We have been fortunate this year compared to 2020. Last year, we had repeat-races at five circuits, making up ten of the fourteen MotoGP rounds held.
In 2021, the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic has improved to the point that MotoGP managed to visit three different continents, needing to return to the same circuit only three times.
Six races out of eighteen is far from perfect, but much better than the situation in 2020.
Even the repeat races were better this year than last. 2020 saw all five of the repeat rounds at the same track held on consecutive weekends, as back-to-back rounds.
2021 started off that way, with the second round at Qatar held on the Sunday after the first race there. But, the next repeat round wasn’t until September and October, with Misano 2 taking place fully five weeks after Misano 1.
As the last of the double headers, Portimão is even more extreme. MotoGP has returned to the Portuguese circuit for the second time more nearly seven months after its first visit back in April.
The reason for that massive gap is simple: the second round at Portimão was added in early July, after it became clear that Dorna would have to cancel the Australian round at Phillip Island.
This changes the complexion of the second round at Portimão completely. Last year’s back-to-back races have all been held under very similar conditions on consecutive weekends.
This year, conditions were much colder for Misano 2 compared to Misano 1 (to say nothing of the rain), but Portimão adds another wrinkle.
In the thirteen races between the Grand Prix of Portugal and the Grand Prix of The Algarve, as Portimão 2 has been christened, the bikes have been developed, changed, and setups tweaked.
“For sure there is more difference compared to the other doubles we did,” Franco Morbidelli said.
“There is more difference in the feeling. Temperature and weather wise, there is more difference. When it’s colder there are things that work better and worse. You need to adapt to those things.”
Riders are also different, with most of a season of riding under their belts, and the accompanying ups and downs, Danilo Petrucci pointed out.
“Now there are riders in better shape, others in worse, so it will be different. It will be like coming here like we didn’t come in April. Starting from zero, for sure we will face some issues.”
Bike setup had changed too, Takaaki Nakagami told us, which meant that even though the tires were almost identical – Michelin have changed only the hard front tire, but given the much colder temperatures expected, it is unlikely that will be used – the data from April was not a great deal of use.
“Anyway, the bike is completely different to last time here in April, exactly the same chassis, but the setup on the bike is completely different,” the LCR Honda rider said. “So, I’m really looking for how I can feel the difference from the last time.”
The biggest change, though, is the weather. Air temperatures will be 10°C or more lower than they were in April, and track temperatures likely to be 15°C below what they were the last time MotoGP came here.
“Of course the conditions will be a lot different,” Joan Mir said. “Hopefully the sun will be out all weekend. It will be cooler.”
“This is always really important because it changes everything completely. It changes the way the tires work, the way the bike works, and it can be different riders competitive.”
What does that mean for the weekend? It means the race back in April is less of a guide than you might hope for. Bikes and riders that can handle the cooler track conditions will fare a little better.
“Normally, the cool conditions, if they are not really cool, for us it’s not bad,” Joan Mir added. “We normally feel good in the morning sessions all year. This means our bike is good for this.”
Mir finished third back in April, but had a miserable race in November of 2020, the weekend after wrapping up the MotoGP crown.
What the weather means for Fabio Quartararo is one question, but perhaps the bigger one is how he will react now that he has finally clinched the 2021 MotoGP title.
The Monster Energy Yamaha rider took his time to celebrate, taking a week to savor achieving his life-long goal.
“It was super nice to celebrate with the team after Misano on Sunday and I spent a few days with my family and yeah, it was super nice!” the Frenchman said.
“It was also tough to go back to training after a few parties, but it was necessary and of course, to feel ready for the race. But of course it was a really special week after winning the title in Misano.”
Winning a title affects different people differently, as Joan Mir so ably demonstrated at Portimão last year.
For some, the release of tension after having to focus on the task of performing as faultlessly as possible at every race can mean they relax a little too much, and start to make mistakes.
For others, shedding the weight of needing to score every race frees them up to race more naturally, to try to win without fear of a mistake. Only Sunday will tell which way Quartararo will fall.
