Four weeks after press releases full of rolling Tuscan hills, the cliché machine is running out release after release containing the phrase "The Cathedral of Speed". There are of course good reasons to employ a cliché (and press releases usually benefit from trite language, as their objective is to promote the team and its sponsors, rather than the literary skills of press officers), but to call Assen the Cathedral of Speed is to raise the question of whether it still really deserves that moniker.
Much has changed since the first ever Dutch TT in 1925. The first thing that changed was the very next year, in 1926. The first circuit ran over public roads between the villages of Rolde, Borger, and Schoonloo, but the council in Borger refused to pave one of the sand roads on the original course. So in 1926, the race was moved to Assen, run between the villages of De Haar, Hooghalen, and Laaghalerveen to the south of the city of Assen.
Since then, the track has been reduced and reshaped a number of times over the years, losing a little bit of its glory each time it was shortened. The last time it was cut was in 2006, when the North Loop was excised to allow the land to be sold to fortify the circuit's coffers. That, perhaps, was a cut too far. The North Loop section was stunning: fast, flowing, challenging, immensely rewarding if you got it right, punishing if you got it wrong. What replaced it is a tight little hook, a sequence of right handers leading on towards the sharp Strubben hairpin. A shadow of its former self.
Fortunately, the rest of the track retains the glory of the old circuit. Fast, flowing, and with a mixture of turns offering every kind of motorcycle a chance to shine. Hard acceleration out of the Strubben chicane running onto the Veenslang straight, which isn't really straight. Then a frighteningly quick flick right into the Ruskenhoek, a fast left hander where a bike which can carry corner speed can pass on the inside or on the outside.
From there, it's down to Stekkenwal, hard right onto another winding straight and another fast left at De Bult. After that, the track builds toward a climax through a series of rights, Mandeveen, Duikersloot, Meeuwenmeer, onto one of the scariest and most thrilling corners on the calendar. And it is barely a corner: a blindingly fast right-left kink through Hoge Heide, where suspension loads and unloads as you try to cling on at over 290 km/h.
On toward the crescendo, the horrifyingly quick left of Ramshoek, where you have to brake and tip in in fifth gear, after spending nearly 20 seconds on the right hand side of the tire. By that time, the winds which are always gusting across the Assen circuit will have sucked most of the heat out of the left side of the tire, so you pitch it in and hope, all the while picking your poison for the entry of the GT chicane.
Win/win, or lose/lose
Swing back left? Anyone behind you will carry more speed on the right hand side, and outbrake you into the first right hander. Keep right? Sure, you'll lead into the first part of the chicane, but the rider you just passed on the brakes will carry more corner speed on entry, and block pass you through the second part of the chicane, the left hander leading back onto the straight. There is no safe line through the GT; either way, you open yourself to attack.
It is almost a blessing that Assen lost the North Loop to noise limits and financial security. The glorious southern section makes you forget much of what was lost when the North Loop was removed. Does Assen still deserve to be called the Cathedral of Speed? On Sunday, 100,000 people will turn up to worship there. Last year, they witnessed a miracle of close, thrilling, fast-paced racing. So whatever you want to call it, it's a fantastic place to hold a motorcycle race.
Its most redeeming feature is that almost any bike can be fast here. It is a balanced track, which means you always have to make compromises when setting up the bike. Choose where you want to be strong, and you lose out in another area. It is impossible to make the perfect bike for Assen: the only option you have is to try to find the least imperfect setup.
Perfect for Suzuki?
If there is one bike which nears perfection for Assen's fast, flowing layout, it is the Suzuki. The GSX-RR is nimble, flickable, agile, but also fast enough to handle the high speed sections of the track. So nimble that Alex Rins actively annoyed Jack Miller at the Barcelona test. The Pramac Ducati rider was working on improving the turning of the Desmosedici GP19, while Rins was following him around trying to figure out how to get past the Ducati, which had been an issue for the Suzuki rider during the race the day before.
