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Thu, 2021-05-06 17:39
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After a dramatic weekend, we look at some of the big stories coming out of the Spanish Grand Prix in the Moto2 and Moto3 classes.

Acosta: Another box ticked

Forget last lap scraps, or pitlane penalties. The true test of Pedro Acosta’s mettle was to gauge the 16-year old’s reaction to the pre-event press conference at Jerez. There, Acosta sat among the MotoGP field. He looked on boyishly as Marc Marquez, Joan Mir and Fabio Quartararo opined on his talent, his potential, and his future plans.

One of the more outlandish questions was whether Acosta would benefit from skipping Moto2 altogether, and jumping straight to MotoGP in the near future. Fabio Quartararo was the voice of reason on this occasion, offering a timely reminder “Come on guys, he’s only 16.”

That aside, this was a love-in. Never more so than when the considered Franco Morbidelli gave his opinion. “Keeping the feet on the ground is important. But Pedro has something different. We’ve never seen something like this. I’ve watched races since I was a kid. He’s 16 but he doesn’t look 16. He looks like a really focussed guy. He’s not here to play too much.”

That much is true. Aside from a slight wobble on Saturday – he found himself in Q1 – Acosta passed this latest test of his focus with flying colours. There is always a danger of bigging up a rider too early in their development. But the Murciano wears the swagger of a man who expects the result to be a mere formality. It’s not often you see that in this sport, never mind from a 16-year old sporting braces.

He doesn’t get caught up in the hype, either. At least he hasn’t yet. Asked if it was difficult to maintain focus after Thursday’s love-in, he shrugged all the attention off, mentioning his only worry was a less than stellar record at this track. “After Qatar, I remember that I deleted Instagram and everything like this to be focussed,” he said. “(But) It isn’t difficult. I know on Thursday that here was a bad track for me. But I finished.” It’s clear Acosta isn’t your regular teenager.

As was mentioned in Portimão, this felt like his finest victory yet. He wasn’t the fastest rider. “(Deniz) Öncü and Romano (Fenati) had the best pace of the race,” he said. Nor did he feel Jerez’ compact layout was best for his machine or riding style. And the words of team boss Aki Ajo’s were still ringing in his ears after the race had finished.

“Finally, here in Jerez normally I have some difficult points to take the pace,” he said. “The team worked so hard to give me the best bike they could. Aki told me before the race: ‘Mate, if we can win, do it. If not, be careful and take some points.’ The only thing the team told me was ‘Enjoy’. When you have fun, everything comes easier. The last lap was difficult. But we are here.”

Despite Ajo’s advice, Acosta was prepared to risk it all on the final lap. Again, his late-braking feats made the difference, as he sized up Öncü and Jaume Masia ahead before executing a brilliant two-in-one-move at the Dani Pedrosa Corner. “We are strong in braking,” he said of his feats. Here, it’s a difficult track to brake hard. Here I always have problems to be competitive. We have to improve the exit of the corners. On the last lap I saw Jaume and Öncü were so close on the line. I thought if I had to hit someone, I’m going to hit them. It finished well (even if) it wasn’t a plan.”

He made history here. No rider in grand prix’s 72-year history has ever stood on the podium in each of their first four races. Morbidelli was right. We’ve never seen something like this. It was here that Acosta demonstrated he has the intelligence and maturity to take this global attention in his stride off the bike to go with his mesmeric talent on it. As it stands, no one in Moto3 can live with that potent combination.

Diggia Dominates

History told us the afternoon’s Moto2 outing would be no thriller. Aside from the class’ first running at Jerez in 2010, any race that has gone full distance since has been processional. With that in mind, the start and early laps were crucial. Fabio Di Giannantonio got it right, claiming a lap one advantage, and carried it to the flag. The Italian was untouchable, stretching his lead out to 1.5s by lap six, 2.6s by lap eight, for a maiden Moto2 triumph.

In truth, his first victory in the class would have come sooner, but for some crucial spills when leading last year. As he said, “It’s been two years I’ve tried to win in Moto2 but something always happened.” The difference here? A change in setting that gave the 23-year old more confidence in Jerez’ number heavy braking zones, a glaring weakness in Portugal. That and work with Team Gresini’s rider coach Manuel Poggiali on how to best attack this track.

“The bike is exactly the same as FP1,” explained Di Giannantonio. “We didn’t change anything. We changed something from the last races because we had some troubles. I worked with Manuel Poggiali to do good lines, a good riding style. It was just this: keeping the speed. Session by session I was building my confidence. In warm-up I saw I was really fast with used tyres. when I did that perfect start everything was more clear.”

With two podiums from his first four races, Di Giannantonio looks a more complete rider aboard the Kalex chassis. Two years on the Boscoscuro chassis was a fine means to learn. But now he has the package to challenge overall. “(In 2019 and ’20) I pushed so hard with the bike and the team I had. It was a really good bike. but on our bad day, we had 20 bikes that were better than us. It was a bit harder to manage the consistency during the year. Now I have all the things together, it’s just doing my own thing and being competitive always.”

Bezzecchi back on the boil

It would be ridiculous to say Marco Bezzecchi was in crisis after Portugal. A clear title favourite scored solid points in each of the opening three races. But something was missing to challenge the leading names. “The first three races were good in the beginning and then not very good in the second part. I always started well, but then struggled more with the front and I dropped positions continuously,” he acknowledged.

From the moment he got home from Portugal he set about studying videos of the first free races to understand where he rivals were ahead. “From home, I watched everything I could from Sam (Lowes), (Remy) Gardner, Fabio, Raul (Fernandez) – all the guys that look very strong in the end of the race,” he said. “I started to work with my team from when I got home.” From Saturday morning, Bezzecchi looked like the rider of old. But for an early mistake in the race, he felt he had the pace to challenge countryman Di Giannantonio. His championship challenge starts here.

Sam’s Nervous Energy

According to the old adage success breeds success. But the opposite is also true: disappointment can breed nervousness. An honest Sam Lowes admitted as much after failing to match the leading pair in the first half of the Moto2 encounter. One of the strongest riders through free practice, it was a surprise to see Lowes struggling in fifth after a poor start. “I was a little bit nervous because Portugal ended like that,” he admitted. “I threw an opportunity away there. It was an unnecessary mistake.

“The first part of the race, I wasn’t as free as normal. I was riding a bit tight. I was a bit too cautious. I didn’t feel amazing so it was just about taking a few laps to relax and then come forward again.” Lowes’ late rally was enough to get an important third. And perhaps these nerves were something he would have succumbed to in the past. “I had to finish,” he said. “Now I’ve got something to build on. It was nice toward the end to ride a bit freer and have the speed of these guys (Di Giannantonio and Bezzecchi). Two wins and a third in the first four races is something nice to have and take some momentum.”

Arm pump strikes again

One of the big takeaways from the Spanish Grand Prix was the arm pump which ruined Fabio Quartararo’s race, and very nearly did the same for Aleix Espargaro. But the issue reared its head across the Moto2 class, as well.

A host of names were hampered here, notably two rookies: Raul Fernandez, who was on course to repeat his podium heroics of the first three races, was one. “I want to apologise because, due to some discomfort in my right arm, in the second half of the contest I wasn't able to push and get the best out of our machine,” said an emotional Fernandez after dropping to fifth. Fellow rookie Celestino Vietti was another. He had a mare of a weekend in Jerez, with VR46 Academy mate Luca Marini admitting arm pump was disrupting the Moto2 rider’s rhythm. The added weight of a Moto2 machine becomes notable here, with Jerez offering up few chances to relax. But the issue wasn’t confined to the rookies.

Bo Bendsneyder struggled with compartmental syndrome in Qatar. “We already knew before the race that I would struggle with my arm,” he said on Sunday. “The last 10 laps were really tough, especially on the right corners. I had no power and I cannot ride how I wanted.” He had surgery on Wednesday 5th to get in shape for Le Mans.

Öncü's lucky escape

There was a sense of inevitability to the final corner outcome of the Moto3 race. All race, Deniz Öncü demonstrated all the speed he was known for in the feeder classes where he won races. Here he led twelve of the race’s 22 laps, and was repeatedly faster through the tracks’ second half. His early race impressed team boss Hervé Poncharal. “We know how well he has been working all weekend long, doing every session on his own without following anybody. That helped him a lot during the course of the race, because he was clearly the fastest guy on track, when he was on his own and the only one who could pull the pack.”

Yet at 17, Öncü is still an excitable character. He crashed into team-mate Ayumu Sasaki in last year’s Styrian Grand Prix, his first time at the front of a world championship race. And it was hardly a surprise when he took down Masia and Darryn Binder braking for the final turn. “I was braking like usual, but I couldn’t bring the bike to the first gear, so I was just sliding in the second gear, tried to stop the bike, but just hit Masia and made him crash as well. I’m really sorry for him,” he said after a mistake that sent Acosta 51 points clear in the title race. Hard lines. But, judging by the ghastly mark left by Binder’s brake disc on his neck, Öncü was lucky in the extreme to walk away from this one.


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Tue, 2021-05-04 00:19
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For some, the Monday after the Jerez race was a busy day, as they worked their way through a full program of parts and settings to prepare for Le Mans and beyond (and in Suzuki's case, for 2022). For others, they had a relatively easy day, especially the two factory Ducati riders – to the victors go the spoils. And for the unlucky ones of the weekend, they either barely turned a wheel, or not at all, as they headed off for medical checkups.

Fabio Quartararo took no part in the test at all. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider headed back to France to get medical advice on the best options for treatment on the arm pump issue which cost him the race on Sunday. With his home race up next, his priorities were clear.

Aleix Espargaro, who had also suffered with arm pump on Sunday, did ride a little, but he only put in 12 laps before heading back to Barcelona and seeking medical advice. Marc Márquez did a quick run out on Honda's new aero package – one of them, at least – before calling it a day after just 7 laps. The Repsol Honda rider had neck pain from his huge crash on Saturday, as well as stiffness in his shoulder, and elected to focus on his recovery instead.

Alex Rins was also among the walking wounded, though that didn't slow his pace. The Suzuki Ecstar rider still managed 59 laps, and to work on the 2022 GSX-RR engine to prepare for next year. But Rins is also headed back to Barcelona to get his shoulder looked at, after hurting it in a crash on Saturday.

