Numbers are funny things. On their own, they are meaningless, just abstract inventions, a way of keeping track, of measuring and quantifying objects. There is no intrinsic difference between the numbers 1, 4, 7, 12, 666 and 26017 other than their size. Yet stop someone on the street and ask them about those numbers and you will hear a host of opinions on those numbers, their meaning and whether they are good or bad, depending on who and where you happened to have stopped.
In most countries, the number 7 is greeted with enthusiasm, being considered lucky almost everywhere round the world. In Europe and America, the number 4 will barely register, but stay in a hotel in Asia, and you'll notice that there's no 4th floor, nor 14th or 24th for that matter. For the number 4 is considered very bad luck in Asia, as it sounds like the word for "death" in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. The number 666 will be greeted with fear in the more religious parts of the American Deep South, but go unnoticed in Cambodia. As for 26017, it will almost certainly be met with blank stares, unless the person you should stop to ask happens to be a mathematician, and immediately recognizes it as a prime number, a class of numbers math geeks tend to get terrifically excited about.
As these numbers attach themselves to events, their significance is magnified. One cold, dark winter night a few years ago, the entire world got caught up in a fit of festive abandon celebrating one number being replaced with another. Convention dictates that a new year begins on January 1st, and on that day 9 years ago, the most significant digit of the number used to designate years was incremented, increasing from 1999 to 2000. The 48 hour period spanning that moment saw very few major climatic, social or historical changes, yet almost the entire population of the planet attached a huge significance to that change, speaking endlessly of a new century, a new age and a new era.
That sense of anticipation, of foreboding almost, hung over Valentino Rossi at Assen. Thirteen days previously, the Italian had taken the 99th victory of his career, and speculation about the 100th had started literally seconds after he had crossed the line at Barcelona. He was getting used to it, for the storm had been brewing for a while.
Victory at Jerez had put him in line to take his 100th win at Mugello, if he could just win at Le Mans first. But a disastrous flag-to-flag race put paid to that plan. Another flag-to-flag race at Mugello saw his seven-year winning streak there dashed by the rain. Since then, talk of 100 victories abated a little, until Rossi crossed the line to take victory number 99 at Catalunya.
The manner of Rossi's victory at Barcelona helped mitigate some of the pressure. The breathtaking last lap and final corner pass over his team mate and title rival Jorge Lorenzo had the fans and followers full of the excitement of that race, rather than its significance as a stepping stone for Rossi's century. Even the questions at the pre-race press conference focused more on whether Assen would see a repeat of that blood-curdling last lap than on whether Rossi expected to take his 100th win here.
Rossi downplayed both possibilities. When asked about his 100th victory, he said his focus was on the championship, not winning a particular race. And he concurred with Jorge Lorenzo, who pointed out that Barcelona had been the exception rather than the rule, and that this was the first race since the switch to the 800cc formula that had come down to the last lap.
The first session of free practice raised the possibility of both a Rossi victory and a close race. Thursday afternoon's session saw three men within 0.035 seconds of each other, and eleven riders all under two thirds of a second. Friday morning saw much greater gaps between the riders, but during qualifying in the afternoon, pole was decided by less than a tenth of a second, Rossi taking pole just ahead of Dani Pedrosa.
The gap to Jorge Lorenzo was larger this time, with Casey Stoner further back still. But after qualifying, Stoner had complained bitterly of being balked by other riders on his fast laps, singling out Toni Elias, Sete Gibernau and Loris Capirossi as riders who had sat on the racing line waiting for a tow from the Australian in the hope of improving their own time. Stoner's times on race tires looked good, Pedrosa was fast but his fitness still uncertain, and Lorenzo was blinding round the first half of the track but less sure-footed through the last, terrifying section. The chances were good that the Fantastic Four would be able to hold each other up and stick together round Assen's narrow and difficult track. If Rossi wanted his 100th win at Assen, he'd have to work for it.
As the lights dimmed, the shriek of nineteen 800cc engines being tortured to within inches of destruction filled the hallowed vaults of the Cathedral of racing, the vicious howl of Dani Pedrosa's Honda RC212V leading the wailing chorus into the first corner. Behind Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi had consolidated, getting off the line quickly, but not quickly enough to thwart Pedrosa. Casey Stoner, the other lightning starter, slotted in 3rd, ahead of an unleashed Chris Vermeulen, who had shot through from 7th on the grid to climb up to 4th.
While Stoner and Pedrosa were getting their trademark rocket starts, Jorge Lorenzo was going backwards. The Spaniard had bogged his engine off the line, giving away three places before even reaching the first turn. Lorenzo held his line on the outside of Colin Edwards at the Haarbocht, then hung on there at Madijk, but as they entered the tight loop of the new Ossebroeken corner, he was forced to surrender the position, and retired to Edwards' tail to await a second chance.
