Portimão MotoGP Friday Round Up: A Wasted Day, An Improved Honda, And What The Yamaha Is Really Missing

If anyone was holding out the forlorn hope of a return to normality now that MotoGP is back in Europe, they were to be bitterly disappointed the way the first day of practice played out at Portimão. It rained all day, occasionally easing up, only for the rain to hammer down again. The track surface varied from wet to absolutely soaking, a rivulet of water running across the apex of Turn 5, a corner which is tricky enough in the dry.

Remarkably, nobody crashed there, despite it being notorious for catching out the unwary. There was plenty of crashing elsewhere: a grand total of 41 on the first day across all three classes, one shy of three-day total of last October's Algarve Grand Prix, and six short of the total accrued in the race here last April. The vast majority fell at Turn 4, the first left hander after the main straight, and nearly half the track from the previous left. In the cold, wet, and miserable conditions, the left side of the tire was losing a lot of heat, and it was easy to crash.

At least Turn 4 wasn't too fast. The fast left handers were a good deal scarier, especially the turns at the top of the hill where the strong and gusty winds came into play. Turn 9 – Craig Jones Corner, the fast and frightening left in the dip, normally taken in fourth gear at the thick end of 200 km/h – claimed five victims, two of whom required medical attention. Adrian Fernandez fractured two fingers, there, and was ruled unfit for the rest of the weekend.

"It’s difficult to put temperature on the left side of the tire," Maverick Viñales said. "It’s hard to get the temperature in. After 10 laps it’s fine. But before, it’s critical." Experiences varied for the riders, Joan Mir having similar problems, though not as bad as Viñales. "It’s something that in FP1 I struggled in the first laps, but then when the temperature came I was able to set a good lap time."

Only the Hondas didn't seem to suffer too badly in the cold and wet. "It's true that the first lap it looks like it's a little bit tricky, but later on, after one lap and a half, it's fine for us," Alex Marquez told us.

The Hondas were remarkably strong on the first day at Portimão. "I think overall the bike is good in wet and dry," Pol Espargaro believed. "But it was wet today, so you could just see the result in the wet. But I trust that this weekend, even in the dry conditions, we should be on the top, we should be OK. The bike works good, as you said, all four bikes are working well."

It was the first time the Honda riders had been able to spend some time riding in the wet on the completely revamped 2022 RC213V, the Repsol Honda rider pointed out. "It's the first time actually we can work on the bike in wet conditions, because in Indonesia, we went into the race with a completely new bike without knowing how it would react in the wet, and here we had this morning and this afternoon to set up the bike, and it was great," Espargaro said.

The wet conditions allowed the Honda to exploit the newly found rear grip the bike has. That rear grip has come at the price of a lack of front end feeling, but paradoxically, that was less of an issue in the wet, Alex Marquez explained. "It's much better, because we put less stress on it, you push much much less and in that moment the chassis and all this can handle quite OK. For that reason, we are faster in the wet."

But the improvement had also come thanks to some changes to the 2022 bike. Marc Marquez acknowledged that he had had new parts at the previous race in Texas. "In Austin some things arrived that helped me a bit, and we need to continue on Honda’s way. Especially the bike balance, also I believe we can improve there." The Repsol Honda rider kept tight-lipped on what exactly the changes were. "I cannot say because you cannot see from the outside."

Those parts and that setup had also arrived in the LCR Honda garage. At least, that is what we can infer from what Alex Marquez told us. "It was an important day that we tried some different setup, that Honda said to us was the way that we need to follow to improve the chassis side, and it was a little bit better. So I felt great in the morning, but especially in FP2 in the end, with a lot of water, I was feeling really good."

What might those new parts be? The most likely candidates to change setup and weight distribution are frames, swingarms, and shock linkages. The chances of seeing a difference in a frame might be difficult, though the expert eye can usually spot them. Shock linkages are usually hidden away by bodywork, but the change in geometry is often visible. Swingarms can be visibly different if the length is different, but the carbon fiber items can be changed by altering the layering and direction of the carbon fiber sheets before impregnation and firing. That is impossible to detect from outside.

