The New King?
If you haven't done so already, remember the name. It's testament to how good, how dramatic Sunday's action was that Moto3's mad, 18-rider dash didn't get top billing. But this may well be looked back on as the beginning of something very special in years to come. At just 16 years and 314 days of age, Pedro Acosta not only won his second ever grand prix; he did so by producing one of the great Moto3 rides in modern times.
It was a performance that showcased so many attributes. Self-belief. Fighting spirit. Raw speed. Maturity. Nerve. Acosta's riding to bridge the gap to the leading group was exceptional. But the manner in which he sliced through the pack of experienced names before holding off Darryn Binder's late response was another level altogether. Every once in a while, a teenager comes along and does something so remarkable the whole paddock is talking soon after. Marc Márquez at Estoril in 2010 comes to mind. As does Brad Binder's exploits at Jerez six years later. It's fair to say both have gone on to bigger and better things.
One of seven names penalised for brainless riding at the close of Friday evening's FP2, the reigning Red Bull Rookies Champion had every right to assume the chances of backing up his opening night podium were gone. "Yesterday I saw everything a bit dark," he said of accepting the punishment for his indiscretion.
Yet there was a precedent. In 2019, Niccolo Antonelli had stalled his SIC58 Squadra Corse Honda after the sighting lap for the Czech Grand Prix. Hurried off to pit lane as the field prepared to start, the Italian soon found himself 8.7 seconds in arrears. But as the lead group fought and tripped over one another, the Italian was back, fighting among them by lap eleven. Sound familiar?
Thus there was good reason for at least three of the names penalized here – Acosta, Sergio Garcia and Romano Fenati – to harbour realistic beliefs they could recover. "It's a tough penalty, but we are fast riders starting from pit lane," said Garcia after setting the second fastest time in qualifying. "Although it will be complicated by the wind, I think we can reach the group if we respect each other. It will be necessary to discuss it with the other sanctioned riders."
Garcia reached out to a handful of the seven riders to discuss a strategy, but Acosta wasn't one of them. Asked if he had formulated a plan with either Fenati or Garcia, Acosta said, "No. Yesterday, Romano asked me what I thought of the penalty (but nothing more). Finally, Romano and Sergio helped me a bit. They didn't overtake me. If someone pushed, maybe now I wouldn't be here (celebrating).'
One lap in and Fenati, Acosta and Garcia were already breaking clear of the four names with whom they started. 22nd, 23rd and 24th at the close of lap one, they had much to do, 11.1 seconds back of leader Darryn Binder. But Acosta soon took control and expertly led his mini-group for the first eleven laps. While the lead group repeatedly braked for turn one with six or seven riders abreast, the young Spaniard was benefiting from riding in a group of three. "This morning I took the pace. When I saw Romano overtake me and Garcia the same, I thought, 'Now, it's your moment, you don't have to recover all the time alone.' And we did it."
Wiping out the eleven second deficit and catching the lead group, as they did on lap twelve, was one thing. But as Fenati and Garcia showed, blitzing a trail past the 15 riders ahead would not be easy. Yet Acosta made it appear so. He rose three positions on laps 13 and again on 14, then four places a lap later. On lap 17 he went from fifth to first. And the best was still to come. He was coolness personified around that final circuit as Binder gave his all. Yet even the South African – seven years and 99 grand prix his senior – had no answer.
All that work through preseason on maintaining tyre life had paid off. "Finally, I didn't lose the grip," Acosta explained. "It's because on Friday and Saturday we worked a lot on the race pace and we had the best bike on the grid." Binder was almost left speechless by Acosta's late race speed. "When he came through on the final lap, he had the hammer down hard. I couldn't even get close enough to even try a lunge but I gave it my best."
The race raises a host of questions: namely, how could the leaders squander such an early advantage? Yes, this race was seven seconds faster than race one. But Acosta's race time was 13.5 seconds slower than Albert Arenas' effort a year ago, and 13.6 seconds off Kaito Toba's race record set in 2019. OK, there was a strong headwind that affected top speed (Ryusei Yamanaka's KTM topped the speed charts on Sunday with 236.8 km/h. Compare that to the fastest speed of 246 km/h in last year's race). But this was also a case of a whole host of names repeatedly tripping over one another. Going off David Emmett's rigorous sector analysis, Acosta was on average three tenths faster in the first sector alone – think that wild ride into turn one – per lap.
As Joan Mir said, "No one took the leadership to say, 'Some strong riders are coming from pit lane, so I want to push and make a fast race.' They made a super slow race and gave the opportunity to Pedro! He did an awesome job (but) the other rivals have to be angry for sure."
Acosta was imperious. But before we get overly excited, it's worth pointing out we've been here before. Romano Fenati won his second ever grand prix by 36s and it's fair to say he has been a regular disappointment from there. The same could be said of Can Öncü, a victor in his debut appearance, who fell out of favour in Aki Ajo's team in just the following year.
