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.
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.
It should hardly come as a surprise that Marc Marquez should be fastest man on the day at the post-race test at Barcelona. The Spaniard has been the standout of the season, and for him to be fastest, even at a track where he has not dominated like at others, is starting to become par for the course. More of a surprise is the name of the man in second.
Bradley Smith came up just four hundredths short of Marquez, making up for a mediocre race on Sunday, caused by a tire which was not performing as expected. The first thing Smith did when he started testing in earnest this morning was to try the same tire he used in the race.
Whenever I have the pleasure of running across MotoGP’s official statistician and number cruncher Dr. Martin Raines, he likes to point out to me exactly why we are living through a golden age of racing.
His arguments are backed with a battery of indisputable facts and figures, which boil down to a single fact: the races have never been closer. Not in terms of gap between the podium finishers, not in terms of gap between first and last, nor between all points finishers. This is an era of truly great racing.
As if to underline his point, the Barcelona Grand Prix served up a veritable smorgasbord of fantastic races: a strong win and thrilling podium battle in Moto3, a surprisingly hard-fought Moto2 race, and to top it off, perhaps the most exciting MotoGP race we have had since 2006, with four riders slugging it out and swapping places right to the final lap.
The winner of the MotoGP race may have been predictable – any bet against Marc Marquez looks more and more foolish each week – but in Barcelona, Marquez’s victory looked in doubt all the way to the final couple of corners.
His streak had to come to an end one day, and it turned out to be at Barcelona. Marc Marquez’s run of pole positions stopped at seven – Valencia last year, plus the first six races of this season – after he was forced to concede the place to his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa.
For a change, the front row press conference on Friday afternoon did not feature a jubilant Marquez (well, actually, it did, but more that later) and a couple of dejected rivals, wondering what they can do about the Repsol Honda man. Both pole sitter Pedrosa and runner up Jorge Lorenzo were, if not exactly buoyant, at least rather perky. Hope has returned.