MotoGP returns to Portugal for its second 2021 visit to the Algarve rollercoaster but one key player is missing - Repsol Honda’s Marc Marquez.
The 2021 FIM MotoGP World Champion may already be decided, but there's plenty still on the line this season. Two Grands Prix remain, and there are also the Team and Constructor crowns to be fought for.
The next stop is a return ticket to the Autodromo Internacional do Algarve as the paddock gears up for the Grande Premio Brembo do Algarve, so there's already a point of comparison from this season to get a possible glimpse of what to expect. It won’t, however, include the added presence of a stronger Marquez as the eight-time World Champion is sidelined as a precaution, having suffered a slight concussion in training on Saturday.
An exact re-run of the Portuguese GP would probably suit newly-crowned Champion Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) just fine though. The Frenchman dominated on our first visit, and headed a top three on the podium that mirrors the 2021 standings exactly. If there hasn't been a shake up since then, that's no problem at all for El Diablo – especially as the Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP team arrive 13 points clear in the Team standings. But Quartararo was already in his stride as the season began, something that, arguably, Ducati Lenovo’s Francesco Bagnaia hit a little later.
The other obstacle for Bagnaia's charge to stay with Quartararo on take one in Portugal was a rollercoaster qualifying that saw one lap chalked off for track limits and another for a Yellow Flag. That dropped him 10 places behind Quartararo on the grid but Bagnaia and Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) charged from 11th and ninth to second and third, respectively. Now, Bagnaia arrives with the last four pole positions in his pocket... so the sensible bet is against the Italian having to repeat his comeback on take two.
Mir and Suzuki, meanwhile, arrive hoping to repeat that podium but still looking for some Saturday secrets. The 2020 Champion has never had a front row in MotoGP and despite five podiums this season, has a 2021 best of fifth and that – at the Styrian GP – is the only time he's started on the front two rows this season. That's a lot of extra work to do on Sunday and he also arrives on the back foot after a crash out at Misano from 18th on the grid. His performance in Portugal last time out was impressive though, and that will be a positive on the way in – as will the reappearance of Valencia on the horizon, the scene of his first MotoGP win.
Another positive as the Hamamatsu factory aim to push back towards the very front will be the pace shown by Mir's teammate Alex Rins in the first Portuguese visit. The Spaniard ultimately crashed out, but he'd been able to stay with Quartararo until that point. Can Suzuki come out swinging and challenge again in the Algarve GP?
Ducati and Yamaha will hope not, as Suzuki are out of the running in the Team and Constructor standings but could complicate life for the leading duo. The aforementioned 13-point lead for Monster Energy Yamaha in the Teams' standings is a lead ahead of Ducati Lenovo Team, and Ducati have a 12-point lead in the Constructors' over... that's right, Yamaha. Suzuki are third in both. So there could be plenty of key players: Ducati’s Jack Miller, Pramac Racing's Johann Zarco and Jorge Martin, Enea Bastianini (Avintia Esponsorama), Franco Morbidelli (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP), Petronas Yamaha SRT's Valentino Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso...
The fight for Rookie of the Year is also heating up. After Martin had taken an early lead, Bastianini is now the rider in the hot seat following another stunning podium taken in the Emilia-Romagna GP. The Italian has a five-point lead over the Spaniard with only two races to go, so it could potentially be wrapped up this weekend, although it seems likely to roll all the way to the final. Who will come out on top in Portugal?
Top Independent Team rider is another up for grabs this weekend, but it's a bigger gap and advantage falls in favour of Zarco. He's back into fourth overall after a DNF for Miller last time out too, and the Pramac rider has 39 points over Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini). Zarco needs to leave the Algarve GP 26 clear to wrap up the title, so he needs to lose less than 13 to the Aprilia rider.
Espargaro could also lose touch with Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) this weekend in the fight for seventh and higher in the overall standings, so the number 41 will want to maximise his potential in Portugal. Binder and KTM are also on the tails of both Marc Marquez and Honda, with Suzuki mathematically still in reach for the Austrian factory. With Marquez sidelined too, Honda's hopes fall more to Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda Team), fresh from the podium, as well as Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda Idemitsu) and Alex Marquez (LCR Honda Castrol).
Back to KTM, the Algarve GP will also be a huge weekend for Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing). The Portuguese rider has had some incredible rides this year, including that impressive win in Catalunya, but after a tougher run he'll want to end the season on a high. He is a previous winner at Portimão after that demolition job in 2020, although he'll more likely be aiming for a good points haul and a return to the front this time around. The number 88 was back on form at Misano too, fighting for the podium before his charge was ended by a crash. What can he bring on home turf?
The Championship is settled but there's plenty more spectacle remaining in 2021 as the rollercoaster returns to deliver another stunner!