Paying for the crash

Cameron McAdoo’s frightening and astounding crash in 250SX practice at the Atlanta Speedway last week was the ultimate definition of a ‘lucky escape’. The 23 year old’s pinned, twirling body on the Monster Energy Pro Circuit Kawasaki somehow defied the repercussions of physics. At the Algarve International Circuit for the third round of 2021 MotoGP racers were cutting vaguely similar shapes, with at least 47 tumbles onto the Portuguese asphalt or spirals through the gravel across the weekend.

While McAdoo’s flip was happily bookended with a lack of injury and he even managed a podium finish at the same event, not every prang is as generous. Each significant crash at Portimao carried its own particular story. They were conveyed through the attempts to tackle a circuit of corners and challenges that Red Bull KTM’s Brad Binder described as “probably one of the most difficult to learn or figure out how to do it perfectly because there are so much to it”.

“It’s about the right feel and flow,” said Lenovo Ducati’s Jack Miller. “You need to ride off flow rather than markers and points and things like that.” Last weekend was MotoGP’s second visit to Portimao and the second venue this year where riders had to get used to the tweaked Michelin tyre allocation. The two tracks used in the series thus far are seeing the narrow optimum working range of the rubber pushed to the fore, particularly with a stubborn Medium front that is causing a lot of head-scratching.

Some of the accidents carried obvious physical consequences. Pramac Racing’s Jorge Martin quelled his recent hype from Qatar with a rapid practice get-off that resulted in yet another hospital stay and operation for the oft-fragile Spaniard while LCR Honda’s Taka Nakagami valiantly rode to 10th place on Sunday despite sitting out Saturday due to a painful right shoulder after his Turn 1 bump.

Other accidents eroded confidence. In the 25-lap race run in sunny conditions and a slight breeze there were five falls. Jack Miller’s exit at Turn 3 was another blow to the start of the Australian’s career as a factory Ducati rider and in the wake of such speed and optimism in Qatar. The expectation around #43 has not been matched with a return; 9th, 9th and DNF the score so far. “Completely my fault. Just a really silly mistake, a costly mistake,” he admitted to the gathered press group through a Webex call afterwards. The 26 year old was then very frank on the current situation that has seen his teammate take silverware, and the two Pramac Desmosedicis also lauded. Miller must be aware of the notoriously small and tilting platform he occupies at the peak of the Ducati Corse staff pyramid. “We’re in the trenches at the minute. I’m trying to dig my way out,” he said. “It’s not easy. We all want to be winning. We all want to be on top. In reality it’s not always like this. It’s difficult. But, I’ve been in worse positions in my career and dug my way out. I’m very lucky to have the support I have, whether it be from my team, from my management, giving me guidance, giving me reality. We are working hard. I’m working hard. Doing everything I can in my power to try and be better. It will come. It’s only three races in. We’ve made work really hard for ourselves, but the tables will turn.”

Miller had been jostling for the top five before his untimely departure. “It was one of those ones where you sort of slide along going ‘what just happened?’ The magnitude of the situation really hits you. I think many of us made mistakes. The track was not easy out there today. My crash was simply my fault. I just grabbed too much brake at the wrong point in time and the grip wasn’t there. For sure, I’ve had now three crashes this year. It’s not bad. I’m no worse, but for sure I don’t want to have any.’

Nine laps later and the famous #46 was also fluffing up gravel dust. A 12th, 16th and a DNF means that Valentino Rossi has only 4 points from the opening three races of the season, the same amount as his stepbrother and MotoGP rookie Luca Marini. It’s grim reading for the Italian who is of course back in a satellite team set-up for the first time since he won his initial premier class title in 2001 (although with the same circumstances of full factory material). Rossi has publicly stated that he can see himself in MotoGP for another two terms and reach a stately age of 44 but will these results and his diminishing status as a potential race winner (or even podium finisher?) change this perspective? Will a factory like Yamaha even supply another M1 at the expense of the incoming generation and a shining talent like Raul Fernandez drifting to a long-term association with another brand?

Rossi has far too much experience to expand publicly on any troubled waters, but if he cannot find the extra tenths at the forthcoming Grand Prix in Jerez – site of one of his last victories all the way back in 2016 – then another letter might be scribbled on the wall. “It will depend very much on the tyres as always,” he remarked on his chances for the Gran Premio Red Bull de España before remaining steadfast for what was to come. “Here we can use the hard tyre and with the hard tyre I am able to be faster. The race was not so bad for the position where I started, and my pace was a lot better than yesterday. So, I am more confident.” 

