This weekend's German Grand Prix presents an unusual challenge to World Championship riders - it's the slowest track on the GP calendar. But if laps speeds at the Sachsenring aren't lightning fast, the racing is usually red hot. This is the third...
This weekend's German Grand Prix presents an unusual challenge to World Championship riders - it's the slowest track on the GP calendar. But if laps speeds at the Sachsenring aren't lightning fast, the racing is usually red hot. This is the third Grand Prix to be held at the track, a slower, safer version of the fast and dangerous public roads circuit, venue for the East German GP back in the sixties and early seventies.
Sunday's racing counts as the tenth round of this year's 16-event MotoGP World Championships, with just three more races on the Continent and three 'flyaway' events in Brazil, Japan and Australia remaining. Thus the tension is mounting in the battle for the 125, 250 and 500 crowns.
Marlboro Yamaha Team rider Carlos Checa is still right in the hunt for the 500 title despite a disappointing race at the British GP two weeks ago. The Spanish star is currently 29 points behind series leader Kenny Roberts (Suzuki) and in confident mood for the Sachsenring. Team-mate Max Biaggi also struggled in gloomy conditions at Donington Park. The Italian is having a tough run in the 2000 500 series but is more than ready to run up front.
After the 'Ring, the GP circus takes a brief break from racing, returning to action for the Czech GP on August 20.
The Sachsenring may be the slowest track currently used by Grand Prix riders but that doesn't necessarily make it any less of a challenge. Data-logging from the 500 class shows that riders use full throttle for just five seconds a lap, suggesting that delicate throttle control out of the many tight corners is the secret to a quick lap at this slowest of tracks. The 'Ring is likely to be faster this year, however, following changes to the back of the circuit. GP racing returned to Sachsenring in 1998 after a long absence. From 1961 to '72 the venue, then within the former East Germany, hosted World Championship events around a lethal high-speed street circuit, with upwards of 250,000 fans watching the riders race past brick walls, lamp posts and trees. The 8.6km track was deemed too dangerous for World Championship competition after the '72 East German GP, won by Italian legend Giacomo Agostini on an MV Agusta. Last year's race was won by Kenny Roberts (Suzuki), while the '98 German GP was won by Mick Doohan (Honda).
Lap record: Alex Barros (Honda), 1m 28.072s, 143.391kmh/89.099mph
CHECA'S 'RING OF CONFIDENCE
Marlboro Yamaha Team man Carlos Checa slipped further behind title rival Kenny Roberts (Suzuki) at Donington Park two weeks ago but 'El Toro' comes to Germany in bullish mood. The Spaniard finished 11th on a drying track at Donington, unable to find adequate traction in the slippery conditions. The result was Checa's first finish outside the top ten in the 2000 campaign, during which he has been one of the most consistent riders.
Although he has yet to win a race this year, his four runner-up finishes (in South Africa, Malaysia, Spain and Italy) have put him well in contention for the world title. The main man he has to beat is Roberts, and though the American rider has won more races than anyone this year, he has also proved less than consistent, finishing outside the top five on three occasions.
"I'll try to make up for Donington in Germany - the championship is still open," says Checa. "Kenny has been fast at some tracks but it seems like his bike isn't so consistent and I feel we are now going to tracks that really suit us. I had a good time at the Sachsenring last year. My arms pumped up in the race but I was fast and less than a second off the podium."
Checa had surgery last winter to fix his tendinitis and has had no further problems since. His only worry going into the Sachsenring is the weather.
"All I want is a dry race, we've had so much rain this year," he adds. "Racing in the wet isn't fun but it's more than that; we've had rain during practice at almost every race this year and that means we don't get the chance to set up our bikes properly."
His crew chief Mike Webb concurs. "The rain is the same for everyone but it doesn't help," he says. "Carlos should do good this weekend. Last year was tough for him but he went well here. We may well race with Michelin's 16.5 front and rears this weekend, he would've run them at Donington if it'd been dry. The front gives better feel and the rear seems to offer improved stability."
BIAGGI FULL OF LATIN PROMISE
Max Biaggi didn't have a great time at Sachsenring last year but if you look beyond the result, he was one of the strongest riders at the event. And that puts the Marlboro Yamaha Team star in confident mood for Sunday.
