Takaaki Nakagami

Portimao MotoGP Friday Round Up: Fun, Fear, And Finding Setup At Roller-Coaster Portimao

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.

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Valencia MotoGP Friday Round Up: Nerves Fray As The Title Chase Gets Closer, And KTM Work On A Shapeshifter

"Well, for sure I think we are not the fastest, but it's only Friday." A common enough refrain after FP2, with another day of practice and qualifying to go before the race on Sunday. But when it is championship leader Joan Mir saying it, on the weekend he could wrap up the title, is it a sign of trouble?

So far, Mir has been remarkably calm and composed under pressure. He has impressed even nine-time world champion and MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi. "Nobody bet on Mir at the beginning of the season, but already in the last races of last season he did a big improvement and also in the winter test he was strong," Rossi told us on Friday evening. "For me he's very mature, it's like he has more experience considering he is a very young rider and it's just the second year in MotoGP and also he did just one season in Moto2. So he's an unbelievable talent, I think. Nobody expected that he can win the championship this year. But I think that if he will win he deserves it 100% because he was the more constant, that this year is very important."

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Europe MotoGP Subscriber Notes: A Champion In Waiting, A Base Setting, And Why Yamaha Isn't As Bad As You Think

For most of the 2020 Grand Prix season, nobody has wanted to win a championship. Every time someone has taken a lead at one race, they have found ever more creative ways to throw it away at the next. Fabio Quartararo got off to a lightning start, winning the first two races of the season. Then he let his lead slip away, Andrea Dovizioso making inroads into the Petronas Yamaha rider's advantage.

Behind the leaders, Maverick Viñales made a strong charge, then faded away, then came back again with a win at Misano 2. Jack Miller started off strong, had a DNF, then a run of good results and another DNF and has been up and down (literally, in a couple of cases) ever since. Takaaki Nakagami closed in relentlessly by finishing inside the top ten every race, until he crashed out of the lead at Aragon 2.

It was hard to see who was in the driving seat of the championship. Quartararo took back the lead at Barcelona, but hasn't finished any better than eighth since then. Dovizioso has slowly slipped further out of reach, while Maverick Viñales has barely stayed in touch with the top of the championship. Franco Morbidelli has won two races to close the gap, but had some poor finishes and a DNF as well.

Throwing it away

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Europe MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Working With No Data, Mir's Mind Games, And KTM's Testing Advantage

What is the point of free practice? It is to prepare bike, rider, and team (not necessarily in that order) for Sunday's race. On a good weekend, you spend Friday testing your base setup and getting an idea of which tires to use. On Saturday, you refine the setup and check how your preferred tire lasts over something approaching race distance. In warm up on Sunday morning, you might try a final tweak in search of more tire life or a fraction more performance.

The goal of all this is simple: to arrive on the grid on Sunday afternoon with the best possible setup. To eliminate as many unknowns as possible, and provide the rider with the sharpest possible weapon with which to do battle. From that point on, it is up to the rider.

That's the theory. In practice, of course, it rarely runs quite that smoothly. There is always something cropping up that makes the whole process a good deal more complicated than anyone hoped, unexpected obstacles to be overcome along the way.

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Teruel MotoGP Subscriber Notes Part 1: Crashes, Pressure, Victories, And Championships

The theme for the 2020 MotoGP season, insofar as one is discernible, is that there are two types of rider: riders who are doing their best to win races but lose the championship, and riders (or rider) who are doing their best to win the championship, but not win races. And never the twain shall meet, so far this year.

That was the tale of the Teruel round of MotoGP, also known as Aragon 2. Before the race, Takaaki Nakagami looked on course for his first podium, and possibly his first win, which would have put him right into the title fight. But Nakagami never even made it as far as the first intermediate timing strip, crashing out of the lead at Turn 5.

Of the three race winners in the top four of the championship, Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo found a way to go backwards during the race, while Andrea Dovizioso never even found a way to go forwards. That put Joan Mir more firmly in the driving seat of the championship, but despite a very strong race to finish on the podium, he never really threatened to win the race.

Winners and … winners?

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Teruel MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Nakagami Shows His Colors, The Grid Shakes Up The Championship, And No Help From Teammates

2020 keeps throwing up surprises. If having eight different winners on four different manufacturers, including the rookie Brad Binder, wasn't enough, the array of riders qualifying on the front row is remarkable. Twelve different riders have qualified on the front row of the grid, if we include Alex Rins as the twelfth at the Teruel Grand Prix, or Aragon 2. That is over half of the 22-strong grid.

