Despite impressive technical performance leveling by Dorna with 18 riders in the first second in FP2 and Sunday warm-up, and despite professions from several riders that "the Ducatis are now fast everywhere," Marc Márquez somehow had grip when no one else did. That enabled him to escape Valentino Rossi, who had closed to within 6/10 of a second by making lap 22 his fastest of the race.

How did Rossi achieve this impressive finish despite having been as low as 17th in practice? As so often, he and his crew “found something”—a change in “balance.” And what is that? It is spring balance. The relationship between front and rear spring stiffness determines the bike’s attitude in corners. For example, going softer at the front causes the bike to nose-down as turning force compresses the suspension.

Rossi also closely studied Jonas Folger’s ride here last year for clues to how he was able to challenge Márquez throughout the race.

Jorge Lorenzo
Jorge Lorenzo jumped ahead in the early stages, but tire drop shuffled him back to sixth.Courtesy of Ducati

As has become the pattern this season, Jorge Lorenzo led by the end of lap one. He would hold this lead for 12 laps, ending with tire drop.

“I started and was able to push but I said, ‘Okay, be calm.’ I caught (up to) Lorenzo and overtook him,” Márquez said. “I opened a small gap but then I saw Valentino was coming very, very fast. So then, when he was just eight-, seven-, six-tenths (behind me) I said, ‘Okay, now it’s time to push.’ I gave everything. I used the tire (a soft rear) and it was my fastest lap of the race and I opened a good gap (3.447 seconds on lap 28).”

Márquez’s game has always been to combine masterful tire management with high pace. In his first year in MotoGP it was clearly the established stars learning tire management from him, and not the other way around.

Marc Márquez
Tire management at Sachsenring is key and Marc Márquez has mastered the balance between a high pace and tire heat.Courtesy of Repsol Honda

At Sachsenring, Andrea Dovizioso and Lorenzo noticed early in the weekend that Márquez had pace in hand because when he could have gone even faster by switching to softer tires he did not.

Márquez continued, “Everybody expected a big drop in the warm-up (but) yesterday we improved the setup a lot and the drop was there but it was consistent… Honestly speaking, at the end of the race I had something more. I didn’t feel the drop in this race.”

As tire engineers have explained “tire drop” to me, it is a change in rubber properties brought about by the effects of strain, the many applied stress cycles—in a 75-mile MotoGP a tire makes roughly 63,000 revolutions. In a new tire, reinforcing carbon black is distributed through the polymer as clusters of particles, but over time the clusters become dispersed, altering the way they interact with rubber chains in the tread.

After qualifying both Márquez and Dovizioso commented that this event would be two races. The first 10 to 15 laps would be very close because with good weather all weekend, everyone had achieved a strong setup solution. Then in the second half of the race, tire management would rule.

Rossi saw this as a rear tire problem. “Unfortunately, the problem is always the same. In acceleration, when we open the throttle we spin too much and we are not able to put enough power on the ground, so we lose in acceleration. At the same time also we use the rear tire too much so it becomes difficult to ride the bike.”

Valentino Rossi
Despite Valentino Rossi’s complaints of tire spin, he finished second at the Grand Prix and Germany.Movistar Yamaha

Yamaha riders Rossi and Maverick Viñales hope electronic updates slated for Brno will improve their fortunes in the season’s second half.

Cal Crutchlow found his issue at the front, losing grip in turn 12 and crashing. “When we crash with the front of the Honda we don’t seem to understand why, because three laps before, I went in deeper than that and faster than that and had no problem.

“I gave my all and it didn’t work out. The front tire (hard) was too hot, too much pressure, same story when we (ride) in a group. We try all the tricks of the trade—to pull out of the slipstream, to not sit behind the other guys, and (to) try to turn later or tighter to avoid the heat.”

What is the “wind chill factor” for a front tire in a 150-mph wind?

Márquez had described this very thing a couple of years ago, saying that he can feel a tire “getting bouncy,” indicating that it has become too hot, and requiring if possible a lap or two at reduced intensity to cool off. Crutchlow noted that Márquez often pauses behind a rider he intends to pass—perhaps waiting for his tires to “unbounce.”

Crutchlow has repeatedly characterized the Honda as strongly understeering. One remedy is to push the front harder. The other is to instead slide the rear: Márquez said, “…one of my strong points is the way we slide with the rear (in) turning the bike.”

Maverick Viñales
Maverick Viñales moved up at the end of the race to third place after slow start.Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

Maverick Viñales, who finished third, lost positions early in the race but was able to compensate with a strong second half. Pundits observed that had he got away with the lead group his pace might have made Márquez’s race much more difficult. He said, “Trying to overtake, I was going wide everywhere. I was going outside, inside, everything I tried. But as their tires started to drop I started to overtake everyone…”

Dovizioso noted Ducati’s new strength here, saying, “The reality is we are much faster than last year…but with the same DNA. In the fast corners we can’t accelerate and we can’t make the same speed as Honda and Yamaha, like always.”

Andrea Dovizioso
Andrea Dovizioso also had trouble getting off the corners, putting him down on speed to his Honda and Yamaha rivals.Courtesy of Ducati

In other words, the Ducatis still lack turning ability (despite Crutchlow’s observation to the contrary!). There were the two Ducati men, sixth and seventh at the end—positions in which Ducatis finished so many times during their “time in the wilderness.” There was a “Ducati bloc” occupying fourth through seventh, with Danilo Petrucci fourth and Álvaro Bautista an encouraging fifth.

The Suzukis were out of contention on lap one in a collision initiated by Pol Espargaró’s KTM.

Why are people saying that now both the Ducatis and Hondas are strong everywhere? I am wondering, since riders describe this year’s Michelins as “strange,” if part of the trend of improvement is the tires themselves. Crutchlow observed at Austin that the Michelins are beginning to excel in steady turning rather than in point-and-shoot. Turning is a weak area for both Honda and Ducati. Has Michelin now found a direction, having got through its catch-up period? The Yamahas, strong in corner speed but at disadvantage at Sachsenring, finished strongly—second and third.

In three weeks comes our next chance either to add to our understanding or puzzle ourselves with fresh questions. Brno runs August 3–5.