Another Friday, another save that would have seen any other rider rolling through the gravel. And at Assen, with its collection of terrifyingly fast corners, rolling through the gravel often ends up rolling into the back of an ambulance, and X-rays, cat scans, and metal plates holding your bones together. But Friday wouldn't be Friday without Marc Márquez folding the front completely, jabbing his elbow into the tarmac, and hanging on long enough for the front to catch again and stay upright, or what passes for upright if your name is Marc Márquez.
This time it happened at the Ruskenhoek, the very fast left hander after the Veenslang back straight, where the bikes flick right, then long left, and then right again for the short run towards Stekkenwal. Márquez was traveling at something approaching 200km/h when the front went, but he caught it, stayed on board, and ended up running just off track and clipping the gravel. "I didn’t expect it, and I didn’t want to have a 'safe' crash in fourth gear at a very high-speed corner," Márquez explained.
Holding your line is difficult because of the track changes direction at very high speed, so being precise is of the utmost importance, Márquez said. "Here at Assen, the speed is so high and to take the correct lines is difficult but we were already in FP2, but in the first run it is always difficult to understand the lines and to be precise. A small mistake is a big mistake here: you cannot adjust with the brakes or the gas and you need to keep the speed during all the lap."
Trouble with new tires
The saves the Repsol Honda rider manages in FP2 are not intentional, however, but the result of having problems pushing hard on new tires. "It takes a little bit to understand why I have the moments in the beginning in FP2," Márquez said. "If you check a little bit, then this year I didn’t have many pole positions because for some reason this year I didn’t feel good with the new tires; I don’t have the front feeling and for that reason in the beginning in FP2, I have a lot of moments with the front because it was two new tires, and the rear was pushing too much to the front."
Márquez ended the day as eighth fastest overall, but that time belied his speed. He set his fastest lap of the day at the start of FP2, after fitting a new set of hard tires, and spent the rest of the session on those same tires. He did not, like everyone else, stick in a new soft rear tire to try to set a time and secure passage to Q2. He did not do that, because he was confident of getting through without it. "Already with the hard tire the time was not bad, but I feel good in FP2 and for that reason I kept the tires for working on, because we need to understand for the race which tire is the best one.”
In terms of race pace, Márquez was one of four riders who were consistently quick on hard rubber, setting times before the final ten-minute pre-qualifying dash. Four riders on four different bikes: Márquez spent the whole second session on a single set of tires, Andrea Dovizioso had strong race pace, but barely improved once he stuck in a soft rear, Alex Rins put in three quick laps on a hard rear behind Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi, and Maverick Viñales was quick on hard tires, but also ended the session fastest, with an advantage of over a tenth.
It was a strong start, and something of a relief for the Movistar Yamaha rider, whose season has been in turmoil since Qatar, up one session, down the next. The secret was perhaps the carbon fiber Ohlins forks which Viñales had decided to use after a positive test at Barcelona after the race. "I never tried those carbon forks, only tried them last year in Brno and it was totally different," Viñales said. "So we never had the plan to try it. But it looks like it's working much better than the old ones."
Where were the carbon forks better? "Overall, the feeling is a little bit better, in all the areas, just a little bit," the Movistar Yamaha rider told us. "In Montmelo, we tried a few laps in the test because we had a problem, and already I felt better, so I wanted to try it here and see what was the benefit. For sure changing directions is a little bit easier, but anyway, still there is a lot of work to do, we improved the bike a little bit about my feelings, and I think there is still room to get used to the bike and make the bike a little bit more for my style."
Being fastest overall, and running a solid pace on hard tires, put Viñales in a positive mood. He has aimed constant criticism at his team so far this year, but he felt that a good start on Friday could be carried on into the rest of the weekend. "It is really important, because it also gives a lot of confidence to the team, to make the decision to try new setups, to find a way," Viñales said. "We started good, just adjusted some clicks, get used to the bike and a full tank, and you can ride good. So I think this is the level we have to be each weekend at every track, and we need to keep working like that. I feel good on the bike, I think for sure after Montmelo we did an improvement, give me a little bit more confidence in the bike which is good. We are working hard and we are trying everything. So let's see if finally we can solve it."
First laps count double
Viñales had been concentrating on being fast in the early part of the race, pushing hard with a full fuel tank, simulating the start of the race. "I tried to reproduce the race, start in the first places in the practices and push from the beginning to see what the bike does, and then push even more aggressively than in the race. So I tried, I tried my best to get used to it, and don't make more mistakes on the beginning of the race," he said.
The question is whether that will carry through to the race on Sunday, of course. The track can feel very different once the Moto2 race is over, and the assembled Kalexes, KTMs, Suters, and Speed Ups have painted their Dunlop rubber all over the track. Viñales has had more than one false dawn this year.
Andrea Dovizioso's race pace looked pretty similar to that of Márquez, a fair few laps in the very low 1'34s. I was chided by Davide Tardozzi on Friday afternoon, when I asked if Dovizioso was struggling. The factory Ducati rider has a two podiums from the four races he has finished, but his real problem has been crashing out of the race, Tardozzi said. Dovizioso is still competitive, as his pace in FP2 showed.
Dovizioso himself was positively surprised by his pace, though he still felt he could find some speed. "Yesterday I said I expected to be fast," the Italian said. "Today it was a bit better than what I expected, but we are with a similar pace to the fastest rider. We are not fastest. So still it's not enough."
But race pace on the hard rear tire was good, even though Dovizioso was not yet certain which of the two tires – hard or soft (the medium lacks the grip of the soft and the durability of the hard) – he would be racing. "Today we work on hard rear tires and it was good," he said. "The speed was really good. But it's not clear. We have to work also on the soft. Jorge worked on the soft. Tomorrow morning we will work with the soft to try to understand how it will be because it's very hot for here at Assen. So we have to see the work of the rear tire because it's very difficult in this track to be fast and save the tire, because you are always using a lot of angle."
That tire life is important for Ducati is evident by the fact that the Italian factory brought two versions of a new chassis to Assen. The first, for the two factory riders, featured a section of the forward and rear frame which used carbon fiber inserts to adjust stiffness. The second, used by Danilo Petrucci, did the same only it had a section of aluminum welded into the same place, adding stiffness to those points in the frame.
Jorge Lorenzo had lost time with a small crash, and so hadn't had time to test it properly, but Dovizioso was enthusiastic about the new frame. "Today we had a chance to make a small comparison, in two exits, and the feeling was good with the new chassis," the Italian said. "In the corners I feel similar, the difference was the stability on the straight, because here the 'straight' doesn't really exist and we have a lot of movement with the side wind. In that area it was a bit better."
Ducati weren't the only team with new parts at Assen, as Suzuki have brought a new engine, tested by Sylvain Guintoli in Barcelona. Alex Rins was enthusiastic. "We received this new engine yesterday or Wednesday but the important thing was that we put it in FP1 and was working very good, my feelings were good," Rins said. "Nothing changed, just on the straight. In the middle of the corner or the acceleration, it’s more or less working on the same level as the other and that’s all. I think the Japanese guys are doing a really good job, they are developing the bike a lot."
It is tempting to draw conclusions from a Friday, but Friday is just Friday. The real work for the weekend starts on Friday night, when the teams and factories read the data and crunch the numbers from the first day of practice. Big steps are made from Friday to Saturday, but not necessarily by everybody. The one blessing for the series is that after a bright and sunny Friday, two more glorious days of sunshine and hot weather are set to follow. That should make it easier for everyone to figure something out to help them go faster, rather than just the few lucky teams who get it right. With the top thirteen riders all within a second, the scene is set for a thrilling race at Assen.
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