2015 Sachsenring MotoGP Preview: How Great Last Corners Create Epic Battles, And Silly Season Starting
What makes for great racing? Many things, but great last corners really help. A great last corner, or sequence of corners, allows riders to attack the bike ahead of them, and take one final shot at victory. Even better is when the option to attack offered by the final corner comes with some risk attached: getting ahead is one thing, but staying ahead to the line is quite another.
MotoGP moves from one track with a last corner which guarantees spectacle to another. The final GT chicane at Assen produced fireworks with the clash between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, and the last two corners at the Sachsenring offer similar opportunities. At Assen, the hard-braking right corner is followed by a quick flick left, giving the defending rider the chance to counterattack if he is passed.
At the Sachsenring, the long drop down the steep, steep hill provides the ideal platform to launch an attack from, diving up the inside on the brakes on the way into the penultimate left hander. That line comes at a price, though, as it forces the attacker to run wide on the exit. That opens allowing the defending rider to strike back up the inside on the approach to the final turn, the last left uphill towards the line. Even entering that corner ahead is no guarantee of the win: like Turn 12, Turn 13 offers two lines, inside and outside, both of which can be used to pass.
The only other place to pass at the Sachsenring is the first corner, at the end of the front straight. The rest of the track is so tightly coiled that the bikes are spending too much time on their sides to try to line up a pass. If you're lucky, you can try to figure something out through the section between turns 7, 8, and 9, but from that point on, your mind is focused just on one thing. The crest of the hill just after Turn 10 and then the lightning fast flick right at Turn 11 heading down the Waterfall, and towards the last two turns again.
It is hard to overstate just how important the relationship between a motorcycle racer and his crew chief is. A rider must have complete confidence that his crew chief both understands what he needs from a motorcycle to go fast, and is capable of giving it to him. A crew chief must be able to interpret the sometimes confusing and mixed signals from his rider, filter out the non-essential information, identify priorities from that which will offer the greatest gains, and assign the work to the rest of the crew in the garage. There has to be complete trust between the two, or neither rider nor bike will achieve their full potential.
This was made all too apparent when I interviewed Ecstar Suzuki rider Aleix Espargaro and his crew chief Tom O'Kane for a story I wrote recently for the Dutch publication MOTOR Magazine, due out later this month. One part of the interview which did not make it into the magazine was the relationship between Espargaro and O'Kane, and how they first started working together. However, it is a story which offers a fascinating insight into how a rider and their crew chief work together.
Aleix Espargaro explained how they first met. Suzuki had already arranged for Espargaro and O'Kane to meet at Aragon last year. Espargaro had been uncertain, as he had been asking Suzuki to allow him to bring his own crew chief with him. "Actually before when I started to talk with Suzuki in the middle of last year at the beginning I pushed to bring my crew chief with me, Matthew [Casey]. Because I had good feeling, three years working with him, so it was good for me."
That turned out not to be possible, but the change had worked out well. Espargaro was very happy with the change, he said. "Matthew is a very, very good crew chief but with Tom I discovered that I can work really, really good. Sometimes it’s not bad to change. With Tom, the feeling I have is fantastic. He’s very good. I met him in Aragon last year and we start to talk there. He was really quiet so I thought that it would be difficult to work because I’m completely different, but he’s the opposite. He’s helping me a lot."
At Assen, Dorna, the FIM and IRTA held a joint press conference announcing their plans for the future of the championship. From 2017, they told the media, the MotoGP teams would receive 30% more money from Dorna, factories would have to make bikes available to satellite teams, all 24 riders will receive financial support from the organizers, and Dorna retain the right to buy the grid slots of the two riders who finish last in the championship.
For MotoMatters.com readers, this is nothing new. We reported on this back in May, after the Jerez round of MotoGP. Only a few details have changed in the intervening period, but those changes are worthy of comment. And it is important to note that the new regime starts from 2017, with 2016 being a transitional year. So what will the future of MotoGP look like? Here's an overview.