There have been some unexpected names on pole as well. At Brno, it was Johann Zarco, the Frenchman finding a new home on a Ducati after a disastrous half season on the KTM. At the Red Bull Ring for the second race in Austria, it was Pol Espargaro grabbing KTM's first pole position. In Barcelona, Franco Morbidelli grabbed pole position, outshining his Petronas Yamaha teammate and championship leader Fabio Quartararo on a year-old bike.

So Takaaki Nakagami taking pole at Aragon 2 is right in line with the "Expect the Unexpected" theme of 2020, to borrow a line from 1980s cult classic TV show Terrahawks. If you had put a bet on the LCR Honda rider grabbing pole before the start of the season, you would have gotten very good odds. Indeed, the bookmakers were still offering excellent odds on Nakagami to win ahead of this weekend.

No longer under the radar

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Teruel MotoGP Friday Round Up: Honda Up, Ducati Down, Or Is It Just Really Hard To Tell?

It was a much more pleasant day that greeted the MotoGP riders for the second round at the Motorland Aragon circuit. Air temperatures for FP1 were 18°C on Friday morning, versus 11°C a week ago. Temperature differences were less marked in the afternoon, but the big difference was in the wind: it had returned since last week, but was not the icy affair it had been previously.

Riders had a chance of making it from Turn 14 all the way to Turn 2 without losing all temperature in the right side of the front tire and ending up in the gravel. Only three riders crashed today, as compared to eight a week ago. That was true across all classes: there were eleven crashers combined in Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP, compared to eighteen last Friday.

What that meant was that it became a little easier to try the medium tires, front and rear, but the temperatures weren't sufficiently different to start to find major differences. That is as you might expect, coming back to the same track a week later. That also meant that, with the weather expected to be warm enough to be able to push for a time in FP3 on Saturday morning, a bunch of riders decided to forgo the chance to chase a spot in Q2 on Friday, preferring to focus on tire choice and setup.

Faster and slower

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Teruel MotoGP Thursday Round Up: Covid-19 Concerns, A Second Bite Of The Cherry, And Nakagami Extends

It is groundhog day again for MotoGP, the paddock back in the place they left – or in many cases, never left – last Sunday. Some did, of course, and may have picked up the coronavirus as a result. Riccardo Rossi, of the BOE Skull Rider Moto3 team, is one of those, the Italian now quarantined at home after testing positive for the virus, and forced to miss the race.

Rossi – Riccardo, not Valentino, who is also still at home in Italy – tested positive on Wednesday. There is a chance that the Moto3 rider caught the virus on his way home from Spain to Italy. But there is a non-zero chance that he actually caught the virus in the paddock, the timeline from infection to positive very tight from Sunday night to Wednesday morning.

There is growing concern inside the paddock that the bubbles are failing to stop the coronavirus fro encroaching on MotoGP. That is simply a factor of the resurgence of Covid-19 cases in the wider world, especially in Spain and Italy, where the vast majority of the paddock live. "In the first races we had no cases and now every race it's worse, but not because of MotoGP but because the world is getting worse and worse," Aleix Espargaro said on Thursday.

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Aragon MotoGP Subscriber Notes, Part 2: How The Honda Improved, Where The Yamahas Struggled, And Ducati's Difficulties

In part 1 of the subscriber notes from Aragon, I looked at how the podium happened, and its impact on the championship. But much more happened behind the podium, which also helped make the podium happen and affected the way the title chase is playing out. So here are a few more notes and thoughts from Aragon 1.

Returning to the podium, it is worth reflecting on exactly what Alex Márquez has achieved. The Repsol Honda rider's second podium in two weeks was impressive mainly for being set in the dry rather than in the wet, as happened last week at Le Mans. There was no luck involved, nobody crashed out ahead him. Márquez fought his way forward all the way to the leader Alex Rins. He came pretty close to catching him and passing him too.

The onboard footage from Joan Mir's Suzuki GSX-RR, viewable on the MotoGP.com website as one of the optional camera views, give a very clear view of exactly how Alex Márquez is riding. Seen from Mir's bike, you can see how much Alex Márquez looks like his brother Marc on the bike, despite being 10cm taller and a more slender build. His body shape and language was the same, his head dropped, his elbow held down and inside as he forced the front through the corners. It was an instructive view of just how far the younger Márquez has come.

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