The VROOM Blog #DutchGP – Quartararo storms to victory in Assen as Viñales jumps ship

 In MotoGP, News

I’m not sure where to start this week! I promise I will get to that Top Gun bombshell, but first – how great was it to see MotoGP bikes roaring around Assen again?! Like the Sachsenring last week, Assen was missing from the calendar in 2020 due to the pandemic and made a welcome return this weekend.

Maverick Viñales was victorious last time MotoGP raced at Assen, but he finished last (and out of the points) in the German GP. Would he be able to record the first successive Assen race wins since Valentino Rossi back in 2004 and 2005? I’m not sure that anyone knew the answer to that question heading into the weekend, but talk was that in an attempt to ‘fix’ the issues he was having, he was going to copy everything that team mate – and championship leader – Fabio Quartararo did this weekend, from settings on the bike to tyres.

Franky Morbidelli aggravated an existing knee issue in training for the Assen weekend and so would sit the weekend out. Franky had surgery on his knee on Friday in Italy, and a team statement said that Professor Maurilio Marcacci and his team “are satisfied with the surgery and the outcome of the operation.” Franky was due to stay in hospital for a few days and is expected to begin an eight-week rehabilitation programme on his release. By my reckoning that means Franky will miss the back-to-back Austrian rounds that follow the 5-week summer break, but fingers crossed he’ll be back to full fitness and ready to go once he is back.

For this weekend in Assen, Franky was replaced by American World Superbike rider Garrett Gerloff. Gerloff had a small taste of MotoGP last season when he replaced Valentino Rossi in the factory team for two free practice sessions while The Doctor awaited a negative covid test, and gave a good showing of himself in mixed conditions. At Assen, Gerloff would become the first American to race in the premier class since the late Nicky Hayden back in 2016.

If I was impressed with Alpinestars last week and their adaption of all suits for their premier class riders following Fabio’s wardrobe malfunction at Catalunya (which I notice has now filtered down to all Alpinestars suits in Moto2 and Moto3), then this week I was doubly impressed as they managed to make and deliver a shiny new Petronas Yamaha suit for Gerloff to wear in Assen. Franky’s injury was announced on Wednesday, and Gerloff’s participation was announced on Thursday, so even if they asked Gerloff to ride on Wednesday that was still a tiny timeframe to get a suit not only ready, but also sent on an almost 14-hour road trip from the factory in Italy to the TT circuit in The Netherlands.

In a shock to absolutely no-one, Valentino Rossi finally announced this week that his VR46 team will race with Ducati machinery for the next 3 years. The team, which will be known as Aramco Racing Team VR46, also confirmed that they have signed a five-year contract with Dorna to race in the premier class. Pablo Nieto, who currently manages the SKY Racing VR46 team in Moto2, will step up to MotoGP to manage the new team.

While the announcement did not contain any rider names, it is widely expected that Luca Marini (currently riding in the VR46 side of the Esponsorama garage) will retain his position in the team. It is the second seat that is the cause of much speculation. It would make sense for the seat to go to an existing Academy rider meaning that the most likely option would be to see Marco Bezzecchi promoted out of Moto2 and into MotoGP to reunite with Marini.

However, at the very bottom of the press release was a statement from Saudi sponsor HRH Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Saud which contained his preference of riders – “it would be great for me that Valentino Rossi can compete in the next few years as a pilot of our Aramco Racing Team VR46 together with his brother Luca Marini.” Read into that what you will, but for me, I don’t think that Vale would take a seat in his own team. The whole point of the Academy is to develop young riders and give them the opportunity to race and I just don’t see him taking a seat that could and should go to one of his young protégés…

Valentino was asked about that statement over the weekend and he said that it would be “very difficult” to ride for his own team. He also said that he would think “more deeply” about his future over the summer break, and that he needs to speak to Yamaha and his team as they have not achieved the results that he would like and that “it will be very difficult that I will race next year.”

There was an announcement from the Snipers Moto3 team that Filip Salac (pole sitter for the team last time out) would be leaving the team with immediate effect by mutual agreement, and that Salac would be replaced from Assen onwards by Alberto Surra. Surra races for the Team Bardahl VR46 Riders Academy in the Italian championship and made a wildcard appearance on the World stage this year at Mugello. Salac himself sat out Assen, but will return to action with the PrüstelGP team after the summer break. Filip rode for the PrüstelGP team back in 2019 and was good friends with the late Jason Dupasquier whose seat he will be filling, saying that his biggest motivation will be to honour Jason.

