Retro Racing: A look back at the chaotic 2014 German Grand Prix (Part 2)
To catch up on Part 1 of our look back at the 2014 German Grand click here
Just thirty minutes before the start of the 30 lap German Grand Prix the paddock faced a dilemma. After a dry Moto2 race, rain was starting to fall around the Sachsenring. Suddenly crew chiefs and riders were huddled together. Should they leave their garage with a bike setup for wet conditions or one that was stiffer and more suitable to dry conditions but use wet tyres?
If a wet race was declared, riders would be unable to return to the pitlane and change bikes without suffering the penalty of starting from the back of the field. Teams needed information. They needed accurate weather forecasting models. Ideally you needed someone ten miles down the road and telling that what the weather was doing.
On the grid the teams are given a time limit after which mechanics can’t touch the bike. The clock ticks down. It’s tocks to decision time. It counts down to chaos.
With the majority of the field stayed on wet tyres Nicky Hayden summed up the reasoning:
“The track is pretty much dry for the first half of the lap but it’s very wet in the fast corners and The Waterfall is called that for a reason; there’s a lot of standing water down there! It’s a gamble right now and you could put your chips on the table and start with slicks. If you’re at the back it’s worth taking a risk.”
While Hayden, and the Open riders, were looking at a drying track, the front runners were sitting on wet tyres and sure to dive into the pits to jump on their dry bikes and head for the end of pitlane to start the race. Stefan Bradl, the German on the front row, was the only front runner making changes on the grid. Switching to carbon brake discs and with his mechanics scrambling to change his suspension from wet to dry settings. The change should take five minutes and with the start still just under ten minutes away, it looked as though Bradl was suddenly holding the trump card on the grid.
Unfortunately a problem on the grid meant Bradl’s crew couldn’t fully change to a dry setting and they ran out of time to change the front springs. The LCR Honda man felt that it would be close enough that he’d have a big advantage starting from the front row. He didn’t. With basically a wet front setting and a dry rear setting it was good but not good enough. The front end was bottoming out under brakes, and even though he had a head start it wouldn’t be enough. One contender would be removed effectively before the start of the race. A promising weekend ended with no points and ultimately he would lose his ride soon. One good result could have changed his fortunes.
One rider and team looking for a change of fortunes was Paul Bird Motorsport. The team needed a good result to ensure they would still receive travel money for the 2015 season, but with Michael Laverty pointless in 2014 the Ulsterman took a gamble. Instead of completing the sighting lap and changing bikes in the pitlane with the rest of the field, he elected to wheel his bike off the grid beforehand. Switching to his second bike meant he could start from the pitlane and take a grid slot at the back of the field.
On the grid only a handful of teams were working towards changing to slick tyres. The most popular man on the grid was Bridgestone’s Carmine Moscaritolo, with every TV presenter searching for the PR man to find out what tyres riders were selecting. While some teams at the back of the grid were taking a gamble, this was an opportunity for Open Class riders to score points, but at the front of the field there’s a lot more to lose.
The gamble can pay off for riders out of position, the memories of Valencia 2012 were dancing around the heads of back markers, but not for title contenders. Discretion can be the best part of valour at times like this.
“We were on the grid and had gone to it with our wet bike,” said Laverty. “I knew that we could change bikes, go back to the garage and start from the back of the grid. I thought that the difference between starting from the back of the grid compared to 18th was worth a gamble. From the start of the race with everyone starting from pit lane, I was able to get a good start and was third into the first corner and then passed Aoyama at Turn 5. I could hold second for a couple of laps which was really cool. I started with a full dry bike, with a harder front tyre, and it was probably a mistake, starting with the soft tyre would have been a better choice but for everyone in these conditions it’s tough to make the perfect call.
“It’s hard for us to get points with this bike because there’s 18 bikes that are faster than us on the grid. Broc [Parkes] has scored points in Qatar and Assen and I had the chance to score some as well but we’ve had some problems. There is pressure there to score points but for a rider, you’ve got to ride your ass off every day whether it’s to finish 18th or anywhere else. I hope that the points will come and I’ll keep plugging away.”
This was shown by the actions of the rest of the field. Other than Bradl, Aoyama and Karel Abraham, the field were on the grid with wet tyres and wet settings. Once the warm-up lap started it was clear that change was in the air for the field. Riders took off on the sighting lap like scalded cats; Rossi, Aleix Espargaro and Bradley Smith got the holeshot for the most intense warm-up lap anyone could remember.
