You would almost think that the championship hadn't been wrapped up at Misano 2. Friday at Portimão saw Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia going head to head as if the title was still on the line. FP1? Fabio Quartararo beats Pecco Bagnaia, with the two separated by just 0.045. FP2? Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia swap fastest laps, with the Frenchman snatching the best time in the dying moments, Pecco Bagnaia coming up just short on his final lap.
Dig deeper into the times and it's clear just how far ahead the two riders who fought for the championship all this year are. Both are capable of banging out long sequences of 1'40.4s on new and used tires. The title may have been settled two weeks ago at Misano, but the battle of egos will not be done until the checkered flag drops at Valencia. The fierce but friendly rivalry continues to go down to the line.
"It would be nice to continue like this. I enjoy it," Pecco Bagnaia told us. "Every time I pushed I saw I was first. But when I was back in the box he was overtaking me. It was a nice battle." The factory Ducati rider hoped to keep it up throughout the weekend. "I hope Sunday will be same. My pace is one of the strongest at the moment, like Fabio's. We are the 2 strongest in this moment. Here in Portimao he won so I would like to have a nice fight with him."
Quartararo was less concerned about the battle when he spoke to us on Friday evening. "To be honest I think that I am looking forward to the battle, but it is not something I want. I want to enjoy the world championship but I don’t need to get obsessed by fighting with Pecco, if he won or I won it was OK. Fighting? I just want to ride free."
For someone claiming he was trying not to worry about the fight with Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Quartararo celebrated his fastest times in both free practice sessions suspiciously enthusiastically. That, in itself, is a good thing. Achieving the objective of a (young) lifetime can take the edge off a rider's hunger. That is very obviously not the case for the 2021 MotoGP champion.
Release the pressure
Winning the championship had lifted some of the pressure from his shoulders, he told us. "When you don’t feel pressure you go faster - this doesn’t mean I will - but to not really care about the result is something you never have," Quartararo said, before qualifying his statement to point out that winning was still what he had come to Portugal to do. "Of course the target is to fight for victory."
It was a liberating experience, he said. "It was really good, I was feeling super-happy to ride and think about nothing. I think it is a great moment in my career that I can really enjoy the moment with zero pressure," Quartararo explained.
That actually winning the championship brings its own pressure was evinced by Joan Mir. The 2020 MotoGP champion had taken a break from training after Misano 2, realizing that he had put too much pressure on his title defense, and that had made it harder for him.
"It’s difficult because I remember after Misano I took one week off because I needed it to recharge my batteries again," the Suzuki rider told us. "For you, it maybe sounds normal, one week off. But for me, it’s been a long time since I stayed off training and off motorbikes. It’s been like this, from December last year I didn’t take one week off from training."
The mental pressure of that had built up and weighed him down, especially after a controversial eighth place in Austin and a crash on lap 3 at Misano 2, Mir told us. "It’s because I needed it. I was mentally a bit collapsed after two such difficult GPs in a row."
Those two bad races were the culmination of a long year of putting pressure on himself, Mir admitted. He had not taken any time to recover from the 2020 season after winning the title. "When I won last year we finished the season in Portimão. On the Tuesday after, I was training motocross."
Rest and reload
The 2020 MotoGP crown had lain heavy on his head, Mir said. "Mentally the title gave me an extra motivation to try to repeat again to be more hungry." But he had used that motivation to put even more pressure on himself. "This is pressure that I put on myself. That’s why I normally don’t feel a lot the pressure from the outside, because the pressure I put on myself is much higher that the pressure from the outside."
He had not permitted himself any rest. "I stayed one week off in December but I always trained and mentally I only was focused to be better and try to improve."
But now, Mir was willing to admit that he had got the balance wrong after winning the title, and taking a week off training had helped him understand where he had gone wrong. "The end of the season is coming. I needed that week off to try and disconnect a bit more and to make the last two races at the best of my performance."
This was the lesson of 2021 for Joan Mir. "It’s really important to always train well and it’s also really good to rest. It’s as important as training. In that area I think I have to improve a bit more."
