Ask someone to describe the landscape of Holland, and they won't usually need more than a single word. "Flat" is the adjective most commonly used in relation to The Netherlands, as anyone who has ever made the trek from Amsterdam up to Assen will acknowledge. Heading southeast out of Amsterdam, past the wooded wealth of Hilversum and 't Gooi, then turning northeast at Amersfoort to head through the heart of Holland's bible belt - Putten, Nunspeet, Staphorst - then past Zwolle, and north to Assen, the countryside may vary - the open fields surrounded by canals east of Diemen, the closely-wooded villas of Hilversum, the thin, sandy soil of the pine woods which form the Veluwe national park - but the inclination rarely does.
The irony is that for most of the trip, you are actually traveling uphill. Along the course of the 180 kilometers from Amsterdam to Assen, you will have gained a full 9 meters of elevation. If you picked up a hire car at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, you can almost double that figure, climbing from 4 meters below sea level to nearly 12 at the TT circuit in Assen. As paltry as that difference may seem, it betrays a fundamental difference between Holland's coastal region and its more ancient northern towns, and the heart of Dutch motorcycle racing.
The area surrounding Amsterdam truly is flat: reclaimed from the sea and inland lakes just a few hundred years ago, the land and will barely trouble a spirit level. But as you head north and east, you leave the reclaimed land behind and venture into The Netherlands' glacial past. To the naked eye the land seems as flat as ever, if a little less neatly ordered, but the soil was dumped here by retreating glaciers many thousands of years ago, and then covered by peat bogs and dissected by a maze of creeks, brooks and channels, trickling water away towards the newly returned North Sea.
The World Is Flat
This long and ancient history has added a richness of texture to the land which is absent further west, a texture which lies at the heart of Assen's TT Circuit. At first glance it too is flat, but as you ride around it, you start to understand, even feel its history. Though the peat bogs and creeks have been drained, they have left their mark indelibly on the landscape. The track rises and falls subtly, sudden dips combining with the harsh camber of certain stretches of the track to generate a synergy aimed at unsettling even the most perfectly setup of bikes and ruining any chance of a smooth line through Assen's many tire-blistering corners.
Those rises and dips are almost entirely absent from the new North Loop, barely just scar tissue over the memory of its former glory, but once out of the horrifically tight Strubben hairpin, you plunge back through time onto the older part of the track, and ancient geology starts nudging and jolting the bike as once it used to. Down the Veenslang (or Peat Snake, though now one pulled taut, its former sinewy course straightened) and into the Ruskenhoek, the track is still smooth, though the camber starts to return. But once through the Stekkenwal and the fast left at De Bult, the old track regains its full vitality and history is made flesh, or rather asphalt again.
Through the long sequence of right handers - Mandeveen, Duikersloot, Meeuwenmeer - the bikes gain speed, their suspension unsettled by the continuous crossing of the crown of the track as they head from apex to apex. Then up a gear and full on the gas, top gear briefly selected through the Hoge Heide right-hand flick before launching over the crown of the track again, braking ready to pull the bike hard left at Ramshoek, front and rear tires leaving thick black lines while setting up for the GT Chicane and the last chance to pass before crossing the line to finish the lap.
That final section remains one of the glories of motorcycle racing, and one of the best places to pass on any track in the world. The Strubben hairpin will allow you to dive underneath someone, while the big left-right flick at Ruskenhoek offers another chance on the brakes, but there's nothing sweeter than lining someone up through Meeuwenmeer and Hoge Heide before slicing underneath into the Ramshoek, then blocking for all you are worth into the GT Chicane. That final chicane has been judge and jury at many a race, with more lines through it than Grand Central Station. They once called this track the Cathedral, and though much of its glory is gone, plenty remains. They may have demolished the nave and the wings, but the altar remains, a place to worship the gods of speed.
