For the first ten years I spent writing previews for the Dutch TT at Assen, I would start have to start off on a tangent, with a brief summary of the schisms and splits of the Dutch Reformed Church. Without the background to the religious topology of The Netherlands, it is hard to explain why the race was held on Saturday. Last year, when the MotoGP race was held on a Sunday for the first time, I had to recap that, to explain why it was a big deal for the race to be held on Sunday, and to be moved from Saturday.
This year, 2017, I can leave aside the history of Dutch Protestantism and its aversion to any activity on the Sabbath. This will be the second time the race will be held on Sunday, and so the novelty of the change has worn off. It has fallen in line with the rest of the calendar, and so it is just another race weekend, same as any other. Although of course, being Assen, it is still something a bit special.
If anything, the switch from having a Saturday race to a Sunday race has been a positive boon. Though some feared the traditionalists would stay away, offended by change, visitor numbers were up last year, especially on Friday and Saturday. More people came for the race as well, despite taking place in an absolute downpour. Over 105,000 fans packed a flooded Assen, because being Assen, it is still something a bit special.
Diminished, but still glorious
Though the track has been neutered, the former glory of the North Loop removed to raise funds to improve facilities, three and a half of the circuit's four and a half kilometer length is still a unique and challenging layout. The banking and camber may be reduced, but the weird snaking layout and subtle dips and bumps make it a tough track to get absolutely perfect. It is still fast too, with corners like the Ruskenhoek, Meeuwenmeer, Hoge Heide and Ramshoek demanding both courage and skill. And it has one of the best final chicanes in the world, the GT Chicane or Geert Timmer Bocht offering the perfect final shot at a pass to win the race.
Assen also sees a return to some semblance of normality, after the appalling surface and blistering heat at Barcelona created chaos for some, opportunities for others. Though Assen, too, is expected to be resurfaced in the next couple of years, the track still has oodles of grip, and with cars only rarely seen on track, the surface is not especially bumpy. This is a circuit which should suit most riders, and most bikes. There are few points where there is enormously heavy braking, and only really one point where there is very hard acceleration. The track flows, rewarding corner speed and a delicacy with the throttle. It is very much a rider's track.
"Apart from the very tight corner before the back straight, where you really need good acceleration, the rest is really a handling track, where you need to be really technical, really use as much track as possible to keep as much speed all the time," explains Aleix Espargaro. Valentino Rossi agrees. "Assen is one of the tracks with the best grip. It's also a good grip on the wet, but especially on the dry, it's always good. It's a great track, I like it a lot, also after 2006. It became more normal, but it's very fun to ride with the MotoGP. Very high speed corners, so it is a strong emotion."
The key to decoding MotoGP in 2017 is down to grip. At tracks where there is none, the Hondas dominate. At tracks where there is plenty, the Yamahas own the place. The Ducatis appear to be 'grip agnostic', sometimes excelling and sometimes suffering in both conditions. Rear grip can help the Suzuki, and the Aprilia benefits from a stable front end through the many fast corners with which Assen is blessed.
The KTM? Well, the RC16 is still a work in progress, but the emphasis is very much on the word progress. KTM stayed on for an extra three days at Barcelona, and on the last run, on the last day, Pol Espargaro said they found a big step forward. Their problem had so often been a huge drop in pace at the end of the race, but the mixture of new parts and setup changes found on that final run should go a long way towards fixing that. It doesn't mean that the KTMs are suddenly going to be competing for podiums. But it should mean that they are in the battle for the points all the way to the line.
The Dunlop factor
Assen already offers plenty of grip, but there is an added twist this weekend. To avoid a possible clash with the F1 race in Baku, Azerbaijan, the MotoGP race is an hour earlier than normal, to be held at 1pm Dutch time. To make that possible, Moto2 has been rescheduled to 2:30pm, now starting after MotoGP. That throws the riders a curve ball, as the Dunlop rubber left on the track by 32 sliding Moto2 bikes can have a radical effect on grip levels. Usually, the riders and teams know that the grip in the race on Sunday changes from the grip on Saturday, when MotoGP follows Moto3, but is before Moto2. This Sunday, that is reversed, so the riders will should find the track on Sunday feels very much the same as the track on Saturday.
How that affects grip varies massively from rider to rider. For some, it made little difference, while for others it was a major issue. Valentino Rossi said that Moto2 had been a factor in the past, but he was unsure of what difference it would make. "In the past, especially last year, we spoke very much also with Michelin about the race of Moto2 before us," he said. "Because sometimes last year, the grip level after the race of Moto2 was very different, worse. Like the Moto2 leave some Dunlop rubber on the track, and afterwards, it's not matching very well with the Michelin. But we don't understand if it's true, it depends very much. So I think it will not change a lot."
For Scott Redding, the change is a little frustrating, as he had spent the entire test at Barcelona working on figuring out how to deal with the changing grip in hot conditions. His problem had always been that he would spend practice trying to make the hard tire work, and feeling he was making progress, then when he got to the race, the Dunlop rubber smeared on the track by the Moto2 bikes totally changed the feel of the bike, and the hard tire was simply not working. At the test, he had worked on the medium tire, and making that tire last. But now that he finally felt he had a grip on that situation, Dorna throws a spanner into the works by scheduling Moto2 after MotoGP.
Different strokes for different folks
Dani Pedrosa looked surprised when I asked him about the difference in grip. "I didn't even think about it," he said. "I wasn't really thinking about the grip, but I was thinking that I like not to be last, so I don't have to wait for three hours after warm up to go racing!" He much preferred when he was racing in 125s and 250s, where you got up earlier, and went racing, rather than hanging around waiting for everyone else to finish.
