MotoGP Assen Preview 2017
Expect the Unexpected at the Dutch TT
Even with the race going off on Sunday again for the second time, sixty-some years of racing on Saturday at the Cathedral have produced a number of curious finishes. Nicky Hayden had his first and only non-U.S. win here in 2006. Ben Spies won here in 2011 in what many of us mistakenly thought was the beginning of a great career. And Jack Miller’s win last year defines “unlikely.”
Aside from the usual suspects, there are several riders looking forward to the weekend. Andrea Dovizioso, having won two in a row, had a second here in 2014 but has had nothing but misery since. Aleix Espargaro has done well here on both the Forward Yamaha and the factory Suzuki; he would love nothing more than to flog an Aprilia to its first MotoGP podium. But Sunday’s tilt figures to involve the factory Yamaha and Honda riders, all of whom are in the title chase. It will be interesting to see if Dovi can keep the magic alive in The Low Countries. Cal Crutchlow is armed with a shiny new two-year deal at LCR. And, at Assen, anything can happen. Ask Jack Miller.
Recent History at Assen
2014 was the Year of Marquez, and he made it 8-for-8 with a surprisingly easy win in one of those wacky flag-to-flag races everyone loves, complete with a Pony Express switcheroo in the middle. Marc Marquez was joined on the podium by Dovizioso on the Ducati and Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, who narrowly edged out Aleix Espargaro, the top Yamaha finisher that day, who had crushed Q2, taken pole, and missed out on a podium – a Forward Racing Yamaha podium – at the flag by a mere 8+ seconds. But 13 points is 13 points.
2015 was the year Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi stopped exchanging Christmas cards, and it started at Assen. The last MotoGP Dutch TT to be run on a Saturday, Assen was the place Marquez chose to introduce his hybrid 2015/2014 bike with the previous year’s chassis, and it was like throwing a switch. The two went at it hot and heavy on the last two laps, until they came together entering the last turn of the day, Marquez caroming wide, Rossi, in an equal and opposite reaction, getting nudged into and through the briarpatch at speed to win by 50 yards. What a race.
Last year was proof that even a blind squirrel can find an acorn every once in a while. This was a two-race day, not to be confused with a two-day race. The rain which had been around all weekend went all Bubba Gump during what became Race 1, causing it to be red-flagged four laps short of race distance, to the chagrin of Dovizioso, who had been leading at the time. Long story short – Jack Miller beat Marc Marquez on the second try that day, earning plaudits for being the first satellite rider in years to do a bunch of different things. My prediction at the time that he wouldn’t see another podium for the rest of the year, except from a distance, proved correct. For the record, Scott Redding finished third that day, another symptom of the ambient weirdness of racing in Holland on Sunday.
Good Times, Bad Times
After Round 6:
Tranche 1: Vinales, Marquez, Rossi, Dovizioso
Tranche 2: Zarco, Crutchlow, Lorenzo, Folger, Pedrosa, Petrucci
Tranche 3: Miller, Redding, Baz, A Espargaro, Iannone, Bautista
Tranche 4: P Espargaro, Barbera, Abraham, Rabat
Tranche 5: Lowes, Smith↓, (Rins)
After Round 7:
Tranche 1 Vinales, Marquez, Dovizioso, Rossi
Tranche 2 Zarco, Lorenzo, Folger, Bautista↑, Pedrosa
Tranche 3 Petrucci↓, Crutchlow↓, Redding, Barbera↑, Iannone
Tranche 4 Miller↓, Baz↓, A Espargaro, Abraham, Rabat
Tranche 5 P Espargaro↓, Smith, Lowes, (Rins)
Rossi’s last win was over a year ago, at Catalunya 2016. Normally, this would be enough to drop a rider a level. I had Pedrosa in #1 and Rossi in #2 until I thought about a 5-lap match race, just the two of them, on their own bikes, at an agreed-upon track. Upon whom would you put your money?
One of the cool things about Assen, for the purposes of this discussion, is that a rider from Tranche 2 or 3 can easily win here. The cold and the damp haven’t always been kind to the Aliens, and the narrow kinks and curves here and at The Sachsenring next week often play havoc with the leaderboard. Recall Casey Stoner’s acerbic remark, late in his career, that he could never get out of 5th gear in Germany. But Assen is a high-speed track, especially compared to The Sachsenring. The main thing they have in common is the weather. And to think Dorna is preparing to take the series to Finland; the riders there may need studded tires.
All the riders, especially the contenders, need to be a little circumspect entering this next two weeks. Recall Lorenzo and Pedrosa in 2013, with a total of three broken collarbones in two weeks.
Silly Season Underway
The names sifting to the top of the “Most Likely to Be Re-Accommodated” list in 2018 include Tito Rabat, reportedly at risk of being banished to WSBK after failing to set the world on fire in MotoGP (Paging Stefan Bradl…). This could also apply to Redding, Sam Lowes and, as rumored, Miller, for whom the honeymoon with Honda appears to be over or at least tattered. LCR wants a factory deal for Crutchlow and a #2 rider, possibly Taka Nakagami, currently laboring in seventh position in Moto2 but possessing outstanding lineage.
If Marc VDS is to continue as a going concern in 2018 it will likely be with Franco Morbidelli and perhaps Alex Marquez coming up from Moto2 to replace a disenchanted Miller and a non-competitive Rabat. Miller is alleged to have been rebuffed by Ducati for asking for too much money but that could be re-visited. And no word yet on who might take over for Lowes, who is simply not getting it done.
Personally, I would like to see Jack Miller on a Ducati GP17 next year. Could be just what they both need. And is it too hard to imagine Andrea Iannone, once again working himself out of a good job. teaming up with Morbidelli on the satellite Honda in 2018?
Given the family history of the Marquez brothers, I would expect Alex to stay in Moto2 another year, with the aim being to title there before being called up to the bigs. Perhaps in time to coincide with Pedrosa’s retirement from the Repsol team. That would be something to talk about.
Your Weekend Forecast
Surprise, surprise. The long-range forecast for greater Drenthe this weekend calls for cool, damp conditions, with the best chance of rain on Saturday. Temps in the 60s and 70s (F). High risk out laps on cold tires and wet asphalt. Not having a clue who might win this week (although this is exactly the kind of setup Rossi loves) we can only hope for a complete scramble, flag-to-flag, expectations turned upside-down, rain tires, and underdogs showing up on the podium. In short, business as usual at Assen.
We will (do our best to) have results and analysis here Sunday afternoon.