There are few certainties in life. Death, sure, at some point all of us will die. Taxes, well try as you might (and the number of riders, teams, and managers based in tiny principalities and sovereign island nations known primarily for their tax codes is surprisingly large), the tax man always gets a cut, if not through direct taxation, then at the very least through indirect taxes based on sales. Oh, and Marc Márquez taking pole at the Sachsenring. That also seems to happen with a sense of inevitability.
For the past seven years, Marc Márquez has taken pole at the Sachsenring. He did it in the 125 class, in 2010. He did it in both his years in Moto2. And he has done it in MotoGP for the past four seasons, all of his time in the premier class. Bearing in mind Márquez is only 24 years of age, and took his first pole at the German circuit at the tender age of 17, that is a truly remarkable achievement.
But 2017 is different. The winds of change are blowing through MotoGP. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the winds of unpredictability are blowing, with already five different winners from eight races, as well as nine different riders with a podium finish. The championship, too, has been up and down: three races ago, Marc Márquez trailed the then championship leader Maverick Viñales by 37 points. Going into Sunday's race in Germany, Márquez trails the new championship leader Andrea Dovizioso by just 11 points. In 2017, nothing is a given.
Add in the weather to that equation, and you would appear to have a recipe for chaos. So far the only certainty the weather has shown is its unpredictability. Rain was expected to fall at some point on Saturday, the only question was when. The answer, it turned out, was very briefly during Moto3 qualifying, steadily then heavily during MotoGP FP4 and both qualifying sessions, and then on and off during Moto2. Nobody escaped the rain on Saturday. Though the good news was that the morning sessions were all dry. So everyone got track time in both conditions.
The rain had the least direct effect on Moto3 qualifying, the track staying pretty much dry throughout the session. A smattering of rain towards the end seemed to seal it for Joan Mir, but Aron Canet took a risk on a slightly sketchy track and found it more compliant than he feared, grabbing an impressive second pole of 2017, after getting one in Austin back in April. Though the gaps were surprisingly large – half a second between the top four is massive in Moto3 – the field still looks relatively close. There is a good mix of KTMs and Hondas on the grid for a change: four of the top ten bikes are KTMs, with Nicolo Bulega, Marcos Ramirez, local boy Philipp Oettl, and Dutch neighbor Bo Bendsneyder spread among the Hondas.
Sorting out Moto2 would be a more confusing affair, with the track starting relatively dry, the rain falling shortly afterwards, then drying out again towards the end. A brilliant last lap dive by Franco Morbidelli demoted his Marc VDS teammate Alex Márquez back to second, while Sandro Cortese took an impressive third place. Cortese has struggled so far this season, so a front row start is a welcome boost as his home Grand Prix.
Wet, but consistent
MotoGP, on the other hand, was at least run in the wet, both Q1 and Q2. The first qualifying session, where the riders who didn't manage to put in a quick time the first three practice sessions, is turning into a spectacle every bit as exciting as Q2, the main pole shootout. Danilo Petrucci and a delighted Pol Espargaro made it through to Q2, the second race a KTM has been in that session.
Though Espargaro's passage to Q2 made his KTM teammates happy, Q1 also left both Bradley Smith and Mika Kallio frustrated. The pair had been held up slightly by Hector Barbera on their fast laps, meaning they just missed out on going through. That was less of a concern for Smith than it was for Kallio. Speaking to the media tonight, Kallio made it amply clear that his objective at the Sachsenring was to prove that he was fast enough to still be racing, and that he was not satisfied with just being a test rider. "Still I would like to race, I would like to make a whole season. This is something I'd like to demonstrate now, that my speed is still there and I can still compete against the other guys." That is undoubtedly true. But if Michele Pirro hasn't managed that, why would Mika Kallio?
In the final showdown for pole, Danilo Petrucci played his cards early, but he clearly had a very strong hand. It took all of Marc Márquez' guile and bravery to pip Petrucci to pole, waiting until the end to put in a blistering lap. Not one, but two, securing his eighth straight pole at the Sachsenring Circuit. So far, death, taxes, and Márquez on pole in Germany are still an absolute certainty, at least for this decade.
Let's come together
Márquez' qualifying performance was not entirely unblemished. The Repsol Honda rider had a coming together early in the session with Maverick Viñales. Though the cameras only caught a part of the collision, it looked like Maverick Viñales had passed Marc Márquez in the early part of Turn 2, the very long left hander which leads on to the Omegakurve. The pass put Viñales a little wide, and Márquez held a tighter line and got part of the way past the Yamaha rider as they approached the exit of the corner. But Viñales had not reckoned on Márquez being there, his focus further up the road on Cal Crutchlow, who he was hunting down. Viñales cut back and hit Márquez, who was not quite ahead of the Yamaha.
Who was to blame? It looked like a simple racing incident, two riders going for the same piece of tarmac on a track at which it is notoriously difficult to pass. If it had happened in the race, nobody would have blinked an eye. But it was qualifying, so tempers flared. There was gesticulating, and a discussion at the end of qualifying, as Márquez explained himself.
