Aleix Espargaro conceded he was fearful heading into the final session of Saturday's qualifying ahead of the Portuguese Grand Prix.

A crash-laden Q1 at Portimao saw Remy Gardner and Francesco Bagnaia, who has finished on the podium in his last two races at the Algarve International Circuit, crash, with the latter failing to set a time.

Johann Zarco produced a stunning lap to come out on top in Q2 to take pole and spare Ducati's blushes, finishing ahead of Joan Mir and Espargaro, who across four races this season has collected 50 points, more than in two of his previous five whole seasons with Aprilia (44 points in 2018 and 42 in 2020).

Reigning champion Fabio Quartararo – the winner at Portimao last year – also struggled in the wet, though the Yamaha driver overcame a tricky moment to clinch fifth on the grid, while Marc Marquez, chasing his 100th MotoGP podium this weekend, was left to rue a yellow flag, having initially set the fastest lap.

After negotiating the difficult conditions, a relieved Espargaro was thrilled with his efforts.

He said: "I hate to say it – I was scared! Today I was scared, the wet patches were very slippery.

"When you are sitting in the garage and see many crashes, and all the crashes have been huge. You have to be very focused but you cannot be.

"I tried to feel perfectly the whole track to see where I could push in the last five minutes. I am very happy, this is like a victory because I hate these conditions, so I'm super happy."

Having recorded a time of 1:42.003, Zarco, too, acknowledged the state of the track made assessing where and when to push hard difficult.

"Pretty, pretty happy. I did not expect it to be so good. It was so tricky," the Frenchman said.

"I was pretty happy to go straight through Q2. I couldn't analyse the Q1 well. The best strategy was to stay on track, do the full 15 minutes with the same tyre to get confidence with the track, it worked pretty well for me."

Mir, meanwhile, revelled in taking a place on the front row for just the second time in his MotoGP career.

"In normal conditions we always struggle to make one lap but in tough conditions we can give a little but more," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said.  

"My feeling is improving. We are following good steps, we are improving and it looks like when we make a good step [forward], we don't go back. So it's important. Let's see if we can go faster tomorrow, but it will be a hard race."

Francesco Bagnaia and Jack Miller both lauded the impact Casey Stoner had on their rides after the Ducati duo sealed a one-two in qualifying for the Algarve Grand Prix.

Though Fabio Quartararo already has the MotoGP world title sewn up, the rest of the field are still fighting for position and second-placed Bagnaia set a record lap time at Portimao in Q2 on Saturday.

That effort saw the Italian sensationally claim pole position for a fifth straight race. This is the second run of the same rider taking five poles in a row this season after Quartararo also did so.

Miller had provisional pole, but Bagnaia snatched first place on the grid away from his team-mate and then improved to a final time of 1:38.725.

With Stoner a guest of Ducati throughout the weekend, as well as for the Valencia Grand Prix, both Bagnaia and Miller expressed their desire for Ducati to employ a rider coach for next season, with the Australian – who won the MotoGP title in 2007 and 2011 – a prime candidate.

Bagnaia told a news conference: "It could be a nice present from Ducati to have Casey as a coach next year.

"It's a different point of view, he's a legend and it's different to have a coach, because in Ducati we don't have a coach and for me it helps a lot.

"Maybe next year we can have him. But for me today he helped a bit for the last corner, the exit of the last corner, and it was useful."

Miller, a compatriot of Stoner, added: "It's fantastic to have Casey at the last two grands prix.

"He's got a family and lives on another side of the world, so the idea of that working out I think could be too hard logistically and whatnot.

"But I'd be all for it 100 per cent. But like Pecco said, it is really nice, I've worked with spotters on track and he's not a normal spotter – let's say it like that.

"It's Casey Stoner, a legend, one of the best ever. But I think it is something we're missing in our programme and I think it is definitely something we need to look at maybe introducing into the programme.

"I'm not saying we can get Casey, I'm more than happy to have him, but somebody."

Behind the Ducati duo, Joan Mir of Suzuki Ecstar claimed third. Remarkably, it is the first time the Spaniard, who won the title in 2020, will start on the front row in a MotoGP race.

"Maybe starting in the first row it will help to be more in front and have the situation a little bit more under control," said Mir, who expanded on a heated exchange he had with Alex Marquez at the end of the session.

"Well, Alex was following me I think until FP3 in all the sessions, also FP4 and the first exit in qualifying and the second one he was waiting again," he explained.

"If he didn't disturb me then it's not a problem, but in that moment I made the first lap quite slow to warm up the tyres; the lap time was not bad, but I was warming the tyres and I had just one lap left, but then he decided to overtake me on the braking and went wide. 

"That's why I was angry. Alex came to the box to apologise which is something I appreciate. At that moment I was not happy because I could not get the 100 per cent today."

Valtteri Bottas feels he has learned important lessons from his previous race after claiming pole position for the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Bottas qualified eighth last time out at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix as Max Verstappen took victory for Red Bull.

