Whenever a journalist gets a little too excited over a rider's lap times after FP2, and starts asking them what it means for the race, they inevitably get slapped down with an old racing aphorism. "It's only Friday," riders will say, whether they are at the top of the standings, at the bottom, or somewhere in the middle. Being fast is nice on a Friday, but there is still a long way to go until the riders line up on the grid on Sunday. An awful lot can, and usually does change in the meantime.
That old adage is exponentially true on a Friday at a brand new track where nobody has ridden before. Especially an extraordinary track like Portimao, which snakes all over the Algarve countryside like a roller-coaster hewn into the hills. The track is so different, and so difficult, that there is still a huge amount of work to do before anyone can start to draw conclusions. Add in the fact that Michelin has brought four fronts and four rears (with two different hard tires front and rear), and you have a huge and complex puzzle to solve before Sunday. Two 70-minute sessions on Friday helped, but were still nowhere near enough.
We did get a bit of an answer to the comparison between MotoGP machines and WorldSBK bikes. Even without having homed in on the ideal setup, the MotoGP bikes were already nearly a second quicker than WorldSBK is around Portimao. Johann Zarco's best time of 1'39.417 compared favorably to Jonathan Rea's 2019 pole record of 1'40.372, and even better to the Kawasaki rider's race lap record from the same year of 1'41.272.
That was to be expected based on the times set at the test in October. Back then, Aleix Espargaro had posted a time of 1'40.170 on the Aprilia RS-GP. On a track with 22 MotoGP machines laying down Michelin rubber, it was inevitable that the pack would take a big chunk of time out of Espargaro's best lap.
First on Friday
Johann Zarco himself was not letting himself get carried away, despite the improvement from FP1 to FP2. "From the morning the adaptation was not bad, but I think we did good work with the team because at the end of the session this morning I was not happy, because the bike was pretty out of control, and in the afternoon we did some progress, not only with the tires but the setting," the Avintia Ducati rider said.
There was plenty of room for improvement, however. "So I'm happy for today. It is nice to lead a classification on Friday at a new track, and tomorrow I think I will have to improve. Maybe a low 1'39 and some guys in 1'38s to go straight to Q2, which is the target tomorrow. Also to find a more comfortable bike, to find a consistency, because when I'm feeling comfortable with a stable bike I can really enjoy more and do not suffer with all the uphill, downhill and few bumps."
The rolling nature of the track met rave reviews from just about everyone. The track was fun, physically demanding, incredibly challenging, and so difficult to get right. And it was very different on a MotoGP bike, even for someone who has ridden and raced around the track as much as local boy Miguel Oliveira. "Braking into the first corner, I never had this feeling, but it is like you have no support and this thing in your stomach," the Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider said. "It is quite nice. The last corner is amazing to do, really fun to ride with this kind of power. I’m always suspicious to talk but I think it is one of the most beautiful tracks and most fun on the calendar."
KTM stablemate Pol Espargaro was just as enthusiastic. "It’s been – woo! – funny! Physically and mentally its stressful because there are many places where you struggle with the bike, fast corners, super-hard braking and a straight with a drop. It is quite physical and demanding."
That generated a lot of work for everyone, Espargaro explained. "We also had four front tire and four rear tires, it’s been busy with all the tires and the settings we had to put on the bike. Also the gearbox needs to be set up, which is a big mess and all the electronics. We’ve been busy, but in the end we feel really good.
There were very few tracks to compare Portimao to, Espargaro said. "Not that much. Mugello is a place where the speed is super-high and it is going up and down a lot. It’s also one of those places where you have the adrenaline ultra-high when you stop in the pitbox in this aspect. For sure this place is special and different to what we are used to."
Going in blind
The real difference, though, is the fact that normally, factories, teams, and riders arrive at a track with many hours of experience and many gigabytes of data. Here, there was next to nothing. "The biggest thing is that we are used to going places where the bike is setup, we know the corners, we know the limits already more or less, and everything is fine," Pol Espargaro opined. "For a MotoGP rider to be in a hard, new place like this is stressful. It is hard to learn the asphalt, the tires, the track, the bike and everything together. It becomes very difficult."
What kind of bike was best suited to the roller-coaster that is Portimao? "It is quite hard to understand, but I would say a quite stable bike on acceleration because we have many parts where we spend on the right of the tire," Miguel Oliveira said. "From the outside you can see we have huge uphills, downhills so when we load the front we need to have a very stable front and a very stable bike overall. For the braking point it is important to have a bike which is under your control on the brakes. Not something super-stable, but something that moves under braking."
Pol Espargaro had had his expectations of the track confounded. "I was thinking before coming here that an aggressive style would be good here but the more laps I was doing – a longer run with race tires and I was pretty fast by the end – I was discovering the smoother I was, more corner speed, less stressful then faster the lap times were coming," Espargaro said. "When I was aggressive and really fast on the throttle then it was really bad. Corner speed and flowing on this track is very important."
