Eventful. That was the best way to describe the first day of practice at Assen. The riders got a chance to sample the new asphalt, and they also got a chance to sample typical Assen summer weather: cool and dry in the morning, sprinkles of rain in the afternoon, followed by a downpour harsh enough to soak the track and allow a few laps in full wet conditions. Not ideal for working on bike setup, especially if your name is Garrett Gerloff, and you have been drafted in to replace Franco Morbidelli, who spent the morning having surgery on his meniscus and ACL, and faces an 8-week period of rehab. That would mean a return after the two races in Austria. But more of Gerloff later.
The verdict on the new asphalt was unanimously positive. "The grip is fantastic," Jack Miller echoing the thoughts of almost everyone. "I mean, Moto3 was close to the lap record. We’re already going really fast, from the beginning this morning. The way the tires are working with the asphalt seems to be really good. The tires are not really dropping off. We were all doing our best lap times at the end of FP1 with the same tires, which generally doesn’t really happen."
Though Assen does not see enough top-flight car racing to pull up severe ripples in the braking areas (and lacks the kind of corners were such severe braking will lift the tarmac into ripples), there were still a couple of bumps to worry about. Not big bumps, just in very convenient places. Like on the exit of the Ruskenhoek, the lightning fast left-right sweep at the end of the Veenslang straight. Or at Meeuwenmeer, the fast right kink heading up to Hoge Heide.
Bumpy ride at speed
"This track has something special inside and also the new asphalt has a very good grip," Valentino Rossi told us. "The situation with the bumps is better so I enjoy very much. The feeling with the asphalt is very good. The asphalt is very high quality with good grip. The situation with the bumps has improved a lot; it’s not perfect, in some places we have some bumps, but they make a very good job."
"I only feel one big bump between Turn 7 and Turn 8 [the second part of Ruskenhoek and Stekkenwal]," Johann Zarco said. "It's always moving in Turn 6, but it's moving in Turn 6 because you are arriving very fast. You are super fast and at the same time, you have to change direction, so you are putting force on the bike."
The bumps are part of what makes Assen unique, Joan Mir explained. "For a new asphalt, there are quite a lot of bumps. But especially on the fast corners," the Suzuki Ecstar rider told us. "Most of them were there previously, they just put a (new) surface and didn’t solve the problem of the bumps. Those bumps were there before. For me it’s a bit the character of this track, those bumps."
A flowing track with a lot of grip means one thing: the Yamahas are in their element. So while it was no surprise to see a Yamaha top both sessions of practice, after what happened at the Sachsenring, Maverick Viñales was not the first name you would have guessed would be top of the pile.
No change, all change
Viñales felt the same way. "Today it went well, honestly. I didn't expect to be that competitive and so fast," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told the MotoGP.com website. "today in FP1 when I saw 1'33.0, with 20 long laps on the tires, it was a fast lap time, honestly. And this afternoon I was just cruising, understand, so it was good. Honestly, this 1'33.2, basically I found a good grip on the bike and I can do more or less what I like on the track, the lines I like, and it seems to pay on the lap time."
Although Viñales had loudly proclaimed at the Sachsenring that he was going to copy Fabio Quartararo's setup at Assen, mirroring his teammate's every setup change, he hadn't even started down that path when he went fastest. "Actually, what is tough is that this was the same bike as Sachsenring. This is the biggest thing and the strangest thing that I felt," he said. He and his team might use Quartararo's setup on one bike on Saturday, but they hadn't done that yet on Friday.
Was Viñales' speed down to the fact that Assen was a track where he has a strong record? The factory Yamaha rider won the race last time MotoGP was here, back in 2019. Viñales rejected that theory. "I'm good also in Sachsenring, you know?" Viñales said. "I had a lot of, let's say, faith at the Sachsenring, because it's a track normally where I go very fast. But everything was gone. I made my worst result. What I understand here that sometimes something happens. Nobody knows what, not even me, and then you can go from last to first. It's strange, because I do exactly the same, I eat the same, I sleep the same."
