World Superbikes: Look Back at Assen

Four rounds into the WorldSBK season we have seen three different race winners, two manufacturers vie for the title but unfortunately one man proving the dominant force.

After eight races it’s hard to imagine Jonathan Rea’s title defence having gotten off to a better start, but it’s happened despite his lack of comfort with the new Kawasaki ZX10-R Ninja. The Northern Irishman has not been comfortable with his new mount. The much discussed “low inertia” engine has clearly taken some of the edge off Rea’s confidence in the bike. With a different engine braking characteristic it has forced him to adjust his riding style to get the most from the bike.

Rea has a very natural style on the bike that has been similar on everything he has ever ridden. Whether it’s a Supersport, Superbike or even a MotoGP machine Rea has been able to ride in the same way. He’ll continue to adapt to the new bike and mould it to allow his style to flourish.

Speaking about his riding style in Assen the champion said:

“I’ve never really changed my style. I try and brake as late as possible and take a normal line to the apex with a swoop. Unfortunately because of this style I also push the limits to brake as late as possible, and when I struggle under braking we’ll find a solution to that, but the cycle starts again at the new braking point!”

The cycle may start again for Rea with each step made by Kawasaki but the cycle keeps coming back to the same point-victory for Rea and increased pressure on the rest of the field.

Rea reasserts himself with dominant double

It’s been a tough season for Jonathan Rea and five victories in eight races belies the challenge that the champion has faced.

Assen was another example of Rea finding a way to win. His relationship with his crew chief, Pere Riba, has always been a touted weapon in his arsenal. Last weekend showed how potent a weapon it has become. After a wet Friday followed by a dry Superpole session the field went to the grid with only 15 minutes of dry running. Rea had no real confidence or knowledge in his bike given the lack of dry weather running but placed his faith in his crew to have find the right setting.

To claim two race wins was hugely impressive for Rea and given the difficult conditions he doesn’t underestimate how important a step it was to claim 50 points from the Dutch venue.

“I am really happy with both races this weekend,” said a smiling Rea after his race two success. “There is something about Assen for me and if I came here and didn’t get at least one win it would feel like a tough weekend. I am happy I have done that for myself. I had a little bit of pressure coming here. If the other guys had put one on me this weekend it would have seemed very strong for them.”

Rea was in exactly the same position in The Netherlands that Chaz Davies found himself in Aragon. Expected to win and on a hiding to nothing if he was defeated. Assen is the strongest track on the calendar for Rea. His nine wins now include five in a row and has come for Honda and Kawasaki. The Dutch tack suits his style, and having raced for Ten Kate for years he has a huge database of track knowledge. He put it to good use during the races.

There’s still work to be done but “no panic” for Rea in finding the solution to his feeling with the bike in allowing him to get the most from the bike.

“I am not panicking so much. I am still working really hard to find the sweet spot because while some of our competitors are at the end of their development cycle we’re still making significant setup changes. I know when I find the sweet spot I can be more relaxed and enjoy things a lot more, but right now we are still working towards an area where like last year (the bike) you could walk on water. I am sure it’s there and the team brought some really good upgrades for this weekend that I never got the chance to try until this morning.

Kawasaki felt that losing the track time on Friday to rain meant that they had little opportunity to make a step with the bike setup. Upgrades in Assen centred on the electronics and while the new ZX10-R is clearly a very competitive package it’s a worry for the rest of the field that Rea still feels there is so much left to improve in the bike before he feels comfortable.

With a 45 points championship lead over Chaz Davies it’s ominous that after each round Rea has been able to poke holes in the Kawasaki.

VDM once again proves his potential

The star of the show in Assen was undoubtedly Michael van der Mark. With his face plastered on every billboard and a bumper crowd turning up in the mixed conditions the Honda rider gave them plenty to cheer about.

