The key to success in motorcycle racing is control. Teams, engineers and riders spend hundreds of thousands of hours every year attempting to gain control of the minutest detail of motorcycle racing. Each part of the engine is weighed, balanced, analyzed and tested, even down to the bolts and washers holding the engine together. Frames, chassis, wheels, brakes and suspension are calibrated, adjusted, tuned and aligned. Riders run and cycle to gain aerobic fitness, work out with weights to gain muscular strength, and use sports psychologists to help them develop concentration and confidence. Even the mechanics and team members work both on fitness and skills, to help avoid even the tiniest lapse of concentration which could make the difference between winning and being forced to retire with mechanical problems. The better the job which teams and riders do at gaining control, the better their chances of success.
Fortunately for those who love motorcycle racing, total control is an illusion, for several reasons. Firstly, the people involved, team managers, engineers, mechanics, riders, are all human, and humans are incapable of consistently sustaining perfection. A mechanic can practice swapping engines out from chassis for years on end, and be able to do it virtually with their eyes closed, but occasionally, after weeks on the road and long hours spent slaving over the bike deep into the night, and despite the routine and the checklists, a bolt will be not completely fastened or a connector not pushed fully home, causing the bike to falter and stall, unable to continue. Engineers, driven by the need to squeeze ever more power from a single engine, will strip a fraction too much weight from a component, to minimize drag or pumping losses, and though the engine will perform just fine on the dyno testbed, when the engine gets to the track, that vital component will have just too little strength to hold together, letting go and bringing the bike to a grinding halt. And riders, blinded by the desire to win and distracted by the pain of injury, the fatigue of a long, physically demanding race, or just a momentary lapse in concentration, can misjudge a corner just fractionally, despite having hit the apex at that turn perfectly 80 or 90 times over the course of a race weekend, and end up stuck in the gravel, scrabbling to rejoin if they're lucky, stretchered off to the Clinica Mobile if they're not.
Then, of course, there are the factors which are entirely beyond the teams' control. On the day of the race, the track could be running with water from a torrential downpour, blistering and melting from the sheer heat of the sun, or be at the perfect temperature to allow tires to stick to the tarmac without wearing too quickly, providing optimum grip from start to finish. If it's raining, it could top, allowing the track to dry out and destroy soft wet tires, but if it's dry, it could start raining, rendering smooth, sticky slicks useless. Or it can be cold and wet on both days of practice, only for race day to turn out hot and sunny, leaving the teams effectively without any useful set up data.
And sometimes, control gets taken away from the teams on purpose, as happened this year with the new tire quota. Teams are at the mercy of their tire technicians, the meteorologists and the climate, having to guess on Thursday what tires will work best in the race on Sunday, without having tested anything, and with the weather gods as fickle as a spoilt teenage princess. In these cases, teams can do nothing more than give it their best guess, and offer up a silent plea to whatever sprite or spirit they think might be inclined to come to their aid.
Look Upon My Works
The illusion of control also extends beyond the teams to MotoGP fans and followers who, believing they can discern a pattern in the sands of the past, make bold predictions about the events of the weekend to come. At the Sachsenring, the pundits were clear: the race would be incredibly close, as it has been at nearly every race held here; The Hondas would be uncompetitive, as they have been for all of the season; Dani Pedrosa would start to fade, as he has done in the second half of every season he has competed in; Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner would dominate the proceedings, continuing the duel that has been raging all year; And if the weather was in any way unreliable, the Bridgestones would dominate.
As the practice sessions progressed, the pundits' predictions looked almost clairvoyant. Casey Stoner was fastest in every session of practice held, by a country mile. So dominant was Stoner that he was consistently around half a second quicker than the rest of the field, running lap after lap in the 1'22 bracket on race tires, where others struggled to occasionally get under 1'23. To add to the pundits' feeling of smugness, the weather changed from day to day, with Friday starting cool and a little damp, Saturday dawning much warmer and drier, and temperatures on Sunday at blistering levels, more reminiscent of Qatar than Germany. Race day looked like being another Stoner and Bridgestone whitewash, with only Rossi to defend Michelin's honor at the front.