Wet and dry
Viñales was also quick in the wet. Taking a ranking of the riders using wet tires in the second half of FP2, the Spaniard was fifth quickest, three quarters of a second behind Miguel Oliveira. There were 13 riders who were slower, and the sixth fastest man, Johann Zarco, was half a second slower than Viñales. That is unusual, because Viñales is usually slow in the wet.
Being fast was perhaps even worse than being slow. It rendered pretty much everything meaningless, making no sense of any of the work Viñales and his team had done. To go from finishing last at the Sachsenring to being quickest at Assen made no sense at all, and left Viñales frustrated.
That's why the quotes above were from the MotoGP.com website. The official MotoGP.com website was the only media outlet which Viñales spoke to, refusing to talk to Spanish broadcaster DAZN, and not turning up for his media debrief. The official explanation was that he had been in a long technical debrief, and it was too late and he was too tired afterward to speak to the media.
Viñales may well have been in a technical debrief, and it may have lasted a long time. But that certainly wasn't the whole explanation for skipping his media duties. At least a part of it must have something to do with his frustration at the situation, at Yamaha, at the media, who aim an incessant stream of criticism at him. Then again, he finished last at the Sachsenring, so perhaps that criticism is deserved.
Even that result was hard to understand. Viñales may have been last at the Sachsenring, but he set the seventh-quickest lap in the race. Faster than Valentino Rossi, who he finished behind, and faster than Fabio Quartararo, who finished on the podium. Quartararo's pace was a consistent string of low to mid 1'22s at the Sachsenring. Viñales had no problem matching that pace in the first half of the race, before dropping to high 1'22s. But the Spaniard was capable of repeating that pace at the end of the race. His last lap was a 1'22.7, faster than the last two laps of Miguel Oliveira, who finished second, and faster than the last two laps of Quartararo, who finished third.
That is the conundrum of Maverick Viñales. The Spaniard is indisputably one of the fastest riders in the world, when he can put everything together. But the fact that he was circulating a couple of seconds a lap slower in the middle of the race at the Sachsenring, stuck behind the Ducatis of Luca Marini and Enea Bastianini, also highlights his weakness. It is difficult for the Yamahas to pass the Ducatis, that much is true. But at a tight track like the Sachsenring, a little inventiveness and creativity will get you a long way. Fabio Quartararo managed to get past Jack Miller. So why couldn't Viñales get past Bastianini and Marini?
Viñales' refusal to do media is a harbinger of things to come. Though rider contracts tend not to have language specifying that they must turn up for particular media events, there are usually clauses in there specifying the number of days a rider must participate in media and sponsor events outside of race weekends. There are general clauses on behavior, and not criticizing the factory and bike in public. And there is huge pressure from Dorna to do TV interviews, especially with the major broadcast players: DAZN in Spain, BT Sport in the UK, Sky in Italy.
Those three pony up the bulk of the broadcast rights fees to Dorna, and so Dorna does everything in their power to make sure riders are available for interview. Viñales refused to speak to DAZN on Friday, a move which is sure to incur the wrath of the head of Dorna's media activities.
It was an act of outright rebellion, and one for which I have some sympathy, despite being on the losing end of Viñales' actions. But it also raises questions over the long-term sustainability of the relationship between Yamaha and Maverick Viñales. The pair have a contract with 18 more months to run. It is hard to see how they manage to stick it out together for the entire duration of that period.
On the other hand, Maverick Viñales was fastest on Friday. And it is entirely reasonable to believe that he might even win the race on Sunday, or at least end on the podium. Would that heal the wounds between the two parties, or merely paper over the cracks until the next disaster unfolds? That, in a nutshell, is the enigma of Maverick Viñales.