His ability to fight at the front was hugely impressive in both races and given that he has finished on the rostrum in half the races so far this year it’s time to reevaluate the Honda Fireblade. Van der Mark was loose and aggressive in the opening race and put himself in position to win the race. When he crashed out of the race it was hardly a surprise, given how hard he had pushed.

With his Ten Kate teammate, Nicky Hayden, right behind him it was clear that the Honda was a very competitive package at Assen. Unfortunately for Van der Mark, the only way to be able to fight for the win was to ride on the limit, and ultimately he overstepped the mark whereas Hayden tiptoed on the limit and was ultimately rewarded with a podium in Race 1.

With two laps remaining his crash took the air out of the atmosphere in Assen but when he emerged onto the pitwalll in front of the podium the crowd went wild. When asked about the reception he received the Honda rider said:

“I'm happy that after six dry laps of practice I saw that I was so strong in race one, but then I made a mistake,” said van der Mark. “When I got back to the pits my mate said to me ‘let’s go to the pit wall’. Of course I did not want to but when I was there and saw all the crowd that had come to support me they put a smile back on my face and I realized that we had another race on Sunday! Of course when I got back to the garage I was disappointed again but at that moment it made me feel really good.”

Having stood on the rostrum twice at home last year Assen was always going to be a round circled on the calendar for Van der Mark. His podium was a fantastic spectacle and a fantastic reward for his track knowledge. Knowing when to switch to slicks and use his local knowledge made for what appeared an easy conclusion to the race. However, given that Van der Mark had two crashes in the wet on Friday he had plenty of scar tissue when racing in the changeable conditions.

“I’ve raced here so much that I knew that once it stopped raining it would dry very quickly. Race 2 was difficult. On Friday I crashed twice in the wet and I was proper scared to go out there in the wet! It was such a weird race and the track was drying, I was trying to take the lead and get away, but on the rain tire it wasn’t possible and I didn’t feel safe.

“We had to go to slick tires, I waited one lap [after Rea], I went out of pit lane and the bike didn’t work for a couple of laps as the tires needed to warm up. For me it was an amazing race after the disappointment yesterday. I wanted to win so badly yesterday and today I have taken third place in front of this amazing place and it is like a win!"

It might be like a win for Van der Mark but his mistake on Saturday showed he still has some lessons to learn before he takes his first win. The Honda is a competitive proposition once again in WorldSBK and Van der Mark is clearly the coming man of the championship. That race win is only just around the corner but Assen showed that disappointment can also lurk there.

First podium for Hayden

It’s been a long road for Nicky Hayden in recent years. There’s been plenty of dead ends for the 2006 MotoGP World Champion but Assen showed how strong he can be with the right bike underneath him. Hayden looked every inch the chiseled veteran during Race 1 with his measured approach.

With no dry running the American raced sensibly and waited for others to make a mistake in front of him. Ultimately this approach paid off with a podium finish and the plaudits of a first ever WorldSBK rostrum.

Afterwards Hayden said:

“It was a really fun race. It was really going into the unknown, we just had a couple of laps in the dry in qualifying. It was pretty intense off the grid but I got a great start and I was able to hang there. I could say that my plan was to wait for other guys to have problems but I wasn’t quite fast enough to pass the three guys in front of me.

“The other guys were a bit quicker than me but I thought maybe I was going to have something left at the end. Then Michael (van der Mark) crashed and I thought, you know what, I should just take this podium and get these points. I put them on the board and learned from it."

Hayden became the first American rider since Ben Spies to claim a WorldSBK podium, and also joined an elite list of riders to have podiums in MotoGP and WorldSBK. Hayden backed up his rostrum finish with sixth in race two to move into the top five in the title chase.

Strategy or luck? Pit stops shake up the order

Timing the change from wets to slicks was what won the race for Jonathan Rea but it also brought in a huge amount of unpredictability for the teams and riders.

For some riders, such as Tom Sykes, the decision of when to time the switch from wet tires was made for them. Sykes fell back to ninth and was put into a can’t lose position by switching. Without the constraints of missing out on a podium finish Sykes, who fell down the order as his wet tires overheated, switched to intermediate tires on the same lap that Rea pitted for slicks.

