Valentino Rossi is back on top after winning the dry 26-lap MotoGP race at TT Circuit Assen on his Yamaha YZR-M1 by 2.170 seconds against the Repsol Honda steamroller of world championship points-leader Dani Pedrosa and fast newcomer Marc Marquez.
“Before the race, I thought, ‘I have to try to win—this is my day,’” said Rossi. “I could overtake on braking, and I felt good on the bike. It was difficult, but the finish line was calling me, so I had to arrive as fast as possible. We have made a step with the bike; I can ride in a better way, so we have to try to stay with the top guys every weekend.”
Jorge Lorenzo—the acclaimed “Man of Steel”—started 12th and finished fifth, losing only two points to Pedrosa after breaking his collarbone and flying to Spain for overnight surgical repair (a titanium plate and eight screws). On Saturday morning, Lorenzo showed himself fit by toughing through the required push-ups and then by being eighth fastest in morning warm-up.
“I felt quite good physically at the beginning of the race,” said Lorenzo, “but after Lap 7, every lap was worse. It was more difficult to change direction, brake and accelerate, so I couldn’t do more than fifth position. This fifth position is better than any victory I have had in my career.”
Cal Crutchlow surpassed himself by qualifying on pole and finishing third behind Rossi and Marquez. Who is not fascinated by the contrast between Lorenzo’s balletic smoothness and Crutchlow’s frenetic motion, braking late and hard, blowing through options, crowding the business of turning to get immediately on-throttle and away? Lorenzo’s bike, with the soft spring and damper settings required by his corner-speed style, moves undisturbed over bumps that set Crutchlow’s “electric bar bull” setup jumping and jerking.
Crutchlow is going to win a race on his 18-months-out-of-date lease YZR-M1. That much is clear. Why not this time? “We let the race go in the first five laps,” said the Tech3 Yamaha rider. “It’s as simple as that. But we took a big risk with the setting. I thought I could manage this bike in the first five laps.
“I had a big wheelie at the start. I was heading for the grass and had to shut the throttle. And then I couldn’t get heat in the tires. I knew the first laps would be tough, and we lost too much. I couldn’t turn the bike with the full fuel load. We will now do what we wanted to do [at Assen] for the next race. I’m optimistic.”
This inability to hold line with a full fuel load was the key to this race. Rossi solved it. Crutchlow knew the answer, but the mixed conditions in practice gave no chance to verify its effectiveness.
Crutchlow is the best source of real information in the paddock. The others sound like Hallmark Card platitudes by comparison. “The setting change [Rossi] has is quite interesting,” he said after the race. “He can carry a lot more corner entry [speed] in the first laps. It was the way we went in the Barcelona test, and we were okay with it.”
The British rider indicated with his hand that his bike was “level” front to rear but that Lorenzo’s is high in front (“No one can understand how he can ride it like that!”) and Rossi’s low. During braking and corner entry, the height of the bike’s cg above the pavement is the lever, and braking force acting on that lever transfers weight to the front tire. When the fuel tank is full, the tire can be loaded beyond the peak of its load-versus-grip curve, especially on Assen’s none-too-grippy pavement.
Why doesn’t grip just keep rising as load increases? Once the rising load has forced footprint rubber to fill the pavement texture completely, there can be no further increase in real area of rubber-to-pavement contact, so grip stops increasing. Every rider at Assen had this same problem of incipient front-end loss on corner entry, aggravated by a heavy fuel load in the early laps. Riders cope as best they can with the setup achieved by the time of the race.
How can Lorenzo ride with the front end high? It’s a normal part of the corner-speed style to seek stability rather than steering quickness. The higher front could be part of that package.
Ducati was defeated at Assen. Factory rider Nicky Hayden said Ducati needs a new direction. “We have been focusing a lot on stiffness with this new chassis, but maybe stiffness isn’t as big a problem as we thought. Now, we need to look in some different areas—weight distribution, engine position, something. The stiffness didn’t do it.”
This is a setback, as one implication might be that the 90-degree V-Four configuration is just too bulky to fit into the space available on a MotoGP bike. Everyone avoids mentioning this, as Ducati giving up the 90-degree Vee angle would be like Yamaha giving up five valves per cylinder (oops!).
