On the eve of the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring, the Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP's rule making body has allowed a system which was first mooted at the same race last year. In Assen, the GPC gathered to discuss various minor tweaks to the MotoGP rules, but among them was a major upgrade: permitting the use of dashboard messages by the teams from 2018.
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Michelin are to bring an additional choice of front and rear tire specifications for the German round of MotoGP at the Sachsenring. The expanded allocation is Michelin's way of dealing with the extra grip they expect the track surface to have. To cover as many situations and conditions as possible, Michelin will offer a choice of four different front tires, and four different rear tires.
The reason Michelin has opted for this approach is because they were unable to test at the Sachsenring. The circuit's location, nestled up against the town of Hohenstein-Ernstthal, means noise restrictions placed on the track made testing impossible. The circuit only has a limited number of days on which it can run vehicles as loud as a MotoGP bike, and there was no way to expand that to add additional days to allow MotoGP to test for Michelin. Given the horsepower and lean angles MotoGP bikes are capable of generating, using Superbikes or standard road bikes to test tires would not have generated the same stresses in the Michelins.
"We tried everything to have a test," Michelin boss Nicolas Goubert said. "At the end it was not possible because of the noise regulations and so on. We agreed with Dorna that we could have one more specification of tire. One more front and one more rear to cover a wider range of situations. So that’s a way to cover wider conditions."
The Circuit of Wales, the track which was to be built near Ebbw Vale in South Wales, has been dealt what will likely be a fatal blow. Today, the Welsh Government rejected the request of the Heads of the Valleys Development Company to underwrite the debts incurred for the construction of the circuit.
The HOTDVC, the company which had been set up to build and run the project, had originally requested that the Welsh Government underwrite the full £280 million cost the project had been expected to cost. After years of negotiation, the estimated costs had risen to £433 million, and the Welsh Government refused the HOTVDC proposal to underwrite half that debt.
There are days when being a MotoGP journalist can be hard work. You spend hours each day trying to wheedle tidbits of information from unwilling conversation partners, then hours chasing round after riders. You top it off with hours trying to spin a day's worth of platitudes into something vaguely readable and semi-interesting, before hopping into bed for five hours' sleep, only to do it all over again. There were years when writing race reports containing any entertainment value was a hard slog through tiny details, as for much of the Bridgestone years, the riders would pretty much finish in the order in which they qualified. You keep doing it from a deep love of the sport, and the hope of better days.
You keep doing it for days like today. Sunday at Assen saw not one, but three breathtaking races. Each race was packed with a season's worth of drama, and combined spectacular passing, raw, undiluted speed, tricky weather conditions and surprise results from the first race through to the last. It was a reminder that majestic tracks produce phenomenal racing. A reminder that we are living through a new golden age of Grand Prix racing, with the outcome of any of the three races completely up in the air on any given weekend.
Above all, though, it was a reminder that we are watching giants of the sport at play. In twenty years' time, when MotoGP fans come to draw up their lists of the top ten racers of all time, at least half of the names they choose will have been on the grid on Sunday. Assen was a veritable cornucopia of racing greatness.
As had been widely trailed, Franco Morbidelli has signed a two-year with the Marc VDS squad to move up to MotoGP. The deal will see the Italian take the place of Tito Rabat inside the Marc VDS team for the next two years, with an option to sign on for a third.
Morbidelli had also been under consideration for a ride with Ducati, but the relationship the Italian had built up with the team proved decisive.
Motorcycle racing is an outdoor sport. The riders are at the mercy of the elements. Not just the riders, but the teams and factories too. A bike that works well in the dry may be terrible in the wet. A bike that is strong in the wet may struggle when conditions were mixed. Finding the right balance when conditions change can throw the best laid plans into disarray.
All of these questions were multiplied by the weather at Assen. With nothing between the circuit and the North Sea but a row of sand dunes, the odd high rise office block, and a hundred kilometers of pancake-flat farmland punctuated by the occasional tree, the wind, sun, and rain blow out just as quickly as they blow in. The weather at Assen is as fickle as a pretty teenager in a crowded disco.
