There are days when being a MotoGP journalist can be hard work. You spend hours each day trying to wheedle tidbits of information from unwilling conversation partners, then hours chasing round after riders. You top it off with hours trying to spin a day's worth of platitudes into something vaguely readable and semi-interesting, before hopping into bed for five hours' sleep, only to do it all over again. There were years when writing race reports containing any entertainment value was a hard slog through tiny details, as for much of the Bridgestone years, the riders would pretty much finish in the order in which they qualified. You keep doing it from a deep love of the sport, and the hope of better days.
You keep doing it for days like today. Sunday at Assen saw not one, but three breathtaking races. Each race was packed with a season's worth of drama, and combined spectacular passing, raw, undiluted speed, tricky weather conditions and surprise results from the first race through to the last. It was a reminder that majestic tracks produce phenomenal racing. A reminder that we are living through a new golden age of Grand Prix racing, with the outcome of any of the three races completely up in the air on any given weekend.
Above all, though, it was a reminder that we are watching giants of the sport at play. In twenty years' time, when MotoGP fans come to draw up their lists of the top ten racers of all time, at least half of the names they choose will have been on the grid on Sunday. Assen was a veritable cornucopia of racing greatness.
Rewriting the record books, again
It was fitting, then, that the winner of the MotoGP race should be the man widely regarded as arguably the greatest racer of all time. Valentino Rossi, through guile, guts, and sheer outright brilliance took the 115th Grand Prix win of his career, and his tenth victory at Assen. In doing so, he added yet another chapter to an already weighty volume of records and achievements in his career. He extended his winning career, becoming the first rider to win races over a twenty-year period, from his first victory in Brno 1996 to Assen in 2017. He became the seventh oldest rider ever to win a premier class Grand Prix race. He crept a little closer to Giacomo Agostini's astonishing total of 122 Grand Prix victories.
Above all, though, it brought to an end a year-long victory drought for Rossi, his last win coming at Barcelona in 2016. This, he explained, is exactly why he puts himself through everything he does, punishing mind and body to keep himself competitive. Winning is why he races, and the ability to win is what keeps him going. "After one year is a great feeling," Rossi told the press conference. "Also because sincerely I race with motorcycle for what you feel the five, six hours after the victory."
Thinking about all that statement entails puts Rossi's commitment and dedication into perspective. Valentino Rossi has won 115 Grand Prix in 21 seasons over all three classes. After each of those wins, Rossi has had six hours or so of elation. 115 six-hour periods of unalloyed joy adds up to 690 hours, or 28 days and 18 hours. To experience those 29 days of happiness, he has had to put in over 7600 days of solid, hard grind. Viewed that way, the rewards are all too brief compared to the years and years of toil to achieve them.
Sacrifice is the price
This, perhaps, is what is most unique about Rossi's achievement. Each year, Rossi has to work harder to win races, has to adjust his style again, sometimes reinvent it entirely. Each year, his frame grows more gaunt as he puts ever more effort into staying competitive, poring and fussing over every detail, always in search of a hundredth of a second here, and a thousandth of a second there. Yet he does it all gladly, because he knows that is what it takes. He proved in the early part of his career that his talent was beyond question. The longer he keeps racing, the more he allies that talent to a formidable work ethic and commitment to winning.
Yet on Friday, a win for Rossi seemed very far from a foregone conclusion. The new chassis they had tested at Barcelona had made a difference for the Italian, making it a lot easier to turn the bike. That was still the case after dry practice on Friday, though Rossi found himself firmly in the second group, behind a relentlessly fast Maverick Viñales, and the quietly impressive Jonas Folger. Did it look like Rossi could be competitive? Sure. But first he would have to find a way to stop Viñales, and if that wasn't enough, he would also have to fend off Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso.
Qualifying threw a spanner in the works. Or rather the miserable conditions in qualifying did. Johann Zarco became the first Frenchman to take pole in the premier class since 2002, a not wholly unexpected result. Marc Márquez and Danilo Petrucci also sat on the front row, neither of them a surprise. Rossi started from fourth, but the real news was his teammate Maverick Viñales. After dominating the first day of practice in the dry, the young Spaniard found no grip in the cold and damp, and was forced to start from eleventh.
That starting position would prove crucial for the race, and especially for the championship. With the race starting in dry conditions, Viñales knew he could make up ground given half the chance, and keep his losses to a minimum. He would have to ride aggressively, but if he could get close to the leaders in the first half of the race, he stood a chance at scoring decent points in the second half, and have a shot at retaining his lead in the championship.
When the flag dropped, it was Johann Zarco who took control, passing Marc Márquez into Turn 1 to lead the race. The Tech 3 Yamaha rider pushed hard from the start, his chosen combination of soft tires front and rear giving him some early speed. Though he opened a small gap early on, that advantage did not last. Within a couple of laps, Márquez was on his tail, bringing Valentino Rossi and Danilo Petrucci along with him.
