Once practice got underway for this weekend's World Superbike round at Assen, I received an urgent email from the family of one rider in the MotoGP paddock asking me where the sudden burst of speed was coming from. All of a sudden, the World Superbike men were going faster than the MotoGP riders, and Ben Spies' pole record from 2009 was not so much being shattered, as being stomped on, atomized and then thrown away like a cheap plaything.
Of course, this had little do to with any slowness on the part of Ben Spies. Instead, a key change in the circuit layout has transformed the back section of the track, and even restored some of its former glory. The entry to the Ruskenhoek, at the end of the Veenslang (the back straight), was bowdlerized around 4 years ago, as part of the changes which removed Assen's glorious North Loop, and replaced it with the crochet hook section which sits there instead. It became a sharp, almost 90 degree right hander, slowing riders right down for the long left of the Ruskenhoek, at the end of which was another right, the Stekkenwal.
This sharp right hander caused a problem, though. Riders missing the corner would run straight on, either rejoining the track at speed, or falling in the gravel, while their bikes traveled straight on and threatened to take out others who made the corner and were nearly through the Ruskenhoek. The track owners tried to solve the problem by replacing the gravel with hard standing, and a narrow path which rejoined the track just before the bikes lined up for the Stekkenwal. This, too, caused dangerous situations, with riders shooting down the escape route, and rejoining right in the path of the bikes which hadn't missed the corner, causing several very near misses.
The circuit management have now come up with a much better solution: The sharp right hander has been replaced with a diagonal, making the entry to the Ruskenhoek much faster and more flowing, and coincidentally restoring some of the old character of the track. In the photo below, you can see the old track (the tight right hander behind the white lines), and the new track (the diagonal running straight on from the perspective of the photo).
That corner is now incredibly fast. The Superbikes were hitting 289 km/h in the Veenslang, 7 km/h faster than last year. The riders are now just dropping one gear, clipping the apex at very high speed before drifting over and then dropping another couple of cogs for the Ruskenhoek proper. The corner is now more like the Ramshoek, the glorious left hander before the final chicane, and one of the fastest corners still in use in the world. The track once again flows, as Assen should, befitting its nature as a circuit which has evolved from public roads.
Almost perversely, the much faster corner has probably added to the safety of TT circuit at Assen. After the North Loop was removed, there were just four left handers left (not including the GT chicane). The Strubben hairpin is very slow, and the Ruskenhoek was not all that much faster. That left only De Bult and the Ramshoek as fast left handers, meaning that if you weren't careful, a cool left hand side of the tire could leaving you tumbling through the gravel at very, very high speed indeed. John Hopkins has had the worst of Assen's dearth of left handers, breaking a leg twice here, but Toni Elias, Loris Capirossi and even Valentino Rossi have all broken bones here, though Rossi's almost legendary luck meant his wrist was only fractured, rather than a proper break.
With the entry to the Ruskenhoek much faster, the left at the Ruskenhoek itself is much faster, meaning that the tires are more evenly loaded around the track. Fast left handers are spaced more evenly, and the danger of entering the 270 km/h Ramshoek with a cold left hand side of the tire - and sliding into the tire wall as a result, with possibly very nasty consequences - is much reduced.
The change also demonstrates one point quite nicely: Slower is not necessarily safer. A safe track is one which is predictable, one where the right and left sides of the tire are fairly evenly loaded, and riders don't arrive at corners to find themselves with one side of the tire cold. And staying on the bike because your tires are behaving predictably is a very great deal safer than having to guess just how far you can push the tires in one direction, after spending the last half a lap on the other side of the tire.