A veritable galaxy of stars may have lined up on the grid for the 84th Dutch TT at Assen, but the real stars of the show were the elements. After the rain wreaked havoc on qualifying, shaking up the grid, it was back on Saturday for two of the three races. Riders and teams were forced to rethink their strategy, make decisions quickly, and gamble on tires and the weather. It made for intriguing races, rather than sheer thrills like the MotoGP race at Barcelona. Changing conditions offered the brave and the smart opportunities, and mercilessly punished anyone who got it wrong. You felt for the 45 minutes of the races that anything could happen.
The Moto3 riders had it easiest of all, conditions cool but relatively consistent. The track did not allow for mistakes, however: Jack Miller's strategy of trying to pull a gap early backfired badly, the Australian crashing out of the lead. Miller's saving grace was that Romano Fenati, his main rival in the title chase, made even bigger mistakes than he did, crashing out twice, and failing to score points. The day belonged to the Hondas, with Alex Marquez controlling the race from the front, despite challenges from teammate Alex Rins and a quickly closing Miguel Oliveira. With two Hondas and a Mahindra on the podium, this was the first time since Le Mans 2012 that a KTM was not on the podium, and the first ever Moto3 race where a KTM engine did not power any of the podium bikes.
Conditions were much trickier for the Moto2 riders, rain falling heavily before the race, but then quickly starting to dry. It was clear that if the rain held off, a dry line would soon appear, and a few riders gambled on fitting a slick rear. The rain did not hold off, however, falling heavily again in the early laps. That put riders like Dominique Aegerter, who had reckoned on using a slick rear, a long way behind the leaders, his tire only coming good in the second half of the race. The rain allowed Simone Corsi and Sam Lowes to get away at the front, pulling a big lead in a short period. The pair looked set to dispute victory between the two of them, but Lowes pushed a little too hard, losing the front and going down. Corsi could have just cruised to victory, but that proved too much to ask, the NGM Forward rider crashing out of a commanding lead at the halfway mark.
In the end, the day belonged to Ant West, the Australian once again shining in the wet. It was West's second Grand Prix victory, his first coming 11 years ago to the day at Assen on a 250. That, too, was in the rain, as have been nearly all of West's best results. Seeing West succeed in Assen is a salutary warning of how an exceptionally talented rider can go wrong. West jumped from series to series, from class to class, often ending up in third rate teams. On the right bike he was outstanding, as he showed briefly in World Supersport on the Yamaha. All too often, however, he has ended up on the wrong bike, and in the wrong company.
The Moto2 race turned out to be a warning for the riders in the MotoGP race. A revised start procedure saw the riders allowed two sighting laps, to test the conditions. Heavy rain had fallen after the end of the Moto2 race, and the track was once again soaking, though drying quickly. Valentino Rossi initially gambled on slicks, but as he sat on the grid, another shower came. On the warm up lap, Rossi felt the track was too wet to risk slicks, and so came in and changed to his wet weather bike. That meant starting from pit lane, after the rest of the pack had passed.
Starting from pit lane cost him at least nine seconds. Coming in to pit lane to swap bikes cost him a further 21 seconds. Could he have won if he had gambled and stayed out on slicks? Looking at the times of Broc Parkes, who was forced into that gamble after crashing his wet bike on the sighting lap, probably not. Parkes lost 25 seconds on the first lap alone, and by lap 6 was 45 seconds behind, though already much quicker than the men still on rain tires. Some of the difference can be put down to lesser machinery and the fact that Broc Parkes, talented as he is, is no Valentino Rossi. Even then, though, that would have left Rossi with a lot of time still to make up.
For Rossi, the decision was clear. The first decision to try slicks had been smart, but the two minutes of rain as the riders sat on the grid had been fatal. 'Those ****ing two minutes!' he called them, had made the track far too dangerous in some corners, with standing water making it impossible to get grip from slicks, or get them up to temperature. 'This situation is always about how much you want to risk,' Rossi said. This was a risk too far for him. It was a real shame, he told the press, as his pace in both the dry and the wet had been strong. He had had the potential to finally put a halt to Marc Marquez' winning streak.
