Just going by the timesheets from the first day of the Assen World Superbike weekend, the situation looks pretty clear-cut. Jakub Smrz was fastest during the first qualifying session on the Effenbert Liberty Ducati, finishing a couple of tenths ahead of Alitalia Aprilia's Max Biaggi, Yamaha's Marco Melandri and Alstare Suzuki's Michel Fabrizio.
During the session, however, qualifying felt anything but clear cut. The last 10 minutes felt like a full-on dash for pole, with top spot swapping hands several times before Smrz settled the pole race in his favor. It was a curious case of leapfrogging: first, the BMW pair of Corser and Haslam led; then they were overtaken by the Yamaha duo of Melandri and Laverty; and in the final moments, Smrz leapt to the forefront, with Max Biaggi, Michel Fabrizio and Tom Sykes following in his wake.
The strangeness of the session was probably down to the conditions: The day was a typical Dutch spring afternoon: a stiff breeze, sunshine interspersed with clouds, and decidedly moderate temperatures. The clouds passing over kept the track temperature down, but the disappearance of the clouds towards the end of the session warmed the track and saw the times start to tumble. In the end, Smrz' time was very respectable, a 36 flat being faster than the race lap record, but a little over a second off Johnny Rea's pole record from last year.
It should come as no surprise that Smrz was fastest - in both sessions, having topped the morning free practice as well - as this is one track where the Czech rider really shines. Assen was the track where Smrz got his first podium, and the Effenbert Ducati man is on a roll this season. His weakness has traditionally been pace in the race, Smrz tending to fade in the latter half of the races. But with a podium at Donington earlier this year, this may be the year that Smrz makes his mark.
Outside of Smrz, the riders topping the timesheets were two completely different groups in the morning and afternoon sessions. Checa ended the morning in 2nd, just four hundredths behind Smrz, but the championship leader made no headway during the afternoon, shaving less than a tenth off his time and ending qualifying in 11th. With Biaggi in 2nd and Melandri in 3rd - Checa's two main rivals so far in the title chase - the Althea Ducati rider is looking for improvement. The team put the times down to experimentation with tires, playing safe in case the temperature increase promised by weather forecasters for race day at Assen does not materialize. Given Assen's notoriously fickle climate, that may well prove to have been a wise move.
Biaggi's result is just what he needed after the debacle at Donington three weeks ago. The reigning world champion turned up at Assen with a sticker on his helmet depicting a chicken with the words "Born in Italy, Raised in Monte Carlo, Plucked in England, Cooked in Donington." A show of contrition after a miserable result and an entertaining way of getting his season back on track. The Italian has a lot of catching up to do, but he expressed quiet satisfaction at the team's progress so far. Biaggi believes he has a setup he can work with, which bodes well for the Aprilia rider. He really needs the points to start closing the gap to Checa.
There was also a fair amount of attention on Kawasaki: Tom Sykes was the top British rider, the 2011 ZX-10R clearly a much more competitive package than its recent predecessors. A podium has been brewing for Sykes since the start of the year, and though Assen may still be a bit too early for the Englishman, there is real progress on display. The fact that Sykes is showing signs of being genuinely competitive is heartening for the Kawasaki camp, as it has been a long time since the factory has been competitive in World Superbikes, and they desperately needed the boost.
At the other end of the grid is Sykes' teammate Chris Vermeulen. The Australian is still recovering after major reconstructive knee surgery, trying but failing to race at both Phillip Island and Donington. Vermeulen had his sights set on Assen, but doubts continue to cloud the Australian's fitness. Putting in just 7 laps in free practice and then 14 in qualifying - compared with 20 and 22 by Sykes - looked disheartening for Vermeulen, but it later transpired that the Australian's day was hampered by two engine blowups, one in each session. Whether Vermeulen is capable of running a competitive pace or not is an unknown quantity right now. Tomorrow, if his engines hold, we should know more.
In the Supersport class, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are two distinct groups, those capable of winning, and those who are a second or more off the pace. The first group consists of Parkalgar Honda's Sam Lowes, the ParkinGO Yamahas of Chaz Davies and Luca Scassa, the Motocard.com Kawasakis of Broc Parkes and David Salom, and the Step Racing Honda of Gino Rea.
At Assen, Rea has dropped out of that group, his place taken instead by French youngster Florian Marino of the HANNSpree Ten Kate squad. Marino is a graduate of the Red Bull Rookie program, and his class showed last year, as runner up in the European Superstock 600 class. Marino has made a big step forward this year, and is earning his keep in the Ten Kate squad, as his veteran teammate Fabien Foret continues to struggle with injury. Provisional pole is a sign of his promise, and especially pleasing for his Dutch Ten Kate team in front of their home crowd.
Marino is just one of the many riders to emerge from the Red Bull Rookies Cup, and the World Superbike series has looked at that series with some envy. Plans to create a rival series producing youngsters trained on production bikes came to fruition this year, with the introduction of the European Junior Cup, a series for young riders racing identical Kawasaki 250 Ninjas. The EJC made its debut at Assen, with 13 riders taking to the track for the first session of free practice.
The quality of the field was very mixed, with 14 seconds separating first from last. The top three - German Tom Busch, Australian Matt Davies and South African Daniel Teixeira - were clearly a cut above the rest, finishing within a second, the next rider nearly three seconds off the pace of Busch. But it was equally interesting to see the rate of progression, lap times tumbling as the riders became familiar with the bikes. While Busch was into the 2'09s within 4 laps of getting on the bike, South African rider Themba Khumalo spent the session taking off nearly a second every lap. By the end of practice, Khumalo was running 2'15s, well back from the front runners, but making huge steps all the time. The race on Sunday will be a little strange, but by the end of the season, this could become a very interesting series.
Outside of the paddock, there was another great youth initiative. Fans around the track found themselves swamped by local schoolchildren, who had come on a visit to the circuit. The project, called "Kidstoer" and organized by the Assen circuit, brings over 800 children aged between 10 and 12 to the track, to give them a taste of motorcycle racing. The kids all come from local schools - the city of Assen and surrounding villages - and is a huge success, not so much breeding future generations of race fans, but more about generating greater acceptance of the existence of a race track now and in the future. The kids receive a poster, a magazine, ear plugs (which they disdain, because the bikes "are really loud, and that's really great"), and two food vouchers, which they spent on fries and ice cream. The initiative is simple, relatively inexpensive, and incredibly effective in generating support for the circuit. The project has run for three years' now, and more local schools are asking to join in every year. The future for the Assen circuit is looking bright.
You can see an short video impression of the school visit on the TT Assen Circuit website.