Portuguese GP: The Rollercoaster Awaits

Image: WorldSBK.com

The 2021 MotoGP world championship arrives in Europe this weekend, at the stunning Autodromo Internacional do Algarve, on the southern coast of Portugal.

If ever there was a circuit specifically designed to put grand prix motorcycles through the ultimate test, this is undoubtedly it. With its 15 corners (9 right, 6 left), and constant changes of elevation, the circuit is affectionately known by the locals as “A montanha roussa” – The Rollercoaster.

World Superbikes were the first to arrive at the venue back in 2008. Amazingly, it took until the Covid-affected 2020 season before the grand prix paddock arrived – but boy was it worth it, with local hero Miguel Oliveira taking a thrilling victory aboard the Tech3 KTM. Now with the factory Red Bull KTM team for 2021, there is not just hope but expectation to deliver, from the home fans.   

Speaking of expectation, the unknown quantity for this weekend is undoubtedly the returning Marc Marquez. Having been given the green light by his doctor, the eight-time world champion will return to the premier class. The news would have been a morale boost for the Repsol Honda team, as new rider Pol Espargaro and HRC test rider Stefan Bradl endured torrid back-to-back weekends. 

Of course, we do not know what version of Marquez we will have back. Will it be the all conquering, all dominating rider who held an exclusive stranglehold on the championship from 2016-19? Only three riders: Giacomo Agostini, Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi have won more successive premier class titles. Or will we see an initially more reserved Marquez, allowing his body time to adjust back to the extreme rigors of racing at the highest level? Or will injuries have taken a terminal toll to any aspirations of equaling and surpassing Rossi’s haul of 9 world titles? Certainly all and sundry of the MotoGP fan base have been very vocal in their opinions. 

One thing though is certain – Marquez backs himself to the hilt. He has returned because he feels ready to fight for wins – not merely to make up the numbers on the grid. Love him or loathe him, we all await with bated breath for Sunday’s race. Only then will we truly know which Marquez has returned.   

Marc Marquez pole sitter in the 2019 , Aragón,MotoGP race. Image courtesy of Jaime Olivares/Box Repsol

With the emphasis of this circuit very much on cornering stability and speed, the likes of Monster Yamaha and Team Ecstar Suzuki will be licking their lips in anticipation. For Suzuki, they will be eager to put a difficult opening two rounds behind them and send a statement to the field that 2020 was no flash in the pan. Whilst the factory Yamaha outfit will be hoping to continue their stellar early season form, having taken the spoils in both Qatar outings with Maverick Vinales and Fabio Quartararo.

The general consensus this week is that Ducati may well find the going tough here. Whilst the main straight does play to the strength of the V4 engine, and the bike has improved again on corner turn-in – the alarming rate (and indeed suddenness) with which their tyres wore out will be cause for serious concern. Jack Miller at least will now have full use of both his arms for this weekend. The Australian had been struggling with the dreaded ‘arm pump’ in Qatar, which prompted corrective surgery immediately afterwards.

Ducati’s main hope for success may well lie this week with Johann Zarco on the satellite Pramac Racing Ducati. The Frenchman found success in Qatar due to his very smooth riding style, eking out as much life from the Michelin tyres as possible. With tyre wear levels again expected to be high this weekend, Zarco’s ability to nurse the rubber home may yet ensure that Ducati Corse add another rostrum trophy to their collection. 

The team to watch out for this weekend is Aprilia. The Noale-based outfit have made serious improvements since last season. The new ‘slimmed-down’ V4 engine has brought a vast increase in torque for the lower gears, which has seriously improved cornering speed and stability. The trade off has been a loss of power top end. Aleix Espargaro claimed that he was losing as much as 20kph (12.5mph) down the main straight at Losail. Nevertheless, the team managed to finish round two in P10, but only 5.38 seconds behind race winner Quartararo. Both team and rider will be quietly confident that a maiden podium finish is not far away. 

Aprilia have wasted no time to ensure they keep up in the development race. 3-time premier class runner-up Andrea Dovizioso made his much anticipated debut for the team earlier this week, testing at the Jerez circuit. Whilst the team were understandably tight lipped regarding any data, the strongest rumour doing the rounds suggests that the Italian is closing in on a permanent race deal with the team. 

Credit: Suzuki MotoGP

So the King has returned, but the young pretenders are hungry. In his absence Joan Mir (Team Ecstar Suzuki) has shown he is one who can wear the crown. There are no slow riders in MotoGP, and nobody is given quarter on track for past reputation. Come 1 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, all eyes will be fixed on the 22 gladiators as the next chapter in the 2021 championship is written.

As the great Nick Harris used to say: “Let battle commence!”

F1 visits Portimao: Portuguese Grand Prix Preview

After a 24-year absence, Formula One is finally about to return to Portugal this weekend, as we gear up for round 12 of the 2020 season and the first ever at the Algarve circuit.

Having visited the country 16 times in the past on world championship level, F1 will be hosted by the 4.6 kilometre circuit as part of the new circuits hurriedly introduced to fill the gaps in the staggered Formula One calendar in 2020.

As a result, you could be forgiven for suggesting that Algarve has been on of the scarce positives to come out of the Coronavirus pandemic, along with multiple new and returning tracks that have added to a thus-far vibrant season of racing.

Perhaps said vibrance does not quite apply to the 2020 drivers’ and constructors’ title battles; Mercedes’ 10 wins and Lewis Hamilton’s impressive eight can testify to that, and the same rang true after a marvellous drive from the six-time champion earned him victory at the Nurburgring a fortnight ago.

