There was a good deal of sorrow at the end of 2005, as racers around the world said goodbye to the old North Loop at Assen. Although already much shortened over the years, the North Loop still held some remnant of the old country roads that used to form the track when racing started at Assen over 80 years ago, with its high-speed, off-camber crooks, combined with tighter, but still fast bends. But for the sake of commerce, this glorious cathedral of racing was to disappear, to make way for a vast entertainment complex-cum-theme park-cum-shopping mall.
The digging equipment moved in in late Autumn, tearing up the old track, and piling up the mounds of earth for what will become new seating areas around the new Haarbocht, Strubben, and laying the foundations for the TT World entertainment complex. But the long, cold winter we suffered in Holland threw a spanner in the works, delaying work on the track by several weeks due to frozen ground, which in turn set back the date for the first races planned around the new track.
As a result of these delays, a special practice day was opened to the competitors in the Dutch National Championships. Reports from the practice spoke repeatedly of the problems riders were having finding their way around the new northern section, with the redesigned, and tightened up, Strubben hairpin causing the most chaos, with too many different lines possible, making choosing the right one extremely difficult.
Then, a friend who races in an open streetbike class, fell at the Strubben and broke his shoulder on the new kerbstones, which he struck as he slid over them. So I decided to visit the World Endurance Championship 500 km race on Easter Monday, to get a look at the new section, and see for myself what effect the track changes have had.
Although the track and gravel traps are finished, construction on the stands is still in full swing around the new section, and so it wasn't possible to get a close look at the new Madijk and Ossebroeken section, but I got a decent look at the revised Strubben hairpin, and from the grandstand and pit building.
As you can see from the comparison image, the new northern section is very much shorter: turn one (the Haarbocht) is now a right-angle right-hander at the end of the finish straight, a short section leading on to turn two (Madijk), a 45-degree right-hander. Another short section leads into the new Ossebroeken: a very long, double apex right-hander, reminiscent of turn 2 at Shanghai. As you leave Ossebroeken, you fling the bike over for the extremely tight left-handed Strubben hairpin. The Strubben turn has been tightened, and the exit modified, so you have a quick right flick directly after the exit of the hairpin. The Strubben is also very round, an almost perfect arc, and the track is very wide at this spot, so there is plenty of room for overtaking.
Because the Strubben has been tightened up so much, it has been made incredibly slow, and could well be the slowest turn of the season. At just about every race that's been held at Assen this year, the riders have complained about how difficult it was to get round it, and there have been plenty of fallers at the hairpin as well.
But what do the changes mean for the racing? Overall, the new section is pretty interesting. Because of the layout, there are several lines through the section, and plenty of places to pass. Taking a late entry into the Haarbocht gives you an advantage at Madijk over someone squaring the corner off. Similarly, the double apex of the new Ossebroeken is not so much a turn with two obvious apexes, as a long turn which you need to pick a couple of spots to hit the inside kerb at. Because you make your own apexes, you can pass other riders by turning in earlier or later for the second apex.
Of course, if you do that, you better take care to shut the door at the Strubben. This has turned into a real monster: I saw passes here where the rider getting the decent drive by turning in later and standing up early, would take 10 to 15 meters on the exit. But if you pass at Ossebroeken, there's a good chance you'll get bitten by the Strubben. I saw some decent duels around the new section, riders passing each other two or three times before getting out of the hairpin and down to the old south section.
It's obvious that the track designers knew they had a tough act to follow, when they removed the fast, flowing section that was the North Loop, and tried to compensate by giving the riders plenty of places to pass in the new design. They have succeeded in their intention, and created a piece of track that will see great racing action. However, by a section of track so thoroughly modern in design, they have broken the track in two: the south end still bears the marks of the old Dutch farm roads, where the new section is more like a modern stadium track like Valencia.
Is the old Assen dead? Not exactly. The track still has much of its original charm, but like a middle-aged movie starlet after one face lift too many, that charm is looking more and more contrived and artificial with each stroke of the surgeon's knife.
You can find more information about the track at the Official Dutch TT Assen Website