Can Yamaha End Their Year-Long Drought in Assen?

Since 1949, world championship motorcycle racing has visited Assen, annually, without fail. This will therefore be the 69th running of the Dutch TT as a world championship race, and an important one, especially for Yamaha.
It has been way over one year since Maverick Vinales last won a race, back in Le Mans 2017, but for his teammate, Valentino Rossi, and the Iwata factory, last week marked the one-year anniversary of their last win. Furthermore, the day of the race, July 1st, will be the 63rd birthday of Yamaha’s motorcycle division; so an important weekend for Yamaha awaits. Moreover Rossi,  second in the championship,  abit twenty seven points back,  he is not theoretically, out of contention – so a win this weekend would ensure that his deficit in the championship is cut to less than one race win. Also, Assen has long been one of Rossi’s best circuits on the calendar, perhaps his absolute best, winning ten times at the Dutch track in his, now, 22 and a bit season long career, even winning in a tough 2013 season. Assen may prove one of the best circuits for the Yamaha, too. Not only does the M1 suit the fast, sweeping corners which arrive after De Strubben, and the end of the first sector, but the usually cooler Dutch climate can work in the favour of Yamaha, who tend to struggle in the heat. That said, the forecast for this weekend seems remarkably stable and warm, like it was for World Superbike earlier in the year.

Rossi himself, has had a tremendous run of races since the return to Europe. It started with a difficult Jerez, where he lucked into fifth place thanks to the triple crash of Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso, and that was followed by three third places in the next three races: Le Mans, Mugello and Barcelona. Again, he was fortunate in Barcelona that Dovizioso crashed, but with the current situation of Yamaha, capitalising on the errors of others is more important than usual. The Mugello podium was also quite special, losing the front in almost every corner throughout the race to finally take his first Italian GP podium since 2015. But what about this weekend for The Doctor? The importance of this weekend resulting in a win ultimately means little; what is important for Rossi and for Yamaha this weekend is whether the M1 will be able to cope well with the warmer conditions and whether it can conserve the tyre sufficiently in the race to be there at the end.

For the #25 side of the Movistar Yamaha garage, the situation is different. Maverick Vinales has suffered ever since he went to Yamaha in the early phases of races, even in the first races of last year, even the ones he won. Many times after tests, or after Saturdays on race weekends, Vinales has said something along the lines of ‘We tried with the full tank, we’re happy. I feel good,’ only for the next race to see precisely the same pattern as the previous ones: a poor start, an inability to overtake or ride quickly in the first laps, followed by a final five or seven laps which are as fast as anyone else out there. Once more, after the Monday test on the day following the Catalan GP two weeks ago, Vinales claimed a step had been made with his M1, that he could go to Assen and finally make the start he needs to, to be able to make use of his late-race pace. Only on Sunday will we understand whether he will be able to fight for a good result.

Jorge Lorenzo on his Ducati. Image courtesy of Ducati

But ultimately, the layout of Assen works well for Yamaha. And, typically, what works for Yamaha works for Jorge Lorenzo. The winner of the previous two Grands Prix is arriving this weekend with all the confidence in the world – who wouldn’t, after dominating the last two races? However, it is excessive confidence which Lorenzo blamed for his crash in 2013 which arguably cost him the World Championship that year, but more importantly broke his left collarbone and left a minefield of mental scars which have haunted the five-times World Champion ever since, especially when returning to the origin of the damage, which makes absolute sense. In 2013 he would have won, but the broken collarbone prevented that, although it did not stop him from racing (an act of relative heroism). As a result, Lorenzo has only one MotoGP win in Assen, back in 2010 – his first championship year in the premier class. Since then, Lorenzo has only had one podium in Holland, in 2015 – he was taken out by Marco Simoncelli in 2011, by Alvaro Bautista in 2012; the collarbone prevented a win in 2013; it rained in 2014, 2016, 2017. However, consistent, dry, warm weather – on paper – suits Lorenzo perfectly. But the Ducati has suffered in Assen in recent years (with one exception which we will get to later), its stability combined with a lack of turning making it a very physical twenty six laps on Saturday, and more recently Sunday, and none of them being particularly rapid. Maybe this weekend, Lorenzo can change that, and if he can fight for the win, that is a very worrying occurrence for the opposition.

That Ducati exception, came from Danilo Petrucci last year. If it weren’t for Alex Rins getting in the way at the end of the race when Petrucci was challenging Rossi for the lead, Yamaha could have been waiting for 13 months by now for a win, and Ducati would have signed a Grand Prix winner to replace the Honda-bound Lorenzo for 2019. The rain towards the end of the race played into the hands of the #9 Pramac Ducati rider last year – having nothing to lose helped Petrucci in those conditions. But this weekend has the potential to be a difficult one for Petrux, partly for the reasons mentioned previously about the difficulties of the Desmosedici in Assen, but also because the higher temperatures, combined with the old, relatively slippery Dutch asphalt and Petrucci’s aggressive riding style could leave him without grip at the end of the race.

Andrea Dovizioso struggled last year in Holland, relying on the late rain to allow him to fight for the podium, although he ultimately missed out. Dovizioso has the unfortunate situation this weekend of being on a motorcycle that does not particularly suit Assen, with a riding style which does not particularly suit Assen. Dovi brakes very late, carries quite high entry speed, but not much apex speed, which doesn’t really work in Assen. However, the factors which could work against Petrucci have the potential to work for Dovizioso, who is the master of tyre conservation. However, you have to say that the most likely rider is Lorenzo to end Ducati’s 10-year winless run in Assen.

Marc and Dani Assen stats. Image courtesy of Honda Pro Racing

Marc Marquez comes into this weekend with a 27-point championship advantage and, probably, as the favourite for the race win. Marquez has five wins in Assen, including three in a row in 125cc and Moto2 between 2010 and 2012. He is without a win in Holland since 2014, but with fair reasons: his Honda was subpar in 2015 and his ability to even fight for the win was impressive enough; 2016 was a situation where he had to think of the championship whilst sat behind Jack Miller; and 2017 was a similar situation to ’16 with rain at the end bringing out the rarely seen cautious Marc Marquez, although he still threw down a huge move on Cal Crutchlow at the Ramshoek on the final lap to take third place. Fair weather and a much improved RC213V compared to previous years could put Marquez out of reach on Sunday, although excessively high temperatures could see the return of the front tyre issues that have plagued the Honda rider in the last two races.

Unusually, Dani Pedrosa is currently attracting more attention than Marc Marquez, primarily due to his contractual situation. It is seeming more and more likely that the Spaniard will go to the proposed Petronas Yamaha team for next year, but the announcement of the team has to come before Pedrosa can announce that he is riding for them – and that is if he is riding for them at all. The warm, stable weather should help Dani this weekend, who has struggled at Assen in recent years, but was strong in Barcelona and feeling better physically ahead of this weekend.

Johann Zarco will be hoping for a stronger weekend for this round, having suffered in the last races. The Frenchman was on pole for the Dutch TT last year, and fought for the victory for most of the race until he pit for a bike change anticipating an increase in the rainfall which never arrived. Another potential dark horse this weekend is Jack Miller, who took his one and only MotoGP win in Assen back in 2016.

An unusually warm weekend in Assen awaits, with birthdays and anniversaries, the potential for a second triple-winner of 2018, but who will win the first Dutch TT to be held in July?

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