It has been a pretty brutal weekend for the MotoGP riders at the Sachsenring. With less than a week to recover after a punishing race in Assen, everyone is stiff, sore, and tired. But those who crashed in Assen or had a physical problem have it doubly tough, having to deal with the tight and tortuous layout of the Sachsenring circuit.
Such conditions inevitably create tales of motorcycling heroism. Taka Nakagami is one such, the LCR Honda rider still badly beaten up after his crash at Assen, where he was taken out by Valentino Rossi. Nakagami has a badly damaged left ankle, but is trying to ride anyway.
Having an injury on his left ankle is one of the worst possible injuries at the Sachsenring, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because is mostly left corners, meaning that the left ankle is bearing much of the load for a large part of the lap, riders leaning much of their weight on their inside leg through the corner. And secondly, because there is so much gear shifting to do, riders going up and down through the box through the tight and twisty circuit.
In FP4, Nakagami had to spend a lot of time in the garage having his ankle retaped, as he hadn't been able to move his ankle sufficiently to actually shift gear. But once that was done, he put on a heroic display to post a blistering lap in Q1 and make it through to Q2 behind Valentino Rossi, displacing a despairing Andrea Dovizioso along the way. How tough was the laps which Nakagami put in? He hobbled out to his bike on crutches to go out, and then had to be helped off the bike and onto crutches after he had come back in again.
It was the first time he had felt such pain while riding, Nakagami said. "Normally when you break some bones, after the surgery the problem is only the flexibility but the pain is nothing," the LCR Honda rider explained. "But now I have just the taping, and also some injection and pills, but it doesn’t help anything."
"During FP3 I felt really bad," Nakagami said. "I mean, the pain is incredible, and after that the situation is getting worse. Before FP4 we did an injection to reduce the pain, but it didn't help. The flexibility is OK, but the biggest problem is that I cannot force on the ground or the foot pedal because if I even put my foot on the pedal, the pain is so sharp. Really strong. This is the main thing, so it will be a very difficult race." Will he manage to finish the race? "Like this maybe I cannot finish the race because after only 10 laps maximum I cannot hold on the bike. I mean the pain is incredible. It feels like every corner I broke the bones."
Danilo Petrucci was another victim of a crash, though his had come at the Sachsenring. The Italian had taken a very nasty tumble at Turn 9 during Q2, battering both hands in the process. He had feared severe injury, a reminder of times in the past when he had suffered hand injuries, such as the broken metacarpal in 2016 which saw his right hand swell up like a bowling ball.
"For sure I was quite scared in the first moment because I felt a lot of pain in the right hand and the left wrist, where I was injured in 2016 and 2014," Petrucci told us. "I thought it was broken because immediately the hand was really black. But then they say that nothing was broken but maybe the ligament of the thumb is broken. I have a lot of pain there. Fortunately I haven’t broken any metacarpal."
Things were looking worse on the left hand side, Petrucci said. "In my left wrist I have a pain inside. I have to do a scan because when I push on the hand I feel a lot of pain. I was doing a good lap. Unfortunately it was a nasty corner to crash. I crashed at 200kph again. This time the gravel, I started to jump and roll. Anyway it could be worse. I was complaining about this all weekend, the stability of the bike. I lost it in the worst point."
'T is but a scratch
While Nakagami and Petrucci speak openly about their injuries, Fabio Quartararo is playing down any ill effects he may have suffered in the massive moment he had at the end of FP3. As he was pushing for a fast lap, he had a huge speed wobble coming out of Turn 11, the bike shaking so violently that he dislocated his left shoulder. He was in obvious pain when he got off the bike, and was whisked to the medical center for treatment.
After qualifying on the front row of the grid, and nearly stealing pole from Marc Márquez, Quartararo was all smiles, artfully dismissing questions about the state of his shoulder with sly jokes. "Now I’m balanced!" the Frenchman joked. "I have the left, the right."
