Portimao 13-16 October 2016

peter wileman photographyEveryone I have ever spoken to about Portimao circuit has raved about it. And now I was finally getting the opportunity to ride there myself. I had booked a four day event with No Limits for the middle of October for £ 650 (US$ 900) including four nights in a four star hotel near the beach in Portimao.

Day 1

Having been misdirected by my sat nav (because I punched in the wrong address), I arrived at the circuit to find that Mat had unpacked and removed his bike and some most of my gear from our shared stillage/cradle. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember what his bike looked like and it took me some time to locate it and the rest of my gear in a nearby garage. He had thoughtfully left space for my own bike alongside his, and so I went to remove it from the cradle to bring it to the garage. As I released the straps which secured the bike, I noticed that my brake lever was snapped off! Luckily with only half the lever left, I was still able to operate the brake and get the bike into the garage.

I mentioned the damage at sign on and was directed to one of the haulage guys. He noted that I was using one of the newer skinnier stillages, and that this wasn’t the first time that this has happened! They offered to replace it but only after I got back. Thankfully I had a spare with me, and with the help of another rider spent the next half hour fitting it and bleeding the brakes as a result of allowing the plunger to pop out when the old lever came off.

peter wileman photographyDuring the morning’s unloading there had been a ten minute downpour which effectively soaked the circuit. However the sun was beginning to appear and coupled with a gentle breeze we all hoped that the track would be dry before the first session at 10am. I had booked into the novice/inters group which would be first session out. The other two groups were advanced inters and fast. There were approximate 40 riders in my group and 50 in the other two. Portimao is a long, big and generally wide circuit, so that number of bikes shouldn’t really present any real problems with bunching riders.

peter wileman photographyThe briefing that morning was one of the funniest that I have heard in a long while. Matt, the instructor could definitely get a job on the comedy circuit. We were all in stiches at various parts of his talk. Not withstanding this, he did cover all the safety items and reminded riders about giving space when overtaking. No Limits are a relaxed operator and I really like the no-nonsense and efficient briefings that they give. There’s nothing worse than an operator who likes the sound of him own voice and who drones on for hours during a briefing.

Our first session would comprise three sighting laps and that would be it for the next four days. The track was still damp virtually everywhere that we could see but not wet enough to warrant the effort of fitting wet tyres. I has a brand new set of Continental RaceAttacks Endurance fitted before I came out, and knew from past experience that they give good feedback and grip even on a damp circuit.

peter wileman photographyDuring the first session, I followed a group of riders out on track being led by one of the instructors. The pace was fairly gentle which was good as the track is infinitely more confusing and technical than it appears in videos on YouTube! One thing you cannot see in those videos is just how great the elevation changes are and the different cambers of the various corners; some are off camber while other have a camber that favours faster cornering. I arrived back in the pits after that session feeling both slightly exhausted and overwhelmed.

By the third session of the day, the track was mostly dry apart from one stubborn puddle on the last left hairpin. This allowed me to gradually increase my pace each session. However, there are three blind crests that require a lot of faith in order to hold the throttle open going over them and I just wasn’t willing to do so and ended up backing off on these approaches as I was still apprehensive. I therefore decided to get some help and caught up with Matt, one of the No Limits instructors who also runs Smallboy Bike Hire and he offered to ride around in the fifth session with me. I followed him for three laps; watching his lines, I realised just how much more of the width of the track he was using in places, and also how much more efficient he was in not using the space unnecessarily. Despite riding at the same pace around the track, I would always struggle to keep up through the tight right handers; two of which occur before the big blind crests. The session was really useful and it gave me more confidence to attack some of the corner more aggressively. He also kindly offered to ride with me for the final session of the day to see if I managed to make any improvement.

I returned to the pits after the penultimate session of the day to see my bike leaking coolant (glycol) from the belly pan. After removing the lower fairing, I could see that the leak originated from one of the jubilee clips that I had removed the previous week. Tightening it up and running the engine at idle for three fan on/off cycles showed me that there were no further leaks with the system fully pressurised. Phew! Glycol based coolant on your back wheel is a recipe for a nasty crash; either for you or any hapless rider that happens to be following.

peter wileman photographyIn the final session, I rode managed my first overtake on the outside of a reasonably fast rider on a Honda CBR1000 approaching the start finish straight on the scarily fast long right handed corner. In the debrief, Matt said “fair dues” for that pass and confirmed that I had made a significant 6 second improvement dropping my lap time from around 2:30 to 2:24 which I was pleased with, although the time was a long way off where I wanted to be.

Day 2

The first session of the day was both bright and slightly chilly (12C). I was aware of the risk of a crash in the first few laps due to the colder track temperatures, however that was made up by the fact that most of the group either hadn’t turned up at the circuit yet, or were waiting for the second session. This gave me a perfect opportunity to focus on my lines with worrying about other riders either ahead of me or behind me.

peter wileman photographyMatt’s advice the previous day had been to get off the bike more, especially on the right handed turns (a particular weakness of mine) in order to get the bike upright sooner and to get on the power harder. By the end of the day, I found that I was becoming more comfortable with the right handed turns; both the tight ones, and the longer faster ones. I was also starting to learn the track better which allowed me to keep the power on longer over the blind and unsighted portions of the track. At Portimao, quite a few of the trickier parts of the track are unsighted amd a large degree of knowledge and confidence is required to tackle them as you are often riding outside of your comfort zone on blind faith.

By the final session of the day, I got the opportunity to ride with Matt for some more instruction. Despite him riding at a consistent pace, there were a few sections of the track where he would still drop me as I struggled to match his pace. In the debrief afterwards, he had a go at me for not being more aggressive/confident when overtaking slower riders who were holding me up, and also for braking too early and continually coasting into corners. He suggested working on those two aspects in the remaining two days. To be honest, I think he was slightly disappointed by my riding, but that was probably highlighted by the fact that he had just been coaching some fast group riders that afternoon who would have been significantly faster than my pace.