One difference spotted by the eagle-eyed Niki Kovács is the fact that the two Repsol Honda bikes and Alex Marquez have a new exhaust. The lower exhaust, serving the two cylinders of the front bank, is a slightly different shape, with different welds and sections to the system used at the start of the season, and still fitted to Takaaki Nakagami's bike.

But it could also merely be a question of weight distribution and bike balance. On Thursday, Pol Espargaro had explained that the 2022 bike was modeled on the 2021 machine, but with a lot of components relocated to the rear of the bike to shift more weight there and create more grip. That had helped, but moving weight toward the rear had reduced the feeling at the front. A logical step would be to shift the weight distribution a little bit toward the front again, to try to keep as much as the rear grip as possible while improving the front end. This, though, is speculation.

Rear grip is what the Yamaha riders will tell you is missing most of all from the 2022 M1. The Yamaha riders, with the exception of Fabio Quartararo, that is. "I don’t agree, because I think if you ask every rider what he needs to be faster it’s grip!" the Frenchman told us. "Because with more grip it’s clear you go faster. But for me the way of riding the Yamaha, I think I have quite a lot of experience with that bike and it’s not grip, it’s power."

Quartararo hammered on this point. "It’s clearly power and if you ask me 20 times I will answer this," he said, pointing to the result at the last race at the Circuit of The Americas. "In Austin clearly we lose half a second. Between two straights it’s half a second. If you take out that half second we will fight for the victory. And it was the same in Argentina."

Andrea Dovizioso reiterated his belief that it was grip that was missing, particularly on the edge of the tire in the acceleration phase, just after the first touch of throttle after the apex. "On the dry, the entry is not a problem. You start to have a problem from the beginning, when you open the throttle, until the traction area," the RNF WithU Yamaha rider said. "The biggest problem is the edge grip, but on exit you start with the bad slide, and you bring that to the traction area. So the difficult thing is to – what Fabio is very good - you don't have any range to manage before you arrive on the traction area. Because you immediately slide."

The only way to avoid the bike sliding was to be as smooth as possible, Dovizioso explained. "With the Yamaha, you have to be so smooth because the grip is very low. You can be fast, but you have to be so smooth, because the way you lose the grip is so quick. So when this happens, you don't get the feeling. So lap by lap, it's difficult to get the flow."

Fabio Quartararo's exceptional talent and unique approach to riding the Yamaha meant he could exploit the strength of the M1 on corner entry, Dovizioso said. But he believed that Quartararo's focus on power was down to a lack of experience with other bikes, and the possibilities they offered when grip was available.

"Fabio in this moment is the only rider who is able to be fast with Yamaha with no grip on the rear," Dovizioso told us. "This is in my opinion his riding style, and it's because he never tried a different bike, and he gets used to using the potential of the bike, because the bike has a big potential about entry, turning, and middle of the corner, because the front of the bike is so good. So it's normal, because if you give him a bit more power, he can just be a bit faster on the straight, because in the corners he is already so fast."

Quartararo was not a typical Yamaha rider, however. "I agree with him, but his way to ride, in my opinion, is a bit unique," Dovizioso said. "That's why I'm explaining and I'm pushing a lot for the grip, because in my opinion, 90% of the riders with Yamaha need more grip, and this is the biggest limit. I can especially say that because I'm coming from a different bike, and in the last two years, I rode two different bikes. That's why I'm pushing for that. So Fabio is not saying wrong things, just he doesn't know about the grip, because he hasn't tried [other bikes]. But this is normal. But if I'm him, I would like more power, it's normal, because he can be just a bit faster with more power."

How is the Yamaha in the wet? Andrea Dovizioso ended FP2 as third fastest, but the Italian warned this was not a realistic reflection of where the M1 stands. "The third position is not the reality, because most of the riders started with the used tire from the morning and saw that all the Yamahas started with the new one. So that is not a real third position," he said.

The problem, Fabio Quartararo said, was that the operating window of the Yamaha M1 was very narrow, and once outside it, it was hard to go fast. "The window of how it works is so small, and then I think I’m a rider that is really sensitive from the rear. Like I feel the rear is coming super easy and my feeling is like if it’s sliding a little bit, I feel it’s much more than it really is," he explained. Being even smoother on exit would gain speed, Quartararo said, but it was still not enough.

