Earlier this week I wrote an article setting out why I think that Marc Márquez is the favorite to win at the Sachsenring. What the riders told the media on Thursday at the Sachsenring merely cemented the Repsol Honda rider's status as front runner. Despite his entirely mediocre results since his return to racing, Márquez was identified as at least a potential podium candidate by just about anyone you asked.
Should this be a surprise? Not when you consider that, as veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes pointed out to me, Marc Márquez has quite the record at anticlockwise circuits, tracks with more left handers than rights. How good? He wins nearly 7 out of every 10 races he starts at a track which mainly turns left. That makes his win rate at clockwise circuits – a measly 3 out of 10 – look somewhat threadbare. And as I wrote earlier this week, he is a perfect 7 from 7 at the Sachsenring.
The former world champion was bullish on his chances. "Honestly speaking, maybe this weekend will be the weekend that I feel better with the shoulder and with the arm," he told us. "I think and I hope there will be no limitation in this circuit, because we have left corners and only three right corners, which is where I have the limitation and where I feel worse. So we can say that this will be the first weekend without physical limitations."
That doesn't mean that his woes are over, he added. "Obviously, you cannot pretend to arrive here and change completely the situation. But about the physical side, I am confident we will be much better than other circuits, and then let's see, let's see where we can arrive with less physical limitations."
Mental and physical preparation
It is hard to see the 87 laps which Márquez did at the test on Monday after the Barcelona race as anything other than a warm up for the Sachsenring. Sure, he had parts to test, but above all, he had to work on himself. "The Barcelona test was so important," Márquez told us. "It was important for Honda, but it was important for me. It was the first time that I was able to ride a bike without cameras, without pressure, without depending on the lap times. I was just riding, I was trying many things on the bike. It's true that we tried many things for Honda for the information, but also I tried many things on my side, and it was good."
It is easy to forget that Márquez had to dive into the 2021 MotoGP season with no testing. The first time he got to ride a MotoGP bike in anger after his aborted early return at the second Jerez round in July 2020 was FP1 at Portimão. He could ride without thinking about needing to try for a fast lap to book a spot in Q2, without worrying that his rivals could watch the footage of him riding in slow motion afterward. He could work on the things that he needed to, on coping with the shortcomings of his right shoulder, on learning just how far he can push in left handers, without the prying eye of the TV cameras always gazing on him, ready to pick out any mistake. He had, at long last, his own preseason.
The Spaniard acknowledged the challenges he faced when asked whether Ana Carrasco's victory at Misano, after returning from fractured vertebrae, served as an inspiration. He has followed her recovery process closely, Carrasco riding with a team he knows well, as they had given him his first opportunity to race on a road bike. "I hope I can have the same comeback like Ana, but it's true that the situations are a bit different. Because I still don't feel 100%, I arrived without a preseason, one year without riding a bike. So it's true that it's different, but of course before we finish the season I would like to have some results like Ana."
This lack of a preseason had left him stranded, struggling to get a purchase on the 2021 season. His normal approach to race weekends – pushing to find the limit and risking a crash in practice, learning the exact margins within which he can operate in the race – had been turned on its head. "At the moment, as soon as I want to be fast, I crash. So that's something that means that I'm not ready," Márquez said. "So in the practice I'm riding my rhythm, and I'm not crashing, but in the race, as soon as I want to go a little bit more, I make some mistake. It's normal because it's completely the opposite style that I did in the past, but step by step it will change."
Making the rubber last
What will it take to beat Marc Márquez at the Sachsenring? Other than Marc Márquez, of course – the Repsol Honda rider has proved several times already that he is perfectly capable of beating himself, having crashed out of the last three races, his longest streak in MotoGP. It is a track where the bikes spend a lot of time on the edge of the tire, where it is easy to overheat the left side by braking and especially accelerating hard while the bike is leaned over. Tire management is crucial, nursing the left side for as long as possible through the Sachsenring's ten left handers while pushing as hard as you dare.
"It's very particular, it's a strange track," Valentino Rossi explained. "First of all because you are always on the left and there are a lot of round corners, long and medium fast. Those corners are always good for our bike." But, he added, it has been two years since MotoGP last visited, and the bike, the tires, and the track surface had changed in the intervening period. There was much to be learned.
"It's difficult, we have to see," the Petronas Yamaha rider told us. "For sure here the tire wear is very important also because you have a lot of corners always on the left so it's very important to try to keep the rear tire in good condition. But it's impossible to know before, we need to go on the track and try to understand what happens during the weekend."
