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.
The situation at Ducati was the talk of the paddock in Barcelona. With Andrea Dovizioso, Andrea Iannone, and Cal Crutchlow being linked to Suzuki. With Crutchlow having a contract for 2015, Ducati is keen to retain the services of both Dovizioso and Iannone.
Iannone is openly pushing for a seat in the factory Ducati team, and so the Bologna factory faces a series of complex contract negotiations. To check on the state of play with Ducati, we cornered Ducati Corse’s MotoGP Project Director Paolo Ciabatti.
What was meant to be just a brief chat turned into a much longer conversation, on a range of subjects. Ciabatti gave his view of the situation with Cal Crutchlow, as well as his hopes of retaining both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone.
He discussed the rumors concerning an approach to Jorge Lorenzo, and reflected on having had Valentino Rossi in the Ducati team. He gave us an update on Ducati’s plans to provide more Open bikes for 2015. And finally, he turned his attention to the return of Michelin, and Ducati’s hopes for the new tire manufacturer.
Testing alongside the rest of the MotoGP paddock, Suzuki Racing was present again at the Catalunya test, with Randy de Puniet once again turning laps on the Suzuki XRH-1. Now using the Magneti Marelli electronics, Suzuki has the long process of dialing-in the XRH-1′s full potential.
Also a priority at Catalunya was Suzuki’s more powerful iteration of its inline-four engine, which the Japanese OEM hoped would close its gap to the other OEMs. In the hands of Randy de Puniet, the Suzuki XRH-1 was 2.499 seconds off the pace of test-leader Marc Marquez, though that margin comes with an asterisk.
While the rest of the paddock has had since Friday to hone their machines and bodies to the Circuit de Catalunya, Suzuki and RdP did not have that luxury going into Monday’s test. One can also argue De Puniet’s pace to the other GP riders, as with all due respect to the Frechman, Marc Marquez he is not.
With a thousand variables at play (we can even question the validity of test times in general, as teams are testing not qualifying/racing), it is easy to make excuses for RdP and Suzuki as to why the gap remains so far from the other factories, but the end result is that the XRH-1 is a tough character to judge. That makes Suzuki’s return to the GP paddock a bit of a wild card.
With Both of Ducati Corse’s riders praying for a miracle, or a better option, Suzuki could be that salvation. One also has to consider Dani Pedrosa’s rumored $8 million price tag, and the bevy of other contracts that expire at the end of the season. Suzuki’s impending presence is a considerable factor in MotoGP’s game of musical chairs..
Being a difficult factor to judge though has made Suzuki, the Suzuki XRH-1, and Randy de Puniet’s role in all this is very speculative and uncertain. The only thing we can say for sure then is that it will be interesting to watch the limited number of “factory” seats sort themselves out.
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.