For next year, the existing system will continue as it is, with teams receiving free tires from the official tire supplier – Michelin, as of 2016 – and an allowance to cover travel costs. Dorna will support 22 riders for next season, meaning that three riders will not receive any support. Which three those are will be decided by IRTA, on the basis of the results of each rider during 2015. The three riders currently out of the top 22 are Karel Abraham, Alex De Angelis and, rather surprisingly, Marco Melandri. Abraham is struggling with a foot injury, but there have been rumors that the Czech-based team is looking at a switch to World Superbikes for 2016.
De Angelis losing his slot would also not come as a surprise. Though they entered the championship with high hopes, Giampiero Sacchi's IODA Racing team have struggled in MotoGP, unable to field a competitive motorcycle. Withdrawing from MotoGP would be a blow, but would allow them to focus more on their Moto2 effort.
Marco Melandri's position is much more troubling. Although the Gresini Aprilia team is a factory effort, the subsidy from Dorna is very welcome. At the moment, Melandri and Aprilia are at loggerheads over the future. Neither one wishes to continue for the rest of the season, but Melandri will not leave without being paid, and Aprilia are disinclined to pay for such a gross underperformance. If this continues, however, it may be worth their while to pay for Melandri to leave. The Italian is rumored to be on a salary well north of €1 million a season, and he is keen to see that money. The amount of money Gresini Aprilia would be missing out on for 2016 if Melandri (or his replacement) is around €1.5 million, so it may prove to be more costly to keep Melandri at 25th in the rider ranking than to replace him with someone capable of finishing nearer to his teammate, Alvaro Bautista, and ahead of a few other riders.
You would think with the deluge of words which has washed over the incident between Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi in the last corner (and to which I contributed more than my fair share, I must confess) that there were only two riders and one race at Assen on Saturday. Beyond the clash at the GT chicane, there was much more to talk about after Holland.
Whatever the immediate aftermath of the clash between Márquez and Rossi, the longer term implications of the result have made the championship even more interesting. Márquez' decision to switch back to the 2014 chassis for his Repsol Honda RC213V has been proven to be the correct one. Though the engine is still as aggressive as ever, the old chassis in combination with the new swingarm and new forks tested at Le Mans has made the bike much more manageable. Márquez can now slide the rear on corner entry in a much more controlled way than before, taking away the behavior the reigning champion has struggled with most. The Spaniard showed he could be competitive from the start of the race to the end, instead of crashing out as the tires started to go off.
The bike is still a long way from cured, however. Márquez switched to the medium front tire rather than the soft, the only rider to do so. The medium provides a bit more support under braking, compensating for the reduced braking from the rear wheel. That support comes at the cost of extra grip provided by the softer front. Whether Márquez will be able to employ that same strategy for the rest of the season remains to be seen. For a start, Assen is not a very typical track, featuring a lot more flowing corners than usual. At circuits with more corners needing hard braking, the challenge will be greater. The next race is at the Sachsenring, where asymmetric front tires will be on offer. How the Honda deals with that will be interesting.
A more competitive Márquez will certainly liven the championship up. After Lorenzo swept the previous four races, a Rossi comeback gave him back the advantage in the championship. Without Márquez, Rossi would only have extended his lead by five more points, but the Repsol Honda man put himself between the two Movistar Yamaha teammates, meaning that Lorenzo's deficit grew to ten points. With ten races to go, the championship is still wide open, though realistically, it is only between Rossi and Lorenzo. But the influence of a rider who is consistently capable of inserting himself between the two Yamahas could end up having a major effect on the championship.
Great final corners make history, every track should have one. A chicane, or a wide, tight final turn which allows riders to attempt a desperate last-gasp plunge up the inside, or for the exceptionally brave, round the outside, for the win. The truly great corners have just enough options after the turn for the attacking rider to make a mistake and let the rider he just passed retake the lead.
Assen has such a final corner. And not just a great final corner, but also a great sequence of corners which lead up to it, allowing riders to both plan ahead and to react to the unexpected. On Saturday, Assen's GT Chicane, and the complex from De Bult all the way to the exit of Ramshoek, delivered spectacular and exhilarating racing. It also delivered a moment which will go down in the annals of MotoGP history, and be debated for years to come. It might even prove to be the decisive moment in the 2015 championship.
