Ask anyone what makes a great circuit, and they will tell you that it takes three things: fast corners, great scenery and lots of elevation changes. So what makes the TT Circuit at Assen so great? It only really has one of the three factors that makes it a great circuit: if the track has elevation changes, they can be measured in centimeters. The scenery is mostly absent, though that does allow more of a view of the expansive skies the Dutch masters of the 17th Century were so famed for. The only factor which the track still possesses is a collection of really fast corners, testing the mettle of anyone with ambition to take on the circuit.
Despite having the splendor of the old North Loop surgically removed, leaving it with just the flaccid remnant of a sequence of right handers, the southern section of the track is still as glorious as ever. From the Ruskenhoek and then De Bult, the track starts to build, the tempo picking up through Mandeveen, Duikersloot and Meeuwenmeer, before the high speed flick of Hoge Heide, and then the vast, sweeping left at the Ramshoek. The GT chicane has seen more than its fair share of last-lap battles, acting as judge, jury and executioner before heading back across the line again.
Though the removal of the North Loop took away some of the Dutch track's glory, Assen remains a favorite with the riders. Given the way the track still flows - at least, once you have left the Strubben hairpin - that is hardly surprising. It is a riders' track, suiting anyone who can string a series of corners together, and has the courage to keep the throttle hard open.
Of course, some bikes make it easier to do that than others. The flowing nature of Assen, where carrying corner speed counts for more than getting the bike stopped and turned, plays to the strengths of the Yamaha, as three victories in the past four years can attest. It could potentially have been four in a row, if Alvaro Bautista hadn't suffered a first-corner brain fade last year and wiped out Jorge Lorenzo - and one of Lorenzo's fresh engines - at the start of the race. Casey Stoner's victory on the Honda is the one blot on a Yamaha landscape.
Given the state of the title race, and Jorge Lorenzo's current form, it would be a foolish fan who would bet against the reigning champion. Lorenzo is coming off two back-to-back victories and has started to make serious inroads into Dani Pedrosa's championship lead, closing the gap to just 7 points. Going on past form, the only thing that will keep Lorenzo from victory at the Dutch circuit is the atrocious luck he has had at the track in recent years: while Alvaro Bautista took Lorenzo out in 2012, the year before it was the turn of Marco Simoncelli to ruin Lorenzo's race. The Italian got into the Strubben hairpin too hot, taking Lorenzo down in his fall. At least Lorenzo could continue the race after being hit by Simoncelli. Lorenzo will be staying as far away as possible from Hondas in Gresini colors come Saturday.
One thing which many fans are wondering is whether Valentino Rossi can finally find his feet on the Yamaha M1. So far, Rossi has struggled on his return to the Japanese factory from whence he departed in 2010. His biggest problem has been braking: the combination of a revised M1, an extra 200cc and 10kg, and a modified front tire has made it difficult for Rossi to brake with the kind of confidence he used to have. At the test at Aragon, after the race at Barcelona, his team finally found a set up which Rossi believed alleviated the problem. Assen will be his first chance to put the solution to the test. His first objective will be to get onto the first two rows in qualifying, something he has signally failed to do so far this year. The second row would be adjudged a success; the front row could herald a Rossi renaissance. But first, there is the small matter of actually riding.
A Rossi podium would suit Jorge Lorenzo very well, as long as the Italian could insert himself between his teammate and Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man has had his strongest start to a season ever, and looked like a man on his way to his first world title. Pedrosa knows he can bide his time, as Assen is the last of the 'Yamaha tracks' before heading to tracks where the Honda is strong. While he may be content to sit in behind Lorenzo, and allow him one last hurrah, there is good reason to believe Pedrosa will be out for glory at Assen. Though he has amassed plenty of podiums here, he has never won a MotoGP race in Holland. In fact, he has won only once at Assen, and that was 11 years ago on a 125cc bike.
His teammate, on the other hand, has won the last three races he contested at the circuit. Marc Marquez won at Assen in his final year in 125s, and then both times he raced here on a Moto2 machine. Marc Marquez' lightning fast adaptation to MotoGP continues apace, and at a track which he clearly loves, he should once again get a chance to shine. Assen proved to be a turning point for Marquez in 2011, when he won the Moto2 race while then championship leader Stefan Bradl crashed out. The Dutch circuit could serve the same purpose in 2013, if he can stay close to Jorge Lorenzo in the opening laps. With a chicane made for last-lap passes, the circuit seems tailor-made for Marc Marquez. After two races where Marquez has been hesitant to pass his teammate, and not close enough to attack Lorenzo, the gloves could well come off in Holland.
The wildcard at Assen could well turn out to be Cal Crutchlow. The Tech 3 Yamaha man continues to impress, despite crashing out of the race for the first time this year at Barcelona. Though he professes to love the track, Crutchlow's record is not exceptional here, either in MotoGP, World Superbikes or World Supersport. Even in his championship-winning season in World Supersport, Crutchlow only finished second, though his gap to winner Eugene Laverty was negligible, only a tenth of a second. But the Englishman is on a roll, and he must fancy his chances at the track. With Jorge Lorenzo having tipped Crutchlow to start winning races soon, this could well be the place where it starts.
Crutchlow could well be helped by the weather, as Assen is set to take place under typically Dutch conditions. Weather is expected over the weekend, and lots of it, a region of low pressure passing through and likely to disappear again on Sunday. Rain seems a certainty for practice, and probably for qualifying as well, while race day* could go either way.
That could also play into the hands of the Ducatis. Though the flowing nature of the circuit does not suit the bike at all, the Desmosedici still suffering with understeer, wet weather is when the Italian machine shines. Both Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden will be hoping for rain at the track, as it offers their best hope for a good result. The disappointing test results of the lab bike means that progress with the Desmosedici has come to a standstill. Forward momentum is likely only to return once the next step reaches fruition, a second upgrade to the chassis aimed at tackling understeer. That is only likely to appear at the Misano tests, however, and that is still nearly three months away.
After two runaway victories at two iconic tracks, MotoGP fans will be hoping to see a return of some excitement. Assen has seen both monster victories and very close racing at the circuit, and so both are clearly possible. A shortage of set up time, and a chicane offering the perfect passing opportunity could be the magic ingredients to spice MotoGP up again. We live in hope.
*Race day at Assen is always a Saturday. The reason for that lies in the earliest years of the race: when the first Dutch TT was staged back in 1925, racing, along with all forms of sport, was banned on a Sunday, as it violated the strict Calvinist ethos of the region. The race remained on Saturday, joining the Grand Prix circus when the World Championship started in 1949. Despite the region undergoing the same process of secularization which the rest of the Netherlands also went through, racing on Saturday had become a tradition. Though the circuit management is constantly evaluating whether a switch to Sunday would be a good idea or not, there are no plans to change. For the short and the medium term, The Dutch TT at Assen will be run on the last Saturday of June.