It is perhaps an interesting irony that the MotoGP circus moves from one former street circuit to another this weekend, leaving the fast, flat sweeping turns of Assen behind to visit the tight, tortuous turns of the Sachsenring circuit. But where Assen's transformation from public roads to closed racetrack was a long process of sections being removed piece by piece, in a form of death by a thousand cuts, the Sachsenring sprang fully-formed from the brow of the ADAC, the German automobile organization, rising from the ashes of the legendary but deadly street circuit which was finally killed off after three riders lost their lives there in 1990.
The old road circuit was discarded, and over a period of three years, a new circuit arose around the ADAC traffic safety center, another wry irony, the old Sachsenring having claimed so many lives. The new track was the polar opposite of the old street circuit: Not just safer, with plenty of run off, but also much, much slower, with no more high speed stretches chasing between tree-lined avenues and through villages. The new Sachsenring was a tight, swooping affair, with few straights, and long slow corners. Most emblematic of this change was the Castrol Omega corner, a right hander looping through almost 270 degrees before cutting back to start on a seemingly endless series of left-hand turns running out eventually onto the back straight.
But despite it's tightness, or perhaps because of it, the Sachsenring sees some incredibly close racing, with the margin of victory under a second in all but two of the nine premier class races held here so far, the difference within 1/10th of a second at a couple of those races. For the track really rewards guts, determination, and a willingness to stuff the bike inside or outside on lines that don't appear to exist. The track is relatively wide, and with a lot of turns leading into one another, allows a brave, or perhaps wily rider to vary his lines, and run up inside one section of the Omega, or perhaps outside through Turn 4 to cut inside at Turn 5.
The main passing spot, however, is Turn 13, the Sachsenkurve. At the end of the back straight, where the 990s momentarily grabbed 6th gear before getting hard on the brakes at the bottom of the hill, competition for the inside line is fierce, as the first person through here is the first person into Turn 14, and therefore usually the winner of the race. Knowing that this is where to pass doesn't make it any easier though: running downhill and braking hard puts enormous pressure on the front end, and mistakes here are punished mercilessly, leaving you dumped in the gravel.
Another peculiarity of the Sachsenring is that it runs counter-clockwise. But it isn't really fair to call that strange, for the peculiarity lies in the fact that most of the European roadracing tracks are run clockwise, which is the closest thing racing has to a crime against nature: Every other form of racing, from athletics to cycling to horse racing to Nascar, run counter-clockwise round an oval track, usually consisting of two long left turns. And so the Sachsenring offers riders who weren't brought up racing on tarmac a chance to exploit the experience they have of racing on dirt track ovals (which are mostly in Australia and the US), and take advantage of their greater speed through left hand turns.
If there's one man in the field who excels at going fast and turning left, it is the reigning world champion, Nicky Hayden. Having almost literally grown up beside dirt tracks, Hayden loves counter-clockwise tracks, and always goes well at them. And the Sachsenring MotoGP round comes at exactly the right time for The Kentucky Kid, as he has finally started to gell with the Honda RC212V, and his spectacular display of sliding the bike around at Assen was a return to the form which we have not seen from Hayden for a while now, last year, because he had a title lead to defend, and this year, because the 800 cc Honda was not set up to suit his style.
So a reinvigorated Nicky Hayden could be Honda's best hope of averting utter humiliation: The Japanese giant has now been 10 races without a win, equaling their longest streak in the premier class since entering the series in earnest in 1982. A Honda has not won a MotoGP race since Toni Elias took his debut win at Estoril last year, and the factory Repsol Honda team have not won a race for almost a year, since Nicky Hayden won at Laguna Seca. HRC are taking this very seriously indeed, with engineers working day and night to remedy the mistakes they made when designing the RC212V, but real updates will only come at Brno in August, three races away.
Mr 50 Percent
Meanwhile, the man that the RC212V is allegedly built around, Dani Pedrosa, faces an uphill task. Pedrosa has historically been weaker during the second half of the season, and will have to break that pattern if he is to stand a chance of closing in on the title fight. Judging by last year's race, the Sachsenring could be the place for Pedrosa to turn the corner as well, with three Hondas finishing within 3/10ths of the winner Valentino Rossi. Pedrosa usually runs well here, finishing 1st and 2nd in the 250 class, and will need to deliver that level of performance if he is to get his season back on track.
At least the Repsol Hondas will be able to use the revised chassis and swingarm which have helped get them back into contention over the last couple of races: The satellite Honda teams will have no such luxury. Indeed, such is their despair that last year's 2nd place man in Germany, Marco Melandri, could be set to announce his departure for the factory Ducati squad next season, with some kind of official news expected in the next week or so.
With Melandri set to leave, and HRC's attention focused entirely on the struggling factory team, Gresini are unlikely to be getting much help from Honda over the next few weeks. Fausto Gresini will be forced to settle for attracting attention with the novelty value of their wildcard riders. At the Sachsenring, Toni Elias, who broke his leg in an ugly crash at Assen, will be replaced by Michel Fabrizio, currently riding for the DFX Extreme Honda team in World Superbikes. Fabrizio must be hoping that his outing on the Gresini Honda will be less painful than the last time he rode the bike. In 2006, Fabrizio broke his collarbone during a free practice session, while replacing Toni Elias at Donington, and didn't even make it as far as the race.
