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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Yu vant krout mit zat, ya?

eni Motorrad Grand Prix Deutschland

link to some pictures (more to come soon) 

Our German GP adventure began, as these things often do, at an airport. This time it was the Berlin airport. We landed, grabbed our gear from the Soviet era baggage claim, and headed for the rental car office. In France we had a Renault, in Italy we had a Fiat, and in England we had a, uh, well, it wasn’t English made, but it did have the steering wheel on the wrong side. So here in Germany we were looking forward to picking up a Mercedes, Audi, BMW, or even a Volkswagen. The fine German engineered piece of automotivation waiting for us in the parking garage was (drum roll please) an Opel!  A yellow one. That’s like going to a steakhouse and ordering soup. Uh, I think someone made a mistake. This is Germany. You guys sell E-class Mercedes in vending machines. You hand out VW’s to beggars on the street.  What the heck are we supposed to do with a yellow Opel?
To be fair the Opel is a decent economy car, but we had visions of zipping along the Autobahn comfortably, at the speed of sound, while having our buttocks massaged by luxurious leather awesomeness.  
That was not to be. 

On the non-speed limited sections of Autobahn the Opel could barely manage a tad over 160kph before, well, before it just wouldn’t go any faster. And that was downhill. With a tailwind. Anything over 140kph produced a sound from the engine similar to the one in my guts after eating my first bratwurst mit sauerkraut.  In other words, something was going to happen and it probably wasn’t going to be good. But, unlike my undies, the car was rented so it was full speed ahead and don’t spare the horses.

Driving on roads where the speed limit signs are blank reveals why the Germans build cars that are generally fast, stable, and over-engineered to a neurotically anal standard. It became even more obvious as our rented paint-shaker-on-wheels reached its terminal velocity. The engine was howling, the whole car was shaking, the pedal was mashed into the floorboards, and we were hooting and hollering thinking that we were really boogying Autobahn style as a black, (German made auto) caught us, passed us, and disappeared into the distance so effortlessly the driver was holding a schnitzel in one hand and a copy of “Hasselhoff Quarterly” in the other. I bet his butt was even being massaged by leather luxuriousness.

Stupid Opel.

German people drive very, very fast. Sure, the Italians drive fast too, but with the Italians they’re doing it not only in defiance of the speed limits, they’re doing it because of the speed limits. They just like to break the rules. If Italy abolished speed limits and told the Italian people to drive as fast as they could, the Italians would respond by removing the engines from their cars and attaching very old donkeys.
Germans on the other hand, like rules. Even though there are no speed limits on some sections of the Autobahn, there are rules. Honestly, they’re the same rules as everywhere else, but in Germany, they actually follow them. So German people drive on the right and only pass on the left. They use turn signals. They do not speed up when someone is overtaking, in fact they will get out of a faster car's way. They may be driving fast, but they are doing it in an orderly fashion. Very controlled. There is no chaos. This is Germany and disorder is verbotten.

After a couple hours we got off the main Autobahn and onto secondary streets. We drove through pastoral scenes of bucolic bliss, gentle rolling hills full of crops, small villages dating back hundreds of years, and thick woods. If it sounds pretty you should see what it looks like because it, um, is. 

As the sun was just starting to set over a nearby hillside and the clouds were lit in blues, pinks, and purples it was so peaceful, so beautiful, so quiet and solitary that I looked over at Mixo and quietly said, “where in the heck are we and how much further to the hotel?”

Thanks to her navigation and the GPS we were on the right road and did finally find our hotel in a tiny, ex-silver-mining village just past the intersection of nothing and nowhere. It’s a pretty cool little joint and unique compared to a typical hotel. The main house dated back to, um, a really long damn time ago and was originally a private residence. Now it’s a hotel and restaurant, but is still owned by the same family.
The main house has a restaurant, two bars, a huge dining room, and a massive foyer furnished in dark wood, big chairs, and dead animals. There are also rooms for rent obviously, but we had reserved one of the “cabins” elsewhere on the property. 
By “cabin” I mean a smallish, self-standing structure, made of wood. You know, the type of place most often seen in horror films accompanied by at least one audience member yelling, “don’t go in there!” Fortunately for us, Mixo and I don’t believe in hockey mask wearing psychos with machetes. That's just stupid Hollywood nonsense. 
Werewolves on the other hand are totally real and this cabin is probably in the werewolf "Top ten best buffet spots in Germany" guidebook. Luckily, a beautiful and completely full moon was just cresting a nearby hillside.
Early the next morning we were delighted to wake up and find that neither of us had been eaten. So we had a nice German breakfast of eggs, fresh fruit, and some kind of sausage-y meat thing and headed for the track. We followed the GPS over rivers and through the woods and arrived at Sachsenring in less than a half hour, completely by back roads and without any traffic. 

