You would think with the deluge of words which has washed over the incident between Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi in the last corner (and to which I contributed more than my fair share, I must confess) that there were only two riders and one race at Assen on Saturday. Beyond the clash at the GT chicane, there was much more to talk about after Holland.
Whatever the immediate aftermath of the clash between Márquez and Rossi, the longer term implications of the result have made the championship even more interesting. Márquez' decision to switch back to the 2014 chassis for his Repsol Honda RC213V has been proven to be the correct one. Though the engine is still as aggressive as ever, the old chassis in combination with the new swingarm and new forks tested at Le Mans has made the bike much more manageable. Márquez can now slide the rear on corner entry in a much more controlled way than before, taking away the behavior the reigning champion has struggled with most. The Spaniard showed he could be competitive from the start of the race to the end, instead of crashing out as the tires started to go off.
The bike is still a long way from cured, however. Márquez switched to the medium front tire rather than the soft, the only rider to do so. The medium provides a bit more support under braking, compensating for the reduced braking from the rear wheel. That support comes at the cost of extra grip provided by the softer front. Whether Márquez will be able to employ that same strategy for the rest of the season remains to be seen. For a start, Assen is not a very typical track, featuring a lot more flowing corners than usual. At circuits with more corners needing hard braking, the challenge will be greater. The next race is at the Sachsenring, where asymmetric front tires will be on offer. How the Honda deals with that will be interesting.
A more competitive Márquez will certainly liven the championship up. After Lorenzo swept the previous four races, a Rossi comeback gave him back the advantage in the championship. Without Márquez, Rossi would only have extended his lead by five more points, but the Repsol Honda man put himself between the two Movistar Yamaha teammates, meaning that Lorenzo's deficit grew to ten points. With ten races to go, the championship is still wide open, though realistically, it is only between Rossi and Lorenzo. But the influence of a rider who is consistently capable of inserting himself between the two Yamahas could end up having a major effect on the championship.
Jorge Lorenzo faced an extra handicap this weekend, having to deal with Bridgestone tires lacking the softer edge rubber which has been available at most tracks since the middle of last year. Lorenzo thrives on corner speed, and needs the feel from the softer rubber to be able to carry it successfully. Bridgestone had little choice but to bring the harder-edged tires, the Assen track being exceptionally tough on the tires due to high speeds and a slightly banked track. In 2012, they suffered major problems, with tires losing chunks of rubber, causing riders to abandon the race. That race led to the introduction of the heat-resistant layer inside the tire, to prevent a repeat.
It is not just a simple matter of tires, however. Lorenzo won at Mugello, where Bridgestone also brings tires which lack the softer edge rubber. Higher track temperatures may have come to Lorenzo's aid in Italy, but in the colder Assen weather, Lorenzo could never really get the tires to work for him. There will be plenty of places where they will, however, and then Lorenzo will once again be a formidable rival.
Assen also saw another chapter in the remarkable transformation of Andrea Iannone. Despite still struggling with weakness and pain in his shoulder, a legacy of the big crash he had in testing at Mugello, Iannone escaped the massive group battling over fourth spot and opened up a gap behind him. He finished five seconds behind Lorenzo, and five more seconds ahead of Pol Espargaro, who came home in fifth. Iannone has shown incredible maturity since his switch to the factory Ducati squad, posting steady results without taking too many risks. Assen was another case in point, a strong ride on the GP15 securing fourth place on the road and third place in the championship. The Crazy Joe moniker made way for The Maniac Joe, but Iannone is looking increasingly less deserving of such a nickname. He is less Crazy Joe and more Steady Eddie nowadays.
Iannone is twenty points ahead of his more experienced teammate Andrea Dovizioso at the moment, though that is in part due to a certain amount of luck. After a mechanical DNF at Mugello, caused by a problem with his rear sprocket, and then a crash at Barcelona due to a lack of grip with the tire, Dovizioso had another problem at Assen, this time with a cracked seat unit. The rear of the bike is crucial when racing, allowing the rider to shift his weight around and get the bike through the corner. The cracked seat unit saw Dovizioso finish in lowly twelfth position. His year is starting to show some ominous parallels with Ben Spies' ill-fated 2012 season. The Italian will need a turnaround in fortunes at the Sachsenring.
