This was as fun as it looked. The grandstands may have been empty and the paddock quiet, but the Algarve International Circuit lived up to its billing as a spectacular circuit. Not since Turkey’s fabulous Istanbul Park in 2005 had grand prix racing come to a new venue as jaw-dropping and thrilling to the naked eye.
Riders raved about the swoops, the undulations and the blind crests. Sunday showed the 4.6km layout could provide half decent racing, too. For the opening races lived up to the surroundings, with Moto2 and Moto3 serving up vintages high on adrenaline, spectacle and stress that had the championship fight go right the way to the wire. Here are some of the big talking points from the small classes on the last weekend of the season.
For Enea Bastianini, his directive was clear: a top four finish was enough for a first world title no matter where his rivals finished. If Sam Lowes wasn’t victorious and Luca Marini was, he simply needed a top eight. Thoughts that the Algarve International Circuit (a track unknown to him but not his three rivals) could throw up a banana skin were dashed early. Enea was an impressive fifth at the close of day one.
But there were nerves come Sunday. The 22-year old could be forgiven for thinking Lowes wouldn’t be putting up such a fight. As the Briton streaked clear with Marini, there were genuine concerns that Bastianini was on the ropes. Moves by Marco Bezzecchi and Jorge Martin on laps 12 and 13 demoted him to seventh. With Xavi Vierge and Joe Roberts biting at his heels the championship was edging toward ‘squeaky bum time’.
Yet 2020 has taught us Bastianini doesn’t get flustered. His description of the events conveys as much. “It was really hard because Sam and Luca were fast. But when I saw riders overtaking me, I pushed a bit more,” he said nonchalantly. “Finally, with fifth position we could be world champion today. A fantastic feeling. My dream has come true. In this championship it was so important to be constant and not to crash.”
Bastianini responded when the pressure was on and managed the final weeks better than his rivals, even if luck was on his side. “We paid for our mistakes,” said Marini, who came home an excellent second. “Enea was cleverer than us in some moments. He did a great job with his team. We missed something in the past races and we’re paying for this.” Combine his natural talent that has been obvious from year one in Moto3 with this calm and in Bastianini Ducati is looking at a rough diamond for its MotoGP future.
The overall star of the show, however, was Remy Gardner. His performance drew praise from Marini, who couldn’t quite believe the Australian’s speed in the closing laps. “Remy was unbelievable at the end of the race. We were doing qualifying laps with finished tyres. The race pace was incredible.” Gardner posted the fastest lap on the very last circuit.
You can’t say it wasn’t coming. The 22-year old had plenty of reason to come into 2020 aggrieved. He turned down an offer to take over Johann Zarco’s vacant factory KTM in MotoGP with the belief he wanted to win in Moto2 before stepping up. But the Onexox SAG team hit financial trouble, necessitating the signing of the unknown Kasma Daniel as they sought vital Malaysian sponsorship money. Even then, Remy lost crew chief Alfred Willeke to Sito Pons’ team. And he had to complete all of this year on a year-old Kalex frame.
But there was no sign of sulking. Gardner has matured into a fighter, who is focussed on his own strengths. He returned from his terrifying 170mph highside at Misano reformed. Six top-seven performances followed, including a win and a second place. And his management of the Portuguese Grand Prix was admirable. A sign of things to come for 2021, when he switches to Aki Ajo’s ultra-professional team?
“The objective all weekend, to come away with victory,” said Australia’s first winner in the class since July, 2014. “It’s definitely a track that suits me. These guys obviously had a different mission. I did a smart race and pipped Luca on the second last lap and hold it to get the victory. I just did my race without any stupid moves for the top guys. When I crossed the line there was definitely a weight off my shoulders. These have been two good years, but tough years with tough moments. The win has always eluded us. When I came across the line I sat up so fast I nearly fell of the back of the bike! It hits the heart, this victory.
“There were definitely a couple of years when I struggled a lot. Whether it was me or machinery, the results weren’t coming. Even to score points back in the day was a victory. Edu gave me the opportunity to ride the Kalex last year, a top machine. Last year I thought I could do it. It didn’t come as easy as we thought. A lot of pain and lessons along the way, but I’m super happy.”
Lowes Digs Deep
Just how Lowes finished the Valencian Grand Prix, let alone in the points, a day after breaking two bones in his right hand was remarkable. But the Algarve International Circuit’s clockwise layout, fast changes of direction and heavy braking zones were going to be an even steeper challenge. That and the fact the Briton had to go on the attack.
