There are two things which any motorcycle racing fan needs to know about the Sachsenring circuit in the east of Germany. The first is that the track has an awful lot of left-hand corners, which all flow together into one long turn, the bike spending a lot of time on its side. The second is that Marc Márquez has started from pole position and won the race since 2010, nine years in a row, in 125s, Moto2, and MotoGP. These two facts are probably not unconnected. Marc Márquez loves turning left, his win rate at anticlockwise circuits hovering around 70%. If a track goes left, there is a more than two in three chances that Márquez will come out victorious.
Márquez is especially good at the Sachsenring. The reigning champion starts every race as the man to beat, but the German Grand Prix is different. Here, riders speak of how close they hope to finish to him, rather than how they are going to beat him. His name is penciled in on the winner's trophy, the race almost, but not quite, a formality.
Even though the race is something of a foregone conclusion, the track itself is a fascinating circuit. On paper, it seems far too short and far too tight to be a MotoGP track, the bikes barely cracking sixth gear, and spending little time at full throttle. But that doesn't mean the track isn't a challenge.
Up and down, round and round
It starts with the climb up the hill, which needs power and acceleration, as well as good wheelie control, the front already going light due to the steep climb out of the final corner. The short straight is long enough to hit over 290 km/h, before braking hard for the first corner, a right hander entered at around 75 km/h.
Exiting the first corner sees the riders enter what looks like coiled strand of spaghetti, a long left leading into the Omega curve, a long right which turns all the way back on itself and further. Then the bikes flick left and over the crest of Turns 4 and 5, before dropping down the hill and starting another climb to the top of the circuit, holding hard left from Turn 6 through Turn 10, with very little straight in between, the bikes spending more time on the left side of the tire than in the middle, requiring very hard asymmetric tires front and rear from Michelin.
The biggest challenge follows Turn 10, however. As they exit the last of the long left handers, the bikes crest the hill, the track dropping away precipitously below them. Right at that point they have to flick the bike hard right at high speed for the treacherous Turn 11, one of the scariest and most dangerous corners on the calendar. That corner has claimed many an optimist, pushing too hard too early through there, flinging the bike right before the right side of the tire has sufficient temperature to provide the necessary grip. Get it wrong, and you incur a fast trip through the gravel, a bruising experience both mentally and physically.
At the bottom of the steep hill, affectionately nicknamed The Waterfall, the two best overtaking chances await. The classic move is to claim the inside line and try to outbrake your rival going into Turn 12 at the bottom of the hill. If it succeeds, it is a thing of beauty, with just one small blemish: passing on the brakes into Turn 12 costs speed on the exit, leaving the door open to the rider you just passed to carry speed through Turn 12 and get drive on the start of the climb up the final corner, Turn 13, and reclaim the spot you had just taken from them. Get enough drive through Turn 13 and up the hill toward the finish line, and they can easily get their revenge.
Tough on mind and body
All that time spent on the left side of the bike is extremely physically demanding as well. "This track is so tight, so slow, and you have to keep the same position on the bike for a long time," Andrea Dovizioso explained. "And that affects a lot the energy you use on the bike. And if you are not relaxed enough when you are riding, practice by practice you become tired, and when you have to do 45 minutes together, it's impossible to keep the same intensity for the entire race."
Two days of practice and qualifying can be punishing to the rider's body, leaving them without the strength they need to complete the entire race at full speed, Dovizioso said. "That is what happened to me last year during this weekend. I was pushing a lot during the weekend, trying to be fast because I always struggle in this track, but I dropped in the last part of the race, because I was pushing so hard to try to keep that speed, but I wasn't smooth enough to be consistent for the entire race."
Marc Márquez has all the ingredients needed to be fast at the Sachsenring: a preference for turning left, a peerless ability to steer the bike with the throttle, a great feel for low grip conditions, and the physical fitness to easily handle 20-odd minutes hanging off the left side of the bike.