Rossi hadn't made it easy for himself though, only qualifying in 6th position, at the end of the second row. The man who had closest to challenging Casey Stoner's supremacy was Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda, coming with 4/1000ths of a second of Stoner's pole time to take second spot on the grid. But with Rossi winning from 11th spot on the grid at Assen, and 10th place at the Sachsenring last year, and the Honda still not inspiring confidence with its front end vagueness, Rossi would surely soon be slugging it out with Stoner, with Pedrosa struggling to follow in their tracks at the highly technical track, which places so much stress on the front tire. Normal service was bound to be resumed when the flag dropped.
Not So Fast
So as the revs rose, the lights dimmed, and the 800 cc MotoGP bikes arrowed down into Turn 1 with roar like a horde of wounded giants, all eyes were on Casey Stoner, expecting another one of his trademark rocket-powered launches. Stoner was fast off the line, but not as fast as Dani Pedrosa, the Spaniard thrusting his RC212V ahead of Stoner's Ducati to hold the line through the first corner, flicking left into the second turn in the lead. Behind Pedrosa, Stoner had held off the challenge of Marco Melandri, finally getting his Gresini Honda to work as he wanted, with John Hopkins just getting into the second turn ahead of Loris Capirossi, who had got a ballistic start, with Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet clinging on to 6th behind them.
Valentino Rossi's start was, as so often, a less than impressive affair, allowing Alex Barros and Shinya Nakano to slip ahead of him, forcing The Doctor to slot into 9th place into the never-ending right hander that is the Castrol Omega. Surely, though, it was only a matter of time before Rossi would pass everyone between himself and Stoner, and the ongoing battle for the championship would be joined in earnest. As the pack headed down the Waterfall, the hill leading down towards the final two lefts before returning back over the home straight, Rossi was up the inside of Nakano, and past into 8th spot. One down, seven to go.
As the pack thundered up the hill towards the line for the end of the first lap, the first cracks in the pundits' predictions started to appear. At the section of the track where Casey Stoner had been fastest all weekend, where the Ducati's vastly superior horsepower should have destroyed the Hondas, allowing the young Australian to catch and dispose of Dani Pedrosa's puny RC212V, Stoner could only follow the Spaniard, not gaining a yard. To make matters worse, Stoner had to suffer the indignity of Marco Melandri catching the Ducati, then getting hard on the brakes and stuffing his Honda up the inside of Stoner to take 2nd spot going into Turn 1. Melandri has been complaining of a lack of power and a lack of feel from his Honda, and had received both new engine and chassis parts this weekend. His spectacular pass on Stoner on the brakes was the Melandri of old; If Macio could do this, the Hondas were surely back in contention.
With Pedrosa creating a sliver of empty space between himself and Melandri, things were starting to bunch up behind the Gresini Honda. Stoner was not at all content to settle for 3rd, and had latched straight back onto Melandri's tail once the Italian had passed him. Behind Stoner, John Hopkins was fighting a losing battle to fend off the charging Loris Capirossi, eager to join his Marlboro Ducati team mate ahead. Round the Omega, and the first part of the long section of consecutive left handers, Capirossi inched ever closer, dragging Randy de Puniet along in his wake, before whipping out of Hopper's slipstream to pass him out of the dip and up the hill, towards the lefts leading on to the back straight.
Slice 'N' Dice
Behind de Puniet, Valentino Rossi was stuck on Alex Barros' tail in 8th, using the time stuck in the Pramac d'Antin Ducati's slipstream to test where his Yamaha M1 was better than the Ducati. Rossi was soon joined by Nicky Hayden, who had passed Shinya Nakano through Turn 2. And half a lap later, Colin Edwards joined Hayden, sliding inside Nakano at the bottom of the hill, going into the Sachsenkurve.