The right approach
Mir had immediately reaped the rewards of taking a week away from training. The Suzuki Ecstar rider had finished the day in fourth, and with a race rhythm not far from Bagnaia and Quartararo. "After that break and coming back here and being competitive is fine. It’s only the first day. I feel fine and fully charged to make a good weekend. And motivated, which is the important thing." What Joan Mir has to do next is carry that same balance through to 2022.
Jack Miller ended both sessions in third, the factory Ducati rider on strong form. The Australian rejected the idea that his speed was down to the colder conditions as winter approaches. "I don’t think that’s the case so much. I think myself and the other Ducati riders are strong, but also Fabio is strong," Miller told us. "The last couple of races have been cool because we’re getting toward winter. We’re showing our speed as we have done most of the year. I don’t think the temperature affects us too much, let’s say."
Tire choice was a bigger issue in determining speed, according to Miller, and he had found some pace when he had used the medium front. But in the cooler conditions, and the strong wind sucking the heat out of the tires, he had taken some persuading, Miller admitted, his crash in the race in Misano two weeks ago playing on his mind.
"My crew chief said I had some serious graining of the right side of the Soft, looks like we have to start with the Medium," Miller told us. "I said are you sure? We can’t just get away with riding around on the S a little longer? We did a longer run, had some graining, so I had to put the M on. But I was nervous. The first 2 times into T4 I was very gentle when I was putting the lean angle. But yeah, it was OK."
It was also a good day for the Hondas. The three regular Honda riders – Marc Marquez is out with concussion, as discussed previously – all finished in the top nine. Despite finishing fifth, Pol Espargaro was not particularly satisfied, coming off his best result in MotoGP at Misano. But he felt he had made a huge step compared to the last time he came here back in April.
"We have made an amazing step from the first time we’ve been here, especially in safety," the Repsol Honda rider said. I crashed here quite badly, Alex [Marquez] also. Even if I’m not 100% happy because we are not taking 100% of the performance with the tire, some guys are using the H rear and for us it’s very tricky, close to impossible. We’re not generating temperature we would like in the tires and that’s why we’re using the soft."
Grip had been an issue, the track starting the day quite dirty, though it cleaned up a little by the end of Friday. The wind was an issue as well, both in terms of stability, in blowing riders off course in the many downhill and uphill off-camber corners which litter Portimão. But also by sucking the heat out of tires, especially on the left hand side, which doesn't see much action between Turn 13 and the next left at Turn 4.
That lack of grip was something which particularly affected the Hondas, Takaaki Nakagami asserted. "Still there is a little bit lack of grip, we still have some issues, and we need to find the best balance," the LCR Honda rider told us. "Because in braking and mid corner, the feeling of the bike is still a little bit not the right balance. But these are small issues, so it looks OK. Hopefully we can try to keep good results for all the weekend, but not a bad a start."
If the Hondas are going well, the same can't be said for the KTMs. Danilo Petrucci is the first KTM in 13th spot, the factory bikes of Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira way down in 17th and 19th place. That is something of a surprise, given that Oliveira convincingly won the race at Portimão the first time we visited last year, and Brad Binder had finished a solid fifth back in April.
Binder had no explanation for his travails. "Honestly I’m not sure what is going on at the moment. I'm not quite sure. I expected to be much stronger than we are," he told us. "It was clear from the beginning that it was not going to be easy. Struggling to get the rear hooked up on entry and as soon as we go for the throttle we seem to be drifting a little bit wide, so we have to carry more angle and not get the drive we want. It is turning into a lot of pumping when we put in a softer compound tire."
Miguel Oliveira was suffering from similar problems. "I’m struggling quite a lot with the bike. I am not missing any confidence and I am doing my lines pretty good but every time we are on throttle I am losing grip, the bike is spinning and not understanding what to do," the Portuguese rider, riding in front of an enthusiastic home crowd, told us.
His plight had not improved when grip at the track had gotten better in the afternoon. "It kinda felt like it was getting better but not for us. We hit a wall quite quickly and I cannot go faster. Mainly because of the grip and this is something we are trying to figure out and understand for tomorrow because we are running out of time. The team is trying but nothing worked. It’s a bit frustrating but it’s the time to be calm and to react and not throw in the towel," Oliveira said.
