It has been a typically Assen start to the weekend of the Dutch TT. Thursday's stifling heat lingered through the night, windows left open throughout the province in the hope the cool air sweeping in from the south would arrive and bring relief. The heat lingered long into the night, until a summer storm arrived. A massive downpour around 8am dumped a lot of water on the track, the weather instantly turning gray, wet, and blissfully much cooler.
It made for a tricky morning out on track. Conditions were manageable for both MotoE and Moto3, a steady drizzle persisting. The rain picked up a little at the start of the MotoGP session, and made riding increasingly difficult. Assen drains pretty well – a legacy of its ancient roots starting as a race held on public roads, which means there is a crown to several parts of the track, the center of the track a little higher than the sides, to facilitate drainage.
That works fantastically up to a point, but once the rain starts to reach a certain point, water starts to accumulate along the sides of the track, on the inside of the kerbs. Even that would not be an issue, but for the fact that it happens at a couple of the fastest points on the track. The front straight, the Veenslang, the back straight between Turns 5 and 6, and, most terrifyingly, in the sweeping section through Meeuwenmeer and Hoge Heide, Turns 13 and 14.
Lessons from history
That section is taken at high speed, and the best line passes through the edge of the track, right where water accumulates. Just ask Jorge Lorenzo: the three-time MotoGP champion crashed there in similar conditions to today back in 2013, breaking his collarbone, during Thursday practice. He was flown to Barcelona, had his collarbone plated, and returned to race on the Saturday, in the time when the race was held on Saturday rather than Sunday, crossing the line in a remarkable fifth position.
It was an incredible achievement, and sparked a change in the medical regulations, it being deemed unsafe for riders to participate in practice or races within 48 hours of having a general anesthesia. It didn't end up making much difference either. Two weeks later, at the Sachsenring, Lorenzo fell again, bending the plate on his collarbone and requiring a second surgery. He missed the race, and that would end up costing him the championship, Marc Marquez lifting the 2013 MotoGP crown in his rookie season by a margin of just 4 points.
The memory of that lingered on, still. "it’s funny, no lie, you've seen that, you know that and every time you go past there you think that too! So, not cool," Brad Binder told us. "I mean, it's not that it's super unsafe, you can manage it. But it's in really fast places and if you crash there, you're going to know about it. So it's not worth the risk, especially in FP1."
The majority opinion was that the session should have been red flagged. "This is over the limit for me, yeah," Miguel Oliveira said, summing up what most riders felt. "Start of FP1 was not rideable. I could not even see the lights on the back of the riders. Definitely, to even go alone it's hard with the aquaplaning and to race for sure it's impossible." The bikes were spinning in sixth gear, impossible to rev over 14,000 RPM (to put that in perspective, that's where the big torque bump starts for most MotoGP bikes, the engines revving to something approaching 19,000 RPM).
One reason the session was not red flagged was because, well, most of the riders headed into the pits of their own accord, waiting for track conditions to improve. Johann Zarco didn't, he stayed out and kept improving his time.
Jack Miller was one of the few dissenting voices. "At the end of the day, everyone's got their own common sense," the Australian said. "If you want to go out and ride in it, go out and ride in it. If you don't, sit in the box. Simple as that." Given that it was just FP1, a meaningless session on the wettest day of the weekend, the rest of the sessions expected to be dry, there was nothing to be gained by riders going out. Had it been qualifying or the race, when riders have no choice but to ride, then perhaps it would have been different.
It is something that riders vowed to discuss in the Safety Commission, however. Whether that will bring about change remains to be seen. And whether change is even necessary, as Jack Miller said, is another question.
The rain let up in the afternoon, and Assen showed just how quickly the track can dry. FP2 started off damp, but it was clear before the session was even a third of the way in that slicks would work. Luca Marini and Darryn Binder were the first to try the slicks, and the rest quickly followed suit. In the space of 25 minutes, Marini slashed 10 seconds off his best time. Pecco Bagnaia got down to a 1'33.274, roughly half a second off the best race lap, and 2 seconds off the pole record. The track was pretty much dry bar a few damp patches by the end of FP2.