Turn 11 made easy
With hot weather expected throughout the weekend, managing the left side of the tire will be challenging. But the flip side of that is that Turn 11 becomes less of a dangerous proposition. The fast right hander at top of the hill before plunging down the section dubbed The Waterfall toward Turn 12 has a lot of factors making it difficult. The corner starts right at the crest of the hill, the riders having to turn the bike just as the wheels go light over the crest, is one thing. That it is the fastest corner on the circuit is another. The fact that it has been half a lap since the last time the right side of the tire was used is the icing on the cake.
So you approach this fast right hander at high speed, with no pressure on the tires, and a cold right side of the front. On a cold morning session – FP1, FP3, and especially Sunday morning warm up – it is downright dangerous. Fortunately, with sweltering temperatures expected throughout the weekend, and morning temperatures already in the mid 20s Celsius, cold tires are one factor the riders don't have to worry about. There's only the speed and the fact that the bike goes light just as you tip it in at high speed.
The track is all corners, though, much to the delight of Franco Morbidelli. "The layout of the track is a layout that I kind of like this year," the Italian said. "I don’t see too many straight lines. I kind of like this thing." Morbidelli, like all the Yamaha riders, is optimistic. "We come from a good weekend in Barcelona. We had great speed. We are on a good level I think. Let’s see what we can do here this weekend."
The anti-Ducati track
All corners and no straights might be just what the Yamaha – and especially Franco Morbidelli on the two-year old M1 – ordered, but it is the very antithesis of everything the Ducati wants. Particularly when, like Pecco Bagnaia, you are no fan of the circuit layout anyway. "Yes, it's the most difficult for Ducati and more difficult for me, because it's a track that I really don't like," the Ducati Lenovo Team rider told us. "It's very difficult for me to go fast here." Despite his distaste for the circuit, he had met with some success here in the past. "I did a good race in 2017, that I finished on the podium in Moto2, and in 2018 I was fighting for a podium and then I had a problem with Pasini."
He knew the size of the challenge, Bagnaia explained. "It's a track where I know what we need to do to go fast. But it's not easy. Very difficult, the grip of the tires is very difficult to manage, the life of the tires is very difficult to manage, because you must not heat the tires too much. On the left side, you have only left corners so it's very difficult to manage. But I think and I'm confident that we can do a good job."
What, precisely, was the secret to being fast at the Sachsenring, I asked. "Using more entry speed and less acceleration on the exit to not let spin the rear tire," Bagnaia responded.
Bagnaia's riding style, the way he was using the Ducati, may offer some help here. His riding style was different to the other Ducati riders, and that might come to his aid in Germany. "One thing that we know is that I'm braking harder than the others," he said. "I can stop more the bike. And when I enter the corners, I am more in the right direction, I don't have to slide the rear to make it turn. So I think this is the biggest difference. I make it turn on the last part of the braking like in Moto2, and they do it on the exit. So this is the difference between me and the others."
The challenge for Bagnaia is that there aren't very many places where you are using the brakes hard enough to turn the bike. The challenge for the other Ducati riders is that turning the bike with the throttle will eat through even the hardest asymmetric rear tire in double quick time.
Thursday was also the first time we got to speak to Alex Rins since he fell off his bicycle as he was using his phone while cycling the Barcelona circuit on the Thursday before the race. Rins hadn't realized just how serious the injury was at first, he explained. "When I hit the van, I stood up, and there was one guy there," Rins told us. "He gave me a bottle of water. I cleaned my leg and foot because they were with some blood."
"When I saw the arm it wasn’t so bad. In 2015, I broke the same bone in my left hand, the radius, doing flattrack." But the realization dawned that something more serious was going on, Rins said. "I took the bike and did two more laps but then felt pain and drove to the hospital. After the crash I cycled to the motorhome without phone, because the phone was broken, and then went to hospital."
At the hospital, he realized just how bad things were. "When I arrived I saw the hand with a lot of liquid and I was feeling maybe something a bit important inside. Doctor Mir and his team gave me the option, to be 4 weeks with the cast, and then start to recover, or to be operated and then in one week to start to move." Rins didn't hesitate for a moment. "For sure, I’m a rider, and I want to be on the bike as soon as possible. So I took the fastest option."
It remains a ridiculous crash. While cycling the circuit, Rins had been using his phone, and not noticed he was heading toward a van used by Dorna to paint the signage on the track. It was only when he hit the van that he realized his mistake. He tried to excuse the error when asked. "The truth is this. I crashed in Montmelo because I was sending an important message," the Suzuki rider said. A message more important than actually racing at his home round in Barcelona, it would appear.
"We need to stay off the phones," Rins said, stating the obvious. It is tempting to criticize the Suzuki rider for jeopardizing his season in such a stupid crash, but is this crash really any more stupid than many training injuries? Rins was cycling, to reconnoiter the track and to work on his cardio fitness, both admirable aims. He made a stupid error of judgment and suffered the consequences, the consequences being a broken radius and missing Barcelona.