In the initial laps Sykes was the faster Kawasaki rider and bridged the gap to Rea comfortably. However, as the track dried, the intermediate tires overheated and his bike started to slide and lose grip. After the race Sykes said that he had been shouting for slick tires but that his Yorkshire tones were drowned out and the crew put on the intermediates. Ultimately that was what cost him any chance of beating Rea.

While Sykes’ crew were unable to hear their rider it was a different problem for other riders. Hayden, Davies and Brookes all stayed out for what seemed an age before pitting. Why had they waited so long compared to the eventual race winner?

For Josh Brookes, who led the race in the wet conditions, the timing of the switch comes from consultation with his team via the pit board:

“It’s very easy to look at the telly and say ‘what’s he doing! Come in and get slicks, it’s clear that the track is dry enough!’ But when you’re on the bike and you don’t see the signal you put faith in the team. Maybe they have weather information that says that it’s going to rain or something else. On the bike it felt like we were ready but it started to rain on the last lap of the race so it was clear that there was rain in the air and as a result it’s very easy to pit from the lead and then have to pit again two laps later for wet tires! It’s a nightmare situation and unfortunately when I did pit for slicks I crashed on the out lap. There was a damp patch there and I must have hit it. It’s disappointing but it was great to have led a WorldSBK race on merit in the early stages.”

Sylvain Guintoli started the race on intermediate tires with the Frenchman hoping that the track would be dry enough to warrant the tires before switching to slicks mid-race. But the Frenchman lost way too much time in the early stages to still be competitive when he switched to the slicks.

“I started on the Intermediates from the beginning because my plan was to show a strong performance and then switch to slicks,” said Guintoli after finishing 11th. “I did not get the temperature into the rear tires and lost a lot of time before the pit stop. It was a gamble and unfortunately it did not work.”

Jonathan Rea said that he didn’t want to attribute luck to winning Race 2 and making the switch to slicks at the right time. Instead the Northern Irishman said keeping calm was the key for Kawasaki to have timed the switch perfectly. Rea enjoyed the rub of the green by making the switch at the perfect time but he was also the man most willing to take the risk. Having been in the fight at the front of the field he could have waited longer and played things safely instead he rode aggressively and was rewarded.

The changeable conditions put Race 2 on a knife-edge but as ever it was the razor sharp KRT squad that played the right cards.

Yamaha still looking for more

Four rounds into their return to WorldSBK and Yamaha are still searching for answers to how competitive they are. Assen showed again how difficult the task of competing in the championship is and while Alex Lowes had a solid weekend it was a struggle for Sylvain Guintoli who made uncharacteristic errors in Race 1 with a crash.

The team has shown promise at times but there are murmurs within the paddock that the marriage of Crescent Racing and Yamaha has not been as happy as being portrayed. Having worked with Suzuki for so long, including running the MotoGP program, there has been a period of adjustment to working with Yamaha.

The team is the factory Yamaha effort in WorldSBK, but at the moment there is clearly some tension amongst the ranks of the team. That tension would not have been helped by a difficult weekend for Sylvain Guintoli and Alex Lowes.

Guintoli crashed out of the first race and struggled in Race 2 after starting on intermediate rubber.

“Of course, the result is a disappointment," said the Frenchman. "I made ​​a powerful effort to remain in the leading group in Race 1. The wind was very strong at turn 3 and I was faster in the curve than usual. I lost the front very early and crashed.”

Having qualified on the front row once again the pace of the Yamaha is clear, but following Guintoli’s gamble on intermediate tires the pace wasn’t realized in either race.

For Alex Lowes the weekend was a strange affair. The Englishman was fastest in the wet of Friday practice and looked very comfortable. The mechanical grip generated by the R1 was once again able to push him to the fore but in the dry race of Saturday it was a big challenge for Lowes to get a good result. With minimal dry weather running and a setup that didn’t work for Assen it was always going to be a difficult race.

