2016 Assen Saturday Round Up: Weather Again, Hard Wets, and Why Timing Matters

In the previous 85 editions of the Dutch TT at Assen, we have seen some pretty spectacular Saturdays. In the 86th edition, with the race moved to Sunday, Saturday lived up to the expectations raised by the previous 85. It was a wild and weird day, both morning and afternoon, with the weather being the main protagonist once again. There were crashes, fast dry laps, fast wet laps, and some smart strategy in the chase for pole. It was a good day indeed.

With Friday's heat having dissipated, the MotoGP riders faced a fresh set of challenges. Overnight rain and light clouds meant track temperatures were much cooler. That meant that the medium front tire was suddenly a much more tricky proposition, catching a number of riders out. Jorge Lorenzo fell at the Ruskenhoek after the front tire let go, while Marc Márquez made one of the most remarkable saves of recent years, after locking the front completely braking for Turn 1.

What happened? It's hard to tell from the video (online at the MotoGP.com website, or via the MotoGP Twitter feed), but afterwards, Márquez explained that the front locked without warning. "From the first point of the brake, the front wheel locked, and then I released the brakes and it was a big moment," the Repsol Honda rider said.

It would scare me too

The ripples on the way into Turn 1 could have been a factor, he said. "One of the problems that we have this year is that the front always feels a little bit light. And it’s true that at that point it is a little bit bumpy and the front is a little bit light, at full gas in fifth gear. It looks like on the data when I first touch the front brake the front wheel was not exactly on the ground. So then I have this big problem." It had affected his confidence for a while afterwards, Márquez said.

From being cool and dry in the morning, the weather turned cool and wet in the afternoon, throwing a spanner in the works for qualifying for Moto2 and Moto3, and for both FP4 and qualifying for MotoGP. The lack of feel from the Michelin slick in the morning was a harbinger of what was to come in the afternoon.

Dry tires fixed, now it's the turn of the wets

While the French tire maker has solved most of the problems with their front slick tires, the MotoGP riders have not had a great deal of time on the wets, and Assen immediately exposed a problem. The rear wet has fantastic grip, while the front compound Michelin has brought is too hard. "You can do 100 laps on a tire," Stefan Bradl complained. Cal Crutchlow agreed with that assessment. "It’s probably too hard," he said. "It seems that me, Marc, and Dani all crashed on the right hand side, with no heat in the tire. I crashed on my first lap of FP4. I thought it was just me and then I saw Dani crash, and then I saw him have another moment in Qualifying 2, at exactly the same place. We can’t brake enough to generate the heat in the tire to get us around the corner, so we got caught out. All three of us."

Strong grip at the rear and limited grip at the front meant the rear is overpowering the front and causing it to wash out. This caused a litany of crashes, first in FP4, and then especially in qualifying, which took place on a track where the first hint of a dry line was starting to appear. Maverick Viñales went down on his out lap, losing the front at the Strubben hairpin.

Ride it like you stole it

Marc Márquez suffered a similar fate at the Stekkenwal, but his misfortune was that crashing there put him on the outside of the track, and a long way away from the pits. With 9:20 left in the session, Márquez needed to find the fastest way back to the Repsol Honda garage to get out and set a qualifying lap. His solution was simple, yet elegant: he spotted the scooter being used by a photographer to move round the service road on the outside of the track, and he stole it.

"I think it was the scooter of Tino, the photographer," Márquez explained afterwards. "Honestly, when I try the first target was to arrive in the box. Was nobody there and I saw one scooter with the keys in, so then I take it. When I turn to come back I saw Tino and then I asked him. He said OK, but honestly, if he say no I continue!"

The Repsol Honda rider did arrive back in the garage on time, where his team had been frantically reconfiguring his second bike, which was set up for a dry session, with slicks and carbon brakes. When he finally got back out again, Márquez could manage only the fourth fastest time.

Luck and strategy

Strategy became important at the end of qualifying, along with a healthy dose of luck. Most riders had banked on doing just a single exit on wets, but several ended up coming in for a change of tires and going back out again. That proved to be the right choice, as Valentino Rossi confessed after very nearly clinching pole. The plan had been to stay out and try to lap faster and faster, but Rossi quickly saw he needed to change that plan. "After three laps, I understood that I was at the end [of the tire], because the rear moved a lot."

The Movistar Yamaha man came in for another wet tire, left the pits and pushed for a quick lap. He soon found one, jumping up from a third row slot to take his place on the front row. It would have been pole, but for the help he gave to Andrea Dovizioso and Scott Redding. The two Ducatis had followed Rossi out of the pits, and then used the Yamaha as a target to aim for. "I was lucky to exit behind Valentino, and it was quite easy to do the lap time because I also had a reference," Dovizioso told the press conference. The factory Ducati rider snatched pole by seven tenths of a second, relegating Rossi to second, with Scott Redding scoring his best qualifying position in MotoGP.