Quartararo explained what had happened to cause the giant speed wobble which had dislocated his shoulder. "This morning with new tires we tried to push hard but on the fourth lap I tried to make the corner 11 on full gas and on the exit I lost the grip and started shaking a lot. At the end the shoulder was quite okay. We managed to get FP4. Tried to work on the pace."
He deflected questions about his fitness by focusing on the right arm, where the surgery to cure arm pump had caused some swelling in the Assen race. "I don’t know how I will wake up tomorrow morning, but I think it will be okay," Quartararo said. "I think there is less pain than Assen on my right arm. For me I’m quite confident. Is a long race here, but our pace is not so bad and feeling quite smooth on the bike."
It was a good day for Yamaha, and could have been even better if Valentino Rossi hadn't crashed in Q1 after securing a spot in Q2, and giving his team a rush job to prepare the bike for the second session. Maverick Viñales joined Fabio Quartararo on the front row of the grid, and Franco Morbidelli starts from the third row, Valentino Rossi making it all four Yamahas in the top eleven.
More importantly, Viñales and Quartararo look incredibly competitive, their race pace not far off the pace of Marc Márquez, and on a par with Alex Rins on the Suzuki. The problem is that while Viñales, Quartararo, and Rins look to have a pace to be lapping in the mid to high 1'21s, Marc Márquez was capable of sustaining a pace of around 1'21.4 a lap, even on medium tires with the best part of 20 laps on them. If Márquez gets away, nobody will see which way he has gone.
But it could be some time before the Repsol Honda rider can make a break. The general expectation is that the tires will need a great deal of management, as the combination of many long lefts and a few short rights mean that the edge of the tire can take quite a hammering. The left side of the tires which I saw in the pits looked to be in excellent condition, something confirmed by Michelin boss Piero Taramasso in his debrief on Saturday night. The problem comes on the right side, which is exceptionally soft to deal with the fact that there are only three right-hand corners at the track, two very long and slow, and one very fast indeed.
So most likely, there will be a game of cat and mouse before anyone summons up the courage to push for a gap. The start will be crucial: overtaking at the Sachsenring is extremely difficult, with only the run into Turn 1, or the two lefts at the bottom of the hill offering a chance to get ahead.
Twisting the knife
But there is no doubt that Marc Márquez intends to go all out for the win. When asked if Márquez would go easy if, as seems likely, Andrea Dovizioso is having a tough race, Cal Crutchlow dismissed the idea out of hand. "He will push to win for sure," the LCR Honda rider said. "Because he knows that tomorrow can be a great advantage with regards to how many points he can take."
Márquez would have good reason to drive the knife home if Dovizioso has a bad race. "I think Dovi has lost his way," Crutchlow opined. "And it's quite clear to see, to be honest. In general, in the last races he's not been so fast. In many of the practices, I think he has more lost the way, and he's not using the bike's strengths. Dovi's a fantastic and great rider, a good friend of mine, but the track where he could have taken advantage of Marc, I think he's lost that opportunity, and now he's had some bad races, some bad qualifyings, and now it's getting a little bit worse for him."
Crutchlow believed that the mistake Dovizioso was making was on focusing on the championship, rather than just trying to win races. "If you look at him two years ago, not even last year, but I think he was in a stronger moment than he is now. But I think Dovi rides better when he doesn't ride for the championship, when he goes for the race wins." Many years ago, former world champion Casey Stoner said that the way to win a championship was to focus on winning races. Win enough races, Stoner said, and the championships will look after themselves.
There is much to be said for Crutchlow's comments. Dovizioso's debrief in the Ducati / Phillip Morris hospitality unit was a positively funereal affair. Dovizioso looked beaten, even before the race had begun, perhaps an effect of missing out on Q2 by just a few thousandths of a second to Nakagami, who was riding pretty much with just one leg.
What strategy could he use to compensate for having to start from thirteenth? "I don’t know," Dovizioso said. "We will see which strategy we can do but we don’t have a lot of cards to use in this moment."
The huge mixture of riders and tires made it very difficult to figure out what the race pace of the majority of riders was, Dovizioso explained. "It’s difficult to understand our pace because in the afternoon we did a 22.4s with a used soft on the last lap. I don’t think that is bad if we compare with the riders riding with a used tire."
