MotoGP Sachsenring Preview - Hard Left

From the fast and sweeping Assen, to the tight and tortuous Sachsenring, the MotoGP circus moves from one extreme to another. Will it make chasing Casey Stoner any easier?

Despite Germany's status as an economic powerhouse and one of the motors behind European economic growth, the German language has failed to make very many inroads as a global means of communication. Coming too late to Imperialism to spread the language through the methods which worked so successfully for Britain and France - foreign conquest - it wasn't until the 20th century that words started filtering into other languages from German. While French, Spanish and English words went on to permeate the languages of almost every country on Earth, German left most other tongues completely untouched.

One German word, however, is almost universally understood, because the thing it describes has gripped the imagination of motoring enthusiasts around the world. The Autobahn has come to signify more than just the two or more grade-separated lanes of tarmac that form the backbone of Germany's transport network. Despite its troubled history, the German Autobahn has attained an almost mythological status, one of the few places on the planet where hardcore speed freaks can get a legal hit of their personal high. Although at least 25% of the Autobahn system does actually have enforceable speed limits in place, and many of the unlimited stretches of road have so much traffic on them that any speed much above the advisory 130 km/h is extraordinarily perilous, if not physically impossible, Germany's motorway system remains a place where motor vehicles can be held at their maximum speed for many minutes on end.

Slowhand

How ironic, then, that the German MotoGP round should take place at the Sachsenring, a circuit at which the world's fastest racing motorcycles never reach anywhere near their maximum speed - even after last year's capacity reduction to 800cc. Indeed, so tortuous is the circuit that many bikes never even see 6th gear, their riders preferring to use a longer 5th gear instead of a severely shortened 6th down the Sachsenring's short front straight.

Officially, the track has 10 left turns and 4 right turns, and technically speaking that statistic is correct. However, a cynic might say that as the bikes never actually lift between many of the turns, there are more like half that number. And the way the corners run together, this is not such a wild claim. Though the first tight right and then the open left which follow the front straight are quite clearly separate turns, from there, the corners all run into one.

The first and most obvious exponent of this is the Omega Kurve, the double right hander which, unsurprisingly, looks like the Greek letter omega. After close to 270 degrees of going right, the track then flicks back left, through an almost interminable sequence of left handers, to climb the hill before heading on down to the back straight behind the paddock. A quick flick right as they bikes fire down the hill, gaining speed and momentum until they hit the main overtaking zone at the Sachsenring, the Sachsenkurve.

Take A Chance

This is the point at the track where speed and braking allow you to stuff your bike up the inside of an opponent, and steal a place. But it isn't quite as simple as it sounds: coming down the hill, you often find yourself carrying more speed than you anticipated, and with several sizable bumps on the entrance to the turn, front wheels are for ever on the verge of tucking, ready to deposit you at the track's busiest gravel trap of the weekend.

Even if you do get past, there's no guarantee of still being there when you cross the line. Braking up the inside into the Sachsenkurve leaves you open to counter-attack along the short straight before the Quickenburgkurve, meaning you can lose the place you just gained in as much time as it took you to take it in the first place. And with just a short run up to the finish line, losing out at the final turn usually means losing out at the line.

Left, Left, Left

All those tight turns packed efficiently into a small surface area are only one of the circuit's more unusual aspects. The other departure from the norm is that the Sachsenring is a counter-clockwise circuit, consisting mostly of left hand turns. The majority of racing circuits run clockwise, with right handers vastly outnumber left handers, a fact which is itself something of an anomaly. Throughout the history of the world, and in almost every other sporting discipline, racetracks, be they for horses, cars, bicycles (motorized or otherwise), athletes or greyhounds, all run counter-clockwise. Whether it be NASCAR or speed skating, a racetrack consists of a couple of straights linked with long left hand turns. Except, apparently, when it comes to setting out road courses for motorcycles and cars to race upon.

