Portimão MotoGP Saturday Round Up: When Is The Risk Not Worth The Reward?

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."

Rolling carnage

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."

The tell

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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Great Qualifying to watch, despite the frustrations and weather tribulations. I wonder whether they could use some sort of laser device to heat the tyres so that they are always at the perfect temperature. I am sure the technology is there, but the weight gained might offset the performance advancement. I'm sure it wouldn't help with some of the rivers we've seen today, but on a patchy or cold track having guaranteed tyre temps could give so much confidence to the riders. 

In regards to the yellow flags - has there ever been discussion about extending the session time by the amount of time that the yellow flags are out? I know it wouldn't quite be the same, but it would at least give an extra chance to those who have their hot lap ruined by no fault of their own. 

What a stunner by Bezzecchi. That rookie's looking good! 

Haha fair enough (bet you wouldn't really though). Is it really any different than other technological advances though? Seamless gearboxes, electronic fuel injection, ride by wire throttles, farings, disc brakes, etc. 

Would need to be very high and the power supply also. Anything between the beam and tyre will disperse the beam and hence its energy input to the tyre. 

Thanks David, great article.

What a qualifying session. Watched Q1 after 5 hours riding & an afternoon at the Australian titles.

Some big crashes.

Interesting grid for today's race.

Sorry Pecco I didn't mean to jinx you.

It's going to be a long night of motorcycle racing & I'm not going to work tomorrow.

I'm beginning to wonder if Pecco is perhaps a bit of a Goldilocks - absolutely superb when things are just right, but with a tendency to go missing when they're not. Maybe his optimal operating window is not that large.

I think the issue with Pecco is that he builds form and confidence *(cue the endless cliches about racing is all between the ears here), with a solidly predictable ride underneath him. For reasons best known to the red brainstrust they chose to alter the 22 bike pretty profoundly compared to the 21 bike upon which he had dominated at the end of last season. That doesn't look like the best idea in the world right now, though hindsight is such a brilliant lens for anything. One might argue they could have taken the Yamaha route and risked stagnation. Pecco's view of the situation is pretty clear though with anger at the bike in first few rounds and apologies from team management, so I am going to take Ducati at their own words.

What I would propose is that there are two types of rider; First there is the machine transcendent rider - think Marquez and Stoner and maybe some others; - and the machine dependent riders, which is almost everyone else and certainly Pecco. Fabio seems to me the most likely to join these transcendent ranks, but not sure the same can be said of anyone else.

Anyway it looks more and more like Ducati might want to move Miller at a time when he is ahead of Pecco or at least neck and neck in the standings. That's going to be interesting and awkward, especially as Jack seems like a very supportive team-mate, with his intense encouragement of Pecco when he was a bit lost at Argentina being a bit of a stand out for me. 

Looking forward to the race, the reports and the mutterers commentary.

^ Good points! 

Just today news is that Miller and LCR are looking at having him back on a Honda there. Interesting homecoming. Might be good for both?

I can see Duc's efforts to churn a battle within their large and skilled ranks for the Red seats. And, to sign a rider that will finally bring them a damn Cup. It must be excruciating to bleed racing, have the best bike out there, and not win it. Bagnaia is CLOSE. And yet he fell off his perch with the slightest hiccup in bike development and evolution. Come on, it is negligibly different than the one he particularly loved last Fall. 

Criticize Duc brass rider relations all you want, but good luck taking their job and doing it better. Me? I would sign Bsstiannini to White w a full Red contract and top kit. Keep Martin with the same and a raise based on performance bonuses. Quartararo alongside Pecco. Sorry Jack, just my best call. And there wouldn't be a way to please everyone nor look great doing it. Management is a bitch. 

If Pecco remains out of form long and one of those White riders is on top? Swap them. This is a damn war.

I could see Jack being the new Cal at LCR. In fact Jack might do a better job of being Cal than Cal did. I can can understand (from my relatively uninformed point of view) why Ducati management gave Pecco a two year contract last year, but events so far this year must leave them feeling a little awkward, with him starting to get serious competition for the position of next Great Italian Hope.

That’d be one solid permutation for Ducati, though we’ve all seen the difficulties riders face changing bikes these days.  Could take Quarteraro the better part of a season to get up to pace.  Miller could be a really strong addition to Honda.  Factory bike at LCR. Could step up to replace either Repsol rider if needed and do a solid job.  Id love to see him on the Idemitsu liveried bike….it just looks fantastic! Sorry Taka!

The Idemitsu bike is specifically set up for a Japanese rider and the rumor mill has Ai Ogura slated for next year. 

That has Miller bumping Alex M. ^ Agreed that Miller is a successor to the Cal lineage! I bet they both would too. 

(Hey Mr Crutchlow, miss you in the circus! Can you please help send us a Yamaha that can poke at the pointy end again? Thanks!)

Yeah I know, I just love the look of the Idemitsu one.  On the other hand how good would it be to see a Castrol bike getting around again.  You’re right, he’d sort of follow along in Cal’s mold nicely….hopefully with just a few more wins.

unlucky result this week.

Who replaces Pol in that case? Surely they don't re-sign him given how open the market is with good riders and I'd have Jack next to Marc ahead of Pol any day. Bias of course.

Fabio should take Rins seat IMHO. 

It's not the most argumentatively effective approach to challenge one to do better than the party that someone is commenting about, especially when they didn't suggest that they would necessarily do better. But in the case of Ducati management Shrink, it is hard to ignore the lack of red success compared to their their investment or their effort. Both rider and engineering management have fallen short for a very long time. And apart from the Stoner history we only have to look back to the absolute shambles of an effort to get to get to grips with Lorenzo, and the reported attempt to then shaft Miller to enable a Lorenzo into a Pramac renaissance, for evidence that they are not exactly the high point in talent management. Is Mr Bean involved perhaps?

Anyway please always express your opinion without hesitation as your posts are one of the great highlights of Motomatters and they are no less enjoyable for you likely being a bit slower than Marquez on track day. (And I suspect I would be way slower than you...)

PS I do agree that if anyone can grab Fabio they shouldn't hesitate.

The purpose of the yellows is to slow the riders down where there are uncleared bikes riders marshals etc from previous incidents. The current way that they are working seems debatable to me.

Marquez M and Quartararo (as examples only, there were others) completed laps that were close to pole. These quick times were later scrubbed because they involved sections of the track that had yellows displayed. The quick times imply that is that the riders did not slow or only marginally slowed for the yellow sections. Does this result in the increased safety that is intended?

Would need yo be looked at, especially when the conditions are changing. It's entirely possible to improve your overall lap time and slow down in the yellow sector with a drying track surface.

Absolutely spot on.  Doing a pole lap through yellows intrinsically implies that you didn't lift (enough) to ensure the safety of the marshalls and/or fallen rider.

He wouldn't have been on pole regardless, it was just the nature of the track drying out late. Both he and Fabio lifted off and you can guarantee they'd have checked the data to be sure.