While the Yamahas were struggling with grip, the Ducati riders appeared to be throwing their bikes into the gravel traps. Of the six crashes in MotoGP, five involved Ducati riders: the factory bikes of Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia, the two Mooney VR46 machines of Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi, and Johann Zarco of the Pramac team.

The issue, according to Zarco, was keeping heat in the tires in the conditions. "Maybe we’ve got more problems to warm the rear tire," the Pramac Ducati rider told us. "That was the problem for Bezzecchi in the fast corner. And maybe a little bit mine also."

The bigger problem was the size of the stones in the gravel trap. So annoyed was Pecco Bagnaia that he took a handful of stones from Turn 3, where he crashed, and handed it to team boss Davide Tardozzi. "For the crash we had the bike was too much destroyed. The gravel is too big," the Italian said. "It’s not smooth like the standard gravel we have to have in the track. It’s something we have to speak about in the Safety Commission for our safety, for the safety of our bikes too. It’s clear we need smoother gravel, too."

The fact that when you crash at Portimão, you tend to do so at high speed, did not help, Bagnaia said. "In this track you arrive in the gravel very fast," the factory Ducati rider told us. "The gravel is very solid. It’s not smooth. Normally when you arrive to the gravel you go down and it’s difficult to get out. At this track no, you arrive to the gravel and you can get out very easily. This means it’s very compact. When you crash in this situation it’s easy to have pain from that."

The gravel hadn't been treated properly, Jack Miller believed. "The whole idea with gravel is that it’s meant to be fluffed up and have air in it so that it absorbs and at this point of time, the type of gravel that they’ve got and basically letting it compact down with the rain and whatever, it’s not doing its job. It’s just kind of making uneven ground for us all to roll over. I think you saw a couple of guys today really get ****-whipped going through the gravel and it’s not ideal. And it destroys the bike for nothing," the Australian told us.

Lessons in the wet

Can we draw any conclusions from the first day of practice, other than that crashing at Portimão can hurt? The general consensus was that lessons learned would not transfer directly to a dry race on Sunday, but that didn't mean that Friday was a waste. "If it's going to be dry, no, zero," Dovizioso said when asked if anything was learned from Friday.

That didn't mean that the time spent in the wet wasn't useful, however. "At the end, every day, every practice, you have to try something, especially in our situation, to try to understand if you found the direction or if there is something," Dovizioso said. "Because apart from that, you never know Sunday what the weather will be, in any practice, for example the second run, the water was so high, you couldn't improve, but at the end, you can find that condition in the race."

Pol Espargaro summed it up even more succinctly. "I think it's important to ride," the Repsol Honda rider said. And ride they did. But the finishing order on Friday is unlikely to bear that much of a resemblance to what happens on Sunday. But motorcycle racing is an outdoor sport, and we cannot control the weather. With conditions expected to be mixed on Saturday and dry on Sunday, we won't really have any idea of where people stand until after the race on Sunday. But that is part of the joy of racing, after all.

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Okay, I get it, I just don't agree with it.  Safety, safety, safety, uh huh.  No doubt of the utmost importance, but come on - it's gravel.  At the pinnacle of this sport, the gravel traps aren't good enough. Gravel compacts.  Don't crash and it's all set decoration.

A lot of the problem seems to be that they have rocks of like 50mm size, not 10mm gravel.  Commentators pointed out the huge gravel in a slo-mo when someone was crashing earlier on (maybe Moto3).  When Pecco crashed and picked up the gravel and they were wondering whether it was a superstition, I was pretty sure already it was Pecco being annoyed at the state of the gravel.  There's a big difference between falling into a pit of 6-10mm gravel, and one filled with 50mm rocks!

It's one of those things where you'd think there should be an FIM standard for the contents of the gravel trap - depth and composition of the gravel material and the way the surface is prepared.  IIRC it was waves ploughed into the gravel trap (to stop cars more effectively) at Misano which was responsible for injuring Wayne Rainey.

Visibly harder packed than usual too when they walk on it. Bikes bounce hard and grind to a rocky halt. Ouch! 

Friday wash crash-fest via conditions. I think the bike racers pushing limits get to ask for such things, and it makes sense that they do. Who else will? Cars won't. And we've got the money, unlike clubs etc. 

I think there are machines that can grind them up. Scoop, crush, repeat. No big deal.