Is there still such a thing as a Honda track, a Yamaha track, or a Ducati track (or even a Suzuki track)? Once upon a time, it seemed like there was. MotoGP would go to Indianapolis, and you knew that a Honda would win. Go to Mugello, and chances are, a Yamaha would emerge victorious.
In the press room, we would spend hours trying to decipher why one bike or another would win at a particular track. Was it temperature which counted? We suspected that, but then a Yamaha or a Honda would win at a cold track one week, and a hot track the next. Was it the layout or the type of corner that mattered? Hondas dominated the stop-and-go layout of Motegi, and then got destroyed by the Yamahas at the stop-and-go layout of Le Mans. In the end, we figured it all came down to grip: in low grip conditions, the Hondas were quick; when there was plenty of grip, the Yamahas were unbeatable.
That disappeared in recent years, killed by the technical developments which led up to the switch to Michelin tires. 1000cc engines, spec electronics, and the regulations which have seen the bikes grow ever closer in performance. With the differences between the machines so small, other factors had a greater impact on results than just the character of the bike. No longer can you predict a winner based on which bike they are on.
But from time to time, bike character starts to matter again. That certainly looks to be the case at Assen. The asphalt of the Circuit van Drenthe has plenty of grip, and the layout allows a bike which can exploit that grip to carry corner speed and gain an advantage. That favors the Yamahas, and now that they have a truly competitive machine, the Suzukis as well.
That is evident from the first two rows of the grid at Assen. Of the top five bikes, two are Yamahas, and two are Suzukis. We saw a similar pattern in FP4, the one session where the timesheets reflect true race pace. The top three were Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales on Yamahas, and Alex Rins on a Suzuki, with Joan Mir the second Suzuki back in sixth. In FP3, skewed by the need to find some speed to get through to Q2, there were three Yamahas in the top six.
Why are the Yamahas and Suzukis so quick at Assen? Cal Crutchlow believes it has everything to do with the way the bikes can exploit grip to turn. "You don't slide the bike here to turn the bike. And it seems we need to slide the bike to turn. And when you have a track with the grip we have here, it becomes more apparent for us that it's difficult."
That makes the track one of the most physically demanding tracks of the season for the Honda riders. "It's true that it's one of the most physical tracks, but especially I think with our bike and also Ducati it's even more," Marc Márquez explained. "For some reason the characteristics of the bikes, we are not struggling but you can see on the change of direction the Yamaha and Suzuki are changing faster. I don't believe it's because they put more effort, because all riders put their 100% effort."
Perhaps it is because the riders on Yamahas and Suzukis are on a roll. Since Friday in Barcelona, Fabio Quartararo has not been outside the top two in any session in MotoGP, including the race that Sunday. The Frenchman has made huge progress as the season has progressed, and is starting to come into his own. Helped, perhaps, by tracks which allow him to exploit the corner speed and grip of the Yamaha M1.
The lap with which he took pole position for Sunday's Dutch TT – his second in a row, becoming the youngest rider to do that, displacing arch rival Marc Márquez – was case in point. A searing lap in which he extracted almost every inch of performance from the Yamaha M1. Almost, but not quite: "I made a mistake in the last sector, and also my third sector in the first lap was really good," the Petronas Yamaha rider told the press conference on Saturday afternoon. "So yes, a small mistake in the last sector. I went really wide in corner 15. Didn’t manage to stop well the bike in the chicane. So I lose one tenth, one and a half tenth. We need to look. Anyway, I’m really happy about these two laps because was on the limit but we manage them well."
Quartararo's lap smashed the pole record by over six tenths of a second, after already having dipped under the old record by a couple of tenths in the morning. Take another tenth off his new pole record of 1'32.017 and you would get into the 1'31s. A remarkable time for a lap around Assen.
Maverick Viñales is not far behind the Frenchman, just over a tenth slower than the Petronas Yamaha rider, but three tenths faster than Suzuki rider Alex Rins, who took third at Assen. The two Yamahas are head and shoulders above Rins, and Rins is in turn head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. Marc Márquez in fourth is seven tenths of a second slower than Quartararo, Joan Mir in fifth is over a second back, and Cal Crutchlow's sixth place was taken lapping 1.2 seconds slower than the Frenchman.