The Sachsenkurve was living up to its reputation as the passing point of choice, despite the addition of a vicious bump at the entrance to the corner, as this was the place where Casey Stoner chose to poke his Ducati back in front of Melandri, carrying more speed into the corner, before closing off the outside line, and taking back 2nd as they headed round Turn 14 and up the hill, to cross the finish line for the second time.
Further back, The Doctor had finished his diagnosis of the Ducati of Alex Barros, and at the end of the front straight, Rossi swung inside the Brazilian to outbrake him into Turn 1, taking 7th spot, and moving forward to chase down his next target, de Puniet. By the time they crested the hill to start down towards the back straight, Rossi was on the back of the Kawasaki, and ready for his next move.
Now, the first gaps were starting to open, and the first groups were starting to form. Loris Capirossi had lost a couple of tenths getting past the Suzuki of John Hopkins, allowing the front three of Pedrosa, Stoner and Melandri to get away. Though Capirex had passed Hopper, he had not broken him, and Hopper sat in the Ducati's slipstream, with Randy de Puniet and Valentino Rossi close behind. Behind Rossi was another gap to Nicky Hayden, The Kentucky Kid having gotten past Barros at the American's favorite passing spot, the long sequence of left handers snaking up and down the hills after the tight Omega Kurve.
As the front three fired down the Waterfall towards the Sachsenkurve, Stoner decided that what had worked for him once could work for him again. Carrying more speed into the corner than the Honda, Stoner slid inside Pedrosa to take the lead again. His lead was to be short-lived, however, as this time, he was carrying just a little too much speed, and ran very wide out to the very edge of the rumble strip, skirting the edge of the astroturf, an inch from disaster. Stoner's misjudgment was swiftly punished, Pedrosa holding his line perfectly to take back the lead at the corner exit, leaving Stoner back where he had begun. Stoner's reflexes and luck had held, staying just the right side of the line. Had he run a couple of inches wider, he would have been onto the treacherous astroturf, and out of the race.
But Stoner was not to be deterred. Over the next two laps, the Australian hunted Pedrosa back down again, inching closer and closer to the Spaniard's rear tire. As they climbed up the hill to the top of the Waterfall, and flicked right to head down the hill, Stoner was on Pedrosa once again, and started lining the Spaniard up for another attempt into the Sachsenkurve. But this time, Pedrosa was ready, and parried Stoner's move effortlessly, carrying enough speed not to get beaten on the brakes into the turn.
While Stoner and Pedrosa were battling it out at the front, Valentino Rossi was growing ever more impatient. The Doctor could see the front three pull away every lap, with Loris Capirossi and John Hopkins off to chase them, leaving Rossi marooned behind Randy de Puniet. The French Kawasaki man was doing a fantastic job of holding Rossi off round the track, not leaving Rossi anywhere to pass. Rossi pushed in the sequence of long lefts, but could not get close enough. He tried down the hill into the Sachsenkurve, but de Puniet was just too far ahead. He tried outbraking the Kawasaki into Turn 1, but the Frenchman braked later, and held his line. Afraid that the front group would get too far away to catch, Rossi started looking at more difficult passing spots.
Patience Is A Virtue
On lap 6, Rossi's patience ran out. The one place that he was close enough to pass de Puniet was round the Omega, the long, tight, multi-apex double right hander shortly after the finish line. With so many apexes, a brave rider can cut into part of the turn later, cutting inside the rider ahead, as demonstrated so ably by Dani Pedrosa last year. Seeing no other quick option, Rossi cut back inside at the second of the rights, slipping inside de Puniet as the Frenchman ran wider to cut back again for the next apex. The first part of Rossi's passing maneuver went perfectly, but the second part, tightening the line to hold off de Puniet through the rest of the turn, went less swimmingly. Already hard over to run inside de Puniet, Rossi just had no more tire left to lean on, the front letting go and his Yamaha sliding out from underneath him, dumping him in the gravel. Rossi was immediately back on to the bike, desperate to rejoin the race, but the bike was dead. Rossi's luck had ran out right after his patience, extending Casey Stoner's points lead, and making Rossi's title chase even harder than it already was.
