Rossi and Checa Aiming to Make Their Mark at Historic Assen
With MotoGP race wins at Welkom, Mugello and now Catalunya notched up by Valentino Rossi, and with the podium scaled by his team-mate Carlos Checa at Le Mans, the Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team approaches the unique challenge of Assen with a spring in its step. Assen, which hosts the sixth round of the 16-round MotoGP series, is one of the all-time classic Grand Prix venues, specifically chosen and continually modified for motorcycle use. Much revised throughout its history, it continues to offer a truly individual challenge to any rider, victories being more valued at the Circuit van Drenthe than at almost any other venue. This will hold doubly true this year, as there are record numbers of potential winners jousting their way across the continents in search of MotoGP glory.
Thanks to his three peerless wins, Rossi now sits only five points from the lead in the World Championship standings, despite having only competed in five events on the ever-developing Yamaha YZR-M1. The four-cylinder machine has also helped lift Checa to a second place finish at Le Mans, when the 31-year-old Catalan beat all but race winner and championship leader Sete Gibernau with no small degree of elan.
Few in MotoGP racing could have predicted just how immediately the union of Rossi and the M1 would bear gilded fruit, but now the partnership has proved itself in impressive fashion, leaving 25-year-old Rossi hungry for more wins and the ultimate prize. Now resident in London, Rossi is a previous Assen TT winner, his lone Dutch triumph in the premier class coming in 2002, when he set the lap record pace.
The 6.027km Assen circuit has offered Checa podium places in the past, including a runner-up performance in 1997. His most recent Assen podium was a third in 2002, in his first season riding the Yamaha YZR-M1.
ROSSI RATES ASSEN AS ONE OF THE ALL-TIME BEST
The fluid nature and historical importance of Assen are appreciated by Rossi, who doffs his cap with respect at the very prospect of riding the horizontal roller coaster that is the Circuit van Drenthe. "Assen is a really good track that all the riders like," he stated. "It's such a big emotion to race there because it's different from all the other courses; it's historic, very old, and isn't a 'computer' track like all the others. It's still called a TT and I always feel privileged to be racing in a TT. I have never ridden the M1 there but I think it will go quite well, as the M1's handling is so good and Assen is all corners."
Assen's location in the North of the Netherlands brings its own challenges, as Rossi describes. "The big problem with Assen is when it will rain, not if! I think we've still not overcome some of the problems we have with the bike in wet conditions. Sete and his bike are obviously very fast in the rain, I'm sure they are faster than us, so I really hope for a dry race if it's possible, and let's see what happens. I would always prefer to race in the dry given the choice. Assen holds good memories for me anyway as I had a fantastic race there when competing on a 125 in 1997. It was one of the best of my career, with a brilliant fight between five or six riders. I'm looking forward to racing there again this year."
CHECA HOME FROM HOME AT ASSEN
Carlos Checa, more of a connoisseur of the sport than most other MotoGP riders, acknowledges that Assen is something extra special, a true challenge to the complete racecraft of any rider. The usual hordes of Dutch and German fans who flood across the spectator areas and grandstands on raceday will also be joined by some visitors from Checa's native Spain.
"Assen is a track I like very much; it's a very historic circuit and there is always a great atmosphere so I am looking forward to it a lot," said Checa, energised by a great recovery to fourth position from a fourth row start at his home event in Catalunya. "It's always a very special race and the fans are great. This time many of my best friends from home will come, maybe 30 of them. Some are coming on bikes, some with motor homes, so it should be great fun. Let's hope for good weather and a great race."
The prospect of Checa enjoying a great result at Assen is enhanced by the impressive capabilities of his machine and team, a fact that is not lost on Carlos himself. "The bike is working very well at the moment and hopefully we can find a good set-up. It's a very twisty circuit and some of the changes we've made to the bike this year might make it a little different to ride at Assen. With the wider rear tyre it may be difficult to change direction so quickly. However I think we should have very good grip on the side of the tyre because of the bumps on the circuit; this means I can get more traction and a better lean angle. We may need a much stronger suspension at Assen than at some other circuits in order to stop the rear smashing down."
DAVIDE BRIVIO HOPES FOR TEAM TO IMPRESS IN ASSEN
Davide Brivio knows that the Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team are onto a good thing, and is looking forward to the chance for his riders to shine again this weekend, "Assen is another kind of 'home' circuit because our Yamaha European headquarters are based in the Netherlands. Many of our staff will come up to Assen for the race so we hope to give them a good show. We're coming from two fantastic races where we were able to win, so now we must continue to try to win as many races as possible.
"We had a good test in Barcelona the day after the race, which might help us for the rest of the season," Brivio explained. "Each time we test we are continuing to improve the set-up of the bike, working to let Valentino and the M1 get to know each other better every time.
"There is clearly a big improvement in Yamaha's racing since last year, the Yamaha riders are in the top positions most weekends, and not just Valentino. It's a good sign of the great work our engineers have done so far. There is still room for improvement, and we fully expect a reaction from our competitors so we cannot afford to relax."
Part of the perennial success and popularity of the Assen event is its ability to modernise its facilities and layout without losing one iota of its unique character and appeal, to riders and fans alike. Starting out its racing life as a 28km street circuit it was shortened in 1955 and then again in 1984, when it was also widened somewhat. In many ways Assen is the granddaddy of the contemporary MotoGP circuits and is the longest still in current use, at 6.027km. With 23 distinct corners and many more subtle changes of direction and lean angle in between, it is possibly the most cerebral of challenges for riders and teams.
Despite the rapid, flowing corners and high average lap speed, outright power is not necessarily the determining factor at Assen. A good power output and a linear throttle response are nonetheless essential ingredients to the set-up mix but camber is King at Assen, a circuit that mimics the characteristics of a real road more than any on the current MotoGP calendar.
With a pronounced crown on the 'road,' the high speed switchbacks of much of the Assen circuit mean that camber goes from positive to negative to positive again as each corner is dealt with. This unique characteristic of Assen demands not only judicious throttle control from the rider when crossing the cambers but suspension capable of dealing with its ever changing characteristics, not to mention a chassis package with a useable blend of good stability and high speed agility.
To prevent the rear end squatting under the combined forces of positive camber and acceleration, a higher rating of rear spring will be required for Assen, altering the usual front to rear balance of the M1. To handle the tarmac ripples and bumps, and because there are few places where heavy braking is called for, the front forks can be left on a softer setting than the rear.
One relatively recent piece of track modification has added another complication to the set-up. The double apex corner of Duikersloot, tightened and brought inwards to improve run off in the event of a crash two years ago, now has a largely flat camber, a fact which can catch out riders who forget that they have had the help of a positive camber at most other corners of the circuit.
Tyre performance is another key at Assen. The cambers aid outright grip in most instances and with the tarmac being grippy but not overly abrasive Assen is not the hardest circuit on tyres per se. The front tyre is particularly important, however, such are the frequently encountered fast corner entries. Braking has frequently to be performed right up to the apex of the turn to attenuate speed, rather than violently reduce it, maintaining valuable momentum and machine balance.