Then There Were Three
Taking a tighter line out of the Strubben hairpin and hugging the inside kerb at the Veenslang, first Rossi and then Stoner drew level with Pedrosa down the back straight, then passed before braking for the Ruskenhoek. Rossi looked like he had the edge, but Stoner waited just a fraction longer before applying the brakes, hogging the inside line into the right hander to take the lead before flicking left again.
With Stoner having taken over the lead, Pedrosa tried holding the inside line into the right part of the Ruskenhoek over Rossi to recover 2nd, but the Spaniard wasn't far enough ahead through the corner, and as they flicked back, Rossi held the inside line, and Pedrosa was forced to back off and accept 3rd.
Behind Vermeulen in 4th, Jorge Lorenzo had still not given up on getting past Colin Edwards, and tried diving up the inside into the Ruskenhoek, but found himself on the wrong side of the Texan as they rolled back right for the Stekkenwal. His poor position at the right hander did leave him with the chance to get extra drive, and through the narrow kink before De Bult, Lorenzo closed on Edwards, then slid past him into the left hander to take over 5th.
While Lorenzo headed off to start chasing down Vermeulen, Edwards was left fending off Andrea Dovizioso, the Repsol Honda rider pushing round the south end of the Assen circuit. A brave move saw Dovi dive through at the Ramshoek, but Edwards knows Assen well, and was back again on the run into the GT chicane.
Edwards and Dovi scrapping over 6th had allowed the front five to get a gap, and had started to bunch up a freight train of riders behind, with Nicky Hayden, Randy de Puniet, Toni Elias, Marco Melandri, Loris Capirossi and James Toseland bunched together like a giant multi-wheeled, multicolored caterpillar. This group, its composition only slightly altered, was about to embark on an epic scrap which would last all the way to the line.
Ahead of this bunch, Jorge Lorenzo was putting a move on Chris Vermeulen, taking over 4th position going into the Haarbocht. Further forward, Rossi was closing on Casey Stoner through Madijk, and holding a tighter line through the endless loop of Ossebroeken, slipped up the inside of Stoner and into the lead.
At first, Stoner kept Rossi close, hounding the Italian all the way round the circuit, seeking a way back past and into the lead. But Rossi was putting a plan into effect that he had hatched that morning with his crew chief Jeremy Burgess, and was flying through the fastest part of the Assen circuit, hammering home even the slightest advantage he could find. He eked out a tenth, then a couple of tenths over Stoner, and the first inkling of a gap started to open.
Stoner could do nothing but let Rossi go, neither the Australian nor 3rd place man Dani Pedrosa capable of matching Rossi's pace. The only rider capable of that feat was behind the Ducati and the Honda, mounted on the other Fiat Yamaha. But though Jorge Lorenzo could match Rossi's pace, he had a problem, or rather a pair of them, in the shape of Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa.
On lap 4 Lorenzo was past Pedrosa, but he still had Stoner to contend with. Lorenzo's pass had reignited Pedrosa's determination, and Pedrosa hung on grimly to Lorenzo, pushing to follow his compatriate forward to Stoner and Rossi. It was too much to ask, though, and braking hard for the Haarbocht, Pedrosa folded the front as he turned in for the corner, sliding harmlessly off over the tarmac and out of the race.
By now, Rossi was starting to escape, a contingency Lorenzo could not allow. Less than a lap after passing Pedrosa, the Spaniard was past Stoner as well, sliding his Fiat Yamaha inside the Ducati into the right hand entry to the Ruskenhoek and clear for the long left that followed. With empty track to Rossi, he could get after his team mate, and with 22 laps to go, he had plenty of time to do it in.
The problem was that Rossi was on fire, and posting lap after lap on or below the existing lap record. Lorenzo was faster in the first half of the track, closing by a tenth or so round the tight first section and the run down to the Stekkenwal. But from that point on, through the long section of right handers, and especially through the terrifyingly fast left-right flick of Hoge Heide and the run into the Ramshoek, Rossi edged away again, stretching his lead by another couple of tenths.
Try as he might, Lorenzo couldn't close on Rossi, but equally, Rossi couldn't escape. The lead ebbed and flowed, growing to just over 2 seconds, then dropping back to just over a second and a half. After the gap had grown to 2 seconds on lap 12, Lorenzo pushed once again, and over the course of the next 4 laps seemed to be slowly reeling Rossi in, with time in hand to pass. But on lap 17, Rossi responded once more and Lorenzo faded, exhausted by the effort of forcing his Yamaha through Hoge Heide at full throttle as he'd seen his team mate do. Lorenzo would not catch his veteran team mate today, and was forced to let Rossi go.