"On the first run I could hear him every time at the same place where he passed me twice in the race and where he passed Petrucci and they came together, turn 4," Miller said. "Every time I went in there I could just hear his engine up the inside and I was just waiting for him. Then in the second run he ended up coming past me with his elbow on the ground and flipped me off with one hand in the air! That tells me the Suzuki is turning pretty good there!"
Miller's complaints are not unique. Suzuki riders can seemingly put the GSX-RR wherever they want in any corner, run up inside or rail around the outside, and still make the turn. A track like Assen with so many fast and flowing corners is a target-rich environment for the Suzuki Ecstar riders.
Surviving a tight group
"The key is to go full gas," Rins told the press conference. "This track looks like a good track for the Suzuki bike but also for Yamaha but as you could see last year the group was massive with a lot of riders at the front. We will try to give 100% and I enjoy the track a lot overtaking, doing the fast corners so let’s try to do a good job."
His rookie teammate was confident, but also a little more cautious in his assessment. Was Assen the perfect Suzuki track? "I will tell you tomorrow," Joan Mir said, "But on paper, like I said, yes. But you never have to trust in this because always here all the people are really, really close mainly on the laptime so it will be difficult also to be there on the top ten."
Rins has gradually edged his way forward in the championship, helped in no small part by Jorge Lorenzo's race-altering strike at Barcelona. If there is a race where the Spaniard can take over second place, and perhaps even cut the deficit to championship leader Marc Márquez, it is surely here at Assen.
Joan Mir, too, is hopeful of more progression, taking another step forward as he learns the ropes in his rookie season. What he fears most is just how close the field is: if you start off the weekend just a little bit behind, it is hard to try to make up ground. When the lap times are so tight, it is hard to squeeze into the top ten and stay there, and ensure a good starting position to give yourself the best shot of a strong result.
The Yamaha track
Historically, Assen has always favored the Yamahas, the flowing character of the track rewarding the M1's ability to carry a truckload of corner speed. Yamahas have won here a lot, taking victory in over half the races held here since they switch to four stroke engines. Last year, in a difficult year for Yamaha, Maverick Viñales still managed to get on the podium, Valentino Rossi following close behind as part of the group which had been battling for the lead all race long. The year before, Rossi won the Dutch TT, his last victory in MotoGP.
This year, the Yamaha is stronger, and everyone on a Yamaha has a history of success at Assen. Maverick Viñales started very strong last time out at Barcelona, and is hoping to carry that on in Assen. Valentino Rossi started the Barcelona race in good shape after a good weekend, and will try to build on that. Unfortunately for both of them, they were victims of Jorge Lorenzo's exuberance, and paid the price.
But both Rossi and Viñales found some improvements at the Barcelona test. The team had worked on engine braking and on electronics, and had found some improvement there. After Barcelona, Yamaha test rider Jonas Folger spent time at Misano testing the M1, trying a carbon swingarm. Viñales was coy on whether it was an improvement or not, but that's a part which could also help the M1. Other manufacturers have found benefit of a carbon swingarm to come at the end of a race, giving the bike better performance in the final laps. The Yamaha has already improved that area this year, so better feeling at the end of the race should be a real boon.
Valentino Rossi may find motivation not just in the way his Barcelona weekend went up until the crash, but also from the crowd and the track itself. "I love this track. It’s always great to be here," he said. :It’s a special weekend because you always have a fantastic atmosphere around but also because this track is great for motorcycle racing. It’s a great taste to ride here. Also for some reason you have always fantastic battles like last year."
"We have to restart from the Barcelona weekend because I was not so bad," the Italian veteran told us. "I was quite competitive and I think I could do a good race. This is our target: try to work well from tomorrow morning and stay in the important positions during practice, and be ready for Sunday to try to make a good race. We will see. This is the target for us."
The two Petronas Yamaha riders could pose a threat as well. At the press conference launching the race to Dutch-speaking media a week ago, team manager Wilco Zeelenberg and rider coach Torleif Hartelman were having to try hard not to say that they expected Fabio Quartararo to win this weekend. But Quartararo himself tipped his hand at Barcelona: he had elected to have surgery to treat arm pump after Mugello, in the hope of being 100% at Assen. In Barcelona, the French rookie finished second behind Marc Márquez. At Assen, he will be even stronger.
