For Assen, this is a year for breaking with tradition. In 2016, for the first time in its history, the 86th edition of the Dutch TT at Assen will be run on Sunday rather than Saturday. It is the end of an era, but also the start of a new era.
The reason for the switch is simple: better exposure. "All of the major football games, all of the big sporting events are on Sunday. People expect to go to a big event on a Sunday," chairman of the circuit Arjan Bos told reporters last year. TV audiences expect major sports events to take place on a Sunday, and not a Saturday, as the viewing figures for Assen have repeatedly shown. On average, TV audiences are down by a significant amount compared to other MotoGP races.
The switch to Sunday is expected to generate between 5% and 10% more revenue for the TT circuit, the city of Assen and the surrounding region in the long term. The circuit is hoping to extend its contract by another five years, having it end in 2026 rather than 2021. Bigger crowds and more income over the long term will allow Assen to make some major upgrades in terms of spectator comfort and track safety.
The times, they are a changing
Above all, there is no reason to run the race on Saturday any longer, other than because of tradition. The Saturday race created a tradition for me: every year, before I wrote my Assen preview, I would sit down and read up on the history of the Dutch Reformed Church, the dominant religion of Drenthe, the Dutch province which Assen is situated in. It is a rich and convoluted history, full of schism and separation, as arguments over the finer points of theology led to irreconcilable differences, and the church split again and again.
One of the more austere branches of the Dutch Reformed Church took root in the northern Netherlands. In 1925, after Dutch law was changed to allow racing to be held on public roads, the motorcycle club "Assen and surrounding villages" organized a race, to be held between three villages to the east of Assen: Rolde, Borger, and Schoonloo. They originally planned to hold the race on Sunday, with the start in Rolde. The starting line was at the Kerkbrink, the open space in front of the local church, but the Dutch Reformed pastor felt that having a motorcycle race start in front of his church on Sunday would upset churchgoers. So the motorcycle club switched the date of the race from Sunday to Saturday, and a tradition was born.
Since the start of that tradition, much has changed. Not least the location of the race: after the first race in 1925, the organizers asked the town council in Schoonloo to replace a wooden bridge along the way with a wider one made of stone. The council refused, and so the motorcycle club switched the venue to a 16.5 km section of roads running between villages to the southwest of Assen.
Revolution is coming
Despite the change of venue, the race was still held on Saturday, to avoid any problems with local churches. The race continued until 1939, but was stopped during the Second World War, only resuming again in 1946. From 1949, when the FIM turned the collection of international races which formed the Continental Circus into a world championship, and granted them Grand Prix status, the Dutch TT at Assen became a Grand Prix. It has continued ever since, the only circuit to do so.
In the late 1960s, The Netherlands underwent a period of dramatic social change. The power of the various religious denominations waned, and the church had less of a say in daily affairs. The church's disapproval of sporting events meant less and less, even in the more rural areas which clung to their faith as the rest of The Netherlands became ever more secular.
By the start of the 21st Century, suggestions that the Dutch TT at Assen could switch from Saturday to Sunday became ever more frequent. The executives at the circuit clung to tradition for as long as possible, swayed by the fans who loudly voiced their opposition to change. As late as 2013, circuit management said the race would not be moving to Sunday. Yet two years later, they announced that that the decision had been made. From now on, the MotoGP race at Assen would be held on Sunday, the same as every other MotoGP race, and the same as almost every other major sporting event.
Welcoming a new era
So a new era starts on Sunday. For the paddock, it will most likely be a relief. The most common game to play at Assen was called "Work out what day it is" with riders and journalists trying to work out if "Saturday" was shorthand for qualifying, or if they really meant the day after Friday. Having a race on Sunday will mean we will have one less thing to worry about, and be able to concentrate on the race.
The move to Sunday will also provide a pleasant distraction from the tragic events of Barcelona. Though Luis Salom will still be at the forefront of everyone's mind and in everyone's thoughts, the fact that the paddock had two days to mourn Salom's death and celebrate his life in Barcelona means we arrive in Assen without the need to find closure. After the deaths of Shoya Tomizawa and Marco Simoncelli during their respective races, it meant that the following weekends started on a sombre note, giving voice to the collective grief of the paddock. That ritual has already been observed for Luis Salom, and though he remains in everyone's hearts, we can move on at Assen.
