Traditionally, we say that the MotoGP season only starts properly once it reaches European soil. The overseas races which kick off the year are always held in rather unusual circumstances, or unique tracks, and with so little preseason testing, the bikes still have so many bugs and details to iron out before they really start to show what they are capable of.
The start of 2022 has been even less useful than other years. A day and a half of testing in Sepang before the rain came. A new track at Mandalika, which needed a day to clean and then started coming part. The race at Qatar was moved earlier, putting practice into a much hotter part of the day compared to the race. Freight delays to Argentina, which meant that Friday was canceled and two days of practice and qualifying were compressed into the Saturday. And Austin, the nearest thing to normality, remains a strange and unique circuit.
So heading to Europe, and tracks which are infinitely familiar to teams and riders, should see a return to normality, right? That would be true if we were returning to Jerez, on the cards for next week, where most motorcycle racers have spent entire percentage points of their life circulating. But before we head to Jerez, we race at Portimão. A spectacular circuit in a charming setting in a fantastic location, but again, unlike most circuits in Europe, a track where MotoGP has only visited three times before. Once at the end of 2020, and twice in 2021, the Portuguese track stepping into the gap left by the Covid-19 pandemic.
(Worth noting, perhaps, that youth is an advantage here, as the track has had a regular slot on the calendar of the FIM CEV championship in recent years, meaning that recent graduates of that series have ridden there a lot more often than the MotoGP veterans.)
Racing is a rollercoaster
It is not just the fact that the teams have so little data on the track that make it unusual. The track is a genuine rollercoaster, full of elevation changes and off-camber corners where you are rarely braking or turning in a straight line. The only level part of the track is the front straight, and that starts with a small rise, and ends in a dip down to Turn 1.
The end of the straight is usually a good place to try to pass, and with MotoGP bikes reaching top speeds of over 350 km/h, there should be plenty of opportunities. But that dip into Turn 1 makes it a tricky affair, braking over the crest and down the hill means it is easy to run wide, ruining all the hard work you just put in to make a pass. Turn 3, the tight right hander, is the next opportunity, before the rollercoaster begins.
The bikes climb up the hill and then over the crest and down toward Turn 5, a wide, sweeping left-hand hairpin. Another good place to overtake, but the track going downhill and the corner being off camber makes it easy to run wide again, or worse, wash the front and crash out. Out of 5 the riders start climbing up the hill again, and the wild ride through Turns 8, 9, and 10, the track dipping and climbing along the hillside.
Turn 9 is a favorite. "It's the best corner, in my opinion," Luca Marini says. "Fourth gear, 60% of throttle, more than 200 km/h, it's good."
Sweeping and flowing
From Turn 11, the bikes fire down the hill once again through the fast and challenging left of Turn 12, before another chance to pass at the tight left of Turn 13, and climbing up over the crest of Turn 14. Then follows one of the grandest sections of motorcycle racing, the long fast sweep downhill through the final corner, a place where passing is possible, but risky, before heading round back onto the straight again, rising up over the crest at the start to fire past the finish line and barrel down towards Turn 1.
It is a fast straight, but that fast sweep of Turn 15 makes it possible to carry a lot of speed out of the final corner and onto the straight. That in turn means that bikes down in horsepower can reduce some of the damage they might sustain at other tracks. The straight is long enough for horsepower to matter, but the gap is smaller than at circuits with similar straights starting from lower speeds.
Despite the long straight and the hairpins, this is a track which flows. That is almost counterintuitive, when you look at the track on paper. "I remember being in the pre-event press conference and I talked to Miguel Oliveira who said you need to flow on this track - because he was the last winner - and it’s true," says Marc Marquez. "If you find the flow then everything is easier. But if you fight against the bike, everything becomes more and more difficult here."
Brad Binder backs that up. "It has more flow than you expect," the South African told us. "If you kill the speed too much here with all the elevation it is not easy to take good advantage and accelerate hard. You just need to keep the average up, if that makes sense. It’s a bit of a special place."
That flow is what makes riders love it. "I like the layout, I like the up and downs, some bumps, different corners, strange corners," Marc Marquez enthused. "It’s a track that you need to flow really well. Last year I struggled a bit to understand also the banking on some corners, the up and downs." It is the mixture, the complexities which make Portimão both interesting and challenging.
Winners, not favorites
So who has a record of success at the Portimão circuit? The two MotoGP riders with the best win record – two apiece – at the circuit have only a single point between them in the 2022 championship. But that is hardly a fair comparison: Remy Gardner and Raul Fernandez are rookies in MotoGP this year, and having problems finding their feet on the KTM, a bike which is far from easy to set up or master this year.
A KTM has won here already, of course, Miguel Oliveira taking a famous victory at the first time MotoGP visited his home country. Oliveira did not fare as well the next time MotoGP visited, however. He crashed in both races in 2021, scoring no points.
But the KTM is struggling in 2022. There is nothing particularly wrong with the RC16, but it is coming up short in a few different places. The biggest problem? "We are kinda saying the acceleration," Remy Gardner said. "The turning. The braking is not bad, that’s kind of what the KTM has always liked, good hard braking."
Braking and entry was not the problem, it was more on the way out of corners where problems manifested, the Australian said. "A bit of everything mid-corner to exit is what the comments are from everyone." The rookie has slightly more problems than the more experienced KTM riders.
Me, more from mid-corner on the edge and picking up."
But the risk was that KTM were measuring themselves against the more formidable targets, Gardner said. "We are trying to compare with Ducatis here that are rocketships out of the corners. There is a bit of difference there. Mid-turn as well, there is a bit missing there but trying to fix it without losing everything else is the issue. It’s always a compromise."
Grip and drive
Corner exit is currently the problem for the Yamahas, the bike lacking grip to get drive out of the turns. That may not be quite as much of an issue for the Yamahas as it will be at other tracks, Fabio Quartararo explained, the Frenchman already having won here this time last year.
"It’s a track that is not bad," the reigning world champion explained. "There are only a few corners with initial grip. The last corner, when we have the rear really loaded, the first touch is maybe a little slide but when we have full throttle the grip is really good. I think this can be quite a good track for us."
Quartararo quickly amended that, pointing out that a lot depends on qualifying and where the Yamahas start on the grid. "It can be really good or really bad. In the first year I was top four at the beginning and could overtake, so that was good but the second races I was behind the Ducatis and could not make my pace and it was a disaster so it depends a lot on qualifying and how the race goes," the Frenchman told us.
Solving the problem of qualifying was simple. "My plan is to push like hell to qualify the best," Quartararo said. "I don’t have another plan better than this. To push myself to the limit. I did this in Austin but I made a little mistake. It is the only way to really challenge the other brands. Indonesia was better for us and I pushed myself to the limit and we did it. This is really tough because all the manufacturers have made a big step. It is not that I am getting worse but that I am right on the limit."
Minor problems, major consequences
Andrea Dovizioso, newcomer to Yamaha and admittedly struggling to adapt to the M1, feels that the Yamaha is not that far behind its rivals, but it does have a clear disadvantage: a lack of rear grip. That lack of rear grip was not down to track surface or tire choice, but was a defect of the bike itself. "That characteristic, you have everywhere," the RNF WithU Yamaha rider said. "In some situations you feel it a lot, in some situations a bit less, but it's everywhere."
Looking back at his solitary year on a Yamaha, riding the Tech3 satellite machine in 2012, a bike he scored 6 podiums on, he could see that the fundamental character of the bike was not the issue. "If I compare to 2012, the DNA of the bike is very very similar, it didn't change," Dovizioso said. "The Yamaha now is not bad. I think it has the same really positive things but the negative are a bit bigger, plus I think some competitors work a lot and they become a bit more competitive." The combination of all these factors had caused even the reigning world champion to have problems. "That mix created this situation, because even Fabio who last year did a crazy championship is struggling," Dovizioso explained.