The release of tension may sit better with championship runner up Pecco Bagnaia. At Misano 2, Bagnaia had to win, and had to risk using the hard front tire to make it to the end. That, his teammate Jack Miller admitted on Thursday, had been a mistake.
At Portimão Bagnaia can race for as good a finish to the season as possible. Though both objectives are effectively the same, the liberation of racing without having to chase a title means the pressure involved is very different.
“For sure these two races will be nice to do,” Bagnaia said. “Now Fabio doesn’t have any pressure. So, I would really like to fight with him, not like in Misano, but starting together and fighting together would be nice to have.”
In November last year, Miguel Oliveira ran away with his home grand prix. With then teammate Pol Espargaro finishing fourth, it was a sign the KTM was working well at the Portuguese circuit.
That all changed in April, though, with Oliveira having a miserable race, crashing out of 13th and crossing the line to finish with no points.
KTM had lost their way at the beginning of the season, Oliveira told the pre-event press conference, but had refound their feet in recent weeks.
“At the beginning of the season we were having too many problems and the package was not really complete,” the Red Bull KTM rider said.
“The conditions were much different from what we had in November the previous season, so definitely we didn’t have anything going our way.”
Things were much better now, Oliveira insisted. “Now towards the end of the championship, even if the result was not finished in Misano, at least I had a good connection back with the bike.”
“Already in Texas I found a little bit more of this connection and although if the result is not there the feeling is there, so I think this is the most important thing to build a good weekend.”
If ever there were a weekend for Oliveira to be fighting at the front again, it is at his home grand prix.
Working on the Future
Conditions may also favor his former teammate. Pol Espargaro goes well when its cold and there is grip, as he proved with his best ever finish in MotoGP last weekend at Misano.
Despite having bad memories of the track after a crash here in April, a return visit to train at the track had helped him figure the circuit out.
Most of all, the changes that have been made to the Repsol Honda RC213V between April and November have made a lot of difference, Espargaro said.
“Also the bike has changed quite a lot from that moment at the beginning of the year. Honestly speaking we have more possibilities to have a great weekend than what we did at the beginning of the year.”
Espargaro has been working towards 2022, trying to evaluate what might work on the bike next year, knowing that his problems early in the year meant 2021 was a lost season in terms of results.
“For the past races I have been working in that direction thinking that this year is over for me,” he said.
“I started to think about the future with Honda, we tried to do the maximum we could with the current package, thinking of next year, trying to generate or copy what we have inside the rules with next year’s bike.”
Dark horse at Portimão is probably Aprilia. If, indeed, it is even fair to call them a dark horse, so much has the bike improved this year.
Aleix Espargaro had his best result of the 2020 season at Portimão last November, and an excellent result again in April. The bike appears to work well at the Portuguese circuit, as does the elder Espargaro.
Then there is the wildcard of Maverick Viñales, who is making solid progress on the Aprilia RS-GP.
The Spaniard has gained some equanimity since leaving Yamaha for Aprilia, and has been steadily building on results since he got his first chance to race the bike at Aragon.
“We’re doing a good job, because every race we are closer and closer and the lap times are getting better,” Viñales told us. “I think in the last race I was the fourth fastest lap.
It means there is an improvement. In Aragon, I was last, then in Misano, middle of the table, now becoming strong.”
There was no pressure to start booking results, though. “So step by step. I don’t have too much of a rush, because it makes no sense now to push ourselves.”
“We just make to make it smooth, and the results will come. I’m completely sure that sooner or later the result will come if we do a good job.”
The specter at the Portuguese feast is the absence of Marc Marquez. The Spaniard had been delighted with his victory at Misano 2, his first at a right-hand circuit since breaking his right humerus at Jerez last year.
Portimão would have been a good measure of just where the Repsol Honda rider stood, and how much progress he had made in the past few races.
But a crash riding an off-road bike – Alberto Puig told journalists Marquez had crashed riding enduro, rather than motocross – had resulted in a mild concussion, and when the Spaniard consulted doctors due to filling unwell a couple of days after the crash.
