Rainy conditions abound in Assen for the Dutch round of World Superbikes, and the wet weather has already claimed its first victim: Pata Honda’s Leon Haslam. Catching his foot in the wheel during a crash in FP1, Haslam fractured both his tibia and fibula on his left leg during the off, and has been unfortunately ruled out of the Sunday’s race.
The tire problems experienced by Valentino Rossi and Ben Spies at Assen, where great chunks of rubber came off the right side of the rear of the tire, slowing Spies up severely and affecting Rossi so badly he was forced to pit for a new tire, have been the subject of much speculation and discussion since the event. Spies was particularly shaken after the race, the tire problems bringing back bad memories of the 300 km/h tire failure and monster crash he had at Daytona back in 2003, which he still has the scars to show from.
Nearly a week on, and after examination by Bridgestone technicians back at the factory in Japan, we can start to draw a few preliminary conclusions as to the cause of the problems. Bridgestone have issued a press release and briefed the press directly, and the riders have weighed in with their thoughts and impressions of what happened. Before pointing fingers and apportioning blame, let us first walk through what we know of what actually happened.
Much was expected of this Friday’s meeting of the Grand Prix Commission, but in the end, the decisions taken were relatively minor. Dorna, IRTA, the FIM, and the MSMA agreed on a number of proposals which had widely been expected, but made no real progress on the major rule changes expected for the 2014 or 2015 season.
The rule change with the biggest immediate impact was the dropping of the Rookie Rule, as we reported during the Silverstone round of MotoGP. The dropping of the Rookie Rule, which prevents new entries into the MotoGP class from going straight to a factory team, opens the way for Marc Marquez to join the factory Repsol Honda team next season. Contrary to popular opinion, however, the rule was not dropped at the request of HRC, but rather of the Honda satellite teams themselves, both Lucio Cecchinello and Fausto Gresini fearing the disruption that Marquez would bring for just a single year.
There is a danger to thinking any championship is a foregone conclusion, especially this early in the season. Just as there is a danger to thinking that a race will pan out the way you thought it would after practice and qualifying. At Assen, everyone was afraid of three things: the weather, Jorge Lorenzo, and Pol Espargaro. All three turned out differently than expected.
Best of all was the weather. After treacherous conditions on Friday, with rain falling, stopping, wetting the track just enough for Casey Stoner to bang himself up badly in the morning, though that did not stop him from blasting to pole, Saturday dawned bright and only got better: the big skies of flat-as-a-board Drenthe were mainly blue, with the occasional sighting of fluffy white clouds to provide a little cover and prevent egregious sunburn. But best of all, it stayed dry: no complications, just sunny, dry and calm weather.
Neither Lorenzo nor Esparagaro would prove too pose much of a threat either, Lorenzo through no fault of his own, but Espargaro would need no outside help in taking himself out of the equation. The crashes of Lorenzo and Espargaro – Lorenzo taken out by a boneheaded move from Alvaro Bautista, for which the Gresini Honda man will have to start from the back of the grid at the Sachsenring, Espargaro crashing on a bump at the Ruskenhoek – put an end to the domination of the two men in the MotoGP and Moto2 classes.
Espargaro had blasted every sessions of free practice, and only a blistering lap from Marc Marquez had denied the HP Pons rider pole. Lorenzo’s domination had been more subtle, his race pace clearly several tenths better than anyone else, though others on soft tires occasionally bettered the Spaniard during practice and qualifying.
With the Dutch weather improving from the scattered rains of Friday, to just a grey gloom for Saturdays’ Dutch TT, MotoGP had a cool, but dry race day in Holland. This would bode well for the Hondas, who gambled on the tire selection, going with the softer of the two compounds available from Bridgestone, while the Yamahas played a more conservative game on the harder compound (Ducati chose the lesser of its two evils, opting for the harder compounding, though knowing it wouldn’t last the race).
As the premier-class headed into three back-to-back races, the bids for the 2012 MotoGP Championship were certain to get heated at Assen, the first of the three stops. Sitting on pole was Casey Stoner, who put in a fantastic exhibition of speed during the closing minutes of Friday’s qualifying. Despite Stoner’s performance, teammate Dani Pedrosa and Championship-rival Jorge Lorenzo couldn’t be counted out from the hunt either.
With Alvaro Bautista sitting fourth on the grid, the satellite Honda rider has found a new form in the past two races, and of course the battle between the three remaining Hondas has been entertaining to watch, as they fight for the last remaining factory seat at Yamaha Racing for the 2013 season and onwards. So as the lights went out, and the riders headed into Turn 1 at Assen, the Dutch track revealed the next chapter of our MotoGP saga.
Assen’s surface is pretty good when it’s dry, and it’s not too bad when it’s wet, but this is 2012, and there’s a MotoGP race this weekend, so of course, the conditions are as bad as they can possibly be. For Assen, that means a few spots of rain here and there, just enough to create patches damp enough to catch out the unwary, or even the wary, as Casey Stoner found out this morning.
Heading down the Veenslang Stoner noticed the first spots of rain on his visor. Through the Ruskenhoek, it turned into drizzle, and he had already backed off into De Bult when he was flung from the bike in what he described as one of the worst crashes of his career. He took a knock to the head, banged his left shoulder and left wrist, and suffered a big and very painful contusion to his right knee, that left him hobbling around like an old man in the afternoon.
The problem is the asphalt. The current surface means it is impossible to see when the track is damp, rather than wet, meaning that it is easy to get caught out, Ben Spies said, an explanation later verified by Wilco Zeelenberg, Jorge Lorenzo’s team manager. The track is fine when it’s dry, and when it’s wet, the water sits pretty evenly, making for a predictable surface. But the first few spots of rain are lethal. If that were to happen in the race, it could make for a very dangerous situation, Spies said.
The times were close after the first day of practice, closer than they have been for a very long time. Just 0.471 seconds separates the top 11 MotoGP prototypes (Karel Abraham is barely fit enough to ride, after breaking fingers in his left hand, and is way off the pace), with Ben Spies leading Cal Crutchlow by just 0.006, just a tenth separating Nicky Hayden in 3rd from Dani Pedrosa in 6th, and less than a tenth between Andrea Dovizioso in 7th and Stefan Bradl in 11th. It has all the makings of a great race, right?
Not according to Cal Crutchlow. “Lorenzo will run away with it,” the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man opined. Everyone except for Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa had set their fastest time on the soft tire, Crutchlow explained. Lorenzo’s best time, a 1’35.057, was set in the middle of a run with a used hard tire, his race rhythm in the 1’35.0 while everyone else was running 1’35.3. Lorenzo was looking very smooth on the bike, team manager Wilco Zeelenberg saying he was pretty pleased with the bike and the way the first day had gone.
Three races in 15 days, right in the middle and most important part of the season. MotoGP lines up at Assen with one third of the season gone. By the time the triple header is finished at Mugello, just over two weeks’ later, we are half way through the season and the title is a lot closer to being settled. These three races are crucial.
Not that it changes anyone’s approach. During the press conference, I asked the riders if they took a more cautious approach, knowing that the cost of injury is much, much greater now than it is when there is more time to recover between races. They looked at me as if I were stupid – a conclusion they have some justification for drawing – and told me that they treat these three races the same as the first race, the last race, and every other race in between. Flat out, and trying to win. It is impossible to win championships without winning races, as Casey Stoner likes to point out, so it is better to focus on that than on worrying about what might happen.