So what were the factories up to? Here's a quick rundown, and for the results at the end of the day, click here:

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Mon, 2021-05-03 06:20
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"That's why we line up on Sunday. You never know what's going to happen," the late Nicky Hayden once said, in response to a particularly stupid question on my part. Jerez proved him right once again, events conspiring to confound what seemed to be an obvious conclusion from the very beginning.

What happened? At 2pm on Sunday, the MotoGP grid lined up with Fabio Quartararo on pole, starting as favorite after laying down an intimidating pace in practice. Alongside him were Franco Morbidelli on a two-year old Yamaha, and the Ducati of Jack Miller, while the second Ducati of Pecco Bagnaia started behind him.

It was obvious to the experienced Jerez hands that Fabio Quartararo would walk away with the race, the Frenchman having way too much pace for anyone else to stay with him over 25 laps. The Ducatis may have lined up third and fourth on the grid, but they would surely face; Jerez is not a Ducati track after all. The last Ducati victory at the circuit was way, way back in 2006, when Loris Capirossi kicked off the season with a win aboard the Desmosedici GP6.

That didn't happen, of course. That's why everyone lines up on Sunday, after all. Instead, we had a new MotoGP winner, records broken, preconceptions shattered. We saw the specter of arm pump raise its ugly head, the start of a dream being shattered, and perhaps the first sign of a legend in decline.

In these subscriber notes:

  • Jack Miller, answering critics, and performing under pressure
  • A new championship leader in a championship where consistency is still everything
  • The state of the championship
  • Franco Morbidelli's future
  • A deep dive into arm pump, and why some get it, others don't

But first, a quick detour to Moto3, where Pedro Acosta racked up his third win in four races. He now has 95 points out of a possible 100 in the championship, and sits 51 points clear of Niccolò Antonelli, comfortably ensconced at the top of the title table. That is remarkable enough, but the fact that Acosta is just 16, and this is his rookie season in Grand Prix racing is simply astounding.

If his championship lead wasn't impressive enough, the way he won the Moto3 race on Sunday had the mark of greatness. On Thursday, he sat in the pre-event press conference and had the greats of MotoGP sing his praises. That would normally be enough to go to a 16-year-old's head, and make him buckle under the pressure to perform. But Acosta clearly isn't just a normal 16-year-old.

Instead, Acosta bided his time in the leading group throughout the Moto3 race, waiting for the end of the back straight on the final lap to pounce, putting in a pass that looked impossible a couple of hundred meters previously. He put just enough daylight between himself and the chasing pack to be almost impossible to catch, and then when chaos unfolded in the final corner – as it invariably does in Moto3 – he was safely in front of it.

A wise head on young shoulders

What impressed about the ride was above all his racecraft and the maturity and calmness with which he approached it. He won because he put himself in the right place at the right time, only fought the battles that mattered, and saved his energy for a final assault. Along the way, he was sliding a Moto3 bike in ways which have rarely been seen. Acosta controlled the race as skillfully as he controlled his bike. History is being made in Moto3 right now.

Acosta wasn't the only impressive winner at Jerez on Sunday. In Moto2, Fabio Di Giannantonio rode the race of his life to take his first win in the intermediate class, leading from pretty much lights to flag. In MotoGP, Jack Miller took his first dry win in the premier class, taking his victory tally to two after his wet win at a rain-soaked Assen in 2016. And unlike 2016, and so many of Miller's other wins in Moto3, he won it by riding an inch-perfect race for lap after lap, his concentration never flagging.

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Sun, 2021-05-02 01:21
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Saturday was a tough day at the office for the Grand Prix paddock. Conditions were treacherous precisely because they were so deceptive. The sun was shining, and if you measured the asphalt temperature in the sun, it looked pretty good. But there was a cold wind blowing across the track which would cool tires and catch you unawares.

Which is precisely what it did, riders crashing in droves in all three classes on Saturday. There were 27 fallers on Saturday, more than any other Saturday at Jerez in the past five years. And with 41 crashes, we have already surpassed the total of 40 over three days at last year's Andalusia round, or Jerez 2, at the circuit. And only one crash behind the grand total at the Spanish round the week before.

Why are so many riders crashing? "It’s true that today the asphalt is quite hot. It’s quite okay, but the wind is quite cool," Joan Mir said on Saturday afternoon. "So probably these are not the best conditions. Normally the cool wind cools the tires a bit, and then the track is not really, really hot. So it means that maybe for the medium tires it’s a bit on the limit."

A lot of riders hit the tarmac. Brad Binder destroyed his Red Bull KTM bike at Turn 5, a fast crash that saw the RC16 tumble and tear itself apart. Aleix Espargaro crashed twice in FP4, brother Pol fell once, as did Alex Rins. Lorenzo Savadori made it a full house for Aprilia, and both Tech3 KTM riders fell as well, Iker Lecuona in FP3, Danilo Petrucci in FP4.

Then there was Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider had a massive crash at Turn 7, sliding off the bike fast while his RC213V tumbled behind him. Making it worse is the fact that the barrier is rather too close for comfort. Márquez slid through the gravel and hit the air fence, and knelt, dazed for a few moments, before very gingerly walking away.

It was his first big crash since the incident last July which nearly ended his career. That was at Turn 4, this was half a lap later, and fortunately, though just as big, nowhere near as damaging. Márquez was taken to the medical center to be examined, and suffered severe bruising around his neck.

First time for everything

Márquez was shaken up after the crash, but philosophical. "We know that sooner or later the first crash of the season will arrive," The Repsol Honda rider said on Saturday evening. It was unfortunate it happened where it did, he added. "Maybe I chose one of the worst points of the circuit. Then I didn’t expect it. But if you push for a lap you don’t think about the risk."

He had started off the Spanish Grand Prix holding a little in reserve, Márquez explained. "Yesterday I was more conservative. Today I attacked. Unfortunately, when I attacked, I crashed. It was a big crash, especially the impact against the air fence, with high speed. But thanks to the air fence I’m here."

The crash had taken its toll, however. Though the medical center staff had given him the OK, when he went back to his motorhome, he started to feel a little woozy. "When I arrived in the truck, and I sat down and I was there for ten minutes, I started to lose a bit the head. I started to not know exactly where I was."

That had worried him, Márquez said. "Immediately I called the doctor and he said to go to the hospital. When I arrived in the hospital I already felt well again. They checked everything and made a CAT scan. When I arrived here in the circuit again they rechecked everything and I was feeling OK." But he was proceeding with extreme caution after the crash. "Immediately when I feel something I call the doctor to be more safe. For that reason I went to the hospital."

The good news is that they had checked his arm, and the humerus he had fractured was just fine. "When I went to the check it was more for the neck, for the consciousness check, the head, the neck and the back. It was more what I suffered on the impact," Márquez explained. An X-ray of the arm showed no damage. He went on to add that he was riding because the medical staff had said the humerus was fine, that he had as much chance of breaking his left arm as his right in a crash. "The arm… I don’t feel anything. I want to clarify I’m here, I’m riding and I’m pushing because what the doctors said to me is because of the impact there was a chance to break either the left or right arm. The bone is completely fixed."

The crash had taken its toll in a different way as well. He was being more conservative again, not taking the kind of risks he might have in the past. "We are using a completely different bike set up to last year," he explained. "The main reason is it needs less physical condition, this bike that I’m riding now. It’s what I need now to finish the race in a good way."

The biggest change was a switch to using the soft front instead the medium he might have preferred otherwise. The medium gave him the support to ride more aggressively, but that support came at the expense of grip, and that was a risk that Márquez was not quite ready to take after his big crash in FP3. "I had a few moments this afternoon but all these moments were when I was using the S front tire. I was not stopping the bike, I was not turning now. If you think now, you ask, why put the S front tire, you are always using the hard. I chose the S front tire because I was thinking about the crash more of this morning more than performance this afternoon."

Too close for comfort

Márquez wasn't the only rider to crash at Turn 7. Teammate Pol Espargaro also hit the tarmac, and then slid and hit the tire wall at the same point. Those incidents raised the issue of safety at the Jerez circuit again. The wall is simply too close, the riders said. "In Turn 7 the layout is not enough," Joan Mir told us, harking back to his own experience in that corner. "I crashed in 2019 in the test and I was under the air fence."

Pol Espargaro's experience was a good deal more recent, but just as negative. "There are two kinds of crashes there, or three," the Repsol Honda rider said. "The highside, mid-corner, but if you crash like Marc and I just before you start to lose speed – which is the kind that most happens in this type of place – then the wall is too close for sure."

Air fences are good, Espargaro admitted, but created a different kind of danger. "OK, we have this air fence technology but we need to think if the bike is coming in the same direction then even if we have the fence the bike is coming also. In the run off area I am going the same speed as the bike. When you hit something and you stop – as Marc did – then the bike can arrive at the same speed as you."

Air fences can absorb the energy of a rider if they hit the wall, and can handle being hit by a bike. But they also produce a speed differential, which creates the possibility of a collision. If the air fence stops the rider, they might find themselves suddenly in the firing line of flying machinery, with the risk of being hit by the bike they were just separated from.

Fixing Turn 7 is not simple. There is some room to move the wall back in the first part of the corner, but the later part backs on to the entry of Turn 13, the final corner. Making space for run off there is difficult.

And it isn't the only part of the track which is problematic. Friday night's Safety Commission had discussed a number of points on the track where crashing could be dangerous, though ironically, Turn 7 wasn't one of the corners mentioned. "I think that first of all, the run off areas are not enough in this track for a MotoGP bike," Joan Mir said. "Not in Turn 7, not in Turn 1, not in Turn 5, not in Turn 8, 9, 10. We are really on the limit in this position. Yesterday in the Safety Commission we spoke about that. I think that they will start to make it better, but for next year I think that they will change maybe one corner or two, then in the next year they will continue changing things."

Franco Morbidelli expanded on this in the press conference, after taking second on the grid. "We discussed this also yesterday in the Safety Commission," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "They’re going to try to increase the runoff areas. There are a couple of corners that firstly are going to be done. Turn seven is not included, but with time I think that this track is going to increase its safety."

Morbidelli loves the Jerez circuit, he said, but even he had had a moment on Saturday. "It’s a great track. It's unbelievable to ride here. It’s a great taste to ride here, but it’s true that the runoff areas are pretty close. This morning I had a moment myself. I got on track and I had no brakes in turn six because they were cold or I had shake, I don't know. But I had no brakes and I can tell you that the wall was coming towards me really fast."

