We are past the mathematical midway mark of the 2022 MotoGP season, and we are on the brink of the de facto midway mark. This weekend's race at Assen is the last before the long summer break – longer than originally planned, and a welcome break for pretty much everyone in the paddock. "I'm not going to touch a motorbike for two weeks!" Remy Gardner told us.
At least we are going into the summer break on a high. The Dutch TT Circuit at Assen is still one of the greatest motorcycling circuits in the world, despite the trackectomy which happened in 2005 and the old North Loop was removed. The fast, sweeping section was removed to sell the land and buoy up the circuit's ailing finances, and replaced with a little crochet hook of tarmac. But the rest of the circuit remained, the Southern Loop as glorious as ever.
After braking for the first corner and sweeping through the sequence of right handers that take them through to the Strubben hairpin, the riders fire out of Strubben and down the Veenslang, the snaking straight which leads to the first fast right-left combination and prime over taking spot. Through the Ruskenhoek and onto the Stekkenwal, then another short, snaking straight down to De Bult. A fast left, and then onto one of the best sequences of turns on the MotoGP calendar.
A crescendo of corners
From Mandeveen to Meeuwenmeer, Turns 10 to 12, the speed builds. The bikes are just clicking 6th when they head through the lightning fast right-left kink of Hoge Heide. They carry that speed through to the Ramshoek, where decisions have to be made, none of which have a guaranteed outcome. The riders can stay wide and carry speed, lining up a pass at the GT chicane which follows. But that leaves them vulnerable on the exit of the chicane, if the person they are trying to overtake hugged the inside of Ramshoek and entered the GT chicane early.
(If you are wondering which corners I am talking about, and how to pronounce their names, here is a short video guide I made for the Paddock Pass Podcast YouTube channel.)
What makes that section of track so magnificent is that riders face these dilemmas at several separate points through those turns: the entry to Ramshoek and the exit; then entry to the GT chicane, or the second part; or maybe even the exit. Any choice a rider makes to try to gain a position leaves them open to counterattack. In turn, any counterattack opens the door to another attack. There are no good defensive lines either, because trying to defend in one point just leaves the door open elsewhere. And because this section covers the final corners, it is the last and best chance of gaining positions and winning the race. It is precisely what you want from a motorcycle racing track.
The weather has a mind of its own
If there is a downside to Assen, it is that it is located in Northern Europe. And even though the race is held shortly after midsummer's day, it is still held in Northern Europe, and subject to the climate of Northern Europe. Which means that while the weather is mostly fine, it is not always so. Rain maybe an unwelcome guest, but it comes as it pleases. Assen's saving grace being that it disappears just as quickly.
That is pretty much what it looks like for the 91st running of the Dutch TT (the 90th at Assen, the first edition having taken place in a triangle between Rolde, Borger, and Schoonloo, a few kilometers to the east of Assen, only moving to the villages directly south of Assen when the council of one of the villages around the circuit refused to replace a wooden bridge with a paved one made of sand). Rain is forecast for Friday, with Saturday and Sunday looking capable of going either way. We will probably have a dry race on Sunday, but there could be a shower or two to make it a flag-to-flag race. Even then, it might not rain enough to warrant coming into the pits for fresh rubber either way.
We used to say that Assen is a Yamaha track, the fast flowing nature of the circuit playing to the strengths of the M1. But as the bikes of each manufacturer have improved over the years and grown closer in performance, despite the different way that performance is achieved, there are fewer tracks which suit a particular factory.
All good here now
Assen is still a Yamaha track, in the sense that the bike suits the layout of the circuit. But the Suzuki goes pretty well at the Dutch circuit too; Alex Rins finished second here in 2018, Joan Mir took third last year. Ducati made a big step in agility with the GP21, and a smaller one again with the GP22, meaning that the Desmosedici will also now do corners, as well as straights. The Aprilia has metamorphosed into a sharp-handling, agile bike, and has Maverick Viñales riding it this year, the man who started from pole and finished second in 2021, albeit on a Yamaha.
What will matter in 2022, especially if we lose a day of practice to rain, will not be what bike a rider is on, but whether they have a base setup that is working for them. If they have a bike that is working directly out of the box at most races, then the only thing they will lose from Friday is a deep examination of the tires Michelin have brought. But even then, they have enough data to make a ballpark guess at what the best option is, and if FP4 is dry, a chance to put that theory to the test.
The big three
Who has a base setup? The simple answer is the three main candidates for the title. Fabio Quartararo is on a roll, the bike working for him and the Frenchman himself finding reserves inside himself that the other Yamaha riders somehow seem to lack. Assen is one of Quartararo's absolute favorite tracks. (That hardly makes him unique: like Phillip Island and Mugello, there are no riders who are indifferent to Assen.)