The grip issue is also very much temperature dependent. The hotter the track, the more rubber Moto2 leaves behind, and the more grip is affected. Though the MotoGP paddock turned up at Assen to unseasonably sweltering temperatures on Wednesday and Thursday, a cold front has already swept through the northern Netherlands, bringing blessed relief to the Barcelona-based paddock residents, who had hoped to escaped the heatwave currently punishing all of Catalonia and beyond. By the time we get to race on Sunday, temperatures will be cool, even by Dutch standards. Whether Moto2 races before or after MotoGP, they will not be leaving much rubber behind.
A Yamaha track?
So where does that leave us? A track with a lot of grip, fast and flowing, surely leaves the Yamahas as the bikes to beat. In the press conference, Maverick Viñales was blunt: "We have to take a win." His last victory dates from Le Mans, after which he finished second at Mugello. But Barcelona was an unmitigated disaster, the Movistar Yamaha rider coming home in tenth. "One race ago I was 26 points ahead, and now just 7," he told the press conference. "If we have a chance to win, we have to take it. We cannot say we will take second, we have to win every race we can."
His teammate could be a very big obstacle to that. It has been over a year since Rossi last won a race, and Assen is a track which he truly loves. On the second, private day of the Barcelona test, Rossi tried a new chassis that was a big improvement for him. It gave him a better feeling, and the bike turned better. That, he said, may also be the key to improving tire wear.
The chassis Yamaha brought for the 2017 season was meant to help with tire life, especially at the end of the race, an issue which had dogged the M1 throughout 2016. Results were mixed, according to Rossi. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," he said. "My personal feeling is that the 2017 chassis has a bit more understeer, the bike turns less, and this is the reason the tire degradation is in some places a lot worse than with the old chassis. But sincerely, this is my idea, we are not sure."
The new chassis showed a lot of promise at the Barcelona test, but Rossi was keen to put it to the test in Assen. "Now we are very curious to try in another track with another grip level, another type of corners, and especially in a real race weekend, to understand if in reality with this new chassis we are able to be more competitive, and to suffer less, also during the weekend and during the practice." Valentino Rossi, on a more compliant bike, on a mission to win a race and end his year-long victory drought will be a force to be reckoned with.
Top two or bust
What of Marc Márquez? It goes without saying that the Repsol Honda rider will be a factor at Assen. The last time Márquez finished outside the top two at Assen was in 2009, just his second year in Grand Prix racing. He has won four of his seven appearances since then, though only once in MotoGP. This is a track that suits him, and which does not punish the weakness of the RC213V. With just a single spot where acceleration is a factor – the horribly slow first-gear Strubben hairpin, from which the bikes fire out and along Assen's kinky Veenslang back straight – Márquez can fight with both hands untied.
The Ducatis will be there or thereabouts as well. Last year, in a downpour, Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci led the first race, before it was red flagged. After the restart, Scott Redding finished on the podium, while Andrea Iannone was fifth. The Desmosedici's unwillingness to turn is still a handicap, but Assen is a track that allows some creativity in that regard. Andrea Dovizioso is in the form of his life, and coming off the back of two wins will be out for glory.
Mind over matter
The big question is how his teammate will do. In theory – and some years ago, in practice as well – Assen is a track which is built for Jorge Lorenzo. Fast, sweeping corners are precisely where Lorenzo excels. Yet Assen is also the place where Jorge Lorenzo is forced to face his fears. Before 2013, Lorenzo was a perennial favorite at the track, though he was also a frequent victim of bad luck. In 2011, he was skittled at the Strubben hairpin by Marco Simoncelli, but went on to finish in sixth. In 2012, he was punted at the first corner by Alvaro Bautista, his engine going up in a big cloud of smoke into the bargain.
In many ways, Lorenzo's 2013 race was both the high point and the low point of his career. It certainly proved a turning point. During practice on Thursday, Lorenzo was feeling supremely confident, and building speed, despite riding in torrential conditions. As he flicked through Hoge Heide – the fastest corner on the track, bikes clicking 260 km/h and more through there – Lorenzo hit a puddle and he was flung from his bike and landed on his shoulder, fracturing a collarbone. His title challenge seemed to be at an end, but he flew back to Barcelona, had a plate fitted to hold his collarbone together, and was passed fit to race on Saturday morning. That day, he put on one of the greatest displays of grit and determination, riding up through the field to finish in fifth, despite still being in huge pain from surgery just 24 hours previously. That ride still stands as one of the great achievements in the modern era.
It cost Lorenzo, though, both physically and mentally. Two weeks later, during practice at the Sachsenring, Lorenzo crashed at the top of the hill before Turn 11. He fractured his collarbone once again, and bent the titanium plate holding his collarbone together. After another operation to fix the collarbone, Lorenzo came back and pushed Marc Márquez all the way to the end of the season for the title. But that effort, of riding while hurt, left him mentally, physically, and emotionally drained at the end of the season. It took him the first half of the 2014 season to find his feet again.
Since then, Lorenzo has been spooked. Especially in mixed conditions which offer poor grip. But most especially at Assen when it rains. In the dry, Lorenzo is still capable of competing. In 2015, Lorenzo finished third, albeit 14.5 seconds behind the winner, Valentino Rossi. If the track stays dry on Sunday – and the forecast is that Sunday will be bright and dry – Jorge Lorenzo has a chance to build on the momentum of the season so far. If he can't, if he is bitten by the Assen curse which has plagued him for years, he may take some time to get his head around the bike once again. For Jorge Lorenzo, Assen will be a question of mind over matter.
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