In the minds of many there was no way BMW Motorrad’s Michael van der Mark was going to get on the grid for his home WorldSBK event at Assen. Not just a few weeks after he broke his lower right leg badly in a mountain bike accident in mid-March. He needed two plates and lots of large screws to hold it together after his crash. And hold his ankle joint immobile for a time.
But he not only showed up at his home venue - hobbling very badly - but took advantage of the good weather at the TT Circuit to get cleared to ride (in stages, to make sure he was up to it). And then perform way better than anybody but himself expected.
Speaking to me on Thursday he spotted an ‘old step’ through bicycle at the back of his team pitbox and decided to see if he could ride it. One confident lap of the race trucks later he came back and said it was fine.
He looked far from fine in the lower leg department as he walked off, but went on to ride his factory M1000RR, qualify 15th, and then race to results of 13th, 15th and then a remarkable eighth.
Yes, some riders crashed, in race two in particular, but ten finished behind him. Most of them fully fit. He even won his personal three-rider-fight in the last laps.
It was, of course, no walk in his local park, but his grit and speed shone through.
“It was tough,” said Michael, even though his grin was fully back in the debrief area of the Media Centre. “Especially Friday, it was tough for me. I couldn’t do longer than four or five laps. So yesterday when I did the whole race distance, I was really happy with that.
“I scored some points, but I was just happy to be able to do the whole distance.
“Also fitness and training-wise, I couldn’t do a lot the last couple of weeks because I could not cycle a lot. I couldn’t walk. So, it was good to get on the bike and get bike fit, but today race two a lot of things happened around me. I gained 13 seconds compared to yesterday and finished eighth. I think we must be happy we’re here and did two decent races.”
With such a relative lack of mobility in this right lower leg, was it more difficult to literally get it in the right position to not compromise lean angles on a very right handed track? “It’s more the change direction, and luckily there’s quite a few here in Assen,” joked VDM at his own expense.
“But today was even better than yesterday. Most of the time I use my arms. So, yesterday the last couple of laps I struggled to breathe a lot, to relax and be ready for especially the last sector. Today was already a lot better. As you can imagine, it’s not ideal.”
He was also asked if he was not afraid to crash again, risking more damage. “To be honest, it’s not just for me,” he said. “If I did not feel good enough, it’s not just for me. I would have pulled out. If I crash, OK - but if it’s such a big problem I can also make other people crash. I felt good enough after FP1 and FP2. At the end, if you crash on it, you never know. You can always crash.”
The Sunday crowd at Assen was markedly better than on Saturday, which was already blessed with an open paddock and sunshine. After the loosening of the pandemic rules, the crowds were back - but it felt like three times as many on Sunday as Saturday, at least in the main grandstand. How much of that was due to them seeing VDM racing on Saturday after all? He didn’t think it was just him, and spread the Dutch love across the paddock.
“I think it’s fantastic; I think one of the biggest things is that the weather was good,” said VDM. “The paddock was open again. It feels like old days. I did all right, but yesterday I think some other Dutch guys in Supersport 300 and Supersport showed some good races. I think a lot of people think, ‘let’s come Sunday.’ Like I said, especially everything is open again, it’s the old Superbike show again. It’s fantastic for families, especially.”
New parts on the bike, since he had his crash before final winter testing, are still being worked out for VDM.
“It’s difficult, he said. “We understand a few things, but as you can imagine, because I cannot move on the bike, I cannot play around with the bike. So, a lot of times I have no rear grip because I cannot pick up the bike and stuff. So, all weekend we struggled with the data but because of my position on the bike. I find it hard to say if we improved or not, because I don’t even want to say because we can get lost because of that.”
On the question of whether he will be 100 per cent fit for the next round in Estoril, VDM said, “Still a little bit (to go) but if I can ride a lot easier, it will really be good for me.” His plan until then is to get better, but not to the point of abusing what is still a difficult lower leg injury. “First, I relax a bit. Then we continue like normal. It’s a complicated fracture. I have to stop when it starts to hurt.”
Now VDM has until 20 May in Estoril to continue his recovery process in time for round three.