Over in the Suzuki garage, John Hopkins must be relishing the challenge of the Sachsenring. The technical track suits Hopper's style, and now that the Suzuki has achieved greater parity with the rest of the field, another podium, or possibly even a win, should be within Hopper's reach. For the goal of a win aboard the Suzuki has become slightly more urgent for the American, now that he has announced that he will be leaving Suzuki to join Kawasaki at the end of the season. It would be a cruel fate indeed if Hopkins was unable to score a win on the bike he spent so much time, and suffered so much pain, developing.
First, though, Hopkins must break Bridgestone's jinx at the Sachsenring circuit. The Japanese tire maker has never finished higher than 5th place here in Germany, but this should be the season where that changes. Bridgestone have benefited hugely from the new tire rules, with tire selection on Thursday matching their existing way of working, unlike Michelin, who would create tires the night before the race. With this working in their favor, along with the improvements which Bridgestone have made at the tracks they had previously done poorly at, the Bridgestone riders can no longer be ruled out just on the tires alone.
Bridgestone's best bet of a race win must surely be Casey Stoner. Conventional wisdom has it that the Sachsenring does not suit the nature of the Ducati, the track being way too tight for the Ducati to stretch its legs. But we've been saying the same thing at a number of tracks now, and we keep on being proved wrong, as whether the tracks suit the Ducati or not, they always seem to suit Casey Stoner. The young Australian is having as close to a perfect season as possible, already taking victory in 5 of the first 9 races. Whichever track MotoGP visits, Stoner has to be considered a factor. If he can win at Donington, he can win just about anywhere.
Stoner's success is in stark contrast to his team mate Loris Capirossi. The Italian veteran is sounding ever more bitter in his pronouncements on the Ducati, as Capirex is the man who helped get Ducati where they are today. But Capirossi has completely failed to get to grips with the GP7 bike, and looks like being out of a job at the end of the year. But he may jump before he is pushed, for the rumble of rumors grows ever louder that Capirossi will join John Hopkins at Kawasaki for next season, and he will announce this move in the very near future. As for this weekend, Capirex is likely to continue his struggle with the GP7.
That the problem is mostly with Capirossi is demonstrated by the unlikely achievements of the Pramac Ducati team. Both Alex Barros and Alex Hofmann have finished well up the order, with Hofmann achieving his best ever finishes this year. His form is such that he had hoped for big things at his home Grand Prix, but a freak accident has dented his hopes: A friend accidentally slammed a car door shut on Hofmann's right hand, breaking a couple of bones in it. The only saving grace for the German is that it is not the usual racing injury of broken bones near the wrist, leading to intense pain under extreme braking, although he may still have problems with the first section of the track, consisting mostly of tight right handers.
Fight For Survival
If Hofmann is sure to put on a show for his home crowd, the Kawasaki team should be even more spectacular. With one seat taken, and the other due to be announced shortly, Randy de Puniet and Ant West now have to start riding to keep their places in the MotoGP paddock. The only way to achieve that is to get results. De Puniet has had some excellent results so far this season, but those strong showings have been alternated with a four crashes out of nine races. De Puniet has to stay aboard if he wants to be here next year.
De Puniet's team mate Ant West has only had two races for Kawasaki so far, but he has impressed MotoGP followers in both of them. Although Westy's future looks uncertain at Kawasaki, if he continues to ride as well, and make as much progression as he has, then he should be able to get a permanent ride for next year. His audition starts in Germany, and with both Kawasaki riders out for their jobs, it should be quite the extravaganza.
One man almost guaranteed to provide spectacle at the Sachsenring is Fiat Yamaha's Valentino Rossi. The Doctor has won here four times already, and even when he hasn't won, he has come tantalizingly close. Adding to the show is Valentino Rossi's position in the championship: Despite closing the gap on Casey Stoner at Assen, Rossi is still 21 points behind the Australian, and having to fight tooth and nail for every extra point. The Doctor is a lot closer to Stoner than he was to Nicky Hayden at the same point in the season last year, but Stoner is arguably a much tougher opponent. Rossi will have to pull out all the stops to claw back points from the Australian, and his fight will start here at the Sachsenring.
He won't be alone in facing a tough fight in Germany: Rossi's team mate Colin Edwards will be fighting for his future as well. Current 250 world champion Jorge Lorenzo is said to have a deal to ride in the Factory Yamaha team for 2008, leaving the Texan Tornado out of a ride. So Edwards, like West and de Puniet, will be riding his heart out to secure a seat for next season.
The Sachsenring MotoGP round, like the US GP at Laguna Seca to follow, comes at the perfect time to ensure that MotoGP fans get the epic show they both desire and deserve. With two riders engaged in close combat for the world championship, a major manufacturer desperate to avoid the humiliation of breaking their winless streak, and a host of riders suddenly left looking vulnerable as the teams embark on an unusually early frenzy of rider-swapping, a lot of people have an awful lot at stake in Germany. At a track where the racing is rarely anything other than extremely close, the Sachsenring looks sure to produce fireworks come Sunday.