The rapidly changing conditions did not leave much time to work too much on bike setup. Up and down pit lane, garages were littered with rear shocks and collections of fork springs. It is common in a dry session to see teams swapping fork springs in pursuit of the ideal balance between support and absorption. But that usually means there might be one, or maybe two springs in tool trays.
During FP2 at Assen, I spotted several teams where the trays held five or different springs, with spring rates varying between 7-11 N/mm. That is a wide range to cover a lot of different situations.
You would think that with such variations that there would be a great deal to be learned for the riders and teams, but most disagreed. "Already we are quite fast, the 1'33.2 of Pecco is proof the track was dry, not perfect everywhere," Johann Zarco pointed out. "But you can get used to it because the change in direction in 6-7 and 13-14, you don’t have this kind of layout anywhere else in the world. So to get a bit of references on Friday is useful."
The loss of Friday means a change of approach in FP3, Fabio Quartararo said. "FP3 will be another story with two time attacks," the Frenchman said, underlining the importance of qualifying directly for Q2. "We will use a new tire to really push on the pace to see how is the potential of the tires. But today was just a normal session."
The changing conditions caught out Aprilia in a surprising way. All of the bikes started this morning and the first part of FP2 with the wet setup, including the water deflector attached to the lower swingarm, which is added to keep water off the rear tire. Aleix Espargaro's team forgot to remove the rain spoiler once he switched to his bike on slicks, and so he had his entire run on slicks canceled, his official best lap reduced to a 1'41.360 rather than the 1'33.452 he did on slick tires.
What was his sin? Rule 220.127.116.11.10.e states that parts such as rain deflectors and hand guards are regarded as add ons, which can only be used when at least one rain tire is fitted. That was not the case, and so Espargaro was in clear breach of the technical rules. It is not something Espargaro has anything to do with, of course, in the end, it is down to his team. Aprilia are not the first squad to get caught out by skipping over some of the less common parts of the rulebook. But such mistakes really shouldn't happen, especially in a factory team.
Did we learn anything about who is likely to be strong come Sunday? Not really. A dry Saturday should help clear up a few question marks, but we are most likely headed into the race on Sunday with more than one unknown.
Speaking of mistakes, Pecco Bagnaia had had time to dwell on his error at the Sachsenring. He had immediately acknowledged it was his error, but had failed to understand what he did wrong, he told us.
Bagnaia had used the time between the Sachsenring and Assen to reflect, and try to figure out what he had done wrong. And he thought he may have found a clue. That was in the level of intensity with which he was focusing on the race.
"The three times I crashed this year, the first time in Qatar I was pushing. I was pushing because I was behind, I was trying to recover and I crashed," Bagnaia said. That was straightforward, entirely comprehensible. There had been a good explanation for the crash.
"In the other two times, in the same moment I say ‘I will be more calm, breathe and then come back’, I crashed," Bagnaia reflected. Maybe easing off a fraction was the wrong decision, the Italian said. "So for sure say something that, maybe with our bike, I don't know the other bikes, but my feeling is that when you are not pushing on the tires maybe it's more easy to crash. Something strange to think, but it's the only thing that comes to me when I'm thinking why I crashed."
It was not quite a lapse in concentration, but perhaps a slight easing off. Pushing hard from the beginning was easy, it requires 100% focus right from the beginning. "It's easier, also for the concentration," Bagnaia told us. "I want to say that I never lose my concentration during the race, but maybe thinking to be more calm and to breathe is not a thing that helped me."
Throughout his past, the races where he had eased up, he had not won. "If we look at the races when I started first and I pushed, I didn't have this type of problem. Just controlling the gap from the rear and it's not a problem. So I have to concentrate on being more focused in a situation where I'm not first, when I'm not a gap of 6-7 tenths and working on that moment."
He may well get a chance to put his theory to the test sooner than than later. If a weekend without setup favors those with a good base setup, things are looking bright for Pecco Bagnaia. But they are also looking good for Fabio Quartararo, for Aleix Espargaro, and more. Saturday should shed more light on just where everyone stands.
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