Saturday's MotoGP race was either a real snoozer or a fantastic spectacle, depending on your point of view. For the racing purist, the kind of fan who appreciates seeing masterful riding, watching someone push the bike to the limit constantly and precisely for full race distance, there was plenty to marvel at. For the casual fan, someone who wants to watch several riders giving it their all in a close battle right to the end, it was dull as ditch water, the first-lap crash giving ultimate winner Ben Spies a gap that he could exploit, and one more pass for the podium positions on lap two settling the race.
If you're a Ben Spies fan - and there are plenty of them, including quite a few recent converts after the Texan proved himself first in World Superbikes, then in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team - then Assen was a race to treasure, Spies seizing the bull by the horns and dominating the race from the off. Spies had a strategy for those first few corners - push as hard as possible through the right-hander Haarbocht, Madijk, and Ossebroeken corners so that he would be safe from attack at the first left hander of the track, the horribly tight Strubben hairpin - which worked perfectly and turned out to be highly prescient. Once Spies had a lead he pushed to build up a cushion, then watched the gap to the chasing Casey Stoner, responding as and when necessary.
This was Spies' first win, and the first win on a dry track by a rider other than Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa or Jorge Lorenzo since the 800cc era began back in 2007. Spies may have had a little help from the first-lap crash, and the track conditions were not quite 100% dry and normal, but the mastery which went into the Texan's victory said a lot about his ability. At a historic track, on a special occasion for his employer - Spies' factory Yamaha was decked out in a stunning red-and-white livery to celebrate the Japanese manufacturer's 50 years in racing, and there were both legendary figures from Yamaha's past such as Phil Read and Giacomo Agostini looking on, as well as a number of bigwigs from Yamaha's European headquarters in Amsterdam - Spies got the job done with ruthless efficiency, oblivious to the pressure. The Hondas may have the edge over the Yamahas, but in the right hands, the Yamaha isn't that far off. Ben Spies clearly possesses a pair of those hands.
There was plenty of interest further back as well. Almost as impressive as Spies' ride to victory was Jorge Lorenzo's unrivaled charge through the pack after being taken out in the Strubben hairpin by Marco Simoncelli - there's that name again, more of which later. Take away the lap time from his first-lap crash, and Lorenzo's race time is just 12.5 seconds slower than his teammate's, 7.5 seconds slower than Stoner's, over 12 seconds faster than 3rd-place man Andrea Dovizioso, and 14 seconds quicker than Valentino Rossi's on the new-and-improved Ducati GP11.1. After being knocked off his bike, Lorenzo had the presence of mind to remount and run at a pace worthy of a podium, while passing 6 other riders on his way forward. It was a very cool performance under a lot of pressure.
And so we come to Marco Simoncelli, the man once again in the eye of a storm of comment, conjecture and opinion. Simoncelli's eagerness got the better of him once again, and he seized an opportunity that was almost within reach, but not quite. The incident itself was almost trivial: Simoncelli dived cleanly and fairly inside the gap left by Lorenzo, and just as he started to open the gas to press home his advantage, the rear came round, slamming his bike into Jorge Lorenzo's and taking both men into the gravel. Everyone asked about the incident - including the victim of Simoncelli's mistake, Jorge Lorenzo - labeled it as a racing incident, the kind of thing that happens when you have motorcycles competing with each other at speed. But they also pointed out that these incidents always seem to involve Simoncelli in one way or another.
Simoncelli's record in his second year of MotoGP is astounding: a 4th, a 5th, three 2nds and two 1sts in the seven races we have had so far this season. But those figures pinpoint exactly what Simoncelli's problem is, for those results are his positions during qualifying, not during the race. On race day, Simoncelli has had two first-lap crashes, has crashed out from both the lead and a podium position, been given a ride-through after his collision with Dani Pedrosa, and had a couple of decent if not remarkable finishes, coming home 5th and 6th. Despite having had two poles this season, the Italian stands 10th in the championship, just ahead of the mostly anonymous Hector Barbera. If he hadn't been able to rejoin the race at Assen, he would be down in 14th place, with only the Suzuki and the Pramac Ducatis behind him.
Simoncelli's unadulterated raw pace is beyond question. The Italian has consistently looked the most comfortable rider on the factory (albeit painted in San Carlo Gresini colors) Honda RC212V, with only Casey Stoner capable of going faster than him on a regular basis. During qualifying, he is the second fastest man of the season, bested only by the Australian on the Repsol machine. Come race day, Simoncelli's mind seems to falter, and his season has been a paean to poor judgment.