As the front group crossed the line to start lap 7, their pit boards all told the same story: Rossi Out. Rossi KO. With Pedrosa 3rd in the championship, and Stoner leading, they only had to settle for their current places to both profit vastly from The Doctor's costly mistake. They did not entertain that thought for a second. Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner are both young, hungry motorcycle racers, and both really, really like to win. Lap 7 was contested as fiercely the previous laps between the front three, Stoner doing his utmost to close down Pedrosa, Pedrosa getting his head down and grinding out fast, fluid laps, Melandri hovering in the background, ready to pounce should anyone make a mistake.
Pedrosa and Stoner were evenly matched on lap 7, and nearly even on lap 8, Pedrosa just fractionally faster. On lap 9, Pedrosa put in yet another fast lap, but now, Stoner's lap time was 3/10ths of a second slower. For lap after lap, Dani Pedrosa kept hitting the same lap times, almost like clockwork: 1'23.2, 1'23.2, 1'23.3, 1'23.3. The Spaniard was machine-like in his consistency, his lap times only dropping into the 1'24s on lap 23, by which time Pedrosa had pounded out a lead of over 12 seconds. As a demonstration of sheer single-minded genius, it was flawless, far beyond the ability of anyone to match him on Sunday. It was an object lesson in concentration and smoothness, a display of exactly the kind of riding which HRC had in mind when designing the RC212V, the only style which HRC believed viable in the new 800 cc MotoGP era. The first 9 races had shown up the flaws in HRC's initial analysis. The 10th race at the Sachsenring proved that it also had some merit.
Take What You Can Get
Although Stoner had to submit to Pedrosa's superiority, he was still determined to maximize his points advantage over the fallen Valentino Rossi. With Pedrosa gone, Stoner settled into his own rhythm, staying smooth to try and conserve his tires in the hot conditions. His smoothness was rewarded at first, pulling at least a tenth of a second from Marco Melandri every lap. But his smoothness wasn't enough: On lap 17, he was half a second slower than the lap before, and Melandri clawed back the first couple of tenths from Stoner's 2 second lead. Now, Stoner's lap times collapsed dramatically, from a 1'23 on lap 16, to 1'26s from lap 22. Where once it looked like Casey Stoner would pick up another easy 20 points to extend his championship lead over Valentino Rossi, now those points were starting to haemorrhage away. By lap 19, Marco Melandri was back with Stoner, by the next lap, Melandri was pushing hard, trying everything he knew to get the run inside of Stoner into the Sachsenkurve, but to no avail
Loris Capirossi had now also caught Stoner and Melandri, and as they barreled over the finish line to start lap 21, they were three abreast, the Australian providing the filling in an Italian sandwich. Stoner was the first to brake for Turn 1, seemingly the loser at the game of chicken, but as they started to tip the bikes in for the tight right hander, Stoner's choice didn't look so bad after all. Melandri had the outside line, gambling on his ability to brake later than the rest to give him the run into the corner, but Melandri found that there are limits even to his astonishing ability on the brakes, running very wide for Turn 1, and out of contention. Loris Capirossi, on the other hand, held the inside line, and braking late for the corner, seemed to overshoot the right hander, letting Casey Stoner run back inside of him. But as they flicked back for the left hander running into the Omega, it was clear that where Melandri was too hot, and Stoner had been too cold, it was Loris Capirossi who had got it just right, holding the inside line for the left hander, and holding off his young upstart team mate to take 2nd place. Once past, it was obvious he was faster, immediately dropping Stoner, and off after Pedrosa. But though Capirossi was faster than Stoner, and fast enough to stay ahead of those chasing him, he was still slower than the magisterial Pedrosa, and Loris Capirossi was forced to settle for 2nd place.
