Before the start of the 2007 MotoGP season, the script looked pretty clear to most MotoGP followers. Valentino Rossi would dominate the championship from the word go, the Hondas would duke it out for the rest of the honors, and if Bridgestone were lucky, they'd win a couple more races than they did in 2006, taking another couple of nibbles out of Michelin's supremacy. Pre-season testing confirmed most of this picture, with Rossi dominating, Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa close behind, and the Bridgestone-shod teams a little way behind. The only note of discord was the rather disappointing times for the other Hondas: While Pedrosa was near the top of the timesheets at every test he attended, the other Hondas didn't seem to be quite as strong.
Once the season finally got underway, though, all these illusions were totally shattered. It was clear that Valentino Rossi's Fiat Yamaha was indeed a fantastic motorcycle, and Rossi was still a magician, setting a blistering pace round the twisty parts of circuits. But Rossi was doing anything but dominating; Instead, The Doctor was being forced to ride at the very limit of his ability just to stay in touch with Casey Stoner, who was using the combination of his heart-stoppingly quick Ducati and perfect Bridgestone tires to win races almost at will. Neither Honda nor Michelin were anywhere to be seen.
Indeed, the combination of Honda and the Michelins were miles away from being the perfect package that everyone had expected: The Hondas were slow and ill-handling, Dani Pedrosa being the only rider who could get the RC212V anywhere near the front, and Michelin struggled to get more than two riders in top ten at most races. The worst victim of Honda and Michelin's problems was poor Nicky Hayden, the reigning world champion. Hayden was suffering not just with his own inability to come to terms with a bike which had not been designed with him in mind, and which the Honda engineers demanded be ridden in a specific way, he was also having to deal with Michelin's inability to come to terms with the new tire rules, putting an end to the shipment of magic tires which would turn up on Sunday mornings, just in time to help win the race.
After Donington, eight races into the season, it was starting to look like the pundits had got it wrong, and this was the dawning of a new era. In the future, the path to success in MotoGP would not be a Michelin-shod Honda, it would be a Ducati on Bridgestones. The contrasting fates of Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden made this painfully clear. So as we headed to Assen for the race that marks the halfway point of the season, the only question left open was what Stoner's margin of victory would be, which of his fellow Bridgestone riders would join him on the podium, and how close Valentino Rossi would come before being finally put in his place by the imperious Ducati.
But, just as we had started to accept that Stoner was leading the march into a whole new, Bridgestone-shod future in MotoGP, free practice at Assen showed up the first cracks in the New MotoGP Order. Sure enough, Stoner led the way in all three dry free practice sessions, but behind Stoner was a gaggle of Michelins, including the Honda of Nicky Hayden. The Kentucky Kid had told all who would listen that he'd found something at the post-race test in Catalunya, but his crash out of 6th place at Donington had not convinced everyone. Once again, though, Hayden was near the top of the timesheets in practice, and looking stronger than he had done all year.
Then came Qualifying. The wet weather which had been following the MotoGP circus, finally made it across the North Sea on Saturday, and the downpour which had tried to wash away Donington recommenced. Suddenly, the dice were loaded in favor of the Bridgestone again, with 9 of the top 12 places on the grid going to the Japanese tire manufacturer, and Colin Edwards the highest Michelin man in 6th. Of the two men who had continually been within spitting distance of Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi was down in 11th, and Nicky Hayden sat on the 5th row in 13th. The sole consolation for Rossi and Hayden was that Stoner had been pipped to pole by Chris Vermeulen on the Rizla Suzuki, the Rain Man showing his brilliance in the wet once again. The only hope for Honda and Yamaha was that the men who surrounded Stoner, all of whom had been significantly slower in the dry, could get in his way and hold the Australian championship leader up, giving Rossi and Hayden a chance to catch up with a bit of luck and a good start.
