Assen's surface is pretty good when it's dry, and it's not too bad when it's wet, but this is 2012, and there's a MotoGP race this weekend, so of course, the conditions are as bad as they can possibly be. For Assen, that means a few spots of rain here and there, just enough to create patches damp enough to catch out the unwary, or even the wary, as Casey Stoner found out this morning. Heading down the Veenslang Stoner noticed the first spots of rain on his visor. Through the Ruskenhoek, it turned into drizzle, and he had already backed off into De Bult when he was flung from the bike in what he described as one of the worst crashes of his career. He took a knock to the head, banged his left shoulder and left wrist, and suffered a big and very painful contusion to his right knee, that left him hobbling around like an old man in the afternoon.
The problem is the asphalt. The current surface means it is impossible to see when the track is damp, rather than wet, meaning that it is easy to get caught out, Ben Spies said, an explanation later verified by Wilco Zeelenberg, Jorge Lorenzo's team manager. The track is fine when it's dry, and when it's wet, the water sits pretty evenly, making for a predictable surface. But the first few spots of rain are lethal. If that were to happen in the race, it could make for a very dangerous situation, Spies said.
Rain and dry in the morning was followed by rain and dry in the afternoon, leaving the riders stranded in the pits for much of qualifying. A battered and bruised Casey Stoner found himself down in 9th when he decided that this was "not acceptable" and pushed for two awe-inspiring laps to get first onto the front row, and then to take pole, with only his teammate Dani Pedrosa able to get anywhere near. Though he is clearly fast, Stoner's problem - apart from the physical problems, his knee being the worst injury, especially as the injury will get worse as rests it - is that while the soft tire is working very well, the hard tire is still causing them problems. Stoner told the media that he expected to be able to race the soft tire, but the drop off in performance could leave him struggling in the latter stages of the race.
So while Stoner's pole is deeply impressive, the real star of the weekend is Jorge Lorenzo. Once again, the bike is working well, everything is running smoothly and Lorenzo is riding as well as he has ever done. Talk to Andrea Dovizioso about what Lorenzo is doing and he admits to being impressed with the way Lorenzo finds his speed, braking earlier but rolling into corners faster and carrying more speed with less risk. Starting from the front row, Lorenzo is the man to beat on Sunday.
The two Hondas will be with him: Cal Crutchlow - after blasting Hector Barbera for getting in his way and saying that the Spaniard should not be in MotoGP - predicted that the fight will be between Stoner, Pedrosa and Lorenzo, but Lorenzo is surely the favorite of the three. Ben Spies got unlucky with traffic, running into Aleix Espargaro, but his bike was good enough for the front row, he told reporters. Spies could be right there with the front runners if his luck changes, and frankly, it's about due. He needs some strong results, and with contract negotiations likely to get very serious directly after Laguna Seca, he has four races in which to make his mark. Spies believes he has the talent, and since Estoril, has had the bike on his side too, but small mistakes and bad luck have been getting in his way. If that bad luck continues, his place at the factory Yamaha team could be in jeopardy.
While Stoner's lap was impressive, it is pretty much what we have come to expect from the Australian. Stefan Bradl's 4th place, however, is punching pretty far above his weight. The German has performed above expectations so far in his rookie year, but his fast lap at Assen was a sign that there is much more to come from him. Though Bradl set his qualifying lap following Valentino Rossi, he was fully a second quicker than the Italian. Perhaps he was just watching where Rossi braked, and choosing to brake a little bit later, but whatever he was doing it worked, and the German secured his best ever MotoGP qualifying spot.
In Moto2, Marc Marquez put an end to Pol Espargaro's domination of the weekend so far. Marquez posted a scorching lap in his final session to secure pole and topple Espargaro from the top spot, but Marquez also managed to crash a couple of times. Marquez is wringing the utmost out of the Suter, no longer the weapon of choice in Moto2, that having been displaced by the Kalex chassis. Whether Marquez can hold on for a whole race is open to question, but with Marquez, Espargaro and Iannone on the front row, we are in for another barnstorming Moto2 race. Espargaro has the pace and needs the points, and more importantly, he's on a roll. That's good enough for the gambling types.
After qualifying, all eyes turned to the Ducati garage, where Valentino Rossi made some pointed statements to Italian TV about the lack of development in his eyes which is going into the Desmosedici. The Honda has a new chassis to try to combat the chatter they are suffering with, Rossi pointed out. Ducati has a new engine coming - a relatively modest upgrade to smooth power delivery - but beyond that, nothing much. The understeer, which has plagued the bike since the beginning of this year, is still there, and set up changes alone will not fix it. Rossi told the press he had identified the understeer problem to Ducati Corse boss and chief designer Filippo Preziosi after the IRTA test at Jerez, and they had reached the end of the road setup-wise at Estoril. This was all they could do by modifying geometry and weight distribution, and a more radical change was needed. "We need a clear and better plan to fix this," Rossi said, but would not elaborate on what he meant when asked about it. Ducati needs to listen to its riders, Rossi had told Italian journalists earlier.
The honeymoon is very much over between Rossi and Ducati. When asked, Rossi still says that his aim is to stay at Ducati and make the bike competitive, but there are ever fewer people who believe him. MotoGP's silly season is currently on hold, waiting for Valentino Rossi to decide on his future. Nicky Hayden has been told that Ducati is waiting for the Audi deal to be finalized by the EU before they can offer him a contract, and the situation at Yamaha and Honda is similarly on hold. The factory Yamaha team looks like one of two possible destinations for Rossi, the other being inside the satellite Gresini Honda team. Rossi would have to swallow a healthy serving of humble pie to return to the factory Yamaha team - Jorge Lorenzo was already joking about not requiring a wall in the Yamaha garage if Rossi does become his teammate - and even so, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis is believed not to be too thrilled at the prospect of having Rossi back. His saving grace would be his ability to bring a sponsor to a cash-strapped factory, and his public statement of his willingness to take a pay cut almost certainly went down well.
If Rossi goes to the factory Yamaha team - and it's a big if - then Ben Spies will probably be dropped back into Tech 3 with factory support, financed by Yamaha USA. That pushes Cal Crutchlow into the arms of Ducati - I had a long discussion with Cal Crutchlow today, after off-the-cuff comments I had made at the introductory evening held for the Pole Position travel company. Crutchlow emphasized to me that his goal was to have a shot at the world championship, and that to do that, he knew he had to have a factory bike. His first preference was to join the factory Yamaha team, but if Spies' spot were to be taken by Valentino Rossi, then there would be no room for Crutchlow, and so he would take his chances at Ducati. Yes, that would mean a significant pay rise, he acknowledged - my comments were about the size of Crutchlow's offer - but, Crutchlow emphasized, that was just a nice bonus, and had nothing to do with his decision. A championship, he repeated, is what he wanted, and he believed that he needed a factory bike to achieve that. If it had been solely about money, he would have signed a very long time ago.
The next four races - including Saturday's race at Assen - will be crucial, in many respects. If Stoner is banged up too much, then it will be hard for him at Assen and at the Sachsenring, two very physical tracks. Ben Spies needs results to retain his position, and the modified engine which Ducati are testing at Mugello after the race and then taking to Laguna Seca looks like being the last chance that the Italian factory has of retaining Valentino Rossi's services, despite the Italian's protestations that it is not so. It is going to be a hectic and exhausting month, but the shape of both the 2012 and 2013 MotoGP seasons will be much clearer after that.