We learned this weekend that the Japanese GP has been cancelled for the second year running due to the pandemic, and that the GP of the Americas will take place on the date that the Japanese GP was scheduled for – 3rd of October. The GP of Thailand has now been moved back a week and will take place on the 17th of October.

Friday’s FP1 and FP2 sessions saw Maverick Viñales quickest on day one. FP2 started dry but ended as a wet session with rain falling for the last 25 minutes. This caused a lull in proceedings as riders sat in the garage waiting for it to be wet enough for wet tyres. One of a small group of riders not to come out for the wet part of the session was Marc Marquez who had had a massive high-side in the early stages of the session. Marc was able to walk away from the crash and then carry on with his weekend from FP3 onwards, but it looked a sore one.

FP3 saw a second crash of the weekend for Garret Gerloff with the American also having crashed in FP1. Heading into qualifying it was Maverick Viñales who topped the times ahead of Fabio Quartararo and Pol Espargaro. Joan Mir, who so often finds himself having to go through Q1, was headed straight through to Q2 with the 5th fastest time of the weekend so far. Also straight through to Q2 was Valentino Rossi.

Q1 was set to be a big one, with Bagnaia, Marc Marquez and for the first time this season, Johann Zarco, among the riders competing for progression to Q2. At the end of the first runs, it was Pecco Bagnaia and Jorge Martin who were leading the pack but by the end of the session it was Zarco and Bagnaia who would be heading through to fight for a place on the front four rows of the grid.

Marc Marquez – who crashed towards the end of the session – not only failed to make it through to Q2, but would be starting the race from 20th on the grid, marking his worst qualifying result in MotoGP.

Q2 was a fast session – so fast in fact that in the first set of runs, Fabio Quartararo set a new all time lap record. In the second set of runs, team mate Maverick Viñales went even faster to set another all-time lap record and take pole position ahead of Fabio and Pecco. Top Honda on the grid would be Taka Nakagami who qualified 4th ahead of Zarco and Oliveira for his best qualifying result of the season so far.

I promised I would get to the Maverick bombshell, so here we go. Maverick missed his media debrief on Friday but did say that he was as puzzled as anyone as to how he had gone from last in Germany to first in Assen, and he did say that he had not used his team mate’s settings as he had suggested he might. Then, late on Saturday evening I was mindlessly scrolling twitter when I noticed a tweet that was getting a lot of attention from the ‘racing people’ that I follow. The tweet was in Spanish and my Spanish is non-existent but there was enough in the tweet to work out what it was suggesting. I hit translate just to be certain, and sure enough the tweet said that it is 95% certain that Maverick will break his contract with Yamaha and sign with Aprilia.

The news itself came from Ricard Jové – Maverick’s former manager – who was considered to be a reliable source, and Spanish media was also reporting that the missed debrief on Friday was actually due to Maverick having contract negotiations with Aprilia.

Sunday morning’s warm up sessions were dominated by talk of Maverick’s potential move and what was telling for me was that both Lin Jarvis (Yamaha) and Massimo Rivola (Aprilia) ‘politely refused’ to speak to Simon Crafar. Surely if they were just rumours, they’d quickly quash them?

Following morning warm up – which Maverick topped – Suzi Perry and Neil Hodgson were able to speak with Yamaha’s Massimo Meregalli and he said “we do not want to talk (about) or comment on this rumour today” before adding that the term wasn’t all that happy with Maverick’s comments about the team last weekend, but that they had spoken and think he was just frustrated with the result of the race.

So, we had no information heading into the race other than ‘we don’t want to talk about it’ from both sides.

The lights went out to signal the start of the race and it was Fabio Quartararo who led Pecco Bagnaia, Taka Nakagami, Alex Rins and Maverick Viñales into the first corner. Marc Marquez made up a cracking 7 places to 13th with a fantastic start to his race!

Pecco set about trying to pass Fabio, and was able to do so as behind them Taka moved up to 3rd. As Pecco continued to lead and Marc Marquez made his way up to 11th, Zarco and Rins collided at turn 10 with Rins running off track and ending up in last place. Race direction announced that the incident was under investigation and while they decided that no further action would be required, Alex Rins has been very vocal on social media about Zarco ruining his race.

Fabio and Pecco had a little back and forth for the lead as Mir and Oliveira passed Jack Miller, demoting the Australian to 8th, before on lap 5 Fabio made another move for the lead through the chicane only to have Pecco on board his Ducati regain the lead on the start / finish straight. One lap later though Fabio was able to make the move stick and started to pull a bit of a gap on Pecco.

