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.
More important than all that, perhaps, was the massive grin on Marc Márquez' face as he sat in the pits. MotoGP riders are used to having cameras around them in the pits, Dorna trying to capture their reactions. But knowing cameras are there means that riders behave unnaturally, forcing a media-friendly smile whenever the cameras are on them. Marc Márquez is no stranger to this.
But not on Friday at Portimão. The man beamed as he took off his helmet after he returned to the pits. He looked happy and relaxed, the weight of seven seasons competing in MotoGP falling from his shoulders. And the weight of a year lost to injury falling away, Márquez finally confirming to himself that he was still capable of doing the thing that he has dedicated his life to. And that he still loved.
Even his rivals were touched by just how genuine and real that smile had been. "For me it made me smile when I saw him smiling this morning in the garage, because you know how much this sport means to him and what it means to all of us," Jack Miller told us. "It’s the thing we love and what we want to do and when you cannot do it for nine months then it’s not an easy thing, especially with all the rehab and recovery he’s had to do. To see him back out there doing what he loves and what he’s fantastic at makes us all happy that he’s there and it will elevate all of our levels."
While fans and media raved about how quickly Márquez had gotten up to speed, his rivals were entirely unsurprised. "I had a bet with my guys that he would be top three in the first session and he was third! I expected him to be super strong," Brad Binder said.
Jack Miller felt the same. "I expected it," the Australian told us. "I mean he’s been here testing. OK, it was with the superbike but he’s been riding. We all know how extremely talented this guy is and the things he does on a motorcycle: just watch the session. You see him do some things and you think ‘how did he pull that off?!’ Even today, and I think he was riding with some margin."
Expecting the best of the best
Aleix Espargaro went one step further. It was hard to be impressed by Márquez' results on his first day back after a long lay off when we are talking about the best rider in the world, the Aprilia rider explained. When someone is that good, being surprised would be to deny the truth of his extraordinary talent.
"For me he's the best rider in history," Espargaro said, and had examples to back that claim up. "Last year, the last lap he did with this bike in Jerez, he was on completely another level. Super faster than the rest. And yes, he’s back after a lot of months, but with the same bike, with very similar tires, same team, after a lot of time riding the same bike. So what were you guys expecting? For him to finish 20th? No, I don’t. For me it’s Marc Márquez again." He was Marc Márquez when he was carted off to hospital, so it would be foolish to expect anyone other than Marc Márquez to turn up at Portimão when he could finally ride a MotoGP machine again.
It certainly looked like Marc Márquez on the #93 Repsol Honda. He pushed and bullied his RC213V around the Portimão circuit in pursuit of a time that would take him to the sixth spot on the timesheets. The rear wheel hopped, the front tire squashed into the tarmac, both tires sliding at the very limit of adhesion, the chassis protesting as Márquez tried to tie it into knots wrestling it from one side to another.
If anyone had any doubts that Márquez would be willing to push to the ragged edge of motorcycle physics, the final few laps in FP2 should disabuse them of any such notion. Márquez got too hot into Turn 1 – a common error at the Portimão circuit – and ran deep and wide into the runoff area, before regrouping to take another shot.
On his final lap, he nailed the first corner, and pushed on through the first sector, down the long left at Turn 5, then on up the hill flicking left for Turn 6. As he hustled the bike over to the right hand side, the rear stepped out, the back of his RC213V fishtailing at something approaching maximum lean angle. Márquez' body language was of a man who had expected nothing else, pushing on through Turn 7 and on up again to Turn 8. That lap would move him up from fourteenth to sixth, and into Q2. Marc Márquez had put it all on the line, and emerged on the other side triumphant. Just like the old days.
Mistakes were made
It may have looked like the old Marc Márquez, but afterward, the Repsol Honda rider confessed to feeling rusty. "I think from Turn 6 to 7, on that change of direction, my head says now it's time to go in for turn 7, but the body didn't follow what I want!" Márquez said. "Then I just slide a little bit; it was a save, but I created a slide to finish the turn because it was the last lap and I didn't give up the lap. Things that of course with more laps on the track I will improve."
"The thing is that, yeah the last lap was a little bit crazy, I didn't like the last lap but I had a nice save," he said. "But it's my riding style. It's true that with the new tire I'm struggling more than with a used tire. With the used tire the bike becomes softer, the lap times are slower and then I feel much more comfortable. But with new tires everything is more stiff."
He was still coming to terms with the 2021 Honda RC213V, Márquez explained, and trying to feel his way back again. He was missing feeling with the bike, and that made setting objectives for the weekend rather difficult. "Still, I don’t know the target because I don’t understand how I ride the bike. It's strange to explain, but I understand that I'm riding the bike and I'm concentrated and I know where I need to brake but I don’t really feel. I just follow when I'm riding the bike, but I don’t really feel the limit, the bike, to setup the bike. I'm with the base of Stefan Bradl. Now tomorrow we will start to change a bit, but for that reason I don’t know which target."
That isn't the only concern Marc Márquez has. His arm was passed fit, both by his personal doctors (the most important approval) and by the circuit doctors. But the bone being strong enough is one thing, having the strength and muscle mass to cope with the rigors of riding a MotoGP at full speed for 25 laps is something else altogether. You can train all you like, but riding a MotoGP bike reaches the muscles other bikes simply cannot reach.