Rossi's lead grew explosively, the Italian now nearly half a second a lap faster than his team mate, and the fastest man on track by a huge margin. Victory was assured, but The Doctor was not content to cruise to a win. He flogged his bike round Assen's glorious asphalt, old and new, to underline the magnitude of his achievement. At a track which fills so many pages of the history books, Valentino Rossi crossed the line to add yet another chapter, taking his 100th victory and taking his place alongside Giacomo Agostini as only the second rider to do so.
Jorge Lorenzo had long since settled for 2nd, knowing that he had nothing for his team mate on Saturday. Lorenzo was content to leave the spotlights for Valentino Rossi, and give him his day in the sun. He had given his best, but there was nothing he could do to stop his team mate. Once again, though, Lorenzo had underlined his ability, the only man to get close to an unleashed Rossi, only flagging at the end.
Casey Stoner had flagged earlier, the mystery illness which had plagued him at Catalunya making an unwelcome return. Once back in the paddock, Stoner had trouble doing the obligatory TV interviews, finding it hard to speak without vomiting. That he had finished at all was a marvel, to have finished on the podium was an absolute miracle. The Australian struggled on to the podium, but afterwards was whisked straight to the Clinica Mobile, skipping the post-race podium press conference.
The Australian's health is worrying. Physically extremely fit, yet suffering from some kind of mystery virus which robs his strength once called upon to put in a consistent effort, Stoner's title challenge is under severe threat. There are just 8 days between the Assen and Laguna races, giving the Australian little time to recover and adding the perils of a germ-infested intercontintental flight to his list of problems. If the medical staff examining Stoner's health problems don't find a cause and a solution soon, it will be hard for Stoner to maintain his charge.
Colin Edwards came home in 4th, equaling his best result of the season. The Texan had another strong ride on the Tech 3 Yamaha, confirming the strength of Yamaha's M1 MotoGP bike and the Texan's continuing form. Edwards had a little help from Andrea Dovizioso, who had passed him earlier but crashed out in exactly the same place and exactly the same manner as his Repsol Honda team mate Dani Pedrosa, folding the front in turn 1. But a 4th place finish for Edwards is just the fillip the Texan needs going into his home race, and Edwards is surely ready for Laguna Seca.
Chris Vermeulen brought his Rizla Suzuki across the line to a comfortable 5th place finish. Vermeulen had dropped off the pace early, but as the race progressed he consolidated his position, his best finish of the year never in doubt for the remainder. This was just the kind of result that Vermeulen needed, as his name is at the top of a long list of riders expected to be shown the door at the end of the season, and top 5 placings are the only kind of result that can keep the Australian in MotoGP. With Laguna Seca coming up, a track that Vermeulen has podiumed at twice and never finished outside the top 5, the Australian looks set to buy himself some bargaining power.
The Meaningless War
The 97,000 fans who had gathered at Assen on Saturday came hoping for a race to match Catalunya, and they got all that and more. Unfortunately, they got it in the race for 6th rather than the lead, a race-long no-holds-barred slugging match unfolding with never fewer than 6 riders involved. James Toseland, Randy de Puniet, Nicky Hayden, Mika Kallio, Loris Capirossi, Toni Elias and Alex de Angelis neither asked for nor gave any quarter at all, seeking any opportunity to pass or be passed.
At Madijk and Ossebroeken, Strubben and Veenslang, Ruskenhoek and Stekkenwal places changed hands. At Meeuwenmeer and Hoge Heide, passes were planned, riders lining up the pass at the fast left of Ramshoek. But the climax came at the GT chicane, lap after lap, with six or more riders fanning out three or more abreast for the run through the chicane and onto start and finish.
Toseland and Hayden had made the early running, while Kallio came further forward as the race progressed. Elias and Capirossi were the wildcards, shooting forward and dropping back, their positions changing from corner to corner and lap to lap.
In the end it was James Toseland who came out on top, crossing the line in 6th after an outstanding race to make it 4 Yamahas in the top 6, underlining his ability when conditions are right. At Assen, Toseland received help from Masahiko Nakajima with the setup to his bike, making radical changes to handlebar, footpeg and suspension settings, and the assistance from Yamaha's MotoGP team director immediately paid dividends. A day later, Toseland was in the World Superbike paddock talking about options for 2010, but his strong 6th place finish will have earned him some extra credit in negotiations both in World Superbikes and in MotoGP.
