The penultimate round of the 2021 MotoGP World Championship took place at Portimao in Portugal yesterday, and the race served as a solid demonstration of power for Ducati and rising start Francesco Bagnaia. In a race that promised much action, certainly regarding tire choice and degradation of the spec Michelin rubber, Bagnaia took control by turn two and was never seriously challenged.
The dominant effort was a necessary response to the previous race’s outcome, two weeks earlier at Misano, Italy.
At the famed venue on the Adriatic coast, Bagnaia needed a solid performance to keep his slim Championship title hopes alive. For much of the race, he held the lead from team-mate jack Miller, while points leader Fabio Quartararo on the works Monster Yamaha worked his way through the pack.
But Quartararo crashed late in the race, tucking the front end in the final turn, in the same way Miller departed the battle earlier in the contest. Repsol Honda’s resurgent superstar Marc Marquez took the win from team-mate Pol Espargaro, while the top Ducati was upstart privateer Enea Bastianini on a two-year-old v-4 Desmo.
Avintia Racing’s Bastianini charge through the field was a Misano talking point, and on the last lap the 23-year-old class rookie and reigning Moto2 Champ picked off Quartararo for the final podium spot. However Quartararo wasn’t much bothered – he clinched the World Championship with fourth place.
So Bagnaia had something to prove at the next, Portuguese event, and stepped up in dominant form.
“I’m very happy because I think this was my best weekend in MotoGP,” explained victor “Pecco. “I enjoyed every single session all weekend. When you feel so great with your bike everything comes more easily to you. I’m very happy with the work we have done. Compared to the first race here in April when I finished second, I was feeling much more competitive this time around.”
“The race was more difficult at the start, because with the front tire I picked I was struggling,” continued Bagnaia. “I was still trying to push but every time I was leaning on the left, I was feeling that the left-hand side was closing. But things came better and better in the next laps, and the race came to me, I was happy with our control.”
Reflecting on the title deciding events of Misano two weeks earlier, Bagnaia confirmed, “I sincerely think my race is the same as Misano. I was doing the same race, I was doing the same pushing like Misano but there I was unlucky because I crashed.”
Bagnaia’s suggestion that his approach to the two races was identical confirms the incredible level of competition all through the grid in the current era of MotoGP. Riders must get the most from the bike and especially their tire choices in every single session to be ready for the unpredictable nature of each race.
Quartararo was expected to work his way up through the field from a third row start, many anticipating a gloves-off fight with Bagnaia now that the Championship was secure. However, the works Yamaha’s lack of top end speed made his progressive difficult, at best. He eventually fell from sixth, his first race crash of the season.
These events highlighted how important a strong Qualifying performance has been in Quartararo’s 2021 season, with an amazing 14 front row starts. Tellingly, when he won the title at Misano, his fourth place was accomplished from 15th on the grid – but an amazing 8 riders crashed from the race!
Bagnia’s pole at Portimao was his fifth in a row.
“When you are behind a Ducati you are just stuck,” confirmed the new World Champ after Portimao. “Honestly, I could go much faster in the race. I could really have the pace of Pecco for sure.
“If I make a great Qualifying, I would be able to fight for the victory for sure. But if you miss out on Qualifying, you can say bye-bye to the Podium and the victory. It is really a shame that we have these kinds of difficulties, because the bike is so good to ride, but with the speed, you can’t make any mistakes.”
Of his departure from the race, Quartararo admitted, “when I crashed, I was on the limit, I couldn’t make that corner. But I knew that if I went wide, I would have been overtaken, so I just gave it a try, and the try didn’t work!
“Even if we lose performance in another area, we need to gain on top speed, because to overtake is a nightmare. Well – we just can’t overtake! So, I think that they (Yamaha) should push so much and so much on the engine, because to be honest, for the future it is not going to be easy.”
One rider enjoying a return to form was the 2020 World Champ, Ecstar Suzuki’s Joan Mir, who pushed Bagnaia early in Portugal and earned second, by far his best recent result. Mir enjoyed his first career front row start, and then pressured the leading Ducati during the early laps, when most were trying to conserve their rubber.
“I was waiting for the leader to make a mistake,” explained Mir. “I waited the whole race – he never made one.”
Credit for the Suzuki’s return to form was placed on a second-generation rear ride height device. MotoGP racers now drop the front suspension for starts, and the lower the rear to improve traction exiting turns.
Confirming this step-in development, Mir explained, “this is something I think that everyone is using, and it give more for the acceleration, this is clear.
“It was one of the points we improved for us to be here (on the Podium), you get a lot more acceleration because you get less wheelie – this is the main thing. We have to improve this device; this is only the second prototype. For next year we will have something better for sure.”
Missing from action at Portimao was Honda’s Marc Marquez, injured in dirt bike training a few days ahead of the Grand Prix. Little was said about his injuries, and speculation centered on the status of his much-repaired shoulders.
With many so-called experts, including me, expecting a fully healthy Marquez to be a favorite for 2022, it will be interesting to see if he attends the final event in Valencia next weekend and the key development test immediately following.
- Colin Fraser