What an intriguing weekend the 83rd running of the Dutch TT at Assen has turned out to be. (Well, I say weekend, it's still Friday, but in any racing paddock, the weekend starts once bikes roll out for the first practice, and ends when the final press conference of the day is completed.) The story lines are plentiful, made possible by mixed conditions, low grip and a barrel load of ambition.
First, there's the MotoGP polesitter. Cal Crutchlow took his first ever pole in the class on Friday, with a perfectly-timed lap to blast ahead of Marc Marquez and earn himself a Tissot watch. He left it to the very last lap, but cut it very fine indeed. He crossed the finish line with just 3 seconds left on the session clock, giving him a final attempt at pole. He had worked out he would make it across the line for one last shot by looking at the sector times displayed on the digital dashboard, but when he exited the GT chicane and saw the starter already out with the checkered flag, he had gotten a little nervous.
There was no need. His flying lap was outstanding, putting over a third of a second into Marc Marquez, who had attempted a similar strategy to Crutchlow by crossing the line late. Crutchlow may have been helped by Dani Pedrosa crashing out early in the session. The Repsol Honda man got back too late to try to go out for another attempt, and having set a time good enough for 5th place, in the middle of the second row, saw no need to risk everything to rush for a lap.
But Crutchlow's main concern was the absent Jorge Lorenzo. This was not a 'proper' pole, Crutchlow insisted, because Jorge Lorenzo was not present. He was very happy with pole, and he was boosted and motivated by having bagged his first pole, but for it to really count, he had to secure it against a healthy top three, Crutchlow explained. For everyone else, Crutchlow had straight up earned it; he put in the fastest lap when the chips were down, and they all count.
Starting on pole does not necessarily mean you are a shoe-in for the win, however. Conditions at Assen have been so mixed that it is hard to get a sense of who is fast and who is not. Only FP1, FP4 and qualifying have been completely dry so far, and even FP1 took place in cold conditions on a green track. That leaves only FP4 to go by, and it is hard to get a sense of who is really quick. "Many riders are on the same pace," Dani Pedrosa said. "Even the CRT riders are quick. It's hard to predict a favorite."
It is clear that five riders are quick: Cal Crutchlow and Marc Marquez have excellent pace, and Dani Pedrosa looks to be around the same pace. Stefan Bradl - now changed from Nissin to Brembo brakes, and using a different suspension package - is faster than he's been all year, and should be right there with the lead trio to.
The dark horse is Valentino Rossi, who is comfortable and quick, and full of self-belief, something he has been missing since Qatar. The solution for his braking problems he tested at Aragon is working at Assen too, allowing him to brake much deeper than he has been able to previously. The factory Yamaha man believes he could have secured second spot, if he hadn't made a mistake, and he is feeling very comfortable on the bike. This was his best qualifying of the year, both in terms of results but especially in terms of feeling, Rossi said. A happy, confident and comfortable Valentino Rossi is a dangerous Valentino Rossi. Though his times in FP4 appear to put him behind the front four, it would be very foolish indeed to rule him out.
In Moto2, the battle is hotting up, with two men equally matched on pace. Those two men happen to be the two rivals for the 2013 Moto2 title, and both Pol Espargaro and Scott Redding have a keen eye on each other. Use of the word rivals here is no journalistic hyperbole, these two men are determined to beat each other. They both spent more time talking about the other than on explaining their own performance, making it clear that the only thing that counts tomorrow is crushing the other man.
It could be a hard, long and bitter battle. Redding and Espargaro are both on the same pace, a step faster than the rest. Espargaro has to win, to ramp up the pressure on Redding and to try to claw back points in the title chase. The set up change found at the Mugello Moto2 test - apparently, a reduction in rear tire pressure to help create feel - has boosted Espargaro's confidence, and he is out to destroy Redding. Redding, on the other hand, knows he just has to follow Espargaro around, settling for second if he can't beat him, and beating him if he can. This is a proper needle match, an emotional drama which adds to the on-track excitement as well.
