WorldSBK’s Godly Acts at the Cathedral of Speed

WorldSBK’s annual Assen trip produced events that could make even the most hardened atheist a believer in 2024

Nicholas Spinelli, 2024 Dutch WorldSBK. - Gold and Goose

Danilo Petrucci is one of the most well-liked riders in motorcycle racing because he never should’ve won a MotoGP but he actually won two, including a home race all-timer at Mugello in 2019. And then he was a loser in Ducati’s rider revolution after 2020, won a Dakar stage, almost won MotoAmerica, and wound up in  World Superbikes and was honest about how he’d underestimated it. So, when he destroyed his body in a motocross crash just over a week before the Dutch Round, there were not too many people happy about it.

You could probably include Nico Spinelli in that, even though he got the call from Barni Ducati to replace the #9. 

There were no expectations on Spinelli. He had won the first MotoE race of the season at Portimao but crashed out of the second race a few hours later, and his career history is filled with championship success on the Italian national level but with much less success on the world stage. Aside from that MotoE win, Spinelli has one World Championship podium to his name at Phillip Island last year in the World Superport class. So, points on his Superbike debut would have been fine, and if he didn’t score at all then it’s also probably not a huge deal.

Spinelli’s lack of Superbike experience meant that choosing intermediate Pirelli tyres for Race 1 was an understandable decision, because what’s the point in sending out your fill-in into a damp first corner on slicks when he’s surrounded by 22 goons all trying to saw each other’s front wheel off for a bit of track position? If he needed to pit because the track dried, it would have cost him and the team one or two points at most. So, there was really nothing to lose for Barni and Spinelli to choose intermediates to start Race 1 on Saturday when everyone else was on slicks (bar Andrea Locatelli who had an intermediate front tyre). 

But, on lap four he was leading by almost 25 seconds.

When it comes to flag-to-flag, drying track scenarios like this my mind always falls back to the 2016 German Grand Prix, when Marc Marquez almost crashed in the wet at the start, but won by a mile anyway because he pitted for slicks before everyone else and rode like a madman (one with absolute precision, it should be said) to be lapping around 10 seconds faster than the leaders who had stayed for longer on wet tyres. A 25-second gap is huge, but nothing at all simultaneously when you’re dealing with a drying track.

Sure enough, as the race entered its final 10 laps, Spinelli’s lead began to dramatically shrink. Alvaro Bautista and Toprak Razgatlioglu had broken away from the rest of the leading slick runners and were now chewing four or five seconds a lap out of the inter-shod Spinelli. With seven laps to go, they’d caught him, and even a top 10 looked in doubt for the Italian first-timer. Without a doubt, Razgatlioglu was going to pass Spinelli in the final corners of lap 15.

But, before they got there, the red flag came out. Andrea Locatelli’s Yamaha R1 had let go and spilt fluid on the track around the super-fast Ramshoek left-hander - turn 15 - and that left Race Direction with little choice but to halt the race.

The WorldSBK rules state that a red flag thrown with at least two-thirds of the total race laps completed will end the race. In Assen, lap 14 was that barrier, meaning that the lap 15 red was essentially the chequered. 

So many things had to go right for Spinelli’s win to happen, including Petrucci destroying himself in a training crash. After that, he and the team had to choose the intermediates, everyone else had to choose slicks, the track had to dry at a rate slow enough for them not to catch him until after lap 14, and the red flag had to be thrown after lap 14 was complete but before he was overtaken. Somehow, all of those things did happen, and he managed to not fall in the process, which was something in itself.

Assen is also known, arguably cringe-inducingly, as the Cathedral of Speed. Spinelli’s debut WorldSBK victory in Race 1 last Saturday isn’t going to have me going to church or hosting a blot, but sometimes things happen in such a perfect way that you wonder how it’s possible for it to be simply down to chance.

Spinelli was not the only deity-touched rider in Assen last weekend. Toprak Razgatlioglu managed to destroy a super-soft SCX rear tyre in one-and-a-half laps in the Superpole Race, while Alvaro Bautista felt only half of the lap time drop-off of the rest of the field over the course of the 10 laps; Nicolo Bulega’s fastest lap was a 1:33.852 on lap three and he finished with a 1:37.465 on lap 10, whereas Bautista’s best was a 1:34.368 and he finished with a 1:35.269. Every single rider in the top 14, other than Bautista, was in the 1:37s on the final lap.

BMW and Razgatlioglu transformed the situation in Race 2 by choosing the harder SC0 rear tyre, while Bautista stuck with the SCX. Rain complicated things, but Razgatlioglu ultimately got to the end of the race with enough grip to manage his 0.5-second-or-so gap to the reigning champion and take his first victory at the Cathedral.

WorldSBK now has a six-week break until the fourth round at the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli on 14-16 June.

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