#JackAssen: an oral history

As we gear up for this week’s Dutch TT, this is the inside story of how Jack Miller took one of the more remarkable wins in MotoGP history at Assen one year ago.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It was one of the more unlikely motorsport stories of 2016; scrap that, it was one of the most unlikely sporting stories across ANY sport, full stop, a year ago. Aussie MotoGP rider Jack Miller, aged just 21 and having never finished better than 10th in a race in one-and-a-bit seasons in the premier class of the world motorcycle championship, became a Grand Prix winner when he took out the prestigious Dutch TT at the revered Assen Circuit for the Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Team.

In one race, Miller equalled the 25 points he’d managed across his 24 previous MotoGP starts. He was the first non-factory rider to win a race since Toni Elias in 2006, and became the first rider not named Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa or Casey Stoner to win a race in five years. And if you were optimistic enough to throw some money behind the Townsville tyro before the Assen weekend, you’d have got the rather juicy odds of 1000-1. Unexpected doesn’t even begin to describe it.

How did Miller’s breakthrough win happen? Where did the relative MotoGP neophyte get it so right where the likes of Rossi and Lorenzo got it so wrong? And why did he elect to swig his post-race champagne from his riding boot, sparking copycat shoey celebrations across two and four-wheel motorsport for the rest of the year?

As we gear up for the 2017 version of the Dutch TT this week, we relive one of motorsport’s stunning upsets in this oral history, through the eyes of Jack himself and those who raced against him or observed his exploits in a race that still makes those who saw it shake their heads.

The build-up

Jack came to Assen buoyed by a 10th place at the race three weeks prior at the Catalan GP, his best MotoGP result to date. On the downside, his record at the famous Dutch circuit was miserable; in four previous visits, he’d finished just once.

Jack (Catalunya post-race press briefing): To finish in the top 10 for the first time in my MotoGP career is a really big boost for me. My guys have stuck with me all through a difficult first part of the season and I’m happy for the team.

Michael Bartholemy, team principal, Marc VDS: I hope this gives him confidence to push on in the next few races and we can see him in the top 10 on a consistent basis.

Jack: I’m looking forward to getting to Assen and giving it a go round there. Two years ago I was leading in Moto3 in the wet and crashed on the second lap, and last year I didn’t make the end of the first lap and crashed, it was one of the worst moments of my rookie year.

Friday: back in the pack

Assen’s famously fickle climate gave a warning of what was to follow on the opening day of practice, with grey clouds hovering, but the track staying dry. Ducati’s Andrea Iannone topped both sessions, with Jack finishing 18th and 16th overall, his final time of 1min 35.008secs some 1.4secs off Iannone at the top.

Jack (Friday press briefing): I messed up my last lap because I had a big shake at high speed coming into the fast final section. Trying to stop a MotoGP bike at 300km/h when it’s moving around a lot is not easy, I was pretty lucky to get away with that one.

Cristian Gabarrini, Jack’s chief engineer: Today was a good start for Jack, but we have to try and find a bit more confidence from the front end for him. We only need to make small changes and I think that will be enough for Jack to post competitive times for the rest of the weekend.

Jack: I’m happy and sure we can make another step tomorrow.

Saturday: caught out

Jack did make a step on Saturday; unfortunately for the Aussie, it was a backwards one. Drizzle made qualifying hazardous, with the likes of Marquez and Suzuki young gun Maverick Vinales crashing, Marquez comically commandeering a photographer’s scooter to get back to the pits to go out on his second bike. Jack was on track to progress through Q1 into the final 12 shootout for pole, but crashed out at Turn 10 and ended up well back in 18th.

Jack (Saturday press briefing): It was a pity it rained just before the session and we ran out of time to make some set-up changes before my first exit. I thought I could have done a faster time on my second run, but the little crash stopped us from showing our full potential.

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda: I saw a scooter with a key in it and nobody around. I saw that it belonged to a photographer, but he let me go. I wanted to get back to the pit as soon as possible, so honestly I would’ve taken it even if he said no!