The thing is, the track was aggressive enough on its own, Espargaro explained, and that meant that a smoother approach was required. "Already the track has a craziness. It is super-demanding. If you go over the limit then the lap time is not coming." That could end up favoring the Yamaha, the factory KTM rider ventured. "I have the feeling that the Yamaha will be fast. Or Morbidelli just today. He might not have one lap pace but race rhythm. We’ll see to tomorrow. He has been very good on race pace."
Turn 1 tough
There was consensus on the most difficult part of the circuit. The first corner was the hardest point to get right. You head toward it at over 320 km/h, then start to brake as you pass over a crest, which leads downhill to the first corner. Like the first corner at Mugello, it is easy to run wide, and if you do, it is hard to come back.
"It was the place I was struggling the most," Pol Espargaro explained. "This afternoon when we put the hard front I started to feel better and we started to be faster in Turn 1, but until we put the hard front it was one of the places where Miguel was really smashing me and I couldn’t manage it. I was not stopping the bike and I was not able to set up the rear engine braking as good as I wanted."
Maverick Viñales, on a very different machine to Espargaro's KTM, had the same problem on the Yamaha. "Today the most difficult part is Turn 1," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "Turn 1 is very critical. If you go a little bit longer, you go very wide, and you lose a lot of time. Turn 1 is pretty difficult, and it's the corner I want to focus more for tomorrow. Also Turn 8 is difficult, Turn 8 to Turn 9. Sector 4 is so good, is so nice."
Turn 8 to Turn 9 is over a crest, completely blind through Turn 8 as you head into the hairpin of Turn 9. Knowing your braking markers without any visual clues made that point, and others, so very difficult to master. "For me, the braking reference is so difficult to find," Fabio Quartararo told us. "Because you see nothing, and it's so difficult to have a brake reference. I think this is the main thing we are struggling to find with MotoGP, because we know how important it is to brake at the perfect point. And constantly, you brake earlier than what you need. But I think tomorrow we need to fix that everybody will make a step. But I think this is the most difficult track I ever rode with a MotoGP."
Hard or hard?
The track is hard on tires as well. The six left handers are mostly relatively tight, while among the nine rights there are more than a few where you are hard on the gas. The two hard rear tires Michelin have brought differ in being symmetric and asymmetric, but the asymmetric rear was not the automatic choice.
The right side of the rear tire was what suffered the most, though, Brad Binder explained. "I think the main thing is the right side of the rear tire," the South African told us. "There are a lot of corners where you really hang on the rear tire, on the edge with full throttle. There are a lot of points where you are putting stress on the rear tire, especially the last two corners. I think the race will be a little bit about preserving the rear tire but at the same time that’s what we have to work on tomorrow to find the best one for race distance."
Each hard rear had its own merits, and choosing the right one was no easy task. "End of FP2 we tried the asymmetric which is the S, I think," Takaaki Nakagami told us, giving us a glimpse into the arcane world of Michelin's tire codes. "The asymmetric compound is slightly better for me. Also I heard the comment from Bradl, and was also quite positive about the asymmetric tires."
Jack Miller, like many riders, had tried a hard tire but didn't know whether it was the asymmetric tire or not. "We've used one of the hard tires but I'm not sure which one. The medium doesn't last at all. I did a 1'39.6 on it this morning but it doesn't last at all. Then used the hard from this morning in the afternoon and it wasn't too flash but that's normal when they've already gone through a cycle already. It's quite hard to put my finger on what tire we'd use because none of them feel fantastic," the Pramac Ducati rider said.
Choosing which of the hard tires to race was what most riders would be spending their Saturday on. "I think tomorrow morning we have to try two sets of soft compound, and in FP4 I think we will try the C and the S, which are the hard compounds," Nakagami said, once again referencing the symmetric and asymmetric Michelin tire codes. Maverick Viñales also faced the same dilemma. "The tires are very hard, very difficult," the Yamaha rider said. "You don't know which tire is going to work, because between the two hards they are different characteristics."
Tire choice was also complicated by the fact that the teams were chasing setup at the same time, and tires and setup interacted in complex ways. "It's a bit difficult to work on the tires, because they don't work so well, and if you want to try to work on the lines, you have to use the hard rear," Andrea Dovizioso explained. "Because it was the best to make two or three runs consistently and working on that, because the other tires drop a lot on the second run, so you couldn't work on the setup."
The roller-coaster nature of the Portimao circuit had left the factory Ducati team chasing setup, Dovizioso said. "We changed the setup a lot, because there is a lot of uphill and downhill, and it's very unusual for us and difficult to manage with the bike, with a MotoGP bike. At the end I didn't have a special feeling, but the lap time is not too bad. So for sure we have to improve, because everybody will improve tomorrow, but at the end, not too bad."
Dovizioso's work focused more on suspension and setup than on electronics, he explained. "We don't have to do a lot of work on the electronics. It's more about setup, it was very difficult at the beginning to enter the corners, because you have to keep a lot of lean angle, everywhere. You can't brake straight, you can't accelerate straight, you have to always use the lean angle. There are a lot of changes of direction."
That had made corner entry a particular problem, Dovizioso explained. "It was very difficult for me to enter the corners. Also because in the morning I didn't have a special feeling, and I couldn't brake hard. And when you don't do that, especially with our bike, it is difficult to enter the corner."