Viñales appeared to react most forcefully to the incident. In his media debrief, he brushed off questions about it in English, apparently not wishing to answer in a language which was not his mother tongue. When asked what happened, he replied merely, "Qualifying happened. It’s something I have in the pocket. If I have to do it, I’m not going to think. You know, I will do it. Anyway, nothing happened."
Two sides to every story
When he spoke in Spanish, he was much more forthcoming. He had been following Crutchlow to try to make a fast lap, and had past Márquez on the way in to Turn 2. On the way out, Márquez had braked where he brakes, Viñales alleged, and not even bothered trying to make the curve. Had Márquez tried to do it on purpose? "I think he did," he said. "It's difficult not to do that on purpose."
Márquez was more conciliatory, telling the press conference he had gone and apologized to Viñales, though he was not entirely sure what he had done wrong. "With Maverick it was a little bit misunderstanding there because I was pushing," Márquez explained. "I was trying to keep the rhythm on wet tires especially on the beginning and I overtook him. I was just pushing another lap, but of course maybe my line in turn 2 is different because I go in very slow and then keep a lot the gas. He overtook me from inside. Go a little bit wide. Honestly, I thought that he was going wide, but then come back earlier than what I expect. Then we had some contact. I already said sorry to him. The most important is that both of us stay on the bike."
Watching what video there is, it is hard to see evidence of intent by Márquez. The pair came together because they were on intersecting lines more than anything else. If blame is to be apportioned, it probably belongs more with Márquez than with Viñales, if only because Márquez was not fully ahead when Viñales cut back to the apex.
Seething under the surface
The incident certainly didn't deserve to be blown up into the proportions it has assumed. But this fits into a pattern with Viñales in recent weeks. The Movistar Yamaha rider has looked increasingly morose in the last few races, showing less and less inclination to converse with the press. He bears the look of a man for whom things are not going his way, and one who is irked by this. There have been strange results due to track surfaces, such as at Barcelona and Jerez, and Viñales has not been able to make sense of those. There has been the internal Yamaha debate over which chassis to use, and Viñales appears to be on the losing end of that battle, Yamaha bringing the new frame which teammate Valentino Rossi prefers. And now at the Sachsenring, Viñales claimed that Márquez had done that to him in an attempt to get under his skin, but that he would simply not succeed.
Perhaps Viñales' flying start to the season caused him to become overconfident. He spent all of the preseason working on a single aim, come into 2017 ready to challenge for the championship. All of the objectives ahead of the racing were achieved, he was consistently fastest at the tests, and had made himself clearly the fastest rider in Yamaha. Now that things have become more difficult, frustration is starting to bubble up.
This is nothing new for Viñales, apparently. I interviewed Suzuki boss Davide Brivio on Friday, and one of the things Brivio said was that Viñales was hugely disappointed after his very first MotoGP race. He had expected so much more. Brivio had had to spend time pointing out that he was a rookie on a brand new bike, and that it would take some time.
Perhaps the problem is that the Yamaha does not appear to be performing very consistently through this season. The bike appears to change radically from one track to the next. "You have a very different feeling from one track to the other with the bike and the tires. This is a great surprise of this year and was more consistent and this feeling is very difficult to manage because you don't know what to expect. " This, too, could be causing frustration for a man who has spent his whole life working towards the moment he would be champion. It is not panning out as he had expected, and that is proving tough for him to handle.
Saturday looks like being another tough day. The forecast is for the weather to remain dry, though so far, forecasts have been supremely hit and miss at the Sachsenring. Looking at dry pace, Maverick Viñales showed clear potential for a fast lap, but his pace in longer runs seemed somewhat lacking.
Marc Márquez, on the other hand, is simply brutal, knocking out 1'21s in FP3 like they were going out of style. His pace was phenomenal, and more importantly, he has spent a lot of time on old tires, unlike the rest of the field. "Apart from Marc, I think nobody did a lot of laps on the tire," Andrea Dovizioso said when asked.
That is going to be crucial come race day. Tire wear at the newly resurfaced Sachsenring is quite high, with the tires suffering a big drop after ten or twelve laps. How the riders handle that will be the key to a good result. Aleix Espargaro explained it like this: "I really understood this year that the races in MotoGP start on lap 12, lap 15," he said. In the early laps, there are a lot of strong riders at the front, all vying for the lead. But as the halfway point approaches, the riders with the hot pace all quickly drop, their times going up a lot. At that point, an experienced rider – one, say, who did a lot of laps on a rear tire – may be able to make the difference.
If death, taxes, and Marc Márquez on pole at the Sachsenring are all a given in life, then maybe Márquez winning in Germany is too. Márquez has successfully converted every one of his seven pole positions into a race win. On Saturday, he took his eighth successive pole. Looking at his race pace in FP3, it is hard to see anyone getting in the way of him making it win number eight.
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