Are we in for a fairy-tale ending to the wild ride that has been the 2020 MotoGP season? The odds are very good indeed, if only because qualifying has laid out so many different scenarios for a fitting end to the year. We already have a fairy-tale ending to qualifying, Miguel Oliveira the first Portuguese rider to take pole, at the first MotoGP race to be held at Portimao, the first race in Portugal since 2012.
Could Oliveira convert his maiden pole into a second win? There is plenty of reason to think he might do exactly that. The Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider has pretty good pace – he looked comfortable posting low 1'40s in FP4 – and the riders with better pace are some way back on the grid.
Or maybe it is Franco Morbidelli's opportunity to stamp his authority on the 2020 season, taking a fourth win to clinch second in the championship and demonstrate once again that Yamaha made a mistake in overlooking him for the factory team, and in choosing not to provide him with a 2021-spec M1 for next season.
Dream come true?
Or perhaps it is Jack Miller's turn for victory, to make it ten winners in a season and break the previous record? It would be a fitting reward for the Pramac Ducati squad, after the Australian came so very close to beating Morbidelli at Valencia last week.
How about Cal Crutchlow getting a win in his final race before he retires? Or even Stefan Bradl going from test rider to first Honda race winner in 2020? That is not as far fetched as it seems: both riders have respectable pace, and all of the Hondas have been going well at Portimao.
It is Pol Espargaro's last race with the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team, could he finally get the win on the bike he has done so much to develop? Espargaro has probably the best race pace of all at Portimao, though his poor qualifying position, starting from ninth, will surely hamper that.
Any one of these outcomes would be a fairy-tale finish to the season, and all are entirely possible. The chance of a race which sees a surprise and longed-for winner is extremely high; it is 2020, after all, the year in which anything can happen, and the most likely outcome is the one thing you least expected.
Follow my leader
On the bases of free practice, the winner is likely to be riding a KTM. "Miguel, Pol, they have a really great pace so they will be really difficult to follow," is Fabio Quartararo's assessment, and looking at the times set in FP4, it is hard to argue with him.
Getting out in front might not be the best strategy for the race. The track is difficult to sustain a rhythm around, and following a leader may be the most successful option in the end, despite the fact that Portimao looks like being a track where overtaking is difficult. There are so many blind corners where riders are braking without a reference point that it is easy to make a mistake when you are leading, Andrea Dovizioso explained.
"For many reasons it was very important to start in the first two rows, because it's very, very difficult to overtake in this track," the Ducati Factory rider said. "You have to ride always with angle, there isn't a really hard braking point, and with the characteristic of Michelin you can't brake too late and be aggressive. A lot of riders did a lot of mistakes on the braking, because we lock the front so easily with lean angle, and it's very, very difficult."
The better option is to tuck in behind someone fast and bide your time. "I think if you start in front with a fast rider, you can follow them, because it's more about flowing, this track. If you follow somebody, you can be much faster than most of the tracks," Dovizioso said. "That's why in the practice if you make a lap time behind somebody, you can be much faster. And in the race, if you are not that far from your pace you can make that."
How to pass
Dovizioso was disappointed to be starting from the fourth row, precisely because overtaking is so difficult, which means the run through the first few corners would be vital. "For sure we need a good start, and it will be very difficult, because the first two corners are very tight, and it's almost impossible to gain a position," the Italian said. "But we will see. We have to stay focused, because the speed is there."
Jack Miller had already been practicing his passes, including a pass on his Pramac Ducati teammate Pecco Bagnaia in FP3. "It was a bit of a harsh move," the Australian admitted. "I kind of caught Pecco off guard. I don’t know if you guys saw. I passed him in turn one."
Miller insisted he had not singled out his teammate for the pass. "I just wanted to understand. It was just coincidence that it was Pecco. I just wanted to see how it was like passing somebody there into turn one." Passing his teammate turned out to be fortuitous, as Bagnaia was able to tell Miller just what happened after the pass. "Pecco said that when I came past, the wind that hit him, he didn’t make it into turn one. He said the buffer of wind that came off the front of my bike sort of blew him off the edge of the track and he couldn’t turn into turn one. So we’ll have to watch out I think for that tomorrow."
Fast means leaving the door open
Fortunately for Jack Miller, the Ducati Desmosedici in all its incarnations has a very particular trick up its sleeve. "Thankfully enough the Ducati has normally got some decent legs on it, so I don’t think anyone should be passing me there [into Turn 1], but never say never."
It may be difficult to overtake at the track, but the fastest line around the circuit meant leaving an open invitation to anyone behind, Miller said. "I think it will be interesting on the first lap, first laps as well, with being in the group. Along the corners you sort of leave the door open on the entry and a big possibility for somebody to sort of stuff you and kind of block pass you, but it’s the fastest way around. Got to try and find that perfect balance I guess in the first laps, which again comes back to being on the front row. It just makes life a lot easier."