As the riders made their way around the lap they were pushing hard until they got to Turn 11, the fearsome Waterfall which had already caught out many riders over the weekend, with the asphalt changing from grey to black it was clear that this was as treacherous as Hayden had alluded to. Suddenly from bombing around the lap at high speed, riders were tentative but the pit entry was close and any time gained now would be time saved in switching bikes. If you were one of the first riders at the end of pitlane you’d have a clear track and less traffic to deal with during the race.
With fourteen riders diving into the pits it was Rossi in first, with Marquez down the order as the Number 93 bounced from his wet bike to his dry bike. Rossi, who would be starting from the pitlane for the second race in a row, forced the hand of Marc Marquez to follow suit. The Spaniard said afterwards that he had planned to race defensively and allow his title rivals to dictate the terms of engagement. It was a rare moment where Marquez felt that attacking and sticking to his own plans wasn’t the best option. It also showed just how much confidence he had in his Sachsenring speed. Having smashed the lap record in qualifying and having the reflexes of a gunslinger he felt he could cover the bases regardless.
“I thought the race would begin like Assen,” said Marquez afterwards. “I thought we’d use wet tyres but then I saw it was drying very quickly. On the grid I was on the limit between putting slicks and keeping rain tyres and when I saw Bradl with slicks, I thought maybe this was the best option. I had decided that my strategy was going to be to copy Dani [Pedrosa] and Valentino because they are my main opponents for the championship. They used wet tyres so I followed them. On the warm-up lap they went into the pits, so I followed them!”
Riders now had to try and get any temperature they could into brakes and tyres. Weaving frantically down pitlane it was easy to make contact with another rider or to lose the front. Rossi and Crutchlow came close to contact
Rossi and Aleix Espargaro were the first to arrive but with riders sitting five abreast in a three metre pitlane, it made for a unique sight as they elbowed and barged their way into position. Once the last rider of the nine from the original grid made their way past the pit exit, the green light would be switched on and the dogs of war could run free from pitlane.
Pit lane pandemonium
As the field came past, the red light in pit lane faded and fourteen riders battled to get the jump on each other. Rossi was pushed towards the pitwall, Lorenzo had no brakes, but as usual, Marquez was the most adaptable and straight away he hit the front.
“When the rain came most of us had the same strategy and went into the pits,” said Lorenzo. “There was a crowd there because a lot of riders were in a very narrow space. The worst thing was when I tried the brake – the carbon brake – there was no brake. So to avoid an impact with the others I needed to go onto the track early. I knew this was illegal so I let them past again. I didn’t have a lot of confidence with new tyres. I needed two laps to warm up the tyres and was also very careful in the penultimate corner, which was completely wet.”
While Lorenzo was getting comfortable and up to speed, Marquez was getting through the pack and by the end of the opening lap he had already caught the pack. By the end of the second lap he was seventh. Next time around he was second and on lap six he had caught and passed Bradl for the lead.
“It was like a Motocross start,” said Marquez. “Everybody was very tight against each other and the elbows were out! It was a little bit dangerous because when we used the brakes for the first time the bike didn’t stop because the carbon brakes were cold. That was maybe the most dangerous thing about the first corner. It also maybe looked a little bit strange on TV but it was fine after that.”
At the front of the field, Marquez felt a lot more comfortable than those at the back. With Lorenzo having to cut onto the track, and then cede the positions he had illegally gained, it was clear just how easy it was for riders to trip over one another.
“For me it was dangerous for a few reasons,” reflected Lorenzo afterwards. “I couldn’t warm the carbon disc before the start so that was dangerous and also you’ve got brand new tyres and the exit of pit lane is very narrow. There were a lot of riders trying to overtake. So maybe it is better to get another type of regulation to avoid these kind of very dangerous moments.
All riders were in agreement with the eventual winner agreeing by saying:
“This situation will be difficult to repeat but of course someday it can happen again. We will speak with Race Direction and maybe make some kind of change at the end of pit lane, because now when everybody goes in to change the bike it does not matter if you were on pole positon. It was like just go there and try to find a place to start at the front.”
Dani Pedrosa was one of the biggest “losers” of the situation because having qualified second on the grid he was relegated to the second row of five riders on the unofficial pit lane grid.
“Losing your position is the biggest thing,” said Pedrosa. “I was front row on the grid, but because I wasn’t first into the pits to change my bike I was in the second row at the end of pitlane. Normally today’s situation doesn’t happen, where everybody makes the same choice [to come into the pits before the start]. I did it two years ago but I was only with two or three other guys.”
While the podium men thought changes needed to be made, Crutchlow was an outlier and reflected that the field knew the risks of coming into the pits and changing bikes:
“I don’t think anything was dangerous because it was our choice to come in and change bikes,” said the Englishman. “You know the risks and you know what can happen. We know what the start procedure is for that situation. I did it at Valencia in 2012. I was just disappointed that I qualified badly on the warm-up lap because that was the qualifying session for the pit lane start!
“The first lap wasn’t too bad, but I couldn’t turn the bike and had to try and gain the time in the other places as well as taking some risks in the wet braking zones. I couldn’t believe how hard we were braking with water on the track and slick tyres. I couldn’t believe everybody made it through. It was quite impressive. It was quite risky but the other guys were doing the same. I enjoyed it and I think it made it an entertaining race for all the people that came, and the people watching at home.”
Crazy and entertaining was certainly the theme for this race. Aleix Espargaro was first to the end of pitlane for the start, and with a clear track it was certainly more enjoyable than for some of the riders behind him. For the Forward Racing rider however, this was a missed opportunity. Such was the lottery that even though he was able to switch to slicks, he opted for the wrong front tyre.
“It was a crazy race with a chaotic start,” said Espargaro. “In the warm-up lap we saw that the track was drying quickly so I decided to enter the pit and change bikes from wet-set up to dry. The start from the pit lane was a sort of motocross style and I enjoyed the race, but I made a mistake choosing the softer compound tyre for the front. In two laps the track was completely dry and in the second part of the race I struggled a lot because the front tyre dropped. It’s a pity because I had the pace to fight with Jorge and Valentino.”
His teammate, Colin Edwards, reflected the mood of the riders who opted to start from their original grid positions with wet tyres, “it was tough out there. I started on the grid with slicks, but a wet setting, and lost confidence throughout the race. It was difficult.”
His compatriot Nicky Hayden endured a nightmare start and was last on the first lap, and unable to make progress despite having good pace throughout the weekend. The Kentucky Kid would require surgery during the summer break, but when asked about the dangers of the start the former Flat Tracker thought back to his days on the American dirt and said:
“Racing is always going to be dangerous but it was very odd conditions. I started from pitlane like that at Valencia but there were only three of us that day. Today was nearly a full grid on the tightest pit exit of the calendar, but I think that we can manage ok.”
You can’t stand in the way of progress, and no-one was standing in the way of Marc Marquez on this day in Germany. Sything through the field he was already catching Bradl, the early leader, by seconds a lap. The German just couldn’t handle his LCR Honda with the unbalanced settings and had a monster moment at The Waterfall on lap three. The warning was clear and already it was clear his time at the front was running out.
Bradley Smith was also running out of time. The Tech3 rider had his fifth crash of the weekend and with contract pressure growing it was clear that he was feeling the heat. Smith would later look back on this weekend as “the toughest of my career but I knew that if I could get through that, I could get through anything.” His team would eventually back him with a new contract and he rewarded them with a superbly consistent 2015 season.
By the start of lap four there were spits of rain again and a fear that riders might have to pit for a second time. Luckily it was only spits, so nothing to worry the riders about. Pedrosa, a past master of the ‘ring was now closing, closing, closing on Marquez at the front with both starting to apply the pressure to Bradl.
Pedrosa was the fastest man on the track but once the leaders caught Bradl, it was Marquez the merciless who punished the leader into the heavy braking zone of the final corner. Bradl, with his soft springs never had a chance but on the exit he cut across Pedrosa and the second Repsol Honda rider lost time and couldn’t make his move until Turn 5 at the Omega Curve. The gap was now stretching and if there was one thing that had been proven so far in 2014, it was that you can’t give Marquez an inch because he’ll take a mile.
“It was really tricky at the start but the decisions on the grid weren’t easy for anyone,” said Pedrosa after finishing second 1.5s behind his teammate. “Bradl’s choice was probably the right one it worked out ok for us. I was fast constantly every lap, so I am happy with that. On the lap where I passed Bradl, Marc had made his move for the lead and I tried to make the same move also but my decision there wasn’t good and I lost time to Marc. After that we had the same pace for the rest of the race.”
In practice the pace had been the two Honda’s followed by the two Yamaha’s, and both felt that they hadn’t quite been able to show their true colours in qualifying after suffering a lack of rear grip on their final runs. Heading into the race they felt more confident but nothing could be taken for granted. Lorenzo was still being haunted by the ghosts of his Assen crash from twelve months ago, and after a miserable start to the year – the jump start in COTA and arguably the worst weekend of his career to date at Assen two weeks earlier – it was imperative for the Spartan to get back on the rostrum.
He put any doubts to bed by diving past Rossi into Turn 12, the wettest corner on the track, and from that point he quickly dispatched Bradl and moved into the third position that he would hold to the flag.
“When I saw the rain coming just after the Moto2 race I was a little bit disappointed, because I wanted a dry race,” said Lorenzo afterwards. “I felt strong enough to be not so far from Marc and maybe fighting with him and Dani. I needed two laps to get my confidence in the tyres but when it dried I tried my best. I rode with a lot of focus and I was concentrating very hard. My pace was sometimes the same as Marc and Dani, sometimes one or two tenths slower. I didn’t have a perfect feeling but to be more or less at the same pace as them and feeling physically strong makes me happy and optimistic for the future.”
For his teammate it would be a lonely race, with Lorenzo stretching away and the battle behind leaving Rossi in no man’s land. But fourth was a solid result for his championship and he would leave Germany seven points behind Pedrosa in the standings.
“The rain was confusing today,” said Rossi. “Like in Assen we were unlucky with the weather. It rained just after the beginning of the race, but later the track started to dry. I was in a quite good position, but I didn’t have enough pace to fight for the podium. I knew that it would be very difficult to beat our rivals here. I hoped to stay with Jorge but today he was faster than us and I arrived fourth. I’m quite happy about the first half of the season. I already got five podiums and four second places. I’m sad that I was not able to win, but I am quite fast and competitive. We have to continue like this and try to beat Marquez.”
Behind Rossi was his compatriot Andrea Iannone. The Pramac rider, already signed to a factory spec Ducati for 2015, was really rounding into strong form and claimed his career best result as he continued to gain in experience.
“It was really difficult at the on the sighting lap,” said the Italian. “Many of the corners were wet, especially Turn 12 and the downhill braking, but I wanted to change bikes so I started from pitlane, I’m very happy because this is my best result in MotoGP. It was a really difficult race and the strategy was very important. I changed the bike because on the grid I had a wet bike and at the start I pushed really hard. It was very important [to do that] because for the first five laps I followed Jorge and Vale but it wasn’t easy to stay with them. I tried my best on every lap and the result was very important for me and for my team.”
While some riders were making the most of their opportunities, others were seeing their hopes dashed. Laverty, who ran as high as second in the early laps crashed out midrace and afterwards he lamented a missed opportunity but also highlighted the tightrope that the field were having to walk in these conditions.
“It was so easy to lose time when the factory bikes came past,” said the PBM rider. “It took me a long time to get the front tyre working but I was getting faster until I crashed catching the riders in front. I had the pace to finish in the points so it’s really frustrating but I said at the start I was going to push 100%. I was pushing hard and coming into Turn 3 there’s a couple of ripples there, I kind of bounced on them and the front folded. I didn’t do anything differently to what I’d done all weekend there but that’s the nature of the Sachsenring, where you are pushing the front so much that it’s so easy to lose it around here. It’s a frustrating end to a good weekend.”
While Laverty was once again left to rue a missed opportunity of scoring points, at the other end of the field Marquez was once again left walking away with the race victory. His ninth consecutive victory equalled the feat of Giacomo Agostini to win the opening nine rounds of the year, with the Italian’s record of ten now within touching distance. To make Marquez’ feat even more impressive was the fact that he missed pre-season tests with a fractured leg and in Germany, with such tricky conditions in the race, he had also suffered a huge crash on Friday.
“Honestly, this has been a tough weekend,” said the championship leader. “I haven’t felt good all weekend because I had a fever on Wednesday. I had to take antibiotics and after this your body feels a bit tired. Already before the race I felt tired, but on the bike I was able to forget and push 100 percent.
“This first half of the season has been perfect for me though. I have won every race and qualified on the front row at each round. I’m really happy with the job of the team too, they’ve helped me a lot especially in the first races when I arrived without pre-season testing [after breaking his leg in the winter]. They did a great job and now everything is going well. We can enjoy the summer break.”
One month later Marquez would equal Agostini’s ten in a row record, but his winning run would come unstuck at the Czech Grand Prix where his teammate Pedrosa took the win and became the first man in 147 days to beat Marquez to the flag.