Jeremy Burgess was famous for finding that special something on Sunday morning that gave Valentino Rossi the edge in the race in the afternoon. It is a tradition carried on by Silvano Galbusera, who has replaced Burgess since the start of the 2014 season. Galbusera, too, always seems to find that extra little tweak during warm up that makes the difference between cruising in fourth or finishing on the podium, and even on the top step. The fact that it has continued since Burgess' departure suggests that the tweaks were very much a collaborative effort, with input coming from his data engineers and mechanics, as well as the rider himself, of course.
Two weeks ago in Barcelona, Rossi's team appeared to have found something extra special. For it did not just work on the Sunday in Catalonia, taking Rossi from the third row all the way up to 2nd, but it has even carried through to Assen, some 1600km further north. Rossi was quick from the moment he rolled out of pit lane for the first time at Assen, and has been at or near the top of the timesheets ever since. In this form, Rossi may well have expected to have been on the front row, but he went better than that. Putting in one of the best laps of his recent career with a couple of minutes to go, he simply hammered the opposition. As a sign of just how dominant he was at Assen, he led the second fastest man, Aleix Espargaro, by nearly a quarter of a second. The next quarter of a second difference covers second place to eleventh, from Aleix Espargaro to Danilo Petrucci. It is incredibly close at Assen, except at the front. One man reigns supreme.
Where did Valentino Rossi get his new-found speed from? From a change to the balance of the bike which the team tried on Saturday at Barcelona. That base set up still worked when they used it in the new chassis he tested at Aragon after the Barcelona round, and it worked here at Assen. The new chassis is really just a refinement of the previous one, offering improved grip when tire wear starts to kick in, and making the bike even easier to ride – HRC take note. Rossi was skeptical when he was first told about the new chassis, as the improvements were to areas where they bike was already strong. Why make it better there, instead of working on areas where it is weaker? Because improving your strong points is just as good a way of going fast as improving your weak points. Especially when it means improving grip and bike manageability.
Rossi's speed, however, underlines what a truly remarkable rider the Italian is. His hunger is keener than ever, his focus is sharper than ever, his talent is as yet undimmed. And how brightly that talent shines, and has shone. If anything, he is getting better with age, free of the distractions of a younger man, more keenly aware of what he really wants from life, enjoying the racing as much, if not more, than ever.
Rossi claims he was never a great qualifier, and looking at the last five years, with just three pole positions, you would have to agree. Look a little further back and that claim looks a little more tenuous: in 2009, Rossi had seven poles and started from the from row thirteen times. Between 2001 and 2007, he had at least four poles every season, and a lot more front row starts. He has really suffered since the introduction of the new qualifying system, but he showed no signs of concern at Assen. He said he needed to improve his qualifying if he had any hope of holding off the challenge of Jorge Lorenzo, who has come to within a single point of Rossi in the championship. Pole position at Assen is the right time and the right place to reverse the recent momentum.
Was it the tires which slowed up Jorge Lorenzo, leaving him down in eighth on the grid? A little perhaps, but not as much as you may think. Lorenzo had struggled with the tires on Thursday, Bridgestone having brought the same tires here as they did last year, with a slightly harder edge to prevent the tire problems they had here in 2012, when they were shedding chunks of rubber. By Friday, though, he had a handle on the situation, his pace in FP4 far more promising than before, especially on used tires. Lorenzo had expected Bridgestone to bring tires with the 2015 modifications, having gone a little softer on the edge to enhance feel. They did not, and Lorenzo took a day to get his head around them. Now he has, he will be far more competitive in the race. He is still struggling in two sectors, however, and that was where he was losing time during qualifying. Lorenzo needs a little bit of help during warm up, and a good start to allow him to pass a few people on the way to the first turn. If he can get that, he has a chance to try to reverse the momentum in the championship, and get the pendulum to swing back in his direction.
