Revenge Of The Racetrack
Racing is about focus. It's about focusing on getting your bike right, about focusing on getting your lines right, about focusing on outsmarting your competitors. Focus on the right things, and everything comes together as sweetly as monkey puzzle fruit. Focus on the wrong things, and disaster looms. All throughout the race weekend at Assen, the focus had been on the replacement of the old North Loop section of the track, with its glorious, high-speed cambered bends, with a short loop more reminiscent of Shanghai than Schoonlo. But when looking back at the 76th Assen TT, the North Loop, old or new, will barely get a mention, for the race, and possibly the championship, was not decided in the completely changed Strubben and Ossebroeken, or even the straightened Veenslang which is now a genuine back straight, but at the parts of the track they'd left untouched: the high-speed Hoge Heide and Ramshoek, and the GT chicane.
The Geert Timmer Bocht, to give its full name, is located right after a fast flowing section of turns, and is the very last chance to make a pass before the short sprint to the finish line. As a consequence, the GT has seen some famous battles fought, and been the nemesis of many racers, brutally punishing their last ditch lunges for the lead. One that sticks in my mind was the final lap of a World Superbike race, where Carl Fogarty lunged up the inside of Frankie Chili, bashing fairings and forcing him off the track, which so offended Chili that he took a swing at Fogarty in the paddock. And now the GT chicane has added another classic memory, a moment when a winner was made, and a title came closer.
An Unusual Approach
Usually, the events which shape a race take place in qualifying practice and on race day, but Assen was different. The outcome of the race had already been affected six days earlier by the huge pile up in the first corner at Catalunya, where the (then) championship leader Loris Capirossi, and third place rider Marco Melandri went down and were badly injured. They took with them Sete Gibernau, who although not in title contention, had improved as the season progressed and at Mugello had looked capable of challenging for the lead. With Gibernau out, and Melandri and Capirossi suffering, the race at Assen had lost some of its main contenders, and potentially much of its excitement. After all, with Valentino Rossi in the kind of form he showed at Mugello and Barcelona, who was going to stop him?
On Thursday morning, the answer came in an unexpected form: The Ramshoek. You approach this left-hander at high speed, after just having spent the previous 3/4 of a mile or so running through a series of right-handers, so the left-hand side of the tire has cooled. Either Rossi had forgotten, or the cool conditions of the first practice session were playing havoc with his tires, for The Doctor was ejected from his Camel Yamaha at around 130 mph as he entered the turn, cartwheeling into the gravel, fracturing his wrist and his ankle in the process. He was taken to see some medical, rather than motorcycling, doctors, and returned for the afternoon session. But Friday's qualifying practice made painfully clear that Valentino Rossi was in no shape to threaten for the lead, Rossi running only 13 laps and qualifying in 18th and last spot on the grid.
The Injury List
Rossi wasn't the only rider to be suffering. In the same session that Rossi fractured his wrist, Toni Elias fell heavily, injuring his shoulder, and pulled out of the event. Loris Capirossi qualified similarly poorly in 15th, finding it difficult to breathe and in obvious pain. Only Marco Melandri, the rider who looked to have come off worst from the corner chaos at Catalunya, seemed to be managing with relatively little pain. On Friday evening, it looked like the grid could be severely depleted come Saturday, with Elias out and both Capirossi and Rossi not looking capable of lasting the full distance of the race.
So there was a great deal of surprise at the sight of both Rossi's Yamaha and Capirossi's Ducati lined up behind each other on the starting grid on Saturday afternoon. Rossi's appearance was less of a surprise, as a heavily strapped wrist and adjustments to his bike had made braking less painful, but Capirossi had looked terrible in the morning's warm up session. He had put in seven laps, but dismounted looking like he had ridden for seven days straight. Race distance seemed impossible, and with the next round at Donington just a week away, risking more permanent damage for at most 2 or 3 points looked foolish in the extreme. Only the race would tell.
In The Path Of The Tornado
When the lights dimmed for the start of the race, it was Colin Edwards who made up for his Yamaha team mate's woes, launching off the line into the first corner ahead of first time pole sitter John Hopkins, with Shinya Nakano on the Kawasaki in third, followed by a trio of Hondas, with miracle man Marco Melandri apparently recovered well enough to run fourth ahead of the Repsol Honda pair of Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden. There were anxious moments as the whole pack entered the new Strubben hairpin, where the front of the 250 pack had come to grief in the first lap, but everyone was through without harm. The Texas Tornado was living up to his name, thundering round the track at the head of the pack.
