A quick hop across the North Sea sees MotoGP hit the halfway point. Rossi once closed a title deficit of over 45 points, but can Casey Stoner do the same?
Barely had the engines cooled and the dust been washed off the bikes after the race at Donington before the entire MotoGP circus was busy packing and loading up to head on over to the northern reaches of the Netherlands, and the TT Circuit at Assen. In the toughest part of the season, with 7 races in 8 weekends, this is probably the toughest part, with the British and Dutch Grand Prix just 6 days apart.
It's hardest on the crew members traveling with the trailers, having to make the long trek southwards to cross the English Channel, before turning northward again to head up to Assen. But it's unpleasant even for the riders, making the short hop across by air. Air travel has long ceased to be a luxury, and the security checks for passengers leaving British airports have grown ever more severe, now consisting mostly of forcing passengers to spend as much time as possible waiting in line, on the premise that any potential terrorists will have lost the will to die by the time they pass through the metal detector gate and are treated to an intimate personal massage by a man with a uniform where his sense of humor ought to be. Though the flight time to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport is brief, actually getting to the point where you are able to fly is a grueling ordeal in itself.
And once they arrive, it's straight back to work, with yet more publicity appearances for the benefit of the sponsors, meeting people here, greeting fans there, and before they realize it, they're back out on track, lapping the 4.5 kilometers of Assen's once glorious track at maximum speed before the race on Saturday.
That Old Black Magic
At least there are still a few sections left of the venerable circuit which still recall just how mighty a track Assen once was. With the old North Loop neutered, having made way for Mammon and the commercial attractions of the TT World leisure center, and the meander taken out of the old Veenslang, only the last third or so of the track is left to witness what once was. And the section from Mandeveen, gaining ever more speed up through successive right handers at Duikersloot, Meeuwenmeer and Hoge Heide, culminating in the intimidating and blisteringly fast left at Ramshoek, a place which has hurt so many riders, is still one of the finest sections of racing tarmac in the world.
From Ramshoek, the track then flicks back for the GT chicane, the scene of many memorable battles, before the final run up to the line, where the circuit's charm peters out once more on way into the new Haarbocht which starts the revised section of the Northern Loop. No wonder the riders still complain so bitterly about the changes made at the end of 2005. The old Southern Loop serves only to remind everyone of what was lost, as a faded wedding photograph serves as a reminder of the beautiful young things which once pledged their troth.
You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling
Despite his still tender years, Casey Stoner leads the lament, mourning the changes every time he is asked about them. On the subject of Assen, the champion sounds more like a hoary veteran bemoaning the state of the modern world than someone barely past the first flush of youth. But his displeasure with the changes has no effect whatsoever on his speed here. The Australian champion was incredibly fast last year, leading for much of the way until he was reeled in by an unleashed and gaudily decorated Valentino Rossi. In the end, the Italian's sheer brilliance at one of his favorite tracks was too much, even for the ruthlessly dominant Casey Stoner of 2007, and Stoner had to watch as Rossi passed and went on to win.
Whether this year will see a repeat performance remains to be seen. Like last year, Casey Stoner comes to Assen coming off a runaway victory at Donington, where Valentino Rossi had no answer for him. But the situation is a little different from 2007. Then, it was Casey Stoner who led the championship, while Valentino Rossi had a worryingly large deficit of 26 points to the Australian. This year, it is Rossi who leads, with a massive 45 point lead over the reigning world champion as we approach the halfway point of the series. Last year, the Ducati was the machine to beat, Stoner having won an intimidating 5 of the first 8 races. This season, the Yamaha is the bike to have, taking 4 victories out of 8, of which Rossi took 3 in a row.
But the machinery is much more finely balanced this year. Ducati finally seem to have fixed the problems that plagued Casey Stoner's GP8 earlier in the year, giving the bike a little smoother power delivery low down, and the direct result of that was Stoner stamping his authority on every session at the British Grand Prix. But Valentino Rossi and his crew chief Jeremy Burgess are understanding the combination of the Yamaha M1 and Bridgestone tires more and more each race, making Rossi a very difficult prospect to beat.
Then, of course, there's Dani Pedrosa. Despite being on the only factory bike still using steel valve springs, Pedrosa has only been off the podium once this season, and that was a 4th place at Le Mans. Pedrosa has been a paragon of consistency, never spectacular but always fast, romping way to two wins in Spain. The Spaniard trails Rossi by just 11 points, and as a podium regular at Assen, will be in the hunt for the win.
Pick A Card, Any Card
The trouble with predictions for Assen, however, is that so many candidates go well here, which is part of the thrill of the Dutch TT. Candidates such as Tech 3 Yamaha team mates Colin Edwards and James Toseland, for example. Edwards came within yards of a victory here in 2006, before attempting to close the door on a chasing Nicky Hayden just a little too vigorously and spinning up the rear on the astroturf on the chicane exit. Assen is a track that Edwards loves, and on competitive machinery, but without the pressure of supporting his former team mate Rossi, Edwards is in with a genuine shot at the win here.