Quartararo won here last year, finishing ahead of his Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales. He started from pole here in 2019, his rookie season, and ended the race in third. He finished on the podium in Moto3 in 2015, and in Moto2 in 2018, arguably the race which bought him his ride with the Petronas SRT Yamaha team, and his berth in MotoGP.
Pecco Bagnaia has been happy with his bike since we arrived back in Europe, though he has shown a penchant for making mistakes. At the Sachsenring, he and his team did little more than fill it with fuel and stick new tires on, and Bagnaia was probably the fastest rider at the Sachsenring before the race, where he crashed out. But again, Assen is a favorite track, a place where he took his first win in Moto3, riding an underpowered Mahindra, and did, in his own words, "a perfect weekend" in Moto2, topping every session and winning the race. He looked strong at last year's race, and arrives in even better condition. "We are arriving here faster than last year, more prepared than last year, and I think that we can do a great job, a great race," the Ducati Lenovo rider said.
Then there is Aleix Espargaro. If championships are won on your bad days, the Aprilia rider had a very good weekend in Germany. Espargaro was fast all weekend, but suffered a vibration in the front tire from the start of the race. Despite that handicap, he still crossed the line in fourth, hoovering up a big haul of points.
Espargaro is in great spirits and riding a great bike. Assen should suit the Aprilia RS-GP, and as said, this could be the first weekend we really see Maverick Viñales push his teammate hard. Assen is one of Viñales very favorite tracks, and the lessons learned by being stuck at the back of the grid for the first half of the season have stood him in good stead.
A question of timing
"Those races where I was struggling, I learned a lot," Viñales told us on Thursday. "I mean, I was not used to start on the back. Normally in my career, I started in the front. But in those times where I was P20, P24, P19, P18, I learned how to fight." He had learned the secret of passing in the group was not necessarily unfocused aggression. "I found the timing for the overtake. You know, even if I don't have space, I found the timing," Viñales said.
There are plenty of other names that could be in the mix in the dry. Joan Mir was strong last year on a bike that is inferior to the 2022 Suzuki GSX-RR, and since he found some confidence in the front end at the Barcelona test, has been looking more competitive. There are a host of Ducati riders looking fast: Johann Zarco, obviously, but also Luca Marini and even Fabio Di Giannantonio. And if it is a flag-to-flag race, you can't rule out KTM's Brad Binder, or Ducati's Jack Miller. Miller can even be a factor if it stays dry.
Tying the knot
Assen is the last race before the summer break, and the fevered atmosphere is down to more than just everyone looking forward to some time off. It is also the last opportunity for rider managers to meet with teams, and teams to try to court riders, before the paddock disperses for five weeks. Contracts may or may not be signed this weekend, but a huge amount of progress is likely to be made on filling seats.
Some riders are fairly open on the possibility of a deal. Fabio Di Giannantonio hinted that a contract announcement – almost certainly an extension with Gresini - could come as soon as this weekend. "I expect to be in MotoGP next year!" the Italian joked when we asked him where he expected to be in 2023. "And I think also this weekend you will know something more and I hope to arrive to the beach more relaxed, more calm. With a big smile also!"
Alex Rins was a little more circumspect, the Spaniard having multiple offers to choose from. "We have some options," he told us. "I really appreciate the teams, the manufacturers that came to me because sincerely it was not easy." He has the offer to go to LCR Honda and ride a 2023 spec Honda RC213V, but he also has the chance to be at RNF Aprilia, on an older machine. For Rins, the chance to have the latest spec of bike was swaying his thinking, though the other options were also good. "I would like to say to have a 2023 bike. But there is one way that the bike is not 2023, but it's a good thing."
So will Rins end up at LCR? That is looking increasingly likely. Alex Marquez will be leaving Honda, though the chances are he will be taking the spot of Enea Bastianini in the Gresini Ducati squad alongside Fabio Di Giannantonio. Rins at LCR would mean Miguel Oliveira takes the seat at RNF Aprilia for 2023, with Raul Fernandez likely occupying the second seat at the team. We are eagerly awaiting the press release confirming Pol Espargaro's move to Tech3 KTM, while Joan Mir looks certain to take the place of Espargaro in the Repsol Honda squad.
These options all seem to be solidifying, though we await the official announcements with bated breath. Everyone wants to go into the summer break with a sense of satisfaction, either from a solid result or with a new contract under their belts. Or in some cases, both.
First, the action starts on track. But there will be just as much going on behind the scenes and between the trucks as out on Assen's glorious ribbon of asphalt which snakes its way through the landscape of Drenthe. It is a very fine place to be racing to mark the start of the summer break, whatever the weather.
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