“We had no data for the dry first race and while the current Yamaha R1 race has raced at Assen it was not in Superbike trim with electronics,” said Lowes. “With no data at Assen we started the race with information from only four laps in Superpole, so it was always a risk! In the first laps I struggled, but then moved forward until I got severe problems with the front tire. But we were quick in all conditions throughout the weekend, so I am frankly disappointed by 8th place in Race 1.”

Race 2 saw Lowes go one place better but he was another rider who misjudged the time to switch to slicks.

“It was difficult in Race 2 because no one could know how the weather develops or how the track reacts to the changed conditions. I gave as much as possible and pushed without taking too much to risk. I wanted to select the best timing for the tire change possible but waited too long. The result was solid and there are other important points. But it's not where we want to be.”

Where Yamaha want to be is at the front and fighting for wins. Instead, as they adapt to returning to the series, they are left looking for morale wins and boosts. The potential is there with the R1 but it will take time for them to realize that potential. The flashes of pace in each round will give the team reason for optimism but now with races coming thick and fast the key is to build on that potential.

Career bests for Savadori and MV Agusta

Assen marked a high water mark for both MV Agusta and Lorenzo Savadori with fourth place finishes. Leon Camier’s fourth place on Saturday was hugely impressive and while he took advantage of some crashes and incidents in front of him the result was largely on merit. His mid-race pace to bridge gaps was very impressive and just rewards for the Englishman.

In the second race Camier lost too much in the changing conditions as he decided on when to pit for slicks.

“They were really tough conditions,” said Camier after Race 2. “When it was still really wet after the start I felt good but when the track was drying I lost precious seconds. Then we changed to slicks and that was the only right decision. When I went back on the track, it took me some time to find the right rhythm in the dry but then again I could make up a few places and was still finish ninth. Unfortunately, in the mixed conditions we had a few problems but my results this weekend were good.”

Camier’s form in the opening four rounds has been very impressive and has started people to change their perceptions of the MV.

Lorenzo Savadori finished a career best sixth in Race 1 and then immediately went better in Race 2 to finish fourth! The Italian is always spectacular on the bike but his speed and consistency in Assen was a big step forward. The Aprilia is still a very competitive bike and now the Italian needs to make further steps in the upcoming races.

“It was an incredible race,” said Savadori. “It’s the first time that I have raced in a flag-to-flag. We worked very hard this weekend and it’s very good for Aprilia and the team to finish fourth!”

With Aprilia’s home race at Imola next on the calendar there’ll be plenty of pressure on Savadori to impress, but Sepang two weeks later is when the bike should be at its most competitive.

Step forward for Brookes

Progress is the key word for Milwaukee BMW but with Josh Brookes having led a WorldSBK race for the first time there can be plenty of reason for optimism within the SMR squad.

The conditions made things difficult for riders all weekend in Assen but Brookes made a definite step forward on Sunday morning. It would be easy to discount leading the race because of the difficult conditions, but the fact was that Brookes led completely on merit and made some fantastic overtaking moves throughout the race.

“We’ve been making progress all weekend,” said the reigning BSB champion. “When the rain first came down I was a little bit put off because we’d been fifth in morning warm-up in dry conditions, so when the rain started I was thinking this could be not so easy. As it was, the changes we made to the bike during the weekend in the dry also made it better in the wet conditions, so I felt like I could go faster and I was thinking I need to move forward.

“I started making passes and it felt very easy. I was confident with the bike and the tires and it felt natural to ride at that speed. To then lead the World Superbike race was a great feeling and I was really pleased. It was a great booster for everyone in the team. It was particularly satisfying because the first part of this year has been so tough for me and the team.”

The adaptation to WorldSBK has taken SMR and Brookes longer than they expected it to but the team has shown now that they are ready to make a step forward in the coming rounds.

