Motorcycle racing is always a question of balancing risk against reward. Knowing how much to lay on the table and how much is at stake is an inexact science at best, and yet a fundamental key to success in all forms of racing. Opportunities have to be seized, but first they have to present themselves, and secondly, you have to recognize them. Finally, you have to understand just how much there is to lose if you attempt to seize an opportunity, and miss.
This complex interplay of risk and reward was front and center at the Algarve International Circuit on Saturday, primarily as a result of the conditions. Where Friday had been fully wet, the rain falling sometimes lightly, sometimes more heavily, but never really easing up completely, Saturday saw the rain fall on and off, and eventually stop. Track conditions on Friday were either wet or very wet, on Saturday they ran the gamut from very wet to approaching fully dry.
That made track conditions on Saturday much more treacherous. With grip levels varying wildly, and eventually ending up good enough to run slicks, there was always a trap being laid for the unwary. And with grid positions at stake, there was plenty of reason to err on the side of recklessness rather than caution. Qualifying positions have historically been important at Portimão, so starting on the front couple of rows is important.
Will it or won't it?
First, though, you had to get into Q2. With the rain much lighter at the start of FP3 than on Friday, and the prospect of the weather brightening up, riders knew that they had a shot at improving their times. But the field was divided into those who put a relatively fresh tire in and went out at the start of the session to push, and those who left their time attack to the end of the session. When heavy rain started halfway through the session, those who risked early reaped the rewards.
One rider who fell foul of the rain was Maverick Viñales. The Aprilia rider was frustrated, feeling he had the pace to start from close to the front of the field, and so not get caught up in the chaos of the battle at the start which begins behind the third row. But a decision to work on the bike in the first FP3 meant they got caught out by the rain.
"Honestly, I think the mistake was in FP3," Viñales said. "We thought we could pass to Q2 without risking, and we didn't use a new tire straight away, so I think this was one of the main mistakes from today. Because overall, we were always top five, in all the practices in the wet, top six, top five, which is always good."
With the weather radar difficult to interpret – there was rain on the radar, but the intensity varied each time you looked at the prediction – it was impossible to draw up a plan. "Honestly, we didn't know if the rain was coming or not," Viñales said. "I just think the guys that stayed out were more lucky. Because I never had a good feeling on the bike in the morning. Maybe we didn't put enough temperature in the tire, or whatever. And I wasn't able to keep pushing. So basically we need to keep understanding and we need a better strategy." Viñales finished 11th in FP3, and out of Q2.
Where there's losers, there's winners
Where Viñales got it wrong, Miguel Oliveira, Joan Mir, Fabio Quartararo, Brad Binder, Aleix Espargaro and Jack Miller got it right. Starting in Q2 meant they didn't have to face what turned out to be one of the most difficult and treacherous sessions in recent years.
Q1 turned out to be vicious. It was a stark lesson in the risk and rewards of motorcycle racing. The rewards were very large indeed: a chance to start from the front of the grid, rather than find yourself stuck behind between 12 and 23 riders before the lights were even out.
The rain had eased off through qualifying for Moto3, and the first signs of a dry line had started to appear through FP4. That was already making conditions tricky enough: the dry line was starting to pour heat into the soft rear tires, and as the water disappeared, so did the chance to cool it off again.
Slicks vs wets
"Like you saw in FP4, we were pushing like mad and the track had some decent dry lines but the lap times were slower than the fully wet track in FP1 because the tire when it overheats, as soon as you touch the water or a wet part again, you cannot get any drive," Jack Miller explained. Conditions were clearly much better in FP4 than in FP3, yet the lap times were barely improved.
With the sun starting to poke its head through the clouds, and strong winds blowing surface water off the track, the surface started to dry very rapidly between the end of FP4 and the beginning of Q1. A large part of the track was pretty much bone dry when the first qualifying session started.
Pretty much, but not completely. There were still damp patches, and in some places, standing water still on the track. It was by now way too dry for wets, the rubber overheating and destroying itself in the first lap. But slicks were no easy choice, still enough water to quickly suck the heat out of the tires in certain parts. And of course, the water was all too happy to act as a lubricant, generating lift through aquaplaning or reducing grip in certain sectors.
