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MotoGP Assen: Ecstatic Rossi on win, ‘I race motorcycles for this feeling’

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The TT Circuit Assen might not be the track it used to be for some people but the oldest circuit on the calendar remains one of the best and this year it hosted another incredible day of racing.

After a brilliant Moto3 race (is there any other kind?) it was MotoGP’s turn. French rookie Johann Zarco was on pole for the first time in the premier class, joined on the front row by Marc Marquez and Danilo Petrucci. Valentino Rossi led the second row, while championship leader Maverick Vinales would start from 11th.

The sense of anticipation was tangible; it was dry, there was a good mix of tyre choice with all compounds being run and 26 laps of fast and furious racing lay ahead. There were days not so many years ago when you could predict the podium finishers without too much difficulty, those days are gone; in 2017 anything can happen.

As the lights went out, Zarco got a decent start but it was Marquez that got the release just right. He caught Zarco at the end of the short straight, but the Frenchman led into turn 1 with Marquez in second, followed by Rossi and Petrucci. Zarco’s team-mate Jonas Folger made a good start but ran off at turn 6 which left the German no option but to slot back into place in last position. As the leaders crossed the line at the end of the first lap Zarco had started to slightly pull away, opening up a gap of 0.6 seconds.

Another rider who started well was Andrea Iannone on the Suzuki, moving up 7 places from his grid position of 16th to 9th place on the second lap. Ahead of him the fight for 5th was already hotting up between Scott Redding and Alvaro Bautista, with the pair constantly swapping places as the front 4 of Zarco, Marquez, Rossi and Petrucci pulled away.

It wasn’t all smooth running for the leaders though, on lap 4 Marc Marquez had a huge front-end slide, with the World Champion so low to the ground it was essentially a crash that not many riders would save. In the following pack, the old “Maniac Joe” was back as Iannone stormed up the inside of his old team-mate Andrea Dovizioso to take 6th place at turn 7.

For a couple of laps, things slightly settled down up front, with Rossi just popping out of the racing line every now and then to take a look at Marquez in front of him. A pass was coming, it was just a case of where and when, not if. On lap 9 Iannone had started to drop back, with the Italian later explaining that he had a significant tyre drop on lap 8 which completely changed the characteristics of the bike; causing him to have a lot of movement and struggle with rear grip. As Iannone battled his bike, Sam Lowes crashed out of the race at turn 9 which was disappointing for the British rider after he made a positive step forward over the weekend, which hopefully he can carry forward for the rest of the season.

Not long after Lowes crashed, Jonas Folger hit the floor at turn 1. As the German headed into the gravel, the number of riders that have scored points in all races this year hit zero, while the Tech 3 rookie started to turn his focus to his home race next weekend. Fellow Yamaha rider Maverick Vinales was pushing hard to make his way through the pack, passing Dovizioso to take 6th place, with Alvaro Bautista following the Spaniard through on Dovi a few corners later with an inch-perfect pass at the final chicane.

As the front four crossed the line to start lap 11 Rossi put in a pass of pure perfection on Marquez to take second on the brakes. One lap later he made the same move again, this time on Zarco to take the lead. But three corners later came the drama, as Johann Zarco made an ambitious move into T4, perhaps imagining space where there wasn’t any and coming into contact with Valentino. After the race, Rossi said that “I think [Zarco] is not a bad guy, [he] just don’t understand the size of the bike between one to another.”

There’s nothing wrong with making ambitious moves or being aggressive, it’s MotoGP and that’s racing. And if we’re talking about making moves no-one else would’ve thought about then over the years the master of that has been Valentino. Zarco is a rookie in the class, and by definition, this is a learning year for him and his lack of deference really is great to see, and as he becomes more experienced with the bigger bikes the moves might start paying off.