No feeling, no speed

Rossi was not just quick in qualifying, however. The Italian also has very strong race pace, in both wet and dry. The same cannot be said of his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo suffering badly in the difficult conditions at Assen. Was Lorenzo still scared of Assen in the wet? "What worries me more is to not be competitive in the rain, when the track is too slippery, or because the tires are too hard for the track grip," the Spaniard told reporters. "When I don’t trust the tires it’s difficult for me to be competitive. One part of the problem is the Yamaha, that does not have so much grip in the rain, is not the most competitive bike. The other problem can be myself. I need to feel safe to have grip in all the areas to be a little bit faster."

Lorenzo's comments echo what Wilco Zeelenberg has told me in the past. It is not that Lorenzo is slow in the wet, as he has been fast enough at tracks which have a lot of grip in the wet. Lorenzo is slow when grip is low and unpredictable, as it makes it hard for him to find the limit of adhesion without stepping over it. Lorenzo's speed comes from that ability, to exploit the precise amount of grip the track has. Take away that precision, and he is left fumbling for grip, and struggling. Leaving aside the crash at Assen in 2013, when he started from 12th because he had not been in qualifying, this is Lorenzo's worse qualifying performance since Brno 2008.

If things are not looking good for Lorenzo, they are absolutely bleak for Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider had his worst qualifying performance since his first year in MotoGP, back in 2006. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where it is all going wrong for the Spaniard. He has no feeling with the bike, and things are just not getting better.

A chance of spectacle

Having Lorenzo starting from way down the grid promises a bit of a shake up in the championship. Rossi's race pace has been outstanding, but so has Marc Márquez', as well as that of Maverick Viñales. If it stays dry on Sunday – which it looks like doing, despite the chance of an occasional shower – then Rossi will be the rider to watch. He has been spending all weekend working on tire management again, just as he did at Jerez and Barcelona.

Márquez is a rider who is always in the mix, and the Ducatis have been fast at Assen. But the wildcard could be Maverick Viñales, whose race pace has been pretty close to Rossi's throughout the weekend. Viñales' problem is that he threw his chance of qualifying away on his out lap, and will start the race from twelfth.

Raining on the junior parade

Rain was not just a factor for MotoGP, it also played a big part in the Moto3 and Moto2 sessions as well. In Moto3, it was Enea Bastianini who judged the right time to push, just edging the Sky VR46 team threesome of Andrea Migno, Nicolo Bulega and Romano Fenati. In Moto2, it was Tom Luthi who got the conditions right, putting in a slick when a dry line appeared and before the rain started to fall again.

Luthi is keen to add a race result to his pole, the Swiss rider having been rather inconsistent on Sundays so far this year. He has won a race, been on the podium in another, but been fifth or worse for the rest of the races. Man on the move Johann Zarco starts from beside him, the reigning champion starting to look ominous once again, while Sam Lowes will start from fourth. Alex Rins, meanwhile, is back another row, starting the race from eighth.

It was a good Saturday at Assen, despite (or perhaps because of) the issues with tires in MotoGP. The good news is that we have at least another ten years of good Saturdays to look forward to, Dorna having signed a contract extension with the circuit. That was needed for Assen to make some of the upgrades to facilities it has been planning, requiring an investment of €16 million. New grandstands along the GT chicane will improve spectator comfort, as will new seats throughout the track. Most importantly of all, however, the track is to remain unchanged. Assen may not be the Cathedral of racing since they removed the North Loop, but it still makes an outstanding place of worship.


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Comments

Interesting season this is turning out to be, some extreme precidents being set here, particularly with Lorenzo and Pedrosa-worst performances in a decade or so for both!

A lot of people have been saying that the big 3 factors of change for 2016-

1. increased fuel limit-which in recent seasons provided advantages for some and not for others,

2. the rather prehistoric and simple spec electronics package

3. and tires that offer huge performance with the added bonus of degradation during the race-

would combine to benefit and put more control back in the hands of the rider and thus provide us with a better spectacle.

I believe this theory is accurate and I think already we are really seeing the results of this now back in Europe, and the quality of racing so far this season has been outstanding in Motogp, with Mugello, Barcelona and to a lesser extent Qatar, Argentina and Jerez all providing quality viewing. I don't believe COTA will ever produce a good motorcycle race so I'm happy to write that one off :) and Le mans proved to be one of Jorge's perfect storms.

On that subject and on Lorenzo's move to Ducati, I now am convinced he is going to seriously struggle for more than half a season on that bike-particularly now with Ducati's ace 'the winglets' being banned, and who can say if he'll deliver anything like what Ducati are expecting in the 2 year deal-as with Rossi in 2011-12 I'm sure he's glad the paycheck is rather compensatory. 

Not surprising the old dog is stronger than ever, many years on Michelins, many years without fuel limits, many years without laser sharp electronics perfectly aiding Bridgestones that didn't fade-this experience has given him the his edge back at the moment-and he seems to be far more consistently fast this year in practice and qualifying which must be worrying for his competition.

And Marquez is also proving to be supremely talented again and again, that incident at turn 1 was completely unbeliveable, but for me even more astonishing was his crash in Q2 and the fact that he didn't even finishing crashing before he was running back to the pits!! 

 

This track and the tricky weather are seeming to catch Lorenzo out more and more. Almost feel for him...almost. ;)