Pulling A Fast One
The bikes lined up, engine revs rose, and the red lights holding the bikes on the grid faded to black. Free of their fetters at last, the pack thundered off the line, the grandstands resounding to the howl of thousands of horsepower unleashed in an instant. As the pack peeled into the first corner, part of Hayden's plan had worked: From 13th on the grid, The Kentucky Kid had fired off the line as if shot out of a cannon, and braking almost impossibly late, he rounded Alex Hofmann and Marco Melandri to enter the Haarbocht, the first turn at the end of the straight, in 4th place, gaining 9 places in a single maneuver. He lost a place to Melandri at Madijk, the next right hander, and another to Colin Edwards a turn later, but as the pack rounded the Strubben hairpin, Hayden was still 6th, and in contention.
The other half of Hayden's plan was less successful: Casey Stoner had got another one his ballistic starts, learnt riding dirt track as a boy in Australia, and had a lead of 20 bike lengths over the chasing horde by the time they fired down the back straight. The Rizla Suzukis headed the horde, John Hopkins leading pole sitter Chris Vermeulen, with Marco Melandri just a little way behind in 4th. Melandri's position was far from secure, as Colin Edwards climbed all over the Italian's tail, himself chased closely by the Repsol Honda team, Nicky Hayden just ahead of Dani Pedrosa. By the time they rounded the double right-hander to head back towards the main grandstand, Hayden was on Edwards, and a couple of turns later, pulled a very brave move, passing round the outside of the fast, vicious Ramshoek corner, the place where Rossi broke his wrist last year, and Elias broke his leg this year. Once on the outside of Edwards, Hayden had the perfect line into the GT chicane, and was past and into 4th over the line.
Where Hayden's plan had worked like a charm, Valentino Rossi had been unable to pull of the same trick. By the time the pack exited the Strubben hairpin, Rossi had only been able to pick up the solitary place from 11th to 10th gifted to him by the terrible start that front row man Randy de Puniet had got on the Kawasaki. At De Bult, the fast left before the double right-hander, Rossi picked up another spot from Alex Hofmann on the Pramac Ducati, but by the time they crossed the line at the end of the first lap, Rossi was still down in 9th, and what was worse, Stoner was over a second ahead of 2nd place man John Hopkins, and making a break.
Back On Track
Further up the field, Nicky Hayden was on a charge, and all over the back of Marco Melandri. Melandri held him off down the back straight, and through the Ruskenhoek chicane, and the Stekkenwal, the next right. But as they exited De Bult, Hayden got the drive out of the corner to hold put his wheel ahead of the Italian, and hold the inside line through Mandeveen, the first of the double right-handers at the southern extremity of the Assen circuit. As they headed back towards the line, Hayden removed any lingering doubts about his refound form, sliding the rear out of Hoge Heide, the fastest corner on the track, on his way to the chicane.
While Hayden was charging, Stoner was flying. Crossing the line with a lead of over 1.2 seconds at the end of the first lap, by the end of lap 2, the lead had grown to 1.6 seconds. Seeing Stoner start pulling away spurred John Hopkins into action: He knew he couldn't let the Australian go, and had to latch on to the Ducati's tail if he wanted any chance of getting his Rizla Suzuki on the podium at Assen. Over the next four laps, Hopper gnawed at Stoner's lead, taking a tenth of a second here, and a tenth of a second there, gradually reducing Stoner's advantage to under a second. Hopkins edged ever closer to Stoner trying to get close enough to make a move.
The Hunt Is On
Behind the fox Stoner and the hound Hopkins, the remainder of the pack were being held up behind Chris Vermeulen. Hopper's team mate had started from pole, but was slow getting into his stride, while behind him, there were people on the move. Nicky Hayden was perched on Vermeulen's tail like a hawk on a rabbit, while behind the American, Dani Pedrosa had pulled the same move on Melandri which had worked on Colin Edwards. That Hayden was in a hurry was obvious from his body language, crawling all over the back of Vermeulen's Suzuki. Hayden hounded Vermeulen down through Ruskenhoek, pushed through De Bult, and pressed into the GT chicane. On the next lap, he stepped up the pressure, trying to outbrake Vermeulen into the Haarbocht at the end of the finish straight, but could not get close enough to force his wheel ahead.