Jack Miller felt that the size of the gravel was at least partly to blame. "For me, the biggest thing that needs to happen here is the size of the gravel. Here it’s kind of like a river rock, quite big pieces of gravel," the factory Ducati rider said. "You will notice that nobody ever really goes into the gravel. We always bounce on top. It’s not really soft like some places like Aragon and places like that where it’s really soft and they can fluff it up and it decelerates you a lot quicker."

Necessary faster

The real problem, of course, is simply that speed are getting higher every year. Which, it has to be said, is pretty much the entire point of racing. But higher speeds – in terms of outright top speed, corner speed, and lap time – mean that the racing is outgrowing tracks. "The fact is we are going faster and faster, so the runoff areas are coming smaller and smaller," Morbidelli said.

That was the natural development of racing, Jack Miller agreed. "I think I have to say the same thing. It’s the evolution. We’re getting faster and faster. The bikes are getting faster and faster. Corner speed is now higher than it has ever been. So for sure, the runoff areas area always going to get closer and closer. If you look back at what they were in the past with tires walls and stuff like that to what we have now, it’s fantastic. But there’s this natural progression and I think it's coming."

Alex Rins felt the same way. "It starts to be fast, year by year, but let's say in MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3. When I was racing in Moto3, we were suffering a lot to make 1'46. Now, Migno makes 1'44.9, it was an impressive lap time."

Catch-22

Speed is an intractable problem in racing. It is the point of racing, of course, but each increase in speed brings new problems. Remy Gardner's Moto2 pole, set on a bike with an engine originally produced for a street bike, is over 2 seconds faster than Valentino Rossi's last pole on a 500cc premier class bike at the circuit back in 2001. Gardner's Moto2 pole is 1.5 seconds faster than the first MotoGP pole, set on a Honda RC211V Honda by Valentino Rossi in 2002.

So the problem isn't only related to horsepower, and can't be controlled simply by imposing engine restrictions. Rossi's 2001 Honda NSR500 made somewhere in the region of 200 hp. The RC211V he rode a year later produced north of 230 hp. The Triumph Moto2 engine produces just under 130 hp. And yet even with a 100 hp less, the Moto2 bike is 1.5 seconds quicker.

The answer, of course, is tires. The reason the bikes are going so fast is because tires have gotten better, which has allowed chassis to get better, and electronics have improved to manage the power, which has allowed the tire manufacturers to improve the rubber. If you want to slow the bikes up, you have to make the tires worse. Short of putting them all on bicycle tires, it's hard to see a way of slowing the riders up.

There was more to the day than crashes, of course. The morning FP3 session turned into even more of a mini qualifying session than normal, with riders going out early to chase a quick lap time out of fear of having their laps canceled by a yellow flag. And then there were track limits to contend with, those being monitored and judged far more strictly this year. And with the top ten in FP3 separated by just 0.203, every inch of track was needed to maximize speed around the Jerez circuit. And sometimes, the search for that extra speed saw riders take just a millimeter too much, and have their laps taken away.

That happened to Franco Morbidelli in FP3, who had his two best laps canceled and was forced to go through Q1. "This morning I got both laps canceled and I was really on the limit to make those lap times, and unfortunately I went just a little bit outside from the track and got my lap canceled and I needed to go through Q1," the Italian told the qualifying press conference.

That was a hard place to end up, Morbidelli explained. "Q1 is a battlefield where you can get trapped. You have to go exactly with the commitment you had if you went to Q2. So you have to go full commitment because you can get trapped in Q1." As MotoGP gets closer, so the pressure increases. "The level in MotoGP is so high, it’s unbelievable and you cannot lose anything. You cannot lose one inch or you cannot lose the focus for one tenth."

Things were no easier once in Q2, the top ten separated by less than four tenths, and three tenths separating Jack Miller in third from Joan Mir in tenth. Miller had gotten more than a little help to make it onto the front row, following his teammate Pecco Bagnaia round on his fastest lap.

Though Bagnaia was clearly unhappy with having his teammate take a front row ahead of him with his help, the Italian remained diplomatic about the affair. "For sure it was better to start in the front row," Bagnaia said. "I pushed alone to make it, and when I finished, I saw that Jack was behind me, and I was sure that with my slipstream he could do a better time. But in any case, starting from P4 is not so bad."

Starting from first is an imperious Fabio Quartararo, taking his second pole position in a row. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider had wanted a little more from his bike after Friday, and found it in time for Saturday. The Frenchman has both excellent single lap speed, as well as superb race pace. "In FP3 we went out with the same tire that I felt that drop and we managed to get a better setting on the bike," he said. "Actually, I made 37.9 with more than 20 laps on the tire. I think it was close to race distance, so super happy about the tire drop."

Quartararo will be the man to beat on Sunday, his race pace superb on medium and hard tires, old and new. Franco Morbidelli looks to have almost as good pace as Quartararo, suggesting it could be another strong race for Yamaha on Sunday. The Ducatis are a fraction slower on race pace, and need to find a way to beat the Yamahas. Fortunately, they can use their speed off the line to try to get in the way of Quartararo and Morbidelli, and force them to use up their tires trying to get past.

"For sure the strategy will be to start better than the Yamaha and try to slow them down at the start, and maybe they will have to use more the rear tire to try to overtake us," Bagnaia explained when asked about it. "But let's wait for tomorrow, it's difficult to predict a strategy at the moment. I will try to start as well as possible and try to put me on front. My pace is not so bad, but they have a bit more traction than us at the moment, and we are working on it, because it's very important to remain more constant and with more grip. They can use more the initial grip of the tires. So it's something that we need to work more tomorrow."

If qualifying is tight, then so is the race pace shown in FP4. But there was much switching between different tires of different ages, and that made judging where riders stood very hard, Bagnaia said. "We saw a lot of riders with new tires in FP4, that is pretty strange because normally a lot of riders use used tires. But like I said, my pace with a used tires of 26 laps was not so bad."

Who could join the Ducati and Yamaha party? Despite the fact that they are down in ninth and tenth, it is dangerous to write off the Suzukis, both Joan Mir and Alex Rins showing good pace. The Hondas aren't a million miles away, with both Marc Márquez and Pol Espargaro doing low 1'38s on very old tires. Their problem, however, is the fact that they start from fourteenth and thirteenth respectively.

That is not the case for Takaaki Nakagami, however. The LCR Honda rider did a 1'37.9 on a tire with 24 laps, or nearly race distance, on it. And he starts the race from the middle of the second row, having qualified in fifth. Jerez has always been one of his strongest tracks, and he is both quicker and happier since switching back to the 2020 RC213V chassis. If you were looking for a dark horse, you could do a lot worse than the Japanese rider on the Idemitsu Honda.


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Sat, 2021-05-01 02:00
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It is a truism to point out that it is just Friday, and too early to be getting excited about who is where on the timesheets. But the reason it is a truism is because (the clue is in the name) it's true. Friday is just the first day of the weekend, and not everybody is up to speed right away. Things change over a weekend, especially once the engineers have had an evening to examine the data.

The weather and the track changes too. The tail end of storm Lola has just passed over Jerez de la Frontera, and temperatures are slowly returning to normal after an unseasonally cold and wet period. The mercury is creeping higher once again, and with every degree of temperature and every ray of direct Andalusian sunlight, track temperatures are increasing, bringing more grip.

In addition, every bike that laps the track lays down a little rubber, creating more and more grip. And there are a lot of bikes turning laps at Jerez: in addition to the usual three Grand Prix classes of Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP, there are also the Red Bull Rookies and MotoE. The MotoE bikes, in particular, help the MotoGP teams. Like MotoGP, MotoE uses Michelin tires, and the big, heavy machines lay down a lot of Michelin rubber which helps create grip for everyone, and especially MotoGP.

More rubber, more speed

More rubber means faster lap times. So unlike Qatar, not being in Q2 after FP2 is no disaster. Conditions in FP3 should be good enough to launch an assault on the top ten. "I think tomorrow in FP3 everybody will treat it as a mini-qualifying, purely because it will be key to get into the Q2 straight away, which helps quite a lot," Brad Binder believed.

Binder had topped the first session of practice in the morning, but found himself clinging onto a spot in the top ten by the end of the afternoon session. He sat in the middle of an insanely tight field: less than half a second separated the Espargaro brothers, Aleix on the Aprilia in third, and Pol on the Repsol Honda in fourteenth. Less than 1.1 seconds separated Iker Lecuona in 22nd on the Tech3 KTM from Espargaro in third on the Aprilia.

Two riders stood head and shoulders above the rest, however, at least over a single lap. Pecco Bagnaia's best time was just six tenths shy of the outright lap record set by Maverick Viñales last year. That is impressive enough, but to do it on a Ducati – at a track where the Desmosedicis are supposed to struggle – makes it truly remarkable.

Bagnaia is serving as a beacon of hope for the other Ducati riders. "I'm happy that he's going that fast, because it's really the real potential of the Ducati I think," Pramac's Johann Zarco opined.

He is also acting as a warning to everyone else. Brad Binder was surprised to see a Ducati at the top of the timesheets, but less surprised that it was Bagnaia. "Last year they struggled a bit more," the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider said of the Ducatis. "Pecco has been super good this year doing amazing lap times. We can think back to every track we have been to so far and he’s done a lap in some of the sessions where you think ‘that was insane’. I think he has a really good feeling, found a good way to work with his bike and is riding well. It’s clear to see that when he puts in a lap time he is more than capable."

Bagnaia's speed has come in part from working on his major weakness in 2020, a lack of speed in cold conditions. "About this thing I am very happy, because this winter I worked a lot with our training and with a bike on some circuits," the Ducati Lenovo Team rider said. "I’m happy to have solved this problem. This morning was very cold in the morning because we had 13-14 degrees and the tarmac was not so hot and my feeling with the bike was already good. Last year I was missing a lot, and struggling a lot when we found these conditions."

The improvement had come entirely from himself, Bagnaia insisted. "The bike is the same but I have worked to enter on track and push in the first corner," he said. "Last year I was trying to do it but I was not feeling so much the front. It was very difficult and each time I was crashing, so the feeling every time was less. But now I can feel the front very well and it is perfect for me."

One vs many

Bagnaia may be supreme over a single lap but like second-place man Fabio Quartararo, he didn't have the pace on used tires that other riders had. Bagnaia posted a 1'38.5 on a rear that had 17 laps – two thirds distance – on it, while Quartararo, whose flying lap was a quarter of a second faster than Aleix Espargaro's, did a couple of 1'38.3s on laps 13 and 14 of a used medium tire.

