The MotoGP schedule is already packed, the riders coming off a free weekend after completing one triple-header before embarking on the next, at Le Mans and Aragon twice. But about half the MotoGP grid has an appointment on the Algarve before they start a weekend of racing at Le Mans. On Wednesday and Thursday, thirteen full-time riders and seven test riders will take to the track at Portimao for a combined MotoGP test and track familiarization session.
The test serves several purposes: for the manufacturers to gather information about the track, and find a base setup and gearing to serve as a starting point for when MotoGP returns for the final round of the 2020 season; for Michelin, to get an idea of the kinds of tires needed at the circuit; and for the riders to assess the circuit in terms of safety and to understand the layout. The test riders will be riding MotoGP machines, while the contracted riders will be using production bikes to get to know the track.
The contracted riders will be riding at Portimao on Wednesday, to allow them to get to Le Mans on time ahead of the start of the Grand Prix weekend. The test riders will be riding on both days, and have the track to themselves on Thursday. Their main objective is to assess the tires to be used by Michelin for the race in November. The test riders will be using Michelin's race slicks, while the full-time riders will be using Michelin's commercially available Power Slick Evo sold for track day use.
Contracted riders at Portimao on Wednesday:
Brad Binder, Pecco Bagnaia, Andrea Dovizioso, Pol Espargaro, Alex Marquez, Jack Miller, Joan Mir, Takaaki Nakagami, Miguel Oliveira, Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, Johann Zarco, Aleix Espargaro
Test riders at Portimao on Wednesday and Thursday:
Michele Pirro (Ducati), Stefan Bradl (Honda), Dani Pedrosa (KTM), Sylvain Guintoli (Suzuki), Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha). Bradley Smith will be riding for Aprilia on Wednesday, before handing over test duties to Lorenzo Savadori on Thursday, so that Smith can get to Le Mans on time.
Ahead of the test, the six test riders spoke at a press conference held, as usual, by Zoom. The main objective, they explained, was to find a base setup and gearing which will work. "Tomorrow and Thursday I’m curious to try and help the official riders have a good base for the race with the gearbox, tires and new asphalt," Michele Pirro said. Jorge Lorenzo agreed this would be the main focus. "We’ll use this test especially to get the best gear box for the official riders and to test the tires, to understand in these conditions with this tarmac, which are the best for time attack and race distance."
Michele Pirro and Suzuki's Sylvain Guintoli have some experience at the track, with Guintoli having raced at Portimao several times when he was in WorldSBK. The Frenchman was full of praise for the circuit. "It’s a great track here, I’ve been here quite a few times with WorldSBK and it’s one of the best tracks, really, really nice," Guintoli said.
The biggest previous problem had been the bumps, which have been addressed by resurfacing the circuit. Guintoli was interested to see how much of an improvement that was. "I’m looking forward to experiencing the new track surface because that was the only problem before, it was quite bumpy. Now hopefully this is better, so it’s a great track and I think it will be a good track for us with the flowing line. I think the riders will have a lot of fun here, it’s like a roller coaster. It’s really nice to ride, lots of blind spots, fast, very interesting track; very technical."
Last year's bike
One curiosity is that Jorge Lorenzo will be riding a 2019 Yamaha M1, rather than a 2020 bike. "If I understand well, we’ll be on the same bike as Sepang, we weren’t able to bring the new bike," Lorenzo said. That had come as a surprise, as team boss Maio Meregalli had told Lorenzo he would be riding a 2020 machine. "I spoke with Maio some weeks ago and he told me that probably they would have the 2020 bike here. But now, two hours ago, I entered the box and they just had the 2019 bike."
Lorenzo was cagey about the reasons he wouldn't be riding the new machine. "They told me that they didn't have time to prepare the 2020 bike," he said. "It's a pity not to have the same bike as the official bikes, but I guess they tried the maximum to get the new bike here and they couldn’t. So we will test with what we have."
