Valentino Rossi is back from the hospital, where he was diagnosed with chest contusions, hairline fractures to the right hand and left ankle, and a haematoma (that's a very big and very nasty bruise to you and me) on his elbow. He is scheduled to undergo a CAT scan on his chest, and if no serious problems are found, is expected to return to the track, where he hopes to take part in this afternoon's practice session.
This morning's free practice seems to have caused a veritable tsunami of injuries, once again affecting the championship standings:
Valentino Rossi fell heavily at the fast Ruskenhoek sweeper before the GT chicane and was taken to hospital in Assen after the Free Practice session ended, with a suspected fractured wrist and collarbone;
Toni Elias also fell heavily, bruising his shoulder in the process;
Nicky Hayden fell, but was thankfully uninjured.
If Rossi is injured, it would mean missing at least two rounds, putting paid to his chances of title prolongation, and a continuation of his season long run of bad luck.
Marco Melandri took part in the first free practice session at Assen today, after having received the go ahead to ride from his doctors. The session was longer than usual, due to the major changes at Assen, though rain interrupted at one point, and Melandri set reasonable times. Shinya Nakano was fastest, followed by John Hopkins. FP times to follow later.
Former Dutch GP star Jurgen van den Goorbergh is reporting that Riders For Health (Dutch site, International Site) will be selling off chunks of the old Assen TT circuit during the Assen TT weekend. For just € 25 you can own a piece of the historic track that so many great names have raced on. The track is being sold at the Riders For Health stand, behind the main stand at the circuit itself during the race weekend. All proceeds will go towards supporting Riders For Health's projects in the Gambia.
This just in from an official press release by the Pramac d'Antin Team:
For the eighth round of the 2006 MotoGP World Championship that in Assen, Holland, this weekend, ALEX HOFMANN, PRAMAC D'ANTIN MOTOGP rider, will replace SETE Gibernau on the Official Ducati. The Spanish rider injured himself during the frightening accident of last Sunday in Spain and his return will depend on how fast his recover will be. As a replacement for ALEX HOFMANN, there will be the Spanish IVAN SILVA, already racing for the Team of LUIS D'ANTIN in the EXTREME category of the Spanish Championship, that also did a race of the 2006 World Championship in the Superstock 1000 class.
A big opportunity for ALEX HOFMANN, that will have a great occasion to race with the Official DUCATI (BRIDGESTONE tyres), but also for IVAN SILVA that will ride on the DUCATI DESMOSEDICI GP06 for the first time in the World Championship, assisted by the technical staff of the Team PRAMAC D'ANTIN MOTOGP.
ALEX HOFMANN: "I'm excited and so happy! Having the possibility to race on the Official DUCATI DESOMOSEDICI is an unbelievable opportunity and I will give my 100% to take advantage of it the most I can. I know this motorcycle well, I also know the evolution level of the BRIDGESTONE tyres that I developed until the Valencia GP of the 2005 Championship, with which I had a good feeling that I hope to get back from the first laps I will make in Assen. I'm very motivated and I want to make something good. In our world, these kind of agreement doesn't happen very often and I want to thank everybody: DUCATI, PRAMAC, LUIS D'ANTIN and PAOLO CAMPINOTI, for thier confidence, that I hope to reciprocate giving the maximum. I also have a special thought for SETE GIBERNAU to whom I wish to get well at the soonest and in the best way possible."
Although, thankfully, no one was seriously injured, the chaos at Catalunya is having a number of interesting repercussions. An update on the latest developments:
- Loris Capirossi is out of hospital, and though badly bruised, expects to start as normal at Assen on Saturday.
- Sete Gibernau is expected to undergo an operation to replace a plate on his collarbone today (Tuesday), and will be out for at least two races (Assen and Donington). Gibernau is likely to be replaced by fellow countryman Ruben Xaus, currently riding in the World Superbike series, rather than Ducati's test rider Vittoriano Guareschi, though this has not yet been officially confirmed.
- Marco Melandri has also left the hospital. He has a severe concussion and a great deal of bruising, but will be flying to Assen together with MotoGP's own Dr Costa. Dr Costa will judge whether Melandri is fit to ride on Thursday morning before the first free practice session. Melandri is expected to be fit for Donington, and as a result, Fortuna Honda is unlikely to field a replacement for him, as MotoGP rules only oblige teams to provide a replacement if a rider is out for two races or more. The organizer of the Dutch TT at Assen, Jos Vaessen, has been heavily involved in trying to persuade Fortuna Honda to run the Dutch ex-GP star Jurgen van den Goorbergh as replacement, which is entirely feasible, as van den Goorbergh is currently involved with Honda in Enduro and Supermoto racing, and is a test rider for Michelin, so has spent a good deal of time recently on a range of top MotoGP bikes which run Michelin tires, including the Honda.
