Assen is a funny old track. And when I say old, I mean old, the event has been on the calendar since 1925, though there was no such thing as world championship, and the race took place between Rolde, Borger and Schoonloo, some ten kilometers east of Assen. From 1926, it moved to a route between the villages of De Haar, Oude Tol, Hooghalen, Laaghalen and Laaghalerveen. The roads, forced into short straights with fast sweeping kinks and bends by the complex drainage patterns of the creeks and ditches which keep the region from reverting back to peat bogs, gave shape to the track which was to follow. They still leave their mark on the circuit today, despite being a closed circuit since 1955, though the track has been much shortened since then.
What remains is a track with nary a straight piece of asphalt on it. The back straight meanders between the Strubben hairpin and the fast right and long left of the Ruskenhoek, living up to its name of Veenslang, or Peat Snake. The short stretches between the fast combinations of corners weave and flow, and the only thing keeping the front straight straight is the pit wall. As a piece of geometric design, it is a disaster. As a race track, it is glorious, proving that the best tracks are not designed on paper, but laid out in a landscape. Mugello, Phillip Island, Assen: all great riders track, each owing a debt of gratitude to the landscape which forms them.
All these fast, flowing bends where riders barely touch the brakes – comparatively, for a MotoGP race that is – reward a bike that can carry corner speed and change direction easily. A bike that rewards a steady hand and a smooth style. In other words, a rider like Jorge Lorenzo on a bike like a Yamaha YZR-M1. Lorenzo has been fearsome around Assen in the past, laying down a pace impossible for mere mortals to follow. Having won the last four races in a row, Lorenzo is in pretty terrifying form as well. "I am in the best shape of my life," Lorenzo told the press conference, joking that he had even beat his personal trainer on a mountain bike ride for the first time. The Yamaha is strong, and Lorenzo is strong. Who can beat him?
Prime candidate is Valentino Rossi. On the same bike, and with the same skill, though with a slightly different set of strengths and weaknesses, Rossi is the man to beat his teammate. At Barcelona, he showed he could match, perhaps even beat the pace of Lorenzo in the race. His main enemy, however, is qualifying: starting from the third row of the grid leaves Lorenzo free to get away at the front, and once he gets a gap, he is gone.
So why doesn't Rossi simply qualify better? If it were as simple as that, he would be doing it already. Several factors work against him: the relatively new two-stage qualifying system leaves Rossi sat in the garage for half an hour after FP4, and no time to build his pace up through the 15 minute Q2 session. Rossi likes to work toward a fast lap, not throw himself into one with no warning. With no time to warm up, Rossi flounders a little. Adding insult to injury, the Suzukis and Ducatis can get that little bit of extra pace out of the soft tire which works like a qualifier, making the fight for the front row even tougher, and putting more bikes in between the pole sitter and those who are not qualifying specialists. But, as Rossi points out, his teammate is on exactly the same bike as him, and using the exact same tires, and he has been on the front row for five of the seven races run so far.
Of course there's the weather. As is so often the case in Assen, the forecast changes every time you look at it. At the moment, we should have two dry days of practice followed by a wet Saturday, though the time the rain is expected keeps changing. Last year, Lorenzo suffered a mental block in trying to deal with the half wet, half dry conditions, painful memories of Assen 2013 resurfacing. Admitting that fear publicly was one of the bravest things I have seen a motorcycle racer do – riders never speak of their fear, other than the socially acceptable fear of not winning – but the key to conquering fear is confidence. That is a quality Lorenzo currently has in excess, those four race wins giving him the mental boost he needs. No doubt a wet race day would unsettle Lorenzo. But equally, there is no doubt that his current confidence is more than enough to overcome those concerns, and find his feet in the wet again at Assen.
The factory Yamaha riders bring a new chassis to Assen, having tested it at a private test at Aragon after the race in Barcelona. Sensations were positive, but there was still also some doubt over its efficacy. The Movistar Yamaha team had hoped to test the frame at Barcelona after the race, which would have offered them a perfect baseline for comparison. Riders up to speed, a track they are already comfortable with, and lots of data on the circuit, but the rain on Monday after the race put the kibosh on that plan. So they will test the chassis on Thursday, and see if it still feels better.
