So 2016 is officially at an end, and the first test of 2017 is in the books. By the end of what is essentially a week of hard work, the entire paddock – riders, mechanics, journalists – are completely exhausted, and tired of it all.
The frisson of the first test of 2017, with so many riders swapping teams and new bikes being debuted, made it all much more interesting. But we are still all glad it’s over.
First, there was the last day of testing to get out of the way. The last day of the test is perhaps the most dangerous. A mixture of tiredness and competitiveness means riders are pushing hard in sometimes tricky conditions.
“Go to Phillip Island to test,” they said. “It will be summer, conditions will be perfect.” What they didn’t say was that this was summer in Phillip Island, a season which can include all four of the other seasons of the year.
Sure, it was warmer than in October, but rain kept blowing in off the Bass Strait, drenching the track, then the winds drying the track out, before another shower drenched the track.
“Honestly, it was a waste of a day for everyone,” was Cal Crutchlow’s assessment of the day. “The last two corners were dry at the end but the first four corners were soaking wet and the rest were somewhere in between.”
Dani Pedrosa was in broad agreement. “I think it’s quite rare to have full wet conditions in this track, because it dries up so quick. We had most of the day, half the track dry, half the track wet, and spraying all the time, and drying again all the time.”
Going by the number of laps posted by each rider – between twenty and thirty, where eighty or ninety might be more normal – the first day of the second MotoGP test at Phillip Island could indeed be regarded as wasted.
Assen is a funny old track. And when I say old, I mean old, the event has been on the calendar since 1925, though back then there was no such thing as world championship, and the race took place between Rolde, Borger and Schoonloo, some ten kilometers east of Assen.
From 1926, it moved to a route between the villages of De Haar, Oude Tol, Hooghalen, Laaghalen and Laaghalerveen. The roads, forced into short straights with fast sweeping kinks and bends by the complex drainage patterns of the creeks and ditches which keep the region from reverting back to peat bogs, gave shape to the track which was to follow.
They still leave their mark on the circuit today, despite being a closed-circuit since 1955, though the track has been much shortened since then.
What remains is a track with nary a straight piece of asphalt on it. The back straight meanders between the Strubben hairpin and the fast right and long left of the Ruskenhoek, living up to its name of Veenslang, or Peat Snake.
The short stretches between the fast combinations of corners weave and flow, and the only thing keeping the front straight straight is the pit wall. As a piece of geometric design, it is a disaster.
As a race track, it is glorious, proving that the best tracks are not designed on paper, but laid out in a landscape. Mugello, Phillip Island, Assen: all great riders track, each owing a debt of gratitude to the landscape which forms them.
It’s time to throw down times. Recon day is over. It’s now or never. The riders will not see these sections of the mountain again until race day.
Some of the rookie riders seem to still be learning the fastest lines, but the old veterans have it down pat and are hurling the bike around the tight switchbacks on Sector 2 of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, my favorite part of the course.
There are long fast straights, tight hairpin turns, and insane drop-offs in Sector 2, and it is also where the mountain gains the most elevation in the shortest period of time — not to mention the sunrises are the best up there. It is a magical thing to watch the sun come up over the horizon over the course of five minutes.
Pikes Peak is always magical. But when you get an amazing sunrise, combined with bikes pushing hard up the mountain, it makes for a fun morning.
More rain has gotten in the way of the Isle of Man TT’s practice sessions, as Wednesday evening’s events came to a halt after only one lap around the Mountain Course. With rain hitting a few spots of the course, and an incident at the top of Barregarrow, Clerk of the Course Gary Thompson had no choice to but to call the night’s events to an end as the rain increased.
The incident at Barregarrow involved newcomer Laurent Hoffmann, who was airlifted to Nobles Hospital, and is reported to have leg injuries as a result of the crash. By the time that crash had been cleared, Mother Nature turned up the waterworks, and that was the end of things.
The rain that threatened didn’t come, to both the relief and the despair of everyone at the MotoGP test in Valencia. After 18 races, three flyaways, and two days of testing, there were plenty of folk who had been secretly doing rain dances so they could pack up and go home early.
As much as we all love MotoGP – and given the number of people who have to work second jobs to be able to afford to be there, love is the only explanation – the season is long and tiring, and testing is necessary, but a real grind to both do and watch.
There were a lot of jealous looks at the empty space where the Factory Yamaha trucks had stood, the team having upped sticks and left at the end of Tuesday.
There were plenty of people who were happy to ride, though, and people who had things to test. Pol Espargaro was delighted to be back on the bike, and continued his impressive debut on the Tech 3 bike. Aleix Espargaro continued work on the NGM Forward Yamaha FTR, while Hiroshi Aoyama and Nicky Hayden continued to ride the production Honda.
At Ducati, a mildly despondent Andrea Dovizioso continued to turn laps, while new signing Cal Crutchlow learned about the grind that riding for Ducati can be, testing lots of things that don’t appear to make much difference to the bike.
Crutchlow remained positive, pointing to the fact that even though the experiments had failed to produce a blistering lap time, the fact that his feedback was the same as Dovizioso’s and the other Ducati riders, it would prove useful in the search for improvement.
Wednesday at Assen is always a rather odd day. At most rounds, Wednesday is a travel day, and the paddock regulars spend the day in airports, planes, and hired cars. But because the race at Assen is on Saturday, the events that normally take place on Thursday such as the pre-event press conference, happen a day earlier.
That leaves everyone with the racing equivalent of jet lag, their bodies and minds 24 hours behind events. Mentally, we are all prepared for a day of torpor and inaction. What we are greeted with is a day of rushing around to talk to riders, team managers, and anyone else foolish enough to cross our paths. Mind battles physical reality, and both come out losers.
Even focusing on the upcoming race is hard. Rolling into the circuit under bright skies and cheery temperatures – not warm, but not freezing either – feels slightly surreal after having studied the weather forecasts for the coming days.
While race day is likely to be dry, Thursday and Friday look like being full wet days. What that means is that practice may not be much of a guide to what actually happens on race day, rendering practice and qualifying relatively meaningless.
It’s here at last. After a painfully long preseason – Qatar’s position as the first race of the year, and their insistence on running at night, means that it is unsafe to run it much earlier, due to the danger of dew having disastrous effects on grip levels – the MotoGP paddock is assembled and ready to go racing. While there is always a sense of eagerness ahead of the first race at Qatar, it feels like the anticipation is even greater this year.
Whoever it is you happen to be talking to, the conversation always covers the same topics. Just how good will Marc Marquez be? Can Valentino Rossi really challenge for the championship again now he is back on the Yamaha? With Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa so evenly matched, who is favorite for the title? How quickly can Ducati return to form? And with six, maybe seven candidates for the podium at every race, how good is the racing going to be?