But the Sachsenring follows that age-old pattern, and for riders who grew up turning left, that can be a positive advantage. Perhaps the leading exponent of left hand turns is Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden. The son of a dirt tracker, and having spent his childhood racing on dirt ovals, Hayden always does well on left-handed tracks, and the Sachsenring is no exception. Indeed, the German race comes at exactly the right time for the Kentucky Kid, as he is finally starting to gel with the Honda RC212V now that HRC have given him the pneumatic valve engine to work with. Since then, Hayden has been remarkably more competitive, except for the small question of reliability. Electrical faults at both Donington and Assen prevented Hayden from getting the results he now looks capable of, with the podium lost to the engine dying on the last corner at Assen the cruelest blow. But HRC will surely be fixing those issues, and once they are fixed, Hayden could be back in contention.

Though he does not have Hayden's background in dirt track, Hayden's team mate Dani Pedrosa does have proven ability at the track. Pedrosa romped away with the win here least year, in one of his trademark check-out-from-the-front races. But though the Spaniard's speed and ability is unquestioned, especially with a clear track ahead of him, Pedrosa also profited from the heatwave which hit the German circuit last year, favoring the Michelins for the first time that year, and leaving all of the Bridgestone runners save Loris Capirossi - who had gambled on his tire choice - struggling with grip and well down the order.

Whatever The Weather

This year, Pedrosa will not have the weather working in his favor. A heatwave looks completely out of the question at the Sachsenring this weekend, the weather looking like bringing more of the same conditions which swept the British and Dutch rounds a couple of weeks previously. And those changeable conditions, with dry spells following rain often and at short notice, are exactly the sort of conditions that suit Bridgestone tires down to the ground, especially when they are underneath the factory Ducati of Casey Stoner.

After struggling a little at the start of the season, the reigning world champion has completely refound his form, putting in two devastating performances at Donington and Assen. Within two races, Stoner has gone from being too far behind to be a serious candidate for the championship to being right back in contention, now just 25 points behind Valentino Rossi, and 31 behind leader Pedrosa. With Stoner looking this good, there is every chance that the Australian will roll on to the track at the Sachsenring on Friday, and be fastest all the way until the flag drops on Sunday.

Though most of Stoner's revival is down to the Australian, he has certainly been helped by his main rival Valentino Rossi. In a rather neat, if unfortunate piece of symmetry, the Italian gifted Casey Stoner a heap of points two weeks ago at Assen, crashing out while trying to pass Randy de Puniet, just as he did last year at the Sachsenring. The crash cut his points lead from 45 to 25, making Rossi's goal of regaining the title he lost two years ago that much more difficult.

But The Doctor still leads the Australian, and is not far behind Pedrosa, meaning that the title race still has a long way to go. And with his annual silly mistake already out of the way, Rossi should now be good for nothing but podiums. The Italian is superb at the Sachsenring, as he is at every other track on the calendar, and will be determined to give Stoner and Pedrosa a run for their money. With the twists and turns of the track suiting the outstanding maneuverability of the Yamaha, he is going to be a very difficult man to beat on Sunday.

Back From The Edge

If the track suits the Yamaha, it certainly does not suit the Suzuki. This year's Suzuki does poorly when it spends a lot of time on the edge of the tire, the lack of edge grip preventing the rider from laying the power down out of corners. And at the Sachsenring, that's exactly what the bike spends most of its time doing, cranked over on one ear, trying to accelerate on to the next corner.

This will be making Chris Vermeulen's job particularly difficult. The Australian's seat at Suzuki is currently the subject of a great deal of speculation. With Suzuki unlikely to front a third bike for 2009, and the Japanese factory very keen on getting Ben Spies into the MotoGP series, Vermeulen is going to have to step up his game for the rest of the year. Vermeulen will need to finish in the top 5, rather than just the top 10, to be sure of his future in MotoGP.

His team mate has less to worry about, which is probably a good thing. Loris Capirossi is just coming back from a very nasty arm injury suffered in a high speed crash at Assen, after previously being hurt at Barcelona, and so is both rusty and sore. The chances of the Italian veteran being able to overcome the Suzuki's handicaps to get close to the podium in Germany are faint indeed.

