Round Eight -- Holland
The F.I.M. MotoGP World Championship continues its jaunt around the globe this weekend as the Grand Prix elite do a merry Dutch dance around the awe-inspiring, historically rich Circuit Van Drenthe in Assen, for the 76th running of the Dutch TT.
Round eight of the 2006 series promises to be another edge-of-seat affair and there is no better venue for what many are hailing the most exciting racing series in the world at present. "The Cathedral" awaits, but there have been major changes to the track. It's called progress, apparently, but not all of the premier class riders will get to ride the heavily revised layout following the first corner accident in Barcelona.
The bruised and battered have been patched up, the injured are absent, and Valentino Rossi is on a roll. Rossi's luck has returned at the right time and he aims to make hey while the sun shines. The Catalan GP threw us a curve-ball, which left Marco Melandri in hospital, Sete Gibernau under the knife, and Loris Capirossi resembling one of Mike Tyson's sparring partners.
The Doctor cleaned house at the Montmelo circuit following the carnage, but Nick Hayden clung on to the Italian's exhaust pipe to finish second, which left the Repsol Honda rider twenty-points clear at the top of the rider's standings. However, what will worry Hayden is the breakneck speed of Rossi on worn tires during the last few laps of the last two races, which showed why Valentino is the legend he is. If Rossi wins two of the next three races (Assen included) Nick will head home to the US under pressure to deliver at Laguna Seca and remain in charge as the summer break begins.
The first Dutch TT (Tourist Trophy) took place on the original road circuit in Assen in 1925 and only during the second-World War, 1940 - 1945, were no events staged. The semi-permanent TT circuit was constructed in 1955 with the length of the original road-loop layout reduced.
The first major modern day alteration took place in 1984 when the long start and finish straight was removed, and the circuit then underwent minor changes in 2002, gravel traps extended, corners re-profiled. The Circuit Van Drenthe is the only venue remaining on the MotoGP calendar from the original circuits that hosted the first World Championships in 1949.
Although a modern purpose-built racetrack, some parts of the Assen layout still follow the former Van Drenthe street circuit, which explains Assen's unique and unusual profiled surface. Also, Assen does not have the ultra-wide straights and mix of slow to medium-fast corners that many new-era venues have. Assen is a narrow, meandering circuit, dominated by high-speed esses and rapid direction changes and is flat, there are no elevation changes and no downhill braking sections to speak of.
The circuit also has a unique camber with, for the most part, the centre of the track being crowned like a public road, with the edges seemingly falling away from you, nothing like the flat purpose built surfaces we see at the majority of other venues on the calendar. At certain corners there are as many as four camber changes.
As the riders arrive at the apex of many of the turns they enjoy positive camber, and that continues as they start to accelerate, but as they drift wide on the exit they cross the crown in the centre of the track and suddenly they must contend with negative camber and an immediate loss of traction.
Front suspension, which is normally dominated by sharp braking, is historically set softer at Assen. This circuit is the one where the brakes are least used and virtually all of the braking points (revised section aside) are preceded by open corners that the rider approaches by softly braking and easing off the throttle. Since the carbon discs of standard size normally used do not reach an optimum operating temperature, many teams prefer to fit much smaller discs so that they reach the desired temperature more quickly and work more efficiently.
There is seating for more than 60,000 people and the grass banking provides space for tens of thousands of standing punters. The Dutch TT is one of the biggest sporting events of the year in Holland. 90,000 fans watched the rain-soaked races in 2003 and the average attendance figure for Assen is close on 140,000. A staggering 210,000 people attended the three-day event in 1990.
This track is one of the favourites for the fans as it has been opined many times that Assen is the most naturally challenging venue the series currently visits, even with the restructuring work for 2006. It is still, for me, the last of the classic tracks.
Alterations were started last season, with changes to several corners as well as the introduction of a new "floating grandstand" just before the start/finish line. The corners at De Bult and Ruskenhoek were altered to reduce the outright speed along the back of the pits down towards the Southern Loop.
The former 3.7-mile circuit was the longest and fastest on the current MotoGP calendar but now, the track has been reduced to 2.8-miles in length due to those aforementioned safety, environmental and infrastructure changes. New parking facilities and a brand new circuit complex are in place, which means we have to say goodbye to the majority of the old layout at the North Loop. The track now has eleven left handed turns, six right handers. The re-modelling work cost in excess of 3.2 million Euros.
The die-hard puritans will be aghast at the changes but that's something they will have to accept, as safety is paramount, and updating the facilities at the circuit was, in truth, overdue. With the Asian market vying for positions on the calendar, Assen has had to comply, and last season extended its foothold on the schedule with a 10-year contract extension with Dorna Motorsports.
Recent Race History
A quick look at the roll call of winners for the Dutch TT is indeed impressive. Only two Dutchman can boast a race win in the premier class at Assen, Jack Middelburg won the race in 1980 on a Yamaha and previously, in 1977, Wil Hartog on his Suzuki took to the top step of the podium.
