After a month in the desert, MotoGP returns to something more resembling normality. The Grand Prix paddock has left Qatar behind to fly to Europe, gathering at the Circuito do Algarve in Portimão, Portugal.
The change is all-encompassing: from the wild temperature swings from day to night of Qatar to the temperate climes of Portugal’s Algarve coast in balmy springtime; from dust and wind to mist and sunshine. From the bright artificial spotlights to being bathed in natural sunlight.
Above all, though, the change is from having a narrow window where everything resembled race conditions, that golden hour from 7pm to 8pm, to having usable conditions both morning and afternoon.
From a track where Michelin couldn’t bring a selection of tires which would allow a choice for the race at night, to a track where the teams should be able to find a tire that works for their bike, instead of having to bend their bikes to suit the only tire that will withstand the the weird conditions that prevail in the Qatari night.
Not that tires won’t be an issue at Portimão. Last year’s allocation has been tweaked, based on data collected at the track when MotoGP visited for the first time.
And because we go there now in mid-April, rather than late November, when the sun is higher in the sky and radiating more heat into the ribbon of asphalt the riders have to traverse.
In 2020 Michelin brought four different choices front and rear, including symmetric and asymmetric hard choices.
For 2021, the symmetric hards disappear, front and rear, and the rear allocation goes one step harder, the asymmetric hard rear becoming the medium, and a new, harder step asymmetric rear taking its place.
That change reflects the hotter conditions Michelin expects, but is also a response to last year’s race, where all 22 riders chose a hard rear, with 18 going for the symmetric rear and 4 for the asymmetric. Having a harder option on the rear should give the riders a wider choice on the rear.
What effect will that have? Michelin hopes it will bring the field closer by offering the riders more options. Whether that pleases everyone is open to question.
Miguel Oliveira dominated the race in 2020, using the symmetric hard front and symmetric hard rear. Neither of those options is available to him this year.
That hasn’t fazed last year’s winner however. “We actually don’t know,” he replied, when asked how he thought the revised tire allocation would affect his chances. “Fortunately we still have the symmetric rear tire which is now the medium. And we need to make the rest work. So that’s the allocation everyone else has, and that’s what we need to focus on.”
“And just try to especially understand if we can have any gain with the soft tire for the qualifying, because that is also a tire that is a bit different from last year, and try to see if we can actually be competitive enough with the track temperatures with these compounds that we have on the front.”
King of the Coast
Oliveira arrives at Portimão the clear favorite, after his dominant display in November last year. Despite the race taking place behind closed doors, he arrived at the track to a hero’s welcome, the Portuguese fans lining the access road to the circuit to cheer the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider into the circuit.
Even without fans in the stands, his rivals regard him as having an edge. “This racetrack with Miguel reminds me of Nicky Hayden in Laguna Seca,” Pol Espargaro said. “Maybe Nicky was struggling, but every time Nicky was in Laguna he was smashing everyone, and this was every year.”
Espargaro has an extra insight into Oliveira’s extraordinary turn of pace around Portimão, having seen his data last year before the Spaniard switched from factory KTM team to the Repsol Honda squad.
“This place is quite wild,” Espargaro told us. “Whatever the bike in this situation is, and I don’t think KTM is in a bad situation, but Qatar is Qatar. Whatever the situation is with the bike, Miguel is going to be very fast here and is going to be the guy to beat, definitely. I have no doubts.”
Back at Last
And yet Miguel Oliveira is only the second biggest story going into the Portuguese round of MotoGP. The return to racing by Marc Márquez after a layoff of eight months has captured the headlines and the imagination of the fans.
I will not reproduce every word of what Marc Márquez said in the two press conferences – one for the Spanish media, and as part of the main press conference – Márquez was involved in, though it is worth going through what he said, both in English – a little rusty, after such a long time not speaking it – and Spanish.
But to highlight a few things: firstly, Márquez was candid about the dark moments he faced after his second operation, when the infection in his fractured humerus stopped the bone from regrowing.
The tests showed nothing, but the feeling in his arm remained the same, whether he was training or completely immobilizing the arm. “That was the hardest part, not knowing what was happening, having trouble just picking up a bottle of water. It made me nervous,” the Spaniard said.