The names of the protagonists should come as no surprise: Valentino Rossi led into the final corner, with Marc Márquez in hot pursuit. What happened next depends on whose version of events you wish to believe, as the participants differ in their perceptions. Rossi says he turned in to the first part of the chicane in front, got bumped wide by Márquez, and had no choice but to gas it across the gravel to avoid crashing. Márquez says he had the inside line in the corner, Rossi cut him off, then cut the corner on purpose to take the win. Which version is the truth? We'll come to that later, but to understand what happened we have to go back to the beginning of the race.
Jeremy Burgess was famous for finding that special something on Sunday morning that gave Valentino Rossi the edge in the race in the afternoon. It is a tradition carried on by Silvano Galbusera, who has replaced Burgess since the start of the 2014 season. Galbusera, too, always seems to find that extra little tweak during warm up that makes the difference between cruising in fourth or finishing on the podium, and even on the top step. The fact that it has continued since Burgess' departure suggests that the tweaks were very much a collaborative effort, with input coming from his data engineers and mechanics, as well as the rider himself, of course.
Two weeks ago in Barcelona, Rossi's team appeared to have found something extra special. For it did not just work on the Sunday in Catalonia, taking Rossi from the third row all the way up to 2nd, but it has even carried through to Assen, some 1600km further north. Rossi was quick from the moment he rolled out of pit lane for the first time at Assen, and has been at or near the top of the timesheets ever since. In this form, Rossi may well have expected to have been on the front row, but he went better than that. Putting in one of the best laps of his recent career with a couple of minutes to go, he simply hammered the opposition. As a sign of just how dominant he was at Assen, he led the second fastest man, Aleix Espargaro, by nearly a quarter of a second. The next quarter of a second difference covers second place to eleventh, from Aleix Espargaro to Danilo Petrucci. It is incredibly close at Assen, except at the front. One man reigns supreme.
If the Honda is so bad, why are two RC213Vs at the top of the timesheets? That seems like a very valid question, given the public struggles which all of the Honda riders have had with the bike this year. Has the 2014 chassis finally fixed the Honda's ailments? Is Márquez back?
If only it were that simple. Firstly, of course, Marc Márquez never went away. The double world champion still possesses a gargantuan talent, and the desire and will to use it. He was hampered by many aspects of the 2015 bike, including both the engine and the chassis. The 2015 chassis, he explained at Assen, was more precise and could be used more accurately. Unfortunately, the only way to get the best out of it was to ride it like every lap was a qualifying lap. That level of intensity is just not sustainable over race distance. At some point, you will make a mistake, and the 2015 chassis punishes mistakes mercilessly. So HRC have reverted to a hybrid version, using a 2014 chassis and the new swingarm which Márquez first tested at Le Mans. That works better for Márquez: he has been forced to sacrifice some precision, but at least now he has a chance to recover from mistakes.
Assen is a funny old track. And when I say old, I mean old, the event has been on the calendar since 1925, though there was no such thing as world championship, and the race took place between Rolde, Borger and Schoonloo, some ten kilometers east of Assen. From 1926, it moved to a route between the villages of De Haar, Oude Tol, Hooghalen, Laaghalen and Laaghalerveen. The roads, forced into short straights with fast sweeping kinks and bends by the complex drainage patterns of the creeks and ditches which keep the region from reverting back to peat bogs, gave shape to the track which was to follow. They still leave their mark on the circuit today, despite being a closed circuit since 1955, though the track has been much shortened since then.
What remains is a track with nary a straight piece of asphalt on it. The back straight meanders between the Strubben hairpin and the fast right and long left of the Ruskenhoek, living up to its name of Veenslang, or Peat Snake. The short stretches between the fast combinations of corners weave and flow, and the only thing keeping the front straight straight is the pit wall. As a piece of geometric design, it is a disaster. As a race track, it is glorious, proving that the best tracks are not designed on paper, but laid out in a landscape. Mugello, Phillip Island, Assen: all great riders track, each owing a debt of gratitude to the landscape which forms them.
