So how does the first Dutch TT at Assen to be run following the normal Friday-to-Sunday schedule feel for the riders? It feels normal, is the consensus. "I don't think it makes a difference regarding the feeling," Dani Pedrosa explained on Thursday. "Because when we were here on Wednesday, it felt like a Thursday, because the procedure is the same."
The only downside about the switch from Saturday to Sunday? "The only good thing before was that when you finish the race, you still have the Sunday off! So when you return home, you had a good time with family on Sunday," said Pedrosa. "I'm going to miss my Sunday roast!" added Bradley Smith.
Perhaps a more complex and sensitive loss was the fact that the Assen round of MotoGP now clashes directly with the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Bradley Smith bemoaned the fact that he would not be able to attend the festivities on Sunday, nor the traditional dinner on Saturday night. The damage this clash does could be small but significant in the long run. Though motorcycles are given a lot of attention at Goodwood, it is primarily an event focused on four wheels. Having top MotoGP riders attend the event was good exposure for motorcycle racing, and MotoGP in particular. With Assen likely to clash frequently with Goodwood, the number of riders at the event is certain to diminish.
Typical Assen weather – all over the place
If the switch to Sunday is fairly insignificant, the weather at Assen most assuredly is not. Temperatures were sweltering on Thursday, as a brief but very humid heatwave swept across The Netherlands. Even those hailing from warmer climes were complaining. It got so bad that fans who had been waiting in pit lane for the pit lane walk to start and the riders to appear started to wither under the heat, fainting from heat exhaustion, and being rushed off to first aid posts for treatment.
The heat is due to break tonight and tomorrow, with temperatures dropping from 32°C to 24°C on Friday, then falling further to 20 or 21°C on Saturday or Sunday. Rain is threatening – it has already fallen on Thursday evening, and more is expected overnight – and could affect free practice and qualifying. That makes choosing the right tire for the race a tricky task, and requires both careful management of the tire allocation, to ensure that you have enough of the right tire left for the race, and being quick throughout practice. You never know which session will offer the best conditions, so you need to make sure that you are in the top ten at the end of each session, or you could end up being caught out.
Temperatures make for tricky tire choices
"The weather can be the thing in this track," Dani Pedrosa explained. "To have the right tire in the right temperature. We see that the tires are more sensitive to temperature windows. So here, it can be a little bit difficult."
"The strategy to keep the quantity of tires is important," he went on. "Maybe in one practice you are not there in the top because you are saving some tire in the afternoon, to have the right tire in the right temperature. But we have to stay in the best lap times, because we don't know which practice session will be the best weather. You don't know if it will be FP1 or FP3, so you need to be strong every time."
For fans and followers, that means that keeping track of who has the pace for Sunday can be very complicated. Different riders will be following different tire strategies, so the times on the timesheets can be very hard to compare. Even careful analysis of the full set of practice lap times may not help. Which tire a rider is on, how many laps it has done and whether it was the tire they intend to race or not is never officially recorded, so we are all left to guess.
Factory vs Factory
How do the riders rate their chances, given their different bikes. Everyone on a Yamaha praised the track, saying they loved riding it. The factory Ducati riders said they were optimistic, but there was still a physical limit to bike performance, a little bit in braking, but mainly in getting the bike to turn in very high speed corners, with which Assen is richly blessed. For the Honda riders, Assen had a neutral reception, the lack of hard acceleration areas (except for the exit of the Strubben hairpin and the GT chicane) negating their weakest point. But there were also very few hard braking points, places in which the RC213V can play to its strengths.
Maverick Viñales had a twinkle in his eye when asked about Assen, especially when reminded of what he had said at Austin. In Texas, he had earmarked Assen as his best chance of winning a race, the track clearly playing to the Suzuki GSX-RR's strengths. Aleix Espargaro had started from the front row, Viñales reminded us, but he played down his own chances, uttering platitudes about needing to work hard with his team. Platitudes can belie a degree of confidence, however. Keep one eye on Viñales, however. This could be a very special weekend for the Spaniard.
French ATC thwarts an announcement
What did his Ecstar Suzuki teammate have to say? Nothing in public, as Aleix Espargaro spent his Thursday afternoon stuck in Barcelona, waiting for a flight to Amsterdam. A strike by French air traffic controllers meant his flight was delayed, and he couldn't get to Assen in time.
This proved to create a number of complications for everyone. Espargaro had been expected to announce his future in the press conference at Assen, but being absent, he could not do so. When journalists started tweeting that Aleix Espargaro had signed for Aprilia, the Spaniard was quick to deny it via Twitter.
Leaving aside the double negative of 'not having signed for nobody', his denial may well be accurate. Paddock gossip suggests that Espargaro was due to sign the contract with Aprilia on Thursday afternoon at Assen, then announce it in the pre-event press conference. The delayed flight not only meant he missed the press conference, but also meant he had not put pen to paper on Thursday afternoon.
That does not mean that Aleix Espargaro will not sign a contract with Aprilia. An Aprilia source at Misano told me that Espargaro would be partnering Sam Lowes in 2017, and Stefan Bradl made his feelings clear. "I know that Aleix Espargaro will announce this very, very soon, probably in the next couple of minutes!" the German told reporters. French air traffic controllers put paid to that announcement, but they will not have affected the deal in the long term.
If Espargaro's non-announcement was news, Cal Crutchlow's confirmation at LCR Honda was less so. The Englishman already had a contract for 2017 with LCR, but with options on both his side and the side of LCR Honda to skip the second year. The two sides have reached a mutual agreement that Crutchlow will stay, and have already started talks for 2018.
Nicolo Bulega was also confirmed for another two years with the Sky VR46 Racing Team, and the Italian's contract raised some questions in the press conference about the future of MotoGP. It was pointed out that if all of the Spaniards currently in MotoGP remain in the class, and with Alex Rins going to Suzuki for 2017, then 10 of the 23 riders for next year will be Spanish.
The problem is not just quantity, but also quality, Valentino Rossi pointed out. "Now they are very many, but also they are very strong, in Moto3, Moto2 and especially MotoGP," Rossi told the press conference. The Spanish investment over the past ten years has paid dividends, producing a large group of riders rich in talent. Of the current nine riders in MotoGP, seven are world champions. If Alex Rins wraps up the Moto2 title this year – something which is far from certain – that would make it eight out of ten.
To his eternal credit, Valentino Rossi has been trying to turn this situation around. The VR46 Riders Academy has been instrumental in nurturing young Italian riders and spotting talent. The mixture of flat track at Rossi's ranch and riding at the Misano circuit has helped hone the skills of selected Italian youngsters, and now they are a force to be reckoned with. Nicolo Bulega's contract is an example of this.
"We tried to improve the situation of Italy in the last years," Rossi told the press conference. "We make a good effort, and I think the results are starting to arrive, but you need time. We have to say that we have some good young Italian talents, some are from the Academy, but also some other guys are not with us but are strong. It's something that needs time, but I think that it's something that in the future, we can have some good Italian riders."
When Valentino Rossi finally retires, he will leave an indelible legacy with his own career, remarkable for both its length and its success. He will forever be at the very top of the list in any debate over who is the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, with very few rivals for that crown. But his bigger legacy could well be the Italian youngsters who will be following in his footsteps. Through his commitment to bringing on talent, Rossi will be remembered not just as the man who won so many races and titles on so many different machines, but also as the man who saved Italian racing.
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