MotoGP Assen Preview - The Disappearing Cathedral
On the inside of the last turn of the chicane at Assen, the final corner before the finish line, there's a strip of Astroturf, a material with some interesting properties. From the perspective of track management, its best points are the fact that it's low maintenance, so you don't have to keep digging it out and replacing it if it gets run over, it holds on to dust and sand pretty well, stopping the loose stuff from blowing onto the track, and if it's wet, and people run over it, they don't leave a greasy trail of mud they picked up from proper grass all over the racing line.
From a motorcycle racer's point of view, those properties are all very well, but Astroturf also has a downside: If you do happen to run over it, it's pretty slippery stuff, and even the slightest misjudgment on the throttle or the brakes can see you flung off into low orbit, your bike casting you aside to pursue a direction different to the one you thought you had selected just a few milliseconds previously.
Assen and Astroturf are two subjects which Colin Edwards is an expert on. Edwards loves the Dutch track, and has always raced well here, both in MotoGP, and in his World Superbike days. He has long been an expert on how to get the best out of Assen. His expertise in the field of Astroturf is more recent, and stems from just a year ago, when, after disposing of Nicky Hayden through Hoge Heide with one of the finest pieces of passing seen all year, then holding Hayden off on the brakes into the GT chicane, he cut back across the face of the chicane just a fraction too viciously, and gassed the bike up while his back wheel was still over on the Astroturf, seeing his hopes of winning his first MotoGP race head off into the gravel aboard his now riderless bike.
From The Sublime To The Ridiculous
He should have known better. The GT chicane is one of the most infamous turns in racing, and a place where many races have been won and lost, and many battles have been fought, both on, and in the case of Carl Fogarty and Frankie Chili, off the track.
For this is the glory of Assen: Its long history, the oldest track still currently being used in MotoGP, where racing has taken place since 1925. In the early years, the race was run over public roads between the villages of Haar, Oude Tol, Hooghalen, Laaghalen and Laaghalerveen, but over the years, the 10 mile road circuit was shortened and turned into a dedicated closed circuit race track. Though the track was now closed to traffic, the circuit still retained the features of the old public roads the race was once run over, the track width, the fast left and right flicks, and the camber, retaining a crown on the track making it physically demanding to flick the bike from left to right, as you had to literally pick the bike up over the crown, then sit the bike down again to take the turn.
As the circuit was shortened, the character of Assen changed. And each change seemed to diminish the track, to excise another part of the track's majesty, leaving it less than it was before. It remained the Cathedral of Racing, but it seemed that every few years, they would close another transept, leaving less space and less glory.
The changes last year, however, finally brought the Cathedral down. By removing the fast, sweeping, off-camber turns of the old North Loop, the most challenging part of the circuit, they have effectively decapitated Assen, leaving it just another race track, the shortened North section now just a long series of tight right handers, with an entertainment center overlooking it. The Cathedral is gone, and in its stead stands a chapel with a shopping mall beside it.
Fortunately, the southern section still has a few teeth. The whole of the run up to the GT, from De Bult, through the two right handers at Mandeveen and Duikersloot, before powering up through Meeuwenmeer, Hoge Heide and Ramshoek, remains one of the most spectacular sections of track the MotoGP circus visits. The flick through Hoge Heide into Ramshoek, in particular, is one of the real tests of courage and skill left in Grand Prix racing.
Vengeance Is His
Colin Edwards passed that test brilliantly in last year's race, before failing so utterly in the GT chicane. Edwards will surely be out to avenge his stupid mistake this weekend, and with his record here, winning in World Superbikes and getting a podium in MotoGP, there is every chance that he could finally add a maiden win to the poles he finally achieved this year. Edwards' 2nd place at Donington could presage just such a victory for the Texas Tornado.
But that's reckoning without his Fiat Yamaha team mate. Valentino Rossi had an even worse weekend than Edwards last year, crashing heavily at Ramshoek, the fastest part of the track, and one of only 4 left-handers, breaking a bone in his hand. He raced despite the pain, eventually finishing 8th, ironically ending the weekend 46 points behind the leader Nicky Hayden. So on Saturday, The Doctor will be determined to get back to the form which has seen him win here 5 times, especially as the gap with Casey Stoner has continued to increase at the tracks where Rossi had hoped to narrow Stoner's lead.
Assen is also the track where Nicky Hayden took his first win outside of the USA, after that epic battle with Edwards. And fortunately for the Kentucky Kid, the Dutch TT coincides with a return to form, after successful tests at Catalunya and a strong weekend at Donington, up until Hayden lost the front and crashed while in 6th place. The dramatic turnaround has come as a result of getting some new chassis parts from Honda, but also after he finally managed to persuade HRC to let him drastically reduce the amount of traction control on his bike. If Hayden can maintain the form he found at Donington, then he could finally get a chance to look like a defending champion.
