There is a danger to thinking any championship is a foregone conclusion, especially this early in the season. Just as there is a danger to thinking that a race will pan out the way you thought it would after practice and qualifying. At Assen, everyone was afraid of three things: the weather, Jorge Lorenzo and Pol Espargaro. All three turned out differently than expected.
Best of all was the weather. After treacherous conditions on Friday, with rain falling, stopping, wetting the track just enough for Casey Stoner to bang himself up badly in the morning, though that did not stop him from blasting to pole, Saturday dawned bright and only got better: the big skies of flat-as-a-board Drenthe were mainly blue, with the occasional sighting of fluffy white clouds to provide a little cover and prevent egregious sunburn. But best of all, it stayed dry: no complications, just sunny, dry and calm weather.
Neither Lorenzo nor Esparagaro would prove too pose much of a threat either, Lorenzo through no fault of his own, but Espargaro would need no outside help in taking himself out of the equation. The crashes of Lorenzo and Espargaro - Lorenzo taken out by a boneheaded move from Alvaro Bautista, for which the Gresini Honda man will have to start from the back of the grid at the Sachsenring, Espargaro crashing on a bump at the Ruskenhoek - put an end to the domination of the two men in the MotoGP and Moto2 classes. Espargaro had blasted every session of free practice, and only a blistering lap from Marc Marquez had denied the HP Pons rider pole. Lorenzo's domination had been more subtle, his race pace clearly several tenths better than anyone else, though others on soft tires occasionally bettered the Spaniard during practice and qualifying.
Both crashes have also changed the complexion of their respective championships. With their main rivals winning - Marquez in Moto2, Casey Stoner in MotoGP - Espargaro's shot at the Moto2 title took heavy damage, Marquez now very comfortably ahead in the standings, while Lorenzo's 25-point lead evaporated completely, the Yamaha man now level in points with Stoner, though still leading on the basis of having won more races.
Race day started well, with a hard and at times bitter war of attrition in the Moto3 class. Four men were left standing at the end of the race, despite heavy blue-on-blue, or rather KTM-orange-on-KTM-orange, contact. Sandro Cortese, Danny Kent, Luis Salom and Maverick Vinales, any one of then could have one, or they could have taken each other out and handed victory to Louis Rossi, who sat just a fraction behind them. Cortese, in particular, had a couple of very physical encounters, one at high speed with his teammate Kent. The incident between the two was subject to intense investigation by Race Direction, but after reviewing the TV images, including helicopter shots, it was clear that Kent had been forced to slow after Vinales had blown by him, and Cortese had merely held his line and pace, which brought him to almost he exact place that Kent was on the track, and travelling slightly slower. Kent had been working on his aggression by taking boxing lessons, he told the press afterwards, which had helped to run at the front. It also left him slightly less surprised when his teammate slammed into him.
Though the race went down to the very last corner, the winner was probably not that much of a surprise. Maverick Vinales is the class of the Moto3 field, and even though Luis Salom used a brilliant line through the fast Ramshoek left hander to take the lead, he was trying just a little too hard to get a good result for his home crowd, and found himself running a little too hot into the GT chicane, and had the other three all blast past him. Just - Salom was eventually demoted to 4th by just 0.001 from Kent after a photo finish. Vinales had kept his calm the best, winning by what is a relatively comfortable margin after such a close race.
In Moto2, the winner was also hardly a surprise, though the manner of victory was positively magnificent, and a reminder of the reasons that Marquez is being fast-tracked into the factory Repsol Honda MotoGP team for 2013. Several seconds behind Andrea Iannone at the halfway stage, Marquez upped the pace to run over a second a lap quicker than Iannone, reeled him in, passed him a couple of times before making a pass stick, and then put the hammer down to leave Iannone standing. Marquez' win was something special. Espargaro's crash was a real shame for the championship, and no doubt he will be back battling for wins later, but Marquez really proved his predigree at Assen today.
Before it started, the final race of the day looked like being a Lorenzo whitewash. Lorenzo had the best setup and the fastest race pace, and Casey Stoner was badly banged up from a huge highside on Friday morning - what Stoner had described as "probably the biggest crash in my career". But Alvaro Bautista and Stoner's painkillers put paid to any hopes of a Lorenzo whitewash, and could have radically altered the outcome of the MotoGP title race.
