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David Emmett

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The old guard of MotoGP are making something of a comeback after the summer break. Two familiar names and now test riders are to make a brief return to racing, in Austria and beyond.

Only one of those riders – Dani Pedrosa – has been officially confirmed as a wildcard at the first race at the Red Bull Ring – but Cal Crutchlow is widely expected to replace Franco Morbidelli for the next three rounds.

I was supposed to have an interview with Yamaha Racing managing director Lin Jarvis this weekend, arranged well beforehand. That ended up not happening, unsurprisingly.

Lin Jarvis had more important things to deal with than answering my questions. And my list of questions seemed a good deal less relevant this weekend than they had a few days earlier.

For this weekend was all about Maverick Viñales. Whether he, or we, wanted it to be or not.

The Monster Energy Yamaha rider (but not for long) arrived at Assen after finishing dead last at the Sachsenring, topped both sessions of free practice on Friday, had an explosive meeting with Yamaha on Friday evening, secured pole with a blistering lap on Saturday, then found a way to only finish second on Sunday, well behind his teammate Fabio Quartararo.

Oh yes, and there were the reports that he had signed for Aprilia for 2021 on Saturday night as well.

The last time we had a weekend like this was at Austria in 2019, when Johann Zarco announced that he had asked KTM to terminate his contract with immediate effect.

But, though that rupture was more dramatic, Zarco stepping away with immediate effect and leaving KTM scrabbling around for a replacement rider, at least it made sense from a results perspective.

Zarco had had one top ten finish and one front row start, after three podiums in each of the preceding two years.

Saturday at Assen only deepened the enigma that is Maverick Viñales. After being fastest in both sessions of practice on Friday, the Monster Energy Yamaha man added FP3 to his belt in the morning, then finished second in FP4.

That result was a little deceptive, however: he started FP4 on a used soft tire with 15 laps, nearly two thirds race distance, on it, and put nearly race distance on it, ending with a couple of 1’33.7s.

For context, the race lap record at Assen is 1’33.617, set by Marc Márquez on lap 4 of the 2015 race. Viñales’ second run was on a new medium tire, assessing tire choice for the race.

Eventful. That was the best way to describe the first day of practice at Assen.

The riders got a chance to sample the new asphalt, and they also got a chance to sample typical Assen summer weather: cool and dry in the morning, sprinkles of rain in the afternoon, followed by a downpour harsh enough to soak the track and allow a few laps in full wet conditions.

Not ideal for working on bike setup, especially if your name is Garrett Gerloff, and you have been drafted in to replace Franco Morbidelli, who spent the morning having surgery on his meniscus and ACL, and faces an 8-week period of rehab.

That would mean a return after the two races in Austria. But more of Gerloff later.

“This track is special.” Alex Rins summed up what most of the MotoGP riders, and indeed, almost anyone who has raced a motorcycle, think of the Circuit van Drenthe, the official name of the TT Circuit, or as most fans around the world know it, Assen. “One of my favorite tracks,” is how championship leader Fabio Quartararo described it.

Pecco Bagnaia loves it so much he has a tattoo of the circuit on his arm. “I really like the layout of this track,” the Ducati Lenovo Team rider told us. He had good reason to like the layout, as Assen has been a happy hunting ground for him.

“My first victory, the best weekend of my career in Moto2 here, when I was first in all the sessions and in the race,” Bagnaia told. Reason enough to create an indelible reminder of the occasion on his own body.

“Assen is a great place,” Valentino Rossi said. “It is the track that more or less every rider loves because, first of all, it is the track with the most history in motorcycle racing and was on the calendar from the beginning, and secondly, the layout is fantastic. Now it is modified but it remains the taste of the old Assen and the ride here is always a great pleasure.”

One might accuse Rossi of being biased, having been made an honorary citizen of the city of Assen by the Mayor, Marco Out. But the fact that it was almost impossible to find a dissenting voice suggests he was not lying.

Austin is back on the MotoGP calendar. Today, the FIM announced that the Motegi round of MotoGP has been canceled, as travel to Japan is still very difficult, with the Circuit of the Americas being put in its place on October 3rd.

The changes have obviously been made in response to the pandemic, and as COVID-19 continues to be a problem around the world, more changes are likely.

On Friday, at the meeting of the Safety Commission, where MotoGP riders meet with representatives of Dorna and the FIM to speak freely and without penalty about matters pertaining to every aspect of safety (the clue is in the name) at MotoGP events, the riders invited Rivacold Snipers Team Moto3 rider Andrea Migno to attend, to discuss ways to improve safety in the smallest capacity class of Grand Prix racing.

The invitation had been issued in response to the terrifying scenes at the Barcelona Moto3 race, where riders were sitting up and backing off in the middle of the track in the final laps of the race. It was a miracle that nobody was seriously injured.

Stern lectures were given, and serious thought given to how to improve the state of affairs, and how to avoid such extremely dangerous situations in the future. The riders and officials gathered there did their level best to find ways to improve the safety of the sport.

Fast forward 11 days, and in the final minutes of MotoGP Q2, those self same riders are sitting up on the racing line, hanging around for a tow, cutting the throttle while others try to follow them, gesticulating wildly at one another as they cross the racing line while riders on fast laps approach at high speed.

It was as if the people who were focusing their mental energy on finding ways to prevent riders from creating dangerous situations on track had lost their collective minds, and decided to illustrate the problem by doing all of the things they had been condemning less than 24 hours earlier.