ASSEN, HOLLAND, JUNE 24 – Practice and qualifying have raised more questions than answers in advance of Saturday’s Dutch TT. Can pole-sitter Marco Simoncelli (San Carlo Honda Gresini) translate his second MotoGP pole into his first MotoGP podium? Can Ben Spies’ second fastest qualifying run turn around what’s been a disappointing first season for the Yamaha factory rider? Will Repsol Honda’s Casey Stoner, third fastest, find confidence in the left side of the tire for the race? And can Ducati Marlboro’s Valentino Rossi rebound from qualifying 11th on the GP11.1, essentially a GP12 reduced in capacity by 200cc. And the question that hangs over all others is unanswerable: What will the weather be come race time at the “Cathedral of Racing” in northern Holland?
Simoncelli hasn’t qualified worse than fifth, and he’s been first or second in the last five races, but sits 11th in the championship behind Karel Abraham because of three DNFs. With his second pole in three races, Simoncelli’s hoping to change that, though a lot depends on the weather.
Assen is the most notoriously fickle track climate-wise. Clouds come and go and rain can fall at almost any time. Just as quickly the rain stops and the sun dries the track, but not evenly. Stoner crashed in Friday morning practice on a wet patch. Teammates Andrea Dovizioso and Hiroshi Aoyama, riding in place of the injured Dani Pedrosa, also crashed. None were seriously hurt.
Simoncelli has fallen at almost every race this year, but he managed to get through the fully dry qualifying session without tipping over, and with the pole position.
“Today we are the only class with the full dry session in the session in the afternoon and I’m happy,” he said after his pole lap of 1:34.718 mins. “I was happy yesterday on wet conditions. Also today, this morning with dry, I was happy on my bike. It works well and also today we improve a little bit, even if the track conditions sure were not the best, because after the problem of yesterday with the oil, today a lot of rain, sunny rain. So it was not the best, but my bike works well. I’m also constant and I hope this time to do well also in the race, not only in the qualifying.”
All of Thursday’s afternoon sessions were canceled after a number of Moto2 bikes oiled the track. Race direction extended this morning’s practice session from 45 to 90 minutes. Mostly it was dry, though a brief rain late in the session cut into the dry track time.
Now Simoncelli is under pressure to improve on his season best fifth place finish in Saturday’s seventh round of the championship.
“Yes, it’s very strange this year, because I was very fast in every event, but in the race all the time happen something, my mistake or something that I can control that separate me from the podium,” he said. “But I hope I will do better tomorrow, because until Saturday every time this year I was very fast. Tomorrow the race is on Saturday, so I hope to do well.”
Spies has had only a slightly better season than Simoncelli; he’s four points ahead in the championship. He hasn’t qualified as well, but he got his first and only podium in Catalunya. Like Simoncelli, he has three DNF’s and is looking for a reversal of fortune on Saturday.
“So far, so good,” he said. “We had a good race that started off in Catalunya, the momentum, and then Silverstone was actually a pretty good weekend, of course without the 45 minutes on Sunday,” when he crashed spectacularly. “We had to put this behind us.”
Spies missed out on the pole by .009 sec. and might have had it had he not slowed in the corner where Pramac Racing Team’s Loris Capirossi crashed, getting hit by his green and white Ducati. The Italian dislocated his shoulder and damaged rib cartilage, and won’t race on Saturday.
“But, yeah, so far this weekend it’s been really good,” Spies continued. “The wet, we were quite confident with the bike. Just didn’t take too many risks yesterday in the morning. And then today, the track this morning was good, except for the end. And qualifying went really well with us. So I’m pretty confident for the race, wet or dry, but I’m predicting a bike change in the race with how the weather’s been. So it’s going to be quite tricky. We just have to be ready for everything and happy with the team and especially for such a big event with the 50th anniversary colors that we can be on the front row.
“Would’ve liked to have got pole, but Marco’s too fast today and we’ll just try to put it together in the race tomorrow.”
