Barely had the engines cooled and the dust been washed off the bikes after the race at Donington before the entire MotoGP circus was busy packing and loading up to head on over to the northern reaches of the Netherlands, and the TT Circuit at Assen. In the toughest part of the season, with 7 races in 8 weekends, this is probably the toughest part, with the British and Dutch Grand Prix just 6 days apart.
It's hardest on the crew members traveling with the trailers, having to make the long trek southwards to cross the English Channel, before turning northward again to head up to Assen. But it's unpleasant even for the riders, making the short hop across by air. Air travel has long ceased to be a luxury, and the security checks for passengers leaving British airports have grown ever more severe, now consisting mostly of forcing passengers to spend as much time as possible waiting in line, on the premise that any potential terrorists will have lost the will to die by the time they pass through the metal detector gate and are treated to an intimate personal massage by a man with a uniform where his sense of humor ought to be. Though the flight time to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport is brief, actually getting to the point where you are able to fly is a grueling ordeal in itself.
And once they arrive, it's straight back to work, with yet more publicity appearances for the benefit of the sponsors, meeting people here, greeting fans there, and before they realize it, they're back out on track, lapping the 4.5 kilometers of Assen's once glorious track at maximum speed before the race on Saturday.
That Old Black Magic
At least there are still a few sections left of the venerable circuit which still recall just how mighty a track Assen once was. With the old North Loop neutered, having made way for Mammon and the commercial attractions of the TT World leisure center, and the meander taken out of the old Veenslang, only the last third or so of the track is left to witness what once was. And the section from Mandeveen, gaining ever more speed up through successive right handers at Duikersloot, Meeuwenmeer and Hoge Heide, culminating in the intimidating and blisteringly fast left at Ramshoek, a place which has hurt so many riders, is still one of the finest sections of racing tarmac in the world.
From Ramshoek, the track then flicks back for the GT chicane, the scene of many memorable battles, before the final run up to the line, where the circuit's charm peters out once more on way into the new Haarbocht which starts the revised section of the Northern Loop. No wonder the riders still complain so bitterly about the changes made at the end of 2005. The old Southern Loop serves only to remind everyone of what was lost, as a faded wedding photograph serves as a reminder of the beautiful young things which once pledged their troth.
You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling
Despite his still tender years, Casey Stoner leads the lament, mourning the changes every time he is asked about them. On the subject of Assen, the champion sounds more like a hoary veteran bemoaning the state of the modern world than someone barely past the first flush of youth. But his displeasure with the changes has no effect whatsoever on his speed here. The Australian champion was incredibly fast last year, leading for much of the way until he was reeled in by an unleashed and gaudily decorated Valentino Rossi. In the end, the Italian's sheer brilliance at one of his favorite tracks was too much, even for the ruthlessly dominant Casey Stoner of 2007, and Stoner had to watch as Rossi passed and went on to win.
Whether this year will see a repeat performance remains to be seen. Like last year, Casey Stoner comes to Assen coming off a runaway victory at Donington, where Valentino Rossi had no answer for him. But the situation is a little different from 2007. Then, it was Casey Stoner who led the championship, while Valentino Rossi had a worryingly large deficit of 26 points to the Australian. This year, it is Rossi who leads, with a massive 45 point lead over the reigning world champion as we approach the halfway point of the series. Last year, the Ducati was the machine to beat, Stoner having won an intimidating 5 of the first 8 races. This season, the Yamaha is the bike to have, taking 4 victories out of 8, of which Rossi took 3 in a row.
But the machinery is much more finely balanced this year. Ducati finally seem to have fixed the problems that plagued Casey Stoner's GP8 earlier in the year, giving the bike a little smoother power delivery low down, and the direct result of that was Stoner stamping his authority on every session at the British Grand Prix. But Valentino Rossi and his crew chief Jeremy Burgess are understanding the combination of the Yamaha M1 and Bridgestone tires more and more each race, making Rossi a very difficult prospect to beat.
Then, of course, there's Dani Pedrosa. Despite being on the only factory bike still using steel valve springs, Pedrosa has only been off the podium once this season, and that was a 4th place at Le Mans. Pedrosa has been a paragon of consistency, never spectacular but always fast, romping way to two wins in Spain. The Spaniard trails Rossi by just 11 points, and as a podium regular at Assen, will be in the hunt for the win.