Retro Racing: A look back at the chaotic 2014 German Grand Prix (Part 1)
During the 2014 MotoGP season Marc Marquez constantly rewrote the definition of domination. It was one win after another, and most were comprehensive. Claiming victory at Losail, COTA, Termas de rio Honda, Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Montmelo and Assen it left one question as MotoGP headed to Germany and the final round before the summer break; could anyone stop Marquez? In Part 1 of our look back to the German Grand Prix we set the scene for what’s been happening prior to the summer break and get you up to date with practice and qualifying.
Setting the scene and setting the market….
Think back to July 2014 and the talk around the paddock was about the rider market. Would Cal Crutchlow stay with Ducati or would he make a shock switch to Honda for the 2015 season? The British star was fantastic in 2013 on the Tech3 Yamaha and earned his factory promotion. The move turned sour with an enduring run of misery on the Ducati, but with a contract clause allowing him to leave after the first year of his contract the rumour mill was spinning.
Crutchlow was the latest in a long line of riders trying to tame the Ducati. The final third of the season, which co-coincided with the introduction of the GP14.2, would see his form improve but at this point late on in the year. At the time Crutchlow explained his predicament:
“I need to be able to relax on the bike,” said Crutchlow back in 2014. “I don’t know what the bike is going to do. I’m having the same problems as their riders complained about last year. I’ve never ridden a bike so hard and got such poor results. The bike doesn’t suit my style. There is no short fix for this. We have too much understeer and I can’t ride the bike how I want. Dovi and Iannone will have five degrees more lean angle than me in every corner. If I lean any further I’m on the floor. I’m riding on eggshells compared to the other Ducati riders.”
Honda were disappointed with Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista’s performances, and it was clear an opportunity could be made available for a switch to LCR Honda. At World Ducati Week Crutchlow confirmed his future and his loyalty to Bologna. That lasted about a week before his switch to LCR Honda would be confirmed.
At one point it seemed that there was a chance for Crutchlow to return to Tech3, but this was quickly dismissed. The French team had also been linked with an all-Espargaro line-up for 2015 and with Bradley Smith having the worst race weekend of his life-five crashes in Germany-the noise post Sachsenring was getting very loud for Bradley out and Aleix in.
At one point, it was even wondered whether or not Forward Racing-running the Open spec Yamaha for Espargaro- would lease a Factory Spec YZR-M1 for the following season. The Japanese manufacturer had long said that they only had the capacity to run four bikes of that specification, and Tech3 were unwilling to give up one of their allocation. Espargaro would of course go on to sign for Suzuki for 2015.
The younger Espargaro was still holding out hope for a factory Yamaha seat. While Valentino Rossi was enjoying a resurgence, his teammate (Jorge Lorenzo) was struggling. With other riders linked to a Yamaha switch, Lorenzo’s name wasn’t being touted as seriously. Maybe if Crutchlow left Ducati there’d be some leverage to use against Yamaha? Ultimately during the summer break Lorenzo would remain in the factory seat and Pol would stay with Tech3.
It wasn’t just the MotoGP riders causing a contract storm, with Jack Miller in the midst of a tug of war between MarcVDS in Moto2 and a possible switch to the premier class with Honda. Having signed a pre-contract with the intermediate class squad it looked as though the Australian, who would win the Moto3 race that weekend, was signed and sealed. Of course it would later transpire that in September the long drawn out negotiations would conclude with Miller moving to the premier class.
Can anyone stop Marquez?
As the MotoGP paddock made their way to Eastern Germany, the only question on anyone’s mind was whether Marquez could keep his run going. Assen, two weeks earlier, had been a lottery. Thunder and lightning had delayed the start and some riders, notably Valentino Rossi and Broc Parkes, started the race from the pits on slick tyres. The rest pitted and everyone converged together. Somehow it was Marquez that once again found a way to come out on top.
He’d been worried about the trio of races prior to Sachsenring. The Italian circuit of Mugello and Montmelo on the outskirts of Barcelona were Yamaha territory. The combined winning margin at both races was six tenths of a second, but it was Marquez that was coming out on top. Assen promised another strong result for Lorenzo but once the heavens opened his confidence was shot. Memories of his painful collarbone smashing crash of 12 months earlier had left their mark. They would continue to haunt Lorenzo in the rain for coming years. If Assen saw flashbacks to 2013 for Lorenzo, then Sachsenring would do the same. The incredible effort he made to return to race at Assen following his broken collarbone and then to re-injure it at the following weekend left Lorenzo reeling for the next year. The sheer effort it took to get back on track was too much for him, and in 2015 he admitted that his previous campaign had suffered due to the mental toll.
With a trio of “Yamaha” circuits out of the way we were suddenly at a “Honda” circuit. It was also a Dani Pedrosa circuit. The Spaniard had been victorious at the Sachsenring for three years on the bounce, until Marquez claimed the win in his rookie campaign with Pedrosa sidelined by injury. Were we set for a showdown of the ages between the masters of the ‘ring?
The Open machinery of Yamaha had excelled in 2014, Aleix Espargaro had managed to qualify on the front two rows on five occasions, including a pole at Assen, before bagging the fourth fastest time in German qualifying. Espargaro knew that Germany was a key opportunity to keep himself at the forefront of the queue at Suzuki, or for a shock switch to another manufacturer.
The Open Honda though was a different story. It was slow and off the pace but maybe Germany would offer hope of a change in fortunes. Much like the old days of twin-cylinder machinery in the 500GP class, this could be a chance to spring a surprise.
