The VROOM Blog, #PortugueseGP – Fast Fabio triumphs in Portimão
After back to back rounds in Qatar, this weekend the MotoGP paddock rocked up in Portimão, Portugal for the beginning of what will (hopefully) be a 12 race run on European soil before the fly-away rounds towards the end of the season.
I know I’ve said it before but I love The Algarve, and I love the circuit at Portimão – it’s a must visit whenever I’m in Portugal and one of these times I’m going to manage to time a trip to coincide with a weekend of motorcycle racing!
This of course is only MotoGP’s second visit to the Algarve International Circuit, and for some riders this weekend would mark their first opportunity to ride a MotoGP bike around the aptly nicknamed rollercoaster. 3 of our 4 rookies raced here on Moto2 machinery at the end of last season, while the returning Marc Marquez has never ridden a MotoGP bike here.
That’s right – this weekend saw the return of Marc Marquez. There were questions aplenty surrounding his return – would he still be fast? Would he win his first race back? Would he even be able to complete the weekend? With each question came answers that varied from ‘He’ll never be the same’ to ‘He’ll win the championship this year’, and covered everything in between.
Really before the weekend began there was no way to know for certain how things would pan out for Marc, and even now it’s hard to give a clear answer, but one thing is for sure – he gave a remarkable account of himself this weekend.
In the time between the Doha GP and the Portuguese GP Andrea Dovizioso spent 3 days testing with Aprilia. There were no official times released and it does seem that a great deal of the time was spent setting the bike up to Dovi’s liking (and size – he is a much smaller rider than Aleix Espargaro!) The rumour mill has of course gone into overdrive – could we see Dovi compete as a wildcard before the season is done? Or maybe we’ll see him replace Savadori altogether – it seems harsh on Savadori but I wouldn’t be surprised at all, Aprilia doesn’t have the best track record with looking after their ‘number 2’ riders…
As for the man himself, he says that the only plan at the moment is a further test with the team at Mugello in May. He has asked for some changes to be made to the bike as until he is confortable on the bike it would be ‘stupid’ to push too much. Dovi did say that he had a ‘good feeling’ with the Aprilia and that ‘like every bike, it has positives and negatives, which is normal.’ I look forward to seeing what comes of this – it would be good to see Dovi back on a MotoGP bike, and this work with Aprilia may be a way to get himself back onto the grid for 2022, but I can’t help feeling that there is such a wealth of talent coming through from Moto2 and Moto3 that teams may look at securing a younger rider for the future rather than going with Dovi who realistically is coming towards the end of his career. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how it all pans out.
Jack Miller and Iker Lecuona both took advantage of the 2 week break to have arm-pump surgery, and both were declared fit to race this weekend.
Before any on track action got underway this weekend, Miguel Oliveira – Portugal’s only GP rider to record a home-soil victory with his spectacular win here last year – was treated to quite the welcome on his arrival at the circuit. A large group of bikers had lined their bikes up along the road into the circuit and waved and cheered as Miguel drove past them. He would certainly be hoping to give them something else to cheer about on Sunday!
Following overnight rain, FP1 on Friday morning was dry enough for slicks but there were still damp patches around the track. All eyes were on Marc Marquez as he returned to the track for the first time since July and he chipped away at his lap time over a four lap first run closing the gap to the top with each lap. He came back out for a second run and did at one point top the times, eventually finishing the session in 3rd place and with a big smile on his face back in the garage.
FP was a bruising one for Takaaki Nakagami with the Japanese rider having a high speed crash towards the end of the start / finish straight and into turn 1. It looked a sore one for Taka and he was off to the medical centre but he was back out on track with 10 minutes to go after what can only be described as a painful walk to his LCR Honda.
FP3 saw Taka being examined by a doctor in his pit box. He had been given a pain killing injection in his shoulder / collarbone area and did eventually head out onto the track, but the talk of this session would be on Jorge Martin. The rookie who had roared to pole position last time out had a massive crash at turn 7, knocking himself unconscious. The red flag was brought out and thankfully it wasn’t too long a wait before the news filtered through that he was conscious and on his way to the medical centre. Martin was transferred to Faro hospital and then to Barcelona on Sunday for surgery on arm and ankle injuries. No return date has been set for Martin as yet, but you know what these guys are like – he’ll be back as soon as he can pass the fitness test!
Martin’s crash and the resulting red flag meant that we were treated to a four minute shoot-out for places straight through to Q2. Alex Marquez had a big crash right in front of brother Marc meaning that he was unable to set a time fast enough to advance to Q2, and the session was topped by Fabio Quartararo, Franky Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia, with rookie Luca Marini going straight through to Q2 for the first time with 7th place in the combined times.
There were a few ‘big’ names in Q1 – Marc Marquez, Joan Mir, Valentino Rossi included – and Marc Marquez was straight back into playing mind games with his competitors! He followed Mir around for a few laps and then when they were exiting the pit lane for a final time attack Marc slotted in behind the reigning champion again, but did allow him to get enough of a gap that they did their laps independently and they both made it through to Q2.
Q2 saw Johann Zarco crash early on as Marc sat back in the garage in order to minimize his track time. With less than 5 minutes to go Marc left the pit lane and with less than a minute to go home hero Miguel Oliveira crashed out. Maverick Viñales had 2 fast laps cancelled in this session – one for ‘exceeding track limits’ and the pictures show that it was minimal, but rules are rules and so he would start from 12th instead of the front row. The session ended and it looked like Pecco Bagnaia had bagged pole position with an all new lap record only for his time to be cancelled for a yellow flag infringement – Pecco had ridden past Miguel’s crash while the yellow flag was still out and even though he says he didn’t see the flag (which fellow riders confirmed was very likely) it’s another case of rules being rules and safety must come first. I’m sure that was of little consolation to Pecco on Saturday afternoon though!
