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Lock and load: Marquez returns to race the rollercoaster

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After nine months on the sidelines, the eight-time World Champion is back. At a track he's never raced, to face a field of rivals ready to measure their mettle

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.

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 get back to the 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 Losail finish ever 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?

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 more smoothly than the 2020 edition.

At Aprilia, with a nearly all-new RS-GP, nearly every weekend asks new questions, and 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 showdown in what promises to be a classic 2021 season.

MotoGP™ Championship top five:

Johann Zarco* Pramac Racing - Ducati - 40
Fabio Quartararo Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP - Yamaha - 36
Maverick Viñales Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP - Yamaha - 36
Francesco Bagnaia Ducati Lenovo Team - Ducati - 26
Alex Rins Team Suzuki Ecstar - Suzuki - 23
*Independent Team rider

Lowes vs Gardner vs Fernandez? Moto2™ take on Portimão
The top three so far in 2020 have some tantalising resumes on the Algarve, with Moto2™ poised for an interesting battle ahead

It’s two from two for the number 22 so far in 2021, but next up Moto2™ heads for the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve and the CVs of the top three so far make for interesting reading. Sam Lowes (Elf Marc VDS Racing Team), the aforementioned number 22, loves the place and took a podium even when injured in 2020, but the man on the chase is Remy Gardner (Red Bull KTM Ajo) and he’ll arrive with even better memories after winning there last season. Impressive rookie Raul Fernandez (Red Bull KTM Ajo), meanwhile, demolished the field on his way out the door in Moto3™ last year… and he’s already been on the podium in Moto2™. So who’s coming out on top?

First, Lowes’ CV. The Brit already knew Portimão from his former exploits as WorldSSP Champion, and when the paddock arrived at the venue last year for the first ever Grand Prix there, his pace was impressive from the off – and that’s despite some serious injury struggles. Battling through the pain barrier, Lowes nevertheless took a podium and was only 3 seconds off the winner, which is pretty good reason to believe the Brit may be even quicker as he arrives in history-making form and undefeated so far in 2021.

Gardner, however, has his own good confidence heading into Round 3. First, he got significantly closer to Lowes in the second race at Losail, and second, he’s shrugged off the pressure of being an expected contender so far, as well as the temptation of a reckless last corner lunge that could have easily dented his points total. Third, he’s the first Moto2™ winner at Portimão, and fourth, it was his first Grand Prix win as well… the one that prefaced an even more threatening rider turning up from the off in 2021. Fifth, for good measure, he won it in style with a nice margin in hand.

Raul Fernandez, meanwhile, is also a recent winner at the venue. “In style with a nice margin in hand” needs beefing up even further to describe the Spaniard’s Moto3™ win at Portimão last year as he signed off from the lightweight class on imperious form, and as he returns in Moto2™ it’s unlikely his speed will desert him after having witnessed his incredible adaptation so far. He’s also, to the delight of his competitors, already had a taste of the rollercoaster on intermediate class machinery – as have fellow rookies Ai Ogura (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) and reigning Moto3™ World Champion Albert Arenas (Solunion Aspar Team). 

Ogura was impressive in the Doha GP and will want to build on that as he arrives at the venue as a top five finisher, and Celestino Vietti (Sky Racing Team VR46) wasn’t too far further back either. The likes of Arenas and Tony Arbolino (Dynavolt Intact GP) will be looking for a bigger step forward too as the rookie pack shuffles, with Raul Fernandez on top so far, Ogura and Vietti homing in and the rest looking to making up some ground. 

Marco Bezzecchi (Sky Racing Team VR46) will also be expecting to get back in the podium fight after two solid rounds to open the year, as solid is not quite enough once you’re a race winner and title contender. Losail has never been his best hunting ground, so will Portimão see a bigger threat from the Italian? And what about the likes of Augusto Fernandez (Elf Marc VDS Racing Team), who’s making progress, and Petronas Sprinta Racing duo Jake Dixon and Xavi Vierge? Both weren’t where they want to be in the Doha GP and will be expecting much bigger things as the paddock arrives back in Europe.