Practice and Qualifying: Lap Records and bikes smashed
Marquez laid down a marker on Saturday by smashing the outright circuit record and claiming the pole position by three tenths of a second. Afterwards Marquez said that he knew it was important to claim the pole around the tight and twisty German venue. He said that he didn’t “feel completely comfortable with the grip initially but it improved by the end and I knew that I could push harder.”
He didn’t look like a man that, just 24 hours earlier, had suffered a huge highside in practice.
“The weekend has been affected by the crash but little by little we’ve been getting better,” said Marquez. “I felt good in FP2 and I was much better this morning. In the few laps I did in FP4, I could see that we had a good pace and a chance to fight for pole position.”
That pace in FP4 was better than good, it was astounding. He was only three tenths off the lap record pace despite the tyre having miles underneath it. Marquez had certainly laid down a marker.
Pedrosa had been touted as the big rival for Marquez, but he cracked in qualifying with a late fall in addition to a Friday fall. He had been on provisional pole after his first stint but now Marquez was upping the pressure.
“We’ve had good pace despite the crash. It was my fault and I hit a bump under braking,” said Pedrosa afterwards. “I’m very grateful to my mechanics for the work they did yesterday to get the bike back running again after my crash in FP2. “Tomorrow we will try to do our best, position ourselves well from the start, make a good tyre choice and hope the weather is kind to us! Our setup is definitely good. I hope to have a good race.”
Stefan Bradl, under pressure to hold onto his Honda ride for 2015, gave the home crowd something to cheer about with a front row start. It was his second of the season and the aim was clear; a podium.
“This is great,” said Bradl. “The support has been fantastic all weekend and I don’t feel far from the top guys. MotoGP isn’t very popular in Germany but it’s huge in this region. It’d be a perfect weekend for me to get on the podium but it won’t be easy because Lorenzo and Rossi will be strong. It will be very important to choose the right front tyre in the race.”
The tyre options were critical because Bridgestone were still unsure as to whether they should bring the asymmetric front tyre to MotoGP. In early tests, riders had complained that there was too significant a change in feeling from one side to the other. They would later bring the tyre to Australia for the Phillip Island round which deteriorated into a crash fest as the temperature dropped suddenly.
The second row of the grid saw a Yamaha lockout, but it was the super-soft tyre shod Forward bike of Aleix Espargaro that was the fastest. The Spaniard was doing his best to show just how worthy of a full factory bike he was for 2014 and backed up his Assen pole with a strong performance.
For the Movistar Yamaha duo of Lorenzo and Rossi, the session was ruined by grip issues for both. For Rossi, recently re-signed for the 2015 campaign, the issue was so bad that he said he had “no grip on the second tyre and I couldn’t push at all.”
While Rossi was pessimistic and saying that the second row was the limit for still being able to have a good result on Sunday, his teammate was more optimistic. Lorenzo said, “we only need to find a couple of tenths and then we can go with Marc.”
“Fifth is definitely not what we expected,” said the Spartan. “We’ve had good pace and been in the top three all weekend. In qualifying we couldn’t take advantage of the new tyre and I didn’t have the traction I expected. From the warm-up lap it was spinning a lot. I’m disappointed with the position but we’ve done good work this weekend. If we can improve by one or two tenths we can stay with Marquez tomorrow.”
While Lorenzo felt he had a chance of a strong result, the satellite bike of Bradley Smith was focused on surviving. Sachsenring had already left its mark on the British rider with a footrest digging a hole in his leg during one of his four crashes on the opening two days.
“I did a rodeo bull ride and put the footrest into my shin,” said Smith. “There was a big hole in my leg, deep enough to see the bone, and it had to be sewn up between sessions. The crash in qualifying afternoon was my fault. I knew that I had to extract everything from the racetrack and I asked too much from the tyre on a corner that I was already good at. I tried to go a little bit too quick and carried the front brake and down I went.”
“Four crashes in a weekend doesn’t look good but it’s strange because I’m feeling confident on the bike. I feel confident but in these track conditions, they are tricky and it’s easy to make big mistakes. It’ll make for a tricky race and you’ll have to ride smart for 30 laps. The higher the track temperature the easier it is for us. The cooler the temperature the more difficult that it is. There’s a cold wind as well that’s the biggest issue because it cools the front tyre and going into turn 11 it’s a little bit scary.”
Smith wasn’t the only rider hitting the deck. Cal Crutchlow’s Ducati was also finding its way to the most expensive parking lot of the MotoGP season; Turn 11. Crutchlow was at a loss to explain it with the crash coming when he was going through the corner “so much slower than last year.”
For Broc Parkes, his crash was at almost 200kmp/h and left him a bit shaken because it came with no warning.
“The front just went and there was nothing that I could do,” said the Australian. “It felt really fast and it was one of the few times that you think, ‘Woah, that was fast!’ so it was pretty full on! The Waterfall is always a bit iffy and when I tried the harder tyre I didn’t get enough temperature into it and I just lost it. When the right side the tyre is too cold it’s easy to crash. It can cool down so quickly too. If you drop off the pace for two corners it’s enough to lose that temperature.”
Further down the field, this was finally a race weekend where Michael Laverty felt there was a chance to have a real scrap with the Open Honda riders. The Ulsterman had been enjoying a stronger weekend than normal on the PBM machine, but was disappointed with qualifying because he had “only found a tenth compared to my Friday pace. I can maintain that pace though so it’s good. I’m spinning the tyre a lot in the middle sector but I’m close to the Honda’s in the other areas. I’ve been the top CRT rider this weekend so I’m confident that they won’t be an issue tomorrow. It’s about chasing down the guys in front.”
In Part 2 we’ll look back at what the paddock thought after one of the most chaotic Grand Prix starts in memory…