Dash for the cash in World Supersport

The racing in World Supersport is always cut throat at the front, but a sudden downpour in Assen provided a unique challenge for the riders. Just after half distance the heavens burst and we were left with a five laps dash for the cash on a sodden track. The weekend started with Anthony West showing his speed in the wet during Friday practice, and while the wildcard should have been rubbing his hands in glee, the Australian was left frustrated by broken bones in his hands and being unable to start the race.

With nothing to lose and conditions favorable to him West would have been the obvious favorite to win the race, but as it was, two British riders came through to the front. Kyle Smith, a man always happy with a bike sliding underneath him, and Gino Rea, one of the best wet weather runners in the world, fought through the field and for the win.

With Kenan Sofuoglu having fought incredibly hard to hold on to the lead the Turk was ultimately outgunned. Struggling for any grip when he opened the throttle the champion was incredibly aggressive and borderline dirty with his rivals as he tried to hold them at bay. Having fought hard with his teammate, Randy Krummenacher, earlier in the race the champ’s history of questionable tactics was once again to the fore.

For race winner Smith the conditions gave him the chance to win but he was surprised by his success. With so little grip on track he was happy to settle for a podium finish at best. When the opportunities presented themselves though he dug deep.

“It was a bit of a tough race,” said Smith. “I felt like I had the pace in the wet all weekend from Friday, but as soon as we started this race I thought I would have to settle for around fourth position because it was just so slippery. Gino (Rea) passed me and PJ (Jacobsen) passed me and I thought there is no way I can keep hold of these guys.

“The beginning of the season didn’t go too well so I thought ‘I’ll just pick up some valuable points’. It seemed like I got some heat into the tires for the last couple of laps and I started to feel really strong. I’ve managed to come up with the win and it’s good for the team seeing as the season has not gone so well. I’m happy to be up here.”

While things took a turn for the better for Smith, the skies are darkening for PJ Jacobsen after another retirement. The American had a searing pace in Assen, but after crashing when the red flags flew he crashed again in the race while fighting for the win. It was bitterly disappointing given the work that Ten Kate had done to get his bike repaired and back out on track in time for the restart.

“When things go good they go good, and when they go bad they go bad,” said the American. “I've kind of just been on a bad streak with the last two rounds. It’s hard to tell on the outside, but honestly I think me and the team have made positive changes this past weekend. We were P1 in a lot of sessions wet and dry, our bike in the dry now is quite competitive. Also in the race, going into the dry race – before it started raining – we felt really good. I was quite happy with how the bike was with our new suspension. The team’s been working really hard and I feel like we’ve finally got it down. I feel like our wet bike, we have it down as well.

“In the race, when I crashed I really wrecked the bike. We were really lucky just to get out there. I couldn't thank the team enough. They were so fast fixing the bike and stuff. To get back out there was a plus. But there were a couple things when we were out there with the throttle, there was lots of damage I was trying to ride around it. I just caught myself out when I took the lead. I was pretty bummed, because I wasn’t there to get fifth, I’m here to win for this team and that’s it. Yeah, I was pretty bummed when I crashed, but I was just riding around some problems from the crash before when the race got red flagged due to rain. I honestly didn’t see the red flag until I approached that corner. I just put my hand up and then I got on the brake and the front was just gone. Once I crashed it seemed like two other guys crashed behind me.”

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Excellent article Kent! Great to see WSB get a proper indepth review. Cheers!

Thanks for the wonderful writeup! "Team Manager of the week" goes to Ronald Kate...he was out there soaking himself wet with the team trying to get PJ back during the red flag instead of staying dry in the garage giving instructions. Cheers!

Thanks for the great recap.  The WSS and 2x WSBK races were so full of excitement, drama and talented performances that I just had to pay up for the subscription.  No more waiting for the US cable provider (or p2p download) for this great entertainment.  I can tell they are investing heavily into onboard cameras as well, making for wonderful and chest clenching shots from the combantants.