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We knew that the 86th edition of the Dutch TT at Assen was going to be historic. It was, after all, the first time the race was to be run on Sunday, after being run on Saturday since 1925. What we didn't know was that the day the race was held would end up being the least interesting historic fact about it. The record books will have plenty to say about Sunday's race at Assen.
There was some fascinating racing in all three classes, as is is so often the case at Assen. The Moto3 race saw a scintillating race decided at the line, the podium separated by less than four hundredths of a second. We had a return to something like the Moto2 of old, with a sizable group battling over the podium spots. And last but not least, we had a bizarre two-part MotoGP race, red-flagged, restarted, and with a mold-breaking winner. When we look back, the MotoGP race at Assen could well prove to be a pivotal point in the championship.
The red-flagged MotoGP race was down to the weather once again playing a starring role in the weekend. After rain on Saturday, Sunday started bright, though the track took time to warm up and dry out. Clouds rolled in and rolled back out again, as is their wont at Assen, occasionally spitting but not looking like they would cause major problems for any of the three classes. Until the last part of the Moto2 race, when the heavens finally opened and drenched the track. That race would be red-flagged, and it would not be the only one.
The last of the factory seats has been officially filled. Today, the Gresini Aprilia team announced that Aleix Espargaro will be joining Sam Lowes at Aprilia for the next two seasons.
The announcement did not come as a surprise. Rumors had emerged at Barcelona that Espargaro would be going to Aprilia, Espargaro telling the media on Friday that he had already signed a contract, but that he was unable to announce who with.
In the previous 85 editions of the Dutch TT at Assen, we have seen some pretty spectacular Saturdays. In the 86th edition, with the race moved to Sunday, Saturday lived up to the expectations raised by the previous 85. It was a wild and weird day, both morning and afternoon, with the weather being the main protagonist once again. There were crashes, fast dry laps, fast wet laps, and some smart strategy in the chase for pole. It was a good day indeed.
With Friday's heat having dissipated, the MotoGP riders faced a fresh set of challenges. Overnight rain and light clouds meant track temperatures were much cooler. That meant that the medium front tire was suddenly a much more tricky proposition, catching a number of riders out. Jorge Lorenzo fell at the Ruskenhoek after the front tire let go, while Marc Márquez made one of the most remarkable saves of recent years, after locking the front completely braking for Turn 1.
What happened? It's hard to tell from the video (online at the MotoGP.com website, or via the MotoGP Twitter feed), but afterwards, Márquez explained that the front locked without warning. "From the first point of the brake, the front wheel locked, and then I released the brakes and it was a big moment," the Repsol Honda rider said.
Winglets are to be banned in all three MotoGP classes from 2017 onwards. At Assen, the Grand Prix Commission met and decided on an outright ban on aerodynamic wings, after the MSMA had failed to reach an agreement among all manufacturers on a joint proposal.
So how does the first Dutch TT at Assen to be run following the normal Friday-to-Sunday schedule feel for the riders? It feels normal, is the consensus. "I don't think it makes a difference regarding the feeling," Dani Pedrosa explained on Thursday. "Because when we were here on Wednesday, it felt like a Thursday, because the procedure is the same."
The only downside about the switch from Saturday to Sunday? "The only good thing before was that when you finish the race, you still have the Sunday off! So when you return home, you had a good time with family on Sunday," said Pedrosa. "I'm going to miss my Sunday roast!" added Bradley Smith.
Perhaps a more complex and sensitive loss was the fact that the Assen round of MotoGP now clashes directly with the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Bradley Smith bemoaned the fact that he would not be able to attend the festivities on Sunday, nor the traditional dinner on Saturday night. The damage this clash does could be small but significant in the long run. Though motorcycles are given a lot of attention at Goodwood, it is primarily an event focused on four wheels. Having top MotoGP riders attend the event was good exposure for motorcycle racing, and MotoGP in particular. With Assen likely to clash frequently with Goodwood, the number of riders at the event is certain to diminish.
For Assen, this is a year for breaking with tradition. In 2016, for the first time in its history, the 86th edition of the Dutch TT at Assen will be run on Sunday rather than Saturday. It is the end of an era, but also the start of a new era.
The reason for the switch is simple: better exposure. "All of the major football games, all of the big sporting events are on Sunday. People expect to go to a big event on a Sunday," chairman of the circuit Arjan Bos told reporters last year. TV audiences expect major sports events to take place on a Sunday, and not a Saturday, as the viewing figures for Assen have repeatedly shown. On average, TV audiences are down by a significant amount compared to other MotoGP races.
The next piece in the puzzle which is the 2017 MotoGP grid has fallen into place. As had been widely expected, Alex Rins has signed a two-year deal to race with the factory Ecstar Suzuki team from next year. Rins will line up alongside Andrea Iannone on the Suzuki GSX-RR next season.