New frame, more turning
The Ducatis are gambling on a good result in Assen too. A revised chassis tested at Barcelona will be on hand at the Dutch TT, after Andrea Dovizioso tried it and liked it at the Barcelona test, saying it improved the turning of the bike and helped on entry. Dovizioso is scheduled to back-to-back the new frame with the existing chassis on Friday. If it is as good at Assen as it was in Barcelona, it could be a big help around the flowing Dutch circuit.
There will be new parts for Jack Miller and Danilo Petrucci as well. Petrucci felt he made a big step forward at the Barcelona test, the bike much improved in turning. Miller, too, will have the new chassis, and will hope that the Ducati is stronger in corner speed and in the fast changes of direction which litter the Assen circuit.
There were no new parts for Pecco Bagnaia, but the Pramac Ducati rookie was very happy indeed with the work at the Barcelona test. He had crashed too often this year, the front end letting go quite suddenly and with little warning. They had found a new setup which gave him the feeling back, and much more understanding of when the bike was actually approaching the limit of grip. When he hasn't crashed, he has been strong, and if this setup change eliminates the crashing, Bagnaia was confident of surprising more than a few riders.
Better or worse?
As usual, all eyes will be on the Repsol Honda garage, and on championship leader Marc Márquez. Last year he won the race, opening a gap at the end to take victory. The question is whether the Honda RC213V will be as strong at Assen in 2019. The gain in horsepower which made the bike so competitive in Qatar and Mugello came at the cost of some front end feel.
Takaaki Nakagami got his first taste of the 2019 bike in the test at Barcelona. He was faster on the new bike than he had been on his own 2018 machine, but he felt that compromises had been made. "A little bit different," was how he described how the new bike felt. "Some corners a little bit positive, but some corners negative. So it's difficult to say the 2019 bike is a worse feeling on the front because I felt in some points it's good."
The added horsepower meant basically free lap time, Nakagami explained. "Also a lot of power and this is a lot of help, it makes it more easy to make the lap time. Also I was really surprised about the wings with the factory bike. Which is a lot of help for the downforce. The wings make a difference in all parts of the track. Absolutely no wheelie, which means a lot of downforce. So you are able to increase a lot of power."
The downside was the feeling on corner entry, however. "A little bit, let's say, different feeling on the front," Nakagami said, careful not to upset HRC. "Especially into the first part of the turning it's a little bit different. I cannot say it's negative, but a little bit different feeling. And different position of the handlebars. But I cannot say it's negative because I feel the speed."
That little bit of a lack of feeling might be the difference between victory last year and struggling to be quite so competitive in 2019. We won't really know what effect the change has on Márquez until practice, and even then, his lap times may be deceptive. Posting a fast time is one thing, but managing that feeling in the middle of a raging battle might be a little different.
Cal Crutchlow might be the bellwether for the Hondas. The LCR Honda rider has been fast in 2019, but being mortal, has found it more difficult to manage that lack of feeling on corner entry. If Crutchlow is struggling, then that would point to difficulties for all of the riders on a 2019 Honda RC213V.
How Jorge Lorenzo bounces back from his Barcelona crash will be informative. The Spaniard crashed out of the race, then had a massive crash in testing, leaving him battered and bruised and still with some pain in the chest in certain positions. But he started the race strongly, and felt he had made some improvements before the crash.
Lorenzo will also have some new parts to use in Assen. He will debut a new fairing, fruits of the work done during his visit to Japan after Mugello. That should give him support for his knees under braking, and should also help the bike be a little less physical. Once, Lorenzo was almost invincible in Assen, but since his crash in 2013, he has found it a little more difficult to cope. At least he will have a full weekend of dry and sunny weather, and consistent conditions to try to improve on.
It looks like being perfect weather for racing. A coolish Friday, followed by hot days on Saturday and Sunday, with little cloud and no chance of rain. If you were looking for a place of worship to pay tribute to the gods of speed, you could do much worse than The Cathedral on Sunday.
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