But is breaking your arm while cycling any more stupid than trying to hit a triple at a motocross track and missing? Is it worse than getting carried away racing dirt track and falling in front of another rider, having them ride over your hand and break a bone? Or falling off a mountain bike while attempting an optimistic downhill run?
Certainly, using your phone while cycling is impressively stupid. I should know because I've done it, though the times I have crashed my bicycle have been as a result of more creative stupidity. But motorcycle racers spend a lot of time training, in ways which invite them to take bigger risks than they ought to. Rins' crash was notable most of all for it being so mundane, the sort of mistake you or I might make. It is harder to criticize a rider for missing a landing at an MX track and breaking an ankle or a rib, because we don't understand those risks as well as the more obvious phone-on-a-bike scenario.
The 2022 grid
Thursday was also the first time we had a chance to talk to riders after contract announcements. This morning, Gresini told the world what we already knew, that they would be racing Ducatis, and Ducati will be supplying two GP21s to the Italian squad. But Enea Bastianini, one of the two riders of the team, alongside Fabio Di Giannantonio, was still determined to see if more was possible.
"Gresini has signed with Ducati, and Ducati have confirmed me, but now this week I have to speak with Ducati because we have to modify something in the contract," the Italian said. Though he wouldn't answer when pushed whether it was the equipment that was the sticking point, he was optimistic a solution could be found. "Some part of the contract we have to modify and I'm positive but for the moment it's not definitive."
With Gresini signed, we now wait for news of whether the VR46 squad will follow in Gresini's footsteps and sign with Ducati. That is the expectation, but Rossi would only confirm that news would be announced next week. "Yes I think that we will give some official news next week," the Italian said. "I think in the days after Germany and before Assen." Given that such announcements are generally made on Wednesdays or (more usually) Thursdays, it seems like Thursday might be the best bet.
That, of course, only relates to the future of the VR46 Racing Team, not the future of VR46 himself. The plan remains for Valentino Rossi to reflect over the summer break, and make a decision then whether he wants to continue. Assen will figure heavily into that equation, as one of his favorite circuits and the track where he took his last victory. The rumor mill is of precious little use here: after Barcelona, there were reports that the Petronas team believed he might quit mid season; at the Sachsenring, rumors suggested Rossi had been telling people he was set on racing next year. The only person who really knows what Valentino Rossi will do at the end of 2021 is the Italian himself. And perhaps even he doesn't know yet.
Why they race
Joan Mir, perhaps inadvertently, gave an insight into the way a racer thinks, and why Rossi might end up retiring. After comments by Jorge Lorenzo in which the three-time MotoGP champion said he had enjoyed racing because of the winning, not because it meant riding motorcycles very fast, the reigning world champion agreed that it was success, not competing, which mattered to racers.
"For me it is super clear: I enjoy, when I am fast," Mir told us. "That’s it. If I’m not fast then I hate this because you are suffering and you try more and you crash going slow. This makes no sense. But if you are strong, you fight for the title, you fight for wins then this is where a rider enjoys; in this part. I’m a bit with Lorenzo in this case. I like a lot to ride the motorbike, especially the MotoGP, when I am winning. Then when I am home I like to practice motocross and I don’t care if I win or not. It is a different story. What does racing mean? I enjoy it when I win."
This is the difference between normal motorcyclists, amateur racers, and MotoGP riders. MotoGP riders, like all elite athletes, are in the sport because they love competition more than they love a particular activity. It's not that a MotoGP rider loves riding motorcycles – if they did that, they could quit after their first couple of seasons, and use the money they have earned to buy a bike and spend the next ten years riding the world on it. What they love is winning, beating their rivals, coming out on top.
Put even more accurately, it's not even that they love winning. They hate losing much, much more than they like winning, and a million times more than they enjoy participating. Fear of losing is what drives them to punish themselves, to take risks ordinary people – even athletes and racers – would avoid. That is what sets them apart.
One announcement which didn't arrive today was on the future of the calendar. As we approach the summer break, decisions on which races will happen in the second half of the season and which will not, have to be made. Some races are looking promising – there will be at least one race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, and possibly even a double header if other flyaways can't happen – and others are looking very doubtful indeed. Motegi looks set to be canceled, the Japanese government using up any goodwill from its population to stage the Olympics despite much resistance. And Phillip Island is deeply uncertain, as the Australian government does not look inclined to open its borders any time soon.
What we can say is that while the European races look fairly certain to happen - two races in Austria followed by Silverstone, and then Aragon and Misano back to back, and Valencia to end the season – the flyaways are on fairly shaky ground. We will find out what is going to happen soon enough.
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