Jack: I have strong pace both in the wet and the dry and I’ve started back on the grid before, so I know what to expect.

Marquez: In case of rain it will be kind of a lottery, as always …

Sunday: a star is born

Jack was 12th in a dry 20-minute Sunday morning warm-up session, but the rain returned in the hour before the scheduled 2pm race start. With the field on wet-weather tyres, Miller surged early on, gaining six places on the first lap and gradually moving forwards. What started as drizzle turned into a full-blown rainstorm, and with visibility worsening by the minute, officials red-flagged the race after 15 of the scheduled 26 laps, the standing water on the circuit so bad that bikes were aquaplaning in a straight line. Jack was eighth when the race was halted, a career-best result – to that point.

Jack (to redbull.com after the race): I was eighth and would have liked to have been further up, but it was absolutely the right call to stop it. The visibility was really bad and the standing water was crazy in some parts, and I wouldn’t have been unhappy if the race had been red-flagged even earlier than it was. When it stopped and there was a chance we wouldn’t get going again, I was really happy with eighth, I was pretty content. I didn’t really want a re-start.

Marquez: It was pretty dangerous out there, stopping the race was a good decision.

When the rain finally abated and the worst of the standing water cleared away, the race resumed over 12 laps, grid positions set by the standings when the original race was red-flagged. Jack immediately gained four positions on the first lap, his confidence in the wet obvious as others floundered. Fourth became third on the next lap when Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso fell, and then came the unthinkable – Rossi, in charge of the race at the front, crashed out at Turn 10. Marquez assumed the lead, and with Rossi’s Yamaha teammate Lorenzo struggling way back down the field, Marquez was in a perfect position to extend his 10-point championship lead over Lorenzo and 22-point advantage over Rossi with eight laps left. Jack was up to second, but sensed Marquez would be thinking about the bigger picture. It was time to go for it.

Jack: When ‘Dovi’ went down, I thought ‘wow, third would be alright’, and then Vale went down. That was when I thought ‘hang on, I can actually win this’. I got the sense Marc had buttoned off a bit once Valentino went down and that’s completely understandable, he has a championship to try and win and one of his main rivals was out. I’m not winning the championship this year and had pretty much nothing to lose, so I figured he wouldn’t fight too hard if I tried to make a pass.

Marquez: This morning my team told me, ‘please finish the race, please finish the race, please finish the race’, about 40 times …

Jack scythed past Marquez into the final chicane, and into the lead of a MotoGP race for the first time. Now came the hard part – keeping it. As the track dried, grip levels varied at seemingly every corner on every lap. Perhaps the extreme concentration required just to navigate a circuit that was changing by the minute took his mind off what he might be about to achieve.

Jack: It was all about managing the gap, but those last five laps seemed to take about five years. I got into a nice groove and to be honest, there weren’t too many moments – I just tried to be as smooth as possible, not try to go for too much and keep my head, which is something I’m probably not all that known for … It was tense, but I actually felt quite calm out there.

As he exited the chicane leading onto the start-finish straight for the final time, Jack allowed himself to take a sneaky peek over his right shoulder. He’d been glancing at the gap to Marquez and the rest on the big TV screens as he traversed the track, but it was finally time to see with his own eyes. With Marquez nearly two seconds behind, it was time to celebrate – and he crossed the line with a monumental wheelie before the emotions came cascading out. Marquez was almost as happy, finishing second on a day when Rossi crashed and Lorenzo was nearly half a minute adrift in 10th.

Jack: The lap back to the pits after I crossed the line was something I’ll never forget. There was this massive release of tension, and I had all these things racing through my head – thinking of my family and how we came over to Europe six years ago dreaming of this day, how Honda has stuck by me, how supportive the Marc VDS team has been, how this season has been hard with battling injury for a lot of the time … my mind was all over the place. And a lot of screaming. By the time I went to do my first interview afterwards, I didn’t have a lot of my voice left. I knew I was going to cry.

Marquez: Today was the race to lose points. I was really concentrated. I saw Valentino crash and then Miller came past me, I thought a second place today would be like a victory. These 20 points will be really important in the championship.

