Analysis: Has Yamaha lost its final MotoGP stronghold?
Yamaha has won nine of the last 14 Dutch TTs, and Assen has been Valentino Rossi’s best track since his return to the Iwata marque. But the team seems to have lost its edge at the track in 2018.
With the Dutch TT coming up, it has now been exactly one year since Yamaha last won a MotoGP race.
Despite Rossi, Maverick Vinales and Johann Zarco sitting second, third and fourth in the standings, only the Frenchman so far has got close to winning a race this year, during the wet, chaotic - and not representative - Argentinian Grand Prix.
The French GP, another traditional Yamaha track passed by with Marc Marquez dominating and, after Friday and Saturday prior to the Dutch TT, there is a real danger the Honda rider will do the same.
Rossi, who finished third in the past three races, doesn’t seem to have improved his form at the Dutch venue.
Vinales is looking stronger, but he hasn’t even finished in the top five since MotoGP returned to Europe, so that doesn’t automatically mean a whole lot, especially as his up-and-down form has continued.
The Spaniard was upset about his Barcelona race but deemed the subsequent test positive, and was fastest on Friday at Assen.
But then he "felt worse" on Saturday, and only qualified sixth which, combined with his recent struggles with starts and early-race pace, isn’t promising.
Although he was seen having a sub-optimal practice start after FP3, Vinales is still positive those issues are gone.
"We work a lot for the race, we didn't pay a lot of attention for one lap," he said after qualifying.
"The bike is working better now when full tank. We didn't set the bike for one lap, we set for 24 laps, it is totally different.
"For one lap is not better [than before Barcelona test] but for sure with full tank is much better."
Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images
Rossi was a clear step behind Vinales on Friday, but the difference shrunk a lot on Saturday and, with the Italian’s ability to up his game on race day as well as his higher grid position of third, he will have just as good a chance to be in podium contention.
Zarco has only been able to keep up with the factory riders on a hard rear tyre, and the Frenchman’s run on that rubber ended prematurely when he crashed in FP2.
Somewhat puzzlingly, he never tried it again but he declared that he will use the hard rear for the race and, combined with progress in other areas during Saturday, Zarco could return to the good form that he lost after his Le Mans crash.
To summarise, all three Yamahas are primed for a strong result, and Assen may still be their best bet for a win so far in 2018. But the favourite for the race is, once again, Marquez.
It’s not so much the Honda man's pace advantage that makes him stand apart but his consistency of delivering the same laptime.
He managed one 1m33.9s in FP4, and did several 1m34.0s on all three tyre compounds, while that time for the rest of the field was a rarity as other top riders could only do mid-34s on a consistent basis.
After taking pole position, Marquez said his focus was on race pace, and his main issue for tomorrow is to choose the right tyres, as he was able to be quick with the soft, medium and hard.
Marquez has now raced on many tracks that were supposed to not suit the Honda, and he always managed to be competitive.
At Assen, Marquez point to the winglets out as a crucial change: "One of the main reasons for me in my opinion is the front wings.
"In the previous years we arrive always here with a new item from the aerodynamics and then one of our problems was front-end stability.
"This [winglets] give us front stability in a better way and able to ride smoother."
Marquez’s brilliance has been further accentuated by being in a league of his own within the Honda camp, although Cal Crutchlow eventually redeemed himself by qualifying second and showing strong form in FP4 as well, where he set a 1m34.2s.
Dani Pedrosa on the other hand is just not competitive at all. As well as qualifying way down in 18th, he has been struggling to even go below the 1m35s most of the time in practice.
Ducati has been in focus recently due to Jorge Lorenzo’s epic resurgence in the last two races, but the Italian brand has been playing third-fiddle at Assen so far.
Andrea Dovizioso is its best bet for a top result as the Italian proved that his strong 1m34.0s in FP2 was not an outlier, as he was close to replicating that in FP4 as well.
Dovizioso appears to have reclaimed the edge over Lorenzo at Assen, but that appears to be mainly due to the high-speed last sector, which has been the Spaniard’s Achilles heel.
Lorenzo has been losing several tenths there all weekend – without that, he would be mostly, if not above, the level of Dovizioso.
Assen is the first track Alex Rins raced on after his five-race injury break last year, and the Spaniard is much-improved compared to the last few races.
Like Dovizioso, Rins was also able to set a 1m34.0s in FP2, and comparable FP4 pace suggests he will be in podium contention for the first time since Argentina.
Andrea Iannone continues to have scintillating one-lap pace but his race pace has never been good enough for him to challenge for the victory and, according to the Italian, the issue remains at Assen.
Everything points towards Marquez having the best chance to win for the fourth time this year, but many riders are predicting a large group of riders fighting at the top.
Rins expects the likes of Marquez, Vinales and Lorenzo to break away early on exactly for that, and the Suzuki man’s plan is to stay with them.
Vinales, now confident his early-race problems are behind him, also plans to be “aggressive, attacking the corners” early on.
With such attitude, the start and early laps promise to be exciting and with tyre life not as crucial as it was in Barcelona, many riders could spend the entire race fighting for the win – or trying to prevent Marquez from running away at the front, at least.
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