Analysis

Portimao Moto2 & Moto3 Review: Neil Morrison On Rookies Ruling The Roost, Americans Racing, And Strange Stewarding

For the third time in as many races, the rookies lit up the smaller classes in Portugal, and now may harbour genuine title hopes…

Raul on a roll

You can count on one hand the number of riders that have impacted the Moto2 class as immediately as Raul Fernandez. A podium in one of his first two races? Only three did it before (Hafizh Syahrin, Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins). And now the 20-year old joins Viñales as the only rider to have won a race in their first three appearances.

By that measurement, Fernandez is fairly special; not even Marc Márquez or Joan Mir adapted this quickly. And for a rider that scored ‘just’ two wins and two podiums in the junior class across three years, it would be fair to say few saw this coming.

In Portugal, the scene of his dominant final Moto3 appearance, he fought through from a poor qualifying (tenth) and methodically picked off the men in the seven-rider lead group. In both Qatar races, the Spaniard had challenged the leaders early on, only for tyre life to slow him as the race edged toward the end. But here, no one could live with him in the final six laps, as he first passed Joe Roberts, then Aron Canet to pull clear and win by 1.6s.

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Portimao MotoGP Subscriber Notes Part 2: Yamaha's Two Faces, Badass Bagnaia, And Aprilia's Progress

The 2020 MotoGP season saw a curious debate arise. The valve issues which Yamaha suffered at the first two races at Jerez saw the Japanese factory have points deducted and have to manage the remaining 12 races on just three engines for each rider. Franco Morbidelli, already disadvantaged by having to run the 2019 machine, rather than the supposedly more better 2020 Yamaha M1, had just two engines to last the season.

After winning the first two races, and taking a clean sweep of the podium at Jerez 2, the 2020 Yamahas disappeared. Fans and media wrote the M1 off, declaring the bike to be a disaster. The results seemed to justify that designation. Maverick Viñales finished ninth or worse in 7 of the remaining 12 races, and crashed out disastrously in Austria. Fabio Quartararo finished eight or worse in 7 of 12 races, crashed out of two others, and slipped from championship leader to finish the season in eighth. Valentino Rossi had four DNFs, and missed two more races due to a Covid-19 infection, ending the season fifteenth, the worst season in his very, very long Grand Prix career.

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Portimao MotoGP Sunday Subscriber Notes Part 1: Tires, Temperature, Crashes, Temperament, And Mr Invincible

The first race in Europe is in the books, and we are halfway back to normality. Unlike Qatar, at Portimão the riding was all done in daylight, meaning the wild variation of track temperatures was far more limited. The weekend was held in more consistent conditions, at a more agreeable time, in a more congenial location.

More importantly, the grid was complete once again. After an absence of eight months, Marc Márquez finally lined up on a MotoGP grid again. And finished a MotoGP race, for the first time since Valencia 2019. None of this was a given, after the long and difficult road to recovery he faced. Three operations, a bone infection, and endless hours of physical therapy paved the long, hard road back for Marc Márquez. It was a journey without a fixed duration or a sure destination. To line up on the grid, and to cross the finish line 25 laps later, was a victory all of its own.

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Portimao MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Yellow Flags, Track Limits, Fast Frenchmen, And Rider Intimidation

The idea behind setting the grid in Grand Prix racing is simple: after two 15 minute sessions, the rider who sets the fastest lap gets to start from pole position, the other riders ranked in order of their best lap times. Of course, the fact that qualifying is split into two sessions to prevent people using tows to artificially boost their starting positions (more on that later) is already a distortion, as the quickest riders left in Q1 have sometimes posted faster times than those who made it through to Q2.

Sometimes, though, the rules intervene to create an egregious breach of the idea that the rider on pole is the quickest rider on the grid. Riders have laps taken away from them for all sorts of reasons, and the grid is set by those who adhered most strictly to the rules. As Race Direction gets ever more technology at its disposal to help assess infractions of the rules, the breaches it finds look more and more petty and mean-spirited, no matter the intention of the regulations. And sometimes, the choices made by track designers, on where to put the marshal posts and flag stations, can make adhering to the rules nigh on impossible.

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Portimao MotoGP Friday Round Up: Marc Marquez Returns At Full Force, And Some Riders With Hidden Pace

It was hardly ideal circumstances to make a return to the toughest class in motorcycle racing after more than eight months without riding a bike. Overnight rain left the track covered in damp patches, making the surface treacherous and unpredictable. But that didn't deter Marc Márquez: though he wasn't the first out of the pits in FP1, he was on track soon enough. And he was fast soon enough too, ending the morning session as third quickest, just a quarter of a second slower than Maverick Viñales.

Drawing conclusions from times which are 2.5 seconds off the race lap record and 3.5 seconds off the best pole time is a little premature. But Márquez was fast again in FP2, in much drier and consistent conditions. In the second session, Pecco Bagnaia's best lap was just a hundredth off Miguel Oliveira's race record, and Marc Márquez was within half a second of Bagnaia, ending his first day back on a MotoGP in sixth position, and having booked a provisional spot in Q2. Mission very much accomplished for the Repsol Honda rider.