Valentino Rossi’s race ended in the gravel at turn 7 following a big crash that took the Italian a little time to get up from. As Fabio extended his lead at the front to 2.4 seconds, Taka was eyeing a move on Pecco for 2nd and what a move he made around the outside! Pecco was issued with a track limits warning on his dash before a lap later he took 2nd place back from Taka.

Pecco and Taka exchanged places a few more times before Taka found himself going backwards with Maverick and Zarco both passing the Japanese rider. As Viñales was issued with a track limits warning, Pecco Bagnaia took a long lap having been given a penalty a lap earlier, and Jack Miller crashed and re-joined the race. Poor Taka Nakagami, who had perhaps been dreaming of a podium in the early stages of this race, was passed now by Mir and Oliveira before running way wide and losing another place to Marc Marquez.

Jorge Martin retired from the race on lap 16, later admitting that his fitness following his early season injuries was causing him issues. Fabio Quartararo’s lead was now over 4 seconds from Viñales, Zarco, Mir and Oliveira, and the ‘meatball’ flag was displayed for Jack Miller. Jack’s team said in their press release that he had been flagged for a ‘non-existent’ oil leak. It’s a tricky one, but the marshals and race direction can’t take the risk of a rider dropping oil onto the track.

Joan Mir made his move for a podium finish and passed Johann Zarco for 3rd through turn 5, as further back Iker Lecuona crashed out of the race.

Over the final few laps of the race, Fabio’s lead was reduced but never really looked in danger and he stormed across the line to take the win from Maverick Viñales and Joan Mir. Marc Marquez, having started 20th, crossed the line in 7th position.

Fabio’s win was his 4th of the season, and marks the first time he has achieved 4 MotoGP wins in a season – I feel like there may be more to come too.

Parc ferme and the podium were a massive contrast of emotions – Fabio and Joan were both happy with their races and sprayed prosecco, while Maverick Viñales cut a far from happy figure – his parc ferme interview with Simon Crafar was short and bordering on curt, and he didn’t spray his prosecco on the podium.

Talking to BT Sport’s Natalie Quirk after the race, Maverick looked slightly happier and when he was asked about the rumours that he was about to leave Yamaha, and he flat out denied it, saying “this is not true, for sure.”

I don’t know what is going on with Maverick or within his side of the Yamaha team, nor would I care to speculate, but he really doesn’t seem to be enjoying his job at the moment. On Monday morning it was confirmed that Maverick and Yamaha will part ways at the end of the 2021 season – one year before the end of Maverick’s contract – by mutual consent, but at Maverick’s request.

As I finish this on Tuesday evening, there has been no confirmation of where Maverick will race next season, but speculation still has him moving to Aprilia. There was talk that he would take one of the seats in the VR46 team, but I don’t think that will happen. It does sound very much as though the Aprilia deal is done; it is just a case of waiting for them to make an announcement. Maverick has posted his own statement, separate to the one released by the team, and he says that the last few years have not brought the results he expected and that rather than continue he has “elected to change direction in order to maximise my potential going forward. Personally, to take on a new project is what I feel will bring positivity and motivation.”

He went on to thank Yamaha and to state that he would continue to do his best for the rest of the season. Part of me wonders why you would leave the Factory Yamaha team and a proven race winning bike to join Aprilia, but I also know how miserable a job can make your life if you aren’t enjoying it or achieving what you believe you can, so good for Maverick for deciding to make a change for himself. I hope it works out for him.

And at the risk of sounding rude, I do believe that Maverick is a much better rider than Espargaro, so maybe he is the one to fully show the changes that Aprilia have made recently. I bet Dovi is regretting not having got something signed with them sooner though!

Wherever he ends up, Maverick’s departure from the Yamaha team leaves an unexpected seat free for next season. I would love to see Franky Morbidelli promoted to the factory team. I know I’m like a broken record with him, but he finished 2nd in the world last year and was rewarded by being the only Yamaha rider not to have a factory bike this season. I’d love to see him back with Fabio as a team mate too – I think they’d be great together in that team!

That of course would leave a space in the Petronas garage, and names being thrown around range from World Superbike riders Garret Gerloff and Toprak Razgatlioğlu, to Moto2 riders Jake Dixon and Joe Roberts. Maybe we’ll have answers by the time the paddock reconvenes in Austria, or maybe we’ll still be speculating, who knows?!

Anyway, Fabio heads into the 5-week summer break with a 34 point lead over Johann Zarco, and said that he is looking forward to spending some time with his family before getting back into training for the rest of the season. Five weeks seems like such a long time without MotoGP action, but given the extended winter breaks we have had to endure these last two seasons, I’m sure the time will fly by!

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