When eight-time world champion Marc Marquez makes his MotoGP return at Portimao next weekend, it will be on board a bike that currently sits sixth and last in the constructors' standings after the Qatar rounds.

New Repsol Honda rider Pol Espargaro was the top RCV rider in both Losail races, finishing 8th and 13th respectively.

But the time gap to the top was better than those results look, with Espargaro +5.990s from Maverick Vinales in race one, then +6.063s to the other factory Yamaha of Fabio Quartararo in race two.

Espargaro's race time improved by 4.593s during the second race to effectively match the rate of improvement by the winner, despite two mistakes at Turn 1.

“Despite some mistakes, running off track twice, Pol Espargaro finished only six-seconds from the winner and just four-seconds from the top five," said Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig.

“When Espargaro ran wide at the first corner for the second time… we knew the GP was over for us. We were expecting and aiming to catch the group ahead of us and at this point Pol was only 2.6 seconds from the leader."

Espargaro's lap times show that the two mistakes cost him +2.964s compared to his average lap time during the grand prix. Subtract that amount from his final time and he would have been +3.099s from victory, in seventh place.

That equates to +0.141s per lap, over a 22-lap race distance.

"The potential is there," said Puig.

"The difference is not big, we are not trying to close a gap of 20 seconds. There are some smaller areas to work on, to put everything in place together and then we will be there."

It's impossible to know how much of the Honda deficit a recovering Marquez might have been able to bridge if he had made his comeback in Qatar, but he has been the top RCV rider at Losail ever since his 2013 premier-class debut, in an average of third place.

 

But what about Portimao?

The hectic, undulating Portuguese circuit proved tricky for Honda last year with a best of fifth by Takaaki Nakagami (on the 2018 machine), some 13.3s behind Tech3 KTM race winner Miguel Oliveira.

Apart from diminished bike fitness and absence of any set-up experience with the 2021 Honda, Marquez will also start the weekend with his track knowledge limited to last month's RC213V-S production bike laps.

All in all, Portimao looks like one of the toughest places on paper for Marquez to make his return, especially as past history suggests Qatar often produces unusually close races compared to most other tracks.

But if Marquez still feels the same as during his record-breaking 10-in-a-row win streak (main picture) in 2014, his priority at Portimao will be to limit the 2021 title damage until he is back to his best:

"My target is to win titles, not win a lot of races. Because in the end, what people remember is how many titles you have. Not how many races you won," Marquez told me at the 2014 Catalunya MotoGP test.

Marquez went on to win his second premier-class crown that year and, by the time of his 2020 injury, had won six MotoGP world championships in the space of seven years.

Assuming no further setbacks with the arm, few would bet against Marquez still being able to fight for MotoGP title number seven this season - and his main rivals certainly didn't make the most of their Qatar headstart.

Pramac Ducati's Johann Zarco currently leads the MotoGP standings on 40 points, followed by Quartararo and Vinales on 36, Francesco Bagnaia (Pramac) on 26 and Alex Rins on 23.

Rins' Suzuki team-mate and reigning champion Joan Mir scored just 22 points, while new Factory Ducati rider Jack Miller has only 14 points and another pre-season favourite, Petronas Yamaha's 2020 title runner-up Franco Morbidelli, managed a mere 4 points.

Portimao is the first of 17 scheduled rounds remaining on the MotoGP calendar, with Dorna implying that any events dropping away due to Covid will be replaced by back-to-backs at some of the other tracks.

As a rough guide, most riders still within 50-points (two race wins) of the top when the second half of a season begins are normally considered to have a title chance.

That figure also fits with Marquez's only on-track MotoGP title defeat, in 2015, when he was already 65-points behind after 9 of 18 rounds.

Pegging his current 40-point title deficit while building back up to his best during the opening half of the season is certainly a realistic target, while Marquez and Honda can also take inspiration from Mir's 2020 season.

If Marquez can finish fifth at Portimao (matching Nakagami in 2020) he will have the same points as Mir after three rounds of last season.

The Suzuki rider also gave away a potential 50 points at the start of the year, due to a pair of DNFs, but was able to take the world championship lead by round 11 of 14  and finished the season as champion despite only one race win.

As former MotoGP racer and current BT Sport TV pundit Michael Laverty recently told Crash.net:

"At the moment there are so many fast guys… they are all going to be stealing points off each other, whereas Marc – when he's on top form in his championship winning seasons - was first or second most weekends.

"If Marc comes back and does not have to worry about injury and can race to his full ability, then there is no doubt that it will be Marc vs. all those guