And so a strange and unexpected season draws to a close. Fifteen rounds of Grand Prix motorcycle racing – fourteen rounds of MotoGP, after the premier class were forced to skip the opening race at Qatar at the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic – were far, far more than we expected in the early months of the year. It is a credit to Dorna, the manufacturers, and to the teams that we have made it this far. It hasn't been easy, and it meant squeezing a punishing schedule into a very brief period of time, and limiting the number of tracks and countries MotoGP visited, but in the end, we got our money's worth.
So it is fitting that we end the 2020 MotoGP season at a brand new venue MotoGP has never visited before, the first new track since Buriram joined the calendar in 2018. The Autodromo Internacional do Algarve at Portimao (more correctly spelled Portimão, but like most English speakers, searching for diacritics on my keyboard is so foreign that I cheat by skipping straight to the Anglicized version of the name) is set just inland from the Algarve, Portugal's southern coast, amid a vast swathe of golfing resorts.
It is far enough inland that its surroundings have shed most of the mass tourism which fills the littoral regions. It is also far enough inland that it sits in the middle of rugged, hilly terrain, and to the credit of the circuit designers, the track reflects that. Portimao is truly a roller-coaster of a circuit, the only flat section the kilometer-long straight. Even that starts with a rise that lifts the front as the bikes exit the sweeping downhill of Turn 15 and power towards the finish line.
A fast lap of the roller-coaster
I could give you a blow-by-blow description of the circuit, but somebody has already done that, and far better than I could ever hope to do. In 2018, Eugene Laverty gave Steve English a detail analysis of what a lap of the Portimao circuit looks like, from the perspective of a rider who has thousands of laps around the track. So go read that first.
How will things be different for a MotoGP bike? For a start, the speeds and loads involved will be greater, making the track even more demanding. It is already a very physical track because of the amount of elevation change: not only do you have to figure out the corners, but at most of them, you also have to shift your weight and body position around to control the front, put weight on the rear, or handle the camber.
At least the circuit flows, with very few points where you are stopping the bike to turn it. Brembo, supplying brakes to almost the entire paddock across all three classes, classify Portimao as an easy track on the brakes. Turn 1 is the hardest point, the right hander at the end of the front straight and a favorite passing point. Turn 3, another tight right, has a much lower approach speed, making it less demanding.
Sweeping vs blocking
Turn 5 is one of the finest corners on the track. The riders enter downhill, sweep through the round curve, then start the climb back up again to the top of the track. The corner is wide and round enough for there to be a couple of lines through there, so you can either sweep through it or dive in, square it off, and drive out again.
Who will the track favor? Even Miguel Oliveira, the Portuguese Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider who trains at the track regularly is uncertain. "It's very hard to say," Oliveira told us. "Portimao is a track that the layout is quite simple, but the problem is that it has a lot of up and downs. So I guess it will be hard to find only one bike which is working very good there or it has a big advantage. So we need to wait and see." He didn't expect his local knowledge to be an advantage for long, however. "The fact that I know the track will give me an advantage for the first ten minutes of practice, then the rest will catch up!" he joked at Valencia.
Andrea Dovizioso agreed that Oliveira would not have much of an advantage, putting that down in part to the fact that the track has been resurfaced, and most of the bumps taken out. Knowing where the bumps are, and which line to take to avoid them, is often the arcane knowledge which gives local riders the edge. A resurfaced track removes that advantage.
"It is true because he didn’t ride with a MotoGP bike," Dovizioso said when asked about how brief Miguel Oliveira's advantage might be. "It’s too different from all the other bikes. So it is true. There is a new asphalt, so the trick of the bumps or the bad points of the track are not anymore there. In the way you have to ride and the feeling you have with the MotoGP bike, more stiffer bike, and stiffer tires, with a different grip than what you try until now, yes. The advantage I don’t think is big or even zero from the riders who already raced or did some test there, because it’s a completely different world. We did a test with a superbike, but I know Friday I can expect to be in a completely different track."
Will there be grip?
The question is how much grip the new surface has, however. After Formula 1 raced there earlier this month, there were complaints that the grip was low. Dovizioso wasn't sure that wasn't down to the surface being freshly laid and still greasy. "It was very new, the track, when they raced so I don’t know if that changed," the Ducati Factory rider told us. "It’s not clear when there is a grip or no grip which is the best bike, because sometimes when you don’t have grip you are fast, sometimes opposite. So I think nobody knows why this happens. So that’s why until we are there and ride, we can’t really know if can be good for your bike."
The Yamahas, for one, will be hoping to find grip. The 2020 Yamaha M1 especially has suffered which grip has been low, and conversely, triumphed when they have had it in abundance. The layout of the track should suit the Yamaha, the ability to flow and turn being key at Portimao. But the tight corners may also benefit the Suzuki, especially as the Suzukis have been among the best at finding a working setup straight out of the box. The KTMs will not be able to exploit their strength in braking, but their ability to turn should stand them in good stead. The Hondas, too, should benefit here.
Check the schedule!
We will only really know once practice gets underway. The fact that it is a new track means that extra time has been added to both free practice sessions on Friday, to allow the riders to get their heads around the circuit on a MotoGP bike, and give the teams a chance to find a ballpark working setup. MotoGP will have two 70-minute sessions on Friday, while Moto2 and Moto3 will have two 55-minute practices.
The schedule returns to normal for Saturday and Sunday, though with the proviso that Portugal is on Greenwich Mean Time, rather than Central European time. So race time is 2pm local time, which is an hour later than it was in Valencia, for example. If this is all too complex (and it is for me), then head over to the MotoGP.com website and use the Your time/Local time radio buttons to figure out when the sessions start in your time zone.
A new track with extra practice time means that Michelin are bringing extra tires. First of all, they have an extra hard tire both front and rear, in case conditions are too challenging. The riders will also get two extra fronts and two extra rears, to cope with the additional track time. Though Michelin have data from the test held just before the race in Le Mans, data from test riders is never quite the same as from full-time combatants.
Pride on the line
What is there at stake? In MotoGP, mainly pride, Joan Mir having wrapped up a magnificent debut title at Valencia. But 20 points separate Franco Morbidelli in second from Pol Espargaro in seventh, so the rest of the championship podium spots are up for grabs. And with no test after the final race of the year (and no testing until February next year), then risks could pay off handsomely, while errors will not be particularly costly given that the end of the season is nigh.
MotoGP might have a champion, but there is still all to play for in Moto3 and Moto2. Enea Bastianini is in the driving seat for the Moto2 title, leading Sam Lowes by 14 points, while Lowes is still recovering from the massive smash he had in qualifying at Valencia. 9 points cover Lowes, Luca Marini, and Marco Bezzecchi, leaving them all to play for.
Moto3 is a little tighter, with Albert Arenas leading Ai Ogura by 8 points, while Tony Arbolino trails Arenas by 11. The Portimao circuit is going to be very tough on the Moto3 bikes, the steep uphills sucking the power from the smaller capacity bikes. If you want an idea of how that might play out, the best parallel might be Brno, where a small (for Moto3) group managed to string out the field. There, it was Dennis Foggia who beat Arenas to the line, while Ogura crossed the finish in third. But it is a fool's errand to try to predict how the Moto3 race might play out.
And so the season draws to a close, Portimao's spectacular circuit a fitting finale for a fascinating 2020 season. Enjoy it while you can. A long winter of hibernation beckons.
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