"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.
The best of everything
What makes Assen so special? "It's quite fast," Alex Rins said. "It has slow corners, the last sector is a very fast corner on the left then a very slow chicane, and then you go on the finish line." That brief summary does not do the track justice. The first sector, built to replace the old North Loop, one of the finest sections of racetrack ever to have graced the Grand Prix calendar, which was sold off to avoid complaints from encroaching residential developments and to help the circuit stay afloat financially, is a short sequence of right handers of varying tightness before the Strubben hairpin, the slowest corner on the circuit.
From the Strubben, the track opens up, retaining a sense of the old Assen. Down the Veenslang, the straight that isn't a straight, snaking down to the Ruskenhoek as its name suggests. Then a couple of very high speed changes of direction as the Ruskenhoek goes right and then a long left, before another hard right at the Stekkenwal. Another short snaking straight leads onto De Bult, or the bump, though you would be hard pressed to find a bump on the newly resurfaced asphalt.
The best part of the circuit follows. Building speed through a series of right handers, each opening out a little further until the track reaches its crescendo. The 270 km/h right-left flick at Hoge Heide, where you thread the needle before aiming your bike at the fast left of the Ramshoek and the grand finale of the GT Chicane, where so many last-lap battles have been fought.
A land of opportunity
What makes Assen so great? The fact that there are so many places you can attack, but every successful attack immediately leaves you wide open. Defending a position is the same: choose a line into a corner, and you find yourself being passed on the exit.
Take that final section: the approach to the chicane starts through the Ramshoek. Exit the Ramshoek and keep right to grab the inside line into the chicane, and the rider behind you will swing the left and carry more speed on the entry to the GT chicane, passing you and cutting across your nose as struggle to regain the speed you lost braking to get the bike turned for the first part of the chicane.
Alternatively, you can carry a bit less speed through the Ramshoek and cut back left to seize the fast line through the chicane. But that leaves you open to the rider following you to carry more speed out of the Ramshoek and jam on the brakes on the inside, executing a block pass to grab the lead, forcing you to back off.
What this all means is that it is not enough to come up with a strategy for that final section. You also have to come up with a second strategy to anticipate how any riders behind you will respond if they figure out what you are about to do, and preempt it. So then you have to come up with a third strategy, a counter to their counter strategy. It is no surprise that the winner at Assen is so often the rider who can react and anticipate best, who can think three corners ahead, plot through every eventuality, and make the right choices, all within the blink of an eye. Spectacle is guaranteed.
History in the making
"At this track, the races are always in a big group, and let's enjoy this," Alex Rins said. "We are not in Moto3, so when you are on the bike, when the group is big, it doesn't matter at all, you really enjoy it." Many memorable battle has been fought out at Assen. And many more will be fought out again in the future. And like Hayden-Edwards in 2006, Rossi-Márquez in 2015, or Chili-Fogarty in World Superbikes, they will live on in the memories of fans for a very, very long time.
Assen's many facets mean it suits many different types of bikes. Not that there are tracks that suit a particular bike any longer. "It's not any more like this!" Aleix Espargaro protested when asked whether this was a Yamaha track or a Suzuki track. There is too much parity between the bikes, they are all too close together in performance, even though they might diverge in how they find their speed. That makes it hard to know how a particular bike might perform.
"I don't really know how the bike will be here," Espargaro said when asked whether he thought that Assen might suit the Aprilia RS-GP. "Because in some places you need a strong engine in Assen, which is not the best for us; the first sector is really really tight, like where I suffered a lot in Germany. The second sector very very fast; with these big wings and high stability, it should be OK. But there are also a lot of changes of direction with high speed, which the downforce gives you stability but at the same time it's not easy to move the bike. So I have some doubts, sincerely. I think the bike can perform good here, but I have some doubts where it's going to be very good or just good." Replace the strengths and weaknesses of each of the six manufacturers on the MotoGP grid, and Espargaro's words hold true for all of them.
An old, new surface
An additional complication is the fact that the circuit has been resurfaced, part of a major renovation of the circuit in the winter of 2019/2020. Work was done in December 2019 and January 2020, ready for the start of the 2020 season. That start would be delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and meant the cancellation of the 2020 Dutch TT, bringing to an end the circuit's unbroken series of appearances on the Grand Prix calendar. The last time the race didn't happen was in the period from 1940 to 1945, during the Second World War.
Though the 2020 MotoGP race was canceled at Assen, the track has seen plenty of action. There have been regular track days for both bikes and cars, and even some racing, with the highlight the DTM round held at Assen in September. After 18 months of weather and 12 months of use, the asphalt is pretty well bedded in.