So who can beat him in Germany? It won't be anyone on a Honda, the 2019 bike being a difficult enough proposition to ride at the best of times. Stefan Bradl replaces the injured Jorge Lorenzo, and is an excellent test rider, but not capable (nor permitted) to challenge Márquez for the win. Cal Crutchlow slipped on a cobbled road while riding his bicycle, fractured the top of his right tibia, and ripped his ACL. The LCR Honda rider is uncertain he will be able to ride this weekend, so trying to beat the reigning champion will be hard. Takaaki Nakagami stands perhaps the best chance using the 2018-spec Honda RC213V, but though the LCR Idemitsu Honda rider has made solid progress in 2019, he is still some way from becoming a threat to Marc Márquez.
How about the Ducatis? Since the giant leap of 2015, the Desmosedici has made small improvements in turning every year, but turning the bike in the long corners is still the GP19's Achilles heel. Each year, the Ducati has gotten closer to the front, Danilo Petrucci finishing fourth and six tenths behind Maverick Viñales in third in last year's race.
A podium is possible, but not much more than that, both Petrucci and Andrea Dovizioso believe. "The turning for sure affects a lot being fast and competitive in this track," Dovizioso said. "It will be difficult, but in the end last year, Ducati didn't make the podium but we weren't so far. Danilo did fourth, and there were three Ducatis within 7 seconds. And so I think it's not impossible to fight for the podium, and this is our goal."
After his experience of 2018, Danilo Petrucci is a little more optimistic. "Last year I lost the podium by one-and-a-half laps because Maverick passed me," the Italian said. "I was absolutely not able to defend because in acceleration I had very poor tire on the left side which I think is the key for us to be fast by managing and saving the rear tire. This track has not so many tight corners but some of them are quite long so I think we can fight for the podium, for sure it is very hard to beat Marc here, at least looking at the result of the last few years."
Cornering can work
If a challenge is to come, it will come from either the Yamaha or the Suzuki, both bikes which have the agility and ability to carry corner speed which the Sachsenring demands. The main threat will most likely come from Yamaha, both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales ending on the podium last year.
Valentino Rossi will need a good race to exorcise the DNFs he has racked up in the last three races. Assen was a particularly bad weekend for the Italian, Rossi struggling at a track where he has previously excelled. He and his team found a solution on Sunday morning, changing the balance of the bike to give Rossi more confidence, and allowing him to be much faster in the race.
The trouble is, that didn't last, Rossi crashing out after just five laps. "We had a chance because at Assen on Sunday we modified something in the balance of the bike," Rossi said. "I don’t have a very good feeling in the fast parts to ride at the maximum. In the race I felt good. I was already a lot faster when compared to the practice. But I crashed and did just five laps. We started from there to understand here if we can be more competitive. Here the track is completely different but for example last year I was not so bad. It’s always difficult, a strange track and very particular. But we’ll try to understand if we can be towards the front."
Fresh off his win at Assen, Maverick Viñales is brimming with confidence. But he is also realistic in the face of the challenge posed by Márquez. "I think Honda and Marc are the favorites here, and there are the ones to beat, so we are going to try to follow their speed," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "It will be very difficult for sure but we are going to try to work on the same mentality as from Montmelo and Assen, trying to be strong in every session, then we will see. In the race you never know so I am going to try to prepare for the race the best we can and then we will see."
Viñales had a clear idea of where the bike needed to improve if he is to take the fight to Márquez. "I think for us it is very important to improve the slow corners," the Spaniard said. "I think sector one is the most important sector for us all of the weekend to focus on and to try to improve, but anyway I think we manage the tires quite well and it will be very important over the first laps. I think it is important to work on the start and the first laps."
Despite having a mixed record at the Sachsenring, Fabio Quartararo is optimistic for the German race. "I looked at the last few years of races here for MotoGP and it looks like the Yamaha is working well at this track," the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider said. "I think in all the tracks we’ve been to the bike has been working really well so I expect the same at this track."