But right from the off it was clear Edwards would not have it all his own way. Nicky Hayden was demonstrating that he was a force to be reckoned with. Having set a fantastic time in the morning's warm up, the Kentucky Kid was chasing the Tornado from the start, catching first team mate Dani Pedrosa, then Nakano, before closing on Hopper. But Suzuki's Hopkins was not cowed by Hayden's pushing, and kept Hayden behind him for lap after lap.
War Of The Wounded
Further down the field, the war of the wounded had commenced, with Rossi, having made it past Cardoso and Hofmann to tussle with Capirossi, being forced off the track in one passing attempt, only to rejoin and renew the fight. By lap 7 Rossi was past, and his battle with Capirossi had broken the diminutive Ducati rider, whose pace slowed a couple of laps later, destined to run a brave but arguably futile race to take a solitary point after what must have been the most grueling 26 laps of Capirossi's career.
Where the injured Rossi was moving forward, fellow frequenter of Dr Costa's inner circle, Melandri, was going backwards. Rossi was slowly climbing through the field, from 18th on the grid to 12th by half distance, while Melandri was on a gentle slide from the fourth place he had taken with a great start, down to 8th by the same point. Rossi's gamble was looking like it might pay off, Capirossi's gamble like it might not, and Melandri's gamble looking irrelevant, bringing too few points to keep his title challenge alive.
By lap 8, the race had settled into a pattern. Edwards led with a small but comfortable margin, with Hopkins having more and more trouble keeping the storming Hayden behind him. Shinya Nakano followed, a second behind Hayden, while four seconds behind the Kawasaki rider, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner were intent on recreating one of their many battles from last season, a duel that was to last all the way to the line. Melandri was slowly going backwards, and Kenny Roberts Jr was putting on a less spectacular, but still solid performance, in his move up the field. Chris Vermeulen was showing what lay in Hopper's future, as his sliding Suzuki started the Australian's slide down the rankings.
Hopkins' future started on lap 9, with Hayden passing him through the GT chicane, an omen of what was to come. From that moment on, Hopkins was to be passed by one rider after another, Nakano on lap 12, Pedrosa on lap 17, then Stoner and finally Roberts Jr. Hopkins hung on long enough to break up Stoner and Pedrosa's private party, but his struggle, though valiant and spectacular, was to be in vain.
Let Battle Commence
By lap 20, the podium seemed settled. Nakano looked certain of taking third, and Edwards looked like he had Hayden in hand. The fight for first was evenly balanced: Hayden would close on Edwards to within half a second over a couple of laps, and Edwards would respond, stretching the gap to 0.8 seconds, until the cycle started to repeat itself. But on lap 21, the Kentucky Kid pulled out his second-fastest lap of the race with a blistering 1:37.161, to latch onto Edwards' tail. Every lap, Hayden would close right up to Edwards through the Ramshoek, lining the Tornado up for a pass at the GT chicane, and every lap, Edwards kept the door firmly shut. So on the penultimate lap, Hayden tried something different: in the kind of tough, risky move we haven't seen all year from the Kentucky Kid, the Repsol Honda rider slipped up the inside of Edwards at the Ruskenhoek round the rear of the track, forcing the Texan off the track and over the access road. Edwards was fortunate, as the hard standing which kept him upright was only put in this year, after a number of incidents during last year's race. He rejoined, seemingly defeated, a second down.
But Edwards was the only person who didn't believe he was defeated. Aided by a couple of mistakes by Hayden, within a lap the Tornado was back with Hayden, and out for blood. He could almost smell his first victory in MotoGP, and he wasn't going to let some jumped-up young Kid snatch it from under his nose. In a move reminiscent of the heyday of Assen's lamented North Loop, Edwards slid inside Hayden through the fast, flowing Hoge Heide section, holding the racing line beautifully through the Ramshoek, the same corner that had caused Rossi such grief. Hayden was right behind the Texan, in exactly the same position he'd been over the past 6 laps, peering over Edwards' shoulder into the GT, ready to poke his Honda's front wheel past Edwards at the left-hand part of the right-left-right combination. But Edwards has been racing at Assen for a very long time, and knows the script at the GT by heart. Edwards knew that all he had to do was hold the inside line through the middle left-hander, and the victory would be his.
