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
What I do know is that MotoGP is here at a new track. But it is not so new for everyone, as Spanish journalist Borja Gonzalez pointed out. Riders who have raced in the World Superbike series and support classes, or in the FIM CEV, have prior experience of the Portimao circuit. That is a surprisingly large number: 11 riders in Moto3, 16 riders in Moto2 (half the grid), and 6 riders in MotoGP. In Moto3, title contenders Albert Arenas and Tony Arbolino have ridden Portimao before. In Moto2, Sam Lowes, Luca Marini, and Marco Bezzecchi have all raced here before, though championship leader Enea Bastianini comes here for the first time.
And in MotoGP, Franco Morbidelli, Lorenzo Savadori, Danilo Petrucci, and Cal Crutchlow have raced here before in World Superbike, World Supersport, or one of the Superstock classes. Joan Mir and Fabio Quartararo raced here on Moto3 bikes in the FIM CEV Junior World Championship. And of course, most of those riders also rode here at the test before Le Mans back in October.
Then there is Miguel Oliveira. The Portuguese rider is a regular at the circuit, training there on a production bike – though ironically, not a KTM, as KTM do not make a production sports bike, having abandoned that direction since dropping the RC8. "I'm very happy and excited to race at home after seven years since we had the last Portuguese GP in Estoril," the Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider said. "Now to have the chance, still in a different kind of season, to have a home GP is great, especially because it is the last race where I think everyone is a bit more relaxed and we can enjoy racing here. I think the fans can expect a great show because this track is very, very different from what we see around the world. So I hope just to get a good performance so that the fans have an extra reason to enjoy the show."
Old stomping ground
Other veterans of Portimao were similarly thrilled to return. "I’m very excited and curious to see how this track is going to look like on a MotoGP bike," Franco Morbidelli said. "I raced here in 2013 and rode here a couple of months ago and I remember that it’s a very high adrenaline track. It’ll be interesting. I feel good and OK with the overall package."
It is an even more special experience for Cal Crutchlow, his last race as a full-time MotoGP rider. "I feel happy and content to come to such a good circuit," he told the press conference. "Portimao, I’ve got great memories here, I won the Supersport title at this track and I’ve got some good results on the Superbike here as well. I didn’t come to the test here a couple of months back but I know the circuit, it’s not like you’re going into the circuit blind and it’s a fantastic event to be able to come to. It’s nice to have this as my last one."
How does a newcomer to the track handle riding at a new circuit? Brad Binder's few laps around Portimao had underlined just how tricky the track was to figure out. "I was fortunate enough to run some laps when the MotoGP test teams were here but in the first laps I was lost," the South African told us. "This place is insane. It is so up and down and so many blind corners that it is difficult to figure out where you are. It is much more difficult than most tracks I’d say. It’s super-cool."
How did he go about trying to figure out how to approach it? "I watched old races – Superbike races – and some onboard videos," Binder explained. "It gives you a good idea, more or less, where the layout goes. Most of the time with a new place you build up an idea and I tend to find that on the first lap that idea goes out the window. It is completely different. It is always a good idea to walk the track the day before, do a few laps on the bicycle maybe. The first laps on a bike are always a bit dodgy."
Alex Márquez, another rookie, was forced to rely on data from test rider Stefan Bradl to get an idea of what to expect from the Repsol Honda, though he had previously ridden the RC213V-S road bike around the track. "We had a little bit of data because Stefan was here before Le Mans," he said. "So we have something, but we are starting, from zero and it will be really important to be clear and giving 100% on the bike to give clear information." Riding too slow would be pointless, Márquez said. "If you are riding at 70-60% the information is not clear or real. It will be so important which tires, and the layout and how to manage all the ups and downs. It will be really tricky but I hope we can manage it well and finish the season in a good way."
Márquez was particularly looking forward to the second part of the track, he said."After Turn 8 with the big change, and also after Turn 11, and the last corner is so impressive," the Repsol Honda rider said. "It will be interesting to see all of that. The climate looks better than when we came here to the test. It will be interesting for everyone."
One factor which could be a difference maker is the amount of grip at the circuit. Some bikes, like the Yamaha, depend more on the available grip than others. The general impression was that there is more grip at the circuit, despite complaints from F1 when the premier four-wheeled series raced in Portugal.