Yet both of those showings came in the rain. Harsh as it sounds, neither Fenati or Öncü appear to possess the intelligence Acosta has. He carries a mature head, evidenced by his comments after race one "You don't get what you want; you get what you work for," he said. And, at just 16, can already express himself well in English. Take his response when asked whether this win changes his expectations for the year ahead, for instance. "Finally, no," he said. "In Europe I know the tracks. Maybe they are going to be easier. But I have the same goal as this week: just to enjoy every race and don't think too much about the championship."
"It was an incredible race. This morning I got up and said to my helper, 'Mate, I can do it!' The thing that helps me a lot is when you work with professionals, everything is easier. Aki is not just my boss. He's like my mental coach. When I had the penalty, I saw everything a bit dark. He said, 'Stop thinking about everything. Just enjoy!'"
Márquez's masterclass in Estoril came in his 45th Grand Prix, while Binder's famous Jerez comeback was in his 79th. For Acosta to scale these heights in just his second ever appearance points to a very bright future ahead.
Lowes made to work
In each of Sam Lowes seven previous Moto2 victories, his had won by at least 1.9 seconds. So, his stellar late attempts to defend a race-long lead from Remy Gardner in round two proved he could handle pressure and win in a different way. "Last year, in the races I won, I had quite a big gap in the end," said the 30-year old. "Today was pressure all the way through. I really had to focus and use the laps I had done during the winter on used tyres to the end. It means a lot for me. It gives me a step up and I can take a lot of confidence from that." Lowes is now the first rider to win the first two Moto2 races of the year from pole position (and the first Brit to do so in the category since Hailwood in 1966). With two of his favourite tracks coming up, there is no reason to think the run will end here.
Gardner plays the long game
Unlike the previous Sunday's Moto2 encounter, Gardner didn't have to fight back from a shaky first lap. The Australian was never more than 0.4 seconds off and ably upped his pace when Lowes pushed to break him on laps 13 and 18. He saved his best for last, where his speed through the three fast rights in the third sector was clear. But, as he lined up a move on the exit of turn 14, he feared his rear wheel had edged over track limits. From there, thoughts turned to the long game. "The pace was just incredible," said Gardner, who – like Lowes – posted his quickest time on the final lap. "I knew Sam would push for the last two laps. I was very tempted. I came up real close. I was there at turn 14 but I thought I'd put my tyre on the green so I had to roll out of it for the left. Sam braked so late for the final corner I wasn't going to do anything silly at just for five points. We've performed well." This already has the hallmarks of a vintage championship battle.
Binder and Honda at one
His second podium finish in as many races was understandably overshadowed. But Darryn Binder's early performances aboard the Petronas Sprinta Honda bode well for a championship challenge. After two seasons on a Mahindra, then four on a KTM, the South African has quickly taken to the sweet-handling NSF250RR. He is already benefiting from having a strong team-mate in John McPhee and free practice and qualifying performances indicate he has addressed one glaring weakness: a one lap qualifying blitz. "It's a bit early to say but I feel really good," said Binder on Sunday. "I was fast here last year with the KTM. But I rocked up here and in every practice I felt strong. I've adapted well to the Honda and the team has been super helpful and they've got a lot of experience. Having a fast team-mate always helps, too. I'm really happy with my bike right now. It's shown with the results and I just want to keep this momentum rolling."
Moto3 Penalties likely to increase
Last October a system was confirmed by which FIM Stewards would distribute penalties for irresponsible riding in Moto3. First time offenders would serve a Long Lap Penalty. Second time offenders would serve a double Long Lap Penalty. Third time offenders would be forced to start from the pit lane, with fifth time offenders being disqualified from the event. Clearly, the Stewards felt harsher penalties for first time offenders this year were necessary after they were caught touring for a tow in FP2. Yet following Acosta's staggering victory, will this prove a sufficient deterrent? It's already clear the Stewards don't think so. John McPhee and Jeremy Alcoba were handed a pit lane start plus a further time penalty after their altercation in the gravel following a turn one collision. Maybe that will teach 'em? If not, surely disqualification awaits.
McPhee kicks out
If one of the nicest, most mildly mannered riders on the grid aims a boot between your legs, it's fair to assume you did something to incur that wrath. This isn't a defence of John McPhee's kick at Jeremy Alcoba on Sunday. But clearly the Scot had been wound up by a series of the Spaniard's moves before their turn one collision – Acosta tagged Binder, flipping his Honda in the process and taking a hapless McPhee down – on lap 15. "I was possibly a bit too cautious in the opening laps, but then I managed to show my real speed and make my way back to the front. I had a couple of issues on the way there with another rider, and then finally the incident happened at Turn 1," McPhee said. Alcoba didn't win many friends during his rookie campaign in 2020 due to his aggressive and dismissive antics. That doesn't look set to change. Tragically for McPhee, one of the preseason favourites, the pit lane start and ten-second penalty handed to him for the next race may well mean he leaves Portugal 70 points in arrears of the championship leader. It's already a long way back.
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