The rain, which has been chasing motorcycle races around this season, finally got bored and moved off on Saturday, giving the track at Estoril a chance to dry. The final corner, which proved so treacherous on Friday, was greatly improved - and made even better by the addition of a cone on the inside of Turn 13, marking where the wet patches were so the riders could take a line inside them. But the wet patches were still there, with water apparently seeping up from the ground to be sucked to the surface. The repairs to the track had been half the problem; the new asphalt was still so fresh that the bitumen was sucking up water from below. Not a lot the track can do about such a problem, and rather cruel to be punished for trying to fix the track in the first place.
While their resurfacing attempts may not have paid off as intended, the circuit management's bargain basement approach to ticket pricing made a huge difference. The track was busier on a Saturday than any time I have ever been here, with many fans deciding that for the price of a tank of gas and a cheap hotel, they would head for Estoril. With tickets selling for between 2 euros for the cheapest single-day entrance to 20 euros for a three-day grandstand pass, the entertainment is also a little limited. Jumbotrons around the track are few and far between, the only one I have seen has been opposite the main grandstand. But for 2 euros, and with some great seating around Estoril, who is going to complain?
It will be interesting to see what effect the ticket prices has when the official numbers are released on Sunday. If cheap prices bring a lot of people to the track - who will still be spending their money in the local bars, hotels and restaurants - then the gains to the local economy could well outweigh the losses made by the track.
Though their view may have been limited to what they could actually see on the track, the fans got their money's worth on Saturday. In Moto3, Sandro Cortese pulled a major gap with the factory KTM, finishing three tenths ahead of Maverick Viñales on the FTR Honda, who was in turn four tenths quicker than local boy Miguel Oliveira. Only the top 5 were within a second of each other, last weekend's winner and Italian teenage sensation Romano Fenati finishing 6th, just over a second slower than Cortese. But the gaps are not necessarily representative of the real situation in Moto3: All day long, Oliveira featured either at or close to the top of the timesheets. If there was one rider you were going to bet on to win on Sunday, it would be the Portuguese rider, Oliveira clearly dead set on a victory in front of the last home crowd he will not see for a while. Cortese will be as fast as he always is, Viñales will be up at the front as is expected of a championship favorite, and Fenati is not so far off that he could not also join in the fun. But Oliveira looks for all the world like he is going to pull something special out of the bag come race day.
In Moto2, Marc Marquez rules the roost as ever, while Thomas Luthi is right him. While Marquez and Luthi can be expected to be scrapping for the lead, a close group consisting of Scott Redding, last week's victor Pol Espargaro, 125cc runner up Johann Zarco, Andrea Iannone, Julian Simon - happy now that he is back on a Suter, a bike he knows much better than the FTR he had - Toni Elias and Alex de Angelis. The race is shaping up to be the usual Moto2 thriller, with the usual suspects set to duke it out. Iannone is back at the front after disappearing in mid-pack last week, further proof that though Crazy Joe, as his team call him, has plenty of talent, a touch of consistency would not go amiss. And it is gratifying to see both Julian Simon and Nico Terol further forward. For Simon, it is mainly a question of confidence, while Terol seems to be getting slowly up to speed on a four stroke.
Simon's chassis switch shows the importance - whether psychological or real - of being comfortable with the bike you are using. Further down the order - much further down the order - former World Supersport star Gino Rea is suffering with the Moriwaki, alongside teammate Ratthapark Wilairot. Wilairot was a regular top ten rider last year on an FTR, but has dropped 15 places or so since joining Gresini on the Moriwaki. With development of the Japanese chassis seemingly stalled - Rea posted good times during preseason testing, but went backwards as the others went faster - Gresini is rumored to be ready to drop Moriwaki in favor of Suter. That, rumor has it, was the Italian's second choice, forced upon them after Kalex refused to supply extra bikes. It will be interesting to see whether a different chassis can change the fortunes in the Gresini garage.
In MotoGP, it is looking like a Honda runaway. Casey Stoner isn't happy with his setup, but that did not stop him from getting the first pole of his career at Estoril. Dani Pedrosa is close beside him, and despite an electrical problem - apparently a genuine electrical problem, not one caused by the con rods smashing through the crankcases and preventing the alternator from working, as has happened in previous years - the Spaniard is looking on top form. Stoner's chest infection is clearing up, but question marks remain over his arm pump, with Stoner once again saying that the pressure during practice is never sufficient to cause his arms to pump up.
Third on the grid, and his second front row appearance in the three qualifying sessions so far, is Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Cal Crutchlow. The British rider is on fire so far this year, and has the same number of front row appearances as 2010 World Champion Jorge Lorenzo. New tires, bigger bikes, a year's experience have all helped, but what has really lit a fire in his belly has been the arrival of Andrea Dovizioso as his teammate. That has only enlarged the chip Crutchlow already has on his shoulder, and further distrust of the brakes he has been forced to use has made things even worse. In reality, Crutchlow's brakes can't be that bad, as he is currently matching the pace of the Aliens in front of him. Crutchlow is getting closer and closer to his debut podium, and Estoril is as good a chance as any.
Though Crutchlow may be the fastest of the Yamahas on the grid, that does not necessarily mean he is the fastest in actual race pace. Ben Spies' qualifying practice was marred by traffic, finding himself being balked three times during the session. His race pace is much better, and close to the pace of the Hondas. With a good start, Spies should be able to run with the Hondas, or at least give them a run for their money.
The other factory Yamaha is struggling, Jorge Lorenzo still having problem with the rear of his M1. The back wheel is blocking - locking up and stepping sideways -on corner entry, making it impossible to get corner entry right and carry the speed that is the strong point of the Yamaha. Lorenzo is disappointed, and hoping for improvement on Sunday morning before the race.
Over at Ducati, Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi are cautiously optimistic. The new setup Rossi has switched to based on Hayden's settings, has worked out rather well. Rossi can now once again brake and enter the corner much more as he did previously. That is obvious from trackside, where the Italian looks a lot more confident under braking. There are still problems, however: the rear of the bike is still an issue, with the Ducati losing acceleration in a straight line. And the bike also still wants to run wide, the problem the bike has had since the very beginning. Rossi was pleased - if pleased is the right word - with 9th, though he would have preferred to have been a little bit further forward. 5Th or 6th is where Rossi is at the moment, and the question is how long Rossi is going to regard this as good enough. New parts are to be tested on Monday, though only chassis parts and a new electronics package. The engine upgrades - needed to smooth power delivery - look like taking significantly longer.
The qualifying session was briefly interrupted by a red flag, after Colin Edwards was knocked off his bike by Randy de Puniet, who crashed while on a hot lap. Edwards broke his collarbone and suffered a concussion, but was fortunately further unhurt. The Texan flies to Barcelona on Monday to get surgery, and after that, he is free to go. The media center has started a pool on when Edwards would make a return from injury. But the number of people betting that Edwards would be back at Le Mans in two weeks' time massively outweighs those willing to lay money against it. Edwards is one tough cookie, and is not so easy to keep away from the track. Whether he is being wise or not, you have to admire his grit and determination.
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