Some reputations are undeserved. The Sachsenring has a reputation for being a short, tight track with very few possibilities for passing, where a good position on the grid is vital. Sunday's MotoGP race was a demonstration both that passing is possible for any rider with the necessary skill and determination, and that if you can get a clean start, anything can happen.
Despite having closed the gap to Nicky Hayden two weeks ago at Donington to 35 points, Valentino Rossi was a worried man the night before the race. All of the Yamahas had struggled during practice, Carlos Checa on the Dunlop-shod Tech 3 Yamaha being the notable exception. So on the grid on Sunday, Valentino Rossi sat in a lowly 10th position, a place flattered by the forced withdrawal of Casey Stoner after a big crash during the morning warmup session, shifting everyone below Stoner's 8th spot up a place. Beside Rossi sat Checa, the Dunlops improving in leaps and bounds, but The Doctor's team mate Colin Edwards had qualified in 15th position, his worst qualifying since Jerez at the start of the season. And yet Rossi didn't look as worried as might be expected, having found something during the warm up session, getting him to within 3/10ths of Loris Capirossi's fastest session time, and with 2/10ths of pole sitter Dani Pedrosa's morning time. But with Pedrosa being fast all weekend, and the Sachsenring's reputation as a hard track to pass at, everyone knew it was imperative not to let the tiny Spaniard get away from the start, for fear that the race could be over by the second corner.
So as the lights dimmed, and the engines roared, all eyes turned to the first corner. The front three entered in the order in which they left the grid, with Dani Pedrosa leading Kenny Roberts Jr and Nicky Hayden. But in fourth came an astonishing Makoto Tamada. The Japanese rider, who has been a shadow of his former self since the team switched from Bridgestones to Michelins, was totally unleashed, and seemed to have refound the key to his form he'd put away for safe keeping, which had been so painfully lost earlier in the season. But Tamada wasn't the only rider with a blistering start: Valentino Rossi had gained two places going into the first corner, and was starting to make a move through the field.
By the end of the first lap, any illusion that the rider leading the race would simply slip away for the win was shattered. Nicky Hayden was the first rider to make use of what was to become prime passing real estate: at the bottom of the hill, into turn 11, the penultimate left-hander, Hayden slipped inside both Kenny Roberts and Dani Pedrosa to take the lead. Behind him, Valentino Rossi had followed Hayden's lead to put the same move on Suzuki's John Hopkins, to move up into 6th place by the end of the first lap.
Roberts Jr then let both Melandri and Tamada slip inside over the next lap, and the Italian and the Japanese spent the next couple of laps swapping places, before Melandri settled his claim to 3rd. On lap 4, Rossi was also past Kenny Jr, at the bottom of the hill going into turn 11, the Sachsenkurve. But despite the changes in position over the first few laps, there was nothing in it among the front runners, with Hayden leading Pedrosa, Melandri, Tamada, Rossi, Roberts Jr and Loris Capirossi, the top 7 all within a second of each other by lap 10.
While Hayden was looking comfortable leading over the first 10 laps, Melandri was riding his tail ever closer, finally making his move on lap 11. At the end of the straight, going into turn 1, Melandri moved past Hayden on the brakes. This stalled the Kentucky Kid's momentum, and his Repsol Honda team mate Pedrosa was past a few turns later. Then Rossi came past Hayden into turn 11, a move which must have upset Hayden, but was to wreck Makoto Tamada's brilliant comeback race. After Rossi passed him, Hayden had to slow, and cut back tightly into turn 12. Unfortunately, Kenny Roberts Jr had chosen turn 12 as the place to try to slide his KR211V up inside Tamada, a move which was successful, right up until he found his path blocked by Hayden cutting back tight in front of him. With nowhere left to go, Kenny Jr got even harder on the brakes, the front folding underneath him, sliding right into Tamada, knocking the Japanese rider off, and taking him on a ride into the gravel aboard the KR211V's fairing. A contrite Roberts immediately rushed to apologize to Tamada, who injured his leg slightly. He will get his chance at to prove this performance wasn't a one off next Sunday at Laguna Seca.