The really fast riders were all well into the 1'37s, however. Aleix Espargaro posted a 1'37.9 late in his second run on a used tire, as did Franco Morbidelli and Stefan Bradl, present at Jerez as a wildcard (and benefiting from extra track time here at private tests for HRC). But Takaaki Nakagami ran a 1'37.7 on a medium rear that had nearly half race distance on it.

Where has the LCR Honda Idemitsu rider found that speed? Perhaps from the fact he has gone back to the chassis he used last year. That gave him back the confidence he had felt in some of the strong performances in 2020. "Today was a bit busy because I was trying the two chassis: the new one and the other one, and it was a slightly better feeling with the old one," Nakagami said. " The old chassis has some potential and we have still not decided yet if we will use it for the weekend but tonight I decide with the team and HRC. I need to clear the mind to see more deeply the data."

It looked very positive after the first day, however. "The first impression with back-to-back tests was the old chassis had some potential. I felt consistent with the lap time and I could make a 1'37 with a used medium," Nakagami told us. "It looks good and I really start to enjoy the bike again." It helped that MotoGP is at Jerez, where the Japanese rider has happy memories, including his first front row start. "Jerez is one of my favorite tracks. Today was very positive for us. Able to stay in the top ten and of course tomorrow in FP3 we need a few steps to improve but we have some margin and we are not pushing like crazy the lap times are consistent and we are in the right direction."

Nakagami was at pains not to dismiss the 2021 chassis, however. "Bradl is here and he is always using the brand new items. He looks really competitive which is a good sign for us," Nakagami said. But the general impression was that the 2020 frame was still fractionally better than the newer item. "The first impression is that the old chassis – 2020 – has potential but we cannot forget about 2021 because some areas like handling and corner entry has some potential."

They had gone back to try to address a lack of confidence with the rear of the bike on the new chassis, Nakagami explained. "We have a lack of rear confidence because in Qatar and Portimao we were trying to improve rear grip and stability but always we couldn’t find the solution. That’s why we tried all the chassis."

It Nakagami was pleased, Aleix Espargaro was trying to suppress a Cheshire Cat grin after the first day of practice. The Aprilia RS-GP was fast over a single lap, but also had excellent pace, and the elder Espargaro brother could not hide his pleasure. "I’m satisfied about day 1," the Spaniard said with a feeling for understatement. "The good thing is it looks like Aprilia and Aleix are working well everywhere we are going. It’s not just about one single track."

Espargaro was starting to dare to believe that it wasn't just a one-off, a fluke at a track which happened to suit either him or the Aprilia. "As it’s the first time for us that we’re competitive like this, obviously you always have the doubt if you move to a new track if you’ll still be competitive," the Spaniard said. "From lap 1 lap 2 in FP1 I felt very strong and comfortable with the bike. With the race tire I felt I can maintain a really high pace. Overall satisfied."

Espargaro was still only cautiously optimistic, however, given just how tight the times were on the first day. "I mean, we know how close Jerez is. Three tenths will cover everybody in FP3," he pointed out. "But apart from one hot lap I think we have good pace. I was a bit shocked, we had more than 10 laps in the tire and I was able to a very quick lap. This will give me motivation for the race."

He expected the Yamahas and the Suzukis to close the gap on Saturday, Espargaro said. "Maybe especially the Yamahas and maybe the Suzukis will get closer tomorrow. But it’s difficult to go a lot faster than 1'37 on the race pace. We’re already able to lap in 1'37 on race tire is very good so I hope I can stay with them."

Cautiously optimistic

He was trying to remain realistic, though. "The others will catch up," he said "I would like to say to you that I’m ready to win. But it's not true. Every weekend we’re closer to our goal which is to fight for podiums and the victories. In this track it looks like we are a little bit closer. Sure, the rest will catch up. Here the 3 Yamaha boys – Morbidelli, Viñales and Quartararo are the men to beat – but we are close."

Espargaro had found the extra speed from his Aprilia by shortening the bike and making it more willing to turn. "We changed a bit the length of the bike, working on the geometry, on the swingarm," the Spaniard explained. "The bike is more agile. But it didn’t lose stability, which is one of the strong points of this RS-GP 21. Overall, we improve, especially in very fast change of direction we suffer a little bit. But in low speed change of direction like here in Jerez because it’s not a very high-speed track, we improved yes."

After a miserable start to the season, Franco Morbidelli is starting to find his feet again. After his fourth place in Portimão, the Petronas Yamaha rider has a setting that appears to work for his 2019 Yamaha M1. The Italian had resisted the temptation to go back to the bike that he had started with in 2020. "The setting is a little bit more like Portimão," Morbidelli said. "It’s not the same but it goes a but toward Portimao than toward Jerez last year. It’s too early." The Italian was confident in the pace that gave him, though he acknowledged that others were fast too. "I saw Aleix having a great pace. I saw I had good pace. Maybe just a bit slower than Aleix. I saw that. It’s a great starting point but it’s only Friday so we need to wait."

On the other side of the garage, Valentino Rossi's Calvary continues unabated. He and his team have still not found a solution to the problems with rear grip he has suffered for the past few years. "I have a similar problem because I always suffer very much with the rear grip, especially after some laps," the Italian said. "For me it's difficult with the rear tire because I slide a bit too much."

The Petronas Yamaha rider admitted that this was a problem that had been going for a number of years. "Yes, in the last years I suffer a lot of times with this problem," Rossi said. "Sometimes it's a bit different, but it's very similar. Especially in the last years and when we changed also the tire, now it looks like the rear tires are very soft and usually in all my career I always prefer hard tires. So for this reason I suffer a lot, especially after some laps because the rear moves very much." Everyone had the same tires, however, and so he would just have to figure it out, Rossi said. "But, these are the tires and the others are able anyway to be strong with this so we need to try to manage this situation."

Valentino Rossi wasn't the only rider to suffer with tire problems, though his were more down to his issues with the bike and with riding than with the actual black rubber rings. Other riders were having issues with a difference in feel between tires, though they were doing their best to try to talk around the problem. At a guess, an edict has gone out from Clermont Ferrand in France to remind riders they are contractually forbidden from expressing all too colorful criticism of Michelin and Michelin tires. That left riders caught between a rock and a hard place.

Silence speaks volumes

Joan Mir was one such rider. The Suzuki rider had shown reasonable race pace, but suffered as soon as he fitted a soft tire with the objective of chasing a lap that would put him directly into Q2. "With the medium tire I made a 38.5 with 27 laps," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "Then I put another tire and I had some problem. That’s it. We had some problem."

It was not the first time such a thing had happened to him, Mir complained. The most frustrating thing was not being able to manage the situation, he said. "It’s a shame because it’s difficult to control. I expect that the situation would have improved because it’s really frustrating." But when asked directly if this was an issue with the tires, Mir merely sucked his teeth and shrugged his shoulders.

It was not an uncommon problem, Mir agreed when asked. "Yeah, well, probably, once in a grand prix I have this problem. or even a bit more sometimes," he said. "I hope this situation improves." KTM's Brad Binder concurred with that assessment. "You do get some that feel a little bit better than others, for sure," the South African said. "Sometimes you do something and feel a bit lost but you then change the tire and it becomes normal again. I think it is normal – as with everything – that you get some that work a little better than others. Sometimes it is the luck of the draw."

Not everyone was happy to comment, however. Some riders, who had made trenchant criticism of Michelin previously, were now conspicuously biting their tongues. "Sorry, it is not something I want to comment on too much," said Maverick Viñales. "We will just try to do the best with what we have."

For Marc Márquez, returning for his second race after missing eight months with a fractured and then slow-healing humerus, as well as endless complications from multiple surgeries to address the problem, the issue was not managing tires, but managing a limited supply of strength and energy. He was still having issues with his elbow, which meant figuring out how to ride, and how his body was dealing with riding a MotoGP bike after such a long layoff.

"Today I was so concentrated from FP1 to FP2 on how was the evolution of my body," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "In FP1 I felt OK. But immediately in FP2 I felt something was changing. In FP1 I could ride like I want with the elbow and was playing with body. But in FP2 I went out and felt something like I’m not riding like usual."

Márquez spent the session trying to figure out how to adapt to the situation. "I did a few laps just riding to understand my position on the bike," he said. "It feels like a lack of power in the muscle. Especially the back, the triceps, the shoulder on the back, the lack of power and then the position of the elbow is the same."

This is something that will come with time, with rehabilitation, and with training, the Spaniard explained. "It’s just a matter of time to use the muscle. Then when I want to use it, I can use it, when I want to push I can push."

Managing the weekend

He had drawn lessons from his first race weekend back at Portimão, and was attempting to use those to manage the Jerez weekend better, Márquez said. "Today my approach was completely different to Portimão. In Portimão I pushed all the laps. I was riding good. Today I feel OK but I was riding, pushing a few laps. I didn't push on the new tire, because you stress more the physical condition. I’m working there."

The fact that he recognized which problems were coming from the bike, and which from him, helped enormously, Márquez said. "In FP2 I was stopped in the box, and I said I can give some comments, but this, this problem and this problem with the bike is coming from my position on the bike. Forget about it. We are working on the bike on other points. It’s not all of the track that I’m riding uncomfortable. In some points I feel like always."

He had talked about this change in strategy both with the Repsol Honda team and with his own management team, Márquez explained."We also need to use the experience of Portimão. We are not night and day from Portimão to here. The arm is not changing a lot. We are more or less in a similar condition. But we spoke with Alberto Puig deeply, who is not here and with Emilio [Alzamora, personal manager] and Santi [Hernandez, crew chief]. The strategy is when I don’t feel well, just try to save energy."

Márquez was trying to spread his strength and energy more evenly over the weekend. "Tomorrow is the time to push more. We need to see the rhythm and work on the bike and the small details. Then let’s see." The objective was to ensure he could be stronger in the race at Jerez than he was in Portimão. "If I wake up not so bad, then keep the power for Sunday. The experience of Portimão is I arrived on Sunday without energy, here I will arrive to Sunday with a bit more energy to ride better in the race."