James Toseland isn't too bad at Assen either. Like Edwards, he came within inches of victory here in the second Superbike race last year, denied the double by just 0.009 seconds by Troy Bayliss. After a disastrous home Grand Prix at Donington during which he fell twice in qualifying, then fell again in the first corner of the race trying to make up for his poor grid position, Toseland will be out to salvage his reputation. Once again at a track which he knows very well, he will be chasing his first podium in MotoGP. That's not such an idle dream as it may seem.
The final Yamaha rider is another dark horse, but for entirely different reasons. Jorge Lorenzo started the season with a bang, taking 3 poles in a row, followed by his first win, and all that in his rookie season. Unfortunately for Porfuera, he continued his season with a bang. This time, though, the bang came from the force with which he was slammed into the tarmac at Shanghai. Then at Le Mans, Mugello, and finally and most worryingly, at Catalunya. In Donington, Lorenzo started the weekend very gingerly, looking like a shadow of his former ebullient self. But his chase through the field from 17th on the grid to finish in 6th was a remarkable feat, and a sign that the Spaniard had recovered his form. If this really is the case, then Lorenzo could be right at the sharp end once again.
Like Lorenzo, Nicky Hayden will be his Repsol Honda team mate's dark horse in Holland. Assen is the only track outside the US where Hayden won, though some people say that victory was gifted to him by Colin Edwards' club racer mistake at the chicane. But that does not do his win justice, as up until that point, Hayden had ridden a brilliant race, only losing out in the final chicane. Now, the extra power the new air valve engine he has at his disposal once again should give him enough of a boost to make an impact at the front.
Rain Or Shine
Of course, Assen's fickle weather could also play a part. Thursday's practice is predicted to take part under clear sunny skies, but after that, showers are expected on both Friday and Saturday, opening up avenues for the two Australian rain riders. Chris Vermeulen showed his prowess in the wet last weekend, grabbing his first front row start of the year. His race in the dry didn't live up to the expectations he created during qualifying, but it demonstrated his ability. Now having to fight for his place at Suzuki for next year, Vermeulen will be pushing hard at a track that he, like so many others, loves to race at.
Vermeulen's Kawasaki counterpart could also spring a surprise, in either the wet or the dry. Ant West certainly raised a few eyebrows in the dry conditions at Donington, despite "only" finishing 10th. After spending the first 7 races of the season constantly fighting to avoid being last, a solid top 10 finish, achieved without others crashing out ahead of him, sees a real revival for the Australian. Kawasaki seem to be finding solutions to West's problems with rear traction, allowing him to actually start fighting for positions.
The problem that Kawasaki has is that West's style is not a natural match for John Hopkins' style. Hopkins carries a lot of corner speed, and pushes the front very hard, and as a consequence, needs a lot of weight over the front to provide grip. West, on the other hand, is a more traditional rider, and likes to have more traction on the exit of corners, and so he needs a bit more weight towards the rear of the bike. With Hopkins complaining of a loss of front-end feel just as West has been praising the team for finding some rear traction for him, Kawasaki may be caught between the front end frying pan and the rear end fire.
For the moment, John Hopkins would be happy enough just to have a bike that can finish a race. With 3 DNFs in the last 4 races, all down to mechanical failures, Hopper's Monster Kawasaki is due for a kicking. It certainly helped get the Rizla Suzuki fixed, after Hopkins delivered a similar beating to his GSV-R in 2006, so it's got to be worth a try.
Please Release Me
Poor Marco Melandri doesn't have the luxury of pointing to his machinery, as Ducati simply point at the #1 plate on Casey Stoner's bike, and his two wins this season. But it is increasingly clear - if last season didn't make it clear enough - that it takes a very particular riding style to tame the Ducati, one Melandri clearly hasn't mastered. The deafening roar of rumors emanating from the paddock that Melandri won't finish out the season with Ducati are being fanned even further by statements from both rider and team that they are examining ways of resolving the situation. That resolution could come as early as the Sachsenring, where Sete Gibernau could be drafted in to ride for Melandri, if the paddock knitting circle gossip is to be believed. It is painfully clear that Ducati have nothing to lose by replacing the Italian, who has only managed a single top 10 finish this year.
Finally, spare a thought for Toni Elias. The Spaniard has missed the last three races at Assen, each time due to injury. For the past two years, he has crashed heavily in FP1, caught out by the distinct lack of left handers, and been so badly injured he has been unable to race. It will be a victory for Elias if he manages just to line up on the grid on Saturday without suffering some kind of horrific compound fracture which usually sidelines him in the Netherlands. We'll have our fingers crossed.
The Magic Still Lingers
Six days between races leaves little time for the teams and riders to rest, recover and regroup. But six days is all they get. The only crumb of comfort which the MotoGP circus has is that at either end of those six days, they have raced at two of the finest circuits on the calendar. For the TT Circuit at Assen, despite its emasculation by design, the removal of the snaking flicks, the flattening of the crown in the tarmac, and the smoothing of the camber, is still a track capable of delivering fantastic racing, and bringing out the very best from the riders. The Dutch TT at Assen is the biggest one-day sporting event in the Netherlands, a country not known for being particularly bike mad, or even keen on motor racing in general. But the circuit works its magic on all who visit, and keeps them coming back. It really is difficult to take away the mojo from a racetrack. No matter how hard you try.
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