Round Eight – Assen
The next stop on the 2019 MotoGP world tour is a trip to the only circuit to have held a Grand Prix since the start of the championship as Assen in The Netherlands stages the Motul TT Assen.
The script for the Catalan GP was written early but if there’s one venue where the plan always gets a shake up, it’s Assen. Whether it’s final chicane drama, the incredible close racing often created by the track or the risks that can arise from the weather, the Dutch GP is often as classic as the circuit around which it is raced.
MotoGP is celebrating its 70th birthday this year and along with Italy, The Netherlands is the only country to have held a race in every one of those seasons, but the exception is that Assen has been the permanent Dutch venue for all the previous 70 races, whereas Italy has seen many different circuits put to use.
The TT Assen Circuit has had many configuration changes to its layout through the years, but the 4,542m long track, with its mix of six left and twelve right corners, is still one of the most revered and loved circuits in the world. It is held in such high regard that it is known as ‘The Cathedral’ of motorcycle racing and is a track that has a history of producing highly exciting and close racing.
For Championship leader Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team), it has a mix of good and not-so-good memories, but this season he now arrives 37-points clear as the dust settles after Round 7 and that’s worth more than a little spring in his step. He’s also now in the best position of power he’s been in all year, but that can fall both ways – attack and defend. Will he play it safer to protect that lead? Or will he feel free to go all-out and attack with less now at stake?
“Assen is a circuit where you need to be very precise and it’s difficult to be consistent there. To be strong in the fast change of directions is really important to go well at Assen. I’m looking forward to racing there again as we have had some good battles in the past and have put on a great show for the fans. I am sure we will have a great race on Sunday. The weather is also looking good so I am confident we can have a strong weekend.”
Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) is the first man hoping Marquez will play the wrong hand. Looking good in the early stages after another stellar start, ‘DesmoDovi’ was the biggest casualty of The Incident in Barcelona in terms of the Championship and it’s now game on for the Italian. It’s no longer enough to keep more of an eye on the long game, he now has to go weapons free in a bid to close down that lead. Both he and teammate Danilo Petrucci have showed they can take on Marquez and win this season – but can they do that at Assen?
One joker in the pack – in terms of what had increasingly become a Honda vs Ducati fight at the front, plus Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) – will likely be the Yamahas. Especially at Assen. Qualifying was a stellar day for the Iwata marque in Barcelona before race day saw big rewards for the man who finished, Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha SRT), and pace was not what put the proverbial spanner in the works of his fellow M1 riders.
“We go to Assen motivated after the great result from Barcelona, but we have to keep calm and continue working as we have been so far. We know exactly what our goal is, which is to be Rookie of the Year, so we shouldn’t lose sight of this and keep going step by step. If we continue working like this, I’m sure that we will enjoy further success, such as the pole and victory we got at the Catalan GP. We had a positive test in Barcelona, so we go to the Netherlands enthusiastic about things. I’ve also recovered further from my right forearm operation. Assen is a circuit that I like, I’ve achieved two podiums there, and I’m looking forward to a good weekend.”
First crash out the way earlier in the weekend, Quartararo rode a stunner to take his first podium and that could release the rookie from a few nerves at Assen – but in those first few laps it was Maverick Viñales (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) stealing the scene.
After a litany of sluggish getaways – plus a jump start – Viñales in 2019 was the late race pace man (and the bad luck man, now crashed out through no fault of his own a few frustrating times). But in Barcelona he was out the gate more aggressively than we’ve just about ever seen from him, chopping his way through to the business end before his race was chopped short. Would that have continued all race? In Assen the number 12 will be an interesting one to watch, and he was a key player in the battle of Assen 2018. His teammate, however, will likely have even more eyes on him.
Valentino Rossi (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) fills the stands wherever he goes, and the Dutch GP is no exception. But some circuits have seen him accrue better track records than others, and the TT Circuit Assen is one the number 46 has set alight time and again, winning ten times in total. If Saturday at Catalunya and the time preceding the crash set a precedent, Rossi is more than a podium threat. Controversy, chaos and control; the ‘Doctor’ has reigned through all.
And then there’s Rins. Another tough qualifying in Barcelona was quickly leapfrogged by the Suzuki man on race day, and he was right in the battle for the podium – looking feistier than his normal serene style when the gloves came off against Danilo Petrucci. He was only just off the rostrum after the mother of all avoidance tactics set him back a few places when he overcooked it, but he had pace once again – and he was one of the standout performers in the all-out war for the Dutch GP last season. He’s another to add to the ever-increasing list of expected names battling it out at the front.