Track attendance on Fridays is usually fairly light given that it's only a practice day. But when we parked the car and went in we found the track already had a sizeable crowd. And we were early. Ok, it wasn’t fat-guy-in-small-lederhosen crowded, but it was an impressive number of people for a Friday.
Also impressive was the shear number of vendors. Sure, the typical tents were there, hawking MotoGP swag, but there were also dozens of independent stands selling food and drinks. There was so much food available it was like gluttony porn. And by “food and drinks” what I mean is meat and beer. Never before have I sausage a thing (ba-dum, thank you. Tip your waiters).

Everywhere we went, throughout the massive spectator area the sweet, smokey smell of grilling meat mingled delicately with the wafting scent of beery beer goodness. Everywhere we looked people were holding little tufts of bread with a wiener sticking out both sides. There were more wieners of different sizes, colors, and shapes all over the place it was like a Mohel's worst nightmare. And beer. lots and lot's of beer. There was a beer tent shoved into every nook and cranny. I mean, I know it sounds like a stereotype; the typical German caricature of a guy wearing lederhosen, eating sausages, and drinking beer by the barrel. Well, its actually not true and really to be fair we only saw one guy wearing lederhosen.

Normally, I don't eat unspecified meat products being prepared outside by people with unknown hygiene standards, but, this time, well, it smelled really, really good. Before I knew it there was a knockwurst-brat-thing in one hand and a hotdog with sauerkraut in the other.  This was a problem, a big problem because not only was I not that hungry, I also had no more hands to hold my beer.

I never ate sauerkraut before because, well, because it’s nasty. This stuff looked and smelled awful, but the taste was sweet and delicious. Unfortunately, about ten minutes later there was, um, well, let’s just say there was a foul wind blowing out of the south. And the windy conditions were forecast to last all day. Possibly late into the evening. 

We wandered into the paddock area and while we were standing around I looked over and saw CardionAB Ducati’s Karel Abraham. He was just sitting there so I went over and to say hi. These moto-celebrity types are usually pretty skittish so when he didn’t immediately zip away in a cloud of scooter exhaust I asked him about the dust up last week during testing at Mugello with Honda rider Casey Stoner.  I may have worded the question along the lines of “don’t take any (crap) from that (guy)”. He laughed and seemed sincerely sorry that the whole thing had happened. I told him that there were plenty of people in the US who are on his side and rooting for him. 
He smiled and said, “that’s really good to hear. Thanks”. The dude is just a genuinely nice guy and anyone going to Laguna or Indy should cheer like mad for him.

After the final wheel had been turned for the day we headed to the aus fahrt, but most of the rest of the fans were still hanging out at the beer tents, sausages in hand. They didn’t seem to realize or care that the on track action was over for the day. For them it was just an all day, all night beer and wiener bonanza. I don’t think the track even closes. How cool is that? Fans get to hang out as long as they want with plenty of food and drink available. It's almost as if the organizers want people to have a good time at the event. 

For those camping out there is a massive campground conveniently located a short stumble from the track's main entrance. Though it is up a hill. A pretty steep hill, actually. But thankfully the path has lots of strategically located rest areas (pronounced beer tents) along the way, should a person find it necessary to take a breather and rehydrate.

Speaking of which, we needed bottles of water for the next day so we stopped at a grocery store on our way back to the hotel. The doorway was obscured by a group of largish German biker types who apparently had never even made it to the track. They were drunkenly singing, laughing, and generally having a good time. This type of behavior from Germans makes Jewish people nervous, but we walked in anyway.