Lawson, Gardner, Mamola, Rainey and Schwantz have all won there as well of course as the mighty Mick Doohan. The Australian won at Assen five times, but the track holds painful memories for the multiple world champion, most notably the broken leg he sustained at the circuit in 1992.
The Dutch doctors were not able to stabilize the limb and only when Doctor Costa "kidnapped" Doohan from the Dutch infirmary, did Costa and his staff manage to halt any fears of an amputation through infection. His legs were sewn together to promote blood flow and that amazing fortitude and courage from Doohan allowed him to return to become a 500cc legend.
Valentino Rossi has won races in the 125cc, 250cc and MotoGP classes, and of the current crop of premier class riders, Sete Gibernau (absent through injury this year) is the only other pilot to have won the main event in Holland. Gibernau was triumphant in 2003 in the wet, the heavens opening on the formation lap, Sete taking the win from Max Biaggi and Rossi.
2004 of course will go down as the end of the love affair between Rossi and Gibernau after the once close friends felt the cold chill of competition come home to roost after the pair clashed before Valentino went on to take the victory in his debut on the YZR-M1 at Assen.
Rossi took his third premier class win in the Netherlands last season, beating Marco Melandri into second, with team-mate Edwards on the podium at a circuit the Texan has fond memories of.
If you have ever attended the TT, you will be well aware of the festivities that take place over the course of the weekend, it's a loud, crazy, carnival atmosphere and you need to have your beer head on, that's for sure.
The Assen weekend is celebrated in style by the fans, many arriving early in the week to savour the Dutch hospitality from the patient locals. On the Friday night, the town is closed off and the annual Assen fest is held which sees the bars move out on to the street, there are sound-stages erected and live bands play out until the early hours. A firework display lights up the sky and there are many varied food outlets plying the beer fuelled crowd with much needed sustenance.
There are all types of entertainment laid on and no expense is spared. As you can imagine the local economy booms, alcohol consumption for the most part taking care of that. It's a real free-for-all and a meeting you must attend before calling time on your travelling escapades to watch the Grand Prix guys strut their stuff.
If you camp, as with Mugello, Jerez and Donington Park, expect no sleep and take a moment to survey the smoke-filled horizon as the sun sets, and don't confuse yourself, what you see is not from the set of a cowboy feature -- it's "other substances".
During the 70's and early 80's there was trouble a plenty in the town as there was no entertainment laid on. The all-day drinking used to take its toll, and running battles with the local police caused major problems. It even got to the stage where businesses would board up the windows of their premises in expectancy of violence.
The local authorities finally got together with the police and local entertainment companies and decided to make the event a week-long festival not just an alcohol fest. It worked a treat, has been refined down the years, and the standard of behaviour has improved ten-fold, with the police all too happy to join in, where applicable.
This year, the soccer World Cup is in full-swing, so, if you get the chance, go and check out the scene outside the Hotel De Jong in one of the main squares. It's not for the feint of heart. Race-fans meet soccer fans -- you work it out.
Operation "Stop Rossi"
Hayden leads the championship (119 points), Capirossi (99) is in second spot after failing to score in Spain, and Valentino Rossi (90) courtesy of back-to-back victories, sits ominously in third spot. Melandri (89) is in fourth place, but will not ride in Holland for Team Gresini as he is still under observation in Dr. Costa's clinic, although happily on the mend. Dani Pedrosa (86) lies in fifth, and will want to erase the memories of last weekend where he was involved in the first corner melee, before crashing out of the re-started race.
As the track is deemed 'new', just who can adapt quickly with their own set-up, and of course with the tires, is anyone's guess, but maybe the likes of Kenny Junior, John Hopkins or Casey Stoner could provide a surprise for Rossi, Capirossi, Hayden and Pedrosa. We shall see.
There is currently no firm decision as to whether Marco Melandri will be replaced by another rider, although it has been confirmed by Ducati that Alex Hofmann (Pramac D'antin) will step in for Gibernau alongside Capirossi.
Electronic Aids....And The Rest
It might be prototype racing, where development of technology for your road bike sees it's genesis, but, if launch control squeezes the entire field approaching turn one, on lap one, an accident is, at times, more likely to occur.
Whomever was to blame for the first corner crash in Barcelona, I believe that traction control -- and in this instance, launch control -- do not help matters. Give the control back to the riders. Junk the bloody things!!
The rumor mill and contract negotiations always step-up a gear in Holland, with many of the European factory officials in attendance, looking for their next signing. The paddock is packed at Assen.
Don't forget, this race is held on a Saturday, with practice starting on Thursday. The opening session will run for an extra 30-minutes so the riders can get an extended feel of the new layout. The A-Style Dutch TT gets underway at 2pm, local time, 26-laps your new race distance. Let's hope we get an accident-free Grand Prix this weekend.
Let Battle Commence!!