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
The three riders injured in today's first corner pile up seem to be less badly injured than was first thought.
Thousands of Spanish fans, and many observers, including your humble reporter, expected the Gran Premi de Catalunya to be a festival of Spanish racing, with Spanish, or rather Catalan, riders starting from the front row of the grid, to take a Catalan win in front of their home crowds. The fact that most of the Catalan riders are on Michelins, the tires which dominated last year's race weekend, only reinforced this expectation. But this evening, the bars of Barcelona will be filled with despairing Spanish fans, wondering what happened to their local heroes. Sometimes, things just don't work out as you expected.
The MotoGP qualifying session began under warm sunny skies, with a hot track. Friday's afternoon session had started with a drying track, but there had been no sign of rain on Saturday, so times were quick right from the off. Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet took turns at the top of the timing charts with local boy Sete Gibernau, fanning the hopes of the local fans. Times were in the low 1:44s, still a long way off the expected qualifying pace, until Suzuki's John Hopkins broke into the mid-1:43s.
After 10 minutes, the Michelin riders reasserted their spot at the top, with first Casey Stoner, then Dani Pedrosa and his Repsol Honda team mate Nicky Hayden setting fastest lap, edging ever closer to a respectable pole time with a 1:43.149 at the 15 minute mark. The Kentucky Kid was in the middle of a longish seven-lap run at the time, running race tires, so race pace looks like being faster than last year.
As if piqued that someone had run faster than his race lap record, Valentino Rossi took back the top spot 3 minutes later, only to run into the gravel at the end of the main straight. This gave Dani Pedrosa a chance to snatch fastest lap back, breaking the 1:43 barrier with a 1:42.926. Rossi equaled this time a lap later, on the same tires he'd run into the gravel on.
By this time, Shinya Nakano had taken another tenth of a second off the fastest time, taking his Kawasaki to a 1:42.806. His time was to stand for a quarter of an hour, as the field were either out trying to find a race setting and a decent tire in the warm weather and hot track conditions, or else were in the pits studying the data gathered so far.
With just under 25 minutes to go, the Kawasaki pair were at it again. Randy de Puniet took fastest lap from his team mate, but he was only to enjoy this position for 15 seconds, as Nakano streaked back across the line with a 1:42.632, just 3 tenths slower than Sete Gibernau's pole record from last year. Five minutes later, John Hopkins made it a provisional Bridgestone front row, setting a time just a couple of hundredths slower than Gibernau's record.
By now, almost everyone was out on their first set of qualifiers, trying to get a fast lap in while there were still occasional clear stretches of track to be found, a commodity which disappears during the manic last 10 minutes of qualifying. With 15 minutes to go, Australian rookie Casey Stoner broke up the Bridgestone love-in, putting his LCR Honda into second place. And a couple of minutes later, Valentino Rossi finally broke Gibernau's lap record, taking provisional pole with a 1:42.264. With 11 minutes left on the clock, Kenny Roberts Junior showed his excellent performance during the free practice sessions was no fluke, taking 4th spot, while local boy Toni Elias moved up to eighth position, after a fairly dismal showing up till that point. He then proceeded to get in John Hopkins' way on his slowdown lap, as Hopper stormed round on what looked like being another fastest lap.
As the clock ticked down, the Honda riders and championship favorites started answering the question of where they had been so far. With 8 minutes to go, Marco Melandri finally put in a fast lap, setting the third fastest time at that point, with Nicky Hayden slipping into second place a couple of minutes later. But by then, The Doctor had reasserted his superiority, setting a new fastest time of 1:41.855, the first rider to break into the 1:41s. And Hayden's stint at second was not to last, as Shinya Nakano took back second spot a minute later.
With less than five minutes to go, the pits became a seething hive of activity, as everyone rushed back to get a new qualifier to shoot for one last quick lap. That some riders were feeling the strain became obvious when Melandri, eager to set a time faster than the 1:42.492 he already had, cracked the throttle a fraction too early and lowsided to spin out into the gravel round the rear of the track. That everyone was pushing was equally obvious as one rider after another set their fastest lap. With a minute to go, John Hopkins took back second spot, becoming the only other rider to crack the 1:41 barrier with a 1:41.984. Nakano bravely tried to parry, taking back third, only to be pushed down by first Kenny Roberts Junior, then Nicky Hayden, Ducati's Loris Capirossi and the other Suzuki rider Chris Vermeulen. After the flag had fallen, Nakano finally managed to take back 5th on his last hot lap.