As the pair approached the GT, Hayden made his move. Coming up fast on the outside, he went for the outbraking maneuver from the outside of the chicane. Edwards parried this move perfectly, drifting across on the racing line, forcing Hayden wide, and into the grass. But then Edwards' grim determination to win got the better of him. At the GT, when your opponent tries to outbrake you on the outside line, you drift left to the turn-in for the right-hander, forcing your opponent wide, then straighten the left-hander out, slamming the door shut in your opponent's face. Edwards had the first part of that move down pat, but he slammed the door just a little too hard, cutting back too sharply in the left-hander, over the kerbstones and across the sandy grass on the inside of the track. As he opened the throttle to accelerate out of the turn to victory, his back wheel spun up on the grass, spitting him off, into the gravel and disaster. Hayden, who managed to stay upright through the gravel at the chicane, rejoined the track to take a now simple victory.
Not Just At Home
That Hayden was delighted is an understatement. After standing on the podium at six of the seven races this season without getting on the top step, to take this win was liberating. The celebration was almost as great as at his first win at Laguna Seca, the massed crowd of 90,000 fans treated to the spectacle of an American pulling gigantic, joyous wheelies for the second day running. Hayden's sense of elation was tangible. This was the win that proved that Hayden was not just Mr. Consistency, who could only win at his home track. At Assen, Hayden showed that he can win in Europe too.
Edwards' fall meant that Shinya Nakano, who had ridden a lonely but solid race, moved up to 2nd, his best ever result in MotoGP. Behind him, the Rookie Rumble was finally settled in Pedrosa's favor, the tiny Spaniard taking the last place on the podium ahead of Casey Stoner. Kenny Roberts Jr finished right behind Stoner in 5th, after pushing the former 250 pair to the end. John Hopkins crossed the line 9 seconds later in 6th, Marco Melandri a second behind the Suzuki rider. Valentino Rossi, despite his fractured wrist, took 8th place, and 8 valuable points, putting him a suitably ironic 46 points behind championship leader Nicky Hayden. Carlos Checa took a surprising 9th place, more evidence that the Dunlop race tires are starting to work, offering hope that three different tire makers could be battling it out for victories in the not too distant future.
Chris Vermeulen finished a disappointing 10th on his sliding Suzuki, ahead of Makoto Tamada, the Japanese rider looking ever more likely to lose his Konica Minolta Honda some time soon. Alex Hofmann could not capitalize on his impressive performance during qualifying, coming in 12th and first Ducati. Colin Edwards, thankfully unhurt, had remounted to take 13th, absolutely furious at himself for making the mistake that cost him the race. Nakano's team mate Randy de Puniet crossed the line in 14th, after starting from the pit lane, the suffering Loris Capirossi taking the final point. Hofmann's replacement, Spanish Extreme Superbike rider Ivan Silva did well on his first outing on a MotoGP machine, but his Pramac D'Antin team mate Jose Luis Cardoso struggled, coming in to change a tire after 7 laps, to finish 17th and last, 3 laps down.
The Track Bites Back
So, after all the talk of what would happen in the new section at Assen, and of whether passing would be easier or more difficult, after all the discussion about how the Cathedral had been ruined, the track bit back, reminding all who watched that, though much of its glory has been diminished, it has still been left with some teeth. Those teeth can reward the brave, and punish the reckless. In just a lap and a half, the long, chess-like maneuvering was forgotten, and good old-fashioned fairing-bashing action took its place. You can still race at Assen.
Nicky Hayden's well-deserved victory brings the championship an important step closer. With 9 rounds to go, Hayden has a 42 point lead over the number two in the race, Dani Pedrosa. More importantly, it leaves him 46 points ahead of Valentino Rossi, and past an important psychological and mathematical milestone. Rossi is now dependent on Hayden's results for the title. Even if Rossi wins every race left this season, an unlikely feat given that he has a fractured hand, and that a bunch of very fast Americans want to take a win at Laguna Seca in a month's time, Hayden could still take the title by the simple expedient of finishing second everywhere. This takes the title out of Rossi's hands, and lays it in the lap of the gods. Judging by the luck Rossi has had so far this year, the gods do not seem well disposed to the Italian, so the omens don't look good at all.