Assen has always been one of those special tracks where the event transcends mere pavement and landscape. Although in recent times purists have decried that the TT circuit was emasculated by the excision of the “Northern Loop”, the track has always lent itself to great spectacles of speed, even in truncated form. The critics were mollified somewhat this year by a revised layout that saw the entry to the Ruskenhoek section straightened somewhat, eliminating the much-reviled “Crochet Hook” and restoring some of the fast, flowing character to the venerable cathedral.
As for spectacles of speed, there was absolutely no shortage of the fairing-bashing, take no prisoners type of contest that has been drawing motorcycle racing fans to the Dutch TT since 1949. Although this commentator isn’t much of a statistics wonk, one figure in particular captures the flavor of the event perfectly -- 15 laps into race 2, a mere 0.997 seconds separated first through sixth place. That’s close racing in anyone’s book.
Rea of Sunshine
Prior to the race, Ten Kate Honda’s Jonny Rea said that it was going to take “big balls” to exploit the increased potential afforded by the track’s revised layout. Much as one hesitates to posit on what just exactly lurks beneath a Scotsman’s kilt, we’ll take it on a faith based on the young Ulsterman’s results, that, whatever it took, they fit beneath his Alpinestars leathers.
From the first practice, The 2007 British Superbike runner-up was at or near the top of the time sheets in every session, culminating in a staggering Superpole effort that saw him lop 2.7 seconds off Ben Spies 2009 time. Race one saw Rea take the lead halfway through and withstand spirited challenges from 2-time WSBK champions Troy Corser and James Toseland to take the win. Race two was more of the same, with Rea able to pull a small gap on the field with 2 laps to go after an Assen-typical race-long tussle in a lead pack that included Corser, Toseland, the two Leons and Max Biaggi.
Whether it was a revised set-up that Rea said made the bike more comfortable to ride, the newly-installed HRC electronics package or simply the attitude that allowed the Ten Kate pilot to ride the "smartest I've ever ridden", his double win at Assen that moved him up to third in the championship standings has put the paddock on notice that Jonny Rea intends to be a serious contender for the title run.
Play Us a Song, Piano Man
No one could argue that James Toseland has had a rocky return to World Superbikes. A broken hand suffered the series opener at Phillip Island, coupled with a Yamaha that perhaps wasn't as good as a certain American made it look in 2009, have conspired to frustrate the normally upbeat Yorkshireman. A podium in race one at Valencia was a rare highlight in a season of struggle. Things didn't look much better after Superpole at Assen, where a 180mph wheelie 3 turns from the end of a fast lap left Toseland languishing in tenth position on the grid.
Come Sunday, both races played out similarly with the Sterilgarda Yamaha rider advancing briskly through the field to the front and managing to land on the box with a second in Race 1 and a third in Race 2. Whether the improved results came from a ubiquitous "something" found in a revised rear suspension linkage or from Toseland's evident intention to beat the R1 into submission by sheer force of will is a moot point -- JT's back.
Round, Rubber and Rolls
Not long into race one, it was clear that something was wrong in Leon Haslam's world. This year's points leader had dropped like a rock thrown into a pond from his fourth place qualifying position down to a low of 16th. Turned out the trouble was a slight puncture on the Alstare GSXR1000's front Pirelli that allowed half the air pressure to escape out into the atmosphere from whence it came. Race tires run considerably less air pressure than those used on the street but keeping up with the best superbike riders in the world requires more than a dozen pounds per square inch in the front doughnut. All things considered, however, Haslam's 11th place was a very creditable finish, given the circumstances. Normal service resumed in Race 2 with the Pocket Rocket and eventual race winner Rea dueling until the last couple laps when Rea was able to pull a half second gap.