Quartararo pointed out that the bike does not lack speed, but once other riders got in front, it was hard to put up a fight. "If you look at the pace, we are always fast because we are alone and nobody is with you, but in the race people pass you and you are blocked," The Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "You cannot make your own riding style. The only rider I could make it with was Marc because he brakes super-super-late and I could make my pace normally. As soon as you have someone in front, like in Argentina, they all ride like a ‘V’ and if we don’t make it a round we are slow." The Yamaha has to use its corner speed, and if a bike – especially a Ducati – is ahead, then the conflicting lines took away the M1's only weapon, exposing its weakness.
On paper, the Yamaha and the Suzuki look very similar, and yet where the M1 is struggling, the GSX-RR is going from strength to strength. Suzuki have found more power – not the 30 horsepower which Jack Miller claims, but just enough throughout the torque curve to propel the bike a good deal faster at every stage of the corner and onto the straight.
There is a quiet optimism surrounding Suzuki. Both Joan Mir and Alex Rins have been consistent, their results getting better almost every round. If they went into Austin with doubts about whether they could be competitive, they were much more confident at Portimão, Joan Mir told us. "Before starting the race in Austin I said to you that I have doubts about that track. Here we can make it good and I have no doubt that we will be competitive. If the weather respects us and it’s not a crazy weekend, I think that we know how to be strong at this track."
The performance of the Suzuki in 2021, when the shortcomings of the GSX-RR were far more apparent, were what gave Mir confidence. "Last year we were really fast and the bike is not the same as last year so we have more potential on this bike and I’m sure we will be faster." Qualifying, another weakness from last year, was less of a concern at Portimão. "Last year I was fighting for pole position, I made the first row for the first time, so we have to follow that line that allowed us to fight for that position in qualifying. So I’m also confident about that."
The difference between last year's and this year's bike was not huge. "It’s not that we improved a lot the bike, we just made some steps, we improved the [ride-height] device, we improved the engine and the bike is faster everywhere! So every time I start to understand the real potential of this new bike and every race we are better. So let’s see what we can do this year."
It is hard to fault that optimism. The one thing which has been missing this season has been any sense of a pattern, of consistency in the results. Yet Joan Mir has finished sixth, sixth, fourth, and fourth in the first four races, and Alex Rins has gone from seventh at Qatar to fifth at Mandalika to third in Argentina and second at Austin. No one else has managed that, the Suzuki looking good everywhere, no matter the track. It is hard not to feel that the Suzukis are on the verge of taking control of the championship.
That is less the case with Ducati, despite the fact that Pecco Bagnaia won the last time we came to Portimão, and was joined on the podium by Jack Miller. The GP22 is still something of a rough diamond, with a particular area in need of polishing.
That was made evident in Texas for Pecco Bagnaia. "For sure Austin helped us a lot to think of our bike and to think about me," the Lenovo Ducati rider said. It is still clear that I’m still missing something on braking and entry. Austin was difficult for me but Argentina not. There my strong point was on braking and entry and it was like last year. Austin I was fast and strong in practice, it was just the race."
Bagnaia's weakness was in the last part of braking, he explained. The final phase of braking, with the bike leaned over and turning in already, just as he was releasing the brake ahead of the apex. That lack of feeling, of understanding what the front tire was doing, meant he had to brake earlier to scrub the same speed off.
Things were starting to come together for Bagnaia's factory Ducati Lenovo teammate, however. "Starting to really gel with my bike, understanding it more and more every weekend," Jack Miller said, fresh off his podium in Texas. "You know what we need to do, where we need to work on that kind of thing but all in all just happy, going through the motions trying to do the same thing we did in Austin which was just put together a solid weekend and I think that gives you the confidence."
Old bike, new rider
The real leader of Ducati at the moment was Enea Bastianini, however. Is the fact that Bastianini was on the GP21, and had a mountain of data to fall back on, an advantage, we asked multiple Ducati riders. "It's Enea, not the bike," they all replied.