Free practice looked bleak. The sight of Lowes wincing, head bowed in the Marc VDS garage became commonplace. He returned to the garage from a crash in FP3, exclaiming, ‘I can’t ride, it’s dangerous!’ to his crew. There were serious doubts whether he would make the race, even on Sunday morning.
So how did he manage 23 laps chasing Marini and Gardner ahead? He took painkillers, yes. But the rest was down to sheer bloody-minded grit and a refusal to give in. Lowes was remarkable as he honed in on the leading pair in the closing laps. He was supposed to be tiring by then. But there was no sign of it. His best lap the 19th time round was only bettered the last time around. He may have just fallen short in the championship. But no one could accuse him of a lack of fight.
“It’s been a tough weekend,” he said after finishing an incredible third. “I gave absolutely everything today. After morning warm-up I didn’t even know if I could ride. I was really struggling. To get the podium was unexpected. It’s probably my best ever ride to hang in with these guys, setting the pace they were. I couldn’t have done any more.
“It’s easy to say I was injured in the last two races but the championship is more than that. It’s whoever scores the most points over the whole year. I’m really proud of my season and happy to be in this great team, showing that I deserve to be fighting at the front of Moto2 races. We all want to win so you have to feel a bit gutted for that. Apart from that it’s been special.”
Arenas Cagey – but Champion
The day’s first decider began with clear instructions for Moto3 leader Albert Arenas: finish either first or second and he’d be champion. From sixth on the grid, a place behind chief rival Ai Ogura, eight points back, that seemed possible. Especially seeing as Tony Arbolino, eleven points behind, botched his qualifying, forcing a start from 27th and row nine.
But is anything straightforward in 2020? The 23 year old had things under control until his rear tyre dropping off mid-race. Soon Arbolino was pulling clear and several wobbles – including a spectacular on the final lap – saw him drop back to twelfth. Hardly convincing but enough for the title, totally in keeping with his season as a whole. The Aspar KTM rider just did enough for the crown without ever truly asserting himself in the final ten races, when he managed just a single podium finish.
“From the beginning I went all in. But half-way through I was trying to manage the situation. All was OK. But I started to feel the rear tyre sliding a lot. I was trying to stay on the bike, and I battled with Tony. Two laps to go I found the pace. But on the last straight it was a tricky situation. I knew the difference in points wasn’t so big. I was just pleased to resist all the touches. I knew Ogura wasn’t far enough in front.”
Alex Márquez had been in this situation before, enduring a nervy Moto3 finale at Valencia in 2014, his title year. Watching on, he could empathise with his fellow Catalan. “That’s how you are when you’re fighting for a title. You’re more rigid, just trying not to crash, or make any mistakes. On the final lap, at the back of such a big group… I was yelling at the TV, ‘Even there, you’re champion!’ But you don’t realise that on the bike. It wasn’t done in the best way, but he got it done.”
It’s been some time since Moto3 witnessed a performance this dominant. Before the this final triple header, the winning margin didn’t exceed 0.4s all year. But Raul Fernandez made a mockery of the opposition, leading from start to finish, holding a lead as big as 9.6 seconds along the way.
“I had an incredible feeling with the bike. We ended the season as one of the best – very strong,” he said of his second grand prix victory, a fitting to finale to his time in the class before a last-minute decision takes him to Moto2 next year while remaining with Aki Ajo’s team. “It’s a dream ending,” he said of his second grand prix victory. “I’m so happy to end my time in Moto3 like this. I couldn’t think of a better ending!”
So where has Fernandez’s speed come from? Well, it’s been starting us in the face all year long. The Spaniard has been 2020’s best qualified (six poles) and was regularly the quickest name in free practice. But his racecraft was below par. Back in Valencia he explained early speed in Qatar led to him placing too much pressure on himself. “Aki was incredible at the start of the season. I wanted to win but I wasn’t ready. I had too much pressure on myself. Aki explained that we would be ready, I could do it. We needed to do it step-by-step. He helped me in this aspect. When I understood this, I started to improve.”
His team boss has no doubts regarding his rider’s desire. “It’s really important to analyse the rider to understand how committed he is,” he said of the decision to move Fernandez up to Moto2 in 2021. “With Raul I don’t have any doubts about this. Sometimes we need to stop him and tell him to relax! He’s a really hard-working kid. I see that this boy has a really good attitude and he has a good future in this world.”
Fernandez led more laps than anyone in 2020 (82 to Arenas’ 54) and finished just 15 points back of the champion. Had he learned to deal with expectation a little sooner, there’s no reason to doubt he had everything else in place to be champion.
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