It was only after the third operation – another difficult ten days spent in hospital, not knowing the outcome – that things started to get better, and he knew he had a chance of coming back. But even the journey back had been precarious. To this day, he is still using medication to prevent a recurrence of the infection.
It taught Marc Márquez caution. He only returned to racing once there was unanimous agreement among his doctors, Márquez said. “In Qatar, we had a decision to make about returning, but it wasn’t unanimous,” he said. “Here it was unanimous.”
The decision pivoted not on his fitness – he was not at 100%, he said – but on the ability of his humerus to withstand a crash, or at least have the same chance of withstanding a crash as any other rider on the grid. That crash will come, Márquez said, and he would rather it came sooner rather than later.
“When I get back on the bike, my arm has to be ready for the crash, because I am going to have more crashes, and I don’t know how to ride without taking risks. I am going to push, and crashes will come, and my body has to be ready for these crashes.”
Márquez is less concerned about crashing, and more about being able to ride as he used to, after so much time off the bike.
Missing Qatar had meant he was going into the first race without having been able to ride the bike, and get a feeling for a MotoGP machine again.
“I would have liked to feel more prepared, and the best thing would have been if I could have a private test, but we didn’t have this option.”
For that reason, the Spaniard was being modest in his objectives. “I’m nervous, and I have some butterflies in the stomach that are not normal for me,” Márquez said.
“But I know that after FP1 this will be gone, and now it’s time to enjoy being on the bike again. I will be not be the same Marc from FP1; I will need time because I’m still in my rehabilitation, and there are two different things. One is the physical side and the other is the mental side. But I’m really happy to be here and to ride my bike again.”
One Step at a Time
He emphasized he was not thinking about the title just yet, despite his deficit in championship points looking entirely surmountable. “I’m not worried and I’m not obsession with the points,” Márquez said. “Obviously it’s something you look at, but I am not going to obsess about it because it’s not my objective on my return.
“First I have other objectives before getting to that. If I can achieve those objectives quickly, then I can start to think about the big objective, which is the title. But at the start, I can’t think about this.”
His own objectives might be modest, but nobody else believes he will be slow. “Marc is going to be fast straight away, I have no doubt about it,” his Repsol Honda teammate Pol Espargaro told us.
“He has been testing with the bike here not a long time ago. Marc is Marc. He has been more than 9 years with this bike. He knows the strong and weak points of this bike. I don’t know how long it’s going to take but he’ll be fast for sure. We all are waiting for him to be strong and show us what he can do.”
Márquez return is important for Honda as well. “It’s definitely important to have Marc back for the team, for Honda, to improve the bike, to know because Marc was out last year,” Espargaro said.
“That means the bike has changed quite a lot since the one he rode when he had the injury.”
The Bike Has Moved On
Márquez was aware of just how much the Honda had changed in the intervening period, despite the fact the RC213V was still struggling with the same problems – understanding the limits of grip with the front tire. “There’s some updates, already this morning I had a long meeting in the box to try all these new updates,” Márquez said.
That meant starting the weekend with the setup used by HRC test rider Stefan Bradl, rather than the setup he left in Jerez after he crashed. “I will start straight away with Bradl’s bike, I will not start with my bike. From that, I will start to build my bike, my compromise to come back on the top level.”
Márquez finds far from ideal conditions on his return to the race track, with rain and mixed conditions forecast for Friday. “I won’t like to come back to MotoGP to ride in the rain after such a long time away,” the Repsol Honda rider said, “but I’m here because I can ride in any condition.”
His objective, he had told Honda MotoGP project leader Takeo Yokoyama, was “just to ride the bike”.
If Márquez is not going to be competitive – and though common sense dictates he won’t be after such a long time off the bike, we are talking about Marc Márquez here – then who else should we be looking out for?
The KTMs were strong, with Miguel Oliveira winning and Pol Espargaro finishing fourth – then on the KTM, now on the Honda – hopes are high for the Austrian factory.