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Sun, 2021-04-25 16:02
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MotoGP starts are busy affairs nowadays. On the top triple clamp of Pecco Bagnaia's Ducati GP21, the front and rear holeshot device switches


Ducati's front holeshot device is visible here. The aluminum clamp above the fork seal holds a plate with a latch. Below, the two cables which engage the device. Also visible, the suspension stroke gauge, and the teardrop aerodynamic fork covers


Clearances are very tight on the Ducati, as the scorched fairing lower next to the exhaust shows. The Ducati's always smell a little singed when they enter the pits


Yamaha has been working on aerodynamics to improve top speed. These wheel covers remove some of the turbulence created by the spinning wheel. Duct tape covers the air inlets, needed to cool brakes in hot climates.


Ducati's wheel covers are smaller, focused on the bottom of the wheel. But teardrop fork covers are much larger, clearly visible here. Sensors are on the left-hand side, including brake temp, 2 speed sensors, and an accelerometer on the bottom of the fork, to track axle movement.


The Suzuki is simplicity itself. Top is the hydraulic clutch master cylinder, below that the output sprocket and torque sensor, and water pump below that


Valentino Rossi's 2021 Yamaha M1. The frame number is a giveaway, but so is the weld above the rear engine mount


Franco Morbidelli's 2019 bike doesn't have the weld, betraying its age. Data cable attached to read out the datalogger


No triple clamp switches on the KTM, only the attachment point for the rotary steering damper. Thumb brake on the left, and neutral engagement lever on the right


Swingarm contrasts - the Suzuki's shiny and elegant aluminum unit


Ducati's carbon fiber unit, completely with rear wheel cover and load sensor on the rear sprocket. That sensor is only used during practice to set up engine maps


The factory Yamaha aluminum swingarm - the weld is the tell. Compare the open rear sprocket to Ducati's below


More aerodynamics? Webbed Ducati sprocket instead of completely open. That may help reduce turbulence from the rear wheel


Suzuki's stunning Akrapovic exhaust, and dry clutch.


Engine seal on rear cylinder head, and scrutineering sticker for Johann Zarco's #2 Pramac Ducati GP21. Note the scratches on the exhaust lower too


The Yamaha cockpit: on the right, pit limiter and engine cut button, and neutral lever. On the left, engine brake and torque map buttons. Bottom lever is thumb brake, clutch lever is not visible, and at the top the Yamaha holeshot lever


Placement of the holeshot device lever suggests that Yamaha are using the system as a 'shapeshifter', to adjust ride height on track. The lack of such a lever on the Ducati suggests they have found a way of automating the operation of its shapeshifter.


Where the magic happens: each year, Ducati's so-called 'salad box', or tail unit changes shape, and presumably, alters its function slightly


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Thu, 2021-04-22 23:07
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The 2020 MotoGP season saw a curious debate arise. The valve issues which Yamaha suffered at the first two races at Jerez saw the Japanese factory have points deducted and have to manage the remaining 12 races on just three engines for each rider. Franco Morbidelli, already disadvantaged by having to run the 2019 machine, rather than the supposedly more better 2020 Yamaha M1, had just two engines to last the season.

After winning the first two races, and taking a clean sweep of the podium at Jerez 2, the 2020 Yamahas disappeared. Fans and media wrote the M1 off, declaring the bike to be a disaster. The results seemed to justify that designation. Maverick Viñales finished ninth or worse in 7 of the remaining 12 races, and crashed out disastrously in Austria. Fabio Quartararo finished eight or worse in 7 of 12 races, crashed out of two others, and slipped from championship leader to finish the season in eighth. Valentino Rossi had four DNFs, and missed two more races due to a Covid-19 infection, ending the season fifteenth, the worst season in his very, very long Grand Prix career.

The last three races were particularly bad. In the two Valencia races and at Portimão, Viñales finished thirteenth, tenth, and eleventh. Quartararo finished fourteenth, crashed out, and finished fourteenth again. Rossi ended the season with a mechanical DNF and two twelfth places. It was hard to put a positive spin on Yamaha's 2020 season.

The two faces of Iwata

Except for a couple of minor details, that is. Yamaha riders Viñales, Quartararo, and Franco Morbidelli shared 7 wins between them, taking victory in half the MotoGP races contested in 2020. Morbidelli finished second in the riders championship, and with Viñales in sixth and Quartararo in eighth, there were three Yamahas in the top eight. The Petronas Yamaha team finished second in the team championship, and Yamaha would have won the manufacturers' title if they hadn't had points taken away for the valve shenanigans at the start of the year.

Now, a Yamaha M1 has won the first three races of the 2021 season, Fabio Quartararo leads the championship, Yamaha leads the manufacturers standings with a perfect score, and the Monster Energy Yamaha team has a huge lead in the team standings. Maybe the 2020 Yamaha M1 wasn't so bad at all. And maybe the 2021 bike has taken the last few rough edges off to turn it into a winner. It has, after all, won 5 of the last 7 MotoGP races, 8 of the last 12 MotoGP races, and 10 of the last 14 races. That sounds like a pretty decent strike rate to me.

In part 2 of these subscriber notes, a few more things to think about after the Portuguese round of MotoGP. Including:

  • Yamaha's (im)probable revival
  • The Impeccable Pecco
  • A topsy-turvy top five
  • The Aprilia is for real. Probably

But first, what happened to Yamaha? Where did this revival of their fortunes come from? Calling it a revival is almost certainly a misconception. As the stats above make plain, the Yamaha was already a very good bike. The problem was it had a few issues. Issues that have been addressed by some off season work, and the freedom to stress their engines again now that they have a full allocation of engines.

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Mon, 2021-04-19 23:35
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The first race in Europe is in the books, and we are halfway back to normality. Unlike Qatar, at Portimão the riding was all done in daylight, meaning the wild variation of track temperatures was far more limited. The weekend was held in more consistent conditions, at a more agreeable time, in a more congenial location.

More importantly, the grid was complete once again. After an absence of eight months, Marc Márquez finally lined up on a MotoGP grid again. And finished a MotoGP race, for the first time since Valencia 2019. None of this was a given, after the long and difficult road to recovery he faced. Three operations, a bone infection, and endless hours of physical therapy paved the long, hard road back for Marc Márquez. It was a journey without a fixed duration or a sure destination. To line up on the grid, and to cross the finish line 25 laps later, was a victory all of its own.

But the return of Márquez still marks only the halfway mark of a return to normality. We will take a bigger step once MotoGP hits Jerez. Because we will, after a year of out-of-sequence races, be back at a circuit at its customary time of year. Marc Márquez will be lining up on the grid having proved to himself that he can start and finish a MotoGP race. And we will be back at a track where the teams and factories are drowning in data, having hundreds of thousands of testing, practice, and race kilometers at the circuit.

The only thing that will be missing (in all probability) is the fans. That is still some way off. But they, too, could make a return before the year is out.

But before that, the second ever MotoGP event at Portimão left plenty of food for thought. The first signs of a pattern are starting to emerge from the season, the changes made over the winter beginning to have an effect. But a few distortions remain, which will only be cleared up on more familiar terrain, in more familiar circumstances.

These notes have been split into two parts. In the first part, we touch on the following:

  • Track, temperature, and tires – why Portimão still wasn't a complete picture
  • Binder's hard charge, and riding around problems
  • Fabio Quartararo and the most important 14cm in racing

In part 2, we will cover Marc Marquez' remarkable return, the Aprilia, Joan Mir's podium, Pecco Bagnaia's speed, and whether Yamaha is now the bike to beat.

But first, conditions. The MotoGP teams and factories faced two separate but related problems at Portimão. Firstly, they were back in Portugal at a very different time of year, where much higher temperatures, both ambient, thanks to the change of season, and track, thanks to the sun being higher in the sky so far past the equinox, robbed the data from last November of much of its usefulness. They didn't have to start again from scratch, but with track temperatures 13ºC higher during the race than last year, it meant grip levels were very different.

Then there were the tires. Last year, Michelin had brought a choice of two different hard tires, front and rear, for the inaugural race at Portimão. This year they dropped one of those hard choices, opting to keep the asymmetric front and asymmetric rear. That, Michelin reasoned, should provide a better match to the increased temperatures at the circuit.

The trouble was, the symmetric hard front was the tire most riders had used in the race last year. It offered the support needed for braking, with enough grip to last the race and manage the conditions. The asymmetric front should be better in theory, offering more grip on the left and more durability on the right. But that comes at a price, with riders complaining of the feel of tire, and especially of the transition from one rubber to the other. For bikes that just needed grip from the front, like the Yamaha and the Ducati, the medium front was fine. For the Honda and KTM, which are designed to make up time on the brakes and so stress the front more, they are caught between a rock and a hard place: the medium is too soft and prone to overheating; the asymmetric hard is too difficult to get to work.

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Sun, 2021-04-18 01:46
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The idea behind setting the grid in Grand Prix racing is simple: after two 15 minute sessions, the rider who sets the fastest lap gets to start from pole position, the other riders ranked in order of their best lap times. Of course, the fact that qualifying is split into two sessions to prevent people using tows to artificially boost their starting positions (more on that later) is already a distortion, as the quickest riders left in Q1 have sometimes posted faster times than those who made it through to Q2.

Sometimes, though, the rules intervene to create an egregious breach of the idea that the rider on pole is the quickest rider on the grid. Riders have laps taken away from them for all sorts of reasons, and the grid is set by those who adhered most strictly to the rules. As Race Direction gets ever more technology at its disposal to help assess infractions of the rules, the breaches it finds look more and more petty and mean-spirited, no matter the intention of the regulations. And sometimes, the choices made by track designers, on where to put the marshal posts and flag stations, can make adhering to the rules nigh on impossible.

And so it happens that the riders responsible for the fastest ever lap and the second fastest ever lap around Portimão will be starting from the fourth row of the grid, while pole and the new outright lap record go to the rider with the third quickest lap of the Circuito do Algarve. Pecco Bagnaia had a truly astonishing lap taken away for not responding to a yellow flag, while Maverick Viñales had his best lap taken away for exceeding track limits.

Both these rules are there for good reasons: yellow flags are waved to warn of danger on the track or in the gravel, such as a fallen rider. The last thing you want is for riders to crash in the same spot as someone already in the gravel, their bikes imperiling the stricken riders and marshals helping to clear them from the gravel traps.