That had been tricky enough in Q2, Jack Miller explaining the challenges faced. "We were able to at least get on the slicks and it was good for us," the Australian said, after scoring a very solid fourth place. "I immediately felt quite strong on the slick tires. My bike is working pretty well, so it’s important in conditions like this especially when you need to pick lines between puddles and what not, you need to have a good feeling with the bike to be able to manage your way through the wet parts."
It had been far more dangerous in Q1, and plenty of riders got it wrong, in some very painful ways. Remy Gardner escaped relatively unscathed, with just a few bumps and bruises after he got his first attempt at riding Michelin slicks in mixed conditions.
Pecco Bagnaia was the next to fall, victim of an off-throttle highside as he ran across a damp patch on slicks. The factory Ducati rider landed heavily on shoulder and head, and was slow to get up, requiring medical attention. When he did, he was clutching his arm in the way usually reserved for a broken collarbone. But the Alpinestars airbag did what it was built for, absorbing most of the impact. Bagnaia was later taken to hospital for further checks, but no fractures were found, and the Italian is due to start the race on Sunday, albeit from last position and if he can pass a fitness test.
After Bagnaia, Enea Bastianini was the next to crash, another off-throttle highside. The championship leader smashed his hand on the asphalt and turned up later in the afternoon with a heavily bandaged right wrist. The Gresini Ducati rider starts from 18th, and will have to see how well his wrist stands up to the physical rigors of Portimão. "Up and down, and one of the most physical, like Austin," is how the Italian described it.
Topping things off, Raul Fernandez fell as well, banging his hand and leaving him unable to finish qualifying.
A lot to lose
While Fernandez and Gardner are rookies, and mistakes are easily made in such difficult conditions, they have little at stake. Pecco Bagnaia started the season as Ducati's anointed favorite for the title, after his incredible second half of 2021. Enea Bastianini is leading the championship, and has won two of the first four races. They had an awful lot to lose.
Being in Q1, however, left them little choice. If they didn't push, they had little chance of a decent finishing position on Sunday. But to push meant risking injury, as they were reminded of the hard way.
With a 21-race season, and so many back-to-back races, the risk of injury rises exponentially. Hurt yourself at Portimão and even in the very best scenario, you enter Jerez next weekend carrying an injury, and riding with a weakness. But that could easily result in being ruled out of two races, and missing out on a possible 50 points. The pressures of a very close field are much higher, but the risks in such a full season are also much greater.
Double or quits
Yet those risks must be taken, argues Fabio Quartararo. The possibility of being injured was not something they can afford to think about. "Not at all, because I remember in Silverstone last year I had a crash that I really twisted my ankle. It can happen. Something really small. But if you think already on the fifth race not to make a mistake and you [ride] in this condition, you know you’re going to make a **** qualifying," the reigning world champion explained.
"So you need to go and see what happens," Quartararo said. "Last year it’s what I did. Don’t think about the risk, of course don’t take a risk for nothing, but let’s say the moment you have to push you need to take the risk."
That was necessary, despite the full calendar and back-to-back weekends. "This is the thing," Quartararo pointed out. "It’s good to put more races but let’s say for us it’s I would say not Formula 1. In Formula 1 it's really strange to see a driver get injured or break a wrist or collarbone. I’ve never seen it. But for us [it can happen] so fast. Today could have been four crashes, four broken bones. Considering the crashes they had. And of course if you get a fracture or something you miss a lot of points and a lot of races."
Banged up again?
The risk of crashes is bigger for some than for others. Marc Marquez was finally back up to speed after returning at Austin after his monster highside at Mandalika, in which he picked up a concussion and suffered a recurrence of the diplopia or double vision which appeared again after a training accident in October last year.
Marquez was caught out by conditions at Turn 8 during FP3, another off-throttle highside due to a cold tire. The Repsol Honda rider landed on shoulder and head, and got up quite shakily. But he was fine, or as fine as could be expected after a crash like that, he insisted.