Rins had long been favorite to take the second seat at Suzuki, as his profile best suited the Ecstar Suzuki team's strategy of having young rider with potential alongside a fast, more experienced rider to help lead development. When Maverick Viñales left for the Movistar Yamaha team, Rins was the name most touted to take his place.
While Johann Zarco is out in Japan, testing the Suzuki GSX-RR MotoGP bike, the 2017 MotoGP rider line up is starting to solidify further. Ironically, it is looking like Johann Zarco will not be the rider Suzuki selects to pilot its factory MotoGP bike alongside Andrea Iannone.
Team boss Davide Brivio is in Japan along with the test team to finalize their plans for 2017. At Barcelona, Brivio admitted to MotoMatters.com that he would be going to discuss Suzuki's choice of rider for next year. The Italian acknowledged that both Aleix Espargaro and Alex Rins were under discussion, and though he declined to state a preference, he did say "It's clear what our choice is."
"I am not a very happy man," Tech 3 boss Hervé Poncharal told us on the Thursday before Barcelona. His problem? Attracting competitive riders to take the seats vacated by Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. Their destination was emblematic of Poncharal's problem: at Barcelona, Espargaro announced he would be reunited with his Tech 3 teammate in the factory KTM team in 2017 and 2018.
So Poncharal found himself with the looming likelihood of fielding two rookies in 2017. The Tech 3 boss signed Jonas Folger back in Le Mans, while Johann Zarco is the prime candidate to fill the second Tech 3 seat. (Zarco is currently in Japan testing Suzuki's GSX-RR MotoGP machine. He is expected to sign with Tech 3 once Suzuki have announced they are signing Alex Rins to partner Andrea Iannone.)
The original hope was either to keep Pol Espargaro alongside Folger, to ensure consistency of results, or welcome Alex Rins into the fold on a factory Yamaha contract. Either way, it would ensure the publicity which is vital to keeping sponsors happy. Two rookies and no factory connections is a lot less appealing to the people who help provide the €8-€9 million it costs to run the Tech 3 team.
On the day after the Barcelona MotoGP race, the entire grid bar the Aspar Ducatis were back at the track for a full day of testing. Conditions were ideal; so ideal that they perhaps a little confusing. Though it was hot and dry, the fact that only MotoGP bikes are circulating and laying down Michelin rubber meant the track felt different to race day, when the MotoGP bikes have to follow Moto2, and cope with the Dunlop rubber the fat rear tires smear on the track.
On Friday, a young man died in a freak crash at the Circuit de Catalunya, and we mourned him. On Saturday, we went through the motions, picking up the rhythm of a normal race weekend, but in a state of mild shock. On Sunday morning, we remembered Luis Salom, the whole paddock and a circuit full of fans standing in silence, united both in the memory of a bright young talent who take took from us, and in the knowledge that it can happen again. On Sunday afternoon, we raced, and reminded ourselves of why young men and women risk their lives with the frankly rather futile objective of demonstrating that they can ride in circles on a motorbike faster than anyone else.
"It was difficult to not cry when we were in the minute of silence," Maverick Viñales reflected on Sunday afternoon. "It was a really difficult race, but I think the best way to remember Luis is racing, and trying to make the best result. I know he will be always with us." Marc Márquez felt much the same. "In the end also this Sunday, I liked it was again the atmosphere of the family, the MotoGP family. Because when we were there together on the grid, when we were racing, everybody was racing for Luis. Everybody dedicated the race to Luis."
What does the MotoGP paddock do the day after a rider dies? Carry on as normal. Or nearly normal: bikes circulate, riders compete, but conversations are more hushed, the mood muted. The whole paddock is a quieter place, bar the bellowing of racing four stroke engines.
Heartless? That is putting it a little strongly. It is in part a coping mechanism, immersing yourself in your work to avoid dwelling on tragedy, and thinking too much about danger. But it is also a response to the request of Luis Salom's family and team. When Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta asked them what they wanted to do, they said they wanted the race to go ahead.
Their wishes would be respected, but it was not the first choice of everyone in the paddock. Danilo Petrucci told the Italian press he would have preferred to have packed up and gone home, and he was not alone. "Yesterday I was crying together with my brother because [Luis Salom] was really young," Aleix Espargaro told us. "This is a disaster. With Pol we were thinking that the best thing was to not race because actually now I feel empty inside." We all felt empty inside, and still do.
After the tragic death of Luis Salom as a result of injuries sustained in a crash during Moto2 FP2, the track layout is to be modified for the remainder of the weekend. The event is to continue, in accordance with the wishes of the family of Luis Salom, as well as the riders and teams.