For the third time in as many races, the rookies lit up the smaller classes in Portugal, and now may harbour genuine title hopes…
Raul on a roll
You can count on one hand the number of riders that have impacted the Moto2 class as immediately as Raul Fernandez. A podium in one of his first two races? Only three did it before (Hafizh Syahrin, Maverick Viñales and Alex Rins). And now the 20-year old joins Viñales as the only rider to have won a race in their first three appearances.
By that measurement, Fernandez is fairly special; not even Marc Márquez or Joan Mir adapted this quickly. And for a rider that scored ‘just’ two wins and two podiums in the junior class across three years, it would be fair to say few saw this coming.
In Portugal, the scene of his dominant final Moto3 appearance, he fought through from a poor qualifying (tenth) and methodically picked off the men in the seven-rider lead group. In both Qatar races, the Spaniard had challenged the leaders early on, only for tyre life to slow him as the race edged toward the end. But here, no one could live with him in the final six laps, as he first passed Joe Roberts, then Aron Canet to pull clear and win by 1.6s.
“We worked more on the tyres,” he said of his weekend strategy. “In Qatar I had problems, especially with the front. This weekend we focussed more on this part. In qualifying I had issues with the new tyre. I thought if Remy (Gardner) didn’t push really, really hard then we could fight for the top five again. But I saw so many riders going wide and I also did that many times. But lap-by-lap the feeling was better. Then I thought I could fight for the podium. And in the end I won. I don’t have words. It’s like a dream.”
Fernandez has been adamant his early success is down to the experience and expertise in Aki Ajo’s team. “The big thing that has allowed me to adapt quickly to the class has been my crew,” he said this week. “This is a team with a lot of experience. Also, Aki [Ajo] always gives me little tips that help me better adapt. I have fun, we work very hard and, above all, they give me a lot of peace of mind that, when I'm on the bike, helps me a lot to understand things."
More than that, his stature and way of working is more suited to this class than Moto3. Now 1 metre and 77cm tall, and weighing 63kg, Fernandez had physically outgrown the junior category. Rather than jostle in a massive group, he prefers to be alone, as witnessed in his riding during free practice in both Moto3 and Moto2. And Fernandez has extensive experience of riding 600cc machinery, regularly practicing on these bikes over the past year (and setting eye-catching times at various Spanish tracks).
If you analyse his results last year, the eleventh round at Aragon last year was the turning point: he was utterly dominant through free practice and qualifying, and finally converted that promise into a debut podium. Since then, he hasn’t looked back. “After Misano (round eight) I had a phone call with Aki,” he revealed on Sunday. “We spoke for one hour. In this moment I changed my mentality. I changed my style and my riding style. This call was the change.”
It’s believed Fernandez did not have clear focus when fighting in big groups. He was too intent on matching what the rider ahead did, and immediately responding to any moves that came his way. Tyre degradation was the result. But he has since learned to be calmer in the battle. And how it’s paying off.
Talk now must turn to KTM’s line of thinking for 2022. Gardner is expected to jump up to MotoGP with the Austrian factory next year. And Fernandez’s two-year contract has an option that would takes him to the premier class the following year. Yet, as reported by the ever-reliable Jaime Martin, of Spanish sports daily Marca, Yamaha, Ducati and Aprilia have already made inquiries over his availability next year. KTM wouldn’t want to lose him. A few more performances like this and surely we’ll see Raul in MotoGP in 2022.
Temperatures mess with the programme
As MotoGP competed for an audience with Formula1 on Sunday, the main race switched to 13.00 with Moto2 running after at 14.30. By then track temperatures had risen to a considerable 44 degrees - five higher than any previous session for the intermediate class at this track, and 16 hotter than last year’s race.
The times suffered (the 2021 event was 11.9s slower than 2020) and the 23-lap slog was characterised by a series of huge crashes and mistakes from the lead group. After Sam Lowes’ first corner exit, Gardner was a firm favourite to take control and break clear. “If you see the sessions from Friday and Saturday, Remy had a big rhythm and what happened today,” asked Aron Canet, who took a debut Moto2 podium in second.
Gardner’s superiority never materialised, as the hotter temperatures and reduced grip affected front end feel. “Friday and Saturday was good for me,” said the Australian, who still rescued a third place. “This morning was even better. It’s been the hottest session since we’ve been here. I think last year was cooler, too. That had an impact on everybody. My setting was too aggressive on the tyres for these conditions. On the first and second laps, I was turning in and already having some slides on the front. It was quite tough, with the front closing it’s hard to build up that confidence. There was a big drop with the tyre.” Of the podium men, only Fernandez was unaffected by the rise in temperature.
