Racing first came to the undulating Autódromo Internacional do Algarve in 2008, opening for business with the last World Superbike race of the year, just before the global economy collapsed. Since then, its appearance on the calendar has danced around the calendar, sometimes early in the year, other times late, and it was very nearly removed from the calendar last year through financial concerns, but luckily for fans of racing, even though so few of them actually turn up at the circuit, racing continues there.
World Superbike, with its two races of superstar riders and exciting Saturday qualifying, was well and truly upstaged by World Supersport today. While the Superbike races will be remembered for being decent enough races with a few surprising DNFs and odd events that spice up a race weekend, the World Supersport race will be remembered as one of the finest races of the year, with two former World Champions, a cocky upstart and a class rookie tearing down the front straight four abreast one lap from the end. Three manufacturers were represented in the fight, and four different racing styles, from Fabien Foret's sweeping lines to Kenan Sofuoglu's slash and burn, from Sam Lowes's spit and gristle on rails to Michael Van Der Mark's relentless metronomic determination, any one of the riders could have won the race, and it came down, as is right, to he who made the fewest mistakes. Fastest bike? Didn't matter. Best qualifying? Immaterial. Prior experience? Not today. What we got on paper was Sam Lowes extending his lead from his rivals with a well-timed victory. What we got on track was four men exerting superhuman will against each other for one solitary prize, all without endangering each other. In years to come, Supersport races at Portimão will all be watched with the hope and anticipation that the race could maybe, just maybe, be as good as this one was.
World Superbike results were, in contrast, decided by fickle fate. In the first race, Eugene Laverty and Jonathan Rea were robbed of a chance to compete through mechanical failure and in the second, Tom Sykes was forced out by a sighting lap crash, a clipped kerb, and Marco Melandri was dealt a rogue Pirelli. What should have been two five-man clashes were both reduced to three-way scuffles.
In the first race, Marco Melandri performed the way we are used to seeing him; A reasonable start followed by a relentless push for the front. The second race looked like it could be a repeat performance, but a rogue tyre reduced his ability to corner. While nobody could pass him on the straight, all they had to do was wait for a sweeping corner and dispatch him like a back marker. The BMW team are trying very hard not to point the finger at Pirelli, but that is where, behind closed doors, they likely place the blame. Chaz Davies, running similar settings, ended the weekend with a sixth and a fifth place and reasonably worn tyres.
Tom Sykes, after his tyre wear looked reminiscent of early last year in the first race, missed the start of the second race. Getting passed by Sylvain Guintoli in the first race and not scoring any points in the second, he conceded more points to the title leader. The second race did allow us to see some interesting facets of the rules. Sykes was allowed to pit in several times, to fix a brake sensor, and spend a few laps in his box because his bike was never pushed into the garage. As long as the mechanics worked on the bike without the bike crossing the garage threshold, as long as they took their tools out into pit lane, the bike was considered still in the race, allowing Sykes to return later, seven laps down, and set a new lap record. Unfortunately, as Sykes was seven laps down, he wash;t classified as a finisher. The FIM rules (rule 1.26.4) state that to be counted as a finisher in the race and be included in the results a rider must both complete 75% of the race distance and cross the finish line on the race track (not in the pit lane) within five minutes of the race winner. This means Sykes would have had to finish within five laps of the leader to be considered a finisher.
Eugene Laverty and Jonathan Rea both suffered technical faults in the first race, with Laverty's engine giving up the ghost while Rea's electronics simply couldn't handle the reduced grip of a worn tyre. Rea's teammate Leon Haslam suffered a different issue, bashing his damaged knee inside a kerb, causing him too much pain to continue. In that respect, Rea was the luckier of the two.
Engines, electronics, tyres, injuries and mistakes. Any one of these is enough to ruin a rider's race and we had each of them. All we were missing was inclement weather, but aside from a stiff breeze, the riders were at least spared that much.