The question on everybody at Assen's lips, whether Valentino Rossi was fit enough for qualifying, has been answered, and the answer is: just. Rossi was only out for 2 sessions, and did 13 laps, but he qualified, with an almost respectable 1:40.298. Respectable for a man who complained that he couldn't brake or get on the gas, that is.
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Valentino Rossi seems to be suffering from the injuries sustained during his crash in the 1st Free Practice session yesterday. He did not emerge onto the track until 20 minutes into the session, where he rode 3 laps before returning. He came out once more, towards the end of the session very briefly, apparently returning straight back to the pits. Most disturbing of all for the Italian world champion must be his lap times: his fastest lap time was a 1:58.614. That's 21 seconds slower than the fastest lap this session.
In a previous item, I discussed the changes that have been made to the track at Assen, especially the changes to the North Loop. Thursday was the first day that the riders got to ride the track in anger, and to learn what the new Circuit Van Drenthe at Assen is really like. Here's a compilation of rider comments on the changed layout at Assen, taken from interviews from MotoGP.com:
In this afternoon's Free Practice session, Texas Tornado Colin Edwards was fastest, setting a 1:38.144.
Toni Elias is flying back to Barcelona today, after injuring his shoulder in a fall during the first free practice session. A bone chip was found in his shoulder at the hospital, and he has suffered some ligament damage.
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.
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.
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.
Although, thankfully, no one was seriously injured, the chaos at Catalunya is having a number of interesting repercussions. An update on the latest developments:
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.
Motorcycle racing is a sport haunted by injustice. Chance lies waiting at every corner, turning a dream race into a nightmare, where engines can blow, tires can tear themselves apart, or an overcooked corner can end in the gravel traps. But sometimes, Fate takes a step aside, and races turn into a direct reflection of the real strengths in the paddock. That this should happen at Mugello seemed only fitting: great races belong at great racetracks.
It should come as no surprise that the Italians are highly motivated at Mugello this weekend. Valentino Rossi had already jumped up the qualifying rankings at Le Mans, after setting some very poor practice times in earlier races, and had dominated both Free Practice sessions on Friday. Not to be outdone, Ducati's Loris Capirossi had set the fastest time in Saturday morning's free practice session, slashing a second off Rossi's time. The only Italian missing from the party was Marco Melandri, who seemed to settle for running around 7th or 8th place.. So all eyes were on the Italians before qualifying, with much pressure on them to get a pole in front of their home crowd.
As qualifying opened, just about everyone took to the track to try and set a semi-respectable time, yesterday's semi-wet FP2 session still fresh in their memories. The weather seems destined to be a factor this season, and with this in mind, no one was taking any chances. It was clear that the Italian riders were serious right from the start, with Loris Capirossi setting the weekend's fastest time so far at 1:50.133 with over 53 minutes of the session left. Four minutes later, Capirossi broke into the 1:49s, setting a 1:49.819. Most riders having set a time they were comfortable with, the session quietened down, riders concentrating on finding tires and a bike setting to last the distance of tomorrow's race.
Well, I touched upon this in my Mugello round preview, and I'm starting to think I might just be psychic. According Crash.net, Dorna has announced that the San Marino Grand Prix will be run at Misano in 2007. It's not clear whether one of the existing GPs will be dropped, or whether the season will have 18 races, but my money is on either Shanghai or Qatar being dropped to make way for Misano.
The race is to be run on a "heavily modified" version of the track, in the reverse direction.
~~~ UPDATED ~~~
Since I posted this story, Dorna have announced the official calendar for next year. You can find it here.