All these fast, flowing bends where riders barely touch the brakes – comparatively, for a MotoGP race that is – reward a bike that can carry corner speed and change direction easily. A bike that rewards a steady hand and a smooth style. In other words, a rider like Jorge Lorenzo on a bike like a Yamaha YZR-M1. Lorenzo has been fearsome around Assen in the past, laying down a pace impossible for mere mortals to follow. Having won the last four races in a row, Lorenzo is in pretty terrifying form as well. "I am in the best shape of my life," Lorenzo told the press conference, joking that he had even beat his personal trainer on a mountain bike ride for the first time. The Yamaha is strong, and Lorenzo is strong. Who can beat him?
Frustration and resignation. Those were the two most prominent emotions at the post-race MotoGP test at Barcelona. Two sides of the same coin, in reality, as the weather robbed teams in desperate need of track time of any chance of doing the hard work which will make them all a bit more competitive. After an hour and a half of a dry track, a massive thunderstorm washed over the circuit, drenching the track and leaving it wet for the rest of the day. Dani Pedrosa was phlegmatic about the situation. " The weather is what it what is," he shrugged. "Obviously it would have been perfect for it to have stayed dry but we don't control that."
In the Tech 3 garage, Pol Espargaro, suffering badly through a slump in his form, did nothing to hide his frustration. "We tested two things, one of them was not good, one of them was good, we improve a little bit. Then the rain comes, it's impossible to make one fast lap time, impossible to make a rhythm, impossible to make anything. We are looking to go to Assen to continue, because it was a disaster today." It has been a tough year for the younger of the two Espargaro brothers, as he is struggling to ride the Yamaha, a bike which requires a radically different approach than his natural tendency, to move around, and be aggressive.
The rain was perhaps toughest on Marc Márquez. Márquez' biggest problem is on corner entry, where he cannot slide the rear controllably once it touches down during braking. The reigning world champion feels strongly that braking is where he has his biggest advantage, and the ability to either pass or make up time on his opponents. Take away that advantage and he feels shackled, fighting with one hand behind his back.
Barcelona was the place the champions emerged. In Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP, riders laid a solid claim to the titles in their respective classes. Danny Kent rode with heart and head, and won the Moto3 race with a plan, extending his lead in the championship to 51 points. Johann Zarco pulled back a big gap and made the right move when it mattered most, extending his lead to 40 points. And Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi demolished all-comers to make it a Yamaha one-two, and to push their lead out to 43 and 44 points respectively, the Movistar Yamaha men separated by a single point between them. A lot can happen in the eleven races which remain, but the chances of the three titles not bearing the names of three of those four men are getting slimmer by the race. The fat lady is still a long way from starting to sing, but you get a sneaking suspicion that you just heard her taxi pull up at the artists' entrance.
While in Moto2 and Moto3, the title favorites have a name, in MotoGP we know only the team likely to lift the trophy in Valencia. To say that the factory Movistar Yamaha team dominated the MotoGP race in Barcelona is an understatement. While Valentino Rossi chased another metronomic performance from Jorge Lorenzo, behind them their rivals were either falling by the wayside or finishing nearly twenty seconds off the pace. Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso and Aleix Espargaro crashed, Dani Pedrosa finished third just under twenty seconds behind the Yamahas, and Andrea Iannone was the first factory Ducati home, with a gap equating to a pace nearly a second a lap slower than that of the Yamahas. Jorge Lorenzo has won the last four races on the trot, Valentino Rossi has picked up two more, and not been off the podium so far this season, leaving only Austin to Marc Márquez. Even then, the Repsol Honda man won that race with a much smaller margin than usual at the track.
Jorge Lorenzo gave yet another demonstration of just how strong his riding is at the moment. The Spaniard grabbed the lead at the first corner – frustratingly so for Aleix Espargaro, who had got off the line well but started to suffer as the Suzuki changed up the gearbox, the lack of a seamless shift meaning he lost eight or nine places in the long run down to the first turn – and proceeded to make the break so many feared he would. Marc Márquez gave chase, but lasted less than three laps, the reigning champion throwing his title chances away at the La Caixa corner. Valentino Rossi rode brilliantly to work his way up to second from the third row of the grid, but left himself with too much work to do to catch Lorenzo. As the laps started ticking down, it looked like he might just manage that, but Lorenzo responded just enough to keep a healthy buffer between himself and his teammate. It wasn't an epic race by any stretch of the imagination, but there was tension and there was interest.