Chaos broke out in The Cathedral this Sunday (that'd be Assen, and yes, on Sunday, not Saturday, for the first time) and we learned three things at this most eventful of MotoGP weekends.
- Racing a MotoGP bike on rain tires you have little experience with is a huge challenge for even the world's best riders and can produce some historic surprises.
- Winglets are going away, but that won't necessarily end the search for aerodynamic advantage.
- Silly season is over early, this year, and I find at least a few details of the 2017 lineup surprising.
Drama began long before the race started. The starting grid was scrambled by the fickle Dutch weather, as qualifying in the MotoGP class took place on a damp track. Marc Márquez crashed on his first hot lap, stole a photographer's scooter and got back to the pits, where he anxiously waited for his crew to switch his backup bike from dry-weather to wet-weather configuration. Then he qualified fourth. It wasn't as amazing as his epic sprint and pole position at Circuit of the Americas in 2015, but it was still impressive.
The race was even more eventful: rain, sun, rain. Everyone started on wet-weather tires, but after several laps, a dry line was forming and crews were warming up bikes wearing slicks in pit lane. But just when we expected riders to think about switching, the rain returned. None other than Yonny Hernández was leading in front of Valentino Rossi. Then, just when we began wondering if we could see the first win by a non-factory racer since Toni Elias pipped Rossi at the line 10 years ago in Portugal, Hernández crashed.
More surprises. Heavy rain brought out the red flag. After the restart, again on a wet track, rider after rider went down, most notably Rossi, while leading. That put us back to talking about a non-factory rider winning, only this time it was Jack Miller, who kept his cool and took a win that had him near tears as the Australian national anthem played for the podium ceremony.
So much strangeness: Márquez was never so happy with second place, gaining big ground on Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. Andrea Iannone, who started at the back of the grid because of his penalty and crashed in the first leg, still finished fifth. Only 13 riders finished upright and running. It was a weekend, TV commentator Gavin Emmett noted, in which every MotoGP rider crashed at least once.
And that wasn't all the news this weekend.
Farewell to winglets
Early in the season, the wings sprouting on MotoGP bikes were a topic of pre-season debate. Having since banned these unsightly aerodynamic aids in Moto3 and Moto2, the Grand Prix Commission met Saturday and announced plans to ban the wings in MotoGP, as well.
Ducati has been the most enthusiastic advocate of winglets, creating a different configuration for each track. Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki and Aprilia followed, but fitfully. The Grand Prix Commission gave the MSMA, the organization of MotoGP manufacturers, a chance to come to a unanimous agreement on regulations for the winglets. The Commission said if the manufacturers could agree, it would accept their decision. They couldn't, so the Commission banned them.
Now what becomes crucial is how the rules are written. How will the banned winglets be defined? With Ducati so interested in pursuing aerodynamics, will the team (or another team) find a way to mold a fairing to meet the letter of the rules while still gaining an advantage?
An early end to silly season
With almost every rider ending a contract this season, 2016 was destined to have a silly season of unusual proportions. In the end, however, it was also unusual how early in the year everything fell into place, once Jorge Lorenzo walked away from the best ride in the paddock with Yamaha to defect to Ducati. Here's the summary of the factory rides for next year:
|Lorenzo's departure created the most highly sought opening in MotoGP: A Yamaha factory ride. Now the team has a classic pairing of a great veteran in Rossi and a rising star in Viñales.|
|No surprise with Márquez, though some speculated Pedrosa, struggling with the combination of Honda and Michelin this year, might try to jump to a Yamaha, which could be better suited to his size and style. Or, would Honda finally give up on Pedrosa? It was a decade ago that Honda placed its bets on Pedrosa, instead of 2006 World Champion Nicky Hayden, as its future. Since then, others have come and won championships for Repsol Honda while Pedrosa remains the best rider never to win a title. He'll get another chance.|
|Lorenzo smarted from the way Yamaha reacted to his 2015 championship. No matter how many races Lorenzo won, Rossi was still the star. So in 2017, Lorenzo is going to Ducati to try to do what Rossi could not do. Of course if Lorenzo wins the title on a Ducati, many will say it's because the Ducati of today is much better than the one Rossi rode, thus extending Lorenzo's frustration. Through the timing of his birth, Lorenzo came along just behind arguably the best ever, certainly the most popular rider ever, and he may never escape that shadow, no matter how much he wants to. To partner with Lorenzo, Ducati chose to keep the Andrea that hasn't crashed into anyone in 2016.|
|With Viñales defecting, and the relationship with Aleix Espargaró turning sour early in the season, Suzuki had some major decisions to make. In the end, they picked up Iannone from Ducati and Moto2 contender Alex Rins (over opponent Johann Zarco). That gives Suzuki the combination of veteran experience and future star that they're looking for, but will Suzuki regret signing a rider who is quickly earning anew the "Maniac Joe" nickname he had nearly shed? Here's a tip, Suzuki: Buy extra fairings.|
|KTM joins the grid next year with two riders who will switch bikes and leathers, but not teammates, as Smith and the younger Espargaró come over from the Tech 3 Yamaha team.|
|Sam Lowes, currently in a tight three-way battle with Rins and Zarco for the Moto2 title, will move up to the Aprilia MotoGP team. The last factory seat was filled at Assen with the announcement that the other Aprilia rider would be Espargaró.|