While criticism of his manufacturer has become a regular occurrence for Maverick Viñales, it was something of a surprise to hear it from Marc Márquez. As a rule, the Repsol Honda rider is extremely cautious when speaking about the factory he rides form couching any criticism in the most diplomatic of terms. So it was remarkable to hear him aim some very direct criticism of Honda's electronics package at HRC.
Remarkable, but entirely understandable, given just how hard he had been spat off the Honda RC213V in FP2. Márquez was chasing Joan Mir around the southern section of the track, accelerating out of Mandeveen and tipping the bike over through Duikersloot. On the onboard video, you can hear Márquez feather the throttle a little, at which point the rear starts to come round, then grabs, and then fires Márquez into low earth orbit. You could count the number of seconds the Spaniard was in the air, and he took a long time to get to his feet.
At least he did so, and was soon on the back of a marshal's motorcycle on the way back to the paddock. But he got off the bike stiffly, and with a slight limp, walked back into the Repsol Honda garage. Márquez did not go back out again, though he had the excuse of the rain for not needing to.
The good news for Márquez is that the arm he broke in Jerez in 2020 held up under what was a massive crash. The bad news is that everything hurts as much as the rest, more or less. "Of course I feel I had big crash," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "I have some pain in my knee, some pain in the foot, some pain in the elbow. But everything is OK to continue in the same performance during the weekend."
He may continue, but he expressed his displeasure at a crash like this happening. He did not believe he bore any of the blame for the crash. "I was pushing in some parts of the circuit but in that point and that type of corner I was not riding over the limits, because there was another rider in front of me and I was doing exactly the same as he did or even slower," Márquez said.
Márquez made clear he believed the problem lies with the electronics package of the Honda RC213V. "We cannot have these kinds of crashes," he insisted. "In that kind of corners we are against the electronics. The electronics are there to avoid this type of crashes."
The problem is this isn't a one off, Márquez said. Nor was it a crash that any other factory suffered.
"The thing is only Honda riders have these kinds of highsides," Márquez told us. "In Portimao Alex and Pol. Here me. It was a similar crash in 2020 in Jerez," the Spaniard said, referring to the crash at the first race in 2020 where he broke his humerus, and which triggered his absence throughout the 2020 season.
It was imperative to try to learn from this and prevent it in the future, Márquez told us. "We must understand. We already understand a bit. First of all I checked the data if I did something wrong. This time I was riding in the same way as the previous lap. But just the TC didn’t manage the slide. It’s something there we must understand for the future. For the future doesn’t mean next year. It means this year. To be more safe, because if not, it’s impossible to take the confidence and be fast again."
This is part of a long-term pattern for Honda. It wasn't just Portimão and Jerez 2020 where the Honda's electronics failed to tame its beast of an engine. We have seen it before, arguably. Marc Márquez' crash at Austin in 2019, bringing to an end to his victory streak there, was an electronics glitch that caused him to lose the rear while well in the lead. In 2015, a similar problem saw him run wide and through the gravel at Turn 1 in Qatar, and lose a huge amount of ground. That proved to be just a hint of the problems to come in 2015.
The problem, Ramon Forcada explained to Dennis Noyes in the 'Radio Ocotillo' podcast, is the different objectives the engine designers and the electronics staff have. In one room, the engine builders are working away at trying to get as much power as possible out of a 1000cc V4, and in the room next door, a bunch of electronics engineers are figuring out ways of removing most of that power to make the bike rideable for mere mortals.
It's not just outright horsepower, of course. The Ducati Desmosedici is the most powerful bike on the grid, yet it is, if not exactly docile, at least manageable. HRC has a reputation for making engines which are particularly aggressive, and from time to time, their riders pay the price. They appear once again to have overstepped the mark, just as they have in the past, with an engine which has such an aggressive throttle response that it can get out of hand faster than the electronics can intervene – and far faster than even a rider like Marc Márquez can avert disaster.
