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. That he should not be able to is hardly surprising; Aleix Espargaro's FP2 time beat the existing pole record from 2012, held by Casey Stoner. Pol could not improve as much as Aleix did, going just a tenth of a second faster, rather than well over a second. But as a satellite rider, Pol does not have the soft tire which Aleix used to set the fastest lap, Pol was quick to point out.
The Espargaro brothers topping the timesheets may reinforce the idea that Assen is a Yamaha track, but FP2 in the afternoon saw the Repsol Honda riders ruin that picture. Marc Marquez ended the day in second, two tenths off the time of Aleix Espargaro, while Dani Pedrosa was third, another two tenths behind Marquez, but still well in with a shout. More Yamaha riders followed – Jorge Lorenzo in fourth, with Bradley Smith just over a tenth slower in sixth. Rossi posted the same time as Smith, but was ranked seventh, while Pol brought up the Yamaha rear in eighth. The only interloper was Andrea Iannone, the Italian having spent the afternoon following Marquez. He was rewarded with a spot in the top five, though whether he can maintain the same pace in a race remains to be seen.
For both Marquez and Pedrosa, the secret had been in having a full day of practice. Pedrosa, in particular, was happy with how Thursday had gone, being able to work on the bike from the start and end the day with a strong time. The warmer conditions had clearly helped the Hondas, the RC213V performing better when temperatures rise. Marquez was his usual, bubbly confident self, and dismissing attempts to put pressure on him. He had worked well, and was not worried by the fact that the last couple of races had been closer. It was to be expected, Marquez said, as he knew that these three tracks – Mugello, Barcelona, Assen – would be his toughest challenges of the year. To have the Yamahas on his heels at Assen was not a surprise, and he fully expected teammate Pedrosa to be challenging at the Sachsenring. Given Marquez' confidence at earlier races, it is hard to be against him at the moment.
The contrast with Jorge Lorenzo could not be greater. The factory Yamaha rider is permanently downcast, still struggling to ride the bike as he would like. His problem at Assen is the reduction in fuel capacity for 2014, cut from 21 liters to just 20. It has left the throttle response difficult, Lorenzo told the press. 'The bike is more nervous than at the tests in Barcelona and Aragon,' Lorenzo told us. Less fuel made acceleration a bit more aggressive than Lorenzo likes, making it even more difficult to keep a constant pace with the Yamaha M1. Clearly, Lorenzo is on the pace, but what he really needs is a win, to throw off his demons and regain the confidence he once had.
On the other side of the Movistar Yamaha garage, the confidence is growing. Despite ending the day in seventh, Valentino Rossi felt they were heading in the right direction. A modification to the set up gave him the rear grip he had been missing, and allowed him to post his fastest time in the final run. Rossi needs to be on the front row after qualifying, and is hoping the change they found on Thursday can help him achieve that goal.
What he is less pleased with is the situation with the exhausts. Rossi had tried the new, shorter exhaust and had liked it, but he faced a problem. Yamaha had brought just three such exhausts to Assen, and had given Jorge Lorenzo two of them, leaving Rossi to cope with just one. Though Rossi was keen on the exhaust, he would not be racing it, as it made it too difficult to switch between bikes. From the Sachsenring, he should have two new exhausts, and be back on an equal footing again. Why had Yamaha given Lorenzo two exhausts, but not Rossi? Perhaps to compensate for giving Rossi two copies of the revised frame several races ago, while Lorenzo had been forced to manage with one. Sometimes maintaining the illusion of scrupulous fairness between teammates requires you to take extraordinary steps.
At Ducati, the garage is also split in opinion. Andrea Dovizioso is happy with his improvements from last year, while Cal Crutchlow continues to struggle. His problem seems insurmountable, and certainly cannot be explained. Crutchlow is only able to carry five degrees less lean angle than either Andrea Iannone or Andrea Dovizioso, despite being just as much on the edge of crashing as the two Italians. There is no explanation for this for the data, leaving Crutchlow and his crew nonplussed. The data clearly shows that he cannot push any further, yet Iannone and Dovizioso can lean the bike much further without risking a crash. Why they can do it and not Crutchlow is clearly a cause for much frustration for the Briton.
Where either of the Ducatis will end will depend a lot on what the weather does. The forecast is still for rain, but then again, it was for rain on Thursday as well. Instead, it stayed dry all day, and there is every chance of the same happening again on Friday and Saturday. The heavy thunderstorms which have everyone on high alert for the next couple of days could quite easily pass just north or east of Assen without even touching the town and the track. There is a lot of bad weather around, but so far, it has avoided the circuit altogether. There are a lot of riders with their fingers crossed, either for the weather to stay as it is or to properly rain and give them a decent chance. The problem is that this is Assen; the weather will do as it pleases. That is not such a bad thing, perhaps.