While the Yamaha riders have both moved forward, switching to a new chassis, Marc Márquez has gone backward, using the 2014 frame with the 2015 swingarm and new front forks. It has made the bike more consistent and predictable, and allowed Márquez to put in longer runs at a more consistent pace. Every lap no longer feels like qualifying, and the reigning champion is more confident of finishing the race. He had expected to be further behind the Yamahas, and he is not, and his pace is consistent and fast. Márquez may finally be able to race the leaders without ending up in the gravel. Or it could Misano 2014 all over again.
The Suzukis have impressed once again, Aleix Espargaro getting onto the front row, and Maverick Viñales ending up in ninth. Of course, both riders have the soft tire at their disposal, which helped to get closer to the front. Just how much it actually helps is debatable: at Assen, the soft and medium tires are both very close indeed, the Suzukis both seriously considering racing the soft if the temperatures do not rise too high. Espargaro put the difference at about a tenth of a second, a difference which would have put him third instead of second.
Cal Crutchlow's complaint about the soft tire was rather different. As they have two tires they can use, he told us, they effectively have a larger allocation for the weekend. "The issue I have with it now is that they're able to use more tires than us over the weekend," he told us. "They can use eleven tires over the weekend, we can only use seven. Because the hard here, there is no point to use it, somebody tried it once or twice. It means that they've got eleven tires to use. When we put our new tire in at the end of the practice, they put a new soft in. And then, in the next session, they can start with another new tire, where we can't. And also that carries over to the next day. So tomorrow morning, I have to start with a used tire, same as Marc, same as Dani, we're all in the same boat. But Ducati don't and Suzuki don't, they can just keep throwing tires in. So really, they've got a four tire advantage. " Whether they can translate that four tire advantage into a podium remains to be seen.
A curious incident at the start of Q2 had costly consequences for both Valentino Rossi and Aleix Espargaro. Rossi was first out of pit lane, but he timed his exit just a little early. He passed the line demarcating pit lane exit about a second and a half early, while the red lights were on and the red flags were being shown. The infraction was felt to have offered them an unfair advantage, and both riders were fined €2,000, and had their first flying lap time canceled. That mattered very little, as both Rossi and Espargaro set their fastest times towards the end of the session. But it is right for Race Direction to be vigilant.
Marc Márquez got lucky. Like Espargaro, he too was following Rossi out of pit lane. But he was just a few meters behind Espargaro when he crossed the line. That meant he was leaving pit lane exit exactly as the lights dimmed and the flags were being withdrawn. Like Andrea Iannone's non-jump start in Mugello, he owes his failure to be given a penalty more to luck than to judgment. His timing was perfect, but it was also completely accidental. Perhaps it is an omen that his luck is starting to change.
In Moto2, there are once again three riders a cut above the rest. Best of the lot is Johann Zarco, the Frenchman looking increasingly in control of the intermediate class. His pole was taken with a clear advantage, and reflects the strength of Zarco this year in Moto2. He is joined on the front row by Tito Rabat and Sam Lowes, the three men starting to form a clear group who will be fighting for the championship.
In Moto3, Enea Bastianini once again shone, taking his second pole in a row at Assen. Both he and Danny Kent were fast in practice, and significantly, set their lap times mostly alone. The Moto3 title looks to increasingly be coming down to a battle between the Italian and the Englishman, with a clear advantage to the British rider so far. Kent himself was not flustered: he had done a long run of 12 laps at a very strong pace on medium race tires, and was less concerned about starting fourth on the grid. It is possible to make a break and make it stick at Assen. It would be unwise to bet against that happening on Saturday.
The biggest question mark over Assen is what the weather will do. How hard it is to make predictions, the professional weather forecasters are finding out. The forecast changes every time that you look at it, the time that rainfall is expected getting earlier and earlier. It looks likely to rain at Assen on Saturday. The question is whether it will rain at 2am in the morning, or 2pm in the afternoon. If it rains in the afternoon, that would throw a real spanner in the works. If that happens, then all bets are off again.
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