As Hayden's fortunes wax, Dani Pedrosa's seem to be waning. Pedrosa was furious after the Donington race, after finding that the spare bike he had to use in the race had its gearbox set up differently. Pedrosa was expected to be the main title challenger this year, but has been forced to watch idly as Casey Stoner usurped his position, mostly as a result of the poor performance of the Honda RC212V. His frustration with the Honda has now reached such a peak that he has hinted that he may be interested in approaches from other teams, a remarkable step, as Pedrosa has been with Honda since entering Grand Prix in 2001. Unless HRC can turn the RC212V around, the unthinkable might happen, and Pedrosa might start to look elsewhere for a ride in 2008. He'll be looking to add some more glamor to his resume this weekend.
As for the other Honda riders, they're all pretty much stuck in the same boat, waiting for Honda to start providing solutions to their problems. Their only glimmer of hope is that the nature of Assen should suit the Honda's agility much more, as most of the Dutch TT circuit is fairly flowing, with only one real stop and go section out of the comically tight Strubben hairpin.
And possibly the only fan of the changes at Assen is to be found among the Honda riders: Shinya Nakano was a lone voice last year, proclaiming himself pleased with the tighter, more technical nature of the track. Nakano grabbed his best ever result at Assen last year, taking 2nd place as a beneficiary of Colin Edwards moment of madness. This year, Nakano's podium is almost certain to remain only a memory.
While the Hondas have suffered, the Ducatis, or rather, a Ducati, has benefited. Casey Stoner is having an astonishing season, winning 5 of the 8 races run so far, and extending his lead over Valentino Rossi to 26 points. At first, MotoGP followers laid Stoner's success squarely at the feet of the Ducati GP7, after the Australian humiliated Rossi, Pedrosa and Hopkins down the long straights of Qatar and Shanghai. "Wait till we get to Europe," they all said, nodding sagely, "Rossi will seize back the advantage at his favorite tracks". But then Stoner took a very strong 3rd place in the rain at Le Mans, won brilliantly at Catalunya, one of Rossi's two best tracks, and decimated the field in the rain at Donington. Race after race it becomes ever clearer: it's not the Ducati (as Loris Capirossi would be the first to agree), it's Casey Stoner. He's looking like a potential world champion, and neither Rossi nor anyone else seems capable of putting up any resistance. Normally, the Ducatis don't run well at Assen, as the track's nature doesn't suit the long, fast bike from Bologna. But we've said that about so many other tracks, and been proven wrong so convincingly, that you can't expect Casey Stoner to be anywhere other at the very sharpest of sharp ends on Saturday.
In fact, Assen could quite easily turn into an entirely Australo-American affair. Both Edwards and Hayden run well, and Stoner is certain to be a force here. And then there's the Suzukis: The Dutch TT is the home race for Rizla, the Suzuki's sponsor, and John Hopkins is another rider who is extremely strong here, Assen's tight turns and fast flicks suiting the agility of the Suzuki. If it's dry, then Hopkins is sure to be a factor, and could well get on the podium.
Of course, if it's wet, Suzuki have another ace up the sleeve. At Donington, Chris Vermeulen proved yet again that he is a master in wet conditions, getting on the podium for the second time this year. Given the right conditions, and a decent start, Vermeulen will also be a rider to contend with.
Then there's the other Australian who is magical in the wet. Kawasaki's Anthony West is almost certainly the best wet weather rider in the paddock, and with the weather looking distinctly unreliable for Saturday's race, West must be in with a chance of a podium, if not more. West had an outstanding debut at Donington, before falling foul of his own eagerness and running off at Coppice, remounting to put on another strong charge to finish in 11th. If it rains, he will surely do a lot better than that.
West's arrival at Kawasaki has also inspired Randy de Puniet, pushing the young Frenchman to better things. Scoring a sixth place at Donington, and with the Kawasaki and the Bridgestones both working extremely well, and the Kawasaki likely to work well at Assen, either of the two young team mates could cause a real surprise in Holland.
Not Waving But Drowning
The biggest surprise, though, will be the weather. The depression that caused such chaos at Donington, depositing several weeks' worth of water over the course of a race weekend, has followed faithful race fans from Britain to The Netherlands, and is due to pass over Assen in the next few days. At the moment, the forecast is changing from hour to hour, but it looks like at least one practice session on Thursday and both sessions on Friday will be wet, with Friday looking very cold and damp. Race day looks like it could go either way, either wet or dry, so yet again, the MotoGP men face cold, unpredictable and difficult conditions. Whatever the weather does, the racing should be outstanding.