The factory Ducati team went part of the way toward solving that, but that merely caused another issue to emerge. "When we changed the setup, in this moment the difficult thing is to manage the power when you have the wheelie and you have to change direction," Dovizioso told us. "It's been so difficult for me to manage that, I'm playing with the throttle, but I don't have a clear answer to the bike, from the engine, and I'm not smooth enough to use the potential of the bike and to be consistent. This is something for sure we have to improve tomorrow."
For newly crowned world champion Joan Mir, the biggest issue was electronics, rather than bike balance or suspension. "In the beginning it was not easy, because I was not really happy with the base," the Mallorcan explained. "We had to adjust, not the balance of the bike, we had to adjust the electronics, it was not really on point, the electronics."
With that point addressed, there was time to look at other aspects of setup, Mir said. "For sure when we fixed the electronics more or less, we worked a little bit on the geometry and on the setting of the bike for this track, that normally you need more load on the front because there are a lot of uphills and downhills. And you need the front always with contact on the ground, this is really important."
Mir's championship had come when the Yamaha riders had faltered. Now free of the pressure of chasing the Suzuki rider, both Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo were both happier and much faster. It had been a long time since Viñales had felt so comfortable on the Yamaha M1, he said. "The last time I felt like this was Misano, both races," the factory Yamaha rider said. "So I think we have a good opportunity to ride the bike, to enjoy. Now we need to understand many things, because a few corners are very difficult with this bike, so we need to keep working. But anyway, we want to finish the season with a positive vibe, and I think it's very important to keep working, to keep trying to understand things better."
Less grip, more traction
Viñales had been puzzled by the difference in speed at Portimao compared to Valencia, as he was able to get much more traction from the asphalt at Portimao, despite the grip not being particularly good. "The grip is not very high, but I have traction," Viñales pondered, "so it's something we need to understand, why that is and why we didn't have that kind of traction in Valencia."
Viñales' focus on Friday had been on the ride height of the bike, to control the pitch. "Today we worked with the height of the bike, so we didn't touch the balance, I think we will do this tomorrow. We played with the height, and one way, the bike is more stable and has less wheelie, so we need to understand what is the best for the race, and what is the best for qualifying."
Fabio Quartararo had been exceptionally busy trying to find the right setup for the Yamaha M1, but had posted a time good enough to take fourth in FP2 anyway. "Impressed about my lap time at the end because I would say it was not a lot, but we tried many changes at the bike: different gear box, carbon swingarm, rear shock, settings, the front, many changes today," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "But finally the last three laps were positive so I am happy."
A slow test rider
That extra work had come in part because Yamaha test rider Jorge Lorenzo had simply not been fast enough at the test in October. Quartararo found himself using a gear higher than the one used by Lorenzo at the test, simply because he was carrying much more speed. "At least we had a base, that was important but some corners, almost all the corners we are using one more gear in the slow corners," the Frenchman said. "That's important, but the base was not bad."
That meant juggling all of the parts Quartararo's team had wanted to test, including the carbon fiber swingarm Franco Morbidelli has been using throughout the year. "At the end today, from FP1 to FP2 we did not have time to change gearbox, but I needed to try the carbon swing arm, so I changed the bike and I tried a different gearbox," he said. "Like I mentioned, all the changes that we did, but it was positive."
Quartararo wasn't the only rider with a busy test schedule. Takaaki Nakagami on the LCR Honda had been trying to figure out the best setting for the bike as well, a job made more complex by the undulating nature of the Portimao circuit. "The problem is that this track has no flat," Nakagami said. "Many places are up and down, and slightly uphill, and downhill at high speed. So the bike is always moving a lot, the bike is pitching so much. So it's quite difficult to find the best feeling for all the corners."
The problem for Nakagami was the rear of the bike, and trying to find grip. The solution seemed to lay in bike geometry rather than tire choice, he explained. "From this morning we tried many things, long swingarm, and this afternoon we tried a short swingarm. Looks like a short swingarm is a little bit better. But we still couldn't find the good balance on the exit of the corner. We are struggling a lot and the bike is moving a lot, and the bike becomes really unstable."
At least the gearing for the Honda was in the right ballpark, HRC test rider Stefan Bradl being on a par with the permanent MotoGP riders in terms of speed. "For the gearing, it looks OK," Nakagami said. "We tried Bradl's gearing from the test before Le Mans, and we got information from HRC, so we started with the Bradl test gearing, and it was good. Not too bad. The gearing we are quite there, but we need to find the balance of the bike."
The most important six inches in racing
There are some problems that you can't fix by adjusting the bike, of course, and with the pressure of the season gone, there was room for some introspection from Fabio Quartararo. The 21-year-old realized that he need to work on being calmer and more controlled in the heat of a race weekend, so he could focus on helping his crew chief and the engineers get the right data to make the right decisions.
"I want to work on the emotional part, on the bike, in the box and outside the box," Quartararo told journalists. "Just to have less emotions will be really important next year, and also to give better comments to the my crew chief, to my engineers, because you know when you have emotions so high you just say the bike is not working and you don't know exactly which part. So I think it would be good to improve this and then we will see but at the moment I feel that I need to work on that."
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