Binder believes that the KTM's biggest problem is in getting heat into the tires and keeping it there. That was a special issue at Portimão. "It was really difficult to bring the tires up this morning," the South African said. "Generally it doesn’t take long to bring up the rear tire, so it feels really sketchy the first two laps but other than that the general condition of the track is not bad at all."
The wind played a major role here, Binder explained. "It is not necessarily so cold but the wind chill factor is quite hectic. When you stand out in the wind it is pretty nippy. I think it is making it a bit more difficult to bring the tires up and it is taking more time to get to pace on each exit."
There may not be a title on the line in MotoGP, but there is still everything to play for in the two support classes. Both Remy Gardner and Pedro Acosta could wrap up their titles in Moto2 and Moto3 respectively, but it was their rivals, Raul Fernandez and Dennis Foggia who ruled the day.
Gardner was quickest in the morning, but teammate Fernandez took over at the top of the timesheets in the afternoon. Rubbing salt into the Australian's wound was the fact that he had a sizable off at the end of FP2. He was chasing Marco Ramirez into the final turn, when he ran into the back of the Spaniard, taking both of them down.
"On the last lap, I was just pushing, doing my thing," Gardner explained. "I had Ramirez out in front probably 30 meters away, we got to the last corner and the guy just stopped in the middle of the corner and I just ran into the back of him." He was left battered and bruised, with friction burns and bruised ribs, but he wasn't expecting the crash to affect the rest of his weekend.
In Moto3, Dennis Foggia was much faster than the rest of the field in the morning session, and finished second, just 0.015 behind Romano Fenati. More importantly, he was a couple of tenths quicker than championship leader Pedro Acosta. Foggia has been on a roll in the second half of the season, and that doesn't look like stopping in Portugal.
All in all, the chances of a champion emerging from Portimão seem slim. But then again, it is still only Friday, and there is still everything to play for.
Shouldering the burden
Friday is a day for testing, not just for the MotoGP teams, but also for the series as well. Dorna's talented broadcasting team was testing a new "Shoulder Cam", a tiny portable camera sewed into the shoulder of Alex Rins' Alpinestars leathers, and providing a fantastic rider's eye view of the controls and bike, as well as a sense of the physicality of riding a MotoGP bike. It was met with great enthusiasm by fans and TV viewers (including those with a professional interest in the sport), as an incredibly engaging perspective on the sport. There are, it is said, more where that came from.
There was also a test with tail lights in FP1. All three classes were sent out with their tail lights on, the red lights usually reserved for running in the rain or conditions with poor visibility. The idea is to test this as a safety measure, one of the ideas building on the announcement at Misano 2 of Dorna and the FIM exploring ways of communicating with riders when there is danger up ahead.
The idea, as MotoMatters.com contributor Niki Kovacs discovered, is to have the tail lights of all the bikes flash repeatedly when there is danger ahead, such as a fallen bike. It is an ingenious and simple solution, and one which could be rapidly deployed and built upon for the future.
But first, Dorna, the FIM, and IRTA had to test whether the lights could be seen in bright sunlight and blue skies. Though visibility was largely good, where the lights were mounted on the bikes was difficult in some cases. On the Yamaha and Suzuki, the lights are in the tail, at the very rear of the bike, and so highly visible. On the Honda and Ducati, for example, the lights are off to one side, offset because of the exhaust coming out of the tail.
Takaaki Nakagami was surprised at how well it had worked. "From FP1, I saw all the bikes lights were on, and quite easy to see," the LCR Honda rider told us. "Even during the day with the sunshine, it was OK. It just depends, because [the lights] have a different position on all the manufacturers. So it looks like the Yamaha is more easy to see, but Honda and Ducati, it's a little bit difficult, the position is not in the center, it's a little bit lower down. A bit difficult to see. But Yamaha is really easy to see the light is on. For the first time, it's quite easy for me to see it in the middle of the day. So it's good for the future."
Casey Stoner is also at Portimão, returning to a MotoGP track for the first time since Mugello 2018. The Australian held a press conference on Friday, of which much more will be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks. He said a lot of interesting things, and told the media what he hoped would change in MotoGP in the future. But those statements need to be put into a wider context, for which there is currently not enough time. Time enough once MotoGP packs up for the winter in just over two weeks' time, at the Jerez test after Valencia.
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