As we went into the store one of the large, drunk, happy German guys said, um, well I don’t know what he said because I don’t speak German. Mixo on the other hand, does speak Swedish, which is very close to German, and she took German for three years in school. She also had no idea what he said, but it sounded friendly.

We picked up three gigantic bottles of water, some fresh fruit, two six packs of German beer, and a bunch of other stuff I don't remember. At the register our bill was just over ten Euros. We looked at each other then at the cashier and asked if she had scanned everything. She assured us that she had. Wow, Germany is cheap. In Finland that same list of items would have required filling out forms, getting a loan, and possibly a body part or two. What else can we buy?

Back at the hotel we settled in to the over-sized dining room chairs and ordered up some dinner. The menu was made up entirely of, not surprisingly, German food. I had a schnitzel (which does not mean I had to change my pants). Not only was it fun to order, but it was also delicious. And consumed with beer it had the beneficial side effect of warding off the werewolves for another night. It was almost as if our cabin had been enveloped in a protective cloud of some sort. Because we once again had not been eaten. We headed for the track, after some breakfast. 

One of the really nice things about the Sachsenring circuit is the layout. There are huge elevation changes including a long steep drop on the back section and an uphill front straight that requires riders to get the last turn just right or they’ll be left for dead going up the hill to the finish line. Turn one is a slow, downhill, right that caught a lot of guys out on Friday. After that the track reaches a low spot called the “Omega” because it looks like, you guessed it, a horseshoe.
Then it’s uphill to what is possibly the longest turn on any track anywhere. It’s actually numbered as turns five and six, but guys go through there in one fluid motion. The bikes are on the side of the tire for an impossibly long time and the lean angles on the slight banking here seem to defy several laws of physics. At the exit the track flattens out and most guys get the rear wheel sliding as they pour on the gas for a good drive down another hill. This whole section offers fans great viewing from either grandstand seats or grassy hills, but they do fill up pretty quickly.
Next comes a very high speed left, cleverly named “7” and another left “8” before heading back uphill to yet another pair of left turns. Finally they get to turn right just as the track drops down a three-story hill. There are no viewing sections here and that’s a real shame because it is a pretty cool place to watch the action. There are three grandstands at the bottom of the hill, however, where fans who don’t mind a lot of walking can go to watch the riders climb the hill to the last corner.  
No matter where a race fan wants to spend their time at Sachsenring it’s a good bet that they’ll have a decent view of an exciting part of the track. And be in close proximity to a beer tent. And knockwurst. And schnitzel. And, you get the point. 
Fortunately, toilets are also generously scattered throughout the facility and are pretty easy to find with large white flags that read, cleverly, “toiletten”.
As for the German race fans, they were generally a pretty loud, drunk, and extremely friendly group of people. It’s actually hard to accurately describe this crowd without resorting to stereotypes that may seem unflattering.

So I’m not going to try.

Let’s just say the Shultz was strong at Sachsenring. It was like hanging out with several thousand Lennys (Of Mice and Men). However, this was also one of the most friendly, good natured, and brown socks with sandals wearing crowds we’ve come across yet in our adventures. They're also goofy wackos. I mean, what possesses a grown man to build a hobbyhorse contraption, drag it to the racetrack, and sit on it reading “Der Spiegel” while dressed as a Viking and drinking beer with his friends? Who are also all dressed as Vikings. Except for one guy. Who was dressed as a monk.

Then there was the caveman with football helmet hanging out with “poor-choice-of-headgear-guy”. The two men dressed as doctors carrying around a, well it was a, we’re not really sure what it was, but they were either rooting for Valentino Rossi. Or not.

So Germans are a little quirky, big deal,  they are also die hard race fans. At other tracks the crowd thins immediately following the last MotoGP event of the day, which means most people miss out on things like the Redbull Rookies Cup races. In Germany when the last MotoGP bike had been safely put in the garage most of the crowd were still in their seats. 
The Redbull kids got to do their thing in front of packed stands and cheering fans. And they put on a great show. An Italian kid, Valtulini, won and Germany’s own Alt took second, much to the delight of the fans. Another Italian, Argino, was third and Finland’s Joakim Niemi put in an outstanding performance to finish in ninth.