Lessons from history

There have been plenty of examples of the dangers involved, but two spring immediately to mind. The first was when Franco Morbidelli crashed on Silverstone's treacherous wet surface in 2018, his bike flying into the gravel where Tito Rabat was already standing after having just crashed in precisely the same spot. In that case, the problem wasn't that Morbidelli was ignoring a yellow flag, but that conditions were simply unsafe.

The second was Marc Márquez ignoring waved yellows on the approach to Vale at Silverstone in 2013, where Cal Crutchlow had crashed previously. Márquez lost the front and his bike flew through the gravel, scattering marshals out of the way. If it wasn't for the excellent training the RaceSafe marshals who staff British motorcycle racing events (and assist at many overseas races), the outcome could have been much worse. Thanks to the spotter system employed, everyone could get out of the way before Márquez' Honda arrived.

So the yellow flag rules is incredibly important, and is there to avoid real-world consequences. But if riders are to comply with it, then first they have to see the yellow flags. In Pecco Bagnaia's case, he can make a credible argument that it was almost impossible for him to do just that.

What happened was that Miguel Oliveira suffered a crash at Turn 9, and yellow flags were being waved at the marshal post just before that corner. But the marshal post there is on the right-hand side of the track. That is a logical point given that riders are likely to crash on the outside of the left-hander at Turn 9, and marshals need to be able to get to fallen bikes in the gravel trap.

But as you can see from the onboard footage from Bagnaia's Ducati, the Italian is looking to his left, through the corner looking for the right line. He is just starting to hang off the Desmosedici, and entirely focused to his left. Waving flags or using LED light panels may not be enough to catch the attention of a rider chasing a pole record through that part of the track. Replicating LED lights in the riders' sight line on the left seems like a sensible thing to do.

Maverick Viñales' crimes look far more trivial than the infraction committed by Pecco Bagnaia. Race Direction enforce track limits to prevent riders making use of the hard standing on the outside of corners to run a wider line and carry more speed. And as tracks have added more and more hard standing, so enforcing track limits has become a more pressing concern.

Technology encroaches

The first step beyond just watching the standard footage from the Dorna and CCTV cameras was the addition of special cameras watching on the outside at corners particularly prone to see riders try to use the extra space. But that still relied on an element of human judgment, trying to distinguish whether one wheel or both had gone over the edge of the kerbs and touched the green area just beyond.

And so a new tool has been added to Race Direction's arsenal. Pressure sensors have been placed on the outside of certain corners, capable of detecting even the smallest infraction of the rules. The decision is now black and white, with the human element removed.

In the case of Maverick Viñales, that seemed extraordinarily harsh. Viewing the footage and zooming in close (as Moto2 commentator Neil Morrison did) it is almost impossible to see how Viñales might have strayed over the line. Were we still using the old system of cameras, Viñales might have been given the benefit of the doubt. But we aren't, so he wasn't.

Neither Bagnaia nor Viñales were happy to have such outstanding laps taken away, though Bagnaia was a fraction more phlegmatic about the whole affair. The Ducati Lenovo team rider did point out the difficulties posed by the placing of the marshal post. "You come from a downhill, the yellow flag is on the right side and I was already leaning to prepare for the corner on the left side. So it was impossible to see," Bagnaia explained. "Marini, who was behind me, said to me the same. He also didn't see the yellow flag. So it was impossible, but in any case this is the rule and we have to follow it."

Right to reply

Viñales was a good deal angrier, both at having his best lap taken away from him, and from not having any recourse to appeal or discuss the decision with Race Direction or the FIM Stewards' Panel. At first, he didn't believe that his punishment was due to him exceeding track limits.

"Honestly, I thought it was a yellow flag," Viñales told us. "And when I went into the box, they said, 'No, it's because you touched the green', and I said, 'it's impossible, I never touched the green', because I didn't touch it. I mean, I know when I touch the green, and I didn't touch it. Anyway, at the end, these are the rules, and it's one opinion, you can't say anything about it, you can't protest."

When Race Direction first explained the new system to the riders, Viñales was left believing there would be human oversight of any track limits infraction. "Honestly, in the meeting that we had in Qatar, they told us that they are going to review and they are going to check, but at the end, they don't check," he said.

What irked Viñales above all was that riders had no recourse to appeal the decision of the Stewards. He had gone to discuss this with them, but was told the decision was final. "I went there, they were good to show the image, because it's important. But finally, when I saw the image, I told them my opinion more clearly," Viñales said. "You can do nothing. This is the problem. You cannot reply. The decision has been made, and you cannot protest."

A matter of interpretation

Viñales' disappointment seems rooted in a misunderstanding of the rules. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider was complaining that if he did exceed track limits, it was with only a small part of the tire. "When I went there to check, most of the tire is inside, and you cannot understand if the rest of the tire is touching the green. It's impossible to understand," the Spaniard said. "For sure it's not fair, because I did not agree. At least not all of the rear tire was on the green, so most of the tire was on track."

The problem is that Race Direction interprets the phrase "exceeding track limits" to include even the tiniest part of a tire going beyond the edge of the kerb. That, after all, is how you trigger a pressure sensor. So even though Viñales' rear tire only overlapped the kerb at Turn 4 by a couple of millimeters at most, it was still enough to trigger the pressure sensor and incur a track limits penalty, which during practice and qualifying means having your lap canceled.

The strangest thing, perhaps, is that Yamaha team manager Maio Meregalli told Italian Sky TV that he didn't think there were any pressure sensors on the outside of Turn 4, due to the requirements of water drainage. That would contradict the ticker under the TV footage put there by the Dorna TV director, which clearly stated that Viñales had been punished because he had triggered the track limits sensors.

In the end, of course, that is irrelevant. Race Direction records track limit violations, and the FIM Stewards punish them, either by canceling the lap time or by handing out long lap penalties in the race. Race Direction recorded an infringement by Viñales, and the Stewards took his lap time away.

Divided opinion

The grid was divided over the penalties for both Viñales and Bagnaia, with arguments on both sides. The yellow flag rule is there to make the sessions safer for riders, Aleix Espargaro pointed out, though he was willing to accept Bagnaia's statement that he hadn't seen the yellow flags. "You cannot go into the brain or eyes of Pecco so I will trust him if he says he couldn't see. But we have rules for safety."

Something similar had happened to him on Friday, Espargaro said. "Yesterday I crashed, in turn 11 I think, a lot of riders closed the throttle. Pecco was one bike in that corner and went wide out of the track when I was in the gravel trying to pick up the bike with the marshals. So the rule is the rule and I think Dorna have to be even more strict because now they are very fast to remove the yellow flag, so if there is a yellow it's because somebody is on the ground and if they crash, you can kill a marshal. So I feel sorry for them because I know they did an incredible lap, but it's very dangerous."

Brad Binder was much more sympathetic to Bagnaia, having suffered the same fate in Qatar. "It’s harsh to say the least," the KTM rider told us. "I think we’ve all had times, especially last year and this year, when we’ve been on a good lap and it’s been taken away due to a yellow flag. It happens several time over a weekend to people regardless of the session. It’s just really unlucky that the super lap gets taken away because there is a flag out."

Valentino Rossi was also sympathetic to Bagnaia, who is a member of Rossi's VR46 Riders Academy. Visibility was a problem, Rossi said, and could be addressed by using light panels rather than just flags. "I think that first of all we need to use the light panel. In Qatar we had the light panels, also here in Portimão," Rossi told the media. "I think the light panel can make the difference because it's very difficult to see the yellow flag, it's quite impossible to see the yellow flag, where the yellow flag was for Pecco because the turn is on the left and you are already on the left part of the bike looking left and the flag is on the right. So it's quite impossible. But this is the rule. The yellow flag is for safety. I don’t know if when Pecco passed Oliveira was still in the gravel or not, but it's like this."

Rules are rules

The three riders were equally divided over Maverick Viñales' track limits infraction, though all agreed that there was little to be done about it. Aleix Espargaro felt that at least the system with pressure sensors gave a much clearer decision than the old system where the Stewards had to judge camera images.

"In the past, it was very difficult for them to understand with three cameras if the bike was touching, but now we have sensors," the Aprilia rider said. "You just need to touch one millimeter to put one gram of weight and the sensor will bleep and the lap is canceled. The technology is there." It was clear to Espargaro that Viñales had not gained any time on that lap. "I also feel sorry for Maverick because in reality he gained nothing, but there is a rule, a limit and you cannot go over."

Valentino Rossi believed that if Viñales had done the same thing last year, he would have gotten away with it. "For the track limits, this year it's a lot more strict because now they put some sensors on the green and the sensors understand if you touch it," Rossi said. "Because looking at Maverick last year, it would be a good lap, because he touched the kerb. But the sensors say like this so everybody needs to stay a little bit more far from the green."

Brad Binder didn't believe it would change the way anyone would ride, however. "Definitely not," the South African said. "You just really hope you don’t touch it on a good lap." He hadn't seen Viñales' lap, but he knew from first hand just how sensitive the system could be. "Sometimes the slightest little thing you don’t feel, the sensors pick up. Like in Qatar, I had that in the first qualifying. The guys said 'hey, you had your lap canceled' and I was convinced I hadn’t. When you watch the video you see it and you might have touched it not enough to realize, but it’s there. The rule is that if you touch the green, then you touch the green. As little or as much it may be then it’s the rules."

To some extent, Fabio Quartararo inheriting pole after Viñales and Bagnaia had their lap times canceled does the state of play in MotoGP more justice than if they had taken the first two positions. In the press conference, the Frenchman tacitly acknowledged that the pole had been gifted to him. "This pole position is not exactly the same as the other ones, but like I said before, the most important was to start from the front row and we achieved our goal."

But he immediately pointed out that he had the race pace to deserve it. "Most of all, the super thing was the pace from this morning with the old tire, also testing the tires in the afternoon," the Petronas Yamaha rider told the press conference. "The pace was great. With used tire this morning I could push a little bit more, but we wanted to be more on the safe side of the tire and was great. I’m so happy about the pace and the job from the team."

He had tried both the hard and the medium rear tire in FP4, and his pace was strong on both. "It looks like both tires are working well. Right now I’m more into the medium, but tomorrow we will see if we will try the hard in the warm up. I’m feeling confident with both tires. I feel like if we go with the hard over the medium, both are great options for the race."

Fast Frenchmen

Though he had used a new medium and a new hard for FP4, his pace was impressive. He was the only rider to dip under 1'40 and into the 1'39s. He did so not just once, however, but repeatedly on both tires, eventually posting a total of 8 laps in the 1'39s. The rest of the field couldn't manage a single lap sub 1'40.

