We knew that the 86th edition of the Dutch TT at Assen was going to be historic. It was, after all, the first time the race was to be run on Sunday, after being run on Saturday since 1925. What we didn't know was that the day the race was held would end up being the least interesting historic fact about it. The record books will have plenty to say about Sunday's race at Assen.
There was some fascinating racing in all three classes, as is is so often the case at Assen. The Moto3 race saw a scintillating race decided at the line, the podium separated by less than four hundredths of a second. We had a return to something like the Moto2 of old, with a sizable group battling over the podium spots. And last but not least, we had a bizarre two-part MotoGP race, red-flagged, restarted, and with a mold-breaking winner. When we look back, the MotoGP race at Assen could well prove to be a pivotal point in the championship.
The red-flagged MotoGP race was down to the weather once again playing a starring role in the weekend. After rain on Saturday, Sunday started bright, though the track took time to warm up and dry out. Clouds rolled in and rolled back out again, as is their wont at Assen, occasionally spitting but not looking like they would cause major problems for any of the three classes. Until the last part of the Moto2 race, when the heavens finally opened and drenched the track. That race would be red-flagged, and it would not be the only one.
One for the record books
Having two races red-flagged on the same day was unusual, but it was far from the least common thing to happen on the day. We had three riders take their maiden victory in each of the three classes: Pecco Bagnaia in Moto3, Taka Nakagami in Moto2, and the surprising Jack Miller in MotoGP. It was the first time since Sepang 2009 that we had three winners from three different continents. Miller was the first rider since Ben Spies at Assen in 2011 to break the hegemony on victories held by Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner in MotoGP. And Miller's win was the first victory by a non-factory team since Toni Elias used a set of Dani Pedrosa's cast-off Michelins to win at Estoril in 2006.
Sunday started with a Moto3 race that was the usual thriller. A group of 14 riders broke away, over half of whom were Italian, and containing championship leader Brad Binder. While the Sky Racing VR46 riders did their best to beat each other up, ably assisted by Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Di Giannantonio and Niccolo Antonelli, Brad Binder sat coolly in fourth or fifth place for most of the race, seemingly biding his time and waiting to pounce. He would not get the chance: as they pack rounded the blisteringly fast Ramshoek, Binder saw a rider come up his inside, and got on the gas a fraction earlier than normal to try to stay ahead of him going into the GT chicane.
A little too early: the Red Bull KTM broke traction and nearly spat him off, Binder forced to run wide and through the grass. Some quick thinking by the cameraman operating the massive boom tracking camera meant Binder could just duck underneath the boom as it was raised, and rejoin the race, well out of touch with the leaders.
New winner #1
Victory would come down to a final lap battle, Pecco Bagnaia using smarts and corner speed to out-drag Andrea Migno to the line by a tiny margin. It was Bagnaia's first Grand Prix victory, but also the first victory for a Mahindra in Moto3. Migno crossed the line in second, but was put back a place after passing a rider across the green tarmac outside of the Meeuwenmeer corner.
Bagnaia's victory was well deserved, and has been coming for a while now. The Italian has been totally outperforming the other Mahindra riders, seemingly untroubled by the gearbox problems which dog the Mahindra. But the Italian has proven time and again he can run at the front of a race.
Despite the fact that Binder crossed the line in twelfth, the Moto3 race had remarkably little effect on the standings in the championship. Jorge Navarro, absent after breaking a leg in a training accident, was lucky to only lose 4 points to Binder in the championship. Binder was lucky to pick up a twelfth position, when it could so easily have been a DNF. Only Romano Fenati was less lucky, the Italian finishing off the podium and crossing the line in fourth. Fenati had an ideal opportunity to regain some points on his championship rivals, and he did not capitalize on it.
New winner #2
After Moto3 had set the bar very high, Moto2 did its best to live up to expectations. Takaaki Nakagami, Johann Zarco, Franco Morbidelli, Lorenzo Baldassarri, Tom Luthi and Sam Lowes all scrapped hard for the first half of the race, until Nakagami decided he had had enough, and pulled the pin. Once in the lead, the Japanese rider quickly opened a gap, going on to take an impressive victory, leaving his rivals breathless in his wake. Like Bagnaia in Moto3, Nakagami is a rider who has had a win coming for a very long time, and they way the Japanese rider finally sealed the deal was deeply impressive.