The Power And The Glory
Less than two weeks ago, last lap overtaking made dramatic return to MotoGP in one of the most thrilling final laps in recent history. After swapping the lead three times, Jorge Lorenzo headed into the final corner in front of his team mate Valentino Rossi, convinced he had the win in the bag. But as brilliant a rider as Lorenzo had just proved himself to be, he was a poor student of history, as Valentino Rossi came back inside Lorenzo through that final corner, crossing the line to take victory. It was a trick he had learned two years earlier from Casey Stoner.
If Rossi's move at Catalunya caught Lorenzo unawares, the Spaniard knows full well that if he enters Assen's final GT Chicane with his team mate on his tail, he can expect an attack. Lorenzo gave cast iron proof of his talent in Barcelona, pushing Valentino Rossi to the limits of his ability to beat him, and his former reticence to discuss his title chances are now gone. With the top three riders - Lorenzo, team mate Rossi and Ducati's Casey Stoner - all equal in the points after Catalunya, the title race starts all over again at Assen, with each of the top 3 in with a fair chance of the championship.
Lorenzo has an excellent record at Assen, winning twice in the 250 class and once in the 125s, and on his current form, he has to be in with a chance of victory again in Holland. One statistic that may be worrying Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner: The last two times that Jorge Lorenzo won here at Assen, he went on to become World Champion.
Like Lorenzo - and like so many of the riders in the paddock - Valentino Rossi still rates Assen as one of his favorite tracks, even after the alterations. And with good cause, the Italian has a total of 5 wins here, 3 of them in the MotoGP class, including a masterful victory over Casey Stoner in 2007. But there have been lows to go with the highs. Last year, an impetuous first-lap pass at the Strubben hairpin, in an attempt to overcome a poor starting position, saw Rossi slide out of the race, taking a furious Randy de Puniet with him. Two years prior, Rossi was one of the first victims of the newly-remodeled circuit, crashing heavily at the Ramshoek on cold tires and fracturing his wrist. Many others have followed his mistake, including Toni Elias, Loris Capirossi, and John Hopkins, and the corner remains one of the most treacherous on the circuit.
Rossi needs another high here at Assen on Saturday. The Doctor drew level in the points with his historic victory at Catalunya, but more importantly, he regained some of the momentum which had gone out of his title defense after Le Mans and Mugello. Rossi needs to carry that momentum into Assen, and impose his will on his team mate and Casey Stoner, the two men who are threatening his supremacy.
The History Man
A win in Holland would also suit Rossi's sense of history: at this historic track, the only circuit which has been on the MotoGP calendar since the start of the series in 1949, and a venue which has seen motorcycle racing since 1925, Rossi could take his 100th victory and join the legendary Giacomo Agostini as the only men with triple digit wins. At one of his favorite circuits, with the weight of history and the pressure of necessity behind him, it would take a very brave or very foolish person to bet against Rossi winning at Assen.
The third member of the MotoGP triumvirate will be equally bent on stopping Rossi from doing just that. Casey Stoner rolled up at Assen in 2008 and utterly dominated, from the moment the bikes hit the track to the point at which they waved the checkered flag. The Australian suffered a setback last time out at Catalunya, felled by a stomach flu which robbed him of his strength in the Spanish heat and humidity, only just managing to hold on to 3rd there, and tying the championship.
But Stoner enters Assen full of confidence. The Ducati GP9 has had its best results at some of its worst tracks, such as Jerez, Le Mans and (oddly enough) Mugello, and coming into a run of tracks where the Ducati has excelled, Stoner is sure that he can take some more wins and take control of the title race. Now back to full fitness, he will be looking to put the Fiat Yamahas back in their place.
The trio of title contenders was once a foursome, but injury and misfortune have dogged Dani Pedrosa this season, something always seeming to prevent the Spaniard from being competitive. Still in severe pain with a fractured femur, Pedrosa will try to ride without any of the painkilling injections he used in Barcelona, but whether that is possible will remain to be seen. Any doubts that remained about Pedrosa's toughness have been completely removed, but some must remain about the wisdom of his insistence on riding. Assen is a physically demanding track with a lot of fast right handers, making it difficult to ride with an injured right hip.