Thwarted, the Kentucky Kid concentrated on getting round the long series of right-handers which now comprise the North Loop as close behind Vermeulen as possible. Once out of the hairpin and down the Veenslang straight, pulling out of Vermeulen's draft to outbrake him going into the Ruskenhoek chicane, to take 3rd. And where Hayden went, Pedrosa was sure to follow, passing Vermeulen up the inside into De Bult. Braking has always been Pedrosa's weakness, but at Assen, his work on this was starting to show.
Back in 6th spot, Marco Melandri was emulating Vermeulen's attempts at holding up traffic. After Pedrosa had passed the Gresini Honda at the start of lap 3, Melandri had managed to build up a little convoy of his own, with Colin Edwards and Loris Capirossi ahead of Valentino Rossi, Rossi now starting to move forward. As the group exited the Ramshoek and approached the chicane, they fanned out like a peacock's tail, each seeking to gain the advantage on the brakes into the chicane. None was obtained, and they exited onto the short front straight in the order they entered.
It was obvious that this would not last. Rossi was the first to act, pushing up inside Capirossi into the Haarbocht at the end of the straight, with Yamaha team mate following suit, sliding up the inside of Melandri at Ossebroeken, before closing the door into the hairpin. Melandri's resistance was broken, for two turns later, Rossi was up past Melandri into the Stekkenwal, and into 7th. But with Stoner leading, Rossi knew that 7th wasn't anywhere near enough. As the Fiat Yamaha team mates approached the GT chicane, Rossi pushed his way to the inside line, braked latest, and was past. Now 6th, The Doctor set his sights on Vermeulen. Half a lap later, Rossi was with the Australian, and at Mandeveen, the Italian was past and into 5th, and chasing down Pedrosa and Hayden.
Back at the front, Stoner had staunched the loss of time to Hopkins, riding lap after lap of smooth and consistent times. Hopkins and Stoner were matched almost evenly, the difference hovering around the 1 second mark. Hayden followed nearly 4 seconds back, with Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi on his tail.
But it was Rossi who was by now the fastest man on the track, set ever faster times for lap after lap. On lap 6, Rossi closed down Pedrosa, and sat looking for a chance to pass. That chance came after Rossi lined Pedrosa up through the fast lefts at Hoge Heide and Ramshoek, before stuffing it up the inside into the GT chicane once again, to take 4th spot. Two thirds of a lap later, Rossi was up inside Hayden going into Mandeveen, and into 3rd.
Rossi was on a charge, one of the most forceful of the many charges we have seen him on throughout the years, but with 18 laps to go, Casey Stoner had a lead of 3.6 seconds over the Italian. If Stoner could limit his losses to Rossi to just 0.2 seconds a lap, and if John Hopkins could play his part by holding Rossi up, then the race would still be firmly in Stoner's hands.
On lap 8, Stoner lost just 1/10th to Rossi, and his chances seemed fair of pulling it off. But on the next lap, Rossi took half a second out of Stoner, then 8/10ths, then another half a second. In three laps, Rossi had halved Stoner's lead, and the only thing standing between The Doctor and the Australian was the Rizla Suzuki of John Hopkins.
As fine a machine as the Rizla Suzuki is, and as strong a rider as John Hopkins is, in this form, there is very little that can withstand the onslaught of Valentino Rossi. Rossi had caught Hopper by lap 11, and on the next lap, The Doctor was past, taking a tighter line through the hairpin to get the power on earlier, blasting past Hopkins as they headed down the Veenslang straight. Once past, Rossi was completely unleashed. On lap 13, Rossi took nearly a second out of Casey Stoner, and by the next lap, The Doctor was on the Australian championship leader's tail.
Over the next 8 laps, Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner put on a repeat of the spectacle we had been treated to at Qatar, at Shanghai, and at Catalunya. Rossi sat inches from Stoner's back wheel, showing Stoner a wheel here and there, building the pressure on the young Australian. On lap 14, Rossi showed Stoner his nose at the GT chicane. Half a lap later, Rossi tried to cut back inside for the tighter line out of the hairpin. Next lap, Rossi tried braking into Madijk, running wide, and having to play catchup. On lap 17, Rossi pushed through the Strubben again, and tried the move up into the GT chicane once again. This time, Stoner slammed the door on Rossi just a little more firmly, leaving Rossi to catch up once again. Lap after lap, Rossi ratcheted up the pressure, but Stoner, ever the iceman, would not crack.