As Zarco fell back to third, Maverick Vinales dropped his bike, crashing out of the race at turn 17. The Spaniard claimed “I don’t know why I crashed” but it looked as though he had a slight rear wobble as he stood the bike up to change direction before then losing the front. Regardless of the cause Maverick was incredibly lucky that Dovi missed him, as he slid across the track with his head coming far too close for comfort to the Ducati’s front wheel.

Bradley Smith became the next rider to crash, hitting the floor on lap 14 at turn 7 after coming into the corner a bit too fast and tucking the front. The KTM rider had been happy with the step forward the team had taken over the weekend so it was a shame for the already injured Brit to crash out. His team-mate Pol Espargaro faired much better over the 26 laps, taking 11th place at the flag which is KTM’s best result so far.

11 laps to go and Petrucci passed Marquez at turn 5 for second, while Rossi was leading by over a second for the first time in the race. But then Assen played it’s final card: the rain arrived. As drops started to fall, Alvaro Bautista crashed out after losing the front, while white flags were waved to signal the pitlane being open for bike swaps. We now had a flag-to-flag situation but with 9 laps left would it be worth coming in?

Despite saying that when the rain arrived he thought about the championship and decided not to take risks, it was at that precise point that Andrea Dovizioso really kicked into gear. The Italian passed Zarco and Marquez in quick succession, moving into third, while his compatriots Rossi and Petrucci were suddenly right together after Danilo had closed down the gap, perhaps due to rain causing Valentino to ease up slightly as he was the lead rider heading into uncertain conditions.

As they came around to start lap 20, Zarco was the first to pit to change bikes, followed by Hector Barbera. The Tech 3 rookie was a little too eager though as he received a ride-through penalty for exceeding the pitlane speed limit. While Alex Rins and Jorge Lorenzo became the next riders to pit one lap later. Unfortunately for those who pitted thinking the rain would become harder, it was a gamble they lost.

At this point, the top 4 could barely be separated. Dovizioso passed Petrucci at turn 1 to take second before Danilo took the position back at turn 8 before then passing Rossi for the lead at turn 15. The front two then started to pull away from Dovizioso and Marquez, with Valentino taking back the lead at the chicane on lap 23 with a masterclass of how to pass up the inside on the brakes.

As Dovi and Marc tried to catch back up with the leaders without taking too many risks in tricky conditions, Cal Crutchlow came almost out of nowhere to pass both of them in quick succession and move into 3rd as they started the last lap.

Over the line, Rossi led by 0.4 over Petrucci and the pair started to run into back markers. As they negotiated their way through the riders they were lapping, Petrucci got caught up with Alex Rins, who later apologised, and expressed his annoyance at the lack of blue flags after the race. As Rossi lapped his former team-mate, Lorenzo, Marquez took back third from Crutchlow after a smart race for the World Champion, before The Doctor crossed the line just in front of Petrucci to take his first win of 2017, sending most of the 105,000 fans and his box crazy.

As he made his way back to Parc Ferme, Rossi was making the most of every moment. His M1 got a pat to say “well done” before the roles from Mugello were reversed with VR46 Academy rider Andrea Migno congratulating his mentor before it was then coach Luca Cadalora’s turn for a hug. After a kiss to the onboard camera, the winner rode into pitlane on standing up on the footpegs, arms outstretched as he took in the fans’ cheers.

Off the bike, there was a hug for second place finisher Petrucci and Dutch legend Wil Hartog before heading to the podium to collect his 115th Grand Prix winner’s trophy after giving the top step a kiss to celebrate his return to it after a year away.

As the Italian anthem played for the third race in a row, it was clear that these last three races had been something of an Italian renaissance. Andrea Dovizioso had won two for Ducati, Valentino Rossi was back after a year away and Danilo Petrucci with 2 podiums and 2 front row starts was performing better than he ever had before, so well in fact that he was actually disappointed about second place and fired a warning shot for the next race saying firmly “I can’t wait to be in Germany, I want to win!”.

