Saturday Summary at Assen: How Legends Were Born & How History Was Made

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This was a day when legends were born. After race after race of watching clinical perfection, savored mainly by the Grand Prix connoisseur, the 83rd Dutch TT at Assen was a shot of raw, unfiltered passion, emotion, will, strength and determination. It was a day which will live in the memories of everyone there for many years to come, for more reasons than there is space to mention.

It is partially a tale of how a great circuit helps produce great racing, but it is mostly about the way that logic does not always triumph in sport. And that the will to win can drive elite athletes to go beyond themselves, and explore limits they didn’t know they had.

What will we remember most? Valentino Rossi’s return to victory, after two barren years at Ducati and the fear that he had lost his edge with age? The exhilarating battles that took place for the top five, with passes being made despite the risks?

With another chapter in the fierce rivalry that is building in Moto2, between Pol Espargaro and Scott Redding? With Luis Salom’s mature and calculated last lap lunge to take the win in Moto3? Or the story of Jorge Lorenzo, who broke his collarbone on Thursday, flew back and forth to Barcelona to have a plate fitted, and then raced despite the pain, 36 hours after his operation?

Rossi’s win was one for the record books. His 80th premier class win, making a total of 106 in Grand Prix. It moved him into second place behind Loris Capirossi in the list of all-time longest winning careers, with nearly 17 years between Rossi’s first GP win, at Brno in August 1996, and his latest, here in Assen, at the end of June 2013. But it also put an end to the question marks over whether he was still capable of winning, or whether he has lost his chance in his time at Ducati.

Asked if he had thought this day would come again, he answered “Sincerely, I don’t know.” His return to Yamaha had not been as easy as he had hoped. The bike had changed since he had left, made better he admitted at the Sepang tests, but requiring a change to both the set up and his style to make it work for him. It had taken him a long time, so long that he had started to doubt again.

But a modification at the Aragon test after Barcelona had given him the confidence in braking that he had been missing. Trailing the Hondas in the first few laps, the RC213V of Dani Pedrosa at least working better early in the race, Rossi had pushed past Marc Marquez and then Pedrosa to take the lead on lap six, at Assen’s famous GT chicane.

The crowd erupted. A wave went up every time he went by, but at the two thirds mark, they started to get nervous. Marc Marquez had made his way past Dani Pedrosa, and Cal Crutchlow was closing on the Hondas, and Rossi’s lead was slowly starting to shrink. But it held, and at the end, Rossi started pulling a gap again.

An emotional Rossi, his body language a mixture of elation and relief, crossed the line to take the win. This was what he needed, what the crowd needed, and what a legion of fans around the world needed. It was one of his most special victories, he said, at a very special track.

Rossi was effusive in his gratitude, thanking Yamaha many times for having him back and giving him another chance on the M1. Most of all, he was grateful to his team, and his friends, and the people who had stood by him for the past two difficult years. Can he do it again? Rossi was confident that the fix found would work at most circuits, but he also admitted that the level of riding had been raised.

The riders he was up against now are at a much higher level than he faced when he came into the class. Rossi told the press conference that he knew he had to take advantage of the fact that Lorenzo was not fully fit, and try to get ahead of the Hondas. Rossi is clearly still capable of winning, but against a fit Lorenzo, and Hondas which are not struggling with a lack of grip in the cold temperatures, the Italian veteran will find it much, much harder. At least he is back on the pace once again.

The race behind Rossi was thrilling too, with Marc Marquez holding off Cal Crutchlow on the last lap to finish ahead of the British rider on the podium. Holding on to second had partly been down to Marquez’ injured finger, his hand getting caught on the brake as he grew tired and the injury grew more painful.

That meant he stopped the bike in the middle of the corner, just where Crutchlow hadn’t expected it. Crutchlow clipped the back of the Marquez’ bike, nearly ran off track, and rejoined to come home in third.

Crutchlow was mildly annoyed after the race, happy to be on the podium but frustrated because he believed he could have won the race. He lost ground in the early laps, as he always does, then made a couple of mistakes when he was passed by Jorge Lorenzo – the word he used himself was ’embarrassed’, a phrase he then used to make a pointed attack on Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista, two ‘riders on factory bikes’ who had also finished behind the injured Lorenzo – and by then it was too late for him to catch Rossi at the front, despite the fact he had the pace to match him.

It was a popular podium, and also an important one. It marked the return of the battlers, the three men who do not focus on perfection, but instead trust in their skills in a dogfight to come out on top. All three made impertinent passes on their opponents, and tried passes that weren’t really there, risking failure.

It put the show at the heart of racing once again, not the contrived show of a rigged contest, but the pure competition between men who do not fear failure, and are prepared to gamble.

While the front three thrilled the crowd, they were in awe at the achievement of Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard made a point with a display of almost brutal determination at Assen, racing just 36 hours after having a collarbone plated. Directly after the crash, he had not intended racing, but his team manager Wilco Zeelenberg had coaxed him down a path which led almost inevitably to his return to race.

It was Zeelenberg who had persuaded Lorenzo to get the collarbone plated as soon as possible, arguing that whether he raced on Saturday or not, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by getting the surgery done sooner rather than later. It was Zeelenberg who had accompanied Lorenzo to Barcelona, after the operating theater at Assen had been occupied by someone else with a life-threatening condition.

It was Zeelenberg who discussed returning to Assen with Lorenzo after surgery, and then helped get him ready to take the medical test. It was Zeelenberg who had soothed Lorenzo’s fears when conditions during warm up were most treacherous, a drying track and gusting winds.

But it was Lorenzo who had taken the decision to race. And what a race: charging forward in the early laps, then hunting down Crutchlow and looking like he might take Marc Marquez, and even Dani Pedrosa. Though he faded in the latter stages, he had a huge gap back to sixth position, and saw with satisfaction that first Marc Marquez and then Cal Crutchlow got past Dani Pedrosa.

When rumors of Lorenzo’s return to Assen first surfaced, there was speculation that it was just a ruse to get an extra engine. After warm up, when it became clear he would be using an engine from his existing allocation, it seemed like a plan to try to salvage a few points from whatever he could get.

After the race, he had lost only two points to Dani Pedrosa, assisted by the fact that the Repsol Honda man had struggled in the low temperature, low grip conditions. His decision to race had been more than vindicated, and his courage, determination, and willingness to accept pain had been established beyond question.

Lorenzo’s status as semi-legend and man of steel is now unquestioned, but he has also achieved something else. He has made it very clear to any who doubt him just how far he will go in order to defend his world title. That display must have struck fear into the hearts of HRC, with Dani Pedrosa wondering just what he has to do to stop the Yamaha man.

Lorenzo’s performance at Assen must have made him seem like Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in the minds of the men at Honda: a machine that nothing can stop.

Assen is a special circuit, and this was a special race. A special win for Rossi, and a special performance for Lorenzo. There are weekends when you want to give it all up and go and do something more sensible. Then there are weekends like this, that remind you of the passion that motorcycle racing generates, in those that practice it, in those that watch it, and in everyone involved in it.

This is a wonderful sport, and the 2013 Assen MotoGP round was a reminder of just how good it can be.

Photo: Yamaha Racing

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.