With the combination of the treacherous Ramshoek's reputation for breaking riders' bones and Dani Pedrosa's awful injury luck this year, a wiser course of action might be to sit the race out and wait for his leg to heal. Despite his excellent results here over the years, racing at Assen is a big risk for Pedrosa.
The Fifth Man
With Pedrosa out of the top four, his Repsol Honda team mate Andrea Dovizioso is keen to take his place there. Dovizioso has come tantalizingly close to a podium for the last three races in a row, and is now desperate to finally get on the box. The Italian has shown great talent and speed so far this year, and has mainly been let down by the Honda RC212V. But Dovizioso comes to Assen with a new chassis, tested after the Barcelona race, which improves corner entry and allowed Dovi to finish the test atop the timesheets, improving on his best lap set during qualifying. Assen could be Dovizioso's chance to mix it with the top three for the first time this season, and if he does, it is unlikely to be the last.
With the Yamaha unquestionably the best bike on the grid at the moment, there is one more name to be added to the list of possible victors here in Holland. Assen is one of the three tracks at which Colin Edwards goes well enough to be able to take victory, and after a miserable time at Le Mans, the first of those opportunities, the Texan will be out for victory. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider has shown he is still hungry and capable of racing, taking a 4th and a host of 6th and 7th places.
Edwards feels like Assen owes him, after a stupid mistake in the final GT Chicane saw him spin up the rear and run off the track after a brilliant pass on Nicky Hayden in 2006, robbing him of his first potential victory. The Yamaha is handling brilliantly, Edwards is riding well and should be capable of matching the pace of the front runners. A win in MotoGP has been a long time coming for Edwards, and the Texan wants it more than anything else in the world. There is more than an outside chance that he will succeed here on Saturday.
Edwards has already had some small revenge here for 2006, after Nicky Hayden ran out of gas here on the final corner last year, handing a guaranteed podium finish to the Texan. But Hayden is unlikely to be in the same position again this year. The Kentucky Kid has suffered Melandri Syndrome so far this season, as once again the Ducati proves impossible to tame for anyone except Casey Stoner. Melandri and Hayden are both proven riders with a record of wins, and World Champions to boot, but neither of them have got a handle on the capricious nature of the Ducati GP9.
Hayden has been further hampered by the reduction in practice time and testing, preventing him from working the way he has done in the past, going out and putting thousands of laps on a bike to try and get a handle on it. Some tweaks before the Catalunya round saw Hayden come out well in the first session of practice, up into 6th, but he finished the race in 10th, and was then second slowest during the test that followed the race on Monday, his time slower than his fastest race lap. At the site of his only victory outside of the USA, Hayden is heading for another long and dispiriting weekend.
The Comeback Kid
Marco Melandri knows exactly how that feels. Assen last year was the place where negotiations to dissolve his two-year contract with Ducati first started, as the former 250 champion rode round near the back of the field with the Kawasakis. But since starting to race on the cast-off Kawasaki run by the Hayate team, he has shown flashes of the brilliance which won him the Ducati deal in the first place. On a clearly outclassed machine, Melandri already has a podium finish and is 7th in the championship, with the two Suzuki factory machines behind him and the Yamaha of Colin Edwards the only satellite bike ahead of him.
Sadly for Melandri, the Hayate's run of good fortune is nearing an end. As development continues on the other machines, they are starting to outpace the Kawasaki once again, and Melandri can only hope for wet conditions to shine again. Though Thursday and Friday promise to be hot and sunny, there's a decent chance of at least a shower on Saturday, and so Melandri may be in with a chance of salvaging another podium, and further improving his chances of a better ride next year.