Finishing further back but still in the top 10, Jack Miller and Karel Abraham put in great rides to finish 6th and 7th, both chose not to take too many risks in the rain and it paid off with both getting decent points. Loris Baz got a good result in 8th after struggling in the dry part of the race with a lack of feel and pain in his arm, the French rider is looking forward to the summer break to get that particular issue fixed.

The Spanish duo of Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo both had disappointing races after difficult weekends, with Pedrosa unable to get temperature into his tyres once again and Lorenzo again struggling to be fast and find the limit in mixed conditions.

Assen brought some truly brilliant performances across the grid but the ride of the weekend has to go to Valentino. As he took his 10th win at the Dutch Grand Prix almost exactly 20 years after his first, he became the first rider to have a winning career of two decades, with Loris Capirossi in second place on 17 years. Just think about that for a moment: 20 years of winning, 115 victories and 89 wins in the premier class, out of 356 Grand Prix starts.

They should put a photo of Valentino in the dictionary next to the definition of commitment, and if you want to know why he still pushes himself to the limit every time he gets on the bike, speaking after the race he said “I race with motorcycle for this feeling, for what I feel the 5-6 hours after the race..” That feeling is something inexplicable, they try to explain it but it’s impossible; if you’ve won you know it, if not then you can only begin to imagine.

But alongside the joy of winning was the satisfaction of taking a step forward with the bike setup. Rossi was able to put the new chassis through its paces in wet, dry and mixed conditions and it seems to have passed the test as he says “I can ride more in my own way, in a better way”.

Another rider heading home to Italy happy is Andrea Dovizioso who now leads the World Championship. Dovi said, “we go back home in the lead and this is a new emotion for me because I’ve never been in the lead of MotoGP before”. If the championship was tight before Assen, now it’s downright cramped and that’s just how we like it. Dovi leads on 115 pts, with Vinales in second 4pts behind. Rossi is in third just 3 pts behind his team-mate, while Marquez is 4th and 4pts off Rossi. Pedrosa rounds out the top 5 but he’s a bit further back, 17 points off his fellow Repsol rider.

As the season heads to the halfway point at Sachsenring there are just 11 points between the top 4 and a lot of uncertainty ahead. Germany has been a happy hunting ground for Marquez in recent years but there have been a couple of alterations and the track has been resurfaced. With weather often changeable in Saxony, it’s bound to be another incredible weekend in MotoGP and there are just 4 days to wait!

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World SBK Assen: Rea holds off home hero van der Mark for race one victory

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At the historic and iconic Cathedral of Speed, Alex Lowes started off strong taking his first ever World Superbike pole position.

Unfortunately for the Brit his good fortune didn’t carry through to the race, as he continuously fell back through the pack and into 12th due to a mistake with tyre fitting; his R1 was fitted with a ‘C’ compound tyre, when it should’ve been fitted with a ‘B’.

While Lowes fought furiously with his Yamaha, his fellow countrymen were fighting up the sharp end.

Jonathan Rea took an early lead, but home hero Michael van der Mark was on his tail, eventually taking the lead on lap eight. We all know that Rea isn’t one to lay down and take it though, and he regained the lead on lap ten to control the race pace and bring home his 12th win at the Dutch track.

However, van der Mark managed to stay with the reigning champion, and also managed to stay within a second of him over the line to finish second.

Towards the end of the race Chaz Davies began to pile on the pressure but dropped off towards the end to settle for third.

And now for some breaking news – Tom Sykes actually passed someone. Actually passed several people. Yes, you did read that right.

He muscled his way past Xavi Fores, who has so far impressed, and Marco Melandri, who is usually difficult to pass. Sykes even tried to pass Davies for third, but had to settle for fourth and pole position for race two.

There’s still a lot of talk around the new rules, and it’s clear that they are starting to make a difference. By regulating the entire field, there is no one bike that has an outstanding advantage as Kawasaki did last year. If anything, Kawasaki are suffering compared to Ducati, who seem to be making the most of the new rules. Although it’s great to see Kawasaki, Ducati (both factory and independent) and Yamaha fighting at the top, something still needs to even the field more for the other teams who are so desperately fighting to catch up.