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Portimao MotoGP Thursday Round Up: Normality, And Marc Marquez, Return To MotoGP

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.

Known quantities

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Crunching The Numbers: How Likely Is Marc Marquez To Win The 2021 MotoGP Title?

Can Marc Márquez win the championship this year? Has he left his return too late to catch up? How fast will he be on his return to MotoGP at Portimão? The answer to all of these burning questions is "we don't know", but that doesn't stop us from asking them. And from trying to make our best guess at what might have happened by the end of the year.

The best place to start to answer these questions is the past. We don't know how Marc Márquez will perform in the future, but we do know what he has done in the past. And by examining his past results, we can extrapolate in the hope of getting a glimpse of the future.

You also need something to compare Márquez' performance against. So I have taken the points scored by Marc Márquez in every season he has competed in MotoGP – 2013-2019, as crashing out of one race in 2020 is not particularly instructive – and calculated the average points per race, and what that would work out to if he were to score that average over the 17 races which (provisionally, at least) remain of the 2021 season. Points have been averaged for each of his seven seasons in MotoGP, as well as over his entire career.

Comparisons

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Fixing Moto3 Penalties - Pedro Acosta Shows Pit Lane Starts Aren't Enough

The Moto3 race at the Doha round will live on in the collective memory of race fans for a very long time. The fact that Pedro Acosta won the Moto3 race in Qatar at the tender age of 16 years and 314 days, becoming the eleventh youngest Grand Prix winner of all time, was remarkable enough. The fact that it was just his second Grand Prix made it even more remarkable, especially after Acosta finished on the podium in his first race.

But what Acosta's victory in the Qatar 2 Moto3 race will be most remembered for is the fact that the Spanish youngster won the race after starting from pit lane. Acosta, along with six other riders – Romano Fenati, Dennis Foggia, Sergio Garcia, Stefano Nepa, Deniz Öncü, and Riccardo Rossi – was punished for dawdling on the racing line between Turns 15 and 16 in the final moments of FP2, as they jockeyed for position looking for a tow to help them get through to Q2.

It was a breathtaking progression. The green light went on for the riders in pit lane a couple of seconds after the last rider had passed the line marking pit lane exit. Acosta slotted in behind Garcia as they fired away, but soon took over the lead. Acosta passed the timing loop marking the end of the first sector some 12 seconds behind Gabriel Rodrigo, who led the race at that point. By the end of the lap, he had cut the deficit to just over 11 seconds.

Cream always rises

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Doha Moto2 & Moto3 Review: Neil Morrison On Pedro Acosta's Record-Breaking Charge To Victory

The New King?

If you haven't done so already, remember the name. It's testament to how good, how dramatic Sunday's action was that Moto3's mad, 18-rider dash didn't get top billing. But this may well be looked back on as the beginning of something very special in years to come. At just 16 years and 314 days of age, Pedro Acosta not only won his second ever grand prix; he did so by producing one of the great Moto3 rides in modern times.

It was a performance that showcased so many attributes. Self-belief. Fighting spirit. Raw speed. Maturity. Nerve. Acosta's riding to bridge the gap to the leading group was exceptional. But the manner in which he sliced through the pack of experienced names before holding off Darryn Binder's late response was another level altogether. Every once in a while, a teenager comes along and does something so remarkable the whole paddock is talking soon after. Marc Márquez at Estoril in 2010 comes to mind. As does Brad Binder's exploits at Jerez six years later. It's fair to say both have gone on to bigger and better things.

One of seven names penalised for brainless riding at the close of Friday evening's FP2, the reigning Red Bull Rookies Champion had every right to assume the chances of backing up his opening night podium were gone. "Yesterday I saw everything a bit dark," he said of accepting the punishment for his indiscretion.

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Qatar 2 MotoGP Subscriber Notes: The Fastest, Closest Race Ever, Factory vs Satelltie, Miller vs Mir, Remarkable Rookies, And Pointless Penalties

It has been a long, long stay for the MotoGP paddock in Qatar. The first group arrived in the first days of March, for the first MotoGP test starting on March 5th. Then another three-day test starting on March 10th. Then the Moto2 and Moto3 tests, from March 19th to 21st. A week later the first Grand Prix weekend, and the first races on March 28th. And finally, on Sunday, April 4th, the second round of the season at Qatar. The MotoGP riders have spent 11 days riding around the Losail International Circuit. The Moto2 and Moto3 riders a "mere" nine days.

Everyone is very, very over being in Qatar. There is nothing left to learn at the track, despite the incredibly fickle nature of the conditions created by the (media- and PR-driven) need to hold the race at night. For some teams and riders, there was very little to learn there in the first place. Was there anything KTM had learned that would be useful in Portimão and Jerez, I asked Miguel Oliveira. "Nothing. It was simple and clear," the Red Bull KTM rider responded, clearly interested only in going home after so many weeks away. He wasn't the only one.

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