Although he qualified on the second row in '99 and crashed out of the race, his split times during practice made him one of the favourites at the event. This year he intends to turn that promise into his best result of the season. Biaggi also showed great potential at the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, but once again luck was against him. After charging through the pack following a messy start, he hit problems, losing two places on the last lap to finish ninth.
"I was very disappointed with that race, it's never fun to lose a couple of positions on the final lap," he says. "Now I want to move on to Germany and get the kind of result that the whole team deserves; hopefully we'll have a fully dry weekend this time. Last year I was fast at the Sachsenring and I think we had the best bike/tyre combination for the race but I fell. It was one of those strange crashes, there seemed to be no reason for it. But we can build on our good work at the track last summer, I just hope that we can have a little more luck than we've had so far this year. And a little less rain."
Biaggi's chief engineer Fiorenzo Fanali also believes Germany should be good for Biaggi; his rider has shown good speed throughout much of this season but has yet to reap the results merited by his skill and dedication. This weekend Fanali will work at the new Sachsenring for the first time. The Italian has been involved in World Superbike for the last few seasons, so he wasn't present at the first two GPs run at the recently constructed track in '98 and '99.
"Max seems to like the circuit and though I don't know it, we will have his data from last year to work from," he says. "We will start on Friday with one bike set up like last year and the other more like we've been running this year, and we'll make improvements from there. And we will once again try Michelin's new 16.5 front, Max seems to like it."
THE CHAMPIONSHIP SITUATION RAIN, RAIN, STAY AWAY...
Kenny Roberts (Suzuki) may be 500 World Championship leader and Valentino Rossi (Honda) may be the new star on the 500 block but the dominant feature of this season has been the rain. In the gloomiest summer in years, wet weather has featured over most GP weekends and an amazing five of the nine 500 races have been affected by rain.
No one in Grand Prix racing can remember a year like it. Compare this season to the last five, from '95 to '99. Over that half decade just six 500 races were affected by rain. The '95 and '99 Japanese GPs were both run on rain-lashed tracks, last year's Valencia GP was run in the damp, the '96 Imola GP was stopped early due to a downpour but declared a full race, while the '96 and '97 Dutch GPs were red-flagged and re-started, results counting on aggregate.
Already this year we've seen the Spanish and Dutch GPs run as rain-interrupted two-parters, the Catalan GP acted out in the rain, the British GP run on a drying track and the Malaysian GP stopped due to a cloudburst and declared a full race.
Rossi, who won his first 500 GP two weeks ago in Britain, showing remarkable control of his 190bhp Honda NSR500 in treacherous damp conditions, has had enough. "For sure it has been raining too much this season - for the next ten years we will have only dry races!" he smiles.
"This kind of weather makes the racing a lottery, everyone has to gamble on tyres and the racing becomes so unpredictable."
The Italian isn't the only one fed up with the fine art and science of racing being turned into a gambling nightmare. Riders, team engineers and tyre technicians, not to mention thousands of drenched spectators, are all desperate for a return to more normal weather. For the riders, though, it's particularly hard. More than anything, racers like going fast, that's what they're good at, and riding in the rain doesn't offer the same buzz as pushing the limit on a dry track.
And when rain interrupts practice or qualifying it plays havoc with teams' efforts to perfect the set-up of their riders' machines. The four one-hour sessions over Friday and Saturday usually allow riders to make constant progress with settings, so their bikes are in the best-possible shape for Sunday. Those four outings countdown to the climax of the race and when rain gets in the way, it destroys the tense build-up that make Sundays so special. Instead, some riders are more ready than others, and many have to gamble on set-up and tyre choice, since they've not had enough dry track time to run conclusive tests on a variety of rubber and settings. As Rossi says, the race becomes a lottery.
Which isn't always bad. The British GP proved that poor weather doesn't always mean poor racing. In treacherous conditions Rossi fought a titanic battle with Roberts and hometown hero Jeremy McWilliams (Aprilia), the three men getting well sideways and smoking their tyres on the drying tarmac. The relative lack of grip allowed McWilliams to stay in contention throughout, despite his RSW500 twin giving away over 30bhp to Rossi's and Roberts' four-cylinder machines. Before the race McWilliams didn't think he'd be in contention, since he could only manage to qualify on the fourth row of the grid, so it's unlikely he would've been able to give the crowd so much to cheer about if the race had been run in the dry. Nevertheless, the Briton and every other 500 rider will be praying for sunshine this weekend.