That made it tough for MotoGP at the Dutch circuit. Searching for the right setup was both perilously difficult and ultimately futile, for as soon as you found something in the right ballpark for the conditions, the rain would come or the track would dry out, and you would have to start all over again. Add in tarmac which has fantastic grip in the dry but diminishing grip in the dry, and you had a recipe for, if not chaos, then at least a fairly random mix of riders topping qualifying.
Just how clever has Honda been with their fairings? At Assen, Cal Crutchlow spent Friday going back and forth between bikes with and without the addition of aerodynamic side pods on the outside of the fairing. That led to some confusion among the media. Had Honda homologated the aerodynamic fairing already? Or was this something new?
MotoGP got off to an inauspicious start at Assen. Just a couple of minutes into FP1 on Friday morning, the red flags were already out. The cause? Andrea Dovizioso's Ducati Desmosedici GP17 had started spewing oil all over the track on his out lap, causing first Jonas Folger to take a massive tumble through the gravel at Duikersloot. It also took down Dovizioso's teammate Jorge Lorenzo.
"I felt some movement a few corners before," Folger said of his crash. "I had a highside, and then the bike hit me as well." After a brief check up at the Medical Center, Folger was sent on his way again. Fortunately for the Tech 3 rider, it took the best part of half an hour to clean up the oil left on the track by Dovizioso, so he had plenty of time to get back to the garage and get ready again.
Surprisingly, the crash left him with few ill consequences. Folger was able to get back out, and build up his confidence again. So much so, in fact, that he ended the day as second fastest, with only a masterful Maverick Viñales ahead of him. Where had his speed come from? Confidence mainly. He had gained confidence from the past couple of rounds, and especially at Barcelona. Being fastest during warm up in Barcelona, and seeing Marc Márquez struggle to match his pace had given Folger a boost. This, and working out that he needed to brake later, had made a world of difference.
For the first ten years I spent writing previews for the Dutch TT at Assen, I would start have to start off on a tangent, with a brief summary of the schisms and splits of the Dutch Reformed Church. Without the background to the religious topology of The Netherlands, it is hard to explain why the race was held on Saturday. Last year, when the MotoGP race was held on a Sunday for the first time, I had to recap that, to explain why it was a big deal for the race to be held on Sunday, and to be moved from Saturday.
This year, 2017, I can leave aside the history of Dutch Protestantism and its aversion to any activity on the Sabbath. This will be the second time the race will be held on Sunday, and so the novelty of the change has worn off. It has fallen in line with the rest of the calendar, and so it is just another race weekend, same as any other. Although of course, being Assen, it is still something a bit special.
If anything, the switch from having a Saturday race to a Sunday race has been a positive boon. Though some feared the traditionalists would stay away, offended by change, visitor numbers were up last year, especially on Friday and Saturday. More people came for the race as well, despite taking place in an absolute downpour. Over 105,000 fans packed a flooded Assen, because being Assen, it is still something a bit special.
Diminished, but still glorious
Though the track has been neutered, the former glory of the North Loop removed to raise funds to improve facilities, three and a half of the circuit's four and a half kilometer length is still a unique and challenging layout. The banking and camber may be reduced, but the weird snaking layout and subtle dips and bumps make it a tough track to get absolutely perfect. It is still fast too, with corners like the Ruskenhoek, Meeuwenmeer, Hoge Heide and Ramshoek demanding both courage and skill. And it has one of the best final chicanes in the world, the GT Chicane or Geert Timmer Bocht offering the perfect final shot at a pass to win the race.
Pecco Bagnaia is one Moto2 rider who will not be moving up to MotoGP in 2018. The Italian rookie, who has been impressive in his debut Moto2 season, scoring a podium at Jerez, is to remain with the Sky Racing Team VR46 for the following season.
Bagnaia had been linked to a couple of rides in MotoGP. Both Pramac and especially Aspar were keen to see the Italian youngster move up to MotoGP for next season, after his strong rides in Moto3 and impressive start to his Moto2 career. Bagnaia has chosen stability, however, remaining with the Sky VR46 team for a second season in Moto2.