The Hayate's lack of development is underlined by the efforts Ducati are putting in to fix the problems with the Desmosedici GP9. The factory team has had new parts to test, but those parts have also been given to the Pramac team in the hope of finding at least one other rider who can reliably perform on the bike. A new carbon fiber swingarm allowed Mika Kallio to set the 4th fastest time in testing after Barcelona, but the Finn must be wary of false dawns.
Kallio was fast during the preseason testing at Jerez, and finished 8th in the two opening round, but since then, he has struggled, with mechanical problems, with crashes and with just plain poor results. A 9th in Catalunya were the first signs of revival for Kallio, which he built on in the post race test. At Assen, he will get another chance to see whether this was just another blip, or whether he can start to reap the rewards of his obvious talent.
His team mate Niccolo Canepa comes to Assen also hoping for some improvement, and at least the Italian rookie knows the track. Canepa raced here in 2007, the year he won the FIM Superstock 1000 Cup, though he finished just 6th here in that race. Going on the Italian's form so far this year, it will be his one and only season in MotoGP, and he will return either to a testing role or to World Superbikes next season.
Back To The Old House
Another rider likely to head to World Superbikes in 2010 is James Toseland. The two-time World Superbike champion has failed to get on with the Bridgestone spec tires, and is languishing in the lower half of the field. He may have made small steps forward recently, but with the Fiat Yamaha team finishing on the podium in every race (both of them in four out of six races) and his Tech 3 team mate Colin Edwards consistently in the top 7, Toseland is manifestly falling well short of the bike's potential. Toseland's name has been linked with Ten Kate, Yamaha Motor Italia, Suzuki, even Aprilia, so at least he is assured of a top ride if he does return to the World Superbike paddock.
Toseland's problems are exacerbated by the fact that the Tech 3 Yamaha is the most hotly pursued of the options for next year's class entrants, with names like Marco Simoncelli and Ben Spies in line to take Toseland's ride. Assen is a track where JT has won in World Superbikes, and as such is as good a place as any to start on the road to redemption. If Toseland can recapture his old World Superbikes magic at Assen, he may prevent having to return there.
If JT does go back to World Superbikes, he could be joined by Chris Vermeulen. The Australian has done little better than Toseland this year, and like the Yorkshireman, Vermeulen is sitting in another favorite rookie destination. Suzuki are exempt from the so-called rookie rule, which prevents new entrants into MotoGP signing directly with a factory team, and as such there are riders such as Alvaro Bautista eyeing Vermeulen's ride. Assen is a track that Vermeulen likes and goes well at, and he may get a helping hand from Assen's weather. If, as predicted, the race is disrupted by rain showers on Saturday, Vermeulen might just feature at the front again. But it will take more than another strong result in the rain for Vermeulen to keep his job. Suzuki are starting to feel they need more than just a one-trick pony.
His veteran team mate, on the other hand, seems to go from strength to strength. Loris Capirossi, a youthful 36 years of age, is rapidly closing on 300 Grand Prix starts and needs just 1 more podium to reach the 100 mark. Capirex has clearly been getting the absolute utmost out of the Rizla Suzuki, leading his home Grand Prix at Mugello at the end of last month and coming very close to getting on the podium there. Suzuki are bringing engine upgrades to Assen, but they are only being applied very sparingly, with the number of parts available limited. The bike needs more top speed, though it now has a little more drive out of corners. Assen is not a track that requires outright top speed, but drive and maneuverability is all the more important. A podium for Capirossi at Assen is unlikely, but he should be close to the front runners once again.
Toni Elias would kill for some upgrades. The Spaniard is the latest victim of the curse of the factory-supported satellite Honda. Like Marco Melandri before him, the promised support from the factory never seems to materialize, partly as a result of financial constraints, and partly due to Honda choosing to focus on the factory team because the RC212V is failing to stack up against the Yamaha and the Ducati. So Elias is stuck on the bike as it was delivered prior to the start of the season and struggling for grip. Adding to his woes are the spec tires, with Elias the worst victim of the stiff carcass Bridgestones.