There are of course four Yamahas on the grid, and all must be assumed to be capable of running at the front. Though the Monster Tech 3 Yamahas are a step behind the factory team – missing the fully seamless gearbox, and the chassis updates made over the winter – they are still plenty quick. The fortunes of the two Tech 3 men are very different, however, and dictated largely by their approach. Where Bradley Smith is working calmly from his base set up, searching for minor improvements from the bike only to extract the maximum speed from himself, Pol Espargaro is struggling with his style. A lack of results puts pressure on the younger Espargaro, and that pressure makes the Spaniard try to push the bike even harder. Unfortunately for him, the Yamaha doesn't work that way: the less hard you try, the faster you go. The only thing the M1 can be forced into doing is lapping half a second slower than you want it to. That goes against everything which Espargaro has learned in racing, and against the style of every other bike he has ridden. But what Espargaro wants doesn't matter to the M1; she must be treated like princess, and guided round the track, not whipped like a cheap harlot.
Of course the Yamaha is not the only bike capable of carrying corner speed. Both the Ducati and the Suzuki have plenty of that. The Suzuki, in particular could pose a threat at Assen, the GSX-RR already faster through the corners than any other bike on the grid. At Barcelona, Bradley Smith spoke of how impressed he had been by the Suzukis, telling us, "in Austin he rode round the inside of me through the long right handers there, which is all on maximum lean." There are plenty of fast corners at Assen for the Suzukis to ride up the inside of the competition, not least the final section towards the last chicane. Assen is a track where acceleration and top speed are less relevant, and where Suzuki's new engine – stronger in the lower end of the rev range – could come into its own. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales were first and second on the grid at Barcelona. There is no reason to suppose they cannot repeat that feat at Assen. And unlike Barcelona, the run to the corner is much shorter, giving the Suzukis a chance to hang on at the front, rather than get swamped.
The Ducatis, too, could present a problem. The GP13 and GP14 had been hard to ride round Assen, Andrea Iannone told the press conference. The understeer which so badly plagued the Ducatis for many years made it hard to get the bike through the fast sweeping corners, especially as tire wear set in and grip started to drop. That understeer is gone from the GP15, the bike now stops, turns, and accelerates exactly as the riders want. It is far from being perfect, but it is now a competitive bike. They are not far from victory, was Andrea Dovizioso's assessment. That requires beating the two Yamahas, but it is no longer an impossible dream.
What of Honda? There were some rapturous headlines in Spain earlier this week, when Marc Márquez was quoted as saying that they had found a solution to the problems they had been having all year. At Assen, he said his quotes had been taken out of context, referring back to the post-race test at Barcelona. There Márquez had tried the frame he had used in 2014, with the engine and swingarm from 2015, and that at least gave him a better feeling. He was able to make more mistakes without immediately being punished by crashing, he said. With the chassis of this year, it was possible to be quick over a single lap, but to do so meant taking a lot of risks. The smallest mistake meant you were down in the gravel, Márquez said, but the 2014 frame appears to be more forgiving.
The rain at the Barcelona tests had precluded giving it a proper test, so on Thursday, Márquez will use that chassis in both his bikes, and concentrate on getting it to work. It was not the solution the Spanish press had made it out to be, he said, but it felt like a step forward. He will try to get closer to the Yamahas this weekend, and then again at the Sachsenring in two weeks time. This year's championship has already gone out of the window. The job is now to try to make the bike capable of winning races again at the end of the season.
There is no better place for a rider to get his season back on track than Assen. Márquez has a lot of work to do, but confidence here would carry him on to the next race. If Márquez can get a decent result, then he may start to attack more aggressively at future rounds. Nearing the halfway point of the season, Assen could prove to be a pivotal race. Not for the first time, and a fitting testament to a wonderful track.
Speaking of wonderful tracks, there is still no clarity over the future of the Brno round of MotoGP. No one at Assen has yet canceled their hotel rooms, but nobody has passed the date by which they have to make a decision on canceling. Everyone is continuing as if the race will happen, while awaiting the outcome of the City Council meeting on the 29th June. Once the council decides on whether to fund the race, a decision will be made on whether the race will be held. Dorna does everything in its power to ensure races go on as scheduled once the season begins, but they face a dilemma over Brno. They have yet to receive the funds for the 2014 race, and without proper funding from the City Council, they look likely to miss out on the funds for the 2015 event as well. Dorna are caught between a rock and hard place, just as the circuit is. Only time will tell how this gets resolved.