Starting from pit lane made that impossible for Rossi. And not just Rossi; the combination of the right sighting lap strategy, deciding to switch bikes at the right time, and quite frankly, Marquez' sheer talent meant that the Spaniard went on to take his eighth victory in a row, a feat last achieved by Mick Doohan in 1997, though the last rider to win the first eight races of the season was Giacomo Agostini back in 1971. Marquez took the lead on the first lap with a brave move round the outside of Andrea Dovizioso at Stekkenwal, holding off a counter attack. He came into the pits at the end of lap 6, which proved to be just about the perfect time two swap to a bike on slicks.
Marquez made one mistake, pushing a little too hard into De Bult on his first lap out of the pits on slicks, and allowing Dovizioso back past him. As the track dried, Dovizioso's ability to push diminished, and Marquez closed in on the Ducati quickly. The Italian tried to stay with Marquez, but he could not. Marquez went on to take number eight out of eight, celebrating the win in style: laying flat on the tank and simulating swimming across the finish line.
What was the key to Marquez' victory, and keeping his perfect record? This time, it was presence of mind. Race Direction had issued a special start procedure for the Assen race, because of the treacherous conditions. The riders had more time to do two sighting laps, and switch bikes if they wanted to. It is no coincidence that the two riders who decided against it and headed straight to the grid finished in first and second place. 'For me, to do another sighting lap means one more lap on the tire,' Marquez said. 'You enter pit lane, cool down the tires, then go out again.' Having to refuel the bike meant more work and more disruption for the team, and was not worth it, he said. 'It didn't have any advantage for me.' The fact that his team could remain calm around him helped him stay calm and focused, able to concentrate on the race and not rush through a procedure which was of questionable benefit.
It takes a certain strength of character to reject the consensus of the grid and follow your own path. Marquez followed his teams suggestion, going against the rest of MotoGP riders, bar Dovizioso. They decided there was no benefit to be had from the extra lap, and so did not use it. The rest of the teams seemed to believe that because they could do an extra lap, they must do one, and the riders dutifully tripped in and out of the paddock. All too often, riders simply copy what everyone else does, rather than relying on their instincts, and the instincts of the crew. It is a fear of getting things wrong, rather than a preparedness to gamble.
Illustrative of this was Pol Espargaro, who decided to switch to slicks because Valentino Rossi had done so. He changed his mind just in time, starting the warm up lap on his wet bike from pit lane, but that meant he had to start the race from the back of the grid. It made Espargaro's first ever wet race extremely complicated and highly stressful, adding pressure just when what he really needed was to remain calm. In a situation like that, riders have more to lose from looking at others rather than making their own plans. Afterwards, he said one of the main lessons he had learned was simple: 'You have to take your own decisions.'
Monster Tech 3 teammate Bradley Smith also suffered for not following his own instincts. He didn't go in at the end of lap 6, as the fastest riders did. Instead, he sat and followed Jorge Lorenzo, who waited for another lap to come in. Ordinarily, you would expect following the lead of a double MotoGP champion to be a wise choice, but with Lorenzo having a nightmare race, riding in fear of another crash like the one last year, the Spaniard was also making poor choices. Better to do what you think is right, rather than trust the judgment of someone whose mind you cannot read.
Perhaps the most intriguing battle of the race was the one for third, between Dani Pedrosa on the second Repsol Honda, and Aleix Espargaro on the NGM Forward bike. After bagging his first ever pole position at Assen, the elder of the Espargaro brothers looked like he might follow it up with a podium, dispensing with the rather embarrassing practice of having the first Open class bike in Parc Ferme and being there on merit. Espargaro fought bravely, but as the track started to dry out, the superior power of the Honda won out over the detuned Forward Yamaha engine, and Pedrosa gained the upper hand. The Repsol Honda man took the final podium spot, and Aleix took a highly creditable fourth place, and finished first Yamaha, six seconds ahead of Valentino Rossi.