Jack Miller (Pramac Racing) won his only premier class Grand Prix so far at Assen and he was back staying the distance at Catalunya, Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) wants to regain his control over the Independent Team rider standings, and teammate Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemistu) wants to get in his way.
Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) wants to gain on Quartararo in the fight for Rookie of the Year, and Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT) wants to convert Saturday pace into Sunday points.
Jorge Lorenzo (Repsol Honda Team) wants to replay his stellar start in Barcelona before it all went wrong, and Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) wants to try and bounce back.
“We come here after our most consistent weekend of the year in Barcelona. The end result was not as we wanted but all weekend we were able to be competitive and keep improving the bike, this is what I want to do again this weekend. If we continue to work in this way with the Repsol Honda Team, we can again have the speed like we did in Barcelona.”
His brother Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) just wants to keep raking in the rewards for an incredibly impressive season so far. The narratives, battles and stakes are endless.
Red Bull KTM Tech 3 Team Manager Hervé Poncharal gives us his thoughts ahead of the Assen TT.
Hervé Poncharal – Red Bull KTM Tech 3 Team Manager
“The next round is already the eighth one of the 2019 MotoGP World Championship and as usual time flies, as it feels like yesterday when we started our very first race with KTM in Qatar. Now we go to Assen and have a back-to-back event before we will enter the summer break. At the same time, it’s the beginning of the North European tour, if I can call it like that. Assen is a place, where we all like to go, as already mentioned in the past. After the heat, the madness of the fans and the full paddock in Mugello and Barcelona, which we like, it’s always refreshing coming to Assen, as the paddock is big, but a lot quieter and normally the weather is a bit cooler. So, this is a nice place and also the circuit is beautiful. We always had incredible races there. Hopefully, we can be closer to the front guys, especially to the factory KTM riders. We’ve been following with big interest, what they tested on Wednesday in Barcelona and we saw some nice pictures with different fairings and I’m quite sure, that there were more new things, we couldn’t see. Therefore, we are eager to listen to the comments of Pol Espargaro and Johann Zarco, plus Mike Leitner. We also hope for us to get something a bit different for the next race. We had a good test on Monday with Miguel and Hafizh, but were just going through what we already have and were working to understand our technical package better. Let’s wait and see, but for sure the next two races will be important as these are the last ones before the summer break and it’s always good to end up that first part of the year with a positive feeling. So, we can’t wait to arrive and see what is going to be our package from Assen.”
The TT Circuit Assen is more than a postcard or a slice of nostalgia. It earns its place in legend year after year, and 2019 will likely be no different. The standings got a shake up in Barcelona but this time last season the Dutch GP was shaking the foundations of MotoGP with one of the best races of all time. There’s no reason to believe the Cathedral will not bless us with another.
Michelin will have a range of tyres ideally suited to a track that still features old style high speed curves and banked corners over its technical layout, whilst incorporating the safety requirements of modern-day racing throughout its configuration. It is this arrangement of 18-corners that makes the demands on the rear tyres much greater than those of the front, which means that the soft, medium and hard Michelin Powers Slicks, with their asymmetric design of a harder right-hand-side, will have a lot of work to do to contend with the increased temperatures and stresses that the tyre faces through the fast rights which are a main feature of the track. The fronts have a less stressful time, but the demands placed upon them are equally important, so the soft, medium and hard slick compounds in a symmetric finish, are chosen to work to the optimum of performance with their rear counterparts,
Piero Taramasso – Michelin
“Assen is an extremely technical track and one that we prepare for in a slightly different way. The rear tyre does the majority of the work due to the demands placed upon it through the fast, flowing corners, so all the riders need a good, consistent grip, as what they do in one turn can easily influence the rest of the lap. It is also a circuit where riders like to push for the whole race and with the extra consistency and grip that the tyres are providing this year with the technology we have introduced into the compounds, we expect them to be able to use the extra drive and durability to produce a close and fast race. Assen is also a track where weather can change quickly and play an important part, so we need to be prepared for that, we have had one wet race there since our return to MotoGP and the tyres worked really well, since then the compounds have improved, so if it is wet we expect an equally close and thrilling race as we are hoping for in the dry.”
Assen is currently the most northern track on the calendar – this will change in 2020 when Finland joins the championship – and it is this position on the globe which has also brought its share of wet weather to the event.