"It’s true that the Indonesian crash was a massive one," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "Here I landed and I hit my head but nothing happened. It’s true that I have pain in my neck, but it was a normal crash, because I hit and I have pain on my neck, but nothing more."
He had been checked for concussion by the medical director, Dr Angel Charte. "First of all Dr Charte came straight away to me and he asked two or three questions in a row," Marquez explained. "For example in Indonesia he asked two or three questions and I didn’t answer. I mean he said, ‘where did you crash? Which gear? Which corner?’ and in Indonesia I didn’t answer. Today I answered straight away."
Even the body language was a tell, Marquez said. "You can even see from a crash if a rider…. You could see how I stood up in Indonesia, and today I stood up, I took the bike. It’s true that they are much more strict now than before."
He hadn't expected to crash, but once he did, he adjusted his plans and his program accordingly, Marquez explained. "Since that point we didn't make many laps, just to avoid the risk," he said. "I just did two laps in FP4 and the time when I need to push, in qualifying, we pushed. Tomorrow depends on the feeling. Like I said, if we are lucky about the base set-up and the tire choice, then you can approach the race in one way. If you go out and you are struggling, you need to go to finish the race."
Marquez reiterated that he was well aware of the risks involved, and had been discussing this with his doctor. "Of course when I decided to go to Austin this was one of the questions to my doctor. ‘If I land again on my head, what’s going on?’ He said it doesn’t mean every time you land on your head, it’s an impact, but it doesn’t mean it [diplopia] will appear. You have the same risk as in Austin next year."
Qualifying is timing
Marquez pushed right at the end of Q2, in pursuit of a very fast lap. And he would have got one too, had it not been for his teammate Pol Espargaro crashing in the final corner on the very last lap, causing his lap time, and the lap time of Fabio Quartararo to be canceled. The yellow flag rule is unpopular, but is accepted by the riders as the least worst solution.
"I think like everybody they canceled my last lap," Quartararo explained, "but the shame is not this, it’s to miss another lap by two seconds, when I took the checkered flag." Timing and luck is everything in MotoGP.
The best timing turned out to be crossing the finish line as late as possible. The drier the track, the faster the rider. Johann Zarco timed it best, pipping Joan Mir to pole, Mir scoring his second front-row start in MotoGP, repeating his success from last year here. Aleix Espargaro ended third, ahead of Jack Miller and Fabio Quartararo, with impressive rookie Marco Bezzecchi ending the session in sixth.
Does this mean these are the riders most prepared to excel in the dry? A number of riders pointed to the same statements, to put qualifying into perspective. Johann Zarco's pole lap was nearly 3.5 seconds slower than the pole record held by Pecco Bagnaia, and most riders were circulating 4 or more seconds off their best pace. The grid is indicative of who got things right on the day, rather than of actual pace.
That doesn't mean that there will be a massive shake up come Sunday afternoon. "I don't know if there will be any surprises in the race," a skeptical Luca Marini told us. "If there is a surprise, it will be a surprise!" he joked.
Qualifying vs race
Fabio Quartararo expected the two front rows to be strongest on Sunday. "It’s random, but I mean if you check the result from last year you know that Mir is the one that made two podiums in both races here, so you know he’s going to be super fast. I think the top five and for sure more. But the top five have the potential to really fight for the podium tomorrow because I remember Aleix was super fast. Zarco in the first race was fighting for the podium. Then Miller got a podium last race here. So everyone that is in front right now has the potential to fight for a good position."
There were a couple of other names worth watching, Quartararo told us. "For sure Marc," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "For me, Alex Rins was really fast but starts so far behind, so it will be difficult for him to recover. Let’s say many people can fight for the podium and victory."
At least conditions are expected to be a great deal more stable on Sunday. No rain is expected, and bright sunshine and temperatures in the high teens °C. With just 20 minutes of warmup in the morning, there is little time to do much preparation. The rider that turns up with the best base setup has the best chance of success. Everyone is likely to the use the same tire, the medium Michelins front and rear. Setup is a little bit of a gamble, teams trying to translate their base setup onto the Portimão layout. But four races into the season already, most have a clear idea of how to make their bike work. On Sunday, they have a good chance to prove it.
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