Stoner's problems were not yet over. Within half a lap, Melandri was back with him, and starting to push once again. Another lap, and Melandri was up inside Stoner at the right hander at the top of the hill, taking 3rd place, and pushing Stoner down to 4th. Once past, Melandri, too, started to pull away from the Australian championship leader, opening up a very comfortable gap.
With 8 laps to go, the Bridgestone riders had had it nearly all their own way, with only Dani Pedrosa spoiling the Japanese tire maker's party. But things were changing, and changing quickly. With the Bridgestones starting to fade, and lap times dropping off, suddenly, the fastest men on the track were all on Michelins. Dani Pedrosa was still knocking out lap after lap in the 1'24s, but behind Hopkins in 5th, Pedrosa's team mate Nicky Hayden and Fiat Yamaha's Colin Edwards were running nearly identical pace to the Spaniard, nearly 2 seconds faster than the Bridgestone men ahead of them. On lap 23, Hayden caught John Hopkins, and on the next lap, disposed of the Suzuki man in exactly the same place that Valentino Rossi tried his ill-fated pass on Randy de Puniet, the second half of the Omega. Once past Hopper, Hayden was immediately on Stoner, and a third of a lap later, the reigning champion was past the current championship leader up the hill to the top of the Waterfall, Stoner incapable of holding Hayden off. Melandri was the next target, but he could hold out for little more than half a lap, defending against Hayden's charge all through the tight first section, but eventually succumbing to The Kentucky Kid's ability to go fast and turn left through the short section after the Stern Quell. Once past, Hayden was gone.
Behind Hayden, Colin Edwards was following his compatriot's example. Edwards was past Hopkins through the right-hand flick at the top of the hill, and straight on to Stoner. It took Edwards just half a lap before he too was past the Australian, and off to chase Melandri. That chase was short, as once again, at the right-hand flick at the top of the hill, the Texas Tornado blew by Melandri, and went hunting for Hayden. Though Edwards chased, it was too late. He had been held up for just too long getting through the Bridgestone traffic, and by the time he was past Melandri, Hayden was just too far ahead. The two Americans were close all the way to the end, but Hayden kept the a cushion of at least a second to the end, eventually taking his second podium in two races, taking 3rd place behind Loris Capirossi, putting the final nail in the coffin of the nightmare season he has had so far.
With Edwards past, Stoner had to do something to staunch the loss of points. From picking up 20 points over the fallen Rossi, Stoner had seen his points bonanza halve over the course of just 5 laps. Capirossi, Hayden and Edwards were all too fast, and too far ahead, to do anything about, but Edwards' pass had put Melandri within reach for Stoner. For the next 2 laps, Stoner stalked the Gresini Honda of Melandri, pushing the Italian hard through the Sachsenkurve at the bottom of the hill. But as the trio of Melandri, Stoner and Hopkins flew across the line to start lap 27, the Australian finally made his move, stuffing his Ducati inside of Melandri's Honda into Turn 1 on the brakes.
Getting past is one thing, staying ahead is another. Melandri was not taking this lying down, and without hesitation, sank his teeth into Stoner's back wheel. As the two jockeyed for position, John Hopkins got back on to Melandri's tail, ready to capitalize on any mistakes made. But as hard as Melandri pushed, the Italian just could not get back ahead of Stoner, his tires too torn up on the crucial left-hand side to be able to risk a pass. They crossed the line with Casey Stoner still ahead to take 5th, ahead of Marco Melandri and John Hopkins.