World Superbike race one:

  1. Jonathan Rea – Kawasaki Racing Team – 33:40.360
  2. Michael van der Mark – Pata Yamaha Official WorldSBK Team +0.981
  3. Chaz Davies – Aruba.it Racing Ducati +1.282
  4. Tom Sykes – Kawasaki Racing Team +1.413
  5. Xavi Fores – Barni Racing Team +8.625
  6. Marco Melandri – Aruba.it Racing Ducati +14.903
  7. Loris Baz – Gulf Althea BMW Racing Team +17.301
  8. Leandro Mercado – Orelac Racing VerdNatura +21.482
  9. Jordi Torres – MV Agusta Reparto Corse +21.938
  10. Toprak Razgatlioglu – Kawasaki Puccetti Racing +24.939

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MotoGP COTA Preview: Is Marquez still the lone star in Texas?

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For round 3 of the 2018 MotoGP season, the riders and their trusty steeds have touched down in Texas, where the Circuit of The Americas is hosting the “horsepower rodeo” for the 6th year.

The city of Austin proudly proclaims to keep it weird and the track itself is certainly unique, mainly because it isn’t. When Herman Tilke designed COTA he deliberately took some of the best aspects from circuits worldwide to combine them into 5.5km of long sweeps, sharp hairpins, one of the longest straights, hard braking, both low and high-speed sections, quick changes of direction and an elevation change of 41 metres.

COTA is hard, both physically and technically, and it’s fast. It pushes both rider and bike to their limit in one of the most demanding stops on the calendar.

There is one possible upside this year though. The bumps that have plagued Austin thanks to cars that also call it home have been ground down in many areas. The surface should now be smoother, but what that will actually mean, especially for tyres, remains to be seen.

The track starts demanding absolute commitment from the riders at turn 1, which sits atop the hill at the end of the start-finish straight. With riders braking uphill it pushes suspension to its limit, but there’s not much they can do about that without seriously affecting their performance in the rest of the circuit. Making the corner itself can prove tricky; turn too soon and you hit the kerb, turn too late and you can find yourself pushed wide (you’ll see the runoff here get plenty of use this weekend).

From there the circuit starts to wind it’s way back down through a mix of fast changes of direction before they hit the hairpin of turn 11 that leads onto the fast back straight. They then hit the hardest braking zone on the circuit at turn 12, which will see riders enter at 339km/h before braking over 322 metres in 6.3 seconds to reach a final entry speed of just 67km/h.

It’s then briefly back to changing direction again, before a longer sweep through turns 16, 17 and 18, before the two final left-handers take you onto the front straight for an uphill climb to the line.

Another change this year is the race distance being reduced by 1 lap. It might not sound like much but with fuel consumption already on the limit for some teams, every little helps, and it could make tyre life a little less critical as well.

Since Austin arrived on the calendar Marc Marquez has been its lone star

With the surface being a bit of an unknown ahead of this weekend, how the tyres will perform is uncertain but slicks will be in the usual soft, medium and hard compounds, with the rears being asymmetric with a harder right side. Hopefully, we’ll avoid any rain after Argentina (although Saturday looks a bit iffy), but wets will be in soft and medium, with the rears again being asymmetric.

Texas is known as the Lone Star state and one thing is certain; since Austin arrived on the calendar Marc Marquez has been its lone star. On paper it looks similar to the weekend in Argentina.. if anyone is going to beat Marc Marquez, it’ll probably be Marc Marquez. Of course, we all know how that ended.

Marc has won the last 9 MotoGP races in the USA, plus the two races he won in Moto2 before that. At COTA he has always been on pole, with the only US pole position missing from his collection coming at Laguna Seca in 2013, which was taken by Stefan Bradl.