Oliveira’s data from last year is an excellent baseline to start from, factory KTM teammate Brad Binder explained. “I think Miguel is a great reference to have here with him having won the race by quite a few seconds last year,” the South African said.
“We have some good data and we could go through it all this morning and check some different settings out and places where I can improve from last year. It gives you a clear indication of where you need to work because he was the top guy here last year. Our bike works well, so I think we are in for a strong weekend.”
Brothers in Arms
Jack Miller finished on the podium behind Oliveira in 2020, and the Portimão circuit would seem to suit the Ducati. Miller is fresh off surgery for arm pump, though, which normally might pose an issue round a track like Portimão.
But the factory Ducati rider insisted that the physical demands of Portimão were very different, and less stressful on the forearms, than other circuits.
“This track is physical, but it’s physical in a different way,” Miller explained. “For me I seem to struggle at tracks like Jerez and Qatar where you are a long time in high speed corners with a lot of lean angle and you are trying to open the wrist but the wrist is bent. And forcing a lot while your wrist is bent. That’s where I seem to struggle.”
Jerez and Qatar, tracks with a lot of right-hand corners where your right hand is locked in position with the throttle open, and the bike leaned right over so the elbow was out, placed a lot of strain on the forearms, and caused the muscles to lock up.
Two tests and two races at Qatar really highlighted the issue for the Australian, and meant he had no choice but to get it seen to.
“It was something I had to do, what scans showed,” Miller explained. Not riding a MotoGP bike meant losing muscle mass in the forearms, which disguises the problem. “In testing when we don’t ride all winter, my arms shrink. You see a lot of guys get smaller around the shoulders.”
But once riding starts, the muscles expand, and in doing so, cut off the nerves and blood supply to the hands while riding under stress.
“As soon as we start to ride muscles start to grow. It just seemed my arm was under a lot of pressure. During testing my arms were loose in the suits. When I got back for the race I had to ask them to stretch the suit out. The muscle has grown.”
Scans showed what the problem was, Miller explained. “When we did scans, we saw quite clear where the pressure was. When they put the knife in the muscle exploded out of the sleeve. I have some fantastic photos of what we know was the problem inside the arm. Unfortunately I can’t really share them. We know what will be the outcome hopefully.”
But Miller is hopeful the surgery won’t hinder him. “The recovery was really quick,” he said. “Straight out of hospital on Wednesday morning.”
“On Wednesday afternoon I was able to start cycling on the static bike inside. On Thursday I was able to start cycling outside. Feeling fit and ready to go. Won’t know how is the arm until I put it through the biggest test which is riding a MotoGP bike but my understanding and my feeling is it shouldn’t be an issue.”
Back to Being a Rookie
Miller will face a challenge from the other Ducati riders, with a lot of attention being paid to the Pramac Ducatis – the team with which Miller was so successful at the end of 2020.
Johann Zarco comes in as championship leader, bringing him confidence for the start of the season. But it is his teammate Jorge Martin who is capturing the limelight, after the Spaniard took pole and a podium in just his second MotoGP race.
Martin was keen to temper expectations, however. His strong second race at Qatar was thanks in no small part to the lessons learned in the first one. “After the first race I saw my pace, I saw 12 seconds of mistakes,” the Spaniard said. “That without those mistakes, in the first race I had the potential to be in the top 6 or 7.”
That showed him a pathway to success in the second race. “First of all I improved on those mistakes. I changed a lot my style from the first weekend to the second one. I tried to be more competitive with the entering of the corners.”
“I also had the new fairing of Ducati. This helped me a lot in this part. I think those are the most important things. A bit of the style and most of the mistakes I didn’t make.”
In Portimão, Martin doesn’t have a race weekend of experience to build on, however, and so objectives have to be adjusted accordingly. “My approach is the same as the first weekend in Qatar,” he said.
“My approach is to be a rookie because I am still a rookie. Try to learn the maximum as possible. My target is be first rookie and top ten. This is my target being realistic.”
A Working Setting
For Yamaha, the 2020 race at Portimão was a tale of Jekyll and Hyde. Franco Morbidelli rode a magnificent race to finish on the podium, the Italian using the oldest of the Yamaha M1s.