There was still a ton of people watching when the ADAC Junior Cup riders had their fifteen laps of fame. By 6:15 in the evening when the WC Sidecars went out for their 2nd qualifying practice there were still spectators all the way around the circuit, the vendors were still vending their meat and beer goodness, and nobody seemed anxious to be anywhere else. This is what they had come for, this is what we had come for, this is why people get off the couch and go to the track. To enjoy a three day orgy of food, beer, fuel-injected mayhem, and the company of several hundred-thousand like-minded motor heads. Then again, some of them may have just needed an excuse to wear funny hats.
Meanwhile, the hillside camping area looked as though it was approaching critical mass. There were events planned for Friday and Saturday that included live bands, dance parties, and at least one Fahrerpräsentation, whatever the hell that is. Sadly, a personal appearance by the "Hoff" was not on the schedule. But that was just the program of official planned events. From the looks of some of the noise making contraptions on display, some people had their own agenda of fun. We were just hoping they wouldn't go all German and invade the cornfield next door for more space.

Later that night, in our cabin, we could hear explosions. They were no doubt coming from the track. Yes, I’m sure that’s what those noises were. Revelry from the campground, of course. The low booming sounds certainly had nothing to do with me making another dubious choice at dinner that evening. Nothing I tell you.

Sunday morning, race day, dawned and once again, werewolves had not eaten us so we headed out.
On the drive we found out a few interesting things; one, that German police are useless at directing traffic and two, if we thought Saturday was crowded we hadn’t seen anything yet.

Our previously clear back road route was now clogged with traffic as we approached the track. Par for the course, really. We’ve been stuck in traffic at every track so far. It’s to be expected on race day, but ordinarily the police sit at intersections and direct the traffic so things flow smoothly. We figured that the police here would display typical German efficiency and organization. 
The cause of the backup turned out to be a simple intersection. Usually, not a big deal, and especially odd since there were two uniformed officers directing traffic, well not exactly directing traffic so much as standing on the sidewalk and watching traffic. Oh well, they were probably just waiting for orders from a higher up. Either way, we missed the 125 warm up.

By the time we did finally park and get into the track we found it had been overrun by the Germans. The place was packed. Stuffed like the world’s biggest bratwurst.  It was crowded and smelled funny, just like my lower intestines.
All the other GP’s we’ve been to have had huge crowds as well, but unlike the Spanish, Italians, English, or even the French, the Germans do not have a single countryman to cheer for in MotoGP. Not one.

They do have Stefan Bradl who is leading the championship on the Viessmann Kiefer Racing Moto2 bike and is the first Moto2 rider featured on the official program’s cover, but the premier class remains as German free as non-alcoholic beer night at a comedy club. Or J-Date.  
Yet, there is not an empty seat in Sachsenring.
I bring this up because there are exactly three Americans currently earning a living in MotoGP. Three. And the US MotoGP round at Laguna Seca is next week. The Indianapolis round featuring all the classes including Redbull Rookies is August 28th. Get off the couch and go to the track. It’s fun.  Or have you not been paying attention?

Every motorcycle race fan needs to go to a GP this season because of the 125s and because of history. And because after this season the 125s will be history. This is the very last season of two stoke grand prix motorcycle racing. Ever.
The 125 race at Sachsenring was, like so many this season, great racing and a ton of fun to watch. At a track like this one, with so many elevation changes, it’s critical on a 125 to get every corner exactly right because the bikes don’t have enough horsepower to make up for rider mistakes.  The Moto3 bikes will certainly be cool, and the racing great, but I will miss the sight, sound and especially the smell of real two-stroke race machines. See them while you can.

Mixo and I were extra excited for the Moto2 race because the Finn, Mika Kallio, had qualified on the third row. For the first time this season he had a bike that was working and a good grid position so an excellent result was almost certain. Almost.

We found a spot with a view of the starting grid and put up our Finnish flag. The bikes went out for the sighting lap, came around, and lined up in their starting positions. We could see Mika’s team on the grid. But no Mika. The clock was ticking down to the warm up lap and still no Mika. Oh come on! This cannot be happening. He’s on the third row for crying out loud.  
Through our telephoto lens we could see Mika on the other side of the pit wall and the mechanics frantically working on his bike. The clock was ticking away and the bike was in pieces. Mixo and I were beside ourselves. The flag went green for the warm up lap and the rest of the 40 some-odd bikes, that all managed to make the grid, sped off.