Among the scraping of carbon and metal was also the abrasion of championship potential or conviction. Johann Zarco has been rightly fettled for his career pick-up and for slotting in a pair of deft race finishes in Qatar that allowed him to rise to the top of the formative MotoGP standings. He cut a disbelieving figure after sliding out of the podium running and then tried to rationalise the front-end tuck as an error while moving through the gearbox, which might also have been a mechanical glitch. Or not. “I did a mistake on the shift down, but then I got also a little issue with the gearbox in that moment,” he explained. “That’s why I got not the good gear [sic] in that moment and that area of the braking has been critical. So that was the first thing that helped me not to be too disappointed, to understand better why I got the crash and second thing also the front tyre was not too nice.”

Zarco, tied with Alex Marquez, has fallen off four times so far this year for the highest number of crashes to-date. In spite of the early inroads into the Pramac parts budget, he left the first two races as Ducati’s lead athlete and with his esteem replenished as an unlikely title contender. The doubts over Zarco’s stock are starting to creep back, much in the same way that they continue to float around Suzuki Ecstar’s Alex Rins. The Spaniard’s abuse of the front Michelin, as evidenced by the protestations of the GSXR and the varying lines of the #42 as he chased Fabio Quartararo, gave way to his exodus during the last quarter of the race. As we discussed in the Paddock Notes section of the Paddock Pass Podcast – and colleague David Emmett correctly observed – Rins is quite a different animal compared to his younger and more mature world champion teammate. Just look at how Joan Mir is able to consistently balance and analyse circumstances during a season while Rins flashes both with moments of unrestrained brilliance and daft decisions that impact his points tally.

The Suzuki man made only his fifth front row start in MotoGP in Portugal but couldn’t continue that reversed trend in terms of his approach on Sunday. Zarco went from MotoGP leader to 21 points behind his countryman, Quartararo, and Rins is in familiar territory, firmly nestled in the mid top ten. Bizarrely he seemed quite unperturbed by the state of affairs later on. David even asked him why he looked quite so perky post-race. “I’m looking very happy? Yes, because David, I think I did a very good race,” he answered. “I was able to be there with the man-to-beat, because yesterday since FP4, he was very impressive, talking sincerely. And I was there riding, not easy, but riding well. And OK, we got zero points this race, but there are many races still. We have only done three. For sure it’s a shame but I’m quite happy because I’m feeling strong.” Suzuki can only hope this strength will convert into a string of top three classifications in the fixtures to come.

The fifth faller at Portimao was the winner of the Grand Prix last November and Red Bull KTM’s Miguel Oliveira’s dismounts on Saturday (at a scary speed in Q2 through Turn 9) and Sunday were examples of over enthusiasm and led to seemingly short-term disappointment. Perhaps not much more. Oliveira was given a reminder of his burgeoning profile at home with a busy hero’s welcome at the circuit on Thursday. In these fan-less days of MotoGP and general sports events, this was a very minor but spiriting ‘reconnect’ for the sport and the public. The 26 year old tried to repay the faith and pushed and pushed the KTM with the Medium/Hard front tyre complications. The rubber overheated in the race and while he did finish – down in 16th and without a rear brake – it was a seismic shift in results and emotions compared to his previous experience in November.

Oliveira offered an interesting take on the ramifications of a crash and how riders dust themselves off, have leather panels restitched and immediately wander back out on the limit. “I realised why I crashed,” #88 said of the capability to ignore the bruising from Saturday and get ragged once more. “When you crash and you don’t know why or you lack a lot of confidence then that’s when it is hard to come back…but it was quite a technical and well explained crash. It was easy to get on the bike again and at high speed. It was a normal procedure. When we crash we need to get up and continue and this is [the same for] motorsport in general and especially in motorbikes because you literally fall down!”

Oliveira’s teammate was quick to play down the perilous nature of Portimao. But Binder’s words did illustrate how crashes can wear a lot more than just the rider’s protection and bike components. “I don’t think there is such a thing as a small crash at this track, no matter where you come off it is going to be a big one, unless it’s Turn 3, you know? Other than there you are always carrying quite a lot of speed and the track is quite nice and wide and open,” he opined. “You are always flowing and pushing the front quite hard. As with all these crashes when you are carrying a lot of speed it is going to be a bit more sketchy. When you come off here it is with great speed. Like you saw with Martin: you carry such high speed from corner to corner and when you do come off and you slide you are entering the traps with a lot of speed too. It is easy to get spun in every direction. It is easy to find yourself going head-over-heels and that’s when you tend to start hurting yourself.”

Every rider is bound to have a ‘McAdoo moment’ but they will also taste the surface with a bigger bill to pay. Look no further than the best MotoGP rider in the history of the sport – Marc Marquez – and the powerful emotions that came after his nine-month layoff to understand the high cost.

By Adam Wheeler @ontrackoffroad

Photos by CormacGP @CormacGP

New issue