Where Are The Racetracks Of Yesteryear?
The MotoGP paddock arrives at Assen on Thursday for the next MotoGP round, the 76th A-Style Assen TT, with mixed emotions. Ask any motorcycle racer, in any class, to name their favorite tracks, and 90% of them will include Assen. MotoGP's oldest circuit, and the only circuit to have been a continuous fixture since the modern era of motorcycle racing commenced in 1949, is both loved and legendary. The mixture of fast, flowing banked and mixed camber turns, make it difficult to ride, but immensely rewarding when you get it right. The first race ran 28.4 kilometers between the villages of Borger and Schoonlo, over the farm roads that meander through the wooded countryside east of Assen. Over the years, the track moved to its current location, just southwest of Assen, but it still ran, first on open roads, then on a section of those roads turned into a racing circuit. If you approach the track avoiding the main highway around the city of Assen, over the narrow, winding, tree-lined back roads, you get a feel of what the original track was like, and understand how the new track came about. It is this, coupled with the fact that Assen is a uniquely motorcycle-based track, that the riders love. It wasn't designed, it grew organically out of the surrounding countryside, and the roads that permeate it, and it still feels like that.
Or rather, it used to feel like that. In the fall of 2005, the digging machines moved in, and removed the old North Loop, the oldest part of the circuit, including the section from the S-Bocht turn to the Haarbocht, a section which has been in use since 1926, and had seen 74 TTs raced on it. The North Loop was the very essence of Assen, and though the southern section still holds some of that magic, it was in the North Loop that legends were made. In its place is a series of right-handers emerging onto the tightened Strubben hairpin, and although the designers have tried to combine the original banked surface with a technically challenging set of turns, the result is still more like modern Shanghai than venerable Assen. The riders will be given an extra half hour of practice on Thursday (a day earlier than usual, as Assen runs on a Saturday), to learn the new part of the track. And they'll need it: at both club class, national championship and international level, the new section has caused riders major problems. The new Haarbocht (the right-angle right-hander at the end of the main straight) and Madijk combination has two different lines through it; the very long Ossebroeken right-hander has two do-it-yourself apexes, allowing passing outside and inside round the turn; and the new Strubben is now so slow that gearing for the race becomes very difficult. In addition, though it's easy to pass going into the Strubben hairpin, if you get on the wrong line, you lose a huge amount of drive out onto the fast Veenslang section; exit speed from the Strubben is likely to be a major factor through the race.
The other reason for ambiguous feelings among the MotoGP regulars is also related to the relentless march of progress: with launch control available to everyone on the grid, Catalunya demonstrated the carnage, and the human cost, that 19 riders arriving at the same corner, and fighting for the same piece of tarmac at the same time, can have. Last week's turn one pile-up left two title contenders and a proven race winner battered, bruised and broken. With million-dollar motorcycles flying through the air, and colliding on the ground, it's a near miracle that no one was more seriously injured. Loris Capirossi is due to make his return at Assen, despite suffering severe internal bruising, Marco Melandri is due to make a decision about riding on Thursday morning, together with Dr Costa, after suffering a severe concussion and bad bruising, and Alex Hofmann will take Sete Gibernau's place on the works Ducati, Spanish rider Ivan Silva moving up from d'Antin's Spanish superbike team to take Hofmann's satellite Ducati, meaning that we could still get 19 starters on the grid. But even if we do, the field will still be badly depleted.
With Melandri looking doubtful for Assen, a repeat of last year's race seems unlikely. The Italian rider chased Rossi to the last, Rossi putting on a typical last-lap spectacular to finally dispatch his compatriot. Colin Edwards valiantly battled his way through the field, almost catching Melandri, before deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, after a couple of big front-end slides. Nicky Hayden was starting to show the form that would take him to the top step in Laguna Seca, and finished a couple of seconds shy of Edwards, ahead of a fading Sete Gibernau.
The Doctor Dominant
The only factor likely to remain constant at Assen is Valentino Rossi. The Doctor is always sublime at Assen, a track he loves, and his form at Mugello and Catalunya must strike fear into the hearts of his opponents. Since the new chassis for his Yamaha M1 arrived, modified to solve, or at least ameliorate, the problems the Yamaha riders had been having with chatter, Rossi has returned to his invincible 2005 form. He was convincing at Le Mans before the bizarre engine failure, brilliant at Mugello, though pushed every inch of the way, and utterly dominant at Catalunya, once the race finally got underway.
Where Rossi's has dominated, Yamaha team mate Colin Edwards has dawdled. The Texas Tornado has looked more like a breeze so far this season, struggling with the same chatter that plagued Rossi early in the season. Edwards only really got to use the new improved M1 chassis at Catalunya, and will be hoping to make it work at Assen, where last year he took his second podium of 2005. With Edwards' current form, he is unlikely to repeat.