It was a deflating moment to say the least.

Then a glimmer of hope as Mika was back on his bike and heading down pit out. It looked as though he would make the start after all. Mixo and I breathed a sigh of relief, but it was short lived. When the red lights went off to start the race and the field launched towards the first turn, Mika Kallio was not there.
His team had failed to fix the problem.

One of the best and worst things in motorsports is that it is a team effort. If the team is motivated, dedicated and good at what they do then there is no limit to what a rider can achieve. That’s why most successful racers keep the same crew for many years even when switching manufacturers. Even when switching racing series.
By the same token, if a crew is unorganized and incompetent there is very little a rider can do on his own to overcome the team’s weakness.

I'm sure that professional Moto2 mechanics are some of the best, but if a bike works one day then a change is made and the bike does not work anymore, the smart thing to do is change it back. That's not rocket surgery. Yet, when Mika came in from morning warm up and told his Marc VDS mechanics that the bike wasn’t working anymore did they undo the changes made after qualifying? 
No, they did not. 
What they did do was change a bunch more stuff and turn a bike able to qualify on the third row into a bike that could not finish a single lap.  Bravo, Marc VDS mechanics, bravo. For your next trick why don't you stab yourselves in the eye with a flamethrower.

We ran into Mika later and he looked like a kid whose ice cream had just fallen on the ground. He told us what had happened, but not once did he lay even a hint of blame anyone. Our blood was boiling, but Kallio simply said, “that’s racing”. He’s a class act and deserves to be on a class team.

In the race, Bradl fought an extremely hard battle with Marc Marquez, but at the checkered flag it was the young Spaniard on top and Bradl second. On the cool down lap every German in the place was on their feet and enthusiastically cheering Bradl’s effort.

The MotoGP race was one of the best and most interesting races so far this season. Which, I admit, isn't saying much, but it was like watching three different races in one and none of the winners were determined until the checkered flag. In the end Spaniard Dani Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda took top honors while Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo edged out the fading Honda of Casey Stoner for second. The top finishing American was Ben Spies who steadily reeled in the, newly conservative and thus boring, Marco Simoncelli the whole race and finally overtook him in the last corner on the last lap to take over fifth position. Someone must have given Marco a serious talking to because he used to ride the bike like an unhinged lunatic with a death wish (pronounced Italian). He rode the bike like he was having angry make-up sex with it. You never knew if he was going to make a clean pass on another rider, crash his brains out trying, or put everyone in the hospital. No matter what happened he often showed flashes of the kind of brilliant riding only a few have ever displayed. 
And it was awesome.
Now he's just kind of seems to be riding around trying not to hurt anyone's feelings. I don't think the crazy monster will stay in its cage for long, though. at least I hope not.

Further back in the field, it was another disappointing weekend for Ducati, but the Rossi faithful where unbothered by yet another thumping of their messiah. One of them even hopped the fence on the cool down lap to give Rossi an Italian flag to carry around, an honor usually reserved for the winner of the race. The ninth place, nine-time World Champion, declined the offer with a confused shrug.

A few people left after the MotoGP race no doubt trying to beat the traffic, but there were still plenty of people on hand for the second Redbull Rookies Cup race. They even stuck around for the sidecars. As did the vendors. Heck, there were probably a few Henriks and Helgas just hanging out, eating and drinking all weekend, and had no idea a motorcycle event was even going on. They just came for the beer and stayed for the schnitzel, but at least they bought a ticket and showed up. They were also treated to some great motorcycle racing in the process.

We didn’t really know what to expect from Germany or the German fans, but they are some of the friendliest and most enthusiastic motorcycle race fans in Europe. Of all the races in all the countries that we’ve been to so far The Motorrad Grand Prix Deutschland is probably on the very top of the list for places to visit again one day.  

Yep, like that last sauerkraut-topped bratwurst I ate as we headed towards the aus farht, the German GP will be with me for a while.

Thanks for reading. Our next (and last) race will be the Czech GP. Can't wait. 

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