gained him a few hundredths of a second in the pits. If he hadn't slowed dramatically on the final lap to celebrate, the Spaniard would have won by a margin of nearly twenty seconds.
Pencil his name on the trophy
Márquez' victory puts him in very firm control of the championship. He now leads Jorge Lorenzo by 48 points, and Valentino Rossi by 59 points. Neither Movistar Yamaha rider has the championship in his own hands any more. It is enough for Márquez to finish second at the remaining nine races, and he would still be champion even if Lorenzo won them all.
It has been a dark few weeks for the Movistar Yamaha team. Since Rossi's victory in Barcelona, the Italian made a mistake at Assen, crashing out of the restarted race, then couldn't get the tires to work at the Sachsenring. He pitted too late – though it is easy to say that with hindsight, and the comfort of an armchair – and it potentially cost him 16 seconds, which would put him right in the podium battle. Now he is 59 points behind Márquez, that deficit built up almost entirely in races where he himself made a mistake.
As for Jorge Lorenzo, the reigning world champion has scored 7 points in the last three races. Being knocked off in Barcelona was entirely the fault of Andrea Iannone, though Lorenzo was going backwards at the time. Then a poor performance at Assen saw him squeak home in tenth. In Germany, he was even worse, scoring a single, solitary point by finishing in 15th.
What ails Lorenzo? Mainly tires, especially in the wet, but sometimes also in the dry. The Spaniard needs to feel feedback from the front tire to be able to exploit his incredible ability to carry more corner speed than just about any other rider on the grid. But the tires Michelin have brought recently have not given him the confidence he has been looking for.
It is not so much a lack of confidence in the wet, Lorenzo insists. It is very much a factor of the Michelins not giving him the feedback he needs. "With the Michelin tires in these conditions, change a lot the feeling you had with the Bridgestone when it was raining. I could fight sometimes for the win, sometimes I could fight for the fifth place [with the Bridgestones]. But now with this bike and these tires and these conditions I still am much, much worse." What that means for the next race at the Red Bull Ring in Austria remains to be seen. We know very little about the track, other than that MotoGP will be testing there on Tuesday and Wednesday.
There were plenty of other remarkable performances at the Sachsenring. Hector Barbera showed in the first half of the race that his front row start had not been a fluke. Barbera suffered after the bike swap, but showed clear signs of some real speed. Jack Miller, once again, shone in the rain, but found it tougher once the surface started drying. The Suzukis, so fast on the Friday, were nowhere on race day. The cause? A lack of rear grip, both in wet and dry.
Why radios must remain banned
As seems to happen regularly after flag-to-flag races, especially when someone gets it very right, and others get it very wrong, the discussion was raised – by journalists – of allowing radio communication. Valentino Rossi was in favor. "For sure now if we have the communication direct with the box can be a lot more easy," the Italian said. "Sometimes with the board is difficult, for example if you take Assen, if they say to me that I have already two seconds of advantage I have just to slow down and I can avoid the mistakes. So if it’s possible have a radio, I don’t know why we don’t have."
Marc Márquez disagreed. "This is not cars," he said. "I cannot imagine there on full lean at 200 per hour somebody speaking." It wasn't necessary. "If you have a good plan before the race, you know. If you are with it for meetings before the race. In our case everything was clear. In our team we work a lot on these situations after 2013 in Australia."
Speaking personally, I believe that having radios would be a terrible idea for MotoGP. Once teams have the ability to communicate strategy, they will start to take control of the riders, and feed them with information and demands. Riders will stop riding naturally, and start obeying orders, doing as their teams tell them. It is an entirely understandable attitude from teams, as they have the most invested. But in my opinion, motorcycle racing is first and foremost about the rider, and their ability to manage situations.
The current situation allows riders to gamble and to make mistakes. That, too, is part of motorcycle racing. And at the moment, the championship is being led by the rider who has made the least mistakes. That is exactly as it should be.
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