Portimao is one of the most exciting laps of the year for a WorldSBK rider. The Portuguese circuit is used extensively for winter testing. Last month's official test also offered the majority of the field fine tune their settings for their return to action.
The circuit, nestled in the hills of the Algarve, is testing for riders. There's a bit of everything here and getting your eye in and getting the most from the circuit takes time.
“Portimao is my favorite track in the world,” said an enthusiastic Eugene Laverty. “It's something unique! I’ve done so many laps around this place over the years that I know this place like the back of my hand. At some tracks you need the bike to work in a certain way to be fast because the rider is limited in what they can do - this place is the opposite! It's so up and down that you can sit forwards, backwards and ride around the bike around to find a big chunk of time here. The rider makes the difference at Portimao.
“I remember in 2009 a lot of people had written me off. I had two bad years in 250GP but Parkalgar picked me up. Simon Buckmaster never forgot that I was fighting with Crutchlow and Camier and the guys that were doing well in BSB at the time. They picked me up and turned my career around. I went from a career that may never have made it back to world championship level to winning my second race in WorldSSP, and those memories never go away. The fairy tale of winning the last race in 2009 here when we had a shot of the championship is one of my best ever memories. You always look back with rose-tinted glasses to those memories but I went from two of the worst years of my career to two of the best with Parkalgar.”
Bump and blind
Memories and experience are key at Portimao with so many blind corners and sections of the lap where you need to understand where the bumps are.
“You need experience around this track to make it work. It’s a strange one, because with it being so up and down and with bumps in places, I’ve done so many laps on this track, I know how I can get the bike around here. There are some corners I am in a different position to others. Probably after one of the days when I was doing about 80 laps, I tried something and it clicked and those little tricks of the trade you carry from bike to bike and that’s why I’ve always been successful here.
“There are other tracks like Laguna, any tracks that are undulating makes a big difference. If you’re a lazy rider and are going uphill, you’re just gonna sit down and the bikes gonna wheelie – that’s a simple way of looking at it. But if you’re an active rider and are willing to fight the bike a little bit, enjoy the track where the rider can make a big difference. If you’ve got a motocross track and cover it in asphalt, that’s pretty much what this place is.”
A lap of the Algarve
The Milwaukee Aprilia gave us a guided tour around a circuit where he has claimed wins on Supersport and Superbike machinery.
“Now with the rpm limit its changed things a bit for us, and our gearing is different because you have to be hitting 300 at the end of the straight. There are a few places around here that we have to hook an extra gear, so our gear pattern has changed this year. You're braking hard going into T1 in second gear which means we have to hook third to go round T2, but there’s one sharp edge on the inside kerb where if you hit it at a point it's strange for the bike and you could hit it and hit the deck.
“At this track there are two totally different halves to the track. The last sector is full of really fast corners that open out whereas, the first sector has some really hard braking.”
The heavy braking of Sector 1 sees riders down to first gear for Turn 3 but the run up the hill to Turn 4, a blind left hander, is one that has taken Laverty time to master.
On the gas
“I've tried a lot of different things through Turn 4 but for me, it's always better to maintain the gas through this corner. Some riders chop it, pitch to the front and then are back on the gas again, whereas I maintain that bit of gas around it. After the apex, that’s where the hill crests, you have to wait until you hit the crest as the rear goes light, you feel the contact regain and then you nail it across that straight. Last year it was third across that straight, now we have to fit fourth because we’re limited on our revs now.
“Braking into Turn 5 is really cool because its bumpy. I know a lot of riders complain about the bumps, but if you pick the right spot on the track you can find your way around those bumps. There were some areas in the past, before they resurfaced, that were getting too bumpy but now they’ve taken away most of those. There are still some bumps remaining but they’re fine through here. The exit of Turn 5 and Turn 6, the fast left hander where you slide, are always corners where I have to keep my crew calm! In practice they'll see that compared to my teammate I’m losing too much time, but I’ve got it set up for the race. You have to be calm and controlled through here because otherwise you'll start pumping the rear and abuse the rear tire.”
From the exit of Turn 8 you crest the famous rise at Portimao and as the track falls away from the riders body position becomes crucial.
“It’s mega through this section! You’re coming out of Turn 8 in first and now we hook it up to fourth – that whole section is amazing, You're coming up over that hill and your body position is important because it can stop the bike wheelying over the crest. You use all the track, right onto the outside kerb, before you peel in and fast back round that left again, there’s not many bits of racetracks quite like that in the world – it’s so much fun.
“It’s my favorite section of the year, its so well pieced together because there’s so much to it – come out of that first gear, its not like you're going over a hill and then down it as it looks. It's technical because it squares off a bit and it's almost like three different gradients on the way up, so you have to time your gear shifts perfectly because you’re having to go out of a right and having to make it all the way to the other side of the track, the bike wants to twist – like we saw happen to Tom last year.
“You’d wonder how that would happen there but it’s because you’re trying to accelerate out of there, but because you’re going over to the other side of the track, if the rear unloads it’s going to flick the other way, as the bike starts to twist – there’s so much more to it. You can’t get bored of riding there. I’ve done a lot of looking there and gone on scooters as it took me a while to crack what to do – its blind as well the exit so you can’t see the outside kerb, you want to round it out to keep the angle to stop the bike wheeling but then if you round it out too much and suddenly you’re on the road because you don’t see it until its too late – its something that comes with time.”
Up and down again
The second half of the lap is filled with more of the same. Blind corners, undulations but the speed continues to rise.
“Going up the hill it’s again blind and when you hit brakes there you start to piece it together. The kerb is on the left, and I use that as a braking reference even though you should be looking straight ahead. I’m looking left to see where that kerb start is and then start to back shift, pause a bit until I can see the brow of the hill and then start to lean right as soon as I can start to see the first apex of the kerb. It's bumpy so the bike wants to get upset, so I guess someone without experience like Gagne, it takes a few laps. It's all about memory.
“It's fourth through the left hander, so it means an extra back shift to get up the top. We have to back shift to second now, so it's a bit trickier as the bike is unloading as you change direction up there, so getting two shifts in is pretty tricky. Through the last little hairpin, it's first gear again, but from there it just builds and it's just a great part of the track. It’s so cool there because the double apex at the penultimate corner you have to attack it as it's dropping away, and then you’re braking into the last corner.
"It's another crazy one! You’ve still got that front brake on as you’re cresting the little hill and you have to wait just a moment, as you get over the crest of that hill, the sooner you get on the gas the better. If the rear tire grip drops you lose a lot of performance there. It’s amazing when you watch it on TV. When I watch it back on TV you know the point when you’re on full gas, and you’re thinking ‘wow you’ve still got some serious angle when you're on full gas – fourth gear as well’ so it’s an amazing part of the track. A crest to finish is amazing as well. You’re coming up on fourth, still playing with the gas a bit to keep the front wheel down before the finish line and it makes it fun. A lot of the guys like to sit down over there but I stand up as well, so you get a bit of horse riding skills into it.”
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