The lightweight class opened yet another fine morning in Portugal and it was a bittersweet one for Jaume Masia. The Spaniard was the early leader of the session and then found three tenths of a second more than his rivals in the final time attack to top the session but he also got sanctioned with a double long lap penalty for irresponsible riding in FP2. Friday leader Albert Arenas did not need to improve to secure a ticket to Q2 but the championship leader did improve to finish second overall.
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.
The final session of the day in Portimao saw intermediate class riders in no rush to improve FP1 times but the pace picked up for the final time attack and FP2 set things up nicely in the title battle. Luca Marini and Sam Lowes were some of the main men spending time at the top of the timing screens and it was the Italian one step (and one tenth) ahead at the checkered flag. Lowes overcame clearly visible pain after last week’s crash and showed good speed to finish second, one hundredth of a second faster than a resurgent Lorenzo Baldassarri.
The premier class got another hour to enjoy the wonders of the Algarve Circuit and nice warm asphalt welcomed them and opened the floodgates on times in the 1:39s. While KTM and Honda hogged the limelight early in the session, it was Yamaha and Ducati who fought for the lead by the final time attack. Ducati got the upper hand this time out and it was courtesy of Johann Zarco aboard the 2019 machine, the Frenchman one tenth of a second faster than Maverick Vinales. Aleix Espargaro was once more inside the top three, two tenths off top spot and ahead of Fabio Quartararo.
The beautiful setting of Portimao welcomed back the lightweight class for their second practice session, once again extended to 55 minutes to help teams find their way around the Algarve Circuit. Championship leader Albert Arenas seemed to be enjoying the pleasant temperatures and the Spaniard shot to the top of the timesheets in the final time attack, by posting the first 1:47 time of the weekend. Jeremy Alcoba got dethroned after holding onto the lead for the final third of the session but the top rookie stayed second, two tenths off top spot.
The intermediate class enjoyed their first extended outing around the Algarve Circuit and while the likes of Augusto Fernandez and Remy Gardner spent the most time at the top of the timesheets, it was Marcos Ramirez who took the most advantage of the late time attack. The Spaniard finished the morning one hundredth of a second ahead of Fabio Di Giannantonio and compatriot Luca Marini, who was also within a tenth of the lead.
The premier class’ first ride on the rollercoaster of Portimao gave us over an hour of nice wheelie shots out of turn 8 and a pretty tight field until the late time attack that not everyone joined. Although there was no one in the stands to greet him, home hero Miguel Oliveira grabbed top spot at the checkered flag by four hundredths of a second to make a dream start to his home race. Maverick Vinales spent quite a bit of time at the top throughout FP1 but settled for second, while Aleix Espargaro put his experience from the test to good use to join the top three.
The lightweight class got their first taster of the Algarve Circuit in a beautiful morning in Portugal and it was a 55-minute long one, for some extra acclimatisation. Jaume Masia seemed to be the quickest to take to the track, as he held onto top spot for much of the session, except for a brief interruption following a tumble at turn 15. That allowed Romano Fenati to shortly claim the lead, but the Italian get pushed back to second after a crash of his own at the same tricky turn 14-15 section.
And so the voyage into the unknown begins. MotoGP kicks off its final round of this fundamentally weird season at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve in Portimao. The combination of the final round, a new circuit, and the Moto2 and Moto3 titles still at stake meant that it was a long and grueling day of interviews, media debriefs, and press conferences, with barely a moment to catch your breath or a quick bite to eat in between.
It started off with the Asia Talent Cup graduation ceremony, which finished just before the MotoGP rider debriefs were due to start. At the same time as the first batch of debriefs, there were the press conferences for the Moto3 and Moto3 championships, featuring the three title contenders in each class. More debriefs, and then the MotoGP pre-event press conference, this time with the line up expanded from six to seven riders. A final debrief – Valentino Rossi – and then the last press conference of the day, an hour-long discussion with the six MotoGP factory bosses, looking back at the season.
It was a long day. Growing up, my mother used to warn me of the perils of watching too much TV, telling me I risked developing square eyes. Nearly half a century later, I think I finally understand what she meant. Of all the information that was poured into my brain during this everlasting day, I'm not sure I managed to retain any of it.
New track, but an old friend for some
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.