PRESSURE GROWING AS ASSEN TAKES A NEW DIRECTION

History will be made at Assen this Sunday when — well there's your answer right there!

That's correct — the historic high-speed venue in the Netherlands, which has been a Grand Prix motorcycle racing staple since 1949, will host Sunday action for the first time as it eschews the normal Saturday deciders.

Whatever the day or hour, the 4.5km 'Cathedral' looks set to produce another thriller, with the MotoGP title delicately poised with just 22pts (125 to 103) separating leader Marc Marquez from third-placed Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha) after seven of 18 rounds, with world champion Jorge Lorenzo (Movistar Yamaha) in the middle on 115.

Of the trio, Rossi is carrying the strongest form into the event after winning at Catalunya in early June, which shot the Italian icon back into championship calculations — especially after Lorenzo was cannoned into by an over-enthusiastic Andrea Iannone (Ducati) and taken out of proceedings.

In 2015, Rossi and Marquez fought out an Assen blinder and, after a clash at the final chicane, Rossi got the job done by 1.2 seconds — the incident leaving Marquez smarting after also being on the wrong end of an altercation between the pair earlier that season.

Their relationship, teetering then, soured dramatically not long after, but the pair return to Assen after a sign of detente at Catalunya when the whole paddock was in mourning after the death of Moto2 rider Luis Salom.

However, the standings don’t lie: Marquez has been the most consistent rider in 2016, and the Assen lap record holder is keen to resume racing after two weekends off.

“It has been good to be able to disconnect a bit, spending a little time with my friends and enjoying the amazing experience of doing some laps on the RC213V-S at the Red Bull Ring last Tuesday," said Marquez. "Anyway, I’m happy that the time to go racing at Assen has arrived, as it’s a track I really enjoy and, importantly, the first in a series of circuits that suit my riding style quite well!

"Step by step, we’re making some small improvements to the bike, so in Assen we’ll keep working hard from the first session to find a good setup and try and fight for the podium again. The weather is particularly unpredictable there, so we’ll keep an eye on that also and try to be fast from the beginning of the weekend.”

Marquez's teammate Dani Pedrosa won his first GP at Assen in 2002 as a 16-year-old, and since then he's also accumulated a slew of podiums in the intermediate and premier classes.

Pedrosa's overdue for a really strong front-running effort from the get-go, while Maverick Vinales (Ecstar Suzuki), Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati) and Iannone are the pick of the other factory riders, with Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) and Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) the independent team pacesetters in Catalunya. Crutchlow, in particular, has hit a strong run of form, with his fastest time in a one-day test session at Catalunya a case-in-point.

Pedrosa (82pts) and Vinales (72pts) are fourth and fifth in the standings, followed by Espargaro on 59pts.

Meanwhile, world champion Lorenzo cannot be left out of the Assen equation, and after the disaster in Spain there's just a little bit more urgency to crank out a strong result. Lorenzo was third at Assen in 2015.

Aussie Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda) heads into round eight in a much stronger frame of mind after an intensive training schedule over the last few weeks, which included a cycling stint on the Isle of Man to further build strength in the right leg he broke in two places back in late January. He's also coming off his first top 10 MotoGP finish at Catalunya.

"It was a good weekend in Barcelona, but we can't get ahead of ourselves off the back of one good result," Miller said. "We found some direction in Barcelona and we need to keep working to improve both our qualifying performance and our race pace.

"I'm looking forward to getting to Assen and giving it a go round there. I like the track; last year I had really good speed there on the open bike, so I'm looking forward to trying the factory bike there this time around."

 

MOTO2

MotoGP hasn't got a pinch on Moto2 in the 'tightness' stakes, with the top three in the intermediate category — Alex Rins, Sam Lowes and Johann Zarco — only 10pts apart.

Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) took a well-earned victory in Barcelona, stalking Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40) until the end of the race and blasting away into the distance. Back-to-back victories at Mugello and Catalunya have put Zarco right back in contention, and he's returning to the circuit where he won in 2015 from Tito Rabat and Lowes.

Since round four in Jerez the lead of the intermediate class has changed after each round, with all the pressure now on Rins to buck the trend. The Spaniard, who's joining Ecstar Suzuki in 2017 alongside Iannone, has consistently proven to be an effective force under duress, while Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2) has been labouring a little in recent rounds but traditionally rides well at Assen.

Catalunya marked a welcome return to the podium for Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia), his first since Misano in 2015, but it's Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten) who's fourth in the points and is a two-time podium finisher at Assen.

 

MOTO3

Championship leader Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM) has been handed the perfect opportunity to take an even more vice-like grip on the Moto3 title with his closest challenger Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Honda) out of action after he suffered a broken left tibia and fibula in a training accident.

As it stands, the gap between the pair is 44pts, so another victory or big score for Binder will see him go a long way towards winning his maiden world title, and South Africa's first since Kork Belington took the 250/350cc double in 1979.

Now 17pts behind Navarro and 67 back on Binder, third in the championship is starting to look like a very lonely place for Romano Fenati (SKY Racing Team VR46 KTM).

In 2015 Assen produced a classic Moto3 race, the top seven within 0.5 seconds of each other. Miguel Oliveira managed to edge out Fabio Quartararo and eventual world champion Danny Kent.

The three world championship races at Assen will be held over the following distances and times:

  • MotoGP: 26 laps, 118.1km, starting at 2:00pm local time (10:00pm AEST)
  • Moto2: 24 laps, 109.0km, starting a 12:20pm local time (8:20pm AEST)
  • Moto3: 22 laps, 99.9km, starting at 11:00am local time (7:00pm AEST)

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