The first round after the summer break is always one that fans and paddock personnel get excited about. But the German round of the WorldSBK calendar hasn't captured the imagination, because of its remote setting and, for the riders, the bumpy track surface.
With Jonathan Rea easing his way towards the history books as the first rider to win the championship three years in a row, there was a feeling from some quarters that it was merely a matter of marking time rather than making a mark. That being so, once the weekend got underway it did throw up plenty of excitement in what appears to the final race at the Lausitzring.
Davies is the King of the 'Ring
Last year Chaz Davies used a runaway victory at the Lausitzring as a springboard to his end of season domination. It was only a wet weather defeat to Jonathan Rea that blotted his copy book in the final rounds of the 2016 season. After claiming a double victory in Germany the Welshman was quick to pour cold water on any such expectations for this year.
“We won't be able to have another run like last year,” said Davies. “It isn't going to happen because last year we found something in the middle of the season at a test in Misano. Since then we’ve basically had the same bike. Nothing much is really going to change for us but we can still win races!”
Winning is what Davies has spent most of the season doing. His double in Germany brought his tally to six and gave another illustration of how strong he can be when he is on song. Unfortunately this season has also seen him on the floor too often. Three retirements, all from podium places, have left him out of title contention in the final third of the campaign.
Despite his pace Davies has spent most of the season playing catchup to Rea despite having pace that was on par with, or indeed better than the Kawasaki rider for most of the year.
“The game keeps changing. Last year I won Race 1 in Germany by 14 seconds and in race one this year I won by less than two seconds. On Sunday I able to eke out on tenth here and another there. The pace this year was probably the best part of one second a lap better. The game has changed and I am riding as hard as I can. We are at the front but everybody is at the top of their game.
“In a lot of Sunday races this year we've both had to come from the third row of the grid. Johnny has been able to make great starts and get to the front. Even though our pace has been similar a lot of the time he's been able to use those early laps to open a gap of a few seconds. Here I was the hunter and came after him and Marco. It was satisfying to win in that kind of fashion.”
Being able to bridge that gap will certainly give Davies plenty of confidence for the rest of the season but he was realistic all weekend about how tough it will be to match his exploits of last year.
Kawasaki's gamble on soft tires
Kawasaki aren't used to being outfoxed but they certainly were last weekend. Despite taking a dominating pole position Tom Sykes was never comfortable during the races and Jonathan Rea looked vulnerable all weekend.
"We were on the back foot from Friday and it meant that for Saturday we reverted back to an older setting rather than what we had been trying,” admitted Rea. “It definitely allowed us to improve but we were beaten by a better guy this weekend. There was nothing more I could do and I thing we did a good job here to get as much out of the weekend as we could.
"As the tire started the wear and the grip dropped the bike is a bit of a handful round here. Maybe it’s the way our bike delivers the power or the bumps. The Ducati package is working well here and we have to accept that every dog has his day. Chaz and his bike were strong.”
On Saturday Kawasaki's decision to opt for the softer tire offered by Pirelli led to plenty of head scratching along pit lane. Many crew chiefs felt that while it wasn't a surprise to see Sykes try something different it was a big risk for Rea.
“I think that it was a surprise because the track temperature was borderline for the tire to begin with,” commented one experienced engineer. “For Sykes the decision can be understandable because he needs to try something different and get some pressure on Johnny. For Rea though...it was a risk that he didn't need to take.
“The soft tire generally needs about a minimum of 35°C track temperature, and even with that being the case the harder tire made more sense here. The track is so bumpy, you can see it on television quite clearly, but the hard tire actually sucks up those bumps better than the soft. The hard tire rides over them and absorbs the bump whereas the soft tire reacts very differently. With Johnny leading the championship by such a margin I was surprised that he made that tire choice.”
Kawasaki admitted the error of their ways on Sunday night with Pere Riba commenting that the team opted to use the strategy they developed at the pre-round test. During that test the softer tire was the preferred option and, for a change, the reigning champions were caught out by being inflexible. Rea and Riba have made the foundation of their success a continual ability to adapt and on Sunday they reverted back to the harder tire.
"Honestly, we have taken 40 points from this weekend and extended the championship lead so I'm satisfied with that,” admitted Rea after Race 2. “We have to accept that sometimes the other teams can have a really good weekend but Portimão and Magny-Cours are coming next and they good track for me. There I expect to be stronger and fight for victory."
MV: A wolf in sheep's clothing?
It's very difficult to change perceptions in racing. Indeed in most paddocks perception is reality. If a rider is deemed lazy or mistake prone that is the dominant narrative until they produce enough evidence to disprove it. If a bike is slow and a team under-financed it takes an age to turn around the perception about them.
The MV Agusta squad has steadfastly worked on improving their package in WorldSBK and the time is nigh for that work to be rewarded by upgrading their expectations. Leon Camier scored a brace of top six finishes at the weekend and looked completely at home on his bike. In the last six rounds Camier has had seven such finishes and it's time for everyone to stand up and expect this as the norm for the former British Superbike champion.
The improvement has been gradual but constant. Reliability issues still plague the team, as shown by Camier once again having to sit out part of FP1 with a technical issue, but once the bike rolls down pit lane he has been able to consistently impress this year.
In Race 1 he held off the Yamaha of Alex Lowes and finished close to Marco Melandri. On Sunday he was beaten by Lowes but once again gave chase to a big fish; Tom Sykes on the Kawasaki.
“My start wasn't perfect in Race 2 and we'll have to work on improving the clutch for the future but other than that it was a good race. In the early stages I tried to overtake Sykes and we had a nice fight for 4th place. His pace was pretty good and we stayed with him.
I made a mistake at the end and Alex was able to grab fifth place. That frustrated me but it was a good fight. Honestly I thought I had Alex covered as I was about 0.4s ahead of him but he came by at turn nine. I wasn't expecting that! I got back past him but I then went into the last chicane too hot.
It's annoying to lose a position like that but overall I am totally satisfied with the performance of the bike. It was perfect and my rhythm was really good in the second race. I'm really looking forward to the next round in Portimao.”
MV Agusta has never had a podium finish in WorldSBK, but given Camier's performances over the last 18 months their time is approaching. Whether it will be enough to keep the Englishman at the team remains to be seen. He has attracted plenty of interest from Honda to move for 2018, but the differing fortunes of both teams could mean it would be of little surprise if he remained where he is.
Bradl and the 'blade
Some upgraded parts appeared to have brought an upturn in performance for Honda, but it still wasn't enough. A new fairing was the biggest visible change but an updated swingarm was also revealed as well as a host of electronic improvements.
A crash on Alex Lowes' oil on Friday damaged the fairing and swingarm beyond repair and also robbed Stefan Bradl of what had been on of his most promising weekends. The former Moto2 champion looked much happier on the bike and was finding constant improvement but ultimately injuries sustained in the crash ruled him out of Race 1 and he claimed only three points on Sunday.
Honda's Marco Chini revealed to Speedweek at the weekend that there are plenty of concerns about the German's motivation at the moment. Confirming that Honda has let their option on Bradl lapse for the 2018 season and that, at the moment, he is a free agent, it is clear that the team are in a difficult position at this point.
That Bradl has not enjoyed this season has also been clear to see. The change to Pirelli tires and a WorldSBK bike has not been smooth and progress has been slow to see. Last weekend showed that Honda has been able to bring some improvements to the bike but it also showed that there is still a huge amount of work needed.
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