Behind Hopkins, the race had turned into something of a bloodbath. Carlos Checa had been the first victim, losing the front at the bottom of the hill. Though Checa had rejoined the race, he was forced to pit for repairs, and rejoined the race again over 2 laps down. Tech 3 Yamaha's Sylvain Guintoli was the next to go, crashing out on lap 4 while in a creditable 12th place. After Guintoli came Rossi's momentous, race-ending crash, and on lap 10, the hapless Alex Barros crashed hard at the bottom of the Waterfall for the second time this weekend, having badly damaged his hand during a practice session. Guintoli's team mate Makoto Tamada had pitted for a fresh tire, lacking confidence in the old tire's feel, and Konica Minolta's slough of despond continued unabated, Shinya Nakano forced to retire with engine problems.
Perhaps the unluckiest rider of all was Randy de Puniet, being forced to retire with engine problems on the last lap, allowing his Kawasaki team mate Ant West to take the 8th spot the pair had been disputing. Alex Hofmann came in 9th on the Pramac d'Antin, doing well to come home with a hand broken in a freak accident involving a car door, and behind Hofmann, Michel Fabrizio's second outing on the Gresini Honda was much more successful than the first, finishing in 10th spot and taking points, rather than breaking a collarbone in practice.
Chris Vermeulen came home in 11th, after a creeping clutch had caused a jump start at the line, forcing the Australian Suzuki man to take a ride through penalty. Behind Vermeulen, Kurtis Roberts took the Team KR KR212V to its best finish yet, a mark of the problems which the bike, so brilliant last year, is going through. Makato Tamada ended up in 13th, with Carlos Checa finally taking 14th spot, 3 laps behind the winner.
Through A Glass, Darkly
We came to Germany expecting the Sachsenring to confirm all of the prejudices we have built up over the season, but it gave us all a surprise. The racing was far from close, at least for the win, the tire wars played out almost diametrically opposite to our expectations, and the men we were expecting to star were demoted by circumstance to bit part players.
But perhaps most significantly of all, the Sachsenring marked the moment a manufacturer turned the corner. Nicky Hayden's podium at Assen was already a sign that the Honda was much improved, but Dani Pedrosa's dominant win in Germany ended Honda's longest winless streak in MotoGP since 1982. It also ended nearly a year of races without a win for the Repsol team, their last victory coming at Laguna Seca with Nicky Hayden. And it ended Dani Pedrosa's personal drought of nearly 13 months without a win, the longest in his career.
Most of that is down not to Honda, but to Pedrosa. Pedrosa dominated from start to finish, and was quick through much of practice as well. The Sachsenring was a typical Pedrosa display, grabbing the lead early, and riding smoothly, quickly and consistently to build up an insuperable lead. If there's one lesson to be learned by the competition here, it's that they simply cannot afford to let Pedrosa escape. Once he's gone, the only place you'll catch him is in the winner's circle after the race. But if the racing was typical of Pedrosa, the emotion he displayed after the win was not. Always calm and collected, even criticized for being cold and emotionless, Pedrosa was visibly moved by his win, almost collapsing in tears during an interview in the parc ferme. Pedrosa really needed this.
But there were more lessons on offer in Germany, if we look carefully enough. One is that Casey Stoner is far from invincible, if his tires don't hold up. Stoner, Melandri and Hopkins were all on equally shot tires, and Melandri came very close to getting past Stoner to take more points from the Australian. So far this year, Stoner has had supreme confidence in his equipment, which has allowed him to ride to the true level of his genius. When that confidence goes, Stoner looks human. Human, but still very mature, as Stoner didn't take too many risks trying to press home his advantage over Valentino Rossi, preferring to take a few points, rather than none.
The other major lesson from the Sachsenring is that Valentino Rossi is also human. Rossi has perhaps never looked so fragile, throwing away valuable points in an unseemly rush to chase Stoner and Pedrosa, ending up on the floor. The irony is that Valentino Rossi has probably never ridden harder or better than he has this year, forced to step up his game to chase the majestic Stoner. But the effort of chasing Stoner so hard is starting to take its toll, and at the Sachsenring, The Doctor made the kind of mistake he spent so much of his career trying to pressure others into. Valentino Rossi has the longest, and the toughest road ahead of him he has ever faced, if he wants to recover his title.