Assen GP Preview

Brent Avis
by Brent Avis
Honda's World Championship dominators Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro HondaNSR500) and Daijiro Katoh (Telefonica Movistar Honda NSR250) come to Assenthis week hoping to extend their championship advantages with victory at GPracing's most historic venue.

Assen is the only surviving circuit from the first year of the WorldChampionships in 1949, and thus holds a special place in the heart of everyGP racer. The racetrack is also unique in other respects: it is the fastestGP track and the only GP venue based on public roads, which means thelayout is unlike any other, with ultra-high-speed corners and super-fastkinked straights...

Rossi, winner of four of the six 500 GPs run so far this year, wants tocontinue making his own history this Saturday. The former 125 and 250 WorldChampion is aiming to become only the second man in the sport's history tohave gained the 125, 250 and 500 triple crown. Already this season he hasbecome the first man to have recorded success in all three classes atMugello and Catalunya, and now he wants to do the same at Assen. A Dutch125 GP winner in '97 and 250 GP winner in '98, Rossi loves the circuit.

"It's a very, very difficult track but I like it a lot," says Rossi whofinished sixth in his Assen 500 debut last year, a two-part race stoppedand restarted due to rain. "Assen is very technical, especially on a 500.The straights aren't straight, so you're always changing from one directionto the other, so you have to be very much in control. Also, some of thecorners are banked and the road is crowned, so we run stiffer-than-normalsuspension settings to keep the bike more stable."

Assen also has GP racing's longest-standing lap record, set by KevinSchwantz (Suzuki) in 1991. The Texan's dizzying lap time has remainedunbroken for various reasons: because the track had been newly resurfacedthat year, because inclement weather has often interrupted Assenproceedings since then and because Schwantz was undeniably an Assen genius.The '93 500 champ is also the latest in a long line of former GP kings toheap praise upon Rossi. The two have much in common: a lanky physique,massive natural talent, a deadly serious but joyful approach to motorcycleracing and global popularity.

"The big thing about Valentino is that he's having fun doing it," explainsSchwantz. "He's out on the track every time wringing the bike's neck,trying to get everything he can out of it. Plus, he never moans about'missing the set-up' and he seems like a guy who can say 'okay, we get beaton occasion, we're not superhuman'. That's all part of his secret."

After his fourth win of the year at Catalunya two weeks ago, Rossi stayedon at the Spanish track to test a new chassis which should further improvethe handling of his NSR500s. He currently enjoys a 26-point lead overarch-rival Max Biaggi (Yamaha).

Rossi's fellow HRC riders Alex Crivillé (Repsol YPF Honda NSR500) and TohruUkawa (Repsol YPF Honda NSR500) also tested at Catalunya, putting the pairin a positive frame of mind for this weekend. Assen is a special place forCrivillé, who won his first 500 GP at the track in 1992 and took his firstpole position there in 1995. But the place also holds darker memories forthe 1999 World Champion, who suffered a career-threatening hand injury atAssen '97.

"It's different from every other track we go to," reveals Crivillé, secondat Assen 2000. "So you have to work in a different direction on set-up. ButI feel good, especially after the Catalunya tests, which allowed me to workon certain detail aspects of set-up which allowed me to go faster than I'dbeen during the GP."

Ukawa has also stated success in Holland - he was winner of last year'sDutch 250 GP - but is wary of his 500 debut there. "People say it's atotally different track on a 500, because you're going so much faster thatyou find new corners that weren't there on the 250," he smiles. "It's goingto be especially difficult for us and maybe a little scary, but I'm lookingforward to the challenge and I'll try my best."

Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500) and team-mate Loris Capirossi (WestHonda Pons NSR500) go to Assen full of confidence. Both men perform superwell around the sinuous circuit, Barros winning last year and Capirossiqualifying on pole.

"Last year I scored my first win of the year at Assen and I hope I canrepeat that this time," says Barros, who was amongst the favourites forCatalunya victory until he fell during the race. "Both Loris and I shouldbe strong again this year, I think our bikes will be good for this track."

Capirossi rode a hero's race at Assen last year, breaking bones in his lefthand when he crashed during morning warm-up. "I had to race because I loveAssen so much," says the Italian, currently third in the all-Italian 500points chase. "It is my second favourite track, after Donington, and I'mvery fast there. The track is good for my riding style and I think ourbikes should be good there, we're closer to Rossi's bikes than we were atthe start of the year."

Briton Leon Haslam (Shell Advance Racing Honda NSRV500) returns to racingthis week after a month's lay-off with a broken wrist. And Assen is assignificant a track for the Haslam family, as it is for so many other GPracers, for it was at Assen '85 that father Ron Haslam scored his best-everGP result with second place behind Randy Mamola (Honda).

In the 250s, Katoh has every hope of continuing his amazing run of formthis week, despite last year's result at the track. Last June Katohqualified on the second row for his Assen debut but struggled to eighth inthe wet race.

"This is such a special track, so it's experience that really counts atAssen," explains Katoh's team chief Fausto Gresini, who won the 1987 Dutch125 GP. "I don't think Daijiro will have a problem this time, so long aspractice and qualifying aren't too disturbed by rain. He's on top form atthe moment, so we're hoping for the best from him."

Katoh's team-mate Emilio Alzamora (Telefonica Movistar Honda NSR250) willalso be up for a top result on Saturday. Never out of the top seven at thepast four races, despite suffering an arm injury at Catalunya, Alzamoracan't be that far from scoring his first 250 podium.

Honda 125 hope Masao Azuma (Liégeois Competition Honda RS125R) will be outto repeat his Assen '99 win as he bids to close the points gap on 125series leaders Manuel Poggiali (Gilera) and Gino Borsoi (Aprilia). "Speedwill once again be our main concern, because you need a lot of speed atAssen, especially on a 125," says Azuma, who races a production RS125Ragainst the factory Aprilias, Derbis and Gileras. "But I love the track andit's the kind of place where a rider can make the difference."

The 125 category's latest star - 18-year-old Toni Elias (TelefonicaMovistar Junior Team Honda RSR125R) - goes for his first points at Assen,while fifth-placed Noboru Ueda (Technical Sports Racing Honda TSR125) aimsto get back on course after his Catalunya crash. Thirteen times a winner ina decade of 125 World Championship racing, Ueda has yet to taste success atAssen. Could Saturday be Nobby's day?

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