Lewis Hamilton’s win at the Eifel GP was his eighth of the season and 91st in F1 – equaling Michael Schumacher’s record – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

Daniel Ricciardo’s mightily impressive podium for Renault, and Max Verstappen’s second place with the fastest lap followed Valtteri Bottas’ failure to finish, with the Finn admitting over the two-week break that he “needs a miracle” if he is to mount a serious challenge to his team mate Hamilton for the drivers’ title in 2020.

Renault’s result was a further example of just how tight the midfield battle is. McLaren, Racing Point and the occasional cameo from race-winning Alpha Tauri have made for an enticing season in the midfield over the opening rounds, with Renault power finally proving itself a serious contender for the top three in the Constructors’ battle this year.

After 32 races with the team, Ricciardo’s podium in Germany was his first with Renault – Courtesy of Renault Media

What has been curtailed, however, is the usual three-way battle between Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari, with the Scuderia falling massively from any sort of grace performance-wise this season. The Portimao circuit may provide some relief to their issues though. While Portimao does feature a long home straight and a couple of braking zones in the first sector, there are lots of flowing parts of the track where, technically, there will be lots for the drivers themselves to do in order to find lap time. This is particularly the case into the double-right of turns 10 and 11. This should help somewhat to mitigate the time lost down the straight with Ferrari’s shocking power deficit and seemingly woeful chassis. Bear in mind though that Mattia Binotto is confident that new upgrades the Maranello outfit have brought to the car will further improve their chances of a strong result this weekend.

Conversely, the non-Ferrari powered teams will be excited for this weekend. Getting it right through the tricky technical sections, including the deceptive final corner, as well as having some decent performance down the straight could make for some surprise qualifying results, and a fiery battle for position during the Grand Prix.

Mick Schumacher presents Lewis Hamilton with his father’s 2020 race helmet to honour Hamilton’s magnificent achievement – only previously done by Michael Schumacher – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

Having just equalled the once-unbeatable Michael Schumacher race-win record, the first ever championship grand Prix at Algarve may be Lewis Hamilton’s time to become the first ever 92-time winner.

Formula E champion Da Costa may make Portimao F1 debut

Back in 2014, former Audi WEC driver and three-time Le Mans winner André Lotterer made a one-off F1 appearance with the struggling Caterham team for the Belgian Grand Prix. After not making it very far into the race, Lotterer turned down an offer to race in the Italian Grand Prix and has since made his home in Formula E with Porsche.

That was the last time a driver made a surprise appearance in a one-time race deal. Many others have tried, including rally legend Sébastien Loeb who attempted to acquire a super licence to race for Toro Rosso in the 2009 F1 season finale at Abu Dhabi, but that didn’t happen. But now we have the prospect of another high profile one-off race cameo.

In the midst of the frantic motorsport rescheduling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,  a country that has benefitted handsomely from this is Portugal. Both F1 and MotoGP haven’t had an event there since 1996 and 2012 respectively, both at the Estoril circuit.

But now their other prominent motor racing venue Algarve will host the two top level championships, with F1 going there on October 25th and MotoGP hosting their season finale there on November 22nd.

In MotoGP, Portugal already has a hero. In the most recent MotoGP race, Miguel Oliveira won in a stunning last lap, last corner move at the Red Bull Ring to win on his Tech 3 KTM. However in F1, Portugal hasn’t had a representative driver since Tiago Monteiro and no realistic prospects in the lower formulae. However with the news of F1 returning to Portugal, there is a very strong likelihood that we could see a home driver at Algarve.

Courtesy of FIA Formula E Media

António Félix da Costa is no stranger to the F1 paddock. Having previously come close to a Toro Rosso seat for 2014 after Daniel Ricciardo’s call-up to Red Bull, he ultimately lost out to reigning GP3 champion Daniil Kvyat.

Da Costa had looked like the more likely candidate. He was expected to win the 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 championship, but finished third to future F1 drivers Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne, and despite Formula Renault 3.5 being closer to F1 performance than GP3, it was Kvyat who got the call-up. Undeterred, Da Costa became a BMW factory driver and has competed in the likes of DTM, the World Endurance Championship and Formula E.

Da Costa won a few races in DTM and even took a second victory at Macau in 2016. But it was Formula E where he made his name, having competed since the series’ inception back in 2014 and won races for Team Aguri, BMW i Andretti and DS Techeetah. It was this season though that Da Costa proved his potential, finally claiming that long awaited first Formula E championship.

Under the management of Monteiro, Da Costa is apparently in high demand after his Formula E title win. He’s been approached by teams from WEC, IndyCar and also F1. Two F1 teams according to Monteiro have approached him about a drive for Da Costa, although it is unknown as to whether that will be for an FP1 appearance or maybe even a race drive in front of his home crowd.

Courtesy of FIA Formula E media

Having had the majority of F1 races behind closed doors this year, the Tuscan Grand Prix at Mugello will mark the return of fans on a reduced scale and Portugal is allowing spectators too. FOM are said to be very keen to see Da Costa compete which will guarantee filling the spectator stands (again on a smaller scale).

Which F1 team could it be? You would think having had previous connections with Red Bull, perhaps Alpha Tauri could be a realistic option. It would be very poetic if he ends up taking the place of Kvyat, the same driver who leapfrogged him to the F1 drive in the first place.

It would be very interesting to see how Da Costa will perform if this comes to fruition. I remember back when he lost the seat believing that it was the wrong decision, and that Da Costa had been robbed. Nevertheless, the Formula E champion will undoubtedly relish this unprecedented opportunity to race in F1 at his home Grand Prix, if it does indeed come to happen.