Round nine of the 2015 MotoGP World Championship returns to The Sachsenring, arguably the most Honda-friendly circuit on the tour. Hondas have taken the checkered flag the last five times out, three wins from Dani Pedrosa followed by two from Marc Marquez. Although the fortunes of the
Repsol Honda team have suffered a downturn in 2015, both riders could easily be in contention for a spot on Sunday’s podium. It’s that kind of track.
Midway through the season, it can be said that Honda and Suzuki have opposing problems. Suzuki’s problem, historical in nature, is a lack of horsepower available to complement the bike’s sweet handling. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales have combined to make the Ecstar team immediately competitive, far more so than it was in its previous iteration when sponsored by Rizla. The bike and the riders are both better. Espargaro, who was showing steady improvement early in the year, has been dragged down by consecutive DNFs at rounds five through seven, and sits in 12th place for the year. Vinales, the consensus rookie of the year having finished in the points every round, sits in ninth place for the year, and deserves an Oakley contract to deal with a future so bright … he’s gonna need shades.
The factory Honda’s problem, on the other hand, is a surfeit of power, the result being a bucking bronco of a bike that consistently wants to get away from Marquez and, to a lesser extent, Pedrosa. The veteran Pedrosa is dealing with it better than Marquez, the result of having spent 10 seasons on the bike or its previous iterations. Marquez, whose early season escapades (DNFs in three of the first seven races) cost him a third consecutive world championship, is now engaged in a series of workarounds – 2014 frame, harder front tires – in an exhausting effort to stay relevant while the engineers in Japan figure out how to make the RC213V rideable again. (If he doesn’t mind a little pinging, perhaps the team should consider using regular gasoline rather than the high-test stuff.)
With the factory Yamaha team of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo hitting on all cylinders this season, and Pedrosa having missed three of the first four rounds of the year to arm pump surgery, Marquez’ role has been reduced to that of a spoiler. He can still contend for wins and podiums to salve what has had to have been a miserably disappointing year. But more importantly, he can have a material effect on the competition between Rossi and Lorenzo. He can be the fly in the ointment, a wild card mixing it up with the Bruise Brothers and generally making a nuisance of himself.
Assen is a perfect example; had the drama at the final chicane turned out differently, Lorenzo might have won the race, Rossi might have ended up in the gravel, and the standings at the top would be reversed. The boys in blue have ten rounds of this stuff to look forward to, not to mention Marquez’s reputation for risky business in the turns. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, there will be plenty of Rossi and Lorenzo fans pulling for #93 to assert his influence during the remainder of the season. On the other guy.
Recent History in Saxony
The 2012 German Grand Prix had all the makings of a Repsol Honda clambake. The Hondas had been fast in practice, with Pedrosa and Casey Stoner flanking the briefly brilliant Ben Spies and his factory Yamaha on the front row. When the lights went out, the two Hondas went off to wage war by themselves, leaving Lorenzo by himself in third place, Andrea Dovizioso and Spies battling for fourth, with homeboy Stefan Bradl and Rossi scrapping over sixth place. Amazingly, Stoner lowsided out of the race on the “penultimate” lap (I hate that word), awarding the win to Pedrosa. Lorenzo moved up to second, and Dovizioso punked Spies for third; three Yamahas finished in the top four. At the end of the day Lorenzo led Pedrosa by 14 points on the way to his second MotoGP title that fall.
2013 was to have finally been Dani Pedrosa’s year. He had avoided injury early in the season, and led the championship heading into Round 8 in Germany. Lorenzo was wounded in Assen, Rossi was still getting re-acquainted with the Yamaha after two years at Ducati, and rookie Marquez was, well, a rookie. Instead, Pedrosa went flying over the handlebars in FP3 on Saturday morning, returning to Spain for yet another surgery on his pulverized collarbone. Lorenzo, pressing, crashed yet again on Friday, re-injuring his own wing; with the two Spaniards missing, the other riders all jumped up two spots. Marquez won that day, seizing the championship lead he would not relinquish for the remainder of the season. Cal Crutchlow, who had qualified brilliantly in the middle of the front row, finished second for his best premier class result ever on the Tech 3 Yamaha ahead of Rossi, chosen over Crutchlow by the suits at Yamaha corporate to ride for them in 2014 and beyond.
Last year’s fiasco started memorably with nine bikes on the grid and 14 in pit lane, the result of rapidly changing weather conditions. Fan fave Bradl might have won the race that day, lining up at the start on slicks and enjoying a 12-second advantage over the Alien contingent on the first lap. Alas, though his crew had thoughtfully mounted slicks on his LCR Honda, they had neglected to change the setting from W(et) to D(ry), causing him to lose two seconds per lap to the big dogs and leading, ultimately, to a demoralizing 16th place finish. Predictably, the race was won by Marquez, followed closely by Pedrosa, with Lorenzo, Rossi and Andrea Iannone spread out over the next half mile. What fireworks there were that day were extinguished in the first five minutes.
Arm Pump: An Occupational Hazard of MotoGP
Back in the 60’s there was an Australian tennis player, “Rocket” Rod Laver, whose left forearm – he was a southpaw – was roughly twice the diameter of his right. When he wasn’t playing, just standing around, he looked like one of those photoshopped pictures you see of guys with one arm and one leg extending from their shoulder sockets. MotoGP riders are going to have to do more than they’re already doing to build up their right arms, as virtually all of them suffer the effects of operating throttle and brake against heavy centrifugal force while wrestling several hundred pounds of steel and rubber. Perhaps if they were to spend the offseason dipping cones at Baskin Robbins they could build large enough forearms to withstand the rigors of an 18-round season.
Not that arm pump is the only occupational hazard in this sport. Road rash, crushed digits, cracked skulls and shattered collarbones all contribute to the festival atmosphere at races, followed by jetlag, jock rot and a variety of, ahem, social infections.
This is a man’s sport. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If Marc Marquez is capable of winning again in 2015, it should be at The Sachsenring. We’ll have results and analysis right here Sunday evening.