His team mate is in even worse straits. Alex de Angelis has had the occasional flash of brilliance, but mostly he has been just inside the top 15 and scoring points. While his prospects are not good for MotoGP, he could be one of the first riders to sign up for the Moto2 class, which replaces the 250s in 2010. The San Marinese rider was always a better 250 rider than a MotoGP man, and the smaller Moto2 bikes combined with his experience of setting up four-stroke machines may put leave him perfectly placed to become the first champion in the new class, if he makes the switch.
Gabor Talmacsi has just jumped the other way, having switched from the 125 class to the 250s for this season, then leaving the 250 class after a dispute over image rights with his Aspar-run Balatonring team. Suddenly, two weeks ago, he turned up on the Team Scot Honda bike which he is sharing with Yuki Takahashi. His first outing was very much as expected, finishing last but getting faster and closer to the pace in every session. The former 125 World Champion is clearly talented, and will suit the MotoGP bikes once he gets up to speed on them. It's just that that may take some time yet.
His team mate Yuki Takahashi has singly failed to adjust to the MotoGP class. The Japanese rider did very well on the 250 Honda last year, but so far he's been making up the numbers and little else. Takahashi's seat is under threat, as Talmacsi has brought sponsorship into the team, and the Japanese rider's response was to crash out at Catalunya while clearly pushing too hard. Takahashi will be riding at Assen with a broken finger, but with the possibility of rain on Saturday, and only one bike each, where the team's priorities lie should become apparent over the choices they make if there is a flag-to-flag race. Someone may have to stay along the sidelines on Saturday, and Takahashi is the most likely candidate.
Sete Gibernau resembles the Assen circuit in several ways. Both were once was towering giants of MotoGP, but time has been cruel to both of them. Gibernau, a former GP winner, is mostly making up the numbers; quite a change for the man who once challenged Valentino Rossi for the title. But since his return, he has been a pale shadow of his former self. Gibernau is struggling with the Ducati, just like everyone but Stoner is, and is still having problems with his shoulder, especially after breaking his collarbone for the umpteenth time. Gibernau may hope to get into the top 10 by the end of the year, but he is unlikely to figure much at Assen.
The Gathering Storm
After the thrilling round at Catalunya, it would be hard for the racing to get much better in MotoGP. But Assen still has enough of the old fast and flowing sections to help evenly matched riders compete. And with two of the best riders in the world on exactly the same bike, the chances of victory being decided in the final GT chicane have to be good. But it may not just be Rossi vs Lorenzo again for the win on Saturday, Casey Stoner looks almost certain to be at the front and trying to dispose of the two Fiat Yamahas before the final corner approaches. Rossi and Lorenzo will have to use all the talent they can muster to prevent the Australian from escaping.
But a pair of dark clouds hang over the Dutch TT at Assen, one literal, one figurative. The figurative cloud is the specter of injury, which Assen has produced with alarming regularity. Since the demise of the North Loop, only a couple of fast left handers remain in the circuit, the most dangerous of which follows a blindingly fast section of right handers. So riders approach the Ramshoek in race mode and used to the feel of the sticky right hand side of the tires, which has been thoroughly heated by the fast right handers. They flick left, onto the cooler part of the tire, and get flicked off at high speed, tumbling through the gravel at over 200 km/h. At some point, someone is going to get seriously hurt.
The literal dark clouds hanging over Assen are the rain showers and thunderstorms predicted to hit the track on Saturday. Both days of practice should be run in glorious sunshine, but rain will fall sometime on Saturday, the only question is when. If it's after 3pm, then it will spare the racing, but before, and everything could change. Either way it's good for the spectacle: if it rains, there'll be the excitement of a flag-to-flag race, and the strategy and action that that involves. If it doesn't, we should see Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner going toe-to-toe for most of the race. I think I know which the fans prefer.