The four leaders broke away, quickly opening a gap of a couple of seconds. Behind them, Scott Redding fell back into the clutches of what turned out to be a fiercely competitive group consisting of eight riders. Viñales had latched onto this group, and was starting to work his way forward. He was determined to get past the riders ahead and chase the leaders down. By lap 11, he was at the head of the group and preparing to try to bridge the 3 second gap to Zarco, Rossi, Márquez, and Petrucci.
Viñales was in a hurry, and that hurry would cost him dearly. As he flicked his bike aggressively from right to left on the exit of the GT Chicane, the rear let go and catapulted him into the air and onto the track. His race was over. "It's something I cannot explain because I don't even know how I crashed," Viñales said after the race. Ironically, he gave away the cause of the crash in his next sentence. "I passed there 2,000 times and don’t crash. Today, I don't know, I was pushing myself over the limit."
Andrea Dovizioso was directly behind him, but so close that he didn't see how the crash started. Cal Crutchlow was behind Dovizioso, and unsighted due to the presence of the Ducati man. But both men had a reasonable explanation for why Viñales hit the deck on the exit of the chicane. "Viñales was so fast there," Crutchlow said. "When he was in front of me, he was changing direction so fast that when it picked up and took off, the thing was gone. But obviously he changed direction too fast. We've seen that crash quite a few times there over the years."
Dovizioso shared a similar opinion. "I think he was too aggressive in the change of direction, but I'm not sure, I didn't check the video," the Italian told us. "It was in front of me, but I was focused on my line at that time, I wasn't looking at him, so I didn't see how that crash started."
The crash was really one of impatience, though Viñales was adamant he didn't understand how it had happened. "This crash is something you cannot explain," he said, before going on to repeat just how strong he had felt and how much faster he had been than the other riders. Yet he had learned an important lesson from the crash. "In some races the fastest does not win, and finally we have to learn from that," he said. "Today was a race to learn and learn that in qualifying the maximum you can do is sixth or fifth maximum. So I know the mistake was from yesterday, not from today."
All up for grabs
With the championship leader out, the title chase was in disarray. The points gaps were suddenly an awful lot smaller, and the role of new leader now suddenly up for grabs. At the front, Valentino Rossi had taken over the lead, after an ill-directed pass by Johann Zarco had failed, and the Frenchman had clipped the back of Rossi's bike and dropped behind Márquez and Petrucci. Dovizioso was inching closer, an encroachment which would become a full-on charge a couple of laps later.
The rain was coming. At first, it was nothing but a very thin drizzle that had almost no effect, other than to plant the seeds of doubt in the heads of the riders. Morning warm up had started off in similar fashion, with a thin rain that had suddenly erupted into a torrential downpour. Would the same happen during the race? At first, the drizzle was manageable, though the riders at the front slowed down, while those behind speeded up.
But the rain made Johann Zarco nervous. Unsure of what would happen, he decided to pit when he saw the white flag. "When it began to rain I was really scared with the slick tires. We are already on the limit when it’s dry so you can imagine when it’s a little bit wet you can crash. I didn’t want to take this risk and I took the decision to come into the pit when they put out this white flag." He guessed that if the Dutch marshals were putting out the rain flag, then they knew that the rain was about to get bad. It didn't, and Zarco decided to pit and jump on his second bike with the wet weather setup. "If it was raining more then I could be a god," the Frenchman said.." Finally, from hero you go to zero but it’s part of the game."
Zarco wasn't the only rider who made that judgment. Jorge Lorenzo quickly followed Zarco's suit, heading into the pits to swap bikes. The Spaniard had been making good progress through the pack, getting up to thirteenth from a miserable twenty-first position on the grid. But when the rain came, Lorenzo had lost confidence, and pitted to swap to his wet weather bike. That proved to be a mistake.
It had been worth the gamble, as he was so slow on slicks in the wet, he argued. "It was spitting for three or four laps and then it stopped. The last three or four laps were almost completely, no spitting. So it was a gamble, knowing that in the warm-up it started to rain and then rained heavily. I was 13-14th so had nothing to lose. Maybe one point. But I could get seven or eight points more if it worked."
With Zarco out of the way and the front runners cautious, Dovizioso quickly bridged the gap to the leaders. Cal Crutchlow was coming too, but at that moment, all hell was breaking loose at the front. Riders were swapping positions quickly and brutally, forcing bikes through where they would only just fit. As Petrucci and Rossi were pushing hard at the front, Marc Márquez put a firm pass on Andrea Dovizioso when the Italian ran wide at Turn 1. That was enough to break the tow between the front four, splintering them into two groups: Rossi and Petrucci at the front, and Márquez and Dovizioso now too far behind to do any damage.