Rossi had recovered extremely well after being forced to start from pit lane, battling his way through the field to end the race in 5th. Though disappointed, he was still buoyant, his confidence boosted once again by the knowledge he had the pace in both wet and dry to challenge Marquez. The difficulty for Rossi is that he now goes to two tracks – Sachsenring and Indianapolis – that have tended to favor the Honda. He will have to wait until Brno in mid-August for another track where the Yamaha can shine.
The same goes for Jorge Lorenzo, but for Lorenzo, the impact will be greater. The double world champion has spent the last couple of races slowly building his confidence again after a disastrous start to the season. He had come to Assen hoping for a strong result, perhaps even a win. It is a track he knows well and loves, a track where he has won, and a track that favors the Yamaha. A calamitous qualifying session saw Lorenzo starting from ninth on the grid. But the race was much, much worse for Lorenzo, crossing the line in thirteenth. Lorenzo finished behind Scott Redding on the production Honda, behind Broc Parkes on the PBM Aprilia – the last of the true CRT bikes – and as last of the factory option Yamahas. He was over a minute behind the winner Marc Marquez. For a man who ended last year as runner up to the championship, and had hopes for the title in 2014, that is an unmitigated catastrophe.
Speaking to the press after the race, Lorenzo was brutally honest about his own lack of performance. 'Today has been 100 per cent my fault, I want to say sorry to the team because I wasn’t able to be brave, to be fast with tough conditions like the other riders.' The problem, he explained, was that the conditions brought back memories of the massive crash at Assen in 2013, which saw him highside at Hoge Heide in the pouring rain and break a collarbone. It was not the crash itself which he remembered, but the pain and the stress which came after. The broken collarbone, the flight to Barcelona, the surgery, the flight back, the incredible pain in which he raced to an almost impossible result, all that came flooding back in the difficult conditions. 'Last year I made something impossible but today it was the opposite,' Lorenzo said.
It meant he was riding with fear, stiff and tentative on the bike. He was being excessively cautious everywhere, afraid he might crash at any moment. Only when the rain held off and the track started to dry did he find some confidence and begin to pick up speed. His lap times dropped from well over a second slower than his teammate Valentino Rossi, to two or three tenths off Rossi's pace. Even then, the word Lorenzo used to describe his pace was 'acceptable'.
Can Lorenzo conquer his fear? After the race, he said he could. It was the combination of the conditions and the circuit which had spooked him, something which would not be the case at other circuits. The trouble is that the next race is at the Sachsenring, where he also crashed in 2013.
The situation is similar to 2008, when Lorenzo followed up his astonishing start to his rookie season with a couple of massive crashes. At Montmelo, he knocked himself unconscious, waking up in hospital with a concussion. It took him several races to recover, only really finding his form again at the end of the season. It was all too familiar to Valentino Rossi, the Italian told us. After the big crash in which he broke his leg at Mugello in 2010, he had been a little tentative the first few times he returned to the track, especially when it was cool. The memories of the pain of that cold tire highside lingered on.
Marc Marquez' win at Assen leaves him with a perfect 200 points from eight races. His advantage is now 72 points, meaning he could take three races off and still be leading the championship unless either Valentino Rossi or Dani Pedrosa win the next three in a row. This, especially, is where Marquez has gained on his rivals. It is not just that he has won every single race, but also that those he has beaten have got caught up fighting among themselves. Marquez extends his lead every time he races, because a different rider finishes behind him every race. After Barcelona, Rossi trailed Marquez by 58 points, but a fifth place saw him lose another 14 points to the reigning world champion. Marquez invents a new way to win at each new circuit, while his rivals find new ways to fall short. If they keep on like this, Marquez could wrap up the title at Aragon.
Though the championship may seem boring when you look at the race results, the races themselves have been great to watch. The outcome is always the same, but you cannot be sure until the end. Even at Assen, where Marquez had a clear lead, the conditions made for an eventful race. There is a sense of inevitability over the championship, but luckily, you never get that feeling watching the races. Here's hoping the Sachsenring delivers more of the same.