Behind Iannone, there raged a race-long battle for fifth spot, from which Pol Espargaro emerged victorious. The result came as a relief for the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider, who has been struggling with his form throughout the 2015 season. The problem, Espargaro said, was that the Yamaha was fast on its own, but struggled when caught up in a battle with other bikes. "When you are alone you can ride so good, so free, but when you are fighting for sure you are blocked," he explained. "When you are behind a Honda you are blocked inside the corner, then after braking they go. In acceleration they go again. You become blocked again. So by the end with the Ducatis it is more or less the same." This is a bigger problem for the satellite Yamahas, as they still do not have the fully seamless gearbox of the factory bikes, and are a couple of steps behind them in terms of chassis. It did not stop Espargaro from dispensing with Bradley Smith, Cal Crutchlow, Andrea Dovizioso, Aleix Espargaro, Dani Pedrosa and Maverick Viñales, however.
A bigger concern for Espargaro was his arm. Despite recent surgery to correct arm pump, he started suffering with exactly the same problem. His right forearm became rock hard, and was still very hard two hours after the race once we spoke to him. During the race he had lost feeling in his hand due to the arm pump, and had been forced to operate the throttle by sliding his open hand, instead of twisting the grip. Espargaro headed off to Suzuka after Assen, for a test ahead of the 8 hour race. He is scheduled to see Dr. Villamor later this week to assess the situation.
Dr. Villamor is the man who also operated on Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda man is getting close to being fully recovered from that surgery earlier in the year, but it was not his arms which were the problem at Assen. The Spaniard had a big crash in morning warm up, and was forced to switch to his second bike. What had caused the crash was not clear, Pedrosa told us. "I just got surprised by the bike. I was completely straight, already four or five laps in, and I was braking straight and just lost it completely."
Switching to his second bike proved to be anything but a success. First, Pedrosa had a problem at the start, the clutch not engaging as he expected it to. At first he had nothing, then when he let the lever out further, the clutch started to spin, not giving him any drive. He lost a lot of places at the start, then arrived at the first corner to find he had a problem with his brakes. It felt like he had air in the brakes, he said, and had no brake power in some corners, and reasonable braking power at others. That made riding difficult enough, but being caught up in a fierce battle made things extremely tricky. Planning to pass on the brakes was very difficult, with the lever coming back to the bar in some corners.
It was a very tough race once again for the Suzukis. Aleix Espargaro described the race as "very frustrating," getting swallowed up on the straights by the Ducatis, the Hondas, even the Yamahas, and having to work extra hard round the corners to try to get the positions back. The basic problem remains the same, a lack of acceleration and a lack of horsepower, and at the moment, there is no remedy in sight. The horsepower situation was the reason why the Suzukis could race the soft tire, instead of the medium. "We could do one more race with the same tire, it was like new," Espargaro said. There was no spin, a sign both that the Suzuki has excellent mechanical grip, and lacks the horsepower to overwhelm the rear tire in the same way that the Honda does. No engine upgrades are expected any time soon, though of course Suzuki continues to work hard to resolve the situation. The next race is Sachsenring, which features only one place where grunt out of the corner and top speed really counts. With a lot of long flowing corners, the Sachsenring could well favor the Suzukis.
Maverick Viñales finished directly behind his more experienced teammate, the MotoGP rookie proving himself once again to be a very fast learner. The Spaniard has proven that he made the right choice to move up after just one year in Moto2, his exceptional talent shining through. If Suzuki every provide the horsepower the GSX-RR is missing, he will be a dangerous rival indeed.
Jack Miller showed at Assen that he could have used a year in Moto2 before coming to MotoGP. The crash which took him out of contention was not completely his own fault, though he had a major part of it. But the incident, in which he slammed into Hector Barbera, who then got his leg jammed in behind Miller's rear wheel, was just one of three major moments which Miller had had on his first and only lap. First, he ran into Eugene Laverty into the first corner, banging the Irishman's brake lever. A few corners later, at the blisteringly fast Ruskenhoek, he barged into Nicky Hayden and forced the American off the track. His wild and dangerous first lap ended in the gravel at the chicane, after he had collected Barbera along the way.
Eugene Laverty saw this as part of a pattern by the Australian rookie. "Jack’s a nice guy off the track but on the first lap he’s not a guy you want to be near," he said. "Quite a few times that we’ve hit each other. I have seen quite a few of them. In Qatar with Abraham. Bradl in Austin. Then seeing those other moves…the one he made on Nicky. You can’t race these big bikes like that. The margin for error is too small to make overaggressive moves like that."
