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Nine months since last starting a race and even longer since last finishing one, the time has come for Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) to return to MotoGP™. It's been a long road to recovery following his crash in Jerez, and translating that into racing terms pulls it into focus: Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT) and Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) are now all premier class race winners. Mir is the first MotoGP™ World Champion in ten years not called Marc Marquez or Jorge Lorenzo. Ducati are the reigning Constructors' Champions and Team Suzuki Ecstar the Teams'. Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) leads the 2021 Championship, many on the grid are in different colours and some familiar sparring partners have gone. Some are new faces entirely and there's even someone different on the other side of the Repsol Honda Team garage as Pol Espargaro continues to settle in. This has all happened in what feels for many like a breathless, exciting rush – and will likely have felt to Marquez like the longest months of his life. But the wait is over, and the Grande Premio 888 de Portugal can't start soon enough.
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All eyes will be on Marquez from FP1, and having not raced on the Algarve last year, there will likely be thousands of words given to balancing taking it easy vs track familiarisation vs getting back on a MotoGP™ bike after so long vs expecting the eight-time Champion to put in a lap record in five seconds. Some will expect the answers within five minutes and others within five Grands Prix, but the questions themselves are the bigger draw. How long will it take to see the number 93 on full power? Will it be no time at all? Did everyone raise the bar, or is Marquez returning to do just that?
Speaking of raising the bar, that's something Oliveira definitely did last year in his first premier class race on home turf. Already a MotoGP™ winner by the time the paddock arrived in Portugal for what was then the season finale, the number 88 shot out the blocks and couldn't be caught, making it look easier than ever to make history in arguably the closest era ever. As we return only a few months later though, it's been a difficult couple of races for KTM on the way in so the Austrian factory will get plenty of attention to see if they can start to get back to their winning ways that made them a star of 2020, as will Oliveira, who will be eager to put himself and Portugal back on the top step at home. Teammate Brad Binder did take a best KTM finish ever at Losail in eighth, as the Qatari circuit has always been a tougher one for the marque, so that's one box ticked and he'll be keen for more too. Is this where the 2020 titans start to show more cards?
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The aforementioned Zarco, meanwhile, arrives as Championship leader and is one person who believes the grid got faster in 2020. The layout of Portimão wasn't the best fit for Ducati last year with the exception of Jack Miller, now at Ducati Lenovo Team, as the Australian took second, but the reason Ducati are the reigning Constructors' champions was explained by Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti in Portugal last year: a Ducati was extremely fast at every track, it just wasn't always the same one. So the task will be for the rest of the Borgo Panigale machines – especially Zarco and Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) – to unlock Miller's secret to second place in 2020, and for Miller it's to grit his teeth slightly after arm pump surgery and try and get back nearer the front. The Moto2™ graduate rookies will be interesting too, coming in with a blank slate and Jorge Martin (Pramac Racing) with a first premier class pole and podium. How can he, Enea Bastianini (Avintia Esponsorama) and Luca Marini (Sky VR46 Avintia) adapt?
Yamaha have a similar balancing act to take from last year's first visit to the Algarve. Franco Morbidelli put in a stunner for another podium finish as his machine seemed to edge out the factory riders later in the season, but so far in 2021 fortunes have been slightly reversed as Fabio Quartararo and Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP teammate Maverick Viñales arrive with a win apiece; second and third in the Championship. They say a key test of the 2021 machine is how it handles Portimão, so how will it handle Portimão? And can Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha SRT), after a stunning first qualifying in Qatar before a slide down the order, get back to the front?
For Suzuki there are also plenty of questions left unanswered on the Algarve. After winning the title before the Portuguese GP last year, Joan Mir had a self-described disaster of a weekend as he had issues in practice, qualified well down the order and then eventually pulled in during the race with a mechanical problem. Teammate Alex Rins, meanwhile, said he made the wrong tyre choice – leaving Suzuki at full chat a somewhat unknown quantity. Test rider Sylvain Guintoli said after his very first experience of the track on the GSX-RR that it should suit the bike, so the Hamamatsu factory could be a big threat if all goes a little smoother than the 2020 edition.
At Aprilia, with a nearly all-new RS-GP, nearly every weekend asks new questions, in the best way. The Noale factory were closer than they've ever been before to the MotoGP™ winner courtesy of Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresin) in Qatar, and the new machine is impressing plenty. Arriving into Portimão, it will also have recently enjoyed giving a new VIP a ride round Jerez as MotoGP™ veteran Andrea Dovizioso takes it for a spin. More on that can be expected following their three-day test in Andalucia, but everything seems to be on course for the Noale factory to keep impressing in 2021.
The closest top ten in history, the closest top 15 in history, and now an eight-time World Champion returns to the fold. For Marquez Portimão is unchartered territory, for the rest it's somewhat more familiar turf, but for everyone on the grid it's going to be a very different race weekend to the last one: the previous benchmark is back, and the rollercoaster awaits...
Tune in for the Grande Premio 888 de Portugal MotoGP™ race at 13:00 local time (GMT +1) to see the third race of what promises to be a classic season in 2021.
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