The final weekend of October might not be the best time of year to stage the final round in a World Championship but the climate in Portugal on arrival favoured exactly that scenario.
Whilst not sunny, the temperature was warm and humid, with thundery showers forecast all weekend. Three races on the programme, with double points allocated to the final two, ensured a good attendance by the main championship regulars and those teams not in the running, but keen to finish the season on a high. The bad weather certainly arrived with a vengeance and made for a very interesting weekend.
The consistently high standard set by Swiss duo Markus Schlosser and Marcel Fries (Gustoil Yamaha LCR) meant they arrived in Portugal with a fifty-five-point advantage over the Santander Salt crew of Todd Ellis/Emmanuelle Clement. Six times IDM German series winner Schlosser had a top three in the world standings previously, and now felt his time had arrived.
With one hundred and twenty-five points available in this final weekend, there was still a real chance for the rookie youngsters to become champions. Realistically though, Schlosser has shown he makes few mistakes, and is normally mechanically sound. Nonetheless, the series was still wide open going into the three races. Ellis/Clement needed to have the weekend of their young lives, whilst others were hoping the top two crews would hit problems. An even bigger challenge stood ahead of third placed Pekka Paivarinta/Ilse de Haas with a one hundred-and three-point deficit.
They have been just off three front all season but have enjoyed a good year together. Next up and with all hope gone for the title barring a miracle came Tim Reeves/Kevin Rousseau, just two points ahead of fifth placed Steve Kershaw/Ryan Charlwood.
All hope of a dry session went out the window mid-afternoon when severe rain set in. The general forecast was for a wet weekend, and this was just the beginning. Tim Reeves/Kevin Rousseau banged in an early time which established provisional pole, whilst Todd Ellis/Emmanuelle Clement gave chase. Earlier in free practice they had spun and rolled the outfit fortunately without injury.
Unbelievably they were to suffer another spin in this opening session, ending up in the gravel. They had however set a time good enough for second quickest before the incident. The Birchall Brothers were next up, unable in the conditions to profit from the Haith Honda’s superior corner speed. Then came Paivarinta/de Haas, with Harry Payne/Mark Wilkes in strong contention ahead of Benny Streuer. The championship leaders Schlosser/Fries could manage no more than eighth fastest, with one more session to come.
It was unlikely times would improve as the weather worsened for the final qualifier, but despite that, in semi-dark conditions, crews turned out to see what could be done. Todd Ellis was fastest ahead of Harry Payne/Mark Wilkes, with Tim Reeves resting on his laurels to stay pole. He would share the front row with Ellis Clement. Schlosser meanwhile could not improve on his earlier time but sat sixth in this session.
Eighteen laps in damp conditions gave the teams a massive dilemma. With no championship to fight for, Ben and Tom Birchall had nothing to lose, so opted to go out on cut slicks. Those fighting for the title selected full wet tyres and that decision was to play a massive part in the outcome.
Todd Ellis/Emmanuelle Clement took the lead from pole sitters Reeves/Rousseau on the opening lap and looked to be heading for glory. Tim Reeves had other ideas and fought back to resume control. Those teams who had intermediate tyres ran strongly as the race unfolded, and the two leaders were under pressure from lap five. The Birchall Brothers were coming fast as the track came to them and their tyre choice. Harry Payne/Mark Wilkes were up to third after fighting with Paivarinta and Benny Streuer.
Paul Leglise moved to an incredible third place on intermediate tyres displacing Ellis. Then dramatically, series leader Schlosser pitted to change tyres, one of which was an ancient Yokohama. He was eventually to finish thirteenth for three points. Meanwhile, the Birchalls had opened a huge lead of over forty seconds. Streuer was in second place with Reeves third and Ellis down to fourth. Craig Currie and Justin Sharpe had a great ride moving through the pack to get their Birchall Racing Yamaha into fifth.
With fifteen laps completed, Reeves stopped and Paul Leglise, one of the French crews had an incident which caused a red flag. Ellis scored sixteen points for third, thereby pegging back thirteen points on the series leader.