One problem at a time
This is not an easy problem to fix. Sure, you can change the engine character with electronics, but if an engine is sufficiently aggressive – too light a flywheel, for example, will cause the engine to spin up and slow down quickly, too heavy a flywheel will not slow down fast enough, and push you into the corners as you brake - it is hard to control without destroying the characteristics you were pursuing when you gave it so much power in the first place.
At least the new chassis which HRC brought appears to be an improvement. Marc Márquez had tested the new frame in the morning session. "About the chassis, I’m really happy with the job HRC did," Márquez told us. "Maybe it’s the first thing that I feel some potential for the future, some clear direction for future. I feel it was working well. I need to compare more deeply during the weekend and at another track. I feel not bad. I was happy immediately when I tried it, I saw some different riding style and different way to understand the things. Overall, I like it."
Finally, to turn to Garrett Gerloff, the American who has switched from the WorldSBK paddock to replace Franco Morbidelli. (And as an aside, if Morbidelli misses the first two races in Austria, it might be more difficult to draft Gerloff in again, as the Czech round of WorldSBK at Most is on the same weekend as Austria 1.)
Gerloff had ridden a MotoGP bike before, of course, but that was at Valencia in wet and mixed conditions. Riding a MotoGP bike in the dry was a very different proposition, the American explained. "I definitely feel better in the wet conditions with the GP bike, just because it makes the whole bike a little bit softer, a little bit less rigid," the Petronas Yamaha substitute told us. "So it just feels a little bit more natural, a little bit more normal for me. In the dry, the bike is so stiff, it's so rigid, the chassis doesn't move, and it can be a little bit violent sometimes, with shaking and being nervous. So that was one of the difficulties for me today."
Violent it was, Gerloff suffering a fast and frightening crash at the Ruskenhoek in FP1. "The crash was basically because I was learning the track a little bit, and I felt like I was going in a little bit hot into Turn 7, so I was just trailing the brake a little bit longer than I had been, and it just kind of did that," Gerloff told us. "It's just a little bit frustrating, because obviously I didn't want to go down. But anyway, I learned that, and all good."
The bike felt very different in the dry at Assen to the wet in Valencia. "For sure the GP bike feels completely different now, like I said, just with how rigid the chassis is," Gerloff explained. "It feels pretty aggressive, where the last time I rode it was mainly with wet settings and wet tires mainly, so the feeling was a little bit more like a superbike. So I didn't think the difference was that big. But now, having the full dry setting and everything, the difference is quite a bit! Especially when you hit bumps with the GP bike, you notice the bumps a lot more and you get a lot more reaction from the bike, you know? So that's the biggest difference."
Gerloff really needed more time on a dry track to get used to the extreme aggression of the MotoGP Yamaha M1. "Really I just want to get more dry laps in," the American said. "We did three laps in the wet, and honestly in the wet, the bike doesn't feel so bad, and I don't feel so bad either. I feel like the bike reacts how I expect it to. So really, if I can get some more dry laps that would be ideal."
Gerloff had identified the problem he faced. "I just need to ride the bike a bit different, I've been looking at data and things, and I guess in some of the faster sections, where I've had the biggest issue, I'm just not loading the bike enough, and when the bike's not loaded all the way, it just kind of reacts to every little imperfection in the track, and it starts to get pretty violent, and so it's pretty hard to carry the momentum, you know?"
There is no try
MotoGP bikes are extreme, and even the relatively easy-to-ride Yamaha has to be pushed hard to get it to work. The problem is it is hard to work up to pushing as hard as possible when the bike doesn't really work when you don't force it. "For sure it's hard to build up to it, because there's no in the middle. There's no middle ground," Gerloff said. "You either do it or you don't do it, but to commit to it, you've definitely just got to have big balls. So I've got to work on that tomorrow."
Forecasts vary for Assen, but the more reliable ones suggest that Gerloff will get the chance to do just that. It's likely to stay dry during the day, heavy rain only falling in the early evening. As much as Gerloff might want to spend his evening getting more laps under his belt on the Yamaha M1, the rules would prevent him if the rain didn't.
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