He decided to sit out Portimão at the least, and to consult with his doctors again on Monday to evaluate whether he could be fit for the final round of 2021 at Valencia.
It is an unusual decision for a MotoGP rider to make, as motorcycle racing persists in not taking concussion particularly seriously. But his choice was met with sympathy by the riders in the press conference.
“If they decide this, then maybe he’s not feeling so well or for sure he had a really bad crash,” Fabio Quartararo said, before pointing out that Marquez’ long enforced layoff as his fractured arm failed to heal may have persuaded him to err on the side of caution.
“First of all it’s security. I think also what happened to him last year is something that made him a little bit more calm, and I think for sure if he had the possibility to race, for sure he would be here.”
Pecco Bagnaia also pointed to Marquez’ decision to stay away with concussion as being out of the ordinary. “Normally when you have this type of problem, you race,” Bagnaia said.
“But maybe he’s taking more time to be at 100%, because he is already not at 100%, so maybe he wanted to wait a bit more.”
Titles on the Line
Beyond MotoGP, there are also Moto2 and Moto3 titles up for grabs. With Remy Gardner leading Raul Fernandez by 18 points in Moto2 and Pedro Acosta 21 points ahead of Dennis Foggia in Moto3, the titles could be clinched at Portimão.
To be certain of wrapping up their respective championships, both Gardner and Acosta would need to win. In the case of the Australian, he would need his teammate to finish third or lower. For Acosta, victory would be enough.
But momentum is against the championship leaders. Raul Fernandez had been on a roll in the second half of 2021, and was on course to snatch the lead from Gardner at Misano 2, before he crashed out of the race.
Gardner has been struggling these past few races, so beating Fernandez will not be easy.
A win would be enough for Acosta, which is entirely possible. But given how close the race was back in April – Acosta finished ahead of Dennis Foggia by just 0.051 seconds – it is not a safe bet by any stretch of the imagination.
The Moto2 and Moto3 crowns could be clinched at Portimão, but the odds are that the fight will go down to the final race at Valencia.
No Number One
There were one or two assorted tidbits of news from Thursday at Portimão as well. Firstly, Fabio Quartararo officially announced what he had already made clear on social media, that he would not be running the number 1 plate.
Once, taking the #1 was almost compulsory, with Barry Sheene the first rider to break the tradition. Then came Valentino Rossi, who elected to keep #46, and since then, running #1 has been the exception rather than the rule.
Since Rossi won his first championship in 2001, there have been 7 different champions, 3 of which have run the #1: Nicky Hayden, Casey Stoner, and Jorge Lorenzo.
But between those three, they have only worn the #1 plate four times: Hayden in 2007, after winning in 2006; Stoner in both years after winning the championship, in 2008 and 2012; and Lorenzo after his first title in 2011.
But Lorenzo kept his race number 99 after his two subsequent championships. So in 16 of the past 20 years, the champion has run their race number, not the number 1.
Fabio Quartararo will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Joan Mir, and make it 17 out of 21 years that the champion wears his race number.
Does this matter? Arguably, though it breaks with tradition from former years, it strengthens the brand identity of the riders in MotoGP. Riders are increasingly inextricably linked with their race numbers, so the incentive to swap to #1 is less and less.
The traditionalists may not like it. But given the prevalence of the practice in the modern era, keeping your race number is perhaps best regarded as the current tradition.
Whisper it, but perhaps the days of race numbers are themselves numbered, if you will pardon the pun.
Another piece of news to emerge from Thursday is that Franco Morbidelli will have a new crew chief for 2022.
He had lost Ramon Forcada to Andrea Dovizioso with is promotion to the factory team, and been working with Silvano Galbusera. But Galbusera is to return to test team duties from next season.
Instead, Morbidelli will be working with Patrick Primmer, the former Ohlins engineer who worked with Maverick Viñales.
Primmer had been forced to sit out 2021, as it had been impossible for the Australian to leave his home country.
But with Australia starting to open up again, Primmer is free to travel again, and is sitting in for the next couple of weekends as Morbidelli continues to work with Galbusera in preparation for for 2022.