When Troy Corser left Yamaha at the end of the 2008 season, the word in the paddock was that the Australian 2-time World Superbike champion had lost the ability to seal the deal and win a race, something he hadn't been able to do during his tenure aboard the Yamaha Italia R1. When the fledgling BMW superbike effort signed Corser, wags speculated that a development role on the way to the old rider's home was in store for the aging ex-champion, not that any of those wags would have said it to his face. 2009 was a frustrating year for Corser with mostly mid and rear of the pack finishes and 6 DNF's. The sole highlight was a 5th in race one at Brno.
Such is to be expected for a rider past his prime on a team that had zero experience on the world roadracing stage, said the pundits. One of the perceived problems of the team, the lack of experienced race team management, was rectified when Davide Tardozzi, on the rebound from an inglorious exit from his long-time job with the factory Ducati team, was signed to manage the squad.
Tardozzi's influence wasn't readily apparent early in the 2010 season, with mid-pack finishes for Corser and with co-rider Ruben Xaus reportedly afraid to ride the S1000RR in the wake of four pre-race crashes at the opening round at Phillip Island. At Valencia, however, things had improved, as evidenced by Corser's fourth place qualifying position and 5th place finish in race one.
At Assen, it was quickly evident that Corser had become comfortable on the BMW with top 3 positions in practice and qualifying, and a front row starting position after placing third in Superpole. Come race day, it was the Troy Corser of old who lined up on the grid. Jumping out to the lead in both races, Corser led a total of 15 laps between the two sessions until rear grip issues shuffled him back to a pair of 5th place finishes.
Whither Thou, Ducati?
With 13 rider's championships and 16 manufacturer's championships, the name Ducati is virtually synonymous with World Superbike racing. With such a proud tradition, failure is not suffered lightly by the factory or by the marque's fans. After last year's loss of the world championship to Yamaha, where team management was roundly criticized -- fairly or unfairly -- for it's failure to reign in Michel Fabrizio so that Haga could score a few more points, heads rolled at Xerox Ducati. Long-time multi world championship winning team manager Davide Tardozzi left the team by his own accord, or at least that's what he told the press.
In his place, Ernest Marinelli, long-time Ducati employee and crew chief to the stars, took over the management role. Although there have been bright spots, such as Haga and Fabrizio's podiums at Phillip Island and Haga's win at Valencia, this year has, by and large, been an embarrassment for the factory team, not the least of which is being in the ignominious position of being regularly beaten by the Althea satellite team.
At Assen, with the team's hopes buoyed by Haga's victory at the previous round, the wheels really fell off the red wagon. To illustrate how pitiful the team's performance was, Haga's battle in race one for his eventual tenth place was the highlight of the weekend. After Haga's retirement with mechanical issues in race two, a TV camera caught the Japanese rider communicating with team management in sign language with a gesture that either looked like a tachometer needle with it's revs waning or something formerly erect going limp.
With finishes of 12th and 13th, limp is as apt a term as any to describe Michel Fabrizio's performance on the weekend. Always a streaky kind of rider, Fabrizio was thought to have finally made the leap to the upper tier of riders in 2009 with three wins and 13 podiums. This year, Mr Fabulous isn't looking so fabulous with two podiums at Phillip Island being the highlights of his year so far. Since the oiland, Fabrizio's season has gone right into the toilet with nary a top ten finish and a couple of DNFs during an execrable weekend in Valencia. Watch out Michel, there's a Czech kid on a privateer Ducati that a lot of people think is way overdue for a a shot at a factory ride.
Going into Monza, the season is unfolding as a lot of fans had hoped -- multiple winners on multiple marques with close, exciting racing being the rule, not the exception. Leon Haslam, pneumatic failures notwithstanding, managed to pad his points lead to 20 over Max Biaggi. British fans are well chuffed, dreams of limey world domination dancing in their heads, in the aftermath Assen's all Brit podiums. With so many able riders piloting so many able machines, one hesitates to make predictions but one thing's for sure -- if Xerox Ducati can't break out of their slump on home soil, tomato sauce isn't the only red fluid that the passionate paisanos will be calling for.