Spies said he’d taken a hard hit to his back in the Silverstone crash, “but on the bike it doesn’t affect the lap time at all. It doesn’t affect me how I’m riding. I’m not 100%, but it’s not going to stop anything and so we just have to give the 100%, like I said.”
Stoner takes an 18-point lead into Saturday’s race after winning the past three. His weekend and confidence took a turn for the worse with the morning crash early in the session.
“We’re a bit bruised and sore, but in general we just lack a little bit of confidence on the left hand side of the tire,” he said. “We just can’t seem to get the heat into it and doesn’t really matter what we do with the set-up. We seem to just go around in a circle and not make any improvements. So this afternoon we tried a few different things to get our race pace a little better. And we got a bit slowly there, but it’s still nowhere near good enough. We’d like to have a little bit more pace for long distance, longevity of the tire. Seem to be using it up a little bit too quickly. And then when I went onto the qualifying tires, soft tires again, for the qualifying lap I just wasn’t willing to push.”
With title contender Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha) qualifying fourth, and not on the pace of the leaders, especially Simoncelli and Spies, Stoner was hopeful of padding his points lead, though he wasn’t going to take unnecessary chances.
“If the chance doesn’t come along in any race, whether I was winning the championship or not, I’m not going to try and win it,” he said. “We’re going out there tomorrow to try and win the race. We’ve got plenty of time tonight to come up with something. If it’s going to be a dry track tomorrow, I believe we can pick up our pace a little bit. We’ll see what the conditions bring. Hopefully it’s going to be dry. We can work on the settings a little bit for tomorrow. Considering our only dry sessions were today, we can’t worry too much about not being quite on the pace.”
That’s something Rossi needs to worry about after a disappointing qualifying session. He’d been second in the wet on Thursday and fifth on Friday morning. But in qualifying he was mired near the bottom of the 17-rider field, only moving up to 11th in the final minutes of the session.
He explained that in cold conditions, he couldn’t get any heat into the rear tire of the GP11.1, and, so far, nothing the team has come up with has helped.
“So is difficult, very difficult, especially this afternoon in the official practice and especially after yesterday that was good on the wet, we expect more,” he said. “This morning was not so bad, but this afternoon, unfortunately, we are not able to improve enough. And, you know, we still have some problem with the bike; looks like that we don’t understand the way to ride at the maximum this bike and the way to set, also, the bike for have the better feeling. And all our problems become a lot, a lot bigger because today. Like in Silverstone with the cold condition, we have a lot of problem for put enough temperature on the tires. And the tires remain under the range where provide better grip.
“So I have to try also the softer front for improve a bit my lap time, because with the hard I had not enough grip. So we need to understand, we need to work on the bike, and make something bigger than the normal things for try tomorrow for try to improve our performance and our position. So we have also to wait. The forecast yesterday on the wet was not so bad. We will see, we will see. Tomorrow we try, for sure, we try to improve.”
With the lack of rear grip, Rossi tried a softer front, but it means “we have big troubles, because I’m the only one with the soft also compared to Nicky (Hayden) and the other Ducatis,” Rossi said. “And, yeah, the soft give me better feeling for three laps for improve two or three positions, but anyway is not an option for a dry race tomorrow, because we need to make work the hard, for sure.”
Asked if he’d have done better with the GP11, he said he didn’t think that was the answer because “the problem with the front is similar than with the old bike, and this is the problem that give us more disadvantage compared to the other guy. We don’t expect, because always when we try this bike we were faster. In the test, yes, was the 1000, but I can ride the bike better. Also I think is a good decision because we can work before for the future.”
Hayden qualified ninth, just behind Colin Edwards (Monster Yamaha Tech 3). Hayden has a new softer, Step 2 chassis, but he didn’t use it in qualifying. In the morning session he wasn’t able to compare the Step 2 to his other chassis because of the changing weather, “and it really did seem a big step and come qualifying time we didn’t think it was the right time to be testing chassis,” he said. “Just go with something I know. Unless I thought, ‘Oh wow, it was a lot better.’ I used it yesterday in the rain and wasn’t really doing much, so preferred to just go with what we know and try to get a good grid position.”