Pity the poor Portuguese MotoGP round. While so many other races sit ostentatiously in fixed slots in the calendar - Qatar as the season opener in March or April, Assen on the last Saturday in June, Laguna Seca as the last race in July before the summer break, Valencia as the last race of the season in November - the Estoril round of MotoGP is constantly being shoved back and forth in the calendar, from early to late and back to early again. Race fans planning a visit to the Portuguese Grand Prix are forced to wait for the calendar to be finalized before deciding whether to book a trip to the track on the edge of the Atlantic.
That vast body of water is part of the problem: the reason for shifting the Estoril MotoGP race back and forth in the calendar - apart from fitting it in among the more solid fixtures in the season - is to avoid the wet and windy conditions that so often prevail whenever the series visits the track. It is hard to blame the weather entirely on the circuit, however; MotoGP only ever visits the track in either early spring or late autumn, times of year when the nearby Atlantic plays a more active role in the weather, bringing wind and rain to the circuit on a regular basis.
Of course, if MotoGP were to visit in June or July, the chances of dry, sunny weather would be vastly improved. But with those two summer months heavily booked with MotoGP's classics, the only chance that sparsely attended Estoril has is in the tempestuous months of the year. It seems likely that this climatological mismatch will cost the circuit its MotoGP race, with strong indications that the series will not return to the circuit once the current contract expires after the race on Sunday.
For the fans, Estoril's fickle weather - and it is expected to be wet and windy again this weekend - could turn out quite nicely. The previous race to be run in the rain and wind was, well, the previous race, the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez. And that turned into one of the most fascinating spectacles of recent years, with weather conditions - and a large dose of impetuosity - shaking up the order established in practice, and leaving the previously prepared script of the weekend in tatters.
The key to the excitement at Jerez was mainly down to the different way that the various MotoGP machines were handling the soft Bridgestone rain tires. The Hondas struggled to get the tires to work in the early laps, requiring a steady hand and a moderate pace, but got better and better (or more accurately, didn't drop off as badly) as the race went on. The Ducatis, on the other hand, were fast from the moment the flag dropped, but went AWOL shortly before the halfway stage.
It was therefore almost inevitable that Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner would come together at some point, though neither man intended that meeting to be quite so physically literal as it turned out. From the off Rossi was on a charge, moving quickly forward through the field, while Casey Stoner was holding station, biding his time until his tires came in. What should have happened is that we should have had two battles during the Jerez race, with Rossi having to work to get past Stoner early on, then battling to hold the Repsol Honda off as Stoner's tires came good and the Marlboro Ducati's tires went off. Instead, Rossi skittled Stoner by dint of an overenthusiastic approach into Turn 1, entering beyond the point of no return and taking Stoner out on his way down.
The pair will get a second chance at Estoril, with heavy rain forecast for race day. Simplifying things for all concerned will be the fact that rain is expected throughout the weekend, with every session likely to see either rain or at least a wet track. And given the fact that wet conditions are both easier on Valentino Rossi's shoulder and make it easier to ride around the problems which continue to dog the Ducati GP11, rain would be the seven-time World Champion's best chance of continuing his astonishing run of podium finishes at the Portuguese circuit. Of the 11 visits he has paid to Estoril, 10 of them have ended on the podium, 2009 being the only exception so far. A wet race would make it much easier for Rossi to keep that streak alive.
Yet rain is the last thing that Ducati really need. Rossi and his crew, headed by legendary crew chief Jeremy Burgess, are struggling to make the Ducati competitive, the bike suffering chronic understeer. With new parts coming to Estoril ready for the test on Monday, what Ducati need is more time in the dry to evaluate the parts. The major parts - including a new chassis - would probably have to wait until the test, but gambling on the new parts was an option if the weekend had remained dry. Ducati are still behind the curve with their development, and rain at Estoril is exactly not what the Doctor ordered if they are to make progress.
Whenever Casey Stoner hears of the need for development work on the Ducati, the - now - Repsol Honda rider takes obvious delight in pointing out that this was the machine he won three of the last six races of 2010 on, the 2011 bike being virtually identical to the Desmosedici GP10 machine. Estoril, however, was not one of those races, Stoner crashing out again in Portugal, betrayed by the Ducati's capricious front end. Now that he is on a Honda, the Australian no longer has to fear front-end issues, the 2011 RC212V looking streets ahead of the competition.
That did not help at Jerez, though, Stoner being taken out when Valentino Rossi folded the Ducati's front end underneath the Honda, leaving both men (temporarily in Rossi's case) in the gravel. After having been bitten by the weakness of the Ducati - prompting a host of jokes about Stoner still having trouble with the Ducati front end - he received a second bite from the weakness of the Honda, the RC212V almost impossible to start without a special tool to lock the slipper clutch. Forced out of the race, the Australian could do nothing but stand idly (and angrily) by as his competitors piled on the points.
The Honda clearly works, and Stoner is undeniably fast, and no doubt the Australian will be out for revenge in Portugal. Stoner's record at Estoril is far from perfect, crashing out of three of his five appearances. The one thing that Stoner has on his side is motivation, and if he can demonstrate the maturity he showed at Qatar - and stay out of the way of overly optimistic rivals - he should be able to claw back some of the points he lost in Jerez.
Stoner's biggest challenge in Portugal is beating the man who has dominated there since his arrival in the MotoGP class. Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo was won all three of the MotoGP races he has started at Estoril, and given the calmness of his approach so far this season, is surely the hot favorite to make it four in a row. While all of the focus has been on the brilliance of the Honda, the speed of Casey Stoner, the poor handling of the Ducati, and Valentino Rossi's struggle with his shoulder, Jorge Lorenzo has been taking advantage of the agility and stability of the Yamaha M1 to build a promising lead in the title race.