Result Race One
1/ Ben/Tom Birchall (Haith Honda)
2/ Benny Streuer/Jeroen Remme (Bonovo Action Yamaha)
3/ Todd Ellis/Emmanuelle Clement (Santander Salt Yamaha)
4/ Pekka Paivarinta/Ilse de Haas (Team 44 Racing)
5/ Craig Currie/Justin Sharpe (Birchall Racing Yamaha)
6/ Harry Payne/Mark Wilkes (Adolf RS Yamaha)
7/ Lukas Wyssen/Thomas Hofer (Gustoil Yamaha)
8/ Steve Kershaw/Ryan Charlwood (Kershaw Yamaha).
Track conditions were saturated ahead of eighteen laps, as Reeves and Rousseau repeated their flying start to lead the pack. Ellis/Clement slotted into second and looked to be holding a strong position. This was a real lottery, but it was a masterful wet weather display by the former multiple champion Reeves.
His earlier breakdown went to the back of his mind as he led lap after lap on standing water. Harry Payne/Mark Wilkes were a brilliant second on lap five and closing down the leaders. By this time, Todd Ellis had dropped to sixth after two spinning moments, putting them at a disadvantage given the double points. This scenario gave Schlosser an unassailable title lead if Ellis could not improve. To say conditions were shocking was a massive understatement, and still the bad weather intensified. The Championship leaders Schlosser/Fries were fifth, but moving up, as indeed were Kershaw/Charlwood. Ben and Tom Birchall were unable to repeat their feat of earlier and were obviously not happy in the wet. Ellis recovered one place to follow Schlosser, but another moment put him behind Paivarinta and out of championship contention.
Schlosser kept his cool and stayed safely around fifth, moving to fourth and eventually third when leader Reeves once again retired with a mechanical problem.
At the front, Kershaw and Payne had a terrific closing lap battle, with the Manxmen getting the verdict. It was a brilliant display of wet weather racing from both crews and a justly deserved result. With one more race on Sunday, Schlosser/Fries were declared 2021 FIM Sidecar World Champions with their fine third place and thirty-two precious points.
Result Race Two
4/ Paivarinta/de Haas
With luck, this third and final race would get underway in drier conditions, but rain was in the air as the teams lined up. Tim Reeves/Kevin Rousseau needed a finish this time out, to make their long trip to Portugal worth the effort. They were justified in feeling robbed by two late DNF’s, so were keen to make amends from pole position. Once again they hit the front and made the most of the early laps when the track was still quite wet. Most had chosen wet tyres but there was no rain falling. Ellis sat second with Kershaw passing Paivarinta to move third.
The Birchall brothers were sixth in the early stages but gained momentum to move ahead of Kershaw in pursuit of Ellis. Payne/Wilkes were also in the mix, but were to go out on lap nine, as the newly crowned champions consolidated fourth by passing Kershaw. Lap fourteen and Birchall was past Ellis/Clement, with the Haith Honda coming into its own on a drying track.
They had eyes for the leaders, but Reeves/Rousseau were still fifteen seconds up the road. With three laps remaining, the Birchall Brothers were lapping fastest, but was there enough time? Penultimate lap and they were close, but Reeves/Rousseau had everything crossed, and it worked. Ellis’s rear tyre had all but fallen apart, whilst Reeves had found the wet strips to conserve his Michelin rear.
Kershaw held off Paivarinta by a couple of seconds, but the Finn had more up his sleeve and pegged Kershaw back on the final tour. The five times World Champion is a self- confessed veteran and was delighted with his finish given the strength of the new young talent coming through. He and Ilse were to claim third in the standings behind Ellis/Clement and the popular
Swiss first-time champions Schlosser and Fries.
Result Race Three
5/ Paivarinta/de Haas
7/ Streuer/ Remme
1/ Schlosser/Fries (Champions)
3/ Paivarinta/de Haas.
Final standings will be available shortly after publishing on the FIM website.
Photo credits: Mark ‘Wally’ Walters