Aleix Espargaro, who rode the circuit on a MotoGP Aprilia RS-GP with Michelin slicks, as Aprilia's concessions allowed them to test there, had been relatively impressed with the available grip. "It was not perfect, but it was very good," the Aprilia Gresini rider said. "But after F1 we have to see how it is tomorrow. The grip level was good. There were just three MotoGPs and with no rubber on the track even like that was quite okay. So I think with many bikes tomorrow the grip level will be more than acceptable."
There had been some concerns about safety, but the only place that gave any cause for concern was Turn 15, the sweeping final corner which comes down the hill and onto the main straight. "The track safety is good," Aleix Espargaro said. "The only corner that is very tricky is the last corner, because when we accelerate in the last part we are close to the grandstand, a little bit like Barcelona. But I think it's safe enough."
With Joan Mir already having wrapped up the 2020 MotoGP title, what was the point of the final race? Second place in the championship is still up for grabs, with Franco Morbidelli and Alex Rins the best placed to take it. "I feel very good about arriving at the last Grand Prix of the season with the possibility to finish second in the championship," Rins said. "Let's see, but we will try to take second, and the constructors title for Suzuki."
For those outside of the top three currently, finishing second is more of a stretch. Andrea Dovizioso is 17 points back from second and 13 points behind third. His best hope was to finish his career with Ducati with a very strong race. "This is our target," Dovizioso said. "We really want to finish in a good way with a good result because we are fighting for the Championship. Second or third will be quite hard because Franco is a bit too far, but everything is open because we are at a new track and nobody knows a lot of details. Everything is possible, anything can happen. I am happy to be on a new track for the last round and enjoy the last race with Ducati."
The riders on the 2020 spec Yamaha M1 are all coming off a couple of very poor weekends, and are more focused on leaving the final race of the season in the right frame of mind for 2021. What were Fabio Quartararo's objectives for the Portimao weekend? "First of all, to have fun, is the main goal. To go home in a really good way, to leave thinking about OK, I'm feeling really good on the bike," the Petronas Yamaha rider said.
"Then, to work on myself for this GP, second," Quartararo enumerated. "Third, to try to see where we can improve the bike, because we will try some setup for sure. And fourth, that is the last thing, is to try to think about which position we can think in the championship. But if I'm having fun, I will be fast. So if I'm fast I can fight for the top positions and automatically, we are thinking about that position in the championship."
Quartararo was focused on fixing some of the things which had gone poorly through the season. "I just want to improve all the things that I saw negative from myself, try to be on the track, think OK, what's my negative point since the beginning of the season," the Frenchman said. "OK, it's that, so for this GP I want to change everything and try to work in a really good way. See how it feels, and I think it's more about myself than the bike. But for sure we will try to test, we will try settings tomorrow, which will be important for the future. Because at the end we will have 70 minutes and 70 minutes tomorrow."
Quartararo's 2021 Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales was expecting the circuit to be extraordinarily demanding. "I think it's going to be a difficult track for most of the riders, because it's difficult to set up the anti-wheelie well," the Spaniard said. That would have an effect on how you needed to approach the circuit. "For sure when I think about this track, I think about a wild riding style."
But Viñales, like Quartararo, was more focused on trying to get a feeling with the bike and enjoy the weekend, and leave Portimao with a positive mindset. "For me, only in my mind is only to enjoy. Trying for sure to be competitive, but this is a track to enjoy, the last corner has to be amazing with a MotoGP bike."
The extended 70-minute free practice sessions were a chance to spend more time playing with the weight distribution of the Yamaha M1, in search of the grip that is missing, Viñales explained. "For sure we will try different things because we have 70 minutes, and it gives you enough time to try setups, weight balance. Maybe in the last race we focused on setups, this race we can focus in weight balance, and see if the weight balance makes more effect if we change for example the pivot, or all these kind of areas. Let's see if the weight balance makes more difference."
Getting the weight distribution was important because of the many elevation changes around Portimao, the bike constantly wanting to wheelie. "I think this is a good track, because you are most of the time on one wheel! So the weight balance will play a crucial role. We will work pretty hard, but in the same way, I want to enjoy, I want to slide, because it's long corners where you can put full gas, and it will be really amazing weekend."
He was not thinking about his championship position, Viñales insisted. "If I'm thinking about one thing, it's to try to win the race. This is the only thing I am thinking about. I am thinking to finish the year with a good feeling. At least to finish the last race with a good feeling."
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