MotoGP heads on to Estoril

The unfortunate Japanese earthquake left little option but to postpone the Japanese Grand Prix, as a result four weeks have passed since MotoGP served up enthralling races in all three classes at the Spanish Grand Prix. This weekend Estoril will play host to round three of the 2011 season.

The Estoril Circuit

Estoril, located close to Lisbon, has been the home of the Portuguese Grand Prix since 2000 when Garry McCoy was victorious for the Red Bull Yamaha team. Since then the Japanese manufacturer has had sustained success at this technical track.

The 4.2km track became a winter testing favourite for Formula 1 and MotoGP from the early 90s because it features a fast start/finish straight and a good blend of fast and slow corners.

The lap begins with a second gear 70 km/h tight right hander that riders have to be very patient with applying the throttle. It is very easy to high side at this corner so a patient approach is very prudent before heading into turn two, another slow second gear corner that brings an end to the opening sector of the lap.

Turn three is a first gear corner, even slower than turn one, and riders have barely enough time to get into second before tackling the next corner. From turn four the track starts to open with turn five a fourth gear right hander that leads onto the back straight. In qualifying this corner is one of the most crucial of the lap with riders pushing to the maximum and trying to wring an extra tenth of a second out of this fast corner.

Turn six sees riders slow from fifth gear into second for another hairpin bend which leads into, yet another, slow second gear right hander which brings riders to the slowest corner of the year, the chicane. Taken in first gear at a snail’s pace this corner has tormented numerous riders, especially in the wet.

The final section of the lap opens out with a series of medium speed corners before the fearsome Parabolica where riders are on the edge of their tyre for seconds gradually feeding in more and more power through the fourth gear right hander that takes them back to the start/finish line.

Estoril will never be confused for any of the greatest circuits that MotoGP will visit but the challenge at the Portuguese venue is immense because of the technical nature of the track layout mixed in with a handful of faster corners that test the nerve of a rider.

All eyes on Rossi and Stoner

As has been the case throughout much of the 800cc era the focus of much of the early attention this weekend will be on Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner.

The pair crashed in Jerez after Rossi lost control of his Ducati and ended Stoner’s race. The incident was clearly the Italian’s fault, as he agreed afterwards, but the ramifications of the crash have continued to boil over in the last four weeks. Race Direction took steps to address the issues highlighted by Honda in the aftermath of the incident and the marshals handling of the crash, and the restart of both riders, will be looked into.

It is hard to see exactly why this meeting will even take place. There are no grounds to reprimand the riders, other than keeping MotoGP in the news cycle of the last four weeks this hearing will be relatively pointless. The behaviour and performance of the marshals does deserve to be looked into but surely it would have been better to bring this forward as a point of conversation in the next FIM meeting and not during a race weekend.

Riders on the mend and ahead of Estoril

Injuries have already played a key role in the opening races of the MotoGP season. The most serious was obviously Alvaro Bautista. The Suzuki rider broke his left femur in Qatar but passed his medical to race this weekend.

The former 125cc world champion was in good spirits during the Thursday press conference but will wait until Friday afternoon before deciding whether he is fit to race on Sunday.

“The crash in Qatar was horrible and it’s been very hard, every day working 24 hours on the injury to improve and now I am here. Tomorrow I’ll try with the bike. At the moment I’m very confident,” said the Spaniard. “I rode a supermotard yesterday and didn’t feel too much pain, but a MotoGP bike is very different and we’ll see what happens.”

“After first free practice I will make a decision if I continue. It’s very important, it’s not just the injury but I also have to rediscover the feeling with the bike,” he concluded.

John Hopkins impressed in Spain while deputising for Bautista but the team confirmed that the American’s primary focus is British Superbikes and that he will race this weekend at Oulton Park.

The other major early season injury concern was Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider was in surgery immediately after the last race in a bid to eliminate the left arm problems that plagued him in Qatar. Even though Pedrosa was barely able to move his arm after that race he has had a strong start to the season with two podiums. If he can take another podium this weekend the diminutive Spaniard will take the 50th premier class podium finish of his career.

The extra two weeks without a race has given Pedrosa, and Bautista, the opportunity to get as healthy as possible and this weekend Pedrosa should be able to show his true form for the first time in 2011.

While there are no other premier class with injuries there are many with mental wounds to heal. Almost ever rider crashed during the race at Jerez and each will have a story to tell about how close they were to a podium or winning the race. Marco Simoncelli and Ben Spies came closer than anyone else and each will have been licking their wounds throughout the last month.

Simoncelli was leading the race, and pulling away, when he crashed. The Italian has yet to stand on the rostrum and it will be interesting to see how he reacts and recovers to his disappointment. The Gresini rider was a revelation throughout winter testing but now is the time for him to stand up and be counted. It is crucial that he has another strong race.

In the smaller classes Simoncelli was at his best when angered. This could have been when he felt unfairly treated by a rival or when he made a mistake. The one thing that could be guaranteed was that when his back was to the wall, he came out swinging. Expect a strong showing this weekend.