Saturday's race at Assen was the perfect example: Simoncelli dominated all weekend in whatever conditions the Dutch weather could throw at the MotoGP class. The paddock had spent all weekend talking about how tricky it was to get the tires up to temperature in the cold weather, and that this was a major problem for the left-hand side of the tire, requiring caution in the left handers in the first few laps of the race. As if to underline this point, all three Repsol Hondas had crashed in left handers on Saturday morning's session of free practice, with cold conditions given the blame.
Yet in the first left hander of the race, Simoncelli made a pass that pushed the left-hand side of the tire beyond its limits and crashed, taking Jorge Lorenzo with him in his fall. As if to underline just what he had thrown away, Simoncelli then remounted and rejoined the race, completing the remaining laps in the fourth fastest time of the race, just 24.5 seconds slower than Spies, and 12 seconds off the pace of Lorenzo, all done on a Honda bearing significant damage. If he had held back for a few more corners, or saved his pass for a right hander rather than a left hander, Simoncelli would have had a legitimate shot at scoring his first ever MotoGP podium.
Unsurprisingly, the reigning World Champion was livid, telling Spanish TV that Simoncelli should be banned for several races to teach him a lesson. An hour or so later, once Lorenzo had calmed down a little, he was less adamant about the ban, but his complaints remained the same. Simoncelli does not learn from his mistakes, Lorenzo said, his crashes don't seem to have any effect on him. "He's riding like he's playing with a Playstation," Lorenzo said, "Maybe he doesn't see the risk, because he hasn't been injured in the past." A normal rider, Lorenzo added, would have been conscious of the fact that they were riding in difficult conditions, there was a problem with the tires, and that they had to take it easy on the first lap. Not Simoncelli: "He just saw an opportunity to overtake me, and just did it."
Simoncelli immediately admitted it was his fault, and expressed his deep regret at what had happened. After the race, he was perfectly clear about what he had done wrong, and that he hated that this had happened again. But perhaps more telling was Simoncelli's face once he returned to the pits again. He looked, in the words of Randy Mamola, "like a kicked puppy," walking into the pits looking utterly crestfallen, all the fight taken out of him. In previous incidents, he'd been upset, but for the first time, he looked truly stricken.
Simoncelli's main problem in the past is that, as Lorenzo said, he has not learned from his mistakes, letting his enthusiasm get the better of him and making the same mistake over and over. As Venancio Nieto Martinez, a Spanish journalist from Motociclismo said to me, "if Simoncelli would think for a fraction longer, he could be the next Kevin Schwantz." Italian journalist Nereo Balanzin of GPOne.com summed up the hopes of the Italians perfectly, saying "if we could add Marco Simoncelli to Andrea Dovizioso and divide them by half, we would have the perfect motorcycle racer. One thinks too much, the other not enough."
This could be the moment when things change for the Italian, the moment when he fully realizes what he has thrown away. If this is that Eureka moment, the point at which everything falls into place, and Simoncelli understands both the consequences of his actions and what he can do to change them, then the rest of the field had better be afraid. When that moment comes, he's going to be a fantastic rider to watch, and a terrifying rider to compete against.
And Italy needs something: Valentino Rossi's adaptation to the Ducati is still slow, though the completely revised GP11.1 (basically a destroked GP12) did finally show some promise on race day. Rossi's problems at the rear have been more or less solved - plenty of traction and virtually no pumping - but the front-end problems have reappeared. The cold temperatures made getting feedback from the tires very difficult, Rossi said, and were clearly a factor in the lack of front-end feel, as the GP12 which Rossi rode at Mugello had not had the same problem. Temperatures at Mugello were completely different, however, both ambient and track temperature a lot hotter. With conditions helping to get heat into the tires, the front end felt more stable, and Rossi and his crew are hoping that the GP11.1 will respond as well under the Tuscan sun as the GP12 did.
More work was needed, Rossi said, and he called for yet more new parts from Ducati. The front end needs to be fixed to get more heat in the tire, and given the conditions MotoGP had faced so far this year (wet and cold as a rule), the sooner that problem is solved the better. The GP11.1 at least allows Rossi to ride more naturally, he said, but the bike remains immensely complicated to set up. The horde of Rossi fans that always turn out at Mugello will expect a miracle, but that's too much to hope for at the moment. But at least Rossi is now in with a chance of being competitive in front of his home fans: the Ducati factory in Bologna may survive next weekend without being torched.