America on the up
For several laps in the Moto2 race, it appeared the USA was poised for its first victory in grand prix racing's intermediate category since John Kocinski’s success in Australia in 1990. But in the end, it had to make do with two riders in the top ten, a first in the class since the American Grand Prix in 1989 (a Kocinski-Jimmy Felice 1-2). Joe Roberts produced his best weekend to date in Italtrans colours with a spirited ride to fourth, only knocked off the podium by Gardner’s ferocious move two corners from the flag.
Any doubts on how he would acclimatise to life in an all-Italian team were banished by the reaction of his crew post-race. Roberts was given a hero’s welcome and took the Gardner move – pointing to the black rubber streaks on his leathers – with good grace.
And not just that: Cameron Beaubier continued his rapid progression by taking a sterling ninth, his first top ten in Moto2. “I feel like I’m getting better,” said the five-time MotoAmerica champ. “I’m just trying to pick the thing up more, and not try and make all the lap time on the brakes. That’s what you end up doing when you’re behind a bit. It’s easy to think you make that time up on the brakes but that’s not always the case. I’m trying to hang off the thing more. I feel I’m in the right direction, but these guys, first lap out, they know the track, know the bike, and that’s just what I’m lacking right now. I just need some time and experience.” Beaubier is already well ahead of the American Racing Team’s expectations for him this year. How long until he’s fighting for the top six?
Acosta tasked with the title
There was a podium first time out. Then the unlikeliest of wins the second. And the third, he received praise from the very, very top. It’s been a whirlwind month for rookie sensation Pedro Acosta, now a double race winner and Moto3 championship leader by 31 points.
So far the 16-year old has taken it all in his stride. On his plan for Sunday he nonchalantly said, “Have fun for 25 minutes then get the trophy.” Even Marc Márquez' ears were pricked. “Pedro Acosta is good, very good,” said the eight-time champ. “He rides differently. He will reach Moto2 and eventually get to MotoGP. He will be one more Spaniard in the category and I have no problem recognising that when he arrives, if he continues this progression, he will make things very difficult.”
Then there was a challenge: “I think that he will win this year, but let's not put pressure on the kid. He is very young, but if he keeps his head where he has to keep it, he will reach MotoGP and he will do it very well.” Acosta is suddenly being talked of a champion-in-waiting. Watching how he deals with that in the coming weeks will show us just how special he is.
Another Masia flap
The first Moto3 race of 2021 already seems long ago. Aside from the difference in result, the calmness shown by Jaume Masia on that occasion to break clear of Pedro Acosta and Darryn Binder to win his fourth GP. Since then there has been a desperation in his riding. The Spaniard rode into the side of Gabriel Rodrigo ten corners from the flag in the Doha GP when disputing third place. “At crucial moments we should have been a little calmer,” he said on that occasion.
But in Portugal we saw a repeat. Clearly perturbed by the superior speed of Dennis Foggia and Acosta up ahead, Masia crashed out of third on the final lap. What is of concern is these mistakes haven’t just been exclusive to this year: there was a run of five races in seven last year when Masia was well placed to win on the final lap. Each time he failed. Aragon last year and race one this year seemed to be turning points. But his late-race flap here was in total contrast to the rider on the other side of the box. There is still much work to be done.
Stewards embroiled in further controversy
It wasn’t just the FIM Stewards’ decision to take away Maverick Viñales’ pole lap in MotoGP that led to controversy last weekend. A late call to hand Darryn Binder and Deniz Öncü pit lane starts for antics in Q2 came in for criticism from Tech 3 team boss Hervé Poncharal. “It was a very strange decision again taken by race direction,” said the Frenchman. “I have to say that it’s kind of a disgrace. I am absolutely disappointed and very sad about the way that decision was taken and especially, I don’t understand why the penalty imposed on a lot of riders was different from one to another. Somebody had to pay a fine and somebody else has to start from pit lane.”
He has a point. Watch Q2 back and there are as many as eleven riders touring at the close of qualifying, waiting for a tow. Yes, Binder and Öncü were perpetrators, but if the FIM Stewards are so intent on clamping down on wayward riding, where were the strong penalties for the other offenders? As has long been the case, a little communication with the teams and the press when handing out these penalties would go a long, long way.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.