The problem was that there were no real strengths of the Ducati GP19 at the Sachsenring circuit, Dovizioso said. "The situation is difficult because we don’t have any positive part of the race where we can be strong. There are some moments when we can be very close to the fastest. But anyway we lose and in some moments we can lose more. At the end of race it will be a problem so it’s difficult. If I use a lot the rear tire to recover a lot of positions I will pay for that. It’s bad."
Something old, something new
So confident of his race pace was Márquez that he spent FP3 back-to-backing the new and old frames once again. He even put his fastest lap of the session in on the new frame, a new lap record which stood until Márquez smashed it once again during qualifying. But in FP4, he decided on using the old chassis, without the carbon-fiber reinforcing, and focusing on the frame he already knows so well.
"The potential is there, but still we need to understand," was Márquez' assessment of the new frame he had used. "It’s true that with that chassis we can be even faster, but we don’t know what happens for the race distance. We will come back to the one that we know because sometimes it’s better to have something that maybe is a little bit worse but you know the reactions than something new that you don’t know."
"We did more laps on the tires with the current chassis," Márquez explained. "We know what’s going on. We know the reactions of this chassis. With the new chassis we have some positive things but also some negative. The negative things sometimes create a crash and then you try to avoid this thing. Maybe with the new chassis I can be even faster but I don’t feel safe enough to do 30 laps in a row. It’s time to analyze deeply. It’s more about safety and about our situation in the championship."
Playing to his strengths
Cal Crutchlow had an alternative theory for why Márquez was sticking with the old chassis. Getting the old chassis to turn requires using a lot of lean angle, and only Márquez was capable of sustaining that, hitting 66° of lean once again on Saturday. "I can't do it, and I will never do it," Crutchlow said. "It's not my riding style."
"Unfortunately, we need to lean this bike more to turn, but every time I lean the bike more, I slide off the bike, I crash," the LCR Honda rider said. "And that's just not my style."
Márquez knows this, Crutchlow asserted, and knew that it gave him and advantage. "This is why Marc is using it to his advantage," the LCR Honda rider said. "In the end, he knows no one else can ride the Honda, and he can. So he wants no competition and no threat from … I'm not saying from improving the bike, because of course he always wants to improve the bike, but he's happy with what he's got, because he's the fastest on it, and he's the most competitive with it, he's being clever with it."
Crutchlow insisted that developing the Honda was a collaborative effort between all of the riders, however. "We work together," he said. "I have a great working relationship with him, I think he's a good guy, and we do work together. We have to, to try to improve. Just because I think something's better or he thinks something's better, it doesn't mean we always agree, but you have to work together on things, and we always try to do that with the Honda riders. There are no secrets with the Honda riders, that's sure, and that's why we benefit in some areas."
But with Márquez leading the development of the Honda, he is in a position to make choices which benefit him, but do not necessarily help his stablemates. Márquez is at the stage of his career where he has slowly brought everything within his orbit under his control, direct or indirect, and is playing the cards he has to maximize his advantage. He is trying to leave nothing to chance, and that includes allowing himself to be beaten by other riders on the same bike.
For the moment, Márquez has the luxury of going unchallenged in any consistent way. At the Sachsenring, the riders in second and third in the championship, Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci, are in real trouble, Dovizioso struggling with turning the bike, Petrucci trying to gain more stability, as well as dealing with two injured hands.
Alex Rins, currently fourth in the standings, has among the best pace, but even if he did beat Márquez somehow, Rins currently trails the Repsol Honda rider by a whopping 59 points. The two fastest riders capable of challenging Márquez are Quartararo and Viñales, and those two are over 90 points behind the championship leader. So far this year, Márquez is winning through consistency, taking advantage where he can, and accepting being beaten by a mixed bag of riders who are all taking points off each other.
Márquez has his eyes on the prize, that prize being the 2019 title. But if he can take victory at the Sachsenring to help him on his way, he won't hesitate. It is hard to see who is going to stop him.
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