Motorcycle racing is an outdoor sport. The riders are at the mercy of the elements. Not just the riders, but the teams and factories too. A bike that works well in the dry may be terrible in the wet. A bike that is strong in the wet may struggle when conditions were mixed. Finding the right balance when conditions change can throw the best laid plans into disarray.
All of these questions were multiplied by the weather at Assen. With nothing between the circuit and the North Sea but a row of sand dunes, the odd high rise office block, and a hundred kilometers of pancake-flat farmland punctuated by the occasional tree, the wind, sun, and rain blow out just as quickly as they blow in. The weather at Assen is as fickle as a pretty teenager in a crowded disco.
That made it tough for MotoGP at the Dutch circuit. Searching for the right setup was both perilously difficult and ultimately futile, for as soon as you found something in the right ballpark for the conditions, the rain would come or the track would dry out, and you would have to start all over again. Add in tarmac which has fantastic grip in the dry but diminishing grip in the dry, and you had a recipe for, if not chaos, then at least a fairly random mix of riders topping qualifying.
Getting it right is hard
As so often, Bradley Smith had the most cogent analysis of the events of the day. "Just looking at the grid in general, I think it's difficult to find the sweet spot of setup," Smith said. "That's what the grid's telling me. When you see certain bikes up there, other guys struggling, other guys having disasters, it's just difficult to find that sweet spot."
That's always important at every track, but the nature of Assen meant that such issues were punished far more severely than at other circuits. "Round a high speed race track like this, if you have any kind of lack of confidence, lack of feel, the lap times almost double, because it's 3 or 4 km/h everywhere. Because of the flowing nature of the race track, you never get a chance to come back. If you have a problem in a slow speed corner, you can hustle it in, and pick it up straight away, but here's different."
At a high speed track like Assen, where bikes are spending a lot of time on the edge of the tire, small differences in speed soon add up. Running through a tight turn 3 km/h slower than the rest doesn't lose you much time if you're only on the edge of the tire for a second. But if you're flowing through corners like Assen's which seem to go on forever, then you're losing 3 km/h for ten seconds at a time. That soon adds up. "I think that's why we're seeing the gaps that we're seeing, and we're seeing people looking like they're struggling a lot," Smith explained. "Honestly, I don't think they're struggling a lot, it's just that the lap times seem so much because of the nature of the track. They're struggling a little bit, but for a long time."
The mixed up world of MotoGP
That certainly goes a long way to explaining the richly mixed grid which MotoGP qualifying presented. It is perhaps telling that no one was really surprised to see Johann Zarco take his first pole position in MotoGP. The Tech 3 rider's progress in MotoGP has been simply stunning, so it was merely a matter of time. Marc Márquez in second is even less surprising, while Danilo Petrucci has been consistently impressive in the past few races, the Pramac Ducati rider's podium at Mugello having galvanized his confidence, so a second front row start on the trot is a reasonable expectation.
But there were big surprises at both the front and the back of the grid. Sam Lowes rode brilliantly in a wet Q1 to make his way through to Q2, to earn the right to start from tenth on the grid. Lowes, who Aprilia, in their wisdom, have decided is not quick enough after just seven races of his rookie season, ended Q2 ahead of championship leader Maverick Viñales and 30-time MotoGP race winner Dani Pedrosa. Three Ducatis finished ahead of the first factory rider Andrea Dovizioso in ninth. Teammate Jorge Lorenzo, meanwhile, got no further than 21st on the grid for Sunday's race, his worst qualifying position since 2003, his second year in Grand Prix racing.
When confronted with that statistic, Lorenzo answered with measured irritation. "Well, again we come back to the same, and we can be pessimistic, and think, wow, what a disaster, worst position ever since 2003," Lorenzo said. "But it's like that. MotoGP today is like that. Seven years ago, if you finish one second behind the first rider, and you are fifth. Now, you finish one second behind, you have some problems, the bike doesn't feel great, you lose one second to the top guys and you are twentieth."
Hot or not?
The grid was broadly divided into those that struggled to get heat into the rear wet tire, and those who didn't. That also depended on just how wet the track was. For some riders, like Dani Pedrosa, a fully wet track was a complete disaster, and he had not chance of getting his rear tire up to temperature. Others had no such issues, and could push right from the beginning, though most riders felt the soft rear tire was a little bit too hard, and wasn't easy to warm up.
Jonas Folger, still struggling with the aftereffects of his big crash yesterday, was having trouble with grip from the rear tire. His team told him they were going to increase the rear tire pressure – normally, the opposite of what you would expect to try to raise tire temperatures – but that he would have to go out and push hard from the start to get the tire up to temperature. It worked, and Folger will start from sixth.