A winding ribbon of asphalt
There is plenty to get excited about. Despite its emasculation, the Circuit van Drenthe, to give it its official name, remains one of the finest circuits on the calendar. Though the former glory of the old North Loop has been replaced by a long section of tight right handers before the sharp left of the Strubben hairpin, the remainder of the track is still sublime.
From the sinuous Veenslang (literally "Peat Snake", the track being built on a former peat bog) into the blisteringly fast Ruskenhoek. The track then snakes from Stekkenwal to Mandeveen, the first of a long series of rights where the speed begins to build. The track reaches its climax in the final section. The terrifying right-left flick of Hoge Heide, which seems harmless when you walk the track, but narrows to just a meter wide at 270 km/h. The fast and furious Ramshoek, where you turn left at very high speed on a tire that has spent the last 20 seconds cooling off. And the naturally pugilistic GT chicane, where so many races have been settled in single combat, often as a result of contact.
Deterioration sets in
Which brings me neatly to last year. The 2015 MotoGP race proved to be one of the most spectacular in ages, with Marc Márquez shadowing Valentino Rossi all race long, before trying to pull a move he had been practicing all weekend to take the win. Unfortunately for Márquez, he had been practicing the move without Valentino Rossi being present, and the Italian's experience made all the difference in the world. Barged wide, Rossi stood the bike up, ran across the gravel on the inside of the chicane, and took victory. Honda complained, but Race Direction put the blame fairly and squarely on Márquez, awarding Rossi the victory.
It was a big step in the deterioration of the relationship between the two riders, which would culminate in the events at Sepang last year. Since then, there has been very bad blood between Rossi and Márquez, with Rossi blaming Márquez for conspiring to deprive him of the 2015 title. The relationship descended into open warfare, the pair never exchanging a word when their paths crossed.
The tragic events of Barcelona helped to put things into perspective, and after Valentino Rossi triumphed over Marc Márquez in the MotoGP race, Rossi offered Márquez his hand. The Spaniard accepted it gladly, having tired of the friction between the two long before Rossi. The situation was starting to thaw, at least a little.
Returning to Assen will be a real test of their relationship. The likelihood of a repeat of last year's race is high. Both Rossi and Márquez love Assen, and both have won some famous victories here. The flowing nature of the track suits the Yamaha's ability to maintain corner speed, and the lack of tight corners needing hard acceleration helps disguise the weakness of the Honda. Do not be surprised if Rossi and Márquez arrive at the GT chicane on the final lap close together once again. Márquez has been given fair warning of Rossi's guile around Assen, but Márquez has the smarts to invent a new attack vector. The oh so fragile recovery of the Rossi-Márquez relationship could be under threat once again.
Though the Assen track is a natural fit for the Yamaha M1, that does not mean that Jorge Lorenzo is favorite to win. The Spaniard has had a tough time at the circuit, his last victory here coming in 2010. Ill fortune dogs Lorenzo in Assen, with incidents filling every year. Being taken out in the first corner by Alvaro Bautista. Being bumped into the gravel at the Strubben hairpin by Marco Simoncelli. Smashing his collarbone during free practice, then racing with it newly plated two days later. A year later, riding to 13th in sheer terror, as the rain fell and the track became slick.
Lorenzo's past at Assen is best described as checkered. In theory, Lorenzo should be a straight up favorite for the win at the track. But history and bad luck says otherwise.
Future stars Suzuki?
Maverick Viñales could be a rider to watch in Assen. The circuit plays to the Suzuki GSX-RR's strengths, while mitigating its weaknesses. In the last few races, Viñales has sensed that he has been close to a podium earned on merit, without the misfortune of others. Assen could be the race where Viñales finally fulfills his promise.
His teammate will also want to do well. After being nudged out at Suzuki, to make way for Alex Rins next year, Aleix Espargaro will be keen to make a point. The Spaniard will be out for a result at Assen, and he has shown flashes in the past of being able to do just that.
What of the Ducatis? Assen has not always been kind to the Italian factory. The best result they have scored since Casey Stoner departed is a single podium with Andrea Dovizioso. In theory, the Ducati Desmosedici GP should suit the flowing nature of the Assen track. Yet in practice, it still has some shortcomings.
Whoever wins the races at Assen will have their names inscribed in the history books as the first to win a Grand Prix race at the Circuit van Drenthe on a Sunday. Given the stature of the riders going for victory at Assen, that achievement will most likely end up as a trivia question on quiz night at bike clubs. That doesn't mean that the win won't be historic: riders who win at Assen tend to be riders who win championships. The three races on Sunday are sure to count, whatever day they were held on.
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