Motor sport

Assen MotoGP: when it gets weird

Weird things often happen in Assen. Maybe it’s something to do with what’s drifting in the breeze from nearby cafes.

Or maybe it’s the circuit itself – one of MotoGP’s weirdest and most wonderful layouts.

The most cataclysmic Dutch TT of all time happened exactly 30 years ago last weekend and changed the face of Grand Prix racing.

In qualifying, Australians Wayne Gardner and championship leader Mick Doohan crashed out. These two accidents ended one career and almost another.

Gardner was eliminated. “At the hospital they put me in one of these body scanners and I was still passing out. I was really scared, I thought I was going to die. After that, I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t enjoy it anymore.” Assen finished me off.

“Whatever these guys smoke, I want it”

The 1987 500cc world champion retired at the end of that year.

Doohan’s accident almost finished him too. Local surgeons botched the operation on his right leg and were about to amputate the limb when Dr Claudio Costa arrived in a Lear jet ambulance and kidnapped him. It took several surgeries and 13 months before Doohan started winning again.

The following day, Eddie Lawson and Kevin Schwantz collided while battling for the lead and the two crashed. They have barely spoken since. A young Spaniard called Alex Crivillé won the race and the American-Australian domination of the 500cc race was finally over.

Yesterday wasn’t as chaotic, but it was certainly dramatic.

World Championship leader Fabio Quartararo crashed and erupted into the gravel, closest title rival Aleix Espargaró then crashed again, tipped over the handlebars in a 500cc style at the old one. His Yamaha’s traction control was not working because a TC sensor cable had been severed during the first fall. The Frenchman, who had barely made a wheel error all year, had crashed twice in the previous ten weekends and then doubled his crash tally within a few laps.

Bagnaia was a sight to behold in Assen, using his super lean technique to devastating effect

Ducati

Hours later, the MotoGP stewards slapped Quartararo with a one-lap long penalty for his indiscretion, to be served in the next race; not to mention the fact that they had considered Takaaki Nakagami’s Turn 1 crash in Barcelona three weeks earlier, which wiped out two other drivers, a racing incident and unworthy of punishment.

And weeks before, the stewards had considered Bagnaia knocking out Jorge Martin in Qatar and Jack Miller knocking down Joan Mir in Portugal to be racing incidents. Either they were all racing incidents or they weren’t because it was essentially the same accident.

As Schwantz once said of officials, “Whatever these guys smoke, I want it.”

Quartararo’s first DNF in 18 months changed everything. His 34-point lead was reduced to 21 by Espargaró, who fought back from his gravel excursion like a man possessed, from 15th to 4th.

And Pecco Bagnaia’s unequaled third win of 2022 cut their seemingly hopeless 91-point title deficit to 66.

What happened to Quartararo at turn 5 on lap five at Assen was exactly what had happened to Bagnaia at turn 1 on lap four seven days earlier at Sachsenring.

In Germany, Quartararo was the hunted, while Bagnaia was the hunter and got it wrong. Sunday, Bagnaia was the hunted, Quartararo was the hunter and got it wrong. The Frenchman had already made a few daring passes when he performed an overly optimistic maneuver on Espargaró at turn 5, the first true left-hander in seven corners.

“I’m going to hit myself for two days, it was a stupid mistake,” he said after his first non-score of 2022. “I saw an opportunity but I braked too hard and I didn’t I couldn’t stop.”

Bagnaia led from start to finish, as he likes to do.

On Friday, the 25-year-old Italian told us what he learned from his costly crash at Sachsenring.

Marco Bezzecchi in the pit garage in Assen

Bezzecchi and team boss Matteo Flamigni work well together

VR46

“The three times I crashed this year (Qatar, France, Germany), I pushed, I tried to recover positions,” he explained. “Every time I said to myself: keep calm, come back and then I crashed, so maybe when you don’t press too much on the tires it’s easier to crash.

“So it’s easier to keep pushing, also for concentration. And maybe thinking about being calmer and breathing isn’t something that helps me. If I look at races where I started first and pushed, I didn’t have that problem, I was just controlling the gap. No problem.”

This time, however, life was not so easy for Bagnaia as he had failed to score points in three of the previous four races.