This weekend it’s MotoGP™ before Moto2™, so make sure to stay tuned for the intermediate class at 14:30 local time, which is GMT+1.

Moto2™ Championship top five:

Sam Lowes Elf Marc VDS Racing Team - Kalex - 50
Remy Gardner Red Bull KTM Ajo - Kalex - 40
Raul Fernandez Red Bull KTM Ajo - Kalex - 27
Marco Bezzecchi Sky Racing Team VR46 - Kalex - 26
Fabio Di Giannantonio Federal Oil Gresini Moto2 - Kalex - 22

Destination Algarve: Acosta arrives on familiar turf
Guess where the rookie sensation won his first FIM Moto3™ Junior World Championship race? Yep... buckle up!

A podium first time out is an impressive feat, but following it up by becoming the first ever Moto3™ rider to win from pitlane raises the stakes somewhat. And so, rookie sensation Pedro Acosta (Red Bull KTM Ajo) arrives on the Algarve with the hype machine in overdrive and deservedly so, looking to maintain or extend his position as the Moto3™ World Championship leader. In some sarcastically welcome news for everyone else on the grid, Portimão is also the venue where he took his first win in the FIM Moto3™ Junior World Championship. So can the streak continue?

In the 'yes' corner, Acosta's win on the Algarve and the ease by which he learned and raced at Losail, a new track to him, say he'll be a key contender if not the outright favourite. In the 'no' corner, Moto3™ rarely sees back to back winners and the competition is incredibly fierce, with closest top 15 records seeming to tumble nearly every weekend. The riders forced into playing the supporting cast last time out will want some of the spotlight back, not least of all Acosta's teammate Jaume Masia and the man second overall, Darryn Binder (Petronas Sprinta Racing).

Portimão all-time lap record holder Masia made a few errors in Doha and he'll want to reassert some authority, and although he didn't finish last year in Portugal he had some serious speed. So too did Binder and the South African did finish, in sixth despite a Long Lap Penalty, with only three riders who remain on the Moto3™ grid ahead of him: Dennis Foggia (Leopard Racing), Jeremy Alcoba (Indonesian Racing Gresini Moto3) and Sergio Garcia (GASGAS Valresa Aspar Team). One of them is unlikely to repeat his challenge as Alcoba has a pitlane start on a five second delay for his antics with John McPhee (Petronas Sprinta Racing) last time out, but Foggia and Garcia could be ones to watch. Foggia, after all, came second in 2020 despite two Long Lap Penalties and the Leopard rider remains on the same machine.

Rookie Izan Guevara (GASGAS Valresa Aspar Team) also merits a mention as the impressive Spaniard is now fifth in the standings and has experience of Portimão from the FIM Moto3™ JWCh, as does Adrian Fernandez (Sterilgarda Max Racing Team) and we saw a big step forward from the number 31 last time out for much of the race. On the other side of the coin, experienced runners Ayumu Sasaki (Red Bull KTM Tech 3) and Tatsuki Suzuki (SIC58 Squadra Corse) have proven speed at the venue as well as they attempt to make a bigger dent on podium fight, having both started from the first two rows of the grid in Portugal last year and having both not yet got in the groove they want from 2021.

A rookie on a roll, the veterans looking to fight back and the awesome rollercoaster of the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve await us in Round 3 for Moto3™. Don't miss it, because the highlights reel for the lightweight class is just the whole race. Tune in at the slightly different time of 11:20 local time – that's GMT +1 – to watch the freight train thunder round Portimão.

Moto3™ Championship top five:

Pedro Acosta Red Bull KTM Ajo - KTM -  45
Darryn Binder Petronas Sprinta Racing - Honda - 36
Jaume Masia Red Bull KTM Ajo - KTM - 32
Niccolo Antonelli Avintia Esponsorama Moto3 - KTM - 26
Izan Guevara GASGAS Valresa Aspar Team - GASGAS - 19

Published : April 13, 2021