Johann Zarco qualified third on the grid, and he too had very strong pace. On his final run in FP4, he posted a 1'40.073 on a tire with 25 laps, race distance on it. The Frenchman has been strong throughout the weekend at Portimão, and coming off two second places in the first two races and as championship leader, he is bursting with confidence.

Who else looks to have pace? Franco Morbidelli, Miguel Oliveira, and Maverick Viñales, to start off with. In FP4, Viñales went out on already very used tires, ending up on the 30th lap of a set of mediums and still posting a 1'40.395. "We have the rhythm, we have everything," Viñales said. "With a used tire I was able to be in 1'40 low, which is a great lap time."

The improvement of the pace was in part down to better grip on the track and the steps forward Yamaha have made with electronics and engine braking, Viñales explained. Honestly, we've been working very hard on the first touch of the gas, because last year, it was a little bit aggressive and we broke traction a lot," the Spaniard told us. "But somehow this year it's a little bit better, we accomplished to be more smooth on the beginning, which gives us a little bit more traction."

The electronics needed to be adjusted for each circuit, but so far, they were working well everywhere, Viñales said. "Depending on the track, it gives us more traction, but for example in Doha, because of the tire, you could put a lot of power from the beginning. So it's something we worked on, this weekend we worked a lot on the engine brake, because finally in Qatar before the race, we did hundreds of laps and the engine brake was clear. But here we worked really hard and the team ended with a good result."

Franco Morbidelli has found the pace he lost in the first two races, but is still not entirely happy. "About the setting we’ve been going up and down, sideways to restore the feeling of last year," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "Actually, to get back that feeling, the bike is different. I don’t know why. Maybe I changed. Maybe something changed. But I don’t want to think about it now the feeling is back now and I can ride something that I know and I don’t want to think too much about it."

The problem was that they other factories had made a big step forward compared to him, Morbidelli explained. "We found that our pace is better than last year, at least in FP4, it was better than last year. The problem is the Ducatis, the Yamahas, especially the Ducatis and the Yamahas, but also the Suzukis, are I think stronger than last year. It’s a hard task to keep up but we will try."

In English, Morbidelli merely hinted at his unhappiness with the current situation, where he finds himself riding a much older Yamaha despite finishing ahead of all three factory-spec Yamahas in 2020. In Italian, he was a bit more blunt about it. "The situation is irritating me, and I can't hide it," he said. "But I always try to stay focused on what I have to do."

Going, going, gone?

But he also alluded to his future, one which may not automatically include the Petronas Yamaha team. "As for my future, VR46 will take care of it, but I will take care of it together with Gianluca," he said referring to the rider manager employed by the VR46 Rider Academy. "I certainly want to secure the best future for myself, both technically and emotionally." With the VR46 team set to step up to expand their current presence to a two-man team in 2022, and rumors of negotiations with Suzuki, Morbidelli may be eyeing his chances outside of Petronas.

Who holds the strongest cards in the race on Sunday? The Yamahas have gotten stronger as the weekend went on, not least because as the grip has improved, they have been able to exploit both their corner speed and their acceleration. Their problem is that there are a brace of Ducatis at the front, with Johann Zarco on the front row, and Jack Miller on the second row. The Ducatis have proved capable of getting lightning starts, and getting past them will not be easy, especially at a track like Portimão.

Then there is the wildcard that is Marc Márquez. The returning Repsol Honda rider showed solid pace in FP4, posting a bunch of low 1'40s on used tires. He also managed to get out of Q1 and make it into Q2, eventually qualifying sixth on the grid after Bagnaia and Viñales had their laps taken away from them.

But the effort had taken a lot out of him. Márquez only did a single run in Q2, having already stressed his recovering arm by having to push in Q1. He shook his arm as he walked to the bike, and pushed and stretched it as he waited. Riding at a consistent pace was doable, but the additional stress of pushing for a very fast lap quickly overloaded the muscles in his arm, the Repsol Honda rider explained.

"I feel worse today than yesterday," Márquez told the media. "This is something that already the doctors and the physios expected, that is a natural thing. They say that tomorrow should be worse but we will see." The humerus in his upper arm that he had fractured last year was fine, it was everything else in the arm which was troubling him. "The most important thing is the bone is good, I don’t have pain there. But the muscles, the fingers, the elbow, the arm pump, is where I’m struggling more now. Today I did my maximum force three times, in FP3, in qualifying 1 and in qualifying 2. But it’s like this and tomorrow we will see for the race."

The biggest problem was the strength he was missing in the right arm. "It’s lack of muscle, power," he said. He couldn't define the difference between his left and right arms, but he was very aware of it. "I cannot say 10% because it’s difficult. But in the gym I’m working with different weights on left and right. I cannot have the same weights on the right arm. Then on the bike this is something that is there. Nearly all the corners are on right at this circuit."

That needed him to adapt his riding, and his team to adapt the bike, Márquez explained. "The main difference is my position on the bike. It’s true that in the left corners I start to feel the front tire like I like. I am playing and I like it. In the right corners, still I’m pushing too much on the brakes. On the brakes, which is where you can play with the front tire, the position of the body is not the correct one. And I cannot load the front and I cannot push with the arm."

Practice and qualifying was one thing, but the race is another, Márquez said. "The question mark is tomorrow in the race... 25 laps. It will be very long! I will say that I’ll try to enjoy it but I won’t enjoy. I will suffer. But this is like this and we already know coming here to Portimao, that now we are more in the real situation with the arm."

How Márquez ended up in sixth place on the grid is a tale unto itself. To make it through from Q1 to Q2, he had latched on to Joan Mir and used him as a reference point, ending up with the best time set behind Mir, the Suzuki Ecstar rider making it through as second fastest in Q1.

Márquez and Mir glossed over the issue in their English debriefs, but were a little more honest when speaking to the Spanish media. "We normally don’t like it if someone is following us in that way," Joan Mir said in English. "But it’s like this. We know Marc always likes to play these types of games. The problem is if we stop then he’ll stop and we can make a dangerous situation. It’s better to push in front and then that’s it."

In Spanish, he had harsher words for Márquez. "We already know that Marc likes to do this to get behind," Mir told Spanish media. "Today he has done it with me and usually he always does it with someone, to get behind them and play this game. For this in Moto3 they penalize. Not him and here they do not penalize. But I did my thing and he has not made me nervous at all. He started a lot further ahead, he cut off, got behind, he annoyed me on the first lap of my time attack, because he started slow, I ran into him halfway down the track and I have already lost my lap. Then I started to push, he took advantage of my tow. In Moto3 they penalize you for this and surely in Moto2 as well, but in MotoGP not yet."

Márquez denied he had slowed Mir down, but he admitted to seeking a tow from the Spaniard. "At no time have I slowed down more than normal. I think the first lap I did in Q1 was two or three seconds slower than a normal time. In the end, I saved my skin, which is what I had to do."

He accepted that seeking a tow is behavior which is normally frowned upon – including by Márquez himself – but the Repsol Honda rider admitted it was the only way he could be sure of getting through to Q2. "I know that it is not done or that it makes a rider angry when you do it, but they have done it to me many times when I was fully fit," Márquez said. "Now I needed it, I have done the whole weekend riding and riding alone. In Q1 I needed to know where I was losing and I followed another bike, and I chose the World Champion, the one who was riding the best in Q1." He could have avoided criticism by following his brother Alex, he said. "I could have chosen my brother too, who would have kept quiet," Márquez laughed. "I have chosen the best. I have come out of box, we have met on track and I have done it."

In Q2, Márquez did the same again, this time with Mir's Suzuki Ecstar teammate Alex Rins. Rins was a little more relaxed about having Márquez follow him. "As you said, Marc was waiting for us on the second tire. We went together on the pit lane at 60kph. We are like horses waiting for the race," Rins joked. "Marc is so intelligent doing those things. Little by little I’m taking this experience. I was playing a bit his game. The most important was we were respecting each other in the time. In end I’m happy, I was pushing hard along in front and I did the lap time."

The fact that Marc Márquez needed a tow to get through to Q2 tells us that he is still not completely back to full fitness. And the fact that he grabbed a tow when he needed to also tells us that he isn't afraid to do what needs to be done. That he should make sure to get a tow from Joan Mir, the reigning champion, is a sign that Márquez is as ruthless as ever, and never misses a chance to try to get into the heads of his rivals.

What surprised me was the meekness with which Márquez' return was greed by his rivals. You would think that anyone with pretensions of the 2021 MotoGP title - Joan Mir, Fabio Quartararo, Jack Miller – would have made sure that Márquez knew that he was joining them on track and not the other way around. Yet none of them sought the Repsol Honda rider out during practice, and showed him a wheel, cut off his line, followed him around. Nobody let him know he was no longer the boss, and if he wanted to reclaim his spot on top of of the anthill, he would have to go through them.

Marc Márquez has a reputation for physically intimidating his rivals. During practice at Portimão, his rivals had the ideal opportunity to return the favor, at a time when Márquez was at his psychologically most fragile. Not taking advantage of that seems like a missed opportunity.

There is always the race, of course. Márquez' best hope of survival may be to try to latch on to a fast rider, and try to follow them home to score as many points as possible. Using them as a reference makes it that little bit easier to hustle around the Portimão circuit, and conserve energy for the next race at Jerez in two weeks time. There is still a lot of the season left.


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Sat, 2021-04-17 00:34
Body:

It was hardly ideal circumstances to make a return to the toughest class in motorcycle racing after more than eight months without riding a bike. Overnight rain left the track covered in damp patches, making the surface treacherous and unpredictable. But that didn't deter Marc Márquez: though he wasn't the first out of the pits in FP1, he was on track soon enough. And he was fast soon enough too, ending the morning session as third quickest, just a quarter of a second slower than Maverick Viñales.

Drawing conclusions from times which are 2.5 seconds off the race lap record and 3.5 seconds off the best pole time is a little premature. But Márquez was fast again in FP2, in much drier and consistent conditions. In the second session, Pecco Bagnaia's best lap was just a hundredth off Miguel Oliveira's race record, and Marc Márquez was within half a second of Bagnaia, ending his first day back on a MotoGP in sixth position, and having booked a provisional spot in Q2. Mission very much accomplished for the Repsol Honda rider.