The Yamaha riders are complaining of a lack of horsepower - a common refrain ever since Valentino Rossi joined the factory in 2004 - but even at a track which places a premium on top end like Qatar, Lorenzo managed to finish 2nd. At Jerez, the reigning World Champion kept his cool while others around him were losing theirs, and cruised home to take another convincing victory, the bike still providing drive even though the Bridgestone wets were nearly destroyed. If a World Champion could be said to be operating under the radar, that is just what Lorenzo is doing, and this, above all else, is what makes him the danger man.
The man Lorenzo leads in the title race should be breathing a huge sigh of relief in Portugal, almost regardless of the result. Dani Pedrosa's doctors finally pinned down the cause of the Repsol Honda rider's injury problems just prior to Jerez, and immediately after the race, Pedrosa had yet another operation, this time to remove the plate that had been inserted to stabilize his collarbone broken at Motegi last year. The screws from that plate, it appears, had been blocking bloodflow to his arm, but only when his arm was being held in a specific position. The problem was, that specific position was when hanging off a MotoGP machine, the pain, weakness and numbness in his arm only occurring during racing.
With the plate now out, Pedrosa should be able to race freely, his only concern his still slightly weakened collarbone. Ideally, the plate would have been left in his shoulder for twelve months rather than six, so the collarbone is not at 100% yet. Added to that, removing the screws will have weakened the bone, that procedure requiring four to six weeks to correct itself completely. Just over three weeks after having the plate removed, Pedrosa's collarbone will still be vulnerable, and a crash could break it once again. Caution will be Pedrosa's watchword this weekend, trying to grab as many points as possible without risking another injury.
While all eyes will be on the Fantastic Four, there is plenty of interest for the fans directly behind them. Ben Spies has made a solid step forward this season since joining the factory Yamaha team, but the Texan blotted his copybook by crashing out of the Jerez race after just having snatched 2nd position from Dani Pedrosa. A more measured approach at Estoril may be necessary if Spies is to start to rack up points, and one which could see him rewarded with a podium.
Andrea Dovizioso will be one man standing in Spies' way, the Repsol Honda man with happy memories of his own podium here last season. Dovizioso's position in the team - the third wheel on the wagon, to coin a rather apt phrase - is becoming painfully clear, a position underlined by the news that his teammates Stoner and Pedrosa are to test the 1000cc Honda at Jerez after Le Mans, while he is not. Dovizioso's hope of redemption is to try to beat his teammates and score as many points as possible, but given the strength of his teammates that is a big ask. Dovizioso must attack whenever he can if he is not to be left looking at a satellite ride for 2012.
Estoril holds unhappy memories for Nicky Hayden, as the track where he was nearly robbed of the 2006 World Championship by his erstwhile teammate Dani Pedrosa. Even since then, Hayden has not had much luck at the circuit, with just a single pole position while never quite managing a podium. Hayden's visit in 2010 was the most successful on the Ducati, bagging 2nd on the grid, and with a little help from the rain, the Kentuckian may be hoping for a repeat of the podium he scored last time out.
The 2006 Estoril race was memorable for many things, one of the biggest being Toni Elias' victory here on the Fortuna Honda. Those days are long gone, though, and many things have changed. Elias may be back on a Honda with the LCR team, but now he is forced to use the spec Bridgestone tires that he has yet to make work for him, rather than the Saturday-night special Michelin race tires that the French company had constructed specially for Dani Pedrosa, but which Pedrosa had going spare. Elias' Calvary continues, his suffering magnified by returning to the track at which he once triumphed.
One question mark hanging over the race is whether Alvaro Bautista will be able to compete. The Rizla Suzuki rider broke his femur less than six weeks' ago, but Bautista was given the green light by his Spanish surgeon Dr Villamor to try to race in Estoril. Bautista faces two more hurdles ahead of the race, another examination by the circuit doctor on Thursday, and then seeing how he holds up during practice on Friday. If he passes those tests, then the Rizla rider will be back in the saddle in record time. If he does not, Suzuki's test rider Nobu Aoki is on hand to take on riding duties.
In the Moto2 class, battle is resumed between Speed Master's Andrea Iannone, Viessmann Kiefer's Stefan Bradl and Interwetten rider Thomas Luthi. Iannone has clearly had the upper and so far, the Italian looking close to unstoppable at Jerez, while Luthi has been steadily amassing podiums. So far, everything has been going Iannone's way, but doubts remain about the ability of the team to handle misfortune. During testing, the Speed Master garage resembled either a wedding or a funeral, depending on how the results had been going. So far, Iannone and the team have been in wedding mode, but the question is how long will the honeymoon last.
Luthi, on the other hand, has been the tortoise to Iannone's hare, and the ever sanguine Swiss rider has been the personification of the word "unflappable" all season. The switch from Moriwaki to Suter has done Luthi and the team no harm, and Luthi is very much the unsung hero of the Moto2 class.
One rider who will be looking for redemption in Estoril will be Technomag CIP's Kenan Sofuoglu. The Turkish rider made a devastating impact when he arrived in the class here last year, ending up 5th in his very first race on the bike. Since switching to Moto2 full time this season, Sofuoglu has struggled, suffering the same fate as many of the other front runners from last year. The Technomag rider has been battling chatter all season, the problem caused by the tires which Dunlop has brought to the track. A wet race may help Sofuoglu regain some confidence, and he could be the dark horse for this race.
The story of the 125cc class has been straightforward from the start, the class dominated by Nico Terol on the Bankia Aspar. Competition for Terol has come from Racing Team Germany's Sandro Cortese, and from 125 returnees Hector Faubel and Sergio Gadea. But Terol has been completely unfazed by his rivals, and has looked completely untouchable so far this year. There is no reason to expect this to change in Portugal.