Betting on Marc Márquez to take pole and win the race at the Sachsenring looks like the safest bet imaginable. From 2010 until 2017, Marc Márquez has started the race on pole and gone on to take victory in all three of the Grand Prix classes he has raced in. Márquez is truly the King of the Sachsenring.
Friday seemed to merely underline the Repsol Honda rider's dominance at the Sachsenring. Though he didn't top the timesheets in either FP1 or FP2, that was only because he hadn't bothered putting in a soft tire in pursuit of a quick time. Take a look at underlying race rhythm, and Márquez was head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
That pace continued into Saturday morning. Once again, Márquez was not the fastest – he finished sixth in FP3 – but in terms of pace, he had half a step on everyone else. But it was only that: half a step. Others were starting to catch the Spaniard. Could he really be in trouble for the race?
Márquez looked even weaker in FP4. Sure, he had a bunch of mid-1'21s, but he had lost a couple of tenths to the sharp end of the field, perhaps discouraged by the small crash he had in the first corner, when he failed to save the front from going. He ended the session in tenth. A worrying development, given there is no incentive for riders to stick in a soft tire for FP4, as it does not have an effect on whether a rider progresses straight to Q2 or not.
End of the reign?
Instead, there were some new names at the front. Andrea Dovizioso, Andrea Iannone, and Jorge Lorenzo all had a couple of low 1'21s, to go with a whole heap of mid 1'21s. Suddenly, there was a new game afoot. Would Marc Márquez miss out on pole at the Sachsenring for the first time in nine years?
It was close. He had to dig deep and push out a perfect lap on his third run, the only rider to deploy a two-stop strategy. That allowed him to use three new front tires, though it was obvious that the hard front was the tire he needed to go fastest on. That also brought some risks with it: on his first lap on his final run, Márquez nearly ended in the gravel, the rear sliding out from under him, though he managed to save it in typical Márquez style. That spurred him on in the final lap, diving just under Danilo Petrucci's best lap to take his ninth pole in a row at the Sachsenring.
The fact that there are two Ducatis next to Márquez on the front row should be rather worrying for the Repsol Honda rider. Though Danilo Petrucci is no great starter, Jorge Lorenzo appears to have a secret stash of nitrous oxide stashed away in the "salad box" tail housing, having rocketed into the lead in the last few races, and winning two of the last three. Lorenzo played down the importance of a good start on Sunday. "Normally I start quite well with the Ducati," he said. "But for example in Montmeló, Marc started better than me, so that can happen also tomorrow. Obviously, I’m going to try to start as well as possible. I don’t think it’s going to be so important to lead or not lead the race, but as Marc say to save the tires and to save the energy for the last fifteen laps."
On Lorenzo's tail
Danilo Petrucci starts ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, but he was very honest about how that happened: he had followed Lorenzo round, the Italian said, and used him as a reference to go faster. "I have to be clear, I used Jorge for target in that lap and this helps me a lot," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "Tomorrow I think the starting position will be important, but our target was to be in the first two rows. The second part of the race will be very, very difficult because the tire consumption will be very high. I don’t know how many riders know what are the possibilities. It will be tough."
To an extent, it is a pity that Andrea Iannone is starting from the third row of the grid, for it is Iannone who has demonstrated the best pace over Saturday. The Suzuki Ecstar rider posted a lot of quick laps in race configuration in FP3, then imposed his will on FP4. If Iannone can make a good start and get into the top six, then he will prove a tough nut to crack in the race.
On paper, the Sachsenring should suit the Suzuki, but it seems more and more like the bikes are so balanced that there are no more tracks which favor one bike or another. "Sincerely, we don’t have Honda tracks or Ducati tracks or Yamaha tracks any more," Danilo Petrucci told the press conference. "I think it depends the balance between the tires, the temperature and the track. Now the situation change every race. It’s a different one. I don’t think there is a track where a manufacturer is leading. I think is more important the balance between tires, tarmac and temperature."
A hair's breadth
A lot of teams and manufacturers got that balance right at the Sachsenring. The Honda and two Ducatis on the front row are separated by just 0.057 seconds. Maverick Viñales in fourth is a tenth behind Jorge Lorenzo in third, but there are two Yamahas and another Ducati on the second row, and they are separated by less than a tenth. It is going to be a very close race in Germany.
In the end, the race will come down to tire choice, and tire management. For almost everyone, the choice is between the soft and the medium rear, and both tires are capable of going the distance. How they do that is a little different however, leaving riders facing a dilemma. Do they choose the soft, and try to open a gap early, then manage it later in the race? Or do they choose the medium, try to latch onto the riders in the front group, then hope they have more tire left over in the second half of the race?
