The next texas tornado . . .

MotoGP Assen, Netherlands, 25th June 2011

Words: Simon Bradley, Pics as credited

Cal Crutchlow, man of steel, tiptoes gently around in the rain under two weeks after having his collarbone screwed back together... (Pic: MotoGP)Assen, up in Northern Holland, is a terrific circuit. You can read more about it here, but for now I'm going to simply say that it is one of the few tracks on the calendar that truly incorporates elements of everything the discerning rider - or spectator - could reasonably desire. Except hills, of course, this being Holland and therefore pretty well completely flat.

One of the strange things about races in Assen is the number of times that it rains when one wouldn't normally expect it to. Like, say, the end of June. But not consistently, because that would make life far too straightforward. So while the rest of Europe basked in blazing sunshine, Assen stayed resolutely grey and occasionally decidedly damp.

One good thing about the weekend, though. Cal Crutchlow, proving yet again that he is, frankly, rock-hard, returned to the fray just a fortnight after rather messiliy breaking his collarbone. Herve Poncharel clearly chooses riders for the Tech3 team who are just a little tougher than usual.

Practice gave an interesting insight as to the real situation out there in the paddock. You can tell the weather by looking at the timesheets, even without any reference to conditions. First practice was wet and cold. Marco Simoncelli was at the top. The wild haired young Italian can always be relied on to push that little bit harder than most would when conditions are really not good. Valentino Rossi was next, for the simple reason that he can find grip where there isn't any, regardless of what he's riding, and the Ducati works well when there's less grip abd times are down more to chassis than power. Stoner and Dovizioso were next, showing that the factory Honda is an extremely good, rounded package, with Lorenzo behind them and Cal Crutchlow snapping at his heels.

Marco Simoncelli is incredibly fast, and perhaps just needs to develop some other skills a little.... (Pic:MotoGP)But the second practice was dry. Simoncelli was at the front again, but this time it was Stoner close behind. Ben Spies was next, just ahead of his world champion team-mate, with Rossi and Crutchlow just behind.

Maybe Rossi has lost his touch with the rain dance, because qualifying was dry and the Ducati was outgunned. No fewer than ten riders took a turn at the top of the leaderboard, with Alvaro Bautista a welcome though very rare presence on the factory Suzuki. Lorenzo opened his innings early, being ousted by de Puniet, Abraham, Capirossi, Bautista, Hayden and Stoner before reclaiming the top spot for himelf. An almost identical pattern of provisional pole sitters followed before Hector Barbera got knocked off the top by Marco Simoncelli. Then it was a battle between the Hondas of Simoncelli and Stoner and Spies' Yamaha. And at the end of the session it was Marco Simoncelli on pole, nine thousandths of a second ahead of Spies with Stoner just over a quarter of a second back in third. Jorge Lorenzo headed the second row, nearly half a second off pole, ahead of Dovizioso and a phenomenally impressive Crutchlow in sixth. Nearly half a second gap brought us to Karel Abraham, heading the third row from Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden, while Randy de Puniet rounded out the top ten, just ahead of Valentino Rossi and Hiroshi Aoyama. Aoyama was deputising for the still injured Pedrosa on the Repsol Honda, which probably accounts for his lowly qualifying spot.

Saturday warmup (the race always takes place on a Saturday rather than Sunday as everywhere else) was wet and cold. So Valentino Rossi was the fastest man on the track, ahead of Lorenzo, Spies and Hayden. Simoncelli was allowing discretion to be the better part of valour, sitting most of the drizzly session out, along with Stoner, and only venturing on track for the minimum required laps.

Rossi must be wondering just what he needs to do to turn things around, though. Because after a truly imperious display in the wet warmup, the Ducati rider was then confronted with a rapidly drying track and some watery sunshine. Really not what the nine times World Champion needed as the field took their places on the grid.

