The rain that graced the beginning of practice for the lightweight class had stopped by the time the MotoGP class took its turn, but the seventeen degrees in the air were not quite enough to dry the surface for anyone to challenge Friday times. With Q2 positions almost guaranteed given the weather, the riders looked to find some speed for qualifying – tipped to be in similar conditions. That saw a handful of wet weather enthusiasts mixing it in with the Q2 qualifiers.
After some drops of rain tested us on Friday, Saturday morning was straight wet suit domain. With the qualifying sessions predicted to take place in similar conditions, the smaller class was keen to give it a go in the wet. Combined with reduced visibility, the wet surface caught out the likes of Darryn Binder, John McPhee, Marcos Ramirez and Marco Bezzecchi early in the session. There would be plenty more tip-offs before the end of practice, half the grid going down at some point, including some of the fastest men of the day.
On the other hand, the weather aided Bo Bendsneyder in warming up the home audience, the KTM rider ending the session at the top of the timesheets, to the delight of the soaked stands. Almost six tenths down on the local boy was Nakarin Atiratphuvapat, the Thai rider proving his wet weather prowess once again.
MotoGP got off to an inauspicious start at Assen. Just a couple of minutes into FP1 on Friday morning, the red flags were already out. The cause? Andrea Dovizioso's Ducati Desmosedici GP17 had started spewing oil all over the track on his out lap, causing first Jonas Folger to take a massive tumble through the gravel at Duikersloot. It also took down Dovizioso's teammate Jorge Lorenzo.
"I felt some movement a few corners before," Folger said of his crash. "I had a highside, and then the bike hit me as well." After a brief check up at the Medical Center, Folger was sent on his way again. Fortunately for the Tech 3 rider, it took the best part of half an hour to clean up the oil left on the track by Dovizioso, so he had plenty of time to get back to the garage and get ready again.
Surprisingly, the crash left him with few ill consequences. Folger was able to get back out, and build up his confidence again. So much so, in fact, that he ended the day as second fastest, with only a masterful Maverick Viñales ahead of him. Where had his speed come from? Confidence mainly. He had gained confidence from the past couple of rounds, and especially at Barcelona. Being fastest during warm up in Barcelona, and seeing Marc Márquez struggle to match his pace had given Folger a boost. This, and working out that he needed to brake later, had made a world of difference.
With the threat of rain looming large after a few tentative drops hit both the Moto3 and MotoGP sessions, Franco Morbidelli remembered he’s the man to beat this season, the Italian taking top position soon after the start of a dry FP2.
After the rain flag showed up but appeared undecided whether to wave or not, Takaaki Nakagami became the closest threat to the Italian, the Japanese rider getting as close as one and a half tenths, in second position.
The drops of rain fallen towards the end of Moto3 practice encouraged the riders to go out as soon as the light turned green at the end of pitlane. Despite a heavy fall in the morning, Jonas Folger was the one to lead the early part of the session, before a quick shower hit the track. A handful of minutes later, the wind dissipated any trace of water on the circuit and the riders got back to work.
Viñales and Marquez went on to give us a quick teaser for their much-awaited battle, although it was just a remote exchange of top honours in the final five minutes. That particular fight went to the championship leader, the Yamaha man finding a lot of time to lead by over three tenths of a second.
The lightweight class dodged the threat of rain for their second practice session and even enjoyed a few extra degrees in temperature. Less enjoyable was the wind that picked up slightly, but with the prospect of rain on Saturday, the Moto3 riders had to make the most of their time on track today.
Despite several cancelled laps for adventures outside track limits, Jorge Martin reminded us he’s the one-lap expert in the field, the Spaniard posting the fastest time just as a few drops of rain decided to fall in the final two minutes.
Things were slowly heating up despite the clouds in Assen, but the action in the intermediate class did not see many surprises. Tom Luthi grabbed the lead early in the session and never let it go, his reign at the top of the timesheets as big as three tenths of a second.
Takaaki Nakagami chipped away at that gap late in the session to go second. Miguel Oliveira had a better start to his weekend in the Netherlands, the Portuguese rider finishing third in the session. The last man within three tenths of a second off Luthi was Marcel Schrotter, the Dynavolt rider taking fourth spot from championship leader Franco Morbidelli on the final lap.
After a relatively carefree Moto3 session, MotoGP practice was off to a sketchy start. Barcelona winner Andrea Dovizioso ran out of luck early in the session, his Ducati smoking away and leaving a trace of oil in its wake on the outlap.
Following a significant delay, all the riders were able to get out and give it another try. With the rain always being a concern in Assen, the final ten minutes saw a bit of a windy shootout to ensure top ten positions. Danilo Petrucci had an interesting morning, the Italian ending the session in top position but having a mechanical problem on the final lap, adding to Ducati’s worries.
Assen was always going to give us a bit of a cool down after the soul-crushing heat of Barcelona, and a kind eighteen degrees welcomed the lightweight class to the first day of practice. Add a few clouds and some breeze and you get the usual recipe. Although, one different ingredient was Philipp Oettl fighting his way through traffic to pop up at the top of the timesheets in the final two minutes of the session.
Behind him, Enea Bastianini proved why he was the poleman in Assen for the past two years and why his name is scribbled next to the fastest Moto3 lap around the circuit. The Italian seems to be recovering some form of late and this second position serves to prove that.
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.