"It's true that the main question mark for me, the speed is there, so it's more how the arm will react during the weekend and how I will get up tomorrow," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Because if the power of the muscles goes, like the stress of the muscles will be more then I will have less power and then I will need to change a little bit the riding style. Everything will depend on my physical condition, because today was the first day. Everything was fresh. Tomorrow I know that, because I already feel, I will be more tired and the muscles will struggle a little bit more."
The problem for Márquez is that Portimão is a physically demanding track, and when you are not at 100%, that can be an issue. Alex Rins and Pecco Bagnaia, two riders who arrived at Portimão last year still living with the aftermath of injury, found that out to their cost. Though for Rins, it was only once he got to ride his Suzuki GSX-RR at the Portuguese circuit after a winter to recover from the shoulder issue he suffered in the crash at the first race at Jerez that he realized what the problem had actually been.
"The thing I am most happy about is my feeling with the bike," Rins told us. "Last year, we struggled a lot and I didn't know why, but today I understood why. Because still last year, last race, I was at 100% but not enough power in my body, not enough strength. Today I was able to brake really hard, I was able to be more consistent than last year. So for this reason I'm feeling more strong on the bike."
"I think it comes from the shoulder injury," the Suzuki Ecstar rider explained. "Austria is similar to this layout, a lot of right corners, and you know, for example in Valencia, where we raced before we raced here, it's more left than right. Here you have corner 1, 2, 3, 7 9... It's more demanding." Having a winter to recover and train had made a huge difference. "I just recovered my shoulder more. I get more muscle on the shoulder, and thanks to this I was able to be more constant. I remember last year, I couldn't do more than three laps on the same lap time."
Pecco Bagnaia's experience echoed that of Alex Rins. "Last year has been really difficult after my injury and the operation," the factory Ducati rider said, referring to the leg he broke in 2020. "In the first races I was good in my physical condition. I was not feeling so tired during the race. In the last part of season it was difficult to remain fast during the weekend, during the race. I was tired in the last part of the season, and this year everything is different."
Bagnaia topped the timesheets, ahead of Fabio Quartararo, the two Suzukis of Joan Mir and Alex Rins, his factory Ducati Lenovo teammate Jack Miller, and the returning Marc Márquez. But Bagnaia's pace on used tires looks a tenth or so off that of the best rider. That is clearly Fabio Quartararo, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider managing a sub-1'41 lap with a tire with half race distance on it.
The Frenchman was very happy at the end of FP2, a stark contrast to the disaster of 2020, when he had managed a lowly fourteenth place finish. "For me mentally, it's different," Quartararo told us. "Mentally, last year I arrived in a mood like, two crashes in Valencia, the bike was doing bad, and I arrived here with the same mentality, and that was wrong. And right now I'm just off from a victory from Qatar, and I feel like everything is good."
"What I feel is like, first of all, mentally I'm stronger and I feel like I'm complaining less," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "And this is helping, I'm more thinking about my riding style than the bike, this is the first thing. And then I feel like the bike has the same feeling as Qatar, where the bike was turning a bit better, and it feels a little bit like 2019 chassis. So this is a really positive point and I feel like this is already a big step for us."
Behind Quartararo, there were a group of riders who were all capable of running a 1'41.0 on used tires. Pecco Bagnaia was one of them, but Suzuki's Alex Rins and Repsol rider Marc Márquez was another. All three posted 1'41.0s on tires with around half race distance on.
But there are a couple of riders who are well under the radar, despite having very strong pace. Unsurprisingly, both were on the podium in 2020, Miguel Oliveira dominating the weekend, Franco Morbidelli ending up third. On Friday, neither rider appeared to make much of an impression, at least in terms of outright lap times.
Oliveira had at least managed to squeak through to Q2, having finished Friday in ninth overall. But the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider had struggled to get the soft rear tire to work, and consequently, his one-off lap time was a little disappointing. "I expected a bit more after I had good pace with the used medium rear," Oliveira told us. "I expected a bit more with the soft tire, but it turns out that the soft tire is a bit tricky for us to understand at the moment, and unfortunately with the front we don’t have enough support with the hard tire that we feel is too soft for us.
Despite his struggles with the soft rear, on used tires, Oliveira was quick. He posted a lap of 1'41.0 on a used medium rear with 9 laps on the tire, then followed that up with a 1'41.1 and a 1'41.2.
But Franco Morbidelli's pace is arguably even more convincing than even Fabio Quartararo's. Where the other MotoGP riders fitted a soft rear to chase a lap time at the end of FP2, the Petronas Yamaha rider did no such thing. Instead, he ran the entire session with a single set of medium tires, front and rear.
His initial run of 15 laps was nothing to write home about, running in the mid to high 1'41s. But on his second run, Morbidelli was impressive, posting a 1'41.2, a 1'41.1, and another 1'41.1 on tires with nearly full race distance on them. He hadn't tried to post a quick lap, and so finished FP2 down in 19th. But Morbidelli clearly had some kind of pace.
"I would say that today was a positive day for us," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "We started and the feeling wasn’t so good. But we went better through the day, especially this afternoon. I’m quite happy. For sure the position is what it is. But tomorrow we will focus more on the time attack and try and make a better hot lap. We’ll see what happens. Anyway, I had a good feeling from today."
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