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Somehow, as is often the case, it feels like a lifetime ago and like yesterday all rolled into one that we were seeing Miguel Oliveira celebrating a monumental victory on home turf in Portugal. Just five months on and three rounds later, the now Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider is back, alongside his MotoGP™ competitors, attacking the rollercoaster that is the Algarve International Circuit. But what has changed from 2020’s Friday to 2021’s Friday?
Well, first of all, the times are a lot slower than we witnessed in MotoGP™’s debut Free Practice 2 back in November 2020. Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) is the fastest rider heading into Saturday’s qualifying day with a 1:39.866, four tenths shy of Johann Zarco’s 1:39.417 in FP2 last season. Bagnaia’s time would have put him ninth in the same session last year, but there’s a reason for that.
Both Bagnaia and reigning World Champion Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) – the Spaniard third quickest on Day 1 – confirmed that there is less grip this weekend than there was at 2020’s curtain closer. Heavy rain on Thursday and overnight probably had a part to play in that. Both riders, however, sounded confident that if a downpour holds off before Saturday’s action begins, then the times should drop by quite a lot. It will be interesting to see if this is the case.
Speaking of Bagnaia, Ducati are once again looking sharp in Portimao. The Italian leads the way, with teammate Jack Miller fifth and World Championship leader Zarco P8. Compare that to last year for the pacesetting VR46 Academy rider, and you’ll find – despite the lack of grip – that he’s over a tenth quicker and P1, not P15. It was an impressive day for Bagnaia, who leads a Yamaha – just like Zarco did last year – after Friday. That man is Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), the Frenchman again going well on a Friday in Portugal, but his and Yamaha’s – apart from Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha SRT) – weekends didn’t quite go to plan later into the GP in 2020.
Suzuki have made a very good start at the 2021 Portuguese GP. The aforementioned Mir is P3, three places better off than 2020’s FP2, with teammate Alex Rins P4. It’s pretty safe to say last season’s Portuguese outing was a disaster for the Hamamatsu factory. Rins began it by finishing P17 in FP2, and he would eventually finish the race as the lone GSX-RR in P15, 27 seconds adrift of Oliveira. Round 3 of 2021 has started in a much brighter fashion, but there’s a long way to go yet. The early signs are promising for Suzuki though, one-lap pace isn’t an area they can boast about, so to be P3 and P4 is definite progress.
The signs are also promising for Oliveira. The dominant 2020 race winner was P13 in FP2 last year, but as things stand, the Portuguese star is sailing straight into the Q2 shootout in P9 – albeit further adrift of P1, but Bagnaia is three tenths clear of second. It’s diverging fortunes so far on the other side of the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing box for Brad Binder so far though. Last season’s Rookie of the Year is P17, 1.3s off the pace after FP1 and FP2 in Portimao, a big change from P5 and 0.2s off three rounds ago. It’s been a challenging start to 2021 for KTM in general, but again, there’s a whole lot of riding to do between now and when the points are awarded on Sunday.
2020’s third place Portuguese GP finisher Morbidelli had a troubled day at the office during Friday’s 888 Grand Prix of Portugal running. P19, 1.3s off isn’t where the Italian would want, nor expect, to be at this stage. Reverse back to the end of 2020, Morbidelli was P10 and less than half a second down on Zarco’s pace, so there’s work to be done if a repeat podium is on the cards for the number 21.
Let’s touch upon the elephant in the room. Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team). Unable to attend last year’s Portimao round through injury, the eight-time World Champion returned to action after nine months out on Friday. 271 days after his Spanish GP crash, 265 days since he last rode a MotoGP™ thoroughbred, the number 93 rolled out of pitlane. No one knew what he would be capable of, but many heaped expectations on the Spaniard, who played down his aspirations for the 2021 Portuguese GP on Thursday afternoon.
32 laps later, Marc Marquez is P6 heading into Saturday’s action. The beaming smile on his face watching himself get it out of shape heading into Turn 7 on his last flying lap said it all: the number 93 is back doing what he does best.
Saturday could see everything change though. MotoGP™ can change in a split second, and Portimao’s undulating stunner of a circuit is bound to throw up some surprises before the chequered flag is waved on Sunday. Strap in folks, two more days of watching the world’s best riding the rollercoaster is coming your way.
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