I drove away from the track that night determined to be more aggressive in overtaking while still ensuring that I didn’t put any other rider at risk, to try braking later and harder, and to get on the gas earlier once past the apex of a corner.

Day 3

Purchased some DOT 4 brake fluid in order to bleed the brakes on the way to the circuit, but when I went to test the brake lever, it felt better than the day before. To be honest, I didn’t really notice any fade in the previous two days riding despite the slight sponginess of the lever, so I decided that I would leave the brakes alone instead of potentially making them worse by failing to bleed any remaining air out of them, or introducing even more!

peter wileman photographyFor the second session, I asked Mat who parked alongside me in the garage if he would mind filming me for that session. He was happy to because he had left his own GoPro camera at home, and was happy to get a few laps of himself riding. During that session I made a real effort to hang off the bike both on left and especially right handed turns, and I thought that I was doing well based on what I felt on track.

However after I reviewed the footage, I was surprised to see I hardly looked like I was moving around the bike at all. This just make me more determined to get off the bike more in order to keep it more upright in the turns which would allow me to get on the gas sooner in the following sessions. Over the course of the day, I found that the right handed turns were becoming less difficult, and by the end of the day I was pretty much dragging my right knee on both the slow/tight and long/fast corners everywhere on the track.

Just before lunch that, two riders in the fast collided at over 100 mph on the approach to the start-finish straight. I was in the canteen at the time, and heard the sound of screeching metal as one of the bikes launched itself into the air and proceeded to try and destroy itself as it cartwheeled down the straight. Although both riders were injured; one with minor damage, the other was taken to hospital with broken ribs and a punctured lung. He ended up in Intensive Care but thankfully was expected to make a full recovery.

Despite my efforts that day, I just could not improve on a 2:23 time; having hit yet another plateau in my riding. Part of this was due to the fact that the higher speeds down the start-finish straight were making the corner entry into turn 1 at the end more difficult. This corner has an unsighted left hand edge as you peel in the for the first right turn (at turn 2) and it constantly threw me causing me back off too much. The other corner that I struggled with was the long fast right hander onto the start-finish straight. To attack this corner requires balls of steel. I know that it’s possible to take it much faster than I was able to based on the fact that I occasionally got passed on the outside of the corner but I just didn’t trust myselt to take it any faster than I was already doing. It is possible to make up quite a bit of time if you can attack that final corner and it was something that I would continue to work on for the rest of the trip.

Day 4

Like the previous day, the first session of the day was notable for the lack of riders. I think quite a few were nursing hangovers from the previous evening’s partying. Quite by accident, I found myself at the start of the group lined up in the pits. As we pulled off, I expected to be overtaken pretty quickly, however no one passed me for two laps. The lack of traffic in front of me allowed me to focus on my lines without getting baulked by slower riders. The session was great fun especially as I managed to tag some of the faster riders that did eventually overtake me. This would normally happen on the start-finish straight where my Daytona would give away a 40-70 horsepower deficit. The faster bikes would easily manage 160+ mph down that straight while I was only able to manage 130+ mph.

peter wileman photographyAlthough the first session felt fast, I remained at a 2:23 laptime. After the session, I was chatting with one of the faster group riders about hitting a plateau when he suggested braking earlier for turn 1 and trying to carry more speed into turns 2 and 3. I determined to give this a go in the next session. As before I made a point of lining up in the pits ahead of the other bikes in the group and again I remained at the head of the group for the first two laps fully utilising the clear track ahead of me. I make a point of braking slightly earlier for turn 1 and forcing myself to release the front brake even when I wanted to keep it applied. In addition I drove the bike on the power towards turn three (the tight right right hander), and then slowed down more in order to pull the bike right to straightline the left hander at turn four. I also endeavoured to drive the bike down the hill in the final right hander before the start-finish straight. Something must have worked because I got back to the pits to find that I has just shaved 3 seconds off my previous best time to deliver a 2:20! I was really pleased with such a dramatic improvment in just one session from trying three new things!

I never managed to improve on that time for the rest of the day; mostly because tiredness after nearly four days on track was starting to take its toll. In fact I abandoned the final three sessions of the day because I felt that I was becoming increasingly at risk of having an accident due to wandering attention.

Summary

peter wileman photographyPortimao circuit is like a rollercoaster ride with huge elevation changes, short tight and long fast corners, and many blind sections of track. It is probably the most demanding and exciting track that I have ever ridden at and is now a firm favourite. The track facilities are on par with Silverstone in the UK but with even better marshalling and use of flags. The track is slightly bumpy in places but was never so bad that you don’t want to ride there. In terms of pace the fastest riders were lapping in the low 1:50’s, and the advanced inters were lapping at 2:00 to 2:05’s. The pace in our novice/inters group varied from around 2:40 to 2:12’s.

In the whole four days there were very few red flags and the atmosphere among the riders was really good. This wass probably one of the most relaxed track days that I have been on, and it was a testament to No Limits ethos of a light touch and a focus on track time. With the sunshine holding for all four days and temperatures in the low 20’s centigrade during the day, it is hard to imagine that this event could have been bettered.

I am already planning my return to this circuit for the same time next year and I cannot wait to get back and have a go at reducing my lap time to somewhere below a 2:14. Maybe with some practice at other UK circuits in 2017 before I return, this is an achieveable ambition.

If you’ve been wondering whether to visit Portimao, do so – you won’t be disappointed.

You can see a gallery of photos from the trip here