If the Honda is so bad, why are two RC213Vs at the top of the timesheets? That seems like a very valid question, given the public struggles which all of the Honda riders have had with the bike this year. Has the 2014 chassis finally fixed the Honda's ailments? Is Márquez back?
If only it were that simple. Firstly, of course, Marc Márquez never went away. The double world champion still possesses a gargantuan talent, and the desire and will to use it. He was hampered by many aspects of the 2015 bike, including both the engine and the chassis. The 2015 chassis, he explained at Assen, was more precise and could be used more accurately. Unfortunately, the only way to get the best out of it was to ride it like every lap was a qualifying lap. That level of intensity is just not sustainable over race distance. At some point, you will make a mistake, and the 2015 chassis punishes mistakes mercilessly. So HRC have reverted to a hybrid version, using a 2014 chassis and the new swingarm which Márquez first tested at Le Mans. That works better for Márquez: he has been forced to sacrifice some precision, but at least now he has a chance to recover from mistakes.
The engine remains a problem, however, as aggressive and difficult to handle as it has always been. Open the throttle and the rear just keeps spinning. Once it stops and finally grips, the front wheel is up in the air, and riders are fighting wheelies. It is equally aggressive on corner entry, engine braking being harsh and unpredictable, making stopping the bike hard. That was clear from watching Márquez all day, the reigning champion still running wide rather too often, especially through the first corner. But at least he was only running wide and not crashing, that, Márquez said, was reason to be hopeful. He did crash once, but that was on his out lap, on his very first lap of the day. It left him a little mystified, the cause possibly a mixture of a cold tire, a dirty track, and being a little off line.
Márquez may be second fastest over a single lap, but he is not the second fastest rider on the track. Which rider holds that particular honor is a matter of debate. It is either Dani Pedrosa, the man who topped the second session of free practice, or Valentino Rossi, who was fastest in FP1. Rossi put in a very quick run of eight laps at the end of FP2 which contained five laps in the 1'33s. Pedrosa put in a really solid run in the same session and posted three laps of 1'33. Does that make Rossi better? Rossi posted his fast laps on a brand new tire. Dani Pedrosa used an old tire, which shows the Spaniard has potential at the end of the race. The race will show who has the real pace.
Pedrosa's pace cannot be laid at the door of the 2014 chassis. Since the beginning of the season, Pedrosa has been using a different frame to the one used by Márquez. Márquez' frame is stiffer at the front than the rest of the Honda riders, while Pedrosa is using the same chassis as Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding. Pedrosa has been focusing on getting on and trying to do the best job he can with the tools at his disposal. Márquez has been a lot less sanguine about the situation, and this may explain why he has struggled so much.
That doesn't mean that the chassis the other riders are using is any easier to ride. It was a frustrated and dejected Scott Redding who spoke to us this evening. He felt frustrated at not being able to make any progress, and at feeling like he was pushing the bike to its limit with no reward. 'I felt really good on the bike but then I saw that I wasn't top 12,' he said. 'I feel on the limit but the laptime isn't here and I don't know why. I seem to be losing a lot of time on the entry and mid-corner but I'm already on the limit at the moment.' Redding is nowhere near where he expected to be, and so low are his spirits that he sometimes rues his decision to stick with a Honda. 'This is one of those times that you think that I should have made a different decision but there's nothing you can do. When you see what you could have been on and what you could have been doing it p****s me off.' There was no point having any regrets, however. 'You couldn't have known that at the time and at the time the decision was the right one,' he said. Even then, for a rider on a factory Honda to be looking wistfully at Ducati GP14s – Redding could have had a satellite Ducati – tells you there is something fundamentally wrong.
There is every chance that Dani Pedrosa will do well on the bike on Saturday, of course. But that says more about the skill of Pedrosa – ironically, one of the most underrated riders on the grid, despite his success – than about the strength of the Honda.
Honda have reason to be worried. Yamaha have a new chassis which gives even more agility than the already nimble M1. Both Rossi and Lorenzo tried the chassis, and both preferred it. The extra agility comes at the cost a small drop in stability under braking. But both Movistar Yamaha riders felt it was worth the sacrifice.
The surprise at Yamaha is that Valentino Rossi is quite clearly the stronger of the two Movistar riders. Rossi was quick and comfortable from the start, and had good race pace in both morning and afternoon sessions. Jorge Lorenzo was struggling, mostly with the feel of the tires. The tires at Assen are identical to the tires used here last year, but that means that they have a little less edge feel than tires used at the other tracks this season. So far, Bridgestone have been able to go slightly softer on the edge of the tire for most of the races in 2015. They can't do that at Assen, for fear of a repeat of 2012, when tires were losing rubber left, right, and center. The lack of edge feel is causing Lorenzo problems, but there is little he can do.
Thursday at Assen was a busy day for everyone (and especially for me, as I discovered that being at the race in my adopted country means a lot of extra work, people to talk to and things to do), and it was also a big day for news about the future of circuits. The good news was that the Brno round of MotoGP was finally confirmed, though with the confirmation came a very clear warning. Dorna have said that the race can continue in future, but only if the circuit is no longer the guarantor of the circuit's sanctioning fee. Dorna have yet to be paid for the 2014 race, and fear that the same will happen with the 2015 race. If we are to race here in 2016, then the city council and the Moravian regional government will have to guarantee payment of the fee.
The biggest news for Assen itself is that this is to be the last year when the race runs on Saturday. From 2016, the race will be moved to a Sunday, to bring it in line with every other round of MotoGP. The reasons for doing so are quite simple: market research shows that people set aside Sundays for leisure activities such as attending MotoGP races. But the target is not so much bigger crowds on race day, as filling the stands during qualifying. The Assen circuit is noticeably quieter than other events during practice and qualifying, people unwilling to take the Friday off to watch QP. At other circuits, the Friday is a quiet day, but crowd numbers swell significantly on Saturday, growing to a peak on Sunday. If Assen can sell more tickets on Saturday for qualifying, then it will secure the long-term future of the race in The Netherlands. With tracks in Southern America and Asia clamoring to join the MotoGP calendar, and willing to pay handsomely for the privilege, Assen has to be able to fight its corner.
The loss of the Saturday tradition will be deeply mourned in some quarters, as it does give the event a very special feel. It also leaves the paddock seriously confused, with everyone asking themselves and each other what day it was. Though the change will break a lot of people's hearts at first, they will soon adapt. People hate change, but once change happens, they quickly adjust to the new normal. I expect there will be a lot of complaining about the change in 2016. By 2018, the fact that we once raced on Saturday's at Assen will be all but forgotten.