Taking The Strain
Though Stoner did not crack, it was becoming ever more apparent that Stoner was having to work harder than ever to hold Rossi off. Stoner's riding became ever more ragged, as the combination of the strain of fending off The Doctor and the gusting side winds, ever present at Assen, battered Stoner's big Ducati fairing about. On lap 21 Rossi sized up Stoner once again through the Ramshoek into the chicane, and 2 laps later, at the same spot, Rossi carried a fraction more speed through the fast, vicious left-hand kink and slid up the inside to wedge his wheel into the GT chicane first. Just like last year, and as so often at Assen, the GT chicane played its ever pivotal role, felling judgment on the race.
Once past, Valentino Rossi was unstoppable, and pulled away nearly 2 seconds in the space of the final 3 laps to take the victory, one of his five best, according to the Italian, as witnessed by his elation as he crossed the line. Rossi's crew chief Jerry Burgess had made a final few tweaks to the set up of Rossi's bike during the warm up session, and the combination of Burgess's brilliance and Rossi's genius paid off in spades, resulting in an epic charge through the field from 11th on the grid to take the win. More importantly, Rossi had beaten Stoner in a straight fight, and clawed back a valuable 5 points in the championship standings, to get within a win of Stoner, now 21 points ahead. At the halfway point in the season, the title is still completely open.
Casey Stoner rode home to take 2nd, not too disappointed to have been beaten by a Valentino Rossi in this form. The Ducati's aerodynamics, which had been such an advantage down the long straights at Barcelona, Shanghai and Qatar, had worked against Stoner at Assen, the Ducati's fairing being pushed about by the ever-present wind, hampering the bike's ability to turn. But once again, Stoner withstood the pressure piled high upon him by Rossi, and did not make a mistake, where Rossi's previous opponents had wilted under the strain, running wide, or off the track, or crashing. Though the title is still undecided, Casey Stoner still holds a comfortable lead.
Behind Stoner, John Hopkins had ceded 3rd place in a brief skirmish with Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda team mates passing Hopper into the GT chicane on lap 14. Once past, Hayden and Pedrosa had embarked on the hunt for the leading pair. As they chased, it was obvious that Hayden was the quicker of the pair, slowly edging away from Pedrosa, and closing on Rossi. But once Rossi was past Stoner, Hayden's chase came to an end, just not quick enough to catch Stoner to have a chance at 2nd. That did not really matter. Nicky Hayden, after a string of results in the bottom half of the field, was finally back where he, Honda, and perhaps more importantly, the number 1 plate, belonged: At the sharp end. The combination of a revised chassis, with a slightly raised swing arm mount, and a reduction in the amount of traction control being used finally allowed Hayden the chance to ride the bike the way he wanted.
Nicky Hayden, the reigning world champion, mostly looked relieved. He was just glad to be able to run at the front again, and to get his first podium since taking the title at Valencia last year. And Hayden's podium could hardly have come at a more fortuitous time for the Kentuckian, as it coincided with a visit by Takeo Fukui, CEO of Honda, and the most senior figure in the company. Honda's mediocre results so far this season have caused a good deal of internal rumblings, and to have Hayden and Pedrosa take 3rd and 4th at Assen - and significantly for Hayden, for Hayden to beat Pedrosa - will have strengthened the position of both riders in relation to the engineering department. A new Honda has been promised for Brno, although the bike is said to be an evolution rather than a revolution, but HRC's Satoru Horiike has promised to start with a clean sheet of paper if that is what it takes.
Dani Pedrosa had tried to follow in Hayden's wake once the pair were past Hopkins, but Hayden was just a fraction faster, and Pedrosa finally settled for 4th, ahead of John Hopkins, whose times dropped off once Hayden and Pedrosa were past.
