In the previous 85 editions of the Dutch TT at Assen, we have seen some pretty spectacular Saturdays. In the 86th edition, with the race moved to Sunday, Saturday lived up to the expectations raised by the previous 85.
It was a wild and weird day, both morning and afternoon, with the weather being the main protagonist once again. There were crashes, fast dry laps, fast wet laps, and some smart strategy in the chase for pole. It was a good day indeed.
With Friday’s heat having dissipated, the MotoGP riders faced a fresh set of challenges. Overnight rain and light clouds meant track temperatures were much cooler. That meant that the medium front tire was suddenly a much more tricky proposition, catching a number of riders out.
Jorge Lorenzo fell at the Ruskenhoek after the front tire let go, while Marc Márquez made one of the most remarkable saves of recent years, after locking the front completely braking for Turn 1.
“From the first point of the brake, the front wheel locked, and then I released the brakes and it was a big moment,” the Repsol Honda rider said.
Every year at Mugello, Valentino Rossi and Italian designer Aldo Drudi come up with a special helmet design for Rossi’s helmet.
They vary in originality and ingenuity: my own personal favorite by far was the helmet from 2008, which featured Rossi’s face on the top, wide-eyed with the terror he felt braking for the first corner at San Donato, one of the highest speed approaches on the calendar.
Others have varied from the obscure and personal, to the entertaining or passionate. Most people have their own personal favorite, a few curmudgeons find the whole idea rather pointless.
Rossi’s helmet for this year, features a simple design, based on a pun in Italian. His AGV Pista GP helmet is yellow, featuring an outline of the Mugello circuit, and the word “MUGIALLO” around the front.
“Mugiallo” is a play on the words Mugello, the name of the circuit, and “giallo”, the Italian word for yellow. Rossi’s tribal color is yellow, his fans call themselves “Il popolo giallo”, or The Yellow People. The press release from Dainese described it as a tribute to the circuit, and to Rossi’s fans.
Is that what it means to Rossi himself, though? On Saturday, Rossi made his helmet look more like an act of appropriation than a tribute. Rossi’s searing qualifying lap laid bare his intentions: Valentino Rossi laid claim to the Mugello circuit. He came here to win.
Does Marc Márquez still own the Circuit of the Americas? So far, there has been just one session of practice which the Repsol Honda rider did not head. But as that was Q1, a session he had managed to bypass by heading up every other session of practice, it seems fair to say he does still own the place.
How does he do it? By the simple procedure of being faster than everyone else everywhere: braking later, carrying more speed, changing direction faster through the switchback section, losing out only slightly in acceleration and top speed.
Every rider you ask about him says the same: Márquez has some special magic around COTA, using lines that only he can manage. He is just about unstoppable here.
That doesn’t mean he can’t be beaten. “Nobody is unbeatable,” Jorge Lorenzo said in the press conference. “You have to make a race, and finish a race. Anything can happen with these new tires. You can have some engine failure, or crash, or make a mistake.” If there were a year where Márquez could be beaten, Lorenzo intimated, this is it.
Michelin has taken the highly unusual step of withdrawing not just one, but both rear tire compounds from use at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina.
Instead, a different rear tire with a stiffer construction will be issued in the morning, with the teams being given an extra 30-minute session of warm up in which to find a set up for the tires.
The decision was taken after Scott Redding suffered a catastrophic tire delamination with the Pramac Ducati during FP4. The incident happened on a medium rear tire which had been used for just seven laps, according to a statement on the official MotoGP.com website.
Redding managed to stay aboard, fortunately, but the rear of his bike was destroyed by a large strip of rubber which had detached itself from the tire. That strip of tire also hit Redding in the back, leaving a massive bruise.
The incident caused FP4 to be red-flagged, then, rather bizarrely, restarted once again, before being stopped for a second time. However, it was not immediately clear what had caused Redding’s tire to self-destruct, and so the session was allowed to continue, as was qualifying.
Practice, like testing, doesn’t really count for much, riders will tell you. When you talk to the afterwards, they will tell you that they didn’t set a really fast lap because they were working on setup, trying to figure out which tire will be best in the race, or working on race pace rather than one lap pace.
Maybe they were saving tires, maybe they ran into traffic, or maybe there wasn’t enough time left in the session to go for a fast lap. Even the rider who is fastest will tell you they were surprised, they were not really pushing for a time, but it just came naturally.
All valid explanations, but not necessarily true, of course. After all, free practice is just free practice, and as long as you are inside the top ten, with a good chance of advancing straight to Q2, then there is no reason not to dip into your Bumper Book of Excuses to fob off journalists with.
They are unlikely to challenge you on such excuses, because as long as your explanations are plausible, they have no way of countering them. It is impossible to know the mind of Man.
Qualifying is different. Qualifying matters, because there is something at stake. Not as much as on Sunday, and the forty-five minutes for which motorcycle racers sacrifice everything, the only forty-five minutes during which they feel truly alive.
But still, riders know the excuses afterwards will sound a little hollow. Qualifying is not the time to be laying all of your cards on the table, but you do have to be able to ante up, and to maybe call for a card or two.