Motul TT Assen: Weekend preview
Round eight of the 2016 MotoGP™ World Championship will be held at the historic TT Circuit Assen. Assen remains as the only venue to have hosted a round of the World Championship every year since its creation in 1949. Since then it has undergone a number of changes, most recently in 2006. The track may change but the run from the Ramshoek to Geert Timmer Bocht and the line is always breath taking.
The MotoGP™ World Championship family came together in Barcelona remembering Luis Salom with three incredible races. Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) and Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) battled it out until the last lap, a moment costing Marquez a chance of victory. With Rossi taking his second win of the year, ‘The Doctor’ is now well and truly back in championship contention. Assen is a special track for the 37-year-old Italian, taking seven wins there in the premier class and the scene of his 100th win in 2009. In 2013 he broke a 44 race drought when he returned to the top spot for the first time since returning to Yamaha.
One of Rossi’s most exciting Assen victories came in 2015, fending off Marquez’s ambitious last chicane move and forced to run across the gravel. Marquez was forced to settle for second, missing the top step of the podium in Assen for just the fourth time in his career. The Motul TT Assen gives Marc Marquez a near perfect chance to extend his points lead over Jorge Lorenzo (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP). With 125 points, the Honda rider heads to Assen with a ten point lead over Lorenzo, Rossi a total of 22 behind.
This is the closest the top three in the MotoGP™ World Championship has been after seven rounds since 2012 when Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) were split by 19 points. No clear title favourite has emerged with both Rossi and Lorenzo suffering two DNFs so far in 2016 and Marquez crashing in Le Mans.
The Gran Premi Monster Energy de Catalunya was a terrible race for Lorenzo, a lack of gripping destroying his chances of victory. His Sunday got a lot worse when Andrea Iannone (Ducati Team) collided with him at Turn 10, the pair fortunate to walk away unharmed. For Lorenzo it meant zero points, for Iannone it means a back of the grid start in Assen.
Unfortunately for Lorenzo his recent record in Assen is mixed, largely due to issues out of his control. In 2011 he came together with Marco Simoncelli and in 2012 Lorenzo was taken out by Alvaro Bautista at the first corner. His bad luck in Assen continued in 2013 when Lorenzo broke his collarbone during Thursday practice, making a heroic comeback from surgery to race on Saturday. Lorenzo’s lone premier class win in Assen came in 2010, third in 2015 his first return to the podium since.
The factory riders had better watch out as Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) has hit a run of form, taking his best finish of the year before topping the post-race test. Crutchlow has only once finished outside the top ten in Assen and took pole position for the 2013 race aboard the Tech 3 Yamaha, going on to take third.
Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team) is another Honda rider who was back to his best in Barcelona, taking his first front row of the year and converting it to just his second podium. Honda brought a number of new parts to the test including a frame and an exhaust. Despite having raced in the premier class since 2006, Pedrosa has never won at the historic Assen circuit.
In Barcelona neither Aleix Espargaro (Team Suzuki Ecstar) nor Maverick Viñales (Team Suzuki Ecstar) achieved the results they wanted. Assen offers a chance to do it all again. It’s a special track for Espargaro who took his first premier class pole there in 2014.
The battle for top Independent Team rider continues to be led by Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3), sixth overall and 11 points ahead of Hector Barbera (Avintia Racing). A steady stream of points in each round have Eugene Laverty (Aspar Team MotoGP) third in the battle and 11th overall.
Loris Baz (Avintia Racing) will be forced to miss his second round of the year as he continues to recovery from the injury sustained in Mugello. Once more the tall French rider will be replaced by Ducati test rider Michele Pirro aboard the GP14.2.
Just ahead of the event it was also announced that Alex Rins would line up alongside Andrea Iannone at Team Suzuki Ecstar in 2017 and 2018. As such Aleix Espargaro will depart Suzuki at the end of 2016, expect an announcement on his future soon.
Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) took a well-earned victory in Barcelona, stalking rival Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40) until the end of the race and blasting away into the distance. Back-to-back victories in Mugello and Montmelo have put Zarco right back in contention, only ten points off Rins in the lead. The French rider, along with every rider on the podium, dedicated the race to Luis Salom who lost his life on Friday of the Grand Prix. Salom and Zarco had raced together since 2007 and had many battles in the 125cc and Moto2™ World Championships.
Second in the race gave Alex Rins the Moto2™ Championship lead, heading to Assen with 116 points. Rins, Lowes and Zarco have all won races but have all also had tough weekends, no one able to gain a clear advantage in the three-way title fight. Rins has twice finished on the podium in Assen in the lightweight class and took fourth place on his Moto2™ debut at the track. Since round four in Jerez the lead of the intermediate class has changed after each round, can Rins buck the trend?
Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2) was the last rider to hold the championship lead for successive rounds, but the Brit had problems in Barcelona and was unable to contest the podium. Fortunately for the Brit he has a tendency to do well in Assen, taken third behind Zarco and Tito Rabat in 2015 and having crashed out of podium contention in 2014.
Barcelona marked a welcome return to the podium for Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia), his first since Misano in 2015. With a best Moto2™ finish of 12th at the Dutch track, taking back-to-back podiums for the first time since 2013 could be a tall order.
After winning the Qatar GP, Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten) has been unable to challenge for victory since. Luthi has twice finished on the podium at Assen during his 14-year career, taking third in the first ever Moto2™ race at the circuit in 2010. Since then the Swiss veteran has had a best finish of fifth at the Dutch TT, achieved in 2015.
While most other riders took a well-deserved weekend off, Miguel Oliveira (Leopard Racing) was at the 12 Hours of Portimao World Endurance event riding a Yamaha R1. The Portuguese rider arrives in Assen not only with his first endurance race done, but also with his first top ten in Moto2™ thanks to a great ride to eighth in Barcelona. Assen is one of only three circuits where he has more than a single podium finish, his most recent visit to the box coming after winning the 2015 Moto3™ race there.
For the first time in his career Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0) took to the top step of the podium. In 2015 he came tantalisingly close to taking a career first podium in Assen, missing out by only 0.062s after a frantic last lap. Navarro’s win closed the gap to Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) by five points, but there’s still over 40 points splitting the two.
Unfortunately ahead of the race Navarro suffered a broke left tibia and fibula in a training accident, ruling him out of at least the race in Assen. FIM CEV Repsol Moto3™ Junior World Championship points leader Lorenzo Dalla Porta will substitute for Navarro.
In 2015 Assen produced a classic race, the top seven within half a second of each other. Miguel Oliveira on the Red Bull KTM Ajo bike managed to edge out Fabio Quartararo, then on the Estrella Galicia 0,0 Honda, by a mere 0.066s. Those top seven were truly in a class of their own in Assen, five of the top seven still racing in the class in 2016. Many of the front-runners may still be the same but Assen itself will be distinctly different in 2016 as the Motul TT Assen will run on a Sunday for the first time.
Were it not for contact with Gabriel Rodrigo (RBA Racing Team) towards the end of the race, Binder is confident he could have battled for the win. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be and Binder made it 12 races in a row where the lightweight class pole setter has been unable to claim victory. Even on tricky weekends the South African is able to take to the podium a worrying fact for his rivals. After seven rounds Binder holds a 44-point lead, the biggest in the three classes.
The Catalan GP was a tough weekend for everyone in the paddock after the loss of Luis Salom. Binder and his Red Bull KTM Ajo team were hit particularly hard, Binder having ridden alongside Salom in his rookie season and the Ajo squad having helped him challenge for the title in 2013. With nine wins, Salom remains as the most successful Moto3™ rider since the class began in 2012.
Now 17 points behind Navarro and 67 back on Binder, third in the championship is starting to look like a very lonely place for Romano Fenati (SKY Racing Team VR46). A 20th in Argentina and a DNF in Mugello have put a serious dent into his championship campaign. The Italian has only once finished in the top ten in Assen, when he battled with the likes of Navarro to fifth in 2015. With Navarro missing out on at least Assen, there is a huge opportunity for Fenati to step up to the plate and make Binder work for the title.
His teammate Nicolo Bulega (SKY Racing Team VR46) remains within striking distance, 14 points behind Fenati.
Of the top ten in the standings, five are Italians. Behind the SKY Racing Team VR46 duo an increasingly tight battle for fifth is emerging.
Francesco Bagnaia (Aspar Mahindra Team Moto3) currently hanging on to fifth spot with 54 points. Mahindra have a tendency to go well in Assen, Miguel Oliveira taking third there in 2014 and fourth the year before.
Bagnaia will have to work hard as fellow Italians Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold) and Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing Moto3) are both within five points. Antonelli’s season is yet to stabilise after a number of crashes while Bastianini’s continues on an upward trend. ‘The Beast’ was back up the front in Barcelona, snagging third and his first podium since winning in Misano in 2015.
The Dutch TT in 2015 was the last time Fabio Quartararo (Leopard Racing) stepped on the podium, injuries late in the season preventing him from battling again. His start to the 2016 championship has been plagued with issues but the French rider heads for Assen more determined than ever after three top tens.
11th place in Catalunya stands as Bo Bendsneyder’s (Red Bull KTM Ajo) best result since joining the World Championship. As the only Dutch rider in any of the three classes, the Motul TT Assen is set to be a big weekend for the reigning Red Bull MotoGP™ Rookies Cup Champion. Can he crack the top ten at home?