MotoGP will kickstart its first grand prix weekend at Portimao on Friday, as riders gear up to sink their teeth into an “insane” track that secured the right to host the finale of its COVID 19-altered 2020 schedule.
An undulating, rollercoaster of a track that’s been both a staple on the World Superbike calendar for years as well as a challenge for the riders, the MotoGP paddock has approached the weekend with a mix of excitement and trepidation despite many of them having previous experience there.
In addition to some riders having raced at Portimao in either World Superbikes or its support series (like Cal Crutchlow, pictured above at its WSBK round in 2010), much of the grid tested at Portimao on street bikes last month ahead of the French Grand Prix.
But with an extra 50% horsepower available to them in tomorrow’s extended free practice sessions, KTM rookie Brad Binder in particular says he’s looking forward to a wild ride.
“I was fortunate enough to come here when the MotoGP test teams were testing, so I managed to do laps then, but on the first laps I was lost,” the South African admitted. “This place is insane. It’s up and down and has so many blind corners that it’s really difficult to figure out where you are. It’s a lot more difficult to learn than most tracks, I’d say.
“But once you figure it out, it’s insane, it’s super cool. One thing I did was I just watched old races, like the Superbike races from here. There are a few onboard videos that I was watching and it just gives you a good idea, more or less, of the layouts and where it goes.
“But sometimes I find that you build up an idea of what it’s going to be like, and the first lap that whole idea goes out the window because it’s so completely different to what you had in mind.”
That’s going to make for a complicated day on Friday, according to Yamaha rider Maverick Vinales, as the team spends time trying to figure out how to make a modern MotoGP bike work at a track more reminiscent of a British Superbike circuit.
Expecting to see a lot of the lap spent only on one wheel – and maybe on no wheels in some places! – Vinales says Friday’s set-up will be key.
“I think it’s going to be a difficult track for most of the riders, because it’s difficult to set-up the anti-wheelie [system],” he said. “We will try different things because we have one hour and 10 minutes and it gives you enough time to try set-ups or weight balance. Maybe in the last race [at Valencia] we focused on set-ups, and this race we can focus on the weight balance and see if the weight balance makes more effect if we change the pivot or all these kinds of areas.
“Let’s see if the weight balance makes more difference. And I think this is a good track for that because most of the time you are on one wheel. So the weight balance will be a crucial thing. We will work pretty hard but at the same time, I want to enjoy it, I want to slide, because it has long corners where you can push, full gas. It will be an amazing weekend.”
While a number of riders already have either racing experience or MotoGP mileage with the Portimao circuit, Stefan Bradl – who has both thanks to his current role as Honda’s MotoGP tester and a past stint riding for marque in WSBK – doesn’t think it’s a huge advantage.
“Almost everyone has rode here, and I think even though they were on superbikes they got up to some good speed and the advantage won’t be so much,” Bradl said when asked by The Race. “We’ve all been riding a lot in the last few days, and for sure we’ll have to find our way around but every manufacturer has some data about things like gearboxes.
“Maybe for the first thirty or forty minutes in practice myself or Aleix Espargaro [who got to join the designated test riders in using a MotoGP bike in the Portimao test thanks to Aprilia’s concessions] will have some small advantage, but the rest will soon catch up.”
Petronas Yamaha rider Fabio Quartararo was among the few regular riders to miss the Portimao test entirely, but believes the impact will be negligible, especially due to the two Friday sessions being extended to 70 minutes each.
However, his compatriot Johann Zarco, who rode the Ducati Panigale street bike at the venue, was keen to talk up the benefits of the test when asked about it by The Race.
“Because also it’s a very powerful bike, the Panigale, you learn the layout but [also] almost the same line that you will use in MotoGP. So that’s a good thing,” explained Zarco.
“And you can also have a feeling about how the bike will move over all these places, that it’s up and down, we will have a lot of wheelie and maybe an unstable bike and you already prepare your mind to know what you’re going to do on the bike.
“I think you save one day of work, and tomorrow from the first exit, [after] the first 10 laps, or maximum 15 laps,you are ready to work, but if you don’t know the track you need almost all the day.”