This meant that Fabio Quartararo would start Sunday’s race from pole ahead of Alex Rins and Johann Zarco – would we be hearing La Marseillaise for a second race in a row? A quick mention for rookie Luca Marini who qualified in 8th place.
Race day rolled around and it was Fabio Quartararo who very briefly grabbed the holeshot before being swallowed up by a swarm of riders headed by Johann Zarco which saw Fabio drop to 6th. Zarco lead from Rins, Marc Marquez, Mir, Miller, Fabio, Franky Morbidelli and Brad Binder. Joan Mir made his way through on Marc at turn 10 as further back Luca Marini moved back up to 10th.
Marc Marquez ran into the back of Joan Mir on lap 2 and Fabio and Miller wasted no time in taking advantage, slicing their way past Marc. Marc was passed a few corners later by Aleix Espargaro, leaving him in 7th by the end of the lap.
Over the next few laps Marc would lose more positions to Franky and Binder, and Alex Rins moved himself into the lead of the race ahead of Zarco as Fabio passed Mir for 3rd. It wasn’t long though before Zarco used his Ducati power to move back ahead of Rins on the straight, but a few corners later Rins was back in the lead and Fabio was through on Zarco too for 2nd as we saw Pol Espargaro pull into the pits with a rear brake issue.
As Rins lead the way on lap 6, Jack Miller crashed out at turn 3 and Joan Mir relegated Johann Zarco to 4th. Meanwhile Miguel Oliveira crashed and remounted at turn 14.
At the beginning of lap 9 Fabio made his move and took the lead of the race at the first corner, leaving Rins, Mir, Zarco, Franky, Binder, Pecco and Aleix in his wake. The Marquez brothers were running just behind this group in 9th and 10th; and although Alex was 2.3 seconds behind his elder brother he was closing the gap little by little. There was another brotherly battle going on further back with Luca Marini and Valentino Rossi running 11th and 12th. Vale did pass Luca only to crash a few corners later, ending his race in the gravel.
As Franky Morbidelli was given a track limits warning, Pecco was all over his rear wheel before passing his fellow VR46 Academy rider for 5th. Out front, Fabio and Rins were beginning to pull away from Zarco who in turn had almost a second over Mir, Pecco and Franky.
Lap 18 was a shocker for Luca Marini who found himself passed by Alex Marquez, Taka Nakagami and Enea Bastianini over the course of a few corners, before Alex Rins crashed out on the following lap. Pecco made his move on Mir as Fabio extended his lead to 4 seconds over Zarco.
Pecco was once again all over the rear wheel of the rider in front – this time Johann Zarco – before making a move and passing him. Zarco crashed out of the race a few corners later.
Fabio Quartararo stormed across the line to take his second race win on the bounce ahead of Pecco, Mir, Franky, Binder, Aleix and Marc Marquez who finished 7th on his return to MotoGP after 9 months out with injury. That’s not bad at all!
I was gutted for Franky Morbidelli to miss out on the podium, but at the same time I was so happy to see him back at the front and able to fight for a podium position – hopefully that continues!
Fabio’s win sees Yamaha win the first 3 races of the season for the first time since 2010 when Rossi won in Qatar with Lorenzo winning in Jerez and Le Mans. Fabio was clearly very happy with his performance this weekend declaring that he was ‘riding so well’, and said he is looking forward to the next round in Jerez which he said is one of his favourite tracks – and of course is where he took two wins last season.
Pecco said that his target for today was to finish in the top 5 and that he was ‘happy to finish 2nd after a week like this!’ Third place man Mir – who was without crew chief Frankie Carchedi who had returned a positive covid test and was replaced for the weekend by Sylvain Guintoli’s test crew chief Tom O’Kane – said that he was happy with the result despite a tough race on a track that is ‘not the best’ for him.
Obviously Fabio’s win was superb and it was great to see Joan Mir get his first podium of the season, but the stand-out rides of this weekend could possibly be found elsewhere.
Taka’s performance in this race will likely be overshadowed by the return of another Honda rider, but it was very impressive – there was a point this weekend when I did think he would be ruled unfit especially after he sat out FP4 and Q1, but he kept going and to finish 10th from the back of the grid after the crash he had on Friday and the pain he was clearly in is nothing short of remarkable.
But Marc Marquez – love him or hate him – put in a cracking performance this weekend. To return at such a physical circuit where he has never raced his MotoGP bike was a big ask but he was sensible about it – he did several shorter runs in sessions rather than being out for long periods of time and didn’t push his luck. He admitted that he didn’t fight quite as he would have previously during the race and explained that even though he has been working in the gym and on training bikes there is nothing quite like riding a MotoGP bike so while his bone is healed and good to go, the surrounding muscle still needs some work!
It was great to see him back, and to see him performing so well after such a long time, and I’m quite sure he will just keep working away and he’ll be a real thorn in everyone’s side again soon enough! It was nice to see the emotion from Marc after the race – he received a welcome fit for a hero on his return to his pit box and the normally calm, cool and collected Spaniard was visibly moved. In fact, he had to step away from an interview with Spanish TV for a few minutes after the race as he was overcome with emotion. He was explaining that he usually likes to keep his emotions inside but that when he returned to the box it was too much to keep in and he just let it go. Maybe he is human after all…
Heading into Jerez it is Fabio Quartararo who leads the championship ahead of Pecco Bagnaia and Maverick Viñales. Zarco, who came into the weekend as championship leader has dropped to 4th ahead of Joan Mir. Jerez was a happy hunting ground for Yamaha last season – will we see another win for Fabio or Maverick, or will someone else step up and give us a third different winner in four races? I don’t know, but I am looking forward to finding out!