May I be permitted a little bias for the MotoGP round held in my adopted country? There are many magical motorcycle races around the world. The Isle of Man TT has speed, danger, and one of the most remarkable backdrops in motorsports. Mugello has an astounding track, a hothouse atmosphere, and breathtaking scenery. Jerez has an intensity among the fans without equal, hosted in a beautiful part of the world when Andalusia is at its best, in the spring.
But I think I would still swap them all for Assen. Once, it was the greatest racetrack in the world. Fast, flowing, with challenges favoring any rider with the perfect combination of bravery and skill. Full of fast kinks, banked turns, and with a camber and crown to the surface that was a throwback to the public roads which once comprised the circuit. Throughout the years, the circuit was pruned back, from 16 kilometers, to just under 8 kilometers, to 6 kilometers. In 2006, the track was neutered altogether, as a combination of financial necessity and encroaching housing development saw the North Loop, the jewel in Assen's crown, surgically removed and replaced with the much smaller, much shorter loop which now quickly folds back on itself and takes the riders back to the old southern section, where the old glory of the track lives on.
Hard braking for De Haarbocht, named for the village now absorbed by Assen's urban sprawl, the everlasting right hander through Madijk and Ossebroeken round to the Strubben hairpin. A hard, short turn onto the Veenslang, the back straight. Straight? Not so much: the literal translation is 'turf snake', and snake it does, down to the blistering right-left-right of the Ruskenhoek chicane. Through the right at Stekkenwal, and another snaking straight down to De Bult – 'the lump' and a very lumpy corner it is indeed. From there it is all rights, building speed through Mandeveen, Duikersloot, and Meeuwenmeer, on to perhaps the most perfect piece of race track in the world. First, there's the Hoge Heide – 'High Heath' – the right-left flick that looks like nothing at all on a track map, but is one of the most intimidating corners on the planet. Making that change of direction at over 270 km/h is not easy, especially as you still have to lift the bike over the crown of the track, avoiding the dip on the far end of the flick. The run through the Ramshoek, a hot-and-fast left, before the Geert Timmer bocht, the chicane named after the legendary racer and circuit commissioner.
The GT, as it is known locally, is steeped in history. Here, Carl Fogarty edged Frankie Chili out of the way in World Superbikes, causing Chili to storm into the podium press conference in his dressing gown to accuse Fogarty of cheating. Colin Edwards lost his best shot at a MotoGP win there, cutting inside and getting on the gas on the astroturf, only to wind up on the ground and handing Nicky Hayden a crucial win. Stefan Bradl nearly succeeded in turning his Moto2 championship season from triumph to despair, suffering his first crash after a series of wins. In Moto3 – or even better, the Red Bull Rookies Cup – eight or more riders enter this corner at the same time on the last lap, the victor anyone's guess until they cross the line. In Moto2, and even MotoGP, the GT is still the ideal place for passing, with multiple lines possible and bravery and late braking always an option.
Apart from the circuit, there are the fans. There is a wild, uninhibited feel at Assen, reminiscent of Le Mans. At both circuits, you suspect you may not live to see the end of the race. The difference is, at Le Mans, you fear you will end up flayed and scalped, a human sacrifice to the gods of racing. At Assen, you know you will die with a smile on your face, the campsite excesses of alcohol, petrol, and ill-advised nighttime stunts taking the inevitable toll. Both Assen and Le Mans share a common madness, but at Assen, the madness is one of joy.
For the riders, too, this is hallowed ground, but there is generation gap opening up too. The number of riders who rode on the pre-2006 circuit is dwindling fast, those familiar with the pre-2001 circuit even fewer and further between. Valentino Rossi still treasures his memories of racing the Honda NSR500 two stroke at the old, old circuit back in 2000. Rossi and Dani Pedrosa cherish the memory of the old circuit, both having won here, Pedrosa taking his first ever Grand Prix victory at the track.
Yet for the younger generation – Marc Marquez, Pol Espargaro, Stefan Bradl, Scott Redding – the current layout is the only one they know. They have only seen the old layout on videos of old races, if at all. When I asked Scott Redding about the old layout, he said he would have to go back and watch a few races from 2005 and before, having forgotten that the track was ever not like it is today. Most of these young riders didn't get to ride the track until 2007 or 2008. Bradl rode it in the European Championship back in 2006, but at that time, they used the shorter version of the circuit, which cut off the full Northern Loop anyway. Despite that, and despite saying that the old layout was better, having seen what they have of it, the riders still love Assen. It remains a special track, despite having had much of its old charm excised.
