Though it is hard to see Assen without remembering the old a painful reminder of the old six kilometre long layout, we’ll still be glad to watch the Moto3 bikes racing for first time at Dutch TT this weekend. Especially if you are still thrilled by the action seen at Silverstone a couple of weeks ago -with up to eleven riders fighting for a place on the rostrum-, you just can’t wait to watch a new chapter of these young lions racing and writing Moto3 history in its debut season.
Maverick Viñales is the new leader in the standings after the British Grand Prix (105 points) with Sandro Cortese in second place (103). Luis Salom stands third (75 points) thanks to his fighting spirit and getting best out of his Kalex KTM, exactly the same bike Aspar riders Héctor Faubel (28 points) and Alberto Moncayo (36) are riding nowhere near the front at this moment of the season. Kalex riders have been progressively provided with a new frame since the Barcelona race, but Faubel and Moncayo still have problems in finding the speed the new class demands. It’s a hard situation for a team which dominated the series in four of the last six seasons of 125 class history, until its end in 2011.
Behind Viñales and Cortese, Salom, rookie rider Romano Fenati (61 points) and Louis Rossi (45 points) are waiting for a chance that could very well come again in the next race. Meanwhile, Álex Rins (44 points), Zulfahmi Khairuddin (44 points) and Alexis Masbou (42), Oliveira (33), Sissis (31) and Vázquez (15 points) will keep riding like a soul escaping from Hell to grab a place on the rostrum. Silverstone was an amazing battle, with three riders totally focused on winning (Viñales, Cortese and Salom), and a long list of outsiders ready to die if needed to get a place on the rostrum (Masbou, Vázquez, Kent, Rossi, Fenati, Sissis, Khairuddin and Oliveira).
I’m sure you believe me if I say I don’t really like the deep hum of the 250 cc four-stroke single-cylinder engine, but I must recognize that, even knowing that Moto3 four stroke technology was already available since the first few decades of 20th Century –so, no big technical deal for a road racing world championship almost hundred years later-, the action on the track is still great to watch thanks to similar machinery and the indomitable spirit of the riders in the junior class.
The spring of 1990
Whatever kind of engine you prefer, what we get today from Moto3 class is about similar level of technical performance, also a legacy of the former two-stroke 125 class too. We all know that 125 was a category where having a true two-stroke technician and a genuinely fast rider used not to be enough to become world champion, or even to win a single race. Actually, in addition to these things, a 125 winner needed to be half clever strategist and half merciless hit man too. But it has not been always like that. The ultra competitive atmosphere in the 125cc class probably has a starting date, a day when everything changed in the spring of the1990 season and the races with more than several potential winners were born. But let’s go back further in the past to understand some facts.
In the glorious decade of the1960’s which featured the screaming Japanese multicylinder engines, the 125 class became so expensive in technical development that new technical regulations limited engines to two-stroke twins from the 1970 season. For almost two decades, European manufacturers got back in on their golden era. Derbi’s twins won the 125 title twice in the hands of Ángel Nieto at the start of the 70’s, and later, Italian bikes like Morbidelli, MBA, Minarelli or Garelli twins won every world title in the class from 1975 to 1987. But technical rules were about to change once again for 1988 and the 125 class was then limited to two-stroke single-cylinder engines.
After dominating the 80 cc class since 1986, Derbi and Spaniard Jorge Martínez were ready to win the first 125 World Championship for single-cylinder engines in 1988. The following season the championship went to rising star Álex Crivillé on the Spanish framed JJ Cobas/ Rotax. But those two different 125 twins and single-cylinder eras had something in common. In the last years of twins and those two first of singles, European manufactures produced a very small series of their fastest machines for their factory team riders, so races used to be dominated by just a very few fast riders and the fight for victory on every race used to be a matter of three or four riders per season at a maximum.
On the other hand, since the last days of twins Honda was back in the 125 class developing their two stroke single engine based on their motocross racers. Those exclusive machines were again in the hands of a few riders, such as Italian rider Ezio Gialona in 1988 and Dutchman Hans Spaan in 1989, but even they could do nothing against Derbi and JJ Cobas small but highly experienced teams in Grand Prix racing then.
At the same time that HRC were providing new parts and technical development for their fastest riders, the Japanese company was ready to sell the RS125, a cheap production racer available anywhere, destined for anything from small teams in club racing to private teams with real aspirations of success in the world championship using A, B or whatever lettered kits, always looking for higher performance. I still remember during those years some European privateers travelling to Japan for the first race of the season carrying no bikes. Those bikes would be bought at Suzuka racing shops for around 5.000 € -at the time-, plus the parts the rider was going to need for racing –the bikes themselves were sold with spoked wheels!.
But all this opened a new field for privateers and non-factory riders. Even if your rider did not have the most powerful spare parts kit at his disposal, a good technician could tune engines and make them be extremely fast anyway. Honda’s production racers filled a massively competitive 125 grid, so the prize of a single point became harder and harder to achieve on track, never mind winning a race or the championship. Honda finally won its first two-stroke 125 world title thanks to Loris Capirossi in 1990, but that was also a season of transition in more than one sense. With more bikes with similar performance and a new generation of Japanese riders becoming more and more competitive, we all got used to watching up to ten riders fighting for a place on the rostrum. The most bizarre scene of this came in Yugoslavia, when the first nine riders (Stefan Prein, Loris Capirossi, Bruno Casanova, Ralf Waldmann, Doriano Romboni, Fausto Gresini, Adi Stadler, Maurizio Vitali and Alessandro Gramigni), crossed the finish line at Rijeka in less than one second.
Nobody had seen such close Grand Prix racing in any class until then, and the tradition continued during the following decades. During those years Italian manufacturer Aprilia was already close to becoming competitive in 125, and its policy of selling production bikes was also a success. As time went by, Aprilia managed an expensive policy with its best satellite teams, and that meant a way to establish new differences between factory and privateers riders, but the 125 never lost again its high competitive spirit until the end of its life in the 2011 season.
Waiting for Assen 2012
Coming back to the present season, Moto3 was born with that same spirit, equalizing bike performance even more than it was in 125 thanks to some very detailed technical rules on 250 cc four strokes engines. Races like Silvertone is when we all enjoy the fruits of that approach and watch Viñales, Cortese and company fighting for the rostrum against lower profile riders. Where race leaders get caught up fighting and exchanging positions among themselves -wasting their precious lead-, then the second group has a strong chance of catching them, making possible that eleven-rider battle at the front front we all enjoyed at Silverstone two weeks ago.
Coming to Assen for the Dutch TT, we expect to see Viñales chasing his fourth victory of the 2012 season –He already won here last year on the 125-, and it may be a good chance for Salom to get his first GP win at the home race of the Dutch RW Racing GP team. Cortese finished off the rostrum in 2011, something he cannot afford to do again if he wants to stay among the title contenders at midseason. But we all wish to see another thrilling battle with Fenati, Rossi, Masbou, Vázquez, Khairuddin, Faubel and Moncayo, if the latter two finally find their way. I, for one, will not be able to resist the temptation of imagining how it would have been to watch these wild riders fighting on the older Assen layout. The world changes, and it seems not to matter when business takes over from passion and tradition.