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With more passing than you’d see at an April 20 party, the 2017 Motul Assen TT was one of the more riveting races in recent memory. Tech 3 Yamaha rookie sensation Johann Zarco led the first 11 laps from pole. Meanwhile, Valentino Rossi and Ducati brute Danilo Petrucci were in the heart of the lead group along with Marc Marquez on the Repsol Honda. But Rossi – fast, patient and strategic – managed to beat Petrucci to the flag by .06 seconds. They don’t call him The Doctor for nothing.

The weather gods were just toying with us today – a drowned WUP, the usual thrilling Moto3 race on an almost-dry track, and spitting rain on several occasions during the MotoGP race. Several riders, guessing the big ol’ rain was on the way, pitted and changed to rain tires, including Zarco and Jorge Lorenzo (who had a note from Gigi D’allIgna stating he could put rain tires on whenever he wanted, even if the track was dry). The real rain never arrived, to the dismay of the early pitters, but high drama was around in excess.

Danilo Petrucci had a great weekend at Assen. He was the fastest in FP1 and narrowly missed out on a win to Valentino Rossi. Don’t look now, but Petrux has podiums in two of the last three races.

Practice and Qualifying

Rehearsals for today’s battle featured something for every taste and budget. FP1 (wet) was topped by Petrucci on the Ducati GP17 followed by Zarco on the Tech 3 Yamaha and LCR Honda ruffian Cal Crutchlow. FP2 was dry, and the results were more typical – factory Yamaha pilot and series leader Maverick Viñales led, trailed by the other precocious Tech 3 rookie, German Jonas Folger, and that Marquez guy, you know, the one with all the trophies.

Changing weather conditions through the weekend forced teams to carefully evaluate their tire strategy for the race.

Saturday was pretty much wet all day, and the results reflected it. Scott Redding, Rossi, Marquez and Viñales topped FP3 in the wet; FP4 was wet again, so much so that a number of riders decided to play euchre in the garage instead of going racing. The Q1 and Q2 division had already taken place, and besides, when those leathers get good and wet, strange dark stuff starts growing in the grooves and creases. FP4 in the rain is for those other guys. Same for the soaking WUP.

Q1 saw Redding and Sad Sam Lowes, two British mudders, advance through to Q2, leaving names like Andrea Iannone, Jack Miller, both Espargaro brothers and one Jorge Lorenzo to the back half of the grid, Lorenzo notably starting in the, um, 21 hole. (I thought “holes” only go down to ten, after which comes Everyone Else.) In case you missed it the first time, that was Sam Lowes on the Aprilia advancing into Q2 for the first time. He likely won’t have that many more chances.

Johann Zarco earned his first MotoGP pole position.

As usual, Q2 was a fairly orderly process of riders seeking their natural level or something a bit higher, until the last two minutes, when it became your usual fire drill. Petrucci and his big bad GP17 held pole until perhaps five seconds from the end, when Marquez flashed across the line first, followed almost immediately by overachieving Frenchman Zarco, sending his crew into paroxysms of joy as the impudent rookie claimed his first premier class pole. Didn’t someone recently suggest that strange stuff happens at Assen? For the record, two of the pre-race favorites got stoned in Q2; Maverick Viñales started 11th today, just ahead of Dani Pedrosa.

A Race for the Ages

Johann Zarco, Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi and Danilo Petrucci formed a tight lead grouping early in the race.

Zarco’s intent, to get away from the pack and win going away, never bore fruit, as Marquez, Rossi and Petrucci formed a cozy lead group with the Frenchman. Rossi went through on Marquez on Lap 10 and set his sights on Zarco, passing him two laps later. Zarco struck back immediately, tried to cut inside, got his nose chopped off by Rossi, bounced wide, and never got back in the chase. With soft tires apparently dropping off, and the drizzle getting heavier, Zarco pitted on Lap 20, got caught speeding in pit lane, took his ride-through penalty, and finished the day 14th, just ahead of Lorenzo, who had not taken a penalty. For the 26-year old, dreams of world domination took a step backward today.

While Rossi led Marquez on a bracing mid-race chase, Petrucci following, several Aliens, notably Maverick Viñales and Andrea Dovizioso, were laying down fast laps and gaining on the leaders. In the final chicane on Lap 12, series leader Viñales hit the deck, his bike and championship lead cartwheeling away in the gravel.

Valentino Rossi won his 115th career Grand Prix race. His first victory came 20 years and 313 days before today’s triumph, establishing a new GP record for the longest length of time between a rider’s first and latest wins.

Late in the day, Crutchlow made an appearance on his LCR Honda, engaging in a personal pas de deux with Marquez all the way to the flag. While Rossi was busy pimping Petrux for the win after a sensational four-lap fight (where were the blue flags for the back markers getting lapped at the end?), Marquez and Dovi made a blurry Crutchlow sandwich at the flag, 12/100ths of a second separating Marquez in third from Dovi in fifth.

The Big Picture

The top of the 2017 standings chart are as tight as I can ever remember, with 11 points separating first and fourth places, Andrea Dovizioso parked at the top of the pile. Shades of Casey Stoner. Viñales, Rossi and Marquez are solidly in the hunt. Dovi seized the lead from Viñales today, while Petrucci leaped past Jorge Lorenzo into 7th place. Cal Crutchlow’s credible fourth place finish today allowed him to swap spots with Tech 3 rookie crasher Jonas Folger in ninth and tenth, respectively.

Andrea Dovizioso finished fifth while Maverick Viñales crashed out, giving the Ducati rider the lead in the championship chase.

I was poormouthing Ducati Corse several weeks ago. Since then both Dovizioso and Petrucci have been making me look sick. Front row starts, wins, podiums – will it never cease? After a revolting start to the season (26 points in the first five rounds, two DNFs), Petrucci has come alive, with 36 points in the last three rounds, including an unlucky fall out of the points at Catalunya. And Dovizioso, the hottest rider on track for the last month, is, for the first time in his premier class career, getting asked about his chances for a world championship. Doing his best impression of an Italian-accented Colonel Klink, he consistently answers, “I know nut-thing.”

It could happen. And, simply for comparison’s sake, we should point out that of the three Ducati GP17s on track this season, triple world champion Jorge Lorenzo is running third. In eighth place for the season. Getting schooled every week by any number of less-distinguished riders. Constantly checking the weather radar on his phone. Sensitive to any aches in his surgically-repaired collarbones, sure signs of wet weather to come. From here, the only kind thing to do is quietly wonder what he’s going to do at the end of next season; Ducati has not been the panacea he had hoped for.

After five consecutive top-10 finishes, Jorge Lorenzo appeared to be returning to form. And then the rain came…

One Last Thing

If you sift through enough MotoGP sand, eventually you’ll discover a nugget. And so we found a video in which the British sportscaster described Bradley Smith’s left little finger, injured at Catalunya, as having been “marmaladed,” the second “a” pronounced “ah.” Evidence once again that, compared to idiomatic American English, British English has much higher comedic coefficient. Surely this term will be a heavy favorite in the “Best Use of Fruit to Describe a Rather Ghastly Injury” category at the annual British Produce Grower’s Association knees-up in Dover later this year.

With the German Grand Prix on Sunday, followed by a month of snoring through La Liga on cable, we’ll have the race preview here mid-week.

In a strange Moto3 finish, Dutch racer Bo Bendsneyder was the tenth rider to cross the finish, just behind Joan Mir. Unfortunately, because he crashed just before the finish line and was not touching his motorcycle when he crossed, he was officially given a DNF.