Beyond the fields and tree-lined lanes of the Drenthe province in the northeastern Netherlands nestles a foothold of motorcycling history, refined today into a ribbon of asphalt that winds its way around 18 corners hewn from a combination of flat-out bravery and tight apexes. The engines fired up near the town of Assen for the first time almost a century ago, and the first foundations of the modern track were laid in 1955. Since then, a lot has changed – but the Circuit van Drenthe remains drenched in history, anchored to its past by the finish line first set down in the fifties. “The Cathedral” is itself a legend as much as it has created them, and it is the only track on the calendar to have remained a fixture since the World Championship began in 1949.
Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) has written more than a few chapters of that legend. The ‘Doctor’ has taken seven wins and stood on the podium nine times in the premier class – the most successful rider on the grid at the venue – and took his first victory upon returning to Yamaha at the TT Circuit Assen in 2013. Since then, the nine-time World Champion has won once more – and will have a clear goal in 2017 to stamp some authority back on the field, the standings and his teammate Maverick Viñales.
Viñales will have his crosshairs set on the same, however. The Championship leader remains so despite a difficult race for both Movistar Yamahas at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, and Viñales will need attack mode switched on if he is to grow his advantage back to what it once was. Finding the line between attacking and banking the points will be a test of his mettle with such a small gap at the top – but the climate and conditions could mirror more Le Mans than Barcelona. And Le Mans more than proved Viñales’ mettle, as well as his teammate’s resolve.
Another man to have more than proved himself of late is the man on the chase behind Viñales in the Championship: Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team). ‘DesmoDovi’ joked that he earned his name at Mugello, but the phrase rings even more true after another stunner in Barcelona to take him seven points off the top. Since the lights went out in Sepang last year – the first race the Italian won since 2009 – Dovizioso has won a third of the races: the same number as Viñales. Although a realist to the core and refusing to be drawn, that record speaks for itself in the ever-changing Championship. Teammate Jorge Lorenzo will be hoping to continue his progress, too, after a first podium in Jerez and a first front row at the Catalan GP. The ‘Spartan’ has a mixed history at Assen with a win and some lows, but the track also staged a definitive moment for the five-time World Champion: after his top five result with a broken collarbone in 2013, Lorenzo’s grit can never be doubted.
Reigning Champion Marc Marquez and Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa also bounced back in Barcelona after a more difficult Italian GP. A podium for both men – Marquez in P2 and Pedrosa completing the rostrum from pole – made for valuable points after the Catalan GP, and both riders moved up a place in the Championship as they leapfrogged Rossi. Marquez dueled the ‘Doctor’ for the win in 2015 and won at Assen in 2014, and Pedrosa counts on five previous podiums at the track in the premier class.
Fellow rostrum finisher Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) could be a dark horse at Assen. Previously on pole and on the podium at the venue, the Brit has form there – and will be pushing hard to bounce back from a difficult Catalan GP. As will last year’s winner in the rain Jack Miller (EG 0,0 Marc VDS), who crashed out in Barcelona but has shown some impressive top ten pace this year – and will be riding back onto the set of some incredible memories.
Another of those tipped to challenge once again is Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3), as well as his teammate Jonas Folger. Zarco already has a podium finish as a rookie and is now a firm presence at the front, with Folger also getting in the mix in Barcelona to stay with the top runners for some time. Rookies have nothing to lose – and everything to gain.
Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) is another rookie with high hopes, expecting to be back on the bike after being sidelined through injury. Testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya to re-familiarise himself with the MotoGP™ machine saw Rins give positive feedback about the possibility, and both him and teammate Andrea Iannone will be interesting names to watch on the timesheets. Rins as he settles back in, Iannone as he pushes on to get back to the front.
Progress is the name of the game for more than just Andrea Iannone: Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) suffered a mechanical problem in Barcelona but then enjoyed a positive test, and rookie teammate Sam Lowes will also be looking to move forward. Then there’s Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, who fought for points but just missed out in the Catalan GP. The Austrian factory found huge positives in their three days of testing after the race, however – one Official Test day and then two more private sessions – and feel ready to race for the Dutch GP. Bradley Smith should also be back with the team after missing Barcelona, with his injured finger after a free practice crash in Catalonia on the mend.
The track and the timetable have changed since racing began at the Circuit van Drenthe, but the legend remains the same. No longer racing on Saturday, MotoGP™ kick into gear for 26 laps of the TT Circuit Assen at the slightly earlier hour of 13:00(GMT +3) on Sunday – a good day to head for the ‘Cathedral’.