Ben Spies crashed out of second place in the final laps at Jerez. With no grip in his tyre there was little that he could do to avoid the crash but the American is sure to have been hurting since Jerez. This weekend though could be a challenging weekend. While this is the second season of his Grand Prix career Spies will head to Portugal with no knowledge of the Estoril circuit.

Last season both practice days were dogged by rain and it was only one race day that riders were able to enjoy dry weather laps. Spies however did not manage to make the start of the race after crashing on the sighting lap. As a result his Spanish race could be compounded by another below par performance in Portugal.

What to expect in MotoGP

While Spies has little knowledge of what to expect his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, must have been counting down the days until this weekend.

The reigning champion has been unbeatable at Estoril in the premier class and has taken three wins from pole position in a row. Following his victory at the last race, by the largest margin since the 2002 race at Estoril, Lorenzo will be out to impress once more. The Yamaha rider has had 22 top four finishes in a row and his form in the opening two races in ominous to his rivals. Lorenzo leads the championship and Estoril is a circuit tailor made for both Lorenzo and Yamaha.

Casey Stoner has taken one win at Estoril, in the 250cc class, but the Australian is not to be underestimated by Lorenzo. Stoner has been in great form so far this year taking both pole positions. He has the speed and desire to give Lorenzo a real fright and he should be more than capable of testing Lorenzo.

The power of the Honda will prove hugely beneficial on the start finish straight and the new machine has clearly made huge strides in slower speed corners. Stoner, and Pedrosa, should be in a superb position to remove the “Lorenzo Land” flag that has been hanging in Portugal for the last three years.

Ducati will bring new electronics to this race in a bid to give Rossi and Nicky Hayden a smoother power delivery. The red machines have struggled in the opening two races but these changes, and a new chassis due for Le Mans, should be hugely beneficial. There is little hope of Rossi challenging for the win but the five times winner should be in a much more competitive position than he has been so far in 2011.

Moto2 to thrill once more

It goes without saying the Moto2 race will be exciting. The intermediate class has provided amazing racing but this weekend should be one to remember.

Marc Marquez has adapted superbly to the class but the Spaniard is yet to finish a race following crashes at Qatar and Jerez. This weekend he should be able to break his duck and if he can make a strong start a victory is far from out of the question. Marquez has consistently been one of the pacesetters in 2011 and his past form at Estoril should give him more than enough reason for confidence.

Last year, in the 125cc class, Marquez overcame a crash on the lap to the dummy grid and had to start the restarted race from the back of the field. He came through to win after one an inspired performance. If he can channel such a performance once more he will surely be a contender to take the win.

To do so he will have to beat the likes of Stefan Bradl, Thomas Luthi, Andrea Iannone, Alex de Angelis and a hugely motivated Yuki Takahashi.

The Japanese star was rocked by the death of his brother during the week but he has decided to compete this weekend in his honour. There is little doubt that he will be out to win this race and his performances at Qatar and Jerez will make him a strong contender. The Moriwaki shod rider has always performed well in Portugal but this weekend could be one of the most impressive weekends of his career.

Bradley Smith impressed everyone at Jerez with an exceptionally mature ride in the rain. It will be a struggle for the Tech 3 rider this weekend, if it is dry, but another strong top ten finish would cement his reputation as a strong rookie in the class.

Last season Kenan Sofuoglu impressed everyone on his debut Moto2 Grand Prix but his adaptation to series regular has been quite trying, the World Supersport champion is yet to score a point in 2011. His memories of last year could spur him onto a strong performance but if he struggles once more questions are sure to be asked in the Technomag pits.

Who can stop Terol?

Sandro Cortese took pole position at Jerez but the German crashed out during the wet race. It is crucial that he takes his first Grand Prix victory this weekend otherwise any hopes of challenging Nico Terol for the title will be farfetched. The Aprilia Germany rider is exceptionally fast but prone to mistakes.

A victory however could unlock his true potential and give him the mental energy to battle Terol. Overcoming hurdles are difficult for any rider but the victory hurdle for Cortese is larger than for most riders. The 21 year old has taken three pole positions but has never looked like taking a race win.

As a result it is crucial for him to finally overcome that and stand on the top step of the rostrum. If he can do it this weekend he will have made a huge stride in removing the aura of invincibility around Terol.

The Aspar rider has built his reputation on consistency. Last season Terol finished second in the title even though he missed two races through injury. His constant ability to grind out podiums allowed him to battle Marquez for the title until the very last race even though his rival was considerably faster.

His speed should never be underestimated but if Cortese can win on Sunday it will be very interesting to see how both react ahead of the next race at Le Mans.

Hector Faubel has taken seven victories, including the 2007 Portuguese race. Terol’s teammate has looked very strong this year but a technical problem in Qatar and a crash while battling for the lead in Jerez has cost him dearly.

This weekend is a “make or break” one for Faubel but if he can perform like he did in the opening two races he should be a safe bet for the podium.

Jonas Folger is second in the championship following two races the German should be strong this weekend. It will be a challenge for him to finish on the podium again but a top five finish would cement a superb start to the season.

Weather for this weekend

The weather has always played a key role at Estoril and this weekend looks like being no different. Rain is expected on Friday with the threat of showers on Sunday.

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