The crash in the first corner left Lorenzo with one DNF, but the cloud of white smoke from the engine as it self-destructed will probably cost Lorenzo a lot more points. That engine had been fitted just the day before, and had just a couple of hundred kilometers on it, about 10% of the total required of an engine if Lorenzo is to make it through to the end of the season on his permitted engine allocation. With two old engines and three new ones, the chances of making it to Valencia without being forced from pit lane are negligible. Lorenzo was even more pessimistic in his assessment: "Impossible" he told the press.
He also told the press that Race Direction had promised to allow him an extra engine to replace the one that he had lost through no fault of his own. This, it seems, rests on a misunderstanding, Race Direction having expressed sympathy for his plight. But one look at the rulebook makes it perfectly clear that no such exception is possible, with no clause allowing Race Direction to use their discretion in situations such as this where natural justice might suggest clemency. There will be no new engine for Lorenzo, and this is down to the rulebook, despite the conspiracy theorists claiming that it was Honda which had blocked the allowance. Though HRC bigwigs went to make enquiries about the reports of an extra engine, all they were told was what the rulebook said, and that the decision had been made hours previously once the regulations had been consulted.
Bautista's boneheaded move cost Lorenzo 25 points at Assen, and probably another 14 or more later in the season. Despite Stoner's injuries and the Honda's chatter, Stoner is back on track for his title defense. The way he toyed with Dani Pedrosa, waiting for an opportunity to pass before putting the hammer down and leaving him for dead, was a lesson in tactics and managing a race. If Honda find a solution to their problems with the front tire, then the title race could be over pretty quickly, despite the fact that Jorge Lorenzo is in the form of his life.
While the Repsol Hondas are currently complaining about the front Bridgestone, behind them, the tires were providing real problems. Ben Spies lost several sizable chunks out of the right side of his tire, at least a couple of centimeters wide and twenty-odd centimeters long. He had been involved in a race-long battle with Andrea Dovizioso, and felt he had the situation under control until he felt a vibration at first, and then a chunk of rubber hit his leg, and his tire start to slide. The missing rubber was down to the casing in parts, and Spies, gun-shy after a horrific high-speed crash at Daytona during his time in the AMA, expressed his worries about the next few races, and especially about Mugello, where the bikes will hit north of 340 km/h along the front straight. Images of Shinya Nakano's disintegrating tire on the front straight back in 2004 were on his mind, Spies intimated, and with no time to introduce changes between now and Mugello because of the back-to-back schedule, he had to hope for the best.
Spies had not been the only rider with tire problems. After a good start, Valentino Rossi started suffering a massive vibration around the halfway mark of the race, something which had surprised the Italian as it was an issue the Ducati had not had before at Assen. Eventually it got so bad that he was forced to pit for a new rear tire. If Spies' tire was bad, Rossi's was worse, "three times as bad" according to the Italian himself, a very nasty issue indeed.
For Bridgestone to suffer issues like this is surprising, as their quality control has been outstanding in previous years. There may have been plenty to complain about with the old tires - not least their tendency to cause early morning highsides in the cooler temperatures - but they were consistent, predictable and reliable. The last couple of races has seen a rash of problems occurring, problems which cannot be put down solely to setup issues. There was a combination of factors which made life complicated for the tires, Valentino Rossi explained. More torque, more capacity, a softer construction of the tire carcass and higher temperatures probably all conspired to place greater loads on the tires than expected. Bridgestone have announced that they will be taking the tires back to their headquarters for further examination, and to try to get to the bottom of the failures. We can only hope that they publish the findings of their research.
The paddock now packs up and heads to Germany, a relatively short trip, and with an extra day to get there, with the Assen race having been run on Saturday, the cause of perennial confusion in the paddock (riders, media and teams consistently talk about "Sunday" when referring to race day, stubbornly ignoring the hard reality of the calendar), there is no massive rush. Next Sunday night at the Sachsenring will be different: the mad dash to pack up and travel the 1000 kilometers to Mugello and start to set up there is one of the most punishing schedules of the year. The MotoGP paddock can be a glamorous place, but it is also relentless and punishing. All part of the price that passion for the sport makes you pay, a sacrifice that is willingly offered.