Ahead of this weekend, he obviously feels confident in his abilities and carries forward a good feeling with the bike from Termas 2 weeks ago. The closest rival he’s had at COTA was his team-mate, Dani Pedrosa, last year, but this time out it’s pretty unlikely that will be repeated.

Dani broke his right wrist after crashing on a wet patch during the last race and underwent surgery back in Barcelona where he had a screw fitted in his radius. Since then he’s undergone some physio and he’s decided it’s worth his time to travel to Texas and see what he can do. There aren’t really any tracks that are ideal for coming back less than 2 weeks after breaking your wrist, but if there were, Austin wouldn’t be one of them. How he’ll feel on the bike will only be discovered on Friday morning, but it’s going to be a tough weekend for Dani stateside.

In Argentina, it was Cal Crutchlow that took Honda to the top step and there’s every reason to expect him to be just as strong this time out. Last year saw the British rider cross the line in 4th and with him leading the championship he’s going to have all the motivation he needs to secure another strong result. As he said in Parc Ferme, don’t doubt him.

Also on the podium in Termas was Johann Zarco, who will be hoping to repeat the feat and if possible, take that first MotoGP win, which is surely just around the corner for the Frenchman and his Yamaha M1. Alex Rins rounded out the top 3 for Suzuki, and COTA is one of his favourite tracks, although last year didn’t go so well, with Alex crashing out and injuring himself, which then ruled him out for a large part of the season. This year he’s fully fit and with both him and the bike performing better, it should be another good weekend for him. Of course, the Hamamatsu factory will be hoping that their other rider Andrea Iannone will also start to find his feet this weekend.

When it comes to finding a good footing, no-one needs that more than Jorge Lorenzo at Ducati. It has not been a good start to the season for the Spaniard, who has taken just 1 point from the first two races. He has taken two podiums at COTA in the past, but right now his focus needs to be on finding a way to make the GP18 work for him.

All the riders face a challenge in Austin

On the other side of the Ducati garage is Andrea Dovizioso who summed Austin up simply as “a really nice track but rather a difficult one”. Marquez’s issues in Argentina helped Dovi in terms of points but this weekend he’ll be hoping to be far more comfortable and get his pace back. I fully expect him to do so and Dovi should be right at the front again in Texas.

In Argentina, Ducati was mostly represented by Jack Miller who took an extraordinary pole position before being abandoned on the grid, leading numerous laps and finally finishing 4th. His team-mate Danilo Petrucci struggled but both Pramac riders will be looking for good form at COTA.

Then there’s the factory Yamahas. Vinales salvaged 5th in Termas but this season is the first time since 2014 that there’s been no Yamaha win in the first two races. Maverick likes the layout of COTA and after crashing out of the race last year, he wants to start turning the season around, “we can’t afford mistakes. We need to fight for the victory with all our strength”. A win could be a lot to ask, especially if Marquez is firing on all cylinders on Sunday, but a podium would be a very good way to end the first flyaways of the year.

Valentino Rossi secures his first front row start since 2016

For Valentino Rossi, Argentina never really saw him threaten the front group but while he acknowledges the difficulties of Austin he enjoys being Stateside. Valentino has his focus on the setup of his bike and working towards improvements with his team. While he may not have won on US soil since 2008, he has taken 2 podiums finishes at COTA, which he’ll fight to repeat on Sunday.

All the riders face a challenge in Austin. Setup will require a compromise between agility and stability. Aero could be back as a concern. How the surface will perform is unknown, so tyre life is uncertain. Riders will be pushed physically just as much as their teams and bikes will be technically.

We’re 2 races into 2018 and already we’ve had 6 different podium finishers. Crutchlow leads the championship with 38 points, which is the lowest total for the leader after 2 races since the current points system was introduced. The top 15 is covered by just 33 points, again the lowest with this points system. And only 10 riders have scored points in both of the previous races.

MotoGP is on top form and in Austin this weekend, we’ll see some more incredible racing before finding out who will head to Europe as top gun.

I feel the need, the need for speed.

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