There’s an expression in the Dutch language, “een ongeluk zit in een klein hoekje,” which translates literally as “accidents hide in small corners.” It seems particularly relevant at the Sachsenring on Friday, as while there were crashes galore at Turn 11, the fast corner at the top of the long downhill run to the two final left handers, Jorge Lorenzo crashed at Turn 10, the uphill left which precedes Turn 11.
It is not much of a corner, just the last of the long sequence of left handers which proceed from the Omegakurve towards the top of the hill, and the plunge down the waterfall. But it was enough to bend the titanium plate holding Jorge Lorenzo’s collarbone together, and put him out of the German Grand Prix, and maybe Laguna Seca as well. That relatively minor corner may have ended Jorge Lorenzo’s championship hopes.
Winning a MotoGP championship – in fact, winning any motorcycle racing championship – is very hard indeed. It takes years of training, and a full season of utmost concentration, and hours, days, weeks, and months of hard work to get everything as perfect as possible. Losing a championship is done in seconds, maybe milliseconds. A single, small mistake, and you can throw away everything you have devoted your life to achieving.
Jorge Lorenzo came into Assen on a roll, off two victories in a row, at Mugello and Barcelona. Assen is a track which suits the Yamaha, and at which Lorenzo is outstanding. He was comfortably fastest in the morning session, ahead of Cal Crutchlow on the other Yamaha, and was just starting to get into the swing of things on a soaking track when he hit a patch of water deeper than he was expecting.
In the blink of an eye, he was tossed from his bike and onto his shoulder, suffering a displaced fracture of his left collarbone which will ensure that he will miss the race on Saturday at Assen. The momentum Lorenzo had been amassing in the previous races just hit a brick wall.
It has been a while since Valentino Rossi’s name has topped the timesheets in MotoGP: once during the test at Jerez back in March, before that at a wet Silverstone almost exactly a year ago. Since that time, he’s been close on occasion, but never fastest. Until today.
The Italian set out on a hot final run to set the best time of the day, and take over the top spot from his Yamaha Factory Racing teammate Jorge Lorenzo, to the delight of the assembled crowd, so many of whom wear his colors. (On a side note, I often wonder what colors will adorn the racetracks of the world once Rossi retires. Right now, you do not need a GPS to guide you to the circuit, you just follow the sea of yellow to the gates.)
Rossi was delighted, but he was also relieved, having confirmed to himself that he can still be at the front. “Today I am very happy about the result,” Rossi told the press, saying that to be at the front was a great feeling. But Rossi was also realistic: it is only Friday, he pointed out to the media, and he had been fast on Friday at previous races.
There are a lot of things that make Mugello special. Its location, in the heart of Tuscany, a sumptuously beautiful part of the world; its layout, fast, flowing, winding naturally up and round the valley it is set in.
The wide open nature of the track, all third and fourth gear combinations which require the perfect combination of intelligence, talent, and sheer courage that make it close to the perfect test of skill. It is fast, it is flowing, and it is undulating.
Even the front straight isn’t really a straight, but a rolling sinew of asphalt that winds down to the first corner. You come down out of the last turn, hammer on the gas, shifting up to sixth as you go, and ride up the rise towards the crest.
Drift right then left through the slight kink in the straight which becomes something resembling a 330 km/h chicane, then just as your front wheel floats free over the crest, you need to get it back down again and get on the brakes for the first corner, the 90 km/h San Donato.
The straight and the braking area are immensely difficult to get right, and a simple error can leave you hurtling into the gravel. Or, in the case of Marc Marquez, drifting towards a wall.
Each rider has their own technique, but subtlety is the key to getting it right. Jorge Lorenzo told the press that he does not really brake over the crest, nor does he use rear brake to keep the front down, but instead Lorenzo rolls off the throttle a fraction.
This puts the front tire back in contact with the tarmac, and allows him to brake at full force for San Donato. Dani Pedrosa’s technique is slightly different, but achieves the same result. “You never really hit the brake at once,” he said, “you squeeze and put the pressure a little after.”
So far, so good. That seems to be the story from the first day of practice at Le Mans. A full day of dry weather – except for the last few minutes of FP2 for the Moto3 class, where the rain turned briefly to hail, only to blow out again as quickly as it came – means that everyone had a chance to work on their race set up.
With the top four separated by just 0.166 seconds, the top five are within a quarter of a second, and Alvaro Bautista, the man in ninth, is just over seven tenths from the fastest man Dani Pedrosa.
A good day too for the Hondas. Dani Pedrosa was immediately up to speed, as expected. Marc Marquez was also quick in the afternoon, which was less expected. Unlike Jerez and Austin, this was the first time he rode a MotoGP machine at Le Mans, and getting used to hauling a 260 hp, 160kg bike around the tight layout of the French track is a different proposition to riding a Moto2 bike with half the horsepower here.
He took a morning to get used to the track, asked for a few changes to the base set up inherited from Casey Stoner, and then went and blitzed to second in the afternoon, 0.134 seconds off his teammate.
More important than Marquez’s speed is his consistency, however. In the afternoon, he posted seven laps of 1’34, which looks to be the pace to expect for a dry race. Only two men did more, Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo having posted nine laps at that pace, with both men also consistently a tenth or two quicker than the Spanish rookie.
For the past couple of years, it has seemed as if there is some kind of unwritten law which states that any MotoGP weekend must be accompanied by rain. The weekends without the threat of rain or some other form of ill weather have been few and far between, so it is both a relief and a joy to come to Jerez, and have the prospect of a full weekend of stable and dry weather.
That’s not to say that no rain has fallen: this morning, as we walked to the car, we felt three or four large drops, but that was all. From the forecast, this looks like the entire quota of rain for the weekend, and the paddock is duly grateful for small mercies.
A consistently dry track still posed problems for the riders, however. The last time MotoGP was here, back in March, conditions were far from ideal. It rained, every day, with plenty of sunshine in between, leaving the track treacherous and difficult, with low grip levels and a patchy surface.
Though the teams collected plenty of data at that test, very little of it is usable this weekend, with much higher temperatures and better grip. Until the afternoon, that is, when the warmer temperatures meant that grip levels started to drop again, a perennial problem at Jerez. The bumps, too, are an issue, with many riders running wide after hitting them as they braked for the hairpins at the circuit.
Rainy conditions abound in Assen for the Dutch round of World Superbikes, and the wet weather has already claimed its first victim: Pata Honda’s Leon Haslam. Catching his foot in the wheel during a crash in FP1, Haslam fractured both his tibia and fibula on his left leg during the off, and has been unfortunately ruled out of the Sunday’s race.