On the next lap, Rossi was past Pedrosa at turn 11, which was starting to look like it needed a "Passing Place" sign, and The Doctor was past Melandri there on lap 13, and into the lead. But no matter who led the race, it was still impossible to make a break. Although Roberts and Tamada were gone, the lead group still had five members with Rossi leading Melandri, from Pedrosa and Hayden, with Loris Capirossi bringing up the rear, though the Ducati rider was starting to flag, and would be dropped over the next few laps. On lap 15, Dani Pedrosa demonstrated that the Sachsenkurve at turn 11 wasn't the only place to pass, as he slipped past Melandri round the Omega section at turn 4.
Racing stayed close, with never more than a second covering the leading gang of four. Rossi maintained his lead, but could not extend it; Pedrosa and Melandri swapped places behind him, but could not pass The Doctor; and Hayden sat biding his time, waiting for the two in front of him to make a mistake so he could pounce. He had to wait almost 10 laps, but on lap 26, his chance came: Pedrosa had slipped past Melandri at the Omega, but Melandri chased him down through the long series of left-handers up the hill, until finally forcing his way back into 2nd at the bottom of the hill. Pedrosa was forced to run wide, allowing Hayden to slip into 3rd, to lead the Repsol Honda duel.
With Pedrosa disposed of, Melandri went after Rossi. Two laps later, the Fortuna Honda rider was past The Doctor at the end of turn 1, a demon on the brakes as ever. But this left him open to an attack from behind. As all four riders got seemingly ever closer; the German GP at the Sachsenring looked less and less like a MotoGP race, and more and more like the kind of fairing-bashing affair you might expect of a 125 race. As if to emphasize this point, Hayden and Pedrosa swapped fairing paint and tire rubber on lap 29, as Pedrosa tried to get past Hayden, just as Hayden was having a look at Rossi round the outside. Both moves failed, leaving the running order unchanged, but Rossi had an obvious plan. Running down the hill into turn 11, Rossi closed down, then passed, Melandri, to regain the lead.
The Doctor then gave a supreme display of defensive racing. Over the course of the last lap, the leading group seemed almost to be racing four abreast at times, but Rossi always held the defensive inside line, blocking any passing attempts made. And it was not for want of trying. Any chance Melandri got, he tried: first, trying to nose round the outside at the left-handers at the top of the hill, before trying to slip up the inside at the right-hander going down the hill, before trying a last gasp trip round the outside in the final two left-handers. But it was all in vain. Though the first four riders crossed the line close to level, it was Valentino Rossi who took one of the best, and most important, wins in his career. Melandri held on to 2nd, with Nicky Hayden failing to get past Melandri, but succeeding in holding off team mate Dani Pedrosa for the final podium spot. Just 3/10ths of a second covered the first four places.
Eight seconds behind, Loris Capirossi had managed to hold off a late charge from Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano to hold onto 5th. Another 8 seconds behind them, another four-way battle had been played out, to be finally settled in Chris Vermeulen's favor, a good result at a track the Australian hadn't ridden at before. Sete Gibernau on the other Ducati took 8th behind Vermeulen, with Carlos Checa putting in another outstanding performance on the Dunlops to take 9th, ahead of Vermeulen's Suzuki team mate John Hopkins. Hopkins was just glad to have finished the weekend in one piece; the Sachsenring being a place he hurt himself badly at last year.
Toni Elias took 11th, 10 seconds behind Hopkins, with Rossi's Camel Yamaha team mate Colin Edwards in a disastrous 12th place. With Edwards' contract up at the end of the year, and Casey Stoner's name being linked with Camel Yamaha, it seems growingly unlikely that Edwards will be in MotoGP next year. The final corner incident at Assen, where he threw away a win, is costing him dearly.
Checa's Tech 3 Yamaha team mate James Ellison finished 30 seconds down in 13th, with Jose Luis Cardoso the final rider to finish in 14th on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati.
Two races ago, Valentino Rossi was 46 points down in the championship, mathematically incapable of winning the championship without help from Nicky Hayden, and nursing a fractured wrist. For the first time in 6 years, the Italian master was looking vulnerable, and his sixth successive premier class title gradually slipping from his grasp. Today, Rossi has closed the gap to Nicky Hayden to 26 points, and is coming off of two extraordinary performances. This title race is a very, very long way from being over.