Cal Crutchlow is to stay with the LCR Honda team for the next two years. The Englishman's contract is part of a new deal between HRC and LCR, which will see Honda supply Honda RC213Vs to the LCR Honda team for the next two seasons, and signs Crutchlow directly to HRC, rather than LCR.
With all twelve factory riders on two-year contracts, there wasn't supposed to be a MotoGP Silly Season in 2017, or at least, not much of one. That impression was further reinforced when the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad quickly tied up both Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger for an extra year, until the end of 2018.
As usual, reality intervened, of course. Though the factory seats were supposedly taken, there was plenty of interest in the satellite seats once the season got underway. All eyes turned to the Moto2 class, and especially to the remarkable performances by Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia. Alex Márquez, too, raised eyebrows. And so speculation started.
Then there were those factory seats. Yes, all twelve factory riders have two-year contracts, but all contracts have clauses that allow for either side to make an early escape. Great managers make sure the escape clause benefits their rider. Great factory lawyers make sure the contract is in their favor. The measure of a rider manager is where they end up on that side of the equation.
Trouble in paradise?
And so already, there are rumblings at two factories. The stories of Andrea Iannone and Sam Lowes are very different, but possibly related. It is an open secret that both riders have fallen far short of expectations. Iannone has struggled to get his head around the way the Suzuki needs to be ridden, especially the way braking needs to be done. The bike is built to carry corner speed, which means braking as hard as possible in a straight line, then releasing the brakes and carrying corner speed. On the Ducati, Iannone learned to brake later, and keep the brakes on into the corner all the way to the apex. His failure to adapt has seen a string of poor results and growing frustration.
Why go testing on Monday after a race? Even though riders are pretty drained after a full race weekend, riding on Monday provides really useful feedback. First of all, the track is clean and already rubbered in. Weather conditions are usually close enough to race day to provide good comparison. But above all, the riders are already up to speed, so no time is wasted. Johann Zarco put it very nicely: "I enjoy it so much, because you don't lose half day to find the feeling, you already have the feeling," the Frenchman said. "You just wake up, warm the bike up and you are ready, and you can start to work. We did the same today. It's good anyway. Even if you are tired from Sunday, you go on the bike, going over 300 km/h and that's just a nice life!"
What did the factories have to test? Ducati had nothing at all, the factory, Aspar and Avintia teams all packing up and leaving without turning a wheel. Ducati tested here before Mugello, and had tested at Mugello before Le Mans, so they need more time before they have something worth testing again. The earliest the new aerodynamics package can be ready is at the Brno test in August, so that will be their next focus.
Of the teams which did test, all eyes were on Yamaha. The factory Movistar Yamaha team had two new chassis to test, though they only tried the one on Monday. The team is staying on for an extra day on Tuesday, after canceling and moving a previously planned test at Aragon.
Are Michelin deciding the 2017 MotoGP championship? That would be an easy conclusion to draw after the war of attrition which the Gran Premi de Catalunya at Barcelona turned into. It would also be inaccurate. This race, like the race at Jerez, was about managing tires in poor grip conditions, with the added complication in Barcelona of extremely high tire wear. The riders and bikes which managed that best ended up at the top of the results sheet. The bikes and riders which struggled with that went backwards, and lost out.
And yet Michelin undeniably has a role in all this. After the race, Honda boss Livio Suppo pointed out that we were seeing different manufacturers do well at each different race. The pendulum swings between one and another, as a particular team or a particular factory hits the performance sweet spot for the tires, and gets the most out of them. At the next race, it's a different rider, a different bike, a different team.
The criticism Suppo had was that the sweet spot for the tires could be hard to find. "The tires seem to have a very narrow operating window. If you get it right, you can be competitive," he told me. If you didn't get it right, if you couldn't find that operating window, you are in deep trouble. "Maybe it would be better if that window was bigger."
The first of the Moto2 moves for the 2018 season has been announced, and it should come as no surprise that it is championship leader Joan Mir who is moving up from Moto3 to Moto2. Mir will take one of the seats in the Estrella Galicia Marc VDS squad, aboard the team's Kalex Moto2 bikes. Mir was impressive last year on the Leopard Racing KTM, and since the team switched to Honda, has continued to impress.