One man with a considerably better shot at the podium is the Texan Colin Edwards. The Tech 3 Yamaha man is having his best season since 2005, and has been been on the podium twice so far this year. The Yamaha is superb, the Michelin tires are brilliant, and Edwards is relaxed. That's a pretty potent mixture, and the Sachsenring could prove an almost perfect stage for things to come together for the Texan. The only thing holding him back will be the thought of next week. Edwards has had his heart set on conquering Laguna Seca since the series returned to race there 3 years ago. So while he has the chance to do very well indeed here, he is more likely to be treating the event as a warm up for Laguna. Edwards will be worth watching very closely indeed.

Don't Look Now

If there is one man who really doesn't need to be watched closely, it is poor Marco Melandri. The Italian continues to struggle with the Ducati, and the impression that neutral spectators get while watching Melandri is that he would rather not be watched at all. Running around at the back of the pack is well below what the former championship runner-up is capable of, and the next two races will be crucial. Fortunately, both the Sachsenring and Laguna Seca are tracks that Melandri loves, and would be expected to do well at under normal circumstances. Sadly for Melandri, it's been a very long time since we've seen anything which resemble normal circumstances from the Italian. We can only hope.

That his poor results aren't all down to Melandri is demonstrated by the other two Ducatis. Indeed, such are the problems at the d'Antin team that the team manager, Luis d'Antin, announced his resignation from the team which bore his name for many years just a day before the event was due to start. The Alice Ducati team will continue without him, but whether that will have any material influence on their results remains to be seen. Toni Elias is up and down, though mostly down, while Frenchman Sylvain Guintoli has shown the most promise of late. Guintoli scored his first top 10 of the season last week, and will be hoping to continue that trend.

The Frenchman will have a little help from the Kawasaki team, as John Hopkins will not be racing at the Sachsenring. The American is still hurting too badly from his horrific high-speed crash at Assen two weeks ago, and won't be returning until Brno in August. This leaves only 17 riders on the starting grid, and only one Kawasaki. Ant West, like Marco Melandri, has struggled with the Kawasaki, showing only a fraction of his potential. Some fixes have already been provided to help West with the lack of rear grip he is complaining about, and perhaps as the only rider in Germany, he will get a little more attention from the Kawasaki engineers. He surely needs it.

Return

James Toseland returns to a track he's never ridden at before, a factor which may well play in his favor. At Assen and Donington, tracks he knows extremely well from his Superbike days, the reigning World Superbike champion struggled, forced to recalibrate everything he'd learnt about the tracks, being able to brake later and get on the gas earlier. Now, at a track he has to learn from scratch again, his task should be simpler again, and he could be further up the order, where he started the season.

Another rider who has slipped down the field a little is Fiat Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard started the season in blaze of glory, before entering mid-season in a flare of X-rays. A series of nasty crashes, culminating in a spell in hospital with concussion after crashing in Barcelona, have taken the wind out of Lorenzo's sails, and the Spanish rookie is slowly rebuilding his confidence. At the past couple of races, this process has been fascinating to watch, starting the weekend slowly, while getting quicker every session, before finishing much further forward than his qualifying performance might suggest. Lorenzo is still destined for  great things, he's just taking his time getting there.

Randy de Puniet and Alex de Angelis have been lucky in comparison with Jorge Lorenzo. The two satellite Honda riders have crashed much more often than the Spaniard, but they manage to escape almost unscathed at each opportunity. But though they suffer little physical damage, their reputations are a good deal more tarnished. Both men have been warned by their team bosses that they need to stay on the bike and try and finish. And both men have shown they have the speed to be competitive, de Angelis' performance at Mugello being particularly impressive. But being competitive also means being fast on the final lap, and getting the bike across the line. That has proven to be a big ask for both men this year, and there's little reason to expect things to change very soon.

The Tortoise And The Hare

In a country where unlimited speed is enshrined in law, and which has some of the fastest racetracks - such as Hockenheim and the Nurburgring - in the world, the Sachsenring is an anomaly. Tight, twisty and difficult, speeds are slow, and even the 800 cc MotoGP bikes never seem to stretch their legs there. The advantage for spectators is of course that this neutralizes any horsepower advantages which one bike may have over another, and takes racing back to its purest and simplest form: going as fast as possible round the corners. With power taken out of the equation, the racing should be closer, and with the weather looking unpredictable, the racing could be closer still. We can only hope that the race turns out to be as capricious and surprising as the weather which has swept across Northern Europe this summer.

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