Franco Morbidelli concurred with Miller's view. "This track is going to be difficult to overtake," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "First corner it’s already difficult to stop. It’s not difficult to overtake. It’s difficult to stop itself. As Jack said, there are spots where you leave the door open. You’re obliged to leave the door open in order to make the corner. I’m curious to see. Maybe tomorrow in the warm up I’ll make some laps behind somebody to see where I can go through and if I will need to go through. It looks like at the moment Miguel has a really tough pace to follow, so let’s see."
Hard or super hard?
Adding to the intrigue is how the tires will behave over the course of the race. The entire grid will be using one of the two hard options: the one generally referred to as 'hard' is the asymmetric tire, which is a little softer on the left-hand side; the 'hard-hard' or 'super-hard' or 'extra-hard' option is the symmetric tire, which uses the same hard compound from the 'hard' tire on both sides.
Alex Márquez laid out the challenge faced by the riders in managing tires for the race. Performance was "quite constant, but quite a lot of spinning," the Repsol Honda rider said. "So to manage and to not overheat the tires will be the main thing for the race. So it's not about consumption from the tire, it's more about trying not to over heat it and be consistent. This is the main thing and the thing which is more difficult, as we saw in FP4."
That spinning was eating through the edge of the tire very quickly, a result of the bikes spending so much time throughout the lap heeled over on their sides. And that was conditioning tire choice, Fabio Quartararo said. "The tire is destroying so fast, and actually right now, the super-hard option that I have, I have a great feeling with the hard, but super-hard is quite good."
It was important to test used tires again during warm up on Sunday morning, to see how they would behave, Quartararo told us. "I think that will be really important in tomorrow warm up to see the consistency with old tires, because with new tires it's not so bad." Tire performance was dropping off as they racked up the laps, the Petronas Yamaha rider warned. "For me the drop is really big, that's why I'm going with the super hard, and I hope to have a great grip – not great grip but something stable for the last five laps of the race." He was still optimistic, however. "I think we can make a good race tomorrow, that's the goal. We can still make a good pace, great race, and I want to finish in a really good way."
Heavy lies the crown
Newly-crowned world champion Joan Mir is going to need a miracle (pardon the pun) if he is to make something of his race starting from twentieth. An electronics problem had caused them to lose a lot of time on Saturday, eventually resulting in a miserable qualifying position.
"It was a really difficult day because we had a problem with what looks like the electronics and I was not able to stay on the bike!" the Suzuki Ecstar rider told us. "It was a problem that we saw, but when we realized it was too late and it made our day go in the wrong direction and we were a bit lost at one time."
It was frustrating, given how strong his pace was yesterday, Mir said. "The important thing is that yesterday we were talking about quite a strong and confident pace and today – due to this problem – I could not show a good performance. I’m confident tomorrow we will put it all together and the warm-up will be important. I think it will be a great comeback."
Mir's problem showed up in his tire choice in FP4. Where everyone else was working with the hard tires, the Suzuki rider was putting laps on the mediums. But that didn't mean they were suitable as a race tire, he said. "Due to this [electronics] problem we had to try different things to see what was the problem. It is not the race tire and it is a tire where I didn’t feel great. But today was a day lost. I was not able to find the good pace."
Mir did get back into the groove at the end of the final session of practice, however, once they ad located and solved the problem. "In FP4 when I took the hard I was able to recover the good feelings, and then in the last sector there was the oil flag and I was not able to finish the lap," Mir told us. "But the race feeling came back and I said ‘maybe we have the great package’. In qualifying I was not with the confidence because I did not know if the problem would come back. I was a bit scared sometimes because of this."
Titles to decide
The Moto2 and Moto3 races are also primed for a fairy-tale ending, with most of the main protagonists for the title starting from the front few rows. In Moto2, Enea Bastianini, Sam Lowes, and Luca Marini all start from the front two rows. Bastianini has to finish in the top four to clinch the title, while Lowes has to finish on the podium to stand a shot at becoming champion, and Marini has to finish top two. Lowes is still suffering badly with the hand he damaged in practice at Valencia last week, so that is a big ask. But it's 2020, so who knows what will happen?
Finally, in Moto3, Tony Arbolino is the odd man out, having qualified way down in 27th. The other two championship contenders, Albert Arenas and Ai Ogura, will start from sixth and fifth respectively. If Arenas finishes in the top two, he wins the championship, and given his consistency this year, that is not a bad bet to make. Ogura trails Arenas by 8 points, and so will need help if he is to take the title. But if there is one thing we know about Moto3, it is that it is unpredictable. The fat lady maybe in her dressing room, but she doesn't take the stage until Sunday. Only once the singing starts will we know how this story ends.
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