When we say that conditions make a huge difference in MotoGP, we usually meant that a track which was drenched in rain, or a one which was drying and changing, effected the outcome of the race. But there are a couple of race tracks in the world where the wind can have a huge impact on the way a race plays out. One of those places is Assen, where the wind sweeps up from the south east unimpeded by any geographical obstacles and straight into the faces of the riders coming out of the Strubben hairpin and heading down the Veenslang back straight. (Though like all of the straights at Assen, it isn't really that straight. It weaves and winds down to the fast right at the Ruskenhoek.)
On Sunday, the wind, which had picked up significantly compared to the day before, produced three barnstormers of races. It kept a huge group together until the end of the Moto3 race, it produced a thrilling Moto2 race decided in the last laps, and it even helped to bunch the MotoGP riders up, and create drama for most of the race.
The wind, combined with the fact that Assen has so many high-speed changes of directions make it immensely physically demanding. Hustling a MotoGP bike from side to side is never easy, let alone when you have to do it at over 200 km/h. The laws of physics turn momentum into an unstoppable force which you have to overpower if you are to make the next corner.
Those physical demands took their toll in MotoGP. A week after having arm pump surgery, Fabio Quartararo survived Barcelona relatively unscathed, taking pole and securing his first ever MotoGP podium. Despite having two weeks extra for the wound to heal, the physical demands of the Assen track made it a very tough weekend for the Frenchman. Not that that stopped him: he grabbed pole once again, his second in a row, and scored another podium.
He knew straight away he was in trouble. Quartararo could post a fast lap, but coming in after long runs he was in trouble. There was some pain and weakness in the arm, and a build up of fluid. Before every session, his arm would be bandaged up, and he had the right sleeve of his leathers loosened up a bit to create some room. The main difficulty was that with the operation wound still healing, he couldn't have massages to help restore the bloodflow and disperse the fluid, the usual remedy for arm pump and tired muscles after each session.
The effects of that weakened arm were visible when he came out of the Strubben hairpin and headed down the Veenslang. As he hit fifth and sixth gear, his Petronas Yamaha M1 was shaking violently, and as he struggled to hold on, he backed off the gas, allowing Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales, the riders he fought over the podium with for most of the race, to catch him and pass him.
It had also been a mistake in choosing his line down the back straight, Quartararo said. "It was a little bit my fault," he told the press conference, "Also because when I was behind Maverick and Marc I tried to be even more on the inside, but the bike was moving even more. I saw that they were going more to the outside, and it was much better. I think it was the combination of the wind and me doing the wrong line at this stage. But the last lap I was going more into the outside and the bike was much more stable. So like I said, we took experience and I think it’s good to see how they ride."
Never give up
In a graphic illustration of just how tough it is to ride at Assen, Johann Zarco pulled in with unmanageable arm pump at the end of lap 16. He had suffered the problem in previous years on the Yamaha, but it was too much for him on the much more physical KTM. "It is a hard track for all the riders, I think, because I got these problems but I was able to manage it the last two years," Zarco said afterward. "I got the same problem this year but it was worse because the bike was moving but also in many other places. The good thing was the first ten laps and to be able to catch them with pace and be able to overtake as a racer. At the moment there is too much compensation which is destroying me. I did a few mistakes and had to stop. I had the feeling I was not holding the bike anymore and before something bad happened I had to stop."
Would Zarco consider surgery to address the arm pump issues? "Not at all," he said. "I will not do any surgery. This is not the solution and I never had this problem before. I’m not relaxed enough on the bike. I do not want to do this kind of operation. The worst thing is motocross for arm pump. The top guys are not doing the operation. Fabio did it but he is younger and this is his choice. I will not do that but I will improve myself and find a solution to be back on the top."
Pulling in because he couldn't complete the race is a new low for Zarco's career at KTM. Poor results, expletive-laden garage tirades caught on camera, and an air of defeat, of being beaten down by the bike, and now stopping at two-thirds distance because he is unable to finish the race, and implicitly blaming the bike. KTM and Zarco is not a happy marriage, and at the moment, it is hard to see how it will improve.
Zarco will have to hope that salvation will come through the work which Dani Pedrosa is doing as test rider for KTM. If Pedrosa can help make the bike that little bit easier to ride, then Zarco has a chance to succeed. There are signs that Zarco is improving, but he needs some real progress soon. The only upside is that even if he doesn't, KTM have few options to replace him next year, and could decide to give him another year until 2021, when the current two-year contract cycle will make almost everyone available.
To the race. Marc Márquez' prediction turned out to be accurate."For me, if Yamaha can come back with a victory, it's at this circuit," he said on Saturday afternoon. "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."
Maverick Viñales took convincing victory on Sunday, battling hard for the first 20 laps with Marc Márquez and Fabio Quartararo before finally pulling out a gap. But victory had not been easy: getting past Márquez, especially, was difficult, because of the different strengths of the Yamaha and Honda.
Viñales' strongest point in the circuit was out of Duikersloot and Meeuwenmeer, which put him right on Márquez' tail coming through Hoge Heide, the terrifying right-left kink where high speeds reduce the track to a narrow ribbon of asphalt, making it very hard to pass. Márquez was much stronger in braking for the Ramshoek, able to stay ahead of Viñales and line up the GT chicane.
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