Quartararo is still struggling with the aftermath of arm pump surgery, which caused him problems in the race in Assen. The saving grace for the Frenchman is that the Sachsenring is mostly left corners, which is not too taxing for the right arm. "I struggled from mid-race to the end in Assen, and on my arm to have back-to-back races is not the best for recovery," Quartararo said. "But here it is a track that almost all corners are left so in Assen we took some rest in these kind of corners so I think we will need to check after the first practice how the arm feels but I hope that it will be okay and I think it will be okay."
But the rider most confident of beating Márquez is Alex Rins, the Suzuki Ecstar rider having shown excellent speed in the last few races. The only blemish on his record was crashing out of the lead in Assen, something acknowledged was his own fault. "The truth of why I crashed, it's because I braked later, " Rins admitted. "This is the truth. Basically I was trying to ride by myself, I started on my best performance, and I was feeling great. So I forgot the wind from the front and I braked a little bit harder."
Rins was far from overawed by Márquez' record at the Sachsenring, and felt sure he could take the fight to the Repsol Honda rider. "For sure. For sure," he answered, when asked if the Sachsenring was a circuit he could win at. "Can I beat Marc here? Yes, sure, like in another track. Last year we did a good race, this year we arrive here a little bit more prepared, the bike changed a little bit, so we need to try, we need to test on Friday, but I will try to start on my best performance."
His teammate comes off two strong finishes at the Sachsenring. In 2017, Joan Mir won the Moto3 race, and last year he was second in Moto2. He has been very strong in recent races, finally putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together to be quick in MotoGP. The Suzuki GSX-RR should help him do well, he said. "The Suzuki has a good chassis, good cornering," Mir said. "On paper it looks like a good track for us, but we also have to see how the rear tire works, and how we are able to manage the last laps."
Marc Márquez himself is taking nothing for granted. For 2019, Honda has improved its weaknesses by sacrificing some of its strengths, making a more balanced bike with the aim of scoring consistent podiums, even at tracks where they were weak in the past. That has some risk, he acknowledged. "It is the philosophy we’ve followed for the past two years and we’ve tried to be consistent in all race tracks," the Repsol Honda rider said. "That’s the way we are working and already we saw last year that we won the race but second and third were Yamaha and four, five, six were Ducati. That means something."
It is worth noting in this context that until 2019, Marc Márquez had also been unbeaten in the US, winning every race he contested in America, and every edition of the Grand Prix of the Americas at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Every edition until 2019, that is, Márquez crashing out of the lead in what seemed like an unforced error. So even though Márquez enters the Sachsenring with an unbroken string of wins at the circuit, he knows that every streak will come to an end sometime.
Silly season nearly done
The Sachsenring is also a place for rider announcements, as the last race ahead of the summer break. Today's announcement was that Danilo Petrucci had agreed a one-year extension of his contract in the factory Ducati team, a move that had been widely expected after the Italian's victory in Mugello. Petrucci's contract renewal also opens the way for an extension being announced for Jack Miller.
But the renewal came with an interesting side note: the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Jorge Lorenzo had called Gigi Dall'Igna, and offered to return to Ducati at a bargain basement price. When asked about this by Italian website GPOne.com, team boss Davide Tardozzi didn't quite deny it, saying only that he could not be completely certain that anybody had made any phone calls. But he also emphasized that he believed Lorenzo was not the type of rider to give up until he had made a success of riding the Honda. First, though, Lorenzo needs to recover from his injuries, and stop hurting himself so badly.
The problem, of course, is that there are no open seats for 2020, contracts all running through next season with the next round of vacancies expected for 2021. There are a few changes expected – Brad Binder looks certain to make the move to MotoGP with the Tech3 KTM team, and Tito Rabat is in with a good shot at moving to WorldSBK with Kawasaki – but the real shake up can only come for the 2021 season. This time next year, the grid for the following season could look very different indeed.
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