Johann Zarco took second, the Frenchman's title defence growing stronger every week. Franco Morbidelli took the final podium spot, in what would turn out to be a very good day for the Marc VDS Estrella Galicia team. Sam Lowes struggled to fourth, having problems with grip from the hard rear tire. Alex Rins crossed the line in sixth, unable to be competitive all weekend. The result works out well for the championship, however: Zarco and Rins are now tied on 126 points, with Lowes just five points behind.
Wet, wild and weird
The rain which cut the Moto2 race short was a harbinger of what was to come in the MotoGP race. The race started on a wet track with a slowly drying line, persuading everyone to use the harder rear wet tire. That choice would prove to have a bigger influence on the results than expected once the race had been red-flagged and restarted, when the riders all switched over to the softer compound wet tire.
The first race proved to be very entertaining, with Yonny Hernandez becoming the first Colombian rider to ever lead a MotoGP race, using the Ducati's outstanding wet-weather grip to pass Valentino Rossi. His lead lasted nine laps, before a little too much eagerness saw him crash out of the lead after the rain began to fall very heavily once again.
Aquaplaning stops play
Rossi then found himself embroiled in a battle with Andrea Dovizioso, Danilo Petrucci and Scott Redding, with Dovizioso taking over the lead on lap 14, and Petrucci a lap later as the rain intensified. But by that time, conditions had become so bad that the race was red-flagged. Riders afterwards complained of aquaplaning and the rear spinning up under acceleration at high speed, as the water became too much for the worn rear wets to handle.
The dry line had caused even the hard rear wet to start to show significant wear, much of the tread being lost by the heat being generated. Once heavy rain fell, the riders were left to face a torrential downpour with a rear tire which was starting to resemble a slick, and was simply too dangerous to continue. Though everyone agreed that stopping the race was the right thing to do, several riders felt it should have been stopped earlier.
Aggregate vs sprint races
After waiting for the worst of the rain to pass, the race was restarted, with riders lining up in the positions they finished lap 14 on. It was to be a 12-lap sprint race, with full points awarded for the shortened race. That would later lead to discussions over the merits of sprint races versus aggregate races, where the results from both races are combined. The Grand Prix Commission has rejected aggregate races as being confusing for fans and viewers, though technology has moved on considerably since that decision was made. Dorna's outstanding on-screen graphics could quite easily be adapted to show the virtual race within a race, and the aggregate times of the two parts of the race.
The shortened second race also meant that the riders all switched to the soft wet rear tire, and this would prove to be problematic. There was a lot more grip with the soft wet, while the Michelin front was still too hard to provide any useful feeling. The first fourteen laps saw just one rider crash, Yonny Hernandez falling out of the lead. The last twelve laps saw a veritable cavalcade of crashes, as one rider after another misjudged the rear grip and pushed that little bit harder knowing they only had twelve laps to go. The grippy rear overpowered the front, and down they went.
Shooting himself in the foot
The main victim of the switch to soft wets at the rear was Valentino Rossi. The Italian had been strongest in the opening laps and had already opened a gap. But then he entered the Stekkenwal 4 km/h faster than on the previous lap, and crashed out of the race. Rossi was absolutely livid, above all at himself for having made such a costly mistake. "During the weekend, all the practice, I was always very precise in the riding style and I never make a mistake," Rossi said afterwards. "All the other guys make mistakes, crash and everything. But unfortunately I made the mistake in the important moment. And was a shame because I already don’t hear the noise of the others so I already had a good advantage."
Rossi going down opened the door for Marc Márquez, who had been sitting behind Rossi watching the Italian disappear into the distance. Márquez was showing a surprising maturity in his approach, not being suckered into following Rossi, or even following Jack Miller when the Australian passed him. "It was a race where you can lose a lot of points, so my mentality was to just go out and try to finish the race," Márquez told the press conference. His patience would be amply rewarded, taking second place and extending his lead over Rossi to 42 points, and over Jorge Lorenzo to 24 points.
