Assen always provides spectacle, whatever the classes are racing here, but today, there was perhaps a little too much of a good thing. The World Supersport race saw two horrific-looking crashes, and required two restarts before the race finally got done. The crashes were truly gut-wrenching, the kind of incident that makes you fear another Shoya Tomizawa or Craig Jones, but amazingly, everyone came away relatively unscathed.
The first crash was doubly disconcerting, involving Sam Lowes of the Parkalgar Honda team. It was the same team that Craig Jones was riding for when he died in a crash at Brands Hatch. The Parkalgar team boss Simon Buckmaster has an uncanny ability to spot young talent, Lowes just the latest in a line of promising riders, and seeing Lowes tumbling end-over-end through the gravel after an inexplicable highside was a sickening sight.
But medics responded immediately and effectively, and Lowes was quickly conscious again. The young Englishman suffered a concussion and a broken collarbone, and the whole paddock breathed a collective sigh of relief when World Superbike press officer Julian Thomas passed on the news that Lowes was OK.
Just three laps into the restart, the whole scenario repeated itself before our eyes. Another bizarre highside, this time on the exit of the GT Chicane, saw Alex Lundh and Marko Jerman go down, both men tumbling again, and Jerman being clipped by a following bike. The medical staff once again spent a long time tending to the injured riders, sending another cold shiver through the paddock, but once again, the riders escaped with a concussion, Lundh fracturing his wrist, Jerman suffering cuts to the throat and bruising.
The relative lack of injuries after such horrific crashes is a testament to modern safety equipment and modern circuits. Piloting 160kg motorcycles around at very high speeds remains extremely hazardous, but the layout of the tracks and the many lessons learned over the years in designing protective gear means that the odds of walking away almost unscathed from a crash have risen exponentially.
There was also some racing, and it was pretty good too once we had recovered from the shock. The two World Superbike races produced mirror-image podiums, Johnny Rea and Carlos Checa swapping 1st and 3rd places for each race, with Max Biaggi in 2nd for both. All three did excellent business in the championship: Checa consolidating his lead, Biaggi moving into 2nd, and Rea moving up to 4th from 6th.
Both Rea and Biaggi badly needed the improvement. Biaggi came off a nightmare weekend at Donington last round, where he basically had a mental meltdown. The Alitalia Aprilia rider was fined for slapping Marco Melandri, rode a terrible, mistake-filled race 1, then got black-flagged in race 2 for ignoring a ride through. Biaggi's approach at Assen was calm, focused, methodical, the polar opposite of his Donington weekend. The Italian could not get the tires to work for his Aprilia, but he kept his cool to take what was available.
Rea's season got off to a similarly rocky start, but for entirely different reasons. The Castrol Honda team have been struggling with the bike, a clutch problem reportedly holding the bike back. Team boss Ronald ten Kate was spotted on Saturday in the Southern Loop with a handheld video camera, shooting film of Rea and other riders as they passed. Naturally, that caught the attention of photographers, who turned their cameras on him. "At one point, I thought they were taking more pictures of me than of the bikes!" Ten Kate joked, before explaining what they were trying to achieve with the filming.
The work was really just an extension of the work that team managers and rider coaches have always done, he explained, it is just that cheap technology makes it viable to actually film and record a whole lot of passes, and analyze it more effectively. Where managers were previously forced to rely on their memories and their powers of narrative to recall and describe what they saw to riders, now they could put the video up on the big screen and show exactly what was happening, so the riders could see it for themselves.
The Castrol Honda team had been working on both riding technique and bike setup using the camera, Ten Kate went on to explain. On Friday, he had shot footage around the North Loop, working on Rea's riding style. On Saturday, on the faster, more flowing Southern Loop, they were working on bike setup, "some things with the traction control system," was Ten Kate's cagey response to my trying to push for more details. It definitely seemed to work for Rea, as his double podium attests.
(On an unrelated note, I also asked about Ten Kate's Moto2 project, and Ronald confirmed the existence of the machine, but emphasized that they were not interested in moving into the world championship. The bike was being built for a customer in the Italian championship, Ten Kate explained, but Rea and probably Xaus would be testing the bike to help with the development. "Our home is here," Ten Kate said, "We've signed a three-year deal with Honda to represent them in World Superbikes, and we have no intention of leaving." Going to the Moto2 paddock would be require a massive investment, which the team were simply not willing to make at the moment. "If you're going to do something, you have to do it right, and we can't do that in Moto2," Ten Kate said).
But the big winner from this weekend was Carlos Checa, the Spaniard looking ominous all year. Four wins and two 3rds from six races is an impressive tally by any standards, but more than just sheer results, what impresses me most is Checa's bearing. Checa is already acting like champion, exuding a cool, calm attitude, with the confidence befitting a champion. That confidence gives the Althea Ducati rider the clinical detachment to make the right decision in each situation and gain maximum advantage from it.
The prime example at Assen was Checa's approach to his tires. The team believed the harder option would be the race tire, but warmer temperatures on Sunday made it wear much worse than expected. Checa did not panic, but secured third, then switched to the softer option for race 2 with no guarantee that that would work better. He then also kept his cool after a false neutral saw him lose the lead with two laps of the race left. Instead of worrying, he used the opportunity to size up Biaggi's tire wear, and risk a very tough pass on Biaggi going into the final chicane with one lap to go. "It was not easy at all," Checa explained, "but I knew he was struggling more than me with his tires."
But after victory in the second race, what Checa wanted to talk about most of all was the next round at Monza. Checa admitted the team were deeply worried by their lack of top speed, and the speed of the Aprilia. "A top 7 at Monza will be like a win," Checa said, backing down a little when pressed to make it a top 5. His best hope was to defend from the front of the second group, and hope to hold off enough riders to score points. "The championship is long," Checa added, "and we are looking race by race." That is what every rider with championship aspirations says.
The World Supersport race - once it finally ran to completion, that is - saw an equally convincing winner. Chaz Davies has been on the verge of a win for a very long time, but this was the first time he actually crossed the line in first place since 2001, he said. His victory in the Daytona 200 had been after Josh Hayes had been disqualified over an illegal crankshaft, and he said he felt he had been denied wins in both the AMA and World Supersport by events beyond his control - bike failures, being wiped out by other riders. Not today. On Sunday in Assen, Davies looked in control for all three of the race starts, running either at the front or very close to the front when the crashes had happened, and maintaining his rhythm and his composure for each of the restarts. That had been harder for the first restart than for the second, but everything had come together in that final race.
The bike is identical to the machines used by Cal Crutchlow to win the 2009 World Supersport title. The only difference was the suspension, both Davies and ParkinGO Yamaha teammate Luca Scassa having switched to Bitubo at the start of the year. That gave them more input into development, and was paying off in terms of support.
The crashes of Lowes and Scassa (who launched into the back of Florian Marino's bike, taking both riders down) had evened the points right up, Davies pointed out, leaving the title race completely open. "It's like a new championship," Davies said.
The World Superbike paddock now returns home to their respective bases, to await the next round of the series at one of the most magical racetracks on the face of the planet. Monza sits on the edge of a royal park in the heart of a suburb, and every breath you take their tastes of racing history. The chances of Italian victory there are strong: A Ducati victory is unlikely, but an Italian rider, probably one on an Italian bike, is a very safe bet indeed.