It is also very much a Yamaha track. It flows from corner to corner, with only a couple of hard braking zones at the Haarbocht (turn 1), and the chicane. 'The smoother you are, the faster you go,' Pol Espargaro told me, which explains exactly why Jorge Lorenzo is so very fast at the circuit. It is a track where you want to carry as much speed as you can, and that is right up Lorenzo's alley. With such a difficult start to the season, this is the track where Lorenzo will hope to shine. It is also a circuit where Lorenzo hurt himself badly, being flung off his bike by standing water at Hoge Heide last year, breaking his collarbone. Yet he returned in triumph less than 48 hours later, finishing fifth some 30 hours after surgery. He was still proud of that achievement, Lorenzo said, but it did not play on his mind. 'I don't think about last year,' he said.
Lorenzo's problem has been twofold: the revised tire with the heat-resistant layer, and the reduction in fuel capacity from 21 to 20 liters. The Spaniard is starting to get to grips with the new tire, and Yamaha have found solutions to the fuel consumption issue. The bike is still nervous – the word Lorenzo uses to describe the throttle response on the M1 – but revised electronics and a new exhaust have helped. This is Lorenzo's best chance of a win so far, and his ability to carry corner speed where others fear to follow may prove decisive.
His main opposition will most likely come from his teammate. Valentino Rossi won at Assen last year, and though it was against a slightly depleted field – Lorenzo had winged himself in a crash, Pedrosa struggled with grip, and Marc Marquez was still in the middle of his steep learning curve – Rossi still managed to pull it off. He arrives at Assen in much better shape than last year, Rossi acknowledged, and is once again gunning for a win. After four second places behind Marquez, not winning is starting to grate with the nine-time world champion. Assen is probably Rossi's best chance of a win all year. Unlike last year, however, a win here could be the first of several, rather than an anomaly.
The problem for the Yamahas is the same as it was at Barcelona and Mugello, two tracks which were ostensibly meant to favor the M1. The more Marc Marquez wins, the harder he becomes to beat. With every win, Marquez explained, he faces less and less pressure. His lead in the championship is now 58 points, meaning he can afford to score a DNF in two races, and still be leading the title race. This allows Marquez to ride completely freely, taking chances he might not otherwise risk. That freedom leaves him able to concentrate on riding, without thinking of the championship. It is a virtuous circle which makes him very hard to beat indeed, even at tracks where he would normally not start as the favorite.
Without pressure, Marquez stands a better chance than the other Hondas. Dani Pedrosa is now fully recovered from arm pump surgery, and as he showed in Barcelona, capable of pushing for the win. At Montmelo he ran up against Marquez' superior tactics. In Assen, he will have to find a way to defeat that. Stefan Bradl, like Pedrosa, is coming off a difficult period, and needs a good result. His performance in Barcelona was exemplary, but he needs to convert that into a podium. The Assen layout is not ideal for the Honda, but the RC213V right now is good enough to handle the challenges the Dutch circuit throws at it.
The lack of hard acceleration means that the non-factory bikes are also in with a chance. For Aleix Espargaro, his greatest problem is tire wear, the spec electronics causing the tire to drop more than the factory bikes after the first few laps. With Assen being much more about smoothness, tire wear is a little less of a factor. Espargaro stands his best chance of a strong result. Scott Redding, too, fancies his chances. There are few places where sheer horsepower and acceleration win the day. A sweet-handling bike, and a track which favors valor – a trait which Redding has in abundance – should make it very interesting indeed.
Assen is not just a fantastic track, it is also the point of the season at which contract negotiations step up a notch. Everyone without a contract was extremely cagey, saying it was 'too early' to say how the situation might develop. Even Valentino Rossi, who is very close to a new two-year deal with Yamaha, said there still remain a few details to tidy up. Those details are likely to be about the small print of the contract, Rossi likely to sign a new deal within the next couple of weeks.
The others are all staying carefully silent. Andrea Dovizioso, Stefan Bradl, Cal Crutchlow, Aleix Espargaro, all are non-committal in their answers, keeping their options as open as possible. In reality, it seems more and more likely that everyone will stay where they are, only considering jumping ship when 2016 rolls around. Anyone holding on for news of contracts from Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso or Cal Crutchlow should not be holding their breath. Indianapolis is the earliest any real announcements will be made.
If the rider situation is predictable, the weather situation is entirely opposite. It is definitely going to rain in Assen at some point in the weekend, the question is merely when. Right now, it looks as if it may rain on Friday, but by the time I wake up in a few hours time, that may have changed altogether. It could rain for FP2, it could rain for Q1 and Q2, it could even rain for the race. On the other hand, it could remain dry throughout, the rain holding off until the on-track action is done. Assen is special in many ways, and its flatness, with nothing between it and the North Sea but a row of dunes and a fair chunk of land, means the weather is completely unpredictable. That may be the best hope of an exciting race yet.