Others were left without a clear idea of what happened. "In FP3 I was feeling great, I was feeling good, getting a good rhythm, getting good laps on the lap time," a despondent Maverick Viñales told us. "But suddenly in qualifying, when I exit and already I didn't have any feeling. I don't know if it's because the track was more dry or something, but no feeling on the qualifying, with both tires." The problem was with both front and rear tires, Viñales said. "Especially with the rear on the entry of the corners, and in the middle. I couldn't make good corner speed or hard braking as I did in the morning."
For once, Viñales was willing to exonerate Michelin. "I don't think Michelin have a problem here. All the tires I used today had the same grip, so I don't think Michelin caused the problem, for sure," he said. But he had no immediate alternative explanation for his problems. Whatever they were, they left him drained and exasperated. "It's not good starting from eleventh when you're fighting for the championship, and another result like this didn't give me a lot of motivation, you know? You exit FP3 thinking, OK, I can go for the pole, and then you go in the qualifying and you are eleventh. It's something … amazing."
There is a growing sense that there is something amiss on Viñales' side of the garage. Given that team's record, however – Ramon Forcada took Jorge Lorenzo to three titles in nine years, and countless victories – it is not as simple as the team falling short. Forcada can still give Viñales a bike capable of winning – on Friday, Viñales was quicker than the rest by a country mile. But when things don't click, there is a major disconnect, and results suffer badly.
It is possible that Viñales' early success has conditioned his expectations. The Spaniard can never comprehend when he is not fastest in a race or during a practice session. He regards the top step of the podium as his by right, and views any other outcome as a gross affront to his dignity. He expects to win, and like all true champions, does not understand when that doesn't happen.
Who rules the roost?
But there are also the first signs of disharmony with his teammate. Valentino Rossi appears to be playing an elaborate power game over who rules the roost in the Movistar Yamaha stables. The current point of conflict is the new chassis the team are using (though I heard today some wilde speculation that the new chassis is actually last year's bike, seized back from Tech 3). Rossi wants to keep the new chassis tested at Barcelona, and which he has concentrated on at Assen. Viñales, however, is far from convinced. But Rossi appears to be forcing the hand of Yamaha over the direction of development, perhaps in an attempt to seize back the initiative in the Movistar Yamaha camp.
Or perhaps the new chassis simply works a lot better for the Yamaha. Rossi was very quick, and was unlucky to have been bumped back to fourth on the grid after Zarco, Márquez and Petrucci all blasted past him. It was a supremely confident Rossi who faced the press on Saturday, though he did his best to hide all too much enthusiasm. "It was a positive day for us because I was very, very curious to try the new chassis in the wet, because also the wet with the 2017 bike I suffer a lot," Rossi said. "And the feeling is not so bad because I was competitive from this morning – this morning with more water maybe better than this afternoon. But anyway, finished in the second position this morning and is a shame for me to lose the front row but it's very important for tomorrow to start in the top five. I'm fourth, so I'm in a quite good position. We have to work a little bit because in the wet, in the last laps, the top three were stronger than me. But I feel good. This is very important."
Who wins on Sunday? It is a perennial subject of discussion among we journalists on a Saturday night. Normally, a consensus arrives quickly, but this time, arguments went on long into the night over who would triumph. And even then, we couldn't agree.
If the race is dry – and it should be, though it will take place under overcast skies – then Viñales clearly has the best race pace, but he is a long way behind the front row. Johann Zarco will run the soft tires, and is sure to make them last on Sunday, as he spent Friday working on that when the track was dry. Marc Márquez is in good shape too, spending a lot of time on used tires to ensure his own race pace. And Danilo Petrucci is a wildcard that could throw a real spanner in the works.
Don't count Valentino Rossi out either, the Italian able to draw all the elements of a good performance together on a Sunday. Starting from the front row means he can limit his focus on staying with Johann Zarco, and trying to beat the Young Frenchman at his game.
Earlier in the day, it looked like the Assen circuit would have a perfect excuse for selling out tickets on Sunday. Bo Bendsneyder rode an exceptional qualifying, and looked set to take a comfortable pole. But that was before Jorge Martin put in one a truly astonishing lap to beat Bendsneyder. Bendsneyder may have been eight tenths quicker than the rest of the Moto3 pack, but Martin made putting eight tenths into Bo Bendsneyder look like child's play. It all bodes well for Sunday, and a Dutch winner at a Dutch track would be a welcome relief for Dutch MotoGP fans. On Sunday, they might just get what they wanted.
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