A Regular Guy
The American voted Most Likely To End Up On The Podium is of course Nicky Hayden. So far, he has failed to get on the podium only at Le Mans, where he was hampered by pneumonia, but otherwise he has been a paragon of reliability. Where Repsol's future hopeful Pedrosa has blown hot and cold, winning in China, but falling off twice, the Kentucky Kid has been at the front, and stayed at the front, nearly every race. His regularity has given him a comfortable lead in the championship, 29 points ahead of Rossi, and he shows no signs of slacking off the pace. He also shows few signs of being able to force a win, and will surely be longing for Laguna Seca, where he proved last year he could win.
And what of the wounded warriors, Rossi's other two challengers? Loris Capirossi will ride again at practice on Thursday, but has two things going against him: firstly, he is still badly battered from the corner chaos at Catalunya; and secondly, history. The Ducatis were very mediocre at Assen, even though it's such a fast track, finishing 9th and 10th. So even if Capirossi is physically able of putting up a fight, last year points to it being a lost battle.
As for Marco Melandri, the Italian is at Assen, in the paddock, preparing for tomorrow's practice. He is scheduled to make a decision about what he'll do tomorrow morning, but people who have seen him tottering around like an arthritic octogenarian are sceptical. Dutch former GP star Jurgen van den Goorbergh has been in touch with the Fortuna Honda team, but Melandri is adamant he wants to try and ride himself. If Melandri decides he can't race, then a Dutchman on a competitive machine at Assen would be a huge crowd-pleaser, and a great publicity move.
At Home In Holland
In absence of a home rider, the Rizla Suzuki team are claiming Assen as their home GP, based on the fact that their sponsor, cigarette rolling paper manufacturer Rizla, are Dutch. The fact that the team is based in Britain, and features an American and an Australian (albeit of Dutch extraction, hence his surname, Vermeulen), hasn't stood in the way of attempts at winning home crowd support. And John Hopkins has started to look like a genuine threat. He is becoming a collector of fourth places, and with each race looks more and more like a candidate for the podium. The Bridgestone-shod Suzuki is still not a race-winning bike (unless it rains), but, after the very public kicking Hopkins gave the bike in Qatar, big steps have been made to becoming competitive.
And another American looks like a competitor: Kenny Roberts Junior took Team KR to its first podium since 1996. The chassis the Banbury, England-based team has built around the Honda V5 engine is really starting to pull together. The bike's handling is in no doubt, and with Assen and Donington to come, both tracks that reward a sweet-handling bike ridden smoothly, KRJR has every chance of proving that his podium at Catalunya was not just the result of so many front runners falling off.
Among those front runners are the two hugely talented, but seemingly accident-prone rookies Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner. Pedrosa has already won one race this year, but has also managed to drop the bike twice, from the front of the pack. He has certainly proved his critics wrong, by being competitive from the start of the season, but if he is to fulfill Honda's hope of a world title, he has to stop falling off. The other rookie, Casey Stoner is displaying much of the temperament that lost him two world titles in the 250 class. Stoner seems always to be in a hurry to lead, and in his haste, he pushes too hard, and takes the odd excursion into the gravel. Once the young Australian learns some patience, he will be a formidable force. But to finish first, first you must finish.
Tales Of The Tail
Nearer the back of the field, we are starting to see some interesting developments. Firstly, Alex Hofmann, who normally rides the Dunlop-shod Pramac d'Antin Ducati, and has a season ticket for 18th place, ahead of only his team mate Jose Luis Cardoso, is to get to ride the Bridgestone-shod works Ducati as replacement for Sete Gibernau, who will be out for at least two races, and possibly more. With experience on the Ducati, and decent tires, he is being given a chance to prove himself. If he does not seize this opportunity, he may struggle to find a ride in 2007.
Another rider who may not have a ride next year, or even after the summer, is Makoto Tamada. Despite being on a proven bike with proven tires, he has been conspicuous only by his mediocrity. This is not the same rider of two years ago, who threatened to take a podium every race.
But the most interesting story at the back of the pack is Carlos Checa. Checa came very close to catching Tamada at Catalunya, and was lapping at almost the same pace as Suzuki's Vermeulen for much of the race. Rossi has proved that the Yamaha works, but Checa has had to make do with the Dunlops. However, all the money that Dunlop forked out to get Checa is starting to pay dividends: the Dunlops are getting closer to becoming a genuinely competitive race tire. Then all they will need is a decent qualifier.
Goodbye To All That
The riders of the MotoGP circus are sure to feel some sadness this weekend, for the demise of the once-magnificent Assen, now only a shadow of its former self. But they won't be mourning for long: there is still plenty of racing left this season, and Assen still provides a great venue and a great atmosphere, all the ingredients that go to make up for great racing. With a vast crowd, a fast track, and a world championship to race for, there's a paddock full of riders raring to go.