More important than all that, perhaps, was the massive grin on Marc Márquez' face as he sat in the pits. MotoGP riders are used to having cameras around them in the pits, Dorna trying to capture their reactions. But knowing cameras are there means that riders behave unnaturally, forcing a media-friendly smile whenever the cameras are on them. Marc Márquez is no stranger to this.

But not on Friday at Portimão. The man beamed as he took off his helmet after he returned to the pits. He looked happy and relaxed, the weight of seven seasons competing in MotoGP falling from his shoulders. And the weight of a year lost to injury falling away, Márquez finally confirming to himself that he was still capable of doing the thing that he has dedicated his life to. And that he still loved.

Even his rivals were touched by just how genuine and real that smile had been. "For me it made me smile when I saw him smiling this morning in the garage, because you know how much this sport means to him and what it means to all of us," Jack Miller told us. "It’s the thing we love and what we want to do and when you cannot do it for nine months then it’s not an easy thing, especially with all the rehab and recovery he’s had to do. To see him back out there doing what he loves and what he’s fantastic at makes us all happy that he’s there and it will elevate all of our levels."

While fans and media raved about how quickly Márquez had gotten up to speed, his rivals were entirely unsurprised. "I had a bet with my guys that he would be top three in the first session and he was third! I expected him to be super strong," Brad Binder said.

Jack Miller felt the same. "I expected it," the Australian told us. "I mean he’s been here testing. OK, it was with the superbike but he’s been riding. We all know how extremely talented this guy is and the things he does on a motorcycle: just watch the session. You see him do some things and you think ‘how did he pull that off?!’ Even today, and I think he was riding with some margin."

Expecting the best of the best

Aleix Espargaro went one step further. It was hard to be impressed by Márquez' results on his first day back after a long lay off when we are talking about the best rider in the world, the Aprilia rider explained. When someone is that good, being surprised would be to deny the truth of his extraordinary talent.

"For me he's the best rider in history," Espargaro said, and had examples to back that claim up. "Last year, the last lap he did with this bike in Jerez, he was on completely another level. Super faster than the rest. And yes, he’s back after a lot of months, but with the same bike, with very similar tires, same team, after a lot of time riding the same bike. So what were you guys expecting? For him to finish 20th? No, I don’t. For me it’s Marc Márquez again." He was Marc Márquez when he was carted off to hospital, so it would be foolish to expect anyone other than Marc Márquez to turn up at Portimão when he could finally ride a MotoGP machine again.

It certainly looked like Marc Márquez on the #93 Repsol Honda. He pushed and bullied his RC213V around the Portimão circuit in pursuit of a time that would take him to the sixth spot on the timesheets. The rear wheel hopped, the front tire squashed into the tarmac, both tires sliding at the very limit of adhesion, the chassis protesting as Márquez tried to tie it into knots wrestling it from one side to another.

If anyone had any doubts that Márquez would be willing to push to the ragged edge of motorcycle physics, the final few laps in FP2 should disabuse them of any such notion. Márquez got too hot into Turn 1 – a common error at the Portimão circuit – and ran deep and wide into the runoff area, before regrouping to take another shot.

On his final lap, he nailed the first corner, and pushed on through the first sector, down the long left at Turn 5, then on up the hill flicking left for Turn 6. As he hustled the bike over to the right hand side, the rear stepped out, the back of his RC213V fishtailing at something approaching maximum lean angle. Márquez' body language was of a man who had expected nothing else, pushing on through Turn 7 and on up again to Turn 8. That lap would move him up from fourteenth to sixth, and into Q2. Marc Márquez had put it all on the line, and emerged on the other side triumphant. Just like the old days.

Mistakes were made

It may have looked like the old Marc Márquez, but afterward, the Repsol Honda rider confessed to feeling rusty. "I think from Turn 6 to 7, on that change of direction, my head says now it's time to go in for turn 7, but the body didn't follow what I want!" Márquez said. "Then I just slide a little bit; it was a save, but I created a slide to finish the turn because it was the last lap and I didn't give up the lap. Things that of course with more laps on the track I will improve."

"The thing is that, yeah the last lap was a little bit crazy, I didn't like the last lap but I had a nice save," he said. "But it's my riding style. It's true that with the new tire I'm struggling more than with a used tire. With the used tire the bike becomes softer, the lap times are slower and then I feel much more comfortable. But with new tires everything is more stiff."

He was still coming to terms with the 2021 Honda RC213V, Márquez explained, and trying to feel his way back again. He was missing feeling with the bike, and that made setting objectives for the weekend rather difficult. "Still, I don’t know the target because I don’t understand how I ride the bike. It's strange to explain, but I understand that I'm riding the bike and I'm concentrated and I know where I need to brake but I don’t really feel. I just follow when I'm riding the bike, but I don’t really feel the limit, the bike, to setup the bike. I'm with the base of Stefan Bradl. Now tomorrow we will start to change a bit, but for that reason I don’t know which target."

That isn't the only concern Marc Márquez has. His arm was passed fit, both by his personal doctors (the most important approval) and by the circuit doctors. But the bone being strong enough is one thing, having the strength and muscle mass to cope with the rigors of riding a MotoGP at full speed for 25 laps is something else altogether. You can train all you like, but riding a MotoGP bike reaches the muscles other bikes simply cannot reach.

"It's true that the main question mark for me, the speed is there, so it's more how the arm will react during the weekend and how I will get up tomorrow," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Because if the power of the muscles goes, like the stress of the muscles will be more then I will have less power and then I will need to change a little bit the riding style. Everything will depend on my physical condition, because today was the first day. Everything was fresh. Tomorrow I know that, because I already feel, I will be more tired and the muscles will struggle a little bit more."

Finding strength

The problem for Márquez is that Portimão is a physically demanding track, and when you are not at 100%, that can be an issue. Alex Rins and Pecco Bagnaia, two riders who arrived at Portimão last year still living with the aftermath of injury, found that out to their cost. Though for Rins, it was only once he got to ride his Suzuki GSX-RR at the Portuguese circuit after a winter to recover from the shoulder issue he suffered in the crash at the first race at Jerez that he realized what the problem had actually been.

"The thing I am most happy about is my feeling with the bike," Rins told us. "Last year, we struggled a lot and I didn't know why, but today I understood why. Because still last year, last race, I was at 100% but not enough power in my body, not enough strength. Today I was able to brake really hard, I was able to be more consistent than last year. So for this reason I'm feeling more strong on the bike."

"I think it comes from the shoulder injury," the Suzuki Ecstar rider explained. "Austria is similar to this layout, a lot of right corners, and you know, for example in Valencia, where we raced before we raced here, it's more left than right. Here you have corner 1, 2, 3, 7 9... It's more demanding." Having a winter to recover and train had made a huge difference. "I just recovered my shoulder more. I get more muscle on the shoulder, and thanks to this I was able to be more constant. I remember last year, I couldn't do more than three laps on the same lap time."

Pecco Bagnaia's experience echoed that of Alex Rins. "Last year has been really difficult after my injury and the operation," the factory Ducati rider said, referring to the leg he broke in 2020. "In the first races I was good in my physical condition. I was not feeling so tired during the race. In the last part of season it was difficult to remain fast during the weekend, during the race. I was tired in the last part of the season, and this year everything is different."

Bagnaia topped the timesheets, ahead of Fabio Quartararo, the two Suzukis of Joan Mir and Alex Rins, his factory Ducati Lenovo teammate Jack Miller, and the returning Marc Márquez. But Bagnaia's pace on used tires looks a tenth or so off that of the best rider. That is clearly Fabio Quartararo, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider managing a sub-1'41 lap with a tire with half race distance on it.

The Frenchman was very happy at the end of FP2, a stark contrast to the disaster of 2020, when he had managed a lowly fourteenth place finish. "For me mentally, it's different," Quartararo told us. "Mentally, last year I arrived in a mood like, two crashes in Valencia, the bike was doing bad, and I arrived here with the same mentality, and that was wrong. And right now I'm just off from a victory from Qatar, and I feel like everything is good."

"What I feel is like, first of all, mentally I'm stronger and I feel like I'm complaining less," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "And this is helping, I'm more thinking about my riding style than the bike, this is the first thing. And then I feel like the bike has the same feeling as Qatar, where the bike was turning a bit better, and it feels a little bit like 2019 chassis. So this is a really positive point and I feel like this is already a big step for us."

Behind Quartararo, there were a group of riders who were all capable of running a 1'41.0 on used tires. Pecco Bagnaia was one of them, but Suzuki's Alex Rins and Repsol rider Marc Márquez was another. All three posted 1'41.0s on tires with around half race distance on.

But there are a couple of riders who are well under the radar, despite having very strong pace. Unsurprisingly, both were on the podium in 2020, Miguel Oliveira dominating the weekend, Franco Morbidelli ending up third. On Friday, neither rider appeared to make much of an impression, at least in terms of outright lap times.

Oliveira had at least managed to squeak through to Q2, having finished Friday in ninth overall. But the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider had struggled to get the soft rear tire to work, and consequently, his one-off lap time was a little disappointing. "I expected a bit more after I had good pace with the used medium rear," Oliveira told us. "I expected a bit more with the soft tire, but it turns out that the soft tire is a bit tricky for us to understand at the moment, and unfortunately with the front we don’t have enough support with the hard tire that we feel is too soft for us.

Despite his struggles with the soft rear, on used tires, Oliveira was quick. He posted a lap of 1'41.0 on a used medium rear with 9 laps on the tire, then followed that up with a 1'41.1 and a 1'41.2.

Dark horse

But Franco Morbidelli's pace is arguably even more convincing than even Fabio Quartararo's. Where the other MotoGP riders fitted a soft rear to chase a lap time at the end of FP2, the Petronas Yamaha rider did no such thing. Instead, he ran the entire session with a single set of medium tires, front and rear.

His initial run of 15 laps was nothing to write home about, running in the mid to high 1'41s. But on his second run, Morbidelli was impressive, posting a 1'41.2, a 1'41.1, and another 1'41.1 on tires with nearly full race distance on them. He hadn't tried to post a quick lap, and so finished FP2 down in 19th. But Morbidelli clearly had some kind of pace.

"I would say that today was a positive day for us," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "We started and the feeling wasn’t so good. But we went better through the day, especially this afternoon. I’m quite happy. For sure the position is what it is. But tomorrow we will focus more on the time attack and try and make a better hot lap. We’ll see what happens. Anyway, I had a good feeling from today."


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