White flags, but no blue flags
The weather would play yet another role in determining the outcome. Danilo Petrucci was stronger through Meeuwenmeer, giving him more speed and acceleration through Hoge Heide and the Ramshoek, which would have been decisive in favor of the Italian. But as the laps ticked off, Rossi and Petrucci ran into back markers, and according to Petrucci, the marshals were not doing their job in waving the blue flag to indicate that those back markers should let Petrucci and Rossi through. Petrucci got close to Barbera at the end of the penultimate lap, and lost a few yards, then slammed into the side of Alex Rins, who was newly back from wrist surgery.
That collision cost Petrucci the tow, and according to Petrucci himself, the win. "On the last lap, I found Rins at corner six was lapped and we nearly crashed for pass him," Petrucci said. "Anyway, I lost Valentino and we arrive very, very close, but I’m happy. For me it’s a great result. But this time I felt the win very, very close." That was also clear from his body language after the race, the Italian thoroughly dejected, despite this being just his third podium. "It's better I don't meet Rins anywhere," a despondent Petrucci said.
Petrucci was convinced he could have beaten Rossi, as he believed he could have held off Rossi through the section from Meeuwenmeer onwards. That is anything but a given, however. Rossi may have crossed the line just a few hundredths of a second ahead of Petrucci, but that does not mean that if Petrucci does not lose time at that corner or at the Ruskenhoek, he goes on to win the race. He would still have to have get past Rossi, and with Rossi having the sweet smell of victory in his nostrils, he would not be denied.
It was a remarkable transformation to see Petrucci so down after coming second. The Italian had celebrated his first podium, in Mugello, like a win. But his second podium felt more like he had victory stolen from him. "I had the taste of victory, but then I had it taken away," he told us afterwards. That change in attitude is telling, and promises much for the future. Petrucci clearly believes he is now capable of winning races.
Behind Petrucci, a fierce and furious battle unfolded for the final spot on the podium. Andrea Dovizioso, who had bridged the gap to the leaders first, was the first to stand down. "Four laps to the end, it started to rain heavily, and at that time, I started thinking about the championship," Dovizioso said. "It was impossible to understand if the corner was wet and which one was more wet, so the risk was too high."
That left Márquez vs Crutchlow, a battle which Crutchlow was confident of winning. But the LCR Honda rider made a crucial mistake. "I made a big mistake in the race, and that was to show my hand a lap early," Crutchlow said. "I should have passed him on the last lap there, and it would have been game over. I passed him a lap too early, but I honestly thought I had the pace to ride away from him. But then he passed me back in Turn 5, and if he hadn't passed me back there I probably would have got the podium there."
The problem with leading was that he was showing Márquez where the track was dry and where it was when it was wet. "The only problem was, that I showed him that the track was a lot drier than he thought it was. Then he made a fantastic pass, because I thought I was faster than him in that corner, and I was faster than him in the braking into the last corner, and I thought I'll go slower round the corner, and then really accelerate out, so he has no chance of passing me until the last corner. But I heard his bike, and he shut the throttle and he was braking, and then he reopened the throttle to ride underneath me. I heard "waah!" and I thought, someone's either crashed or someone's coming through, and he came through. But no, it was good fun. I enjoy races like that. They're hard, but I never ever have any animosity to the others, I always give as good as I get, and it was good fun fighting."
All wide open
With Rossi winning, Dovizioso coming fifth, and Maverick Viñales having crashed out, the championship has been blown wide open again. Dovizioso leads, the first Ducati rider to do so since Casey Stoner in 2009, but he is only four points ahead of Viñales. Rossi jumps from fifth to third, and is a mere seven points behind Dovizioso. Marc Márquez is fourth, with a deficit of just 11 points. Even Dani Pedrosa in fifth or Johann Zarco are close, with 28 and 38 points respectively separating them.
"The championship because is incredibly open after eight races between a lot of different riders and different bikes," Rossi commented after the race. He does so with some sense of understatement: this is the tightest the top four have ever been in the modern era after just eight races. Dovizioso leads with the lowest number of points after eight rounds in modern history.
Rossi's victory makes it five winners we have had so far this year, which is more than most years during the Bridgestone era in MotoGP. From 2010 to 2015, there were only ever three or four winners each season. There had been five in 2009, but one of those was Andrea Dovizioso (ironically) in the rain at Donington. 2008 had seen four winners, while 2007 once again saw five winners, with Loris Capirossi winning in the rain at Motegi and Chris Vermeulen bringing Suzuki a win at Le Mans.
We probably won't see nine winners, as we did last year, but after Valentino Rossi, Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Maverick Viñales and Andrea Dovizioso have all won races, there are two, maybe three names who could easily win a race. Cal Crutchlow has a fair shot at victory at some point this year. Jorge Lorenzo may yet wrap his head sufficiently around the Ducati to take the win in Austria. And nobody would be surprised if Johann Zarco sneaked a win somewhere. This truly is a golden age of racing, and Sunday at Assen was the crowning glory on the season so far.
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