Ben Spies even found time to indulge in a bit of powerboating.... (Pic: Yamaha)Lights out and Ben Spies made the most of his pole position, taking the lead from the off into the critical first corner and the tight stadium section. A good job, too, because Lorenzo was a little tardy getting on the power and also ran wide on the exit of the stadium. Not one to miss an opportunity like that, Simoncelli dived down the inside and tapped the throttle to execute the perfect clean pass. And he'd have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for that pesky cold rear tyre. A surprisingly gentle but completely unrecoverable highside lobbed the Italian off the Honda and skittled Lorenzo into the gravel with him. Naturally they both helped each other up, laughed and walked off, each with their arm around the other's shoulder. Like Hell. They actually grabbed their bikes, yelled at each other a bit (I suspect) and got going as quickly as possible. Lorenzo came off better as the Yamaha seems to be easier to start than the notoriously difficult Honda, but they both got going, anyway

That little bit of drama meant the first lap finished with Ben Spies in the lead, ahead of Dovizioso, Stoner and Cal Crutchlow, with Valentino Rossi behind. Yes, Cal Crutchlow, broken collarbone and all, was in a solid fourth place and seemingly having little difficulty in keeping the nine times world champion at bay.

Lap two had Stoner passing Dovizioso and setting off after Spies, but to no avail. The lanky, likeable Texan was long gone. Half a dozen laps later, Rossi got past Crutchlow. Not because the Coventry lad was flagging at all, but because the Tech3 Yamaha had inexplicably eaten its front tyre and he had no grip. He pitted on lap eleven and got a replacement tyre, which completely shot any chance he may have had of getting decent points but still gave the team valuable data as he circulated at a good pace at the back of the field.

Rossi and Hayden in a Ducati formation display. (Pic: Ducati) Now I know I've said this before but I'm afraid it's true again. Once Rossi had passed Crutchlow there was essentially nothing else to report. The order at the front of the field didn't change, nobody pressed especially hard and in truth it was a fairly static race. The problem is that the field is so small now that the track becomes very large and allows everyone to spread out. So everyone gets to ride a perfect lap, every lap - they're not tripping over each other generally and so lap times are broadly similar. And that means that obce they've got spread out, either through accidents or because of very good or poor starts, there's not a lot anyone can do to close the gap.

But to be fair some things did happen. Colin Edwards had the same front tyre probme as Crutchlow, just later in the race. At that stage he felt it best to stay on the circuit and just be very careful, which he duly did, dropping from sixth to eighth. Jorge Lorenzo rode like a man posessed to get back up to sixth place, while Marco Simoncelli also pushed hard on a bike that was somewhat more battered than Lorenzo's to come home ninth.

Ben Spies didn't put a wheel wrong for the whole race, though, and brought the beautiful 50th anniversary Yamaha over the line a comfortable seven and a half seconds clear of Stoner, who was in turn a yawning twenty seconds ahead of Dovizioso, with Rossi another ten seconds behind. Nicky Hayden sat thirteen seconds behind Rossi in fifth, with Lorenzo almost ina race, just a second further back. Another twenty seconds saw Colin Edwards cross the line on the stricken Yamaha, with Hiroshi Aoyama close enough behind on the Repsol Honda that one more lap would have seen him pass Edwards. Rounding out the top ten was Simoncelli in ninth, with Toni Elias just behind.

Next week we're at Mugello. The championship is, um, marginally more interesting than it might have been. But the racing, I fear, isn't. Hopefully the enthusiastic, passionate, incredibly partisan Mugello crowd will inspire everyone to put on a bit of a show. Especially Valentino Rossi...


...as well as showbaoting. Spies on his way to a well earned maiden victory. The first, I suspect, of many... (Pic: Yamaha)

1 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
2 Casey Stoner (Honda)
3 Andrea Dovizioso (Honda)
4 Valentino Rossi (Ducati)
5 Nicky Hayden (Ducati)
6 Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha)
7 Colin Edwards (Yamaha)
8 Hiroshi Aoyama (Honda)
9 Marco Simoncelli (Honda)
10 Toni Elias (Honda)

Championship Standing after seven rounds:

1 Casey Stoner 136
2 Jorge Lorenzo 108
3 Andrea Dovizioso 99
4 Valentino Rossi 81
5 Nicky Hayden 71
6 Dani Pedrosa 61
7 Ben Spies 61
8 Hiroshi Aoyama 51
9 Colin Edwards 46
10 Marco Simoncelli 39



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