Andrea Dovizioso explained what he expected from the race. "I think we have the same speed as the fastest rider, but for the first part of the race," he said. "For the second part, I think nobody really knows what can happen. The consumption, I expect a very big tire consumption for everybody, more than normal. If that will happen – I don’t know – that will affect the race a lot. What everybody can see about the speed on the paper will be wrong, because of the tire consumption. The tire drops, because at this kind of track you can’t pick up the bike, because you have to stay at that angle. You can’t manage if you arrive in a bad situation with the tire."
The tire drop will be significant, Maverick Viñales predicted. "For sure half a second. Finally, you cannot carry on the speed on the left side of the tire, and the lap time drops a lot." That should not be a surprise: from Turn 4 to Turn 10, the riders spend over 30 seconds consecutively leaned hard over on the left side of the tire, giving the rubber no respite from punishment. Half distance will be one drop in tire performance, while the last few laps will see another, Andrea Dovizioso said. "Already there will be a step in the middle of the race. But the last five, six laps will be another big, big step."
He who manages, wins
But Viñales was very confident, despite knowing that the tire performance drops off. "I feel quite comfortable, even a little bit better when the tire drops a bit, because it takes out the stress from the front and the bike works a little bit better. So I think our stronger point will be at the middle and the end of the race, so let's see. I hope for a good start, and I hope to follow for some laps at least."
The different manufacturers have different strategies for managing rear tire wear. Danilo Petrucci said that the Pramac Ducati team were mostly doing it using electronics. "We are working a lot on electronics to make the bike very, very smooth," Petrucci told the press conference. "Here we have only two, maybe three hard braking areas and not so much acceleration. You have to be very flowing on the track."
The Yamaha riders cannot solve their problems with electronics, so are having to do it themselves. "I'm focusing a lot on the riding style right now, to try to bring the bike to the maximum, or to supply a little bit what we need with the riding style," Maverick Viñales said. "I'm not focusing on anything else, I want to improve myself, trying to make the bike arrive where I want."
What does that entail? "Honestly, I am changing a little bit, trying to be much more smooth on the gas, do what the electronics can't do, Viñales said. "I try the best every time, and I think track by track we are improving." But he was sounding very confident on Saturday afternoon. "I think it's very important to be intelligent and patient enough in the beginning to be strong at the end. So let's see. Normally I'm good at saving the tire until the end. It's going to be about the start, if I start in the front and I'm second, third, I can play my cards. If not, I need to run, and let's see. At the moment, there is no plan for the race."
How have we ended up with a lot of riders – Viñales, Dovizioso, Rossi, Rins, Petrucci, Iannone, and others – believing they can challenge Marc Márquez for the win at the Sachsenring? That was down to the good weather, Márquez explained. "At the Sachsenring, normally we have always some wet sessions, and this weekend is the first time that it is completely dry. So everybody has time to find the best setup, everybody has time to find the lines. If you check a little bit my first run in FP1, I was already in 1'21. So for me, I adapt very quickly, but then everybody arrives later. Now many riders will have the same pace, more or less, but I feel strong."
The lost boys
One name missing from that list is Johann Zarco, the Monster Tech3 rider struggling in the middle part of the season. Zarco seems to have lost his way, with no obvious explanation, certainly not as far as he is concerned. "I don’t understand what's happened," Zarco said. "As I said we started the weekend with good things in our hands to control the situation and finally at the end of the Saturday we are not there."
"Maybe this one is the worse one of all the last three weekends. It looks a little bit more like Mugello. Mugello I was not fast. In Barcelona some better and Assen was a difficult weekend. I was competitive just not lucky to start in eighth position. Here once again it's eight tenths but eight tenths look a lifetime. I don’t know what I can say. What was better at the beginning of the season or maybe we are still doing well but the others are doing better. That's maybe also a way to see it."
One possible explanation may be the rumors of some turmoil in his private life, including a conflict with his manager and confidant, Laurent Fellon, resulting from that turmoil. Motorcycle racing is such an intense sport that unless you are focused 100% on racing all the time, you can quickly lose your way. That appears to be what has happened to Zarco, with Tech3 not really in a position to intervene. It will be interesting to see what happens with Zarco in 2019, when he joins the KTM factory team. Factories are much less shy about intervening directly in situations they feel are unhelpful for their riders. KTM is likely to try to sort this situation out. The question is, can Zarco afford to wait until then, or should he start to examine the changes which he needs to make to solve the problems he faces right now?
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