The new surface has prompted Michelin to bring four different tires front and rear, instead of the usual three. There are two hard rears and two hard fronts, to ensure that Michelin has a tire that will withstand the punishment a new surface can inflict. The hardest of the two hards – the two hards differ only in compound – is likely to be excess to requirements, as the weather for Assen is set to be a typical Dutch summer: a mixture of sunshine and clouds, reasonably warm, with temperatures in the low 20s°C, with the chance of occasional showers, the wind blowing in a change of weather every 15 minutes or so. In other words, as unpredictable as ever.
An American in MotoGP
Garrett Gerloff, drafted in to the Petronas Yamaha SRT tea to replace Franco Morbidelli, who injured his already damaged knee in another training accident and is set to have an operation on the meniscus and ACL on Friday, is hoping that the added confusion of tire choice might help him by giving his rivals some extra work to do. "If the other guys can be more lost, I'm all for that! That just helps me out," the American told us. "If everybody else can take a step back and try to sort things out, I feel like that would make my progression into the weekend just that much easier."
Gerloff has been called up from the GRT Yamaha WorldSBK Team to deputize for Morbidelli. The fact that he already has some experience on the Yamaha M1 is a plus. Gerloff ride on Friday at the first Valencia race, after it was uncertain whether Valentino Rossi would pass a PCR test for Covid-19 in order to participate at the event. Unfortunately for Gerloff (though fortunately for Rossi), the Italian's test came back negative and he was able to ride.
Even that brief appearance leaves Gerloff prepared, at least. "I feel like I have an idea of what the bike is going to feel like," the American said "I didn't have a full dry session the last time I rode the M1 at Valencia, so it will be nice to hopefully have some dry sessions tomorrow, it might make the bike feel a bit different. But overall, it feels a little bit more normal. Last time there was a lot of new information that was being thrown at me and now I feel like I'm coming with at least a better idea of what to expect. So that's definitely nice."
The deal for Gerloff to ride the bike had come together at the very last minute. "I didn't even know the track was resurfaced until I showed up today and somebody told me, and I was a little bit surprised. That's how last minute everything was," he joked. "It definitely happened fast. I was coming back from the Navarra [WorldSBK] test and I got a message, and then it just kind of went from there. So it was definitely last minute, but just a big thanks to Alpinestars and HJC for all the last minute work that they've been doing to make sure that I have everything that I need to be ready for Friday morning, for tomorrow. And basically that's just how it was, really quick, just a phone call a couple of days ago. And bad-a-bing, bad-a-boom."
Gerloff faces an intense period of swapping between bikes. He was at the Navarra circuit in Spain testing with the GRT Yamaha WorldSBK Team on Monday and Tuesday, and will now ride a MotoGP bike – stiffer, faster, on Michelins instead of Pirellis – this weekend, before heading to the UK for the British round of WorldSBK at Donington Park next week. That didn't worry Gerloff. "I don't think it will make it complicated, going back and forth, just because I feel like I know my R1 like the back of my hand, and we've been working on it for a long time. I just came from the R1 at Navarra before coming here, so I think we'll be good."
The last time Gerloff was in MotoGP, he was replacing Valentino Rossi. This time, he finds himself on the opposite side of the box from the Italian legend. "I haven't seen Valentino today, but it is strange to go to the box and to see his team and his bike over their to the right, which is the bike I rode last year, and now I'm on the other side of the garage. That's kind of curious!" Gerloff said.
Team Bone Saw is go
Rossi himself has been much in the news in the run up to the Assen MotoGP race. First, came the long-expected announcement that the VR46 team is to race with Ducatis from the 2022 season. Luca Marini will be one rider, and it is likely that the Italian will get a latest spec machine, a Ducati Desmosedici GP22, though he played down his prospects today. "Sincerely I don’t know yet if they speak about the spec of the bike but I hope to have the most competitive bike from Ducati, because I think that we can be stronger," Marini said. "Now the level in MotoGP is incredible, so if you want to compete at the top and stay in the first position you need also to have a very good technical package and I hope to have the best compromise that we can have from Ducati."
Also unsurprisingly – and as I have written before, rather sadly – the VR46 squad is to funded by money from Saudi Arabia. The team is to be called Aramco Racing Team VR46, though the money is to come from Tanal Entertainment Sport and Media. In the end, the money trail leads back to the many branches of the Saudi royal family, with Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah bin Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud the man (obviously a man: it's Saudi Arabia) behind the project.
It is a shame that the VR46 operation did not try to resist the lure of easy Saudi money. As I have written previously, Valentino Rossi's name is big enough that attracting sponsors should not be difficult. So to choose a sponsor so deeply intertwined with one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the world is disappointing. The VR46 squad could have been pretty much anyone, but instead they decided to become Team Bone Saw.
The press release came with a statement from the Saudi Prince Abdulaziz declaring that he hoped to see Valentino Rossi ride for the team. "It would be fantastic for me if Valentino Rossi could compete in the next few years as a rider in our Aramco Racing Team VR46 together with his brother Luca Marini who already this year competes with the sponsorship of our brands," the Prince was quoted as saying.