Does this mean we should take Bastianini seriously or the championship? "Yes!" Fabio Quartararo was emphatic. "Really seriously, because last year he was super-fast but the qualifying was bad, I would say. This year he is qualifying good and he is super-fast on the pace. He is the only Ducati rider to ride ‘this’ way. He is on the soft front tire and for sure his bike is moving a lot but he likes it. It’s a different riding style to the others but we must take it seriously because the way he rides is amazing."
Quartararo is impressed with the Gresini Ducati rider's consistency. "He has been strong in all the races," the Frenchman told us. "In Argentina he struggled but he wins two and in the others he could have finished on the podium. For me he is the leader of Ducati."
Quartararo would not be drawn too much on the role the bike played, but he admitted that at the start of a season, the previous year's bike had the benefit of experience, whereas the new bike still needed tweaking to fulfill its potential. "Sometimes it is normal that the new bike takes a bit more time, and in the first half of the season the 21 is going better and the 22 will catch up later." That didn't mean that the Bastianini should be underestimated, however. "I have no idea but at the moment it is more Bastianini doing the difference than the bike."
Champing at the bit
If there is a dark horse at Portimão, it is the Honda. And especially the Honda of Marc Marquez. After a sensor issue caused the six-time MotoGP champion problems at the start of the race, Marquez battled his way through the field to finish an impressive sixth.
With an extra week to prepare and work on his fitness, Marquez was raring to go at Portimão, he said. "In Austin I controlled myself a lot to survive for my physical condition, and this helped me a lot for Sunday’s race," Marquez said. "Here I’m better and the weather will also be a small help, the rain, because you don’t force a lot." Rain is expected on Friday and part of Saturday, reducing the physical intensity of a weekend.
Marquez' mindset was now set on podium places again. "Now I feel ready. It’s true that this season my best position is top five, so I cannot think to go from top five to win a race. There are steps in between. Now I need to do that next step, to finish on the podium maybe, or another top five."
It was too early to be setting objectives, however, Marquez warned. "But with this unpredictable MotoGP you cannot approach a weekend with a clear target, you need to understand during the weekend where you are."
How the Honda has changed
Will the new Honda suit the Portimão layout better? "We’ll see," Pol Espargaro said. "The new bike is not very different from how we finished with the bike from last year. For sure, the chassis, the engine, everything is a little bit different. But the concept of this bike is the one we liked from last year."
Yes, the bike was new, but it was built on the foundations of the 2021 Honda RC213V, Espargaro said. "OK, Honda brings a completely new bike, but it’s not coming from zero. It’s not like it’s coming from one crazy engineer who says ‘we’re going to do that’. It’s the work of all the team from last year, even also the test team, and then we discover that with the bike last year with the weight in this place and changes the bike works."
Espargaro expanded on what had changed since last year. They had spent the latter half of 2021 moving as much weight further back as possible, but had run into the limits of the existing design. For 2022, a lot of components had been rehoused further back, and this had given them more grip and a better bike balance.
"Last year we were struggling a lot with the weight of the bike, how the weight was transferring into the tire," Espargaro explained. "So we discovered that by doing something on the bike and the rider with the weight we were getting more grip and more turning. But then we were suffering a little bit more with the front."
The 2022 bike was a consequence of that work. "The bike of this year is thinking about that. We moved a lot of systems of the bike that were in front to the rear so we generate a different compromise with the weight balance. If you put the put on the scales it would be different for sure. We discovered last year that by doing that we were better."
The improvement was visible in photos, Espargaro pointed out. "You can check by the pictures of myself riding, last year I was riding with more tension, not out of the bike like I normally do, because I was worried about the rear. This year I’m much more out of the bike, I can trust a little bit more the rear."
Can the Honda pull it off? The weather – rain expected for most of Friday and part of Saturday – will make working on setup hard. FP4 and qualifying could be the first bit of dry track time the teams get, so the weekend is likely to favor the teams and riders with the best base setup. That may play into the hands of Enea Bastianini, and also of Suzuki. But it is hard to escape the feeling that Marc Marquez has a point to prove, especially after the debacle at Austin. Portimão is one of the few tracks where Marquez has not won. Sunday will show if he is ready to remedy that.
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