So after the dust of a hectic and exhilarating session settled, the grid once again defied expectations. Seven-times winner at Catalunya Valentino Rossi sits on pole with a new qualifying record of 1:41.855, nearly half a second faster than Sete Gibernau's previous record from 2005. Nothing unusual in The Doctor on pole, you might say, except this is Rossi's first pole since the British Grand Prix at Donington in July 2005. Behind Rossi sits John Hopkins on the Rizla Suzuki, with Kenny Roberts Junior on his father's Team KR KR211V completing the front row of the grid. In fourth place is Hopkin's team mate Chris Vermeulen, followed by Kawasaki's Shinya Nakano, with championship leader Loris Capirossi in sixth. The man Capirossi shares the lead in the championship with, Nicky Hayden is the first Honda on the grid in 7th, followed by Casey Stoner's LCR Honda, and Marco Melandri's Fortuna Honda completing the all-Honda third row.
Nakano's Kawasaki team mate Randy de Puniet is in a respectable 10th position, in front of a severely disappointed Dani Pedrosa, 11th on the grid not where he wanted to be for his home Grand Prix. The Texas Tornado has blown hot and cold this year, hot during races and cold during qualifying, and Colin Edwards stays true to form with a 12th place in qualifying. Catalan disappointment reigns supreme on row five, Sete Gibernau in 13th on the Ducati, followed by Toni Elias on the other Fortuna Honda. That disappointment will be shared by the man in 15th, Makoto Tamada, who may be riding his last races aboard the Konica Minolta Honda, as the paddock is buzzing with rumors that either Jorge Lorenzo or Andrea Dovizioso may move up from the 250 class to take his place.
The Dunlop riders bring up the rear, as usual, and unfortunately for them. Carlos Checa leads the way, 7/10ths from Makoto Tamada, while Alex Hoffman aboard the Pramac d'Antin Ducati is 17th, a second behind Checa. Checa's Tech 3 Yamaha team mate James Ellison follows in 18th, Jose Luis Cardoso taking the final spot on the grid.
So what are we to make of this qualifying session? First and foremost, we may be seeing the first signs of the end of this year's excitement. Valentino Rossi once again dominated on his Camel Yamaha, not just by putting in the fastest qualifying time, but also by riding consistent low 1:43s and high 1:42s on race tires early on in the session. No one else is as quick on race tires. Dani Pedrosa, Nicky Hayden and Casey Stoner come closest, though they start from a way down the grid. But they may find themselves with a tough fight to get through to chase Rossi, as Hopkins, Kenny Jr, Nakano, de Puniet, Edwards and Gibernau were all consistently running mid- to high 1:43s on race tires, and could end up getting in the way. The other item worth noting is that Carlos Checa opened the session by putting in nearly 18 laps, or 2/3rds race distance, in a single run. Lapping consistently in the low 1:44s and high 1:43s, look to Checa to finish much further forward than he has in previous races. This may be the first sign that Dunlop are making real progress, and could be more competitive later in the season. With four of the first six riders on Bridgestones, and only two Michelin riders, having a third tire manufacturer capable of running at the front is an exciting prospect.
As for the race, if Rossi gets away from the start, it could be all over by the end of the first lap. But there is no reason to despair: the battles for 2nd to 10th place will be fantastic, and with Rossi's recent run of luck, leading the race could be meaningless. If he does lead, you can be sure that there'll be a mass of crossed fingers in the Yamaha garages, right until he crosses the finish line.
At a dramatic press conference at the Barcelona race track, Sebastian Porto, Repsol Honda's 250 cc class rider, announced his retirement from motorcycle racing with immediate effect. The 27 year old Argentinian has had a dismal season so far, his best result a 7th place in Qatar, a severe disappointment for the man who came a very close second in the championship in 2004. Porto blamed his failure to adapt to the Honda as his main motivation for calling it quits, after moving to the Repsol Honda team from Aprilia.
The move will come as a shock to almost everyone in the motorcycle racing community. Big things were expected of his move into the team run by Alberto Puig, the man who helped Dani Pedrosa to two 250 cc world crowns. Porto stressed that his decision had nothing to do with the team. "It is totally my decision, and not one made by Repsol, Alberto Puig, or any other party", he said.
See the full report over at MotoGP.com