Randy de Puniet put in another solid performance to finish 7th, scoring yet more points and underlining his growing maturity. De Puniet was the first Honda across the line, and the LCR team is showing an ability to score regular and reliable results. Once considered a wild and uncontrollable crasher, de Puniet has now finished 12 races in a row, only crashing twice in practice this season. More is yet to come from the Frenchman.
Nicky Hayden crossed the line in 9th, but was promoted to 8th after Toni Elias was penalized for his last-gasp efforts into the GT chicane. Hayden had his best result of the year, and more importantly, had been able to run with the fight for 6th all race long. Though Ducati is still a long way from being out of the woods, a decent finish is just what Hayden needed in preparation for Laguna Seca.
Loris Capirossi was the victim of Toni Elias' last-corner pass, running out wide and forcing the Italian off line and across the astroturf. Capirossi was furious, though content enough to have grabbed a decent finish with 9th. The Italian veteran had looked strong in the group, and seems to have a good chance of extending his Rizla Suzuki contract at the end of the year.
The only rider from the group scrapping for 6th not to cross the line was Mika Kallio, cruelly crashing out at the Ramshoek on the final lap, just two corners short of the line. Kallio had once again underlined his potential on the bike, leading the group until he slid off and injured his finger. The Pramac Ducati rider also gave Ducati hope, with both Kallio and Hayden well inside the top 10 for most of the race, showing that maybe the changes they have made to the Desmosedici GP9 are starting to pay off.
Applicants Form A Line Here
Alex de Angelis came home in 10th, having dropped off the back of the big group with a few laps to go, but after several races where the Gresini Honda man has been struggling just to score points, a top 10 finish is a bit of a relief. Gresini announced that they had signed Marco Simoncelli for next season, a team spokesman making it clear that they were unlikely to be retaining the services of either de Angelis or Elias next year, so both men are now auditioning for seats elsewhere.
Marco Melandri, like de Angelis, had been unable to follow the pace of the group and had dropped off the back early, eventually finishing 11th. Melandri is the hot favorite for the Gresini seat alongside Simoncelli, and his consistent results on a bike which is out of development and clearly struggling are showing Melandri's class every race weekend.
The time penalty Toni Elias received dropped the Spaniard down to 12th, but like his Gresini Honda team mate de Angelis, Elias was happy to be competitive again.
Much further back, Sete Gibernau crossed the line to finish an anonymous 13th, par for the course for the Spaniard. One is left to wonder just what motivates the man who once challenged Rossi for the title to carry on, with no prospect of improvement imminent.
Gibernau had got the better of Niccolo Canepa and Yuki Takahashi in the first half of the race, leaving the Pramac Ducati rider and the Team Scot Honda man to scrap over 14th. Canepa had the upper hand for most of the race, but Takahashi overcame the Italian with 4 laps to go. His victory was a Pyrrhic one, though, as rumors suggest that Assen was his last race for Team Scot. Niccolo Canepa will live to ride another day, but only until the end of the season, and he is shipped off to World Superbikes.
The last man to cross the line was Gabor Talmacsi, due to be the sole rider in the Team Scot garage from Laguna onwards. In just his second race of the season, Talmacsi has continued to make good progress, his fastest lap now within just two tenths of his team mate's, and closing on the far more experienced riders ahead. It can't be long before Talmacsi is no longer last across the line and scoring points on his own merit.
Of Statistics, Numerology And Emotion
As forgettable as the racing may have been, the 79th running of the Dutch TT at Assen will go down in the history books forever. Valentino Rossi's 100th victory was taken in style and in a setting already so steeped in history. As he crossed the line, the crowd knew they would be treated to a special celebration, the question which remained was just what would it be? Rossi stopped in front of his fan club, and together they unrolled a banner showing photos of each of his 99 previous victories, and the number 100 beside it. It was a worthy display celebrating an astonishing career, and underlining just how remarkable this achievement is.
Viewed through the cold eyes of statistics, Rossi's 100th win was no more significant than his 92nd or 97th. He may have became only the second man in history to have scored 100 wins, but the week before, he had become only the second man in history to have scored 99 wins, and the same could be said of all his victories since Mugello last year, when he finally scored more wins that Angel Nieto.
Rossi's score is only remarkable because the most significant digit merely rolled round again, turning a two digit number into a three digit number, from 99 to 100. The fuss exists because we count in base 10, not base 8, base 11 or base 16. History will not be written again until Rossi has chalked up another 22 victories, to match Giacomo Agostini's total of 122 all-class wins.
The cold, rational head may know this, but the heart says something else. The sight of that banner, showing the progress of Rossi from a young boy racer to a MotoGP legend made tangible just what 100 victories actually means. The number 100 may have no significance on its own, but those 100 wins surely do. No records were broken at Assen, but history was made, of that there is no doubt.