Laverty felt that Miller was still riding a MotoGP bike like a Moto3 machine, not taking into account that these bikes were much heavier and much more difficult to change direction. "When you’re on small bikes and you go for an aggressive move the rider changes their line you can react quickly. These bikes are too heavy to do that. You can’t just go for a gap. You have to be aware of what the other riders are doing around you. They’re going to move as well. On the first lap some riders are three abreast in some corners. On small bikes that’s ok but on these bikes they aren’t so agile and you can’t change the line so quickly. You have to be a little bit careful."
Race Director Mike Webb said he had given Miller a formal warning for the incident in the GT, but he had not received a complaint from either Laverty or Hayden on their issues with the Australian. Clearly, though, he had to be kept an eye on, to make sure he doesn't get out of hand. "There’s a mounting problem with Jack in that it’s a rookie year, he’s learning his way around," Webb told a small group of reporters. "He’s making mistakes as everyone does but they’ve resulted in crashes on a number of occasions. Each one on its own is a genuine mistake, it’s like an error that someone made rather than a blatant attempt to do something stupid. So at the moment Jack’s been having a talking to rather than more severe penalties but it obviously can’t continue like that."
MotoGP was not the only class where the championship leader extended his advantage. That happened in both Moto3 and Moto2, though in very different circumstances. In the Moto2 class, Johann Zarco rode impressively to take his third win of the year, beating Tito Rabat, with Sam Lowes closing in behind. Zarco looks totally in control of Moto2 at the moment, with Rabat putting up a valiant title defense, but unable to find a way to put a stop to Zarco's charge. Sam Lowes is the only other rider capable of keeping up the two leaders, though Lowes is waiting on a new chassis for his Speed Up which it is hoped will help the bike to turn. Alex Rins is the best of the rest, and looks set to join in the fray in the second half of the season. Zarco's victory takes his lead to 45 points, significant, but not quite decisive yet. If he can take another five points from Rabat at the Sachsenring, however, that would put him 50 points ahead with nine races left, and leave Rabat needing to win the rest of the races, and get help from either Lowes or Rins.
Danny Kent may not have won the Moto3 race at Assen, but he too has extended his lead in the championship. The Leopard Racing rider tried to make a break in the race, as both he and title rival Enea Bastianini had shown in practice that their race pace was well beyond that of any of the other riders. But a strong headwind down the back straight meant that any lead he managed to stretch out disappeared immediately as soon as the others could use his slipstream to catch him again. In the end, Kent was left in a group of seven riders battling for victory in Assen.
The Englishman once again proved he was a thinking rider, by executing the plan he had in his mind in the second half of the final lap. He moved past Romano Fenati up to fourth at Mandeveen, then lined up the Estrella Galicia pair of Jorge Navarro and Fabio Quartararo through the Ramshoek. He was all set to attack Miguel Oliveira for the lead going into the final GT chicane, but a brilliantly aggressive piece of braking saw Quartararo come underneath him, and Kent was left to settle for third. Oliveira took victory, the second of his career and the second in three races, with rookie Quartararo once again impressing by taking his second podium.
Kent finished ahead of Enea Bastianini though, the man he faces in the title race. He extended his lead to a commanding 57 points, though he saw the contest becoming fiercer. Bastianini had tried a few aggressive moves on him, Kent said, holding the inside line in a few corners and forcing him wide. The Italian youngster was showing a fierce commitment to trying to win the championship, and making Kent work for every point of advantage. Kent was also starting to be mildly concerned over the progress of Miguel Oliveira. The Portuguese rider has now won two races, and is starting to close the gap on the Englishman. Kent pointed to Oliveira as a possible threat later in the season. 57 points is a big advantage, but in a class as tight as Moto3, it is easy to lose a big chunk of points with just a couple of bad races.
Though Assen provided some fantastic racing, the highlight of the day came from someone who finished out of the points. Niklas Ajo found himself being thrown from the saddle halfway through the final chicane, as he led the battle for eighth. With a firm grip on the bars still, he found himself being dragged by his still upright bike towards the tire wall. Using either superb instincts or incredible presence of mind, Ajo started steering his bike towards the left, away from the wall and back towards the finish line. He adjusted his position to allow his legs to drag underneath him, knee-surfing his way across the line. Sadly, he finished just out of the points in seventeenth. He received a standing ovation and loud applause as he crossed the line, and the loudest cheers of the day until Valentino Rossi crossed the line to win the MotoGP race later that day. Randy Mamola's legendary save has finally been bettered.