Neither Ducati team rider currently prefers the “lab bike” being ridden by Michele Pirro, as it still lacks front-end feel and grip. “In FP4, the bike was still moving a lot, especially on corner entry,” Hayden said after qualifying. “The tires here have a pretty stiff carcass, which isn’t helping us, and I’m really fighting the bike a lot. I barely advanced through to Q2, and my time in that was over a second slower than in qualifying last year, which is too much. I hate to admit it, but I hope for rain tomorrow.”
Why are the tires especially stiff? One possible answer is that they feel stiffer only in relation to the lower grip forces generated at Assen. A contributing factor may be that Bridgestone for the first time sent tires in its special heat-resistant construction. Heat comes from flex, so to reduce heating, you make the tire a bit stiffer.
After the race, in which Ducatis finished 10th, 11th, 13th and 14th, Hayden said, “There wasn’t much grip here, which certainly didn’t help us. We tried hard to make the bike better, but we couldn’t ever really get it working. It was quite difficult in the race, especially in change of direction. The bike was moving a lot, and I was pushing the front in a couple of the fast corners. I was really at the limit, and every time I tried to push a little harder to close the gap, I’d run a bit wide or lose the front. The real problem is we got beat by 33 seconds, which shows how far behind we are.”
MotoGP project boss Paolo Ciabatti announced that Ducati intends to offer as many as four production versions of its current Desmosedici to private teams in 2014. Could this be in response to Suzuki’s recent announcement that its return to MotoGP will be delayed until 2015? And whose response might it be? Ducati’s alone? Or as a result of quiet “urging” from Dorna?
Pedrosa had looked headed for pole, being 0.3 seconds clear of his rivals in the first half of qualifying. Then, he crashed unhurt at Turn 7. Arriving back at his pit with two minutes left in the session, he elected not to go out on his “B” bike on cold tires. At the very end, faster times by Rossi, Stefan Bradl and Marquez clicked in, headed by Crutchlow’s 1:34.398 pole lap.
That morning had been wet, then drying, and Marquez was the first to venture out on slicks. His swell Assen reward was a violent crash from dampness in fast Turn 13—the “Ramshoek.” His bill was a bruised shoulder and hip, plus fractures in a little finger and a toe.
Lorenzo’s crash and injury came in Thursday afternoon’s FP2. This one looked like aquaplaning, as the rear of the bike swung lazily from side-to-side as if little tire force or damping was present. The airbag in his Alpinestars suit inflated in plenty of time, but impact forces on his left arm were too much for the collarbone.
Near the end of the race, Crutchlow gained speed, moved up and looked as if he could pass Marquez for second. Did he and Marquez touch on the last lap? “Yeah, yeah, we touched!” said Crutchlow. “If he hadn’t moved the throttle just then, we’d both have been in the Turn 1 stands.”
Marquez had somehow caught his sleeve on the brake lever, losing speed mid-corner. He said, “I braked late, he touched me from the back. I think, ‘Ach, Cal is pushing!’” Then, he added, “It is just part of [racing].”
Pedrosa started fifth, was first into Turn 1 and eventually finished fourth. “Today, I started well, saving a crash at the very beginning with cold tires, and I was able to continue and put in some good laps. Then, I had problems with the tires, both in the front and rear. Still, I tried to hold on for as long as possible because I don’t want it to be an excuse.”
Rossi passed Pedrosa on Lap 5. “I sat behind Rossi for several laps,” said Pedrosa. “Then, as the race progressed, it was more and more difficult to keep up, especially when Marc and Crutchlow caught me. I guess everyone was sliding around behind us, but I found that I could not control the bike on entry to some corners and that made me lose touch, especially in the closing laps.”
What’s next? Rossi summed up his dispatch of Marquez, Pedrosa and Crutchlow by saying, “I always had that little bit extra at certain points.” That’s the way it always was through Rossi’s years of domination. Now that he is comfortable on today’s Yamaha, will he be able to keep “that little bit extra” at the next rounds at Sachsenring in Germany and Laguna Seca?
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