Success in motorcycle racing is a fickle beast. Getting everything just right to get the best out the bike and rider is a difficult undertaking, with a thousand factors standing ready to throw a spanner in the works.
The bike has to have the right balance of stability in braking, nimbleness in corner entry, and strength in acceleration. The rider has to be in peak physical condition, mentally on top of his game, and ready to seize any opportunity which presents itself.
When track conditions are ideal, the rider has to be able to find the limit of adhesion. When track conditions or the weather are not playing ball, the rider has to guess the right time to attack, and the right time to hold off. They have to judge how the conditions are changing, and when they are ripe to be exploited. Get it right, and you dominate. Get it wrong, and you are lost in the pack.
You also have to be lucky, or know how to make your own luck. The qualifying session for the MotoGP class at Assen showed just how big a role luck can play, the weather playing a massive role in proceedings. The weather changes fast at Assen. In a country as flat as the Netherlands, the wind blows cloud and rain in quickly, and carries it away just as fast.
Bright sunshine can change to heavy clouds in a few minutes, with rain following on behind. Which is just what happened on Friday afternoon. Sunshine made way for gray skies, the air pregnant with moisture. It spotted with rain in the morning, briefly during FP4, but only really struck during Q2.
It threw the plans and running order of MotoGP into disarray, with smart and lucky riders winning out, the ill-starred ending up well down the grid.
If there was one factor that surprised everyone on the first day of practice at Assen, it was the weather. Everyone had been prepared for rain, and had contingency plans for when the rain would eventually come. But it didn’t.
It rained all around the circuit, severe weather warnings were issued for several surrounding towns, heavy rain fell in nearby Groningen, and local beaches were evacuated because of thunderstorms, but the TT Circuit at Assen stayed dry all day.
The wind blew the morning clouds away, and the sun shone down gloriously on the circuit, catching out the unwary, and giving all three Grand Prix classes, plus the many support series a full day of excellent weather.
The riders made good use of the conditions, and the unexpected track time threw up a couple of serious surprises. In the morning, Pol Espargaro set the fastest time, finishing ahead of his brother Aleix. In the afternoon session, it was Aleix who was quickest, though this time Pol could not match the pace of his elder brother.
Stefan Bradl’s LCR Honda is sporting a new livery at Assen, after the team secured a major new sponsorship deal. The tie up will see the bike in CWM’s colors for three races in 2014, and will continue as a major backer in 2015.
The new sponsorship deal is so significant that it offers LCR Honda new possibilities. Lucio Cecchinello has made no secret of his desire to expand from a single bike to a two-bike team, but so far, the financial backing necessary has been missing.
The deal with CWM World has the potential to be the key support which would allow Cecchinello to add a second, Open bike to his satellite Honda RC213V currently being ridden by Bradl.
May I be permitted a little bias for the MotoGP round held in my adopted country? There are many magical motorcycle races around the world.
The Isle of Man TT has speed, danger, and one of the most remarkable backdrops in motorsports. Mugello has an astounding track, a hothouse atmosphere, and breathtaking scenery. Jerez has an intensity among the fans without equal, hosted in a beautiful part of the world when Andalusia is at its best, in the spring.
But I think I would still swap them all for Assen. Once, it was the greatest racetrack in the world. Fast, flowing, with challenges favoring any rider with the perfect combination of bravery and skill.
Full of fast kinks, banked turns, and with a camber and crown to the surface that was a throwback to the public roads which once comprised the circuit. Throughout the years, the circuit was pruned back, from 16 kilometers, to just under 8 kilometers, to 6 kilometers.
In 2006, the track was neutered altogether, as a combination of financial necessity and encroaching housing development saw the North Loop, the jewel in Assen’s crown, surgically removed and replaced with the much smaller, much shorter loop which now quickly folds back on itself and takes the riders back to the old southern section, where the old glory of the track lives on.
Hard braking for De Haarbocht, named for the village now absorbed by Assen’s urban sprawl, the everlasting right hander through Madijk and Ossebroeken round to the Strubben hairpin. A hard, short turn onto the Veenslang, the back straight.
Straight? Not so much: the literal translation is ‘turf snake’, and snake it does, down to the blistering right-left-right of the Ruskenhoek chicane. Through the right at Stekkenwal, and another snaking straight down to De Bult – ‘the lump’ and a very lumpy corner it is indeed.
From there it is all lefts, building speed through Mandeveen, Duikersloot, and Meeuwenmeer, on to perhaps the most perfect piece of race track in the world.
First, there’s the Hoge Heide – ‘High Heath’ – the right-left flick that looks like nothing at all on a track map, but is one of the most intimidating corners on the planet. Making that change of direction at over 270 km/h is not easy, especially as you still have to lift the bike over the crown of the track, avoiding the dip on the far end of the flick. The run through the Ramshoek, a hot-and-fast left, before the Geert Timmer bocht, the chicane named after the legendary circuit announcer.
The GT, as it is known locally, is steeped in history. Here, Carl Fogarty edged Frankie Chili out of the way in World Superbikes, causing Chili to storm into the podium press conference in his dressing gown to accuse Fogarty of cheating.
Colin Edwards lost his best shot at a MotoGP win there, cutting inside and getting on the gas on the astroturf, only to wind up on the ground and handing Nicky Hayden a crucial win. Stefan Bradl nearly succeeded in turning his Moto2 championship season from triumph to despair, suffering his first crash after a series of wins.
In Moto3 – or even better, the Red Bull Rookies Cup – eight or more riders enter this corner at the same time on the last lap, the victor anyone’s guess until they cross the line. In Moto2, and even MotoGP, the GT is still the ideal place for passing, with multiple lines possible and bravery and late braking always an option.
Apart from the circuit, there are the fans. There is a wild, uninhibited feel at Assen, reminiscent of Le Mans. At both circuits, you suspect you may not live to see the end of the race. The difference is, at Le Mans, you fear you will end up flayed and scalped, a human sacrifice to the gods of racing.
At Assen, you know you will die with a smile on your face, the campsite excesses of alcohol, petrol, and ill-advised nighttime stunts taking the inevitable toll. Both Assen and Le Mans share a common madness, but at Assen, the madness is one of joy.
Cal Crutchlow has not taken the customary route into MotoGP. No racing 125’s in the Spanish Championship, before the inevitable climb up through the Grand Prix support classes to MotoGP. Instead, he took a very sideways path, through BSB, World Supersport, and World Superbike, before encountering a very tough first year in MotoGP.
That circuitous path has stood him in good stead, however. Crutchlow is now on the brink of breaking into the elite circle of riders who have won a MotoGP race in the dry, and his services are in demand. It is surely just a matter of time.
I sat down with Crutchlow at Assen, with the intention of trying to extract the secret of his riding from him. I had a whole line of questions lined up on the technicalities of braking, the mechanics of cornering and how to race a MotoGP bike, but I got distracted by a long and philosophical chat before my recorder was turned on.
By the time we started the interview proper, it went off in a different, but just as fascinating direction. Cal Crutchlow talks about his love for the sport of motorcycle racing, how he got started, how he arrived in MotoGP, and why it is so important to be a factory rider. And why it is so very, very difficult to win a race in MotoGP.