Once he arrived back in the pits before the podium presentation, pit lane reporter Dylan Gray stopped Jack for a quick interview.

Jack (to Gray, his voice quivering): I don’t know what to feel at the moment. A lot of people bad-mouthed us and said that this project wouldn’t work, and I just hope that we’ve proved them wrong. We can ride a bike, I’m not an idiot. It’s amazing. I can’t talk …

What he could do was drink – champagne from his racing boot on the podium, inspired by mates The Mad Hueys. From there, the fun really started, Jack joining second-placed Marquez and third-place finisher Scott Redding in what started as a press conference and ended up as something between a comedy show and a confessional.

Jack (to Marquez): You have this famous saying – ‘glory or hospital’ – and I had this sort of mentality. I could see that Marc didn’t really want to take any risks, and who could blame him? I mean, if I went past myself I’d be like, ‘Oh, that dickhead’s going to crash in two minutes’ …

Bartholemy: We’ve had a lot of criticism for taking Jack, but I’ve never doubted his talent, and we’ve shown the world today that together we can do great things.

Jack: It gives Honda and everyone something back for taking such a big gamble on me. I mean, the risks those guys have taken to bring me straight to MotoGP from Moto3, and the amount of criticism they got and the amount of criticism I’ve got … So a big thank you to those guys and then also to my family as well for moving to Europe six years ago and taking that sort of gamble. It’s actually like four o’clock in the morning (in Australia), so I assume my parents have gone to bed. But knowing them they probably haven’t. I’m sure they’re 40 beers deep and having a great time.

From there, it was time to celebrate back at the Marc VDS hospitality unit. Esteemed Grand Prix writer Mat Oxley went to see what was going on, while MotoGP world feed TV commentator and long-time journalist Matt Birt was busily putting Miller’s masterclass into perspective.

Oxley (writing for motorsportmagazine.com): It was sweet mayhem at Marc VDS when I arrived. Jack was in the thick of it, pulling pints at the bar. Then ‘Jackass’ upped the pace and cracked open a bottle of mescal (tequila, if you prefer) which emptied at an unfeasible rate, leaving the mescal worm sitting alone at the bottom. Jack is as unpretentious as they come, a sweet bloke, so he freed the worm from its glassy grave and gobbled it down. Protein is an important ingredient of a racer’s diet …

Birt (writing for motogp.com): In 12 incident-packed laps that followed a red flag for biblical rain, it was Miller time. Time for him to silence merciless critics who have berated him for not being good enough after Honda gambled on fast-tracking him out of Moto3 on an unprecedented three-year factory contract. Time to silence those who said he was foolish for bypassing the conventional route through Moto2. Time to stick two fingers up to those that questioned his dedication to physical and mental preparation. Time to show those that feared he rode hard but partied even harder that he does have the application to back up the undeniable talent.

Oxley: I salute Miller for his victory and I salute all his people who worked so hard to achieve this great act of giant-killing. Whatever else happens in his career – and I hope much more good stuff happens, because he’s a joy to have around – nothing can take away what he did on Sunday. He is now in the motorcycle racing pantheon, joining fellow Aussie premier-class winners Doohan, Stoner, Gardner, Beattie, Jack Findlay, Garry McCoy, ‘Happy’ Jack Ahearn, Troy Bayliss, Ken Kavanagh, Kevin Magee and Chris Vermeulen.

Birt: I hope we don’t have to wait too long to see him on the podium again soon. Sunday’s masterful win in Assen’s wet and wild conditions showed he’s got the brain, heart and courage to go a long way in MotoGP. After Gardner, Doohan and Stoner, maybe we have got another Wizard of Oz emerging after all.

Postscript

Jack finished 18th overall at the end of the 2016 season, competing in just 13 of the 18 races as assorted injuries took their toll. This year, he’s finished in the top 10 in four of the opening seven races, and returns to Assen with plenty of confidence – and whatever happens this weekend, he knows that the Dutch TT will always hold happy memories after a stupendous Sunday exactly one year ago.

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