It's Miller time
But the day really belonged to Jack Miller, and the Marc VDS Estrella Galicia team. The Australian has faced a barrage of criticism since deciding to skip Moto2 and go straight to MotoGP, especially after a poor rookie season aboard an Open Class Honda at LCR. Miller saw victory as a chance to prove his critics wrong. "Coming up through from Moto3 into MotoGP was a big step, but this makes it clear that we do know how to ride a motorbike and I'm not an idiot," Miller told the press conference afterwards. "It gives Honda something back for taking such a big gamble on me and the risks those guys have taken to bring me through from Moto3 with the amount of criticism they have taken, and the amount of criticism I have taken."
The win was also a reward for Marc VDS and for team manager Michael Bartholemy. The German-speaking Belgian had signed Jack Miller to race in Moto2 three years ago, but the Australian had opted for another season in Moto3. That breach of contract lay between them for a long while, the wound only really healed once HRC put Miller into the Marc VDS team at the beginning of the year. Bartholemy had worked hard to raise the money to run a two-bike MotoGP team, and that hard work has finally been vindicated.
Fans and journalists had been quick to write Miller off as a failed project, overlooking the many factors which complicate his entry into MotoGP. The Australian is riding a Honda, probably the most physically demanding bike on the grid. He is doing so after having massively smashed his right tibia and fibula in a training crash, and having also damaged cartilage in his leg. He is only now starting to get to the stage where he is strong enough and fit enough to start to race. Miller thanked Cal Crutchlow after the race, having spent a week with the Englishman on the Isle of Man, and having put in over 500km of cycling in that time.
What critics hadn't seen is the slow and steady improvement over the past few races. Miller is now rarely stuck at the bottom of the timesheets, slowly getting to grips with the RC213V. He had a strong result in Barcelona three weeks ago, ending the race in tenth. After the first race was red-flagged, he would have been more than happy to take the ninth place he had been sitting in when the race was stopped. "I was happy with ninth in the first race, really content with that," he said after the press conference. "I thought, ‘Shit! Why are they restarting it?’"
There is clearly still a long way to go for the Jack Miller project in MotoGP. But there is now real reason for optimism. Sure, the win came in unusual circumstances, but those were exactly the same for every other rider on the grid, and Miller handled them best. He now has to take that confidence and move forward in the dry, as well as the wet.
Lorenzo's lack of grip
Confidence, especially in the wet, was the biggest problem for Jorge Lorenzo. The red flag came as a godsend for the reigning world champion, as he was sitting in nineteenth at the time. The restarted race saw Lorenzo finish in tenth, and score 6 valuable championship points. Lorenzo was candid after the race that his tenth place was inherited rather than earned. "I gained because the others crashed, not because I was overtaking," Lorenzo said. "But I was not competitive. It was very difficult to be competitive in the first race because I was probably slower than ever, especially when all the big water came. I was slower and slower."
What is Lorenzo's problem? Part of it is surely still the hangover of his 2013 crash, which saw him break his collarbone. According to team manager Wilco Zeelenberg, Lorenzo is losing three to four tenths of a second in the fourth sector, the part of the track where he hurt himself so badly. When conditions are treacherous, this makes things worse, and Lorenzo can't find a solution to his problems.
Less corner speed, more braking
But Lorenzo also has issues in very specific conditions. If he does not have any grip from the front tire, due to rain or any other reason, he finds it impossible to change his style enough to adapt to the circumstances. "When I feel the front doesn’t have grip under braking, with the style I have and the position of my body on the bike I suffer more than the other riders," Lorenzo explained.
"I am not able to suddenly change my riding, especially to gain the time on braking in the entry of the corner. Normally I sacrifice the other corner to have corner speed but if you don’t have corner speed in the middle of the corner you do not gain. And you also lose on braking. That’s the only way. When I have front feeling, like Motegi, in the rain I’ve been able to be the fastest one. But when I don’t have it I can be the last." This is the one chink in Lorenzo's armor, and one he will have to address at some point in time.
The events of a wild MotoGP race are likely to prove decisive in the championship, despite the fact that there are still ten races left to go. Marc Márquez' sensible attitude paid off richly, the Repsol Honda rider extending his championship lead over Jorge Lorenzo to 24 points. Valentino Rossi's crash puts him now 42 points behind Márquez, the championship now very difficult for him. But it's been a topsy turvy season so far, so it would be unwise to write anyone off just yet. The top three have six race crashes and DNFs between them in just eight races. There are ten more races in which to shake things up still.
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