Verstappen had been tipped to grab pole in Portimao but, after struggling in the windy conditions, he was denied the fastest lap after a correction to avoid a crash at Turn 4 saw his time chalked off for exceeding track limits.

Bottas will start Sunday's race from the front of the grid, denying team-mate Lewis Hamilton the 100th pole of his career by 0.007 seconds, with Verstappen in third.

The Finnish driver was in buoyant mood after tying the great Jackie Stewart on 17 career pole positions, especially given his inauspicious drive at Imola last month, when a crash with George Russell ended a disappointing race weekend.

"It definitely put a smile on my face, because in the first two races of the season, the qualifying really from my side… at least the Q3 session hasn't been the strong point and getting everything out of the car and tyres to work well has been a bit of a weakness," he said.

"But now, it felt like things are starting to go in the right direction. I've been feeling strong all weekend so I knew it was possible and it definitely makes me really happy to put it together in Q3 and be on pole. And as a team as well, with the pressure and with the battle from Red Bull, it's good to be ahead.

"Mentally, I took all the learning points [from Imola], and there were a lot of lessons from that last race, as always. So, I took those, and the rest that I should forget, I completely moved aside and forgot those and moved on."

Hamilton was able to secure a 71st front-row lockout for Mercedes since 2014 but struggled throughout the session, while even the softer compound in Q3 did not yield sufficient grip for better times.

"There was honestly so much time available and I just didn't put it together," said the reigning world champion. "It's really tricky conditions here. The surface of the track is very smooth, and not a lot of grip and the tyres – you need extra laps to get the temperatures even though it's a really nice day.

"Then the balance… one minute you have grip; the next minute, you don't, so it's very tricky for everyone.

"It felt quite good in P3 today and on that Q2 lap it felt solid, and I thought that we were in the right window but it's temperatures... there are gusts of wind so you can be unlucky and get tail winds that perhaps you wouldn't normally get on particular corners."

Verstappen, meanwhile, is hoping for better on Sunday after admitting the lack of grip has made little about the weekend enjoyable so far.

Having won from third at Imola, he remains hopeful Red Bull's straight-line speed will be enough to put the Mercedes under pressure as he aims to overturn the one-point gap to Hamilton in the standings.

"It's been a bit hit and miss anyway, the whole weekend; we're just struggling a lot to find the balance," said Verstappen, who, like the front two, will start the race on medium tyres.

"To be honest, I didn't enjoy one single lap this weekend, just because of the state of the track. I mean the layout is amazing but the grip we are experiencing I don't think is nice. I know it's the same for everyone but for me personally, it's just not enjoyable to drive.

"We'll see [on Sunday] what we can do. It's not so easy to follow here but if we have good pace then, for sure, we'll put the pressure on."

Marc Marquez will start from sixth on his MotoGP return, but there was drama and controversy at the front of the grid in Portuguese Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday.

Six-time champion Marquez will race this week for the first time since the 2020 season opener.

The Repsol Honda superstar broke the humerus in his right arm in that event in Jerez and failed in his bid to make a swift comeback, instead watching the remainder of the campaign from the sidelines as Joan Mir claimed his crown.

Marquez has taken precautions at the start of the new MotoGP year, too, missing the first two races, but he is back in action at the Algarve International Circuit.

His previous appearance in Portugal, at Estoril in Moto2, ended in victory in 2012.

Still recovering his fitness, Marquez said: "Tomorrow I'll suffer. But then next week I can recover, then Jerez be a little bit stronger."

A solid Q2 time of one minute and 39.121 seconds was sixth-fastest to ensure a competitive Sunday start, although Marquez would have only made seventh had Francesco Bagnaia's sensational time not been struck off.

Bagnaia, who claimed a first career pole at the season opener, believed he was set to start from the front of the grid again after shattering the track record. The Italian already has three fastest laps over the past two seasons.

But the factory Ducati rider passed through a yellow flag zone following Miguel Oliveira's crash in completing a 1:38.494 lap.

Fabio Quartararo was the beneficiary when that effort was cancelled, promoted to pole as Bagnaia fumed.

"For sure [the flag position is a problem], because you are coming from the downhill and the yellow flag was on the right side," said Bagnaia, whose strong start to the season has included 26 points from two races. He had 47 from 11 in 2020.

"I was already leaning for the corner and preparing for the corner, so it was impossible to see my side.

"[Luca] Marini, who was behind me, said to me the same. He also didn't see the yellow flags, so it was impossible."

Quartararo will be looking to protect his new position, having only finished on the podium in four of his past 16 races but won on all four occasions.


Provisional classification

1. Fabio Quartararo (Monster Yamaha) 1:38.862
2. Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) +0.089s
3. Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) +0.129s
4. Jack Miller (Ducati) +0.199s
5. Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha) +0.241s
6. Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda) +0.259s
7. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia) +0.307s
8. Luca Marini (Esponsorama) +0.524s
9. Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) +0.536s
10. Miguel Oliveira (Red Bull KTM) +0.583s
11. Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati) +0.620s
12. Maverick Viñales (Monster Yamaha) +0.945s

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