In Moto3, another piece of racing history was made. After Danny Webb's pole on the Mahindra 125cc bike in 2011, Miguel Oliveira added a Moto3 pole for Mahindra at Assen. The pole is a boost for the Indian manufacturer, and for Suter, who have been contracted to produce both the engine and the chassis. Pole is one thing, the race is another: the top five are all within the same tenth of a second, and Oliveira and Alex Marquez set identical times. Oliveira secured pole on the basis of his second fastest lap, which was faster than Marquez, while there was nothing to choose between Maverick Viñales, Luis Salom and Alex Rins.
Mahindra could find themselves expanding to sell a number of bikes next year, as teams abandon the underperforming Honda in favor of the KTM and the Mahindra. That will be good for racing in India, where the popularity of the sport is growing. Though no fast Indian riders are on the horizon at the moment, Indian fans can now at least get behind an Indian brand, with Mahindra getting ever closer to the Austrian KTMs.
The big question, though, is about Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard returned to the MotoGP paddock at around 5pm, little more than 24 hours after he left it with a broken collarbone. It has been a very hectic few hours indeed. Once diagnosed with a broken left collarbone after his monster highside during a wet FP2 on Thursday, Lorenzo was moved from the medical center at the circuit to a hospital in Assen. After checks were made, surgery was scheduled to plate up his broken clavicle. Fate intervened, with the operating theater suddenly needed for emergency surgery on a patient in a life-threatening situation, and so Lorenzo was left with no choice to look elsewhere.
Elsewhere turned out to be Barcelona, where they could guarantee could undergo surgery in the early hours of Friday morning. Lorenzo flew to Barcelona on chartered private jet, and went from the airport straight to the operating theater, where he had a two-hour operation to plate up the complicated broken collarbone. When he awoke from the anesthetic, he was once again passed fit to fly, and took another private jet back from Barcelona to Groningen. He arrived back in the paddock exhausted, and retired to his motorhome to start his recovery.
Why did Lorenzo rush to Barcelona to have the injury plated, and then rush back to Assen again? Because he hopes to be able to ride, as simple as that. Will he be able to ride? First, he has to pass a medical test, which will include doing ten press ups to show that he has the strength in his shoulder, and can endure the pain. A test to check whether he is still not dazed from the anesthetic may be a better test, but if his shoulder can hold up under the press ups, he should be strong enough to race.
The real question is why Lorenzo wants to race. Does Yamaha have some kind of a plan? That is hard to say. Clearly, whatever points Lorenzo can score could come in very handy at the end of the year, and limiting the damage to Pedrosa is important. Starting from 12th on the grid should allow Lorenzo to score a top ten finish or better - Cal Crutchlow tips Lorenzo for a podium, or at the worst a top five - he will give very little at all to Pedrosa, and gain points that he might otherwise regret losing when the title is decided.
Some sections of the fan base and in the paddock are speculating that Lorenzo's return is a complex way of taking an extra engine, without risking very much. Using a 6th engine at Assen would mean he would have to start from pit lane, but - and the regulations are extremely ambiguous about this - Lorenzo could potentially have been counted as having started from pit lane if he simply lines up on the grid, and then pulls in after the warm up lap. It is unclear from the rule book whether Lorenzo actually has to start, or if he even has to line up on the grid, for the penalty to be regarded as having been applied. If Lorenzo goes out in the morning warm up and uses two new engines, he will automatically incur a penalty, and be forced to start from pit lane. But if he doesn't actually start the race at all, does the penalty count as having been applied? Or will he be forced to start from the pit lane in the Sachsenring? From my reading of the rule book, it is all as clear as mud.
Of course, there is the small matter of actually having two spare engines at the track in Assen for Lorenzo to have sealed ready for use. Both Lorenzo and Rossi have three engines in use, so carrying another two spare engines with them would seem an unnecessary thing to do. If the engines aren't even in Holland, then the whole discussion is moot.
Whatever the outcome of Lorenzo's medical test, and whatever his decision on whether to race or not, we are in for a fascinating weekend. Confusion reigns, and that is surprisingly often, quite a good thing.