The newer bikes, on the other hand, finished well down the field, Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, and Fabio Quartararo ending 11th, 12th, and 14th respectively.
Those roles had been reversed in the first two races in Qatar. There, the factory bikes of Viñales and Quartararo had been quick, while Morbidelli had struggled badly.
The Petronas Yamaha rider had quickly gone backward with setup, eventually arriving back at the setting he started with at the first race in Qatar last year.
All that would be abandoned for this race, however. They could return to the setup they started the Portuguese Grand Prix with last November, Morbidelli explained.
“Our base, the base I wasn’t able to ride in Qatar, it’s the base that I used in Portimão. In Qatar, I wasn’t able to ride it. I hope to be able to ride it again here.”
The two factory riders, second and third in the championship with a win and a fifth-place finish each, arrive in a very different mood to last year. Fabio Quartararo came to Portimão in November having just seen Joan Mir take the 2020 MotoGP title, putting an end to the hopes he had kindled since winning the first two rounds of that season.
“Last year I was also in a different situation,” Quartararo said. “We were fighting for the championship in Valencia and it was difficult even if the bike was not working so well, my spirit wasn’t the same and it was a mistake.”
He and his team were in much better shape this time. “It will be good to be here after great races in Qatar, I feel so good with the bike so I think it’s the best moment to see how our potential is on this track.”
Maverick Viñales had started the weekend off strong, but lost his way in search of the perfect setup, he explained.
“I don’t think last year we had big problems here, we started Friday really strong but then we touched the bike too much and lost the way a bit,” the Yamaha rider said. “I don’t think we understood how to get the maximum potential at the track.”
It was all experience he can put to good use this year, however. “It’s the kind of track I like, where I can go fast, and it’s important,” Viñales told the press conference.
“This year we arrive in a different way, last year we arrived from difficult times and even with that we had a really good rhythm at the end of the race. So I can imagine the bike has good potential.”
Joan Mir had a disappointing weekend here in November last year, but as he had just wrapped up his first MotoGP championship the previous week, it made a tough weekend a little easier to endure.
Mir explained in some detail what had gone wrong for him at Portimão last November. “Last year here, nothing went right. We had some trouble with one engine and this made everything a lot worse because we didn’t really know where the problem was.”
They didn’t discover the issue until after qualifying, Mir explained, by which time he was already doomed to start in 20th position.
“When we realized it was after qualifying, and in the race I touched with Pecco [Bagnaia] and something went wrong in the electronics and I had to retire due to this problem. The important thing is that the team knows the problem,” Mir said.
Even then, the Suzuki Ecstar rider believed the experience from last year gave reason for optimism. “My belief is that the Suzuki can be competitive at this track,” Mir said.
“We can be strong. The only day I was able to be strong and didn’t have that engine problem was Friday, the first day, and I was competitive. On Saturday I couldn’t with the problem but I felt great.”
Mir faces an additional problem at the start of the weekend, however. His crew chief, Frankie Carchedi, has tested positive for Covid-19, and is stuck in Andorra in isolation.
Fortunately for Carchedi, he had already had one shot of vaccine in the UK, before departing for Portugal, and that may help explain why he has so far felt no ill effects. Carchedi will be in contact via zoom with the rest of the team, and work from Andorra.
But Mir finds himself in exceptionally capable hands in the absence of Carchedi. Tom O’Kane, former crew chief to Aleix Espargaro and head of Suzuki’s test team with Sylvain Guintoli, takes over as crew chief for the world champion. O’Kane is one of the brightest people in the paddock. Joan Mir should be fine.
With Portugal an hour earlier than the rest of Europe, that means a slightly different order on race day. MotoGP practices at its normal times – 9:55 in the morning, and 2:10 in the afternoon – but will race at 1pm on Sunday afternoon to hit the 2pm CEST start time for European broadcasters.
That means that MotoGP will race before Moto2, rather than after it. And that may reduce the complaints about Dunlop rubber on the track during the race and a different feeling and grip level. MotoGP may be much more back to normal at Portimão, but not quite entirely.
Photo: Repsol Honda