The two Yamahas have genuine race pace as well. Quartararo was faster than Viñales in FP4, both both men were lapping with speed and consistency. Alex Rins was a little less consistent, but he left no doubt about the fact he had plenty of speed.
FP4 also showed that Marc Márquez had real pace, and may yet end up being the man to beat. On a new hard tire, he was capable of lapping in the low 1'33s, a couple of tenths quicker than either Quartararo and Viñales.
Bucking, shaking, saving
But the lap wasn't coming easily. There were points around the track where it was obvious that Márquez was having to put the bike on the limit to get a consistent enough lap time. That did not come without some risk from the recalcitrant Honda: more than once, Márquez was forced to save the bike on knee and elbow, and exiting Duikersloot the bike was obviously shaking, doing its best to jettison itself of its rider. Marc Márquez, of course, does not give up that easily.
Márquez was keen to deflect the attention of the media onto the Yamahas, and especially on Maverick Viñales. "For me, if Yamaha can come back with a victory, it's at this circuit," the Repsol Honda rider said. "If they can come back and win again, it's at this circuit. So they know, they are pushing and tomorrow they have pressure because of course it's been a long time without a win and they will try because they know that the bike is working very good in this circuit. It is for me the best bike at this circuit."
That does not mean he discounts Alex Rins, though he believes that they Yamahas are stronger than the Suzuki. "The Suzuki is also riding good. I mean these two bikes have very good handling and we will see, but at the moment I think Yamaha have something more than Rins," Márquez said.
There is one Yamaha who is not riding well, however. Valentino Rossi has not been strong all weekend, unhappy with the feeling from the bike in the afternoon. Rossi suffered when the grip dropped on a hot track, after setting a much stronger lap in FP3, which ended up being canceled for exceeding track limits.
It is odd that Rossi mentions suffering with a drop in grip as the afternoon heat set in. His complaints where identical to the Hondas and the Ducatis who had the same problem. "Unfortunately in the afternoon I was more in trouble with more temperature and lose a lot of grip," Rossi said. "I lose performance and I was quite slow so I wasn’t able to improve. So I have to start from quite back on the grid and also will be hard because anyway my pace is not fantastic, so for sure it will be a tough race."
His sentiments echoed those of Danilo Petrucci, Andrea Dovizioso, and Danilo Petrucci. Petrucci told the media that he had had one of the best bikes of his career in the cooler morning session, but that had fallen apart in the afternoon heat. "The problem in the afternoon was 20° more temperature.
Grip was a problem for Andrea Dovizioso as well. "We know in this track when you have to change direction with high speed it’s not the best for us," the factory Ducati rider said. "There are some very long corners so it’s not the best for our bike. It depends how much grip is on the track. We can be a bit faster or slower. The grip affects the turning. But the problem is always the same."
That had been a problem for Pramac Ducati's Jack Miller as well. "The fact that the soft is not working in the afternoon, that's the key thing," the Australian said. "Between corners 1-2-3… Turn 2 with a new tire on I should normally get some good drive through there and be able to crank it on properly. In the afternoon it just seemed to be lighting up and I couldn't do anything with it to try and manage it."
In a group?
What kind of a race are we going to get on Sunday? "I don't think you'll see a group race," Cal Crutchlow told us. Márquez, Quartararo, and Viñales could all disappear at the front, along with Alex Rins, but there seemed to be a gap to the second group. But Crutchlow acknowledged there was a chance that someone could still turn the race into a close-fought battle between a large group.
"I could be wrong," the LCR Honda rider said. "Because Petrucci has the pace, Dovi has the pace, and they're behind me. If there's a gap, they can come across that gap, if the four or five guys in front are battling a little bit. Yes, maybe there will be a group race, but last year there was a group race until Marc went to the front. And last year was a group race because Lorenzo was holding everyone up. No disrespect, but that was the reality, his bike was fast on acceleration, and he used that to his advantage, and nobody could pass him in certain areas. So that was why it was a group race for a long time last year."
Who will play the role of lead blocker, holding up the riders behind him? The Ducatis are known for using the holeshot device to get off the line quickly. Danilo Petrucci in 7th should put the cat among the pigeons in the early laps, and even Andrea Dovizioso back in 11th could easily be with the front group by the time they exit the first corner. But all that relies on a lot of luck.
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