Hopkins was lucky the race ended when it did, as Colin Edwards had started to close towards the end of the race. But a few tenths a lap were not enough, and the Texas Tornado had to settle for 6th behind Hopkins.
Behind Edwards, an epic battle had been fought over the course of race, with Alex Barros, Loris Capirossi, Ant West, Marco Melandri, Alex Hofmann and Carlos Checa scrapping over 7th. Alex Barros was the first to break free of the pack, 7th spot being gifted to the Pramac Ducati rider after Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet took out Chris Vermeulen in one of the young Frenchman's rather too common errors of optimism, trying to run the bike up inside where there was no longer any room.
Fight For Survival
Of the remaining group, Capirossi was the first to go, dropping off the back of the group, later to retire with clutch problems. That left Alex Hofmann, Ant West, Marco Melandri and Carlos Checa to slug it out for 8th. The battle was fierce, and highly entertaining, as rider after rider made brutal passing moves on the others, passing at the Strubben hairpin, the GT chicane, the Ramshoek and Ruskenhoek corners, anywhere a crack of daylight showed. Hofmann came out on top, taking 8th on the Pramac Ducati, ahead of Ant West on the Kawasaki, just pipping Marco Melandri for 9th. Melandri had struggled with his Gresini Honda from the start, and will be desperate to get his hands on the new HRC parts which seem to be working so well on the Repsol Honda.
Carlos Checa came home in 11th on the LCR Honda, able to follow, but unable to pass the group ahead. Shinya Nakano rode the Konica Minolta Honda home to a lonely 12th spot, after scrapping with and beating the Tech 3 Yamaha team, Makoto Tamada beating team mate Sylvain Guintoli, the Dunlop tires obviously working a good deal better in the dry than in the wet.
Kurtis Roberts brought the KR212V home to take the final point in 15th, his times improving over the course of the race, but absolutely out of contention, ahead of Chris Vermeulen, who had rejoined after being run off by de Puniet, but whose Suzuki had suffered too much damage to be able to get back on the pace.
The Dutch TT at Assen is always a special race, despite the Cathedral of Racing having been despoiled in the pursuit of tawdry commerce, and this year's race was no exception. The Cathedral witness not one, but many miracles, all of resurrection. Valentino Rossi's title chase was put back firmly on track, with one of the finest victories of his career. Nicky Hayden's career and dignity was resurrected, with a return to his aggressive, sliding style, at once both entertaining and ferocious. The fortunes of the Honda RC212V were resurrected, with both Hayden and Pedrosa in the top four, instead of Pedrosa being the only man anywhere near the front, though Honda's winless streak was extended to 10, equaling their worst period back in 1990. Even the fortunes of Michelin had new life breathed into them, winning the race and taking 4 of the top 6 positions, their best result since Jerez.
Besides resurrections, Assen also saw a couple of interesting conundrums. On the cool down lap, as the bikes returned to the paddock, both Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden ran out of fuel. In the press conference, Stoner denied that he had lost power at any point in the race, but he also mentioned that he'd had to ride the bike differently during the second half of the race, as the tires started to wear, having to start steering with the rear rather than the front, spinning up the back tire on the power to help turn the bike. The Ducati's engine management system calculates the bike's fuel use most intensively during the first half of the race, and ensures that the bike will have enough gas left to complete the race, and still produce the maximum amount of power. But if Stoner had to change his riding style halfway through the race, the margin for error for the engine management software suddenly gets a lot narrower. At Assen, it worked out just about right, but it might be worse next time.
The tire restrictions have already bitten the teams so far this year, and now it looks like the fuel reduction, from 22 to 21 liters, is starting to have an effect. If both the Ducati and the Honda ran out of fuel during the race, then it would be logical to assume that the factories can't really squeeze much more power out of the engine by conventional means, as the bikes are already burning all the fuel on board. So neither the Ducati nor the Honda are likely to get a great deal faster very soon. That could cast a whole new light on the championship. It started over again, here at Assen.