MotoGP Portimao: Race preview

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Picture: GeeBee Images

MotoGP returns to Portugal after an incredible four flyaway races, with Gresini’s Enea Bastianini back in the hot seat.

As the dust settles after a headline maker in Austin, the European leg of the season is just around the corner. The destination is the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve as the first of a back-to-back sees the paddock head for Portugal, and there is plenty to talk about after another shake-up last time out.

Bastianini is the natural place to start as the ‘Beast’ blasted back to the top step in style in Texas. In so doing, the Italian also took back the championship lead and made quite a statement taking Ducati’s first win at the track, backing up a season opener in Qatar that was impressive but on Borgo Panigale happy hunting grounds. COTA was different, and Bastianini is, according to Ducati Lenovo Team’s Jack Miller, with whom he shared the podium in Austin, also different – with rider not machine making the difference on, amongst other things, tyre life. That bodes well as the Bologna bullets face down Portimão.

The aforementioned Miller took his first podium of the season last time out though, and while it wasn’t a win it was a nevertheless impressive and hard-fought third place. He has been on the podium twice in Portugal too, and after bad luck denting his place in the standings so far, he’ll want to stay in the podium postcode. Teammate Pecco Bagnaia, meanwhile, also has two podiums at the track and one was a win – with the Italian having proven a masterful opponent last season. As he rebuilds some good form after a fairly nightmare first two races, will familiar and successful turf see him take another step forward?

Pramac Racing’s Jorge Martin had a likewise difficult opening two races before then fighting for the win in Argentina, but COTA saw both he and teammate Johann Zarco fade slightly in the latter stages. Martin will want to put bad memories of the venue to bed as well as get back in the podium fight as he pushes to make up lost ground, and the number 89 can never be counted out – especially on Saturdays, where he’s on quite a run of front rows.

The man who beat Miller to that second place will also feel more confident heading into Portimão. Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) pitched it to perfection to get Suzuki to 500 Grand Prix podiums and open his count for the season, on top of some solid consistency from the Hamamatsu factory overall this season. He’s had incredible speed on the Algarve before, before disaster struck, but the 2022 GSX-RR seems to have reset those limits Rins was all too often overstepping in 2021, allowing the Spaniard’s pace to shine again.

2020 Champion Joan Mir will also feel confident heading into Portugal. Although still looking for that first podium of the season, the number 36 has been close and, just like Rins, consistent. His record at the rollercoaster is an impressive one too, with two podiums from our two visits to the track last year. Is the time now for Mir’s classic consistency to kick up a gear as we head into Europe?

Behind the Ducati-Suzuki lock out of the top five at COTA came an almighty comeback from Repsol Honda’s Marc Marquez. The number 93 – never previously defeated if reaching the finish line in Austin – suffered a mechanical problem on his Honda that dropped him to dead last off the line, and then came a choice: a conservative return to competition as hinted at ahead of the event (and which may even have been enough to fight for the win without the extra hurdle) or a somewhat more rocket-fuelled push back to the front? Marc Marquez is Marc Marquez, and what followed was a goosebumps-inducer.

The number 93 got back into the top ten with speed that those he was passing could have considered a professional affront, but it wasn’t quite enough to get back into podium contention. Bastianini’s win was the fastest ever at COTA by a margin, so it was by no means going to be easy had the problem not occurred, but Marquez did end up in another great battle against reigning champion Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP).

It was seemingly not simply about taking that sixth place in one race, with plenty more on the line in something akin to a 2019 rematch. For those watching, a round of it at a more Diablo-ruled venue would be a welcome second bout too, because it lit the latter stages on fire ahead of Rins’ launch on Miller. Marquez vs Portimão will most definitely be an interesting one though, as it’s a venue the number 93 has not yet mastered as he has so many. What will he have in the locker? And can teammate Pol Espargaro get back those Qatar podium vibes?

If there ever was a Diablo-ruled venue though, the Algarve has been such. When Quartararo won at the track in the Portuguese GP last season, it looked effortless – with five seconds in hand by the flag for a statement win. Then, later in the year the points were much more precious than a full push for glory. So what will the number 20 have in store this time around? It’s one podium so far after a difficult start to the season for Yamaha, and Quartararo has so far been a lonely presence in the upper echelons for the Iwata marque. Will the return to Europe hail a little more for the factory, and its reigning Champion? Franco Morbidelli (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) will also be hoping so after a tough start to the season, and the number 21 is no stranger to the podium in Portugal.

That can also be said of another up and down starter to the season: home hero Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing). The number 88 has that awe-inspiring wet win under his belt from Indonesia, but has otherwise had a tougher time of it so far compared to teammate Brad Binder. KTM overall also had a tougher time of it in Texas, with the top ten remaining out of reach on race day. Oliveira absolutely gassed it on first touch with his home track though, disappearing in a real masterclass – so can he find more form on home turf and, perhaps importantly for KTM, can they find consistency again at a venue where they have a few more laps? Binder’s position in the Championship took a dent last time out, and they’ll want to make sure it’s one duff weekend only seeing a handful of points slip away.

Aprilia also had a tougher time of it in Texas. The Noale factory has struggled at the venue before but, coming from victory, they will still have wanted more than 10th and 11th. Having said that, just like KTM, an outlier if remaining an outlier is no reason to expect that form to continue on European turf. Aleix Espargaro tasted the highs of winning and being Championship leader, now sure to be aiming to get back amongst the podium fight, but teammate Maverick Viñales also made an important step in Texas despite it being a tougher result on paper: he finished ahead of the number 41. What will they have in their arsenal as the paddock returns to Portugal?

It’s been said many a time that it’s when the European leg of the season starts that the picture really starts to become clearer, and after a record breaking range of riders on the podium already this season there’s certainly room for many to find some better consistency. But the show is guaranteed to remain a stunner as MotoGP heads to the Grande Premio Tissot de Portugal and the golden era continues.