This is not going to happen, of course. "The Prince always pushes on me to race next year with my team and Ducati," Rossi told the press conference. "But at the moment I think it will be very difficult." What was 'very difficult' was not just riding a Ducati, but riding at all, Rossi said, in the first hint that retirement was a very serious option he was considering. "I use the same idea and the same word for the chance to not only race with Ducati, but in general to race next year with my team; I think it will be very, very difficult."
Will Rossi continue next year? He will make a decision during the summer break, but it is looking increasingly like the Italian will decide to call it a day. Rossi rides to win, and neither wins nor podiums have looked like a realistic prospect so far in 2021. Though Assen is one of Rossi's favorite tracks, and the last place he won a race, back in 2017, his form is not such that a podium might be on the cards. And that will tend to push the decision about his future towards retirement.
It is ironic that Saudi money will not buy much direct engagement from the man whose name the team will bear. Pablo Nieto has been named as team manager for the VR46 squad, while Rossi himself is likely to disappear into the GT3 paddock to compete in endurance races on four wheels. There is a very good chance that we will see Rossi at Le Mans in 2022. Just not on the same weekend as MotoGP.
Rossi's imminent retirement has at least distracted from the travails of his former teammate in the Monster Energy Yamaha squad. Maverick Viñales looked to be at rock bottom at the Sachsenring on Sunday night. But when he turned up to Assen on Thursday, it was apparent that his morale could indeed drop much further. Viñales was terse, and angry – "I have never been so angry in all my life," the Spaniard said. "I'm very angry with the situation we have arrived at."
His complaints were familiar: whenever he asked Yamaha staff if they had a solution to his problems, the only reply he ever received was 'I don't know,' he told us. "The problem is that when I try to find a solution the answer is the same and that’s ‘I don’t know’. We need a little bit more and we will try for sure because I have many problems," he said.
"It’s not that I am not happy but I don’t feel very respected as a rider because I have never been in this position before: finishing last in one race," Viñales said. "I don’t remember any race in my life since I was a kid. Basically it is for that that I am very upset. The way things are going is that I don’t understand nothing and after that I don’t know what more."
"For me what is strange is Qatar 1," Viñales said, pointing to the first race of the season which he won convincingly. "This is very strange: how I can be with that superiority to the rest and then it is all gone. I went from first to last. Maybe here I can be first again. It is pretty strange and as a rider it is complicated for the motivation."
Viñales was at pains to explain that his problem did not lay with his crew chiefs, neither Esteban Garcia, who is now gone, nor Silvano Galbusera, who replaced Garcia. "Both with Esteban and with Silvano, I feel good. Working with the two has been and is fantastic, and I am learning many new things," Viñales said. "The problem was not getting an answer to what is happening. The 'I don't know' is a bit repetitive already, and this is what is making me angry."
Great artists steal?
Viñales' solution for this weekend is the same as the one proposed by Pol Espargaro, who finds himself in the same situation at Repsol Honda: to copy the setup of his teammate, and try to figure out what is working and why. "For sure one solution is to put the same bike as Fabio [Quartararo], same electronics, same clicks, same suspension, same everything to see what is going on because we have solved nothing. So here in Assen I will copy everything. Everything. And we will see," Viñales said.
That was not the right approach, however, Viñales insisted. "It should not be like this. It should be like you try, you make your own setup and make the bike for your own riding style, but in this team I always follow the rest. And I am forced to do it because I cannot continue in this way; losing time, wasting time and losing the feeling with the bike. In Germany I crashed without reason. Without pushing. This weekend I will follow. He put stiffer suspension? I will do the same. More preload? I will do the same. We need to adapt, that’s true, and I will take risks but at least I will be with the same as the guy I have on the other side of the garage."
His way or the highway
At Repsol Honda, Pol Espargaro has also run out of ideas. Copying what Marc Márquez does may or may not help, but at least he might learn something, Espargaro said. "That's why I want to check. At the end, my way of thinking is that the best way of being fast is to be exactly the same as the guy who is winning. And like that, it's better. We are humans and we can adapt faster and better than a machine can do."
Espargaro was at pains to say that he was not copying Márquez' settings in the hope of finding a magic bullet. "So I'm not saying that by putting Marc's settings or following his line, I'm going to be as fast as him. This is just bull****. It's not as simple as that. Hopefully it was as simple!" the Repsol Honda rider said.
"Anyway, at the end to use the same package as another rider that is winning, it's shows you where you are weak compared to the other one. Exactly where you are weak. Then you understand exactly what you need to improve and what this bike needs to be fast. At the end, it's what I need."
Assen will be a test in many ways, and will determine the future of more riders than we might have expected a few short months ago. But there are crises brewing at both Repsol Honda and Monster Energy Yamaha, where one rider is fast and the other is not, and they have yet to find a rational explanation. This is an untenable situation.
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