To some extent it is understandable in terms of cost to use older machines. After all, the Portimao test is more of a test of the circuit than of the bike. None of the manufacturers have any data with their MotoGP machines to use as a baseline for a testing comparison, and testing new parts is very much about only changing as few variables as possible.
But Jorge Lorenzo has also been the most underutilized of the test riders, mostly as a result of Yamaha's decision to focus their 2020 testing in Japan due to the inability of Japanese engineers to travel to Europe during the pandemic. "I want to believe and I really believe that they tried their best to do the maximum tests possible, but just the circumstances of Covid for some reasons stopped this from happening," Lorenzo told the media. "I believe without Covid we would have the 15 or 16 days that we had planned to do. But I don’t believe they are wasting their test rider, especially on purpose, because I think economically speaking they can be the factory that spent more money on it. So it's not logical to think like that."
The test starts on Wednesday morning at 9am Portuguese time. Live timing will be available on a separate website, which you can find here.
At Le Mans, the MotoGP riders face almost unprecedented conditions. Normally, MotoGP heads to the French circuit in May, but the pandemic reshuffle means the series travels to Le Mans in mid-October. That makes weather conditions even more of a lottery than normal. The forecast is for rain, but also for exceptionally cold temperatures when it is dry.
That could pose a challenge for Michelin. The French tire manufacturer has brought some of its softest tires to Le Mans, knowing that temperatures were likely to be challenging. But if it is dry, they could face the coldest temperatures they have ever had to deal with since taking over as official tire supplier in 2016. The previous record came during FP1 at Valencia last year, where ground temperatures were just 9°C, though that was taken in the shade. "The 9°C this morning were a little bit fake because the track temperature sensor was in the shadow in pit lane. So it was a little bit higher," Marc Márquez explained at the time.
Though there isn't an official figure given by Michelin, the MotoGP tires really require a track temperature of at least 11°C to start operating fully. The current prediction for Le Mans is that air temperatures in the morning will be around 8°C, which could cause problems. In addition, the weak October sun – if it decides to show itself – will take some time to raise the track temperature up to a more workable level.
This doesn't mean that conditions will be impossible. Despite the cold temperatures at Valencia last year, the riders were able to ride without requiring any more attention than is usual at Turn 4, the first right hander after a series of lefts. Le Mans should be easier, as there is a better mix of left and right handers. But if it is dry and cold for the morning sessions, riders will have to approach it with care.
The rain may make all this speculation moot, of course. Michelin's rain tires are capable of handling the cold temperatures in wet conditions exceptionally well. Rain could also shake up the 2020 championship even further.
While the 2021 MotoGP line up is nearing completion, the focus is switching to the Moto2 class. According to the usually well-informed TV channel Sky Sports Italia, Fabio Di Giannantonio could be about to leave the Speed Up team and join Gresini for 2021. Di Giannantonio rode for the Italian squad in 2018, where he finished runner up to Jorge Martin in the Moto3 championship.
Signing for Gresini opens an extra door for Di Giannantonio. The Gresini squad are expecting to split with Aprilia in MotoGP at the end of 2021, when the current five-year contracts between Dorna and the teams comes to an end. From 2022, Aprilia are expected to enter on their own as a fully-fledged factory squad, leaving Gresini to become a satellite team. Being on a Moto2 machine for Gresini would put Di Giannantonio at the front of the queue to fill the newly-created MotoGP seats.
Inside the paddock, Gresini are widely expected to continue with Aprilia as a satellite squad. Aprilia are not the only option, however. Suzuki are also looking at the possibility of supplying a satellite team, and Gresini could well be one of the candidates to take on that role. Currently, paddock gossip suggests that the VR46 team is leading the race for the Suzuki satellite bikes. But Gresini's long experience in MotoGP could give them an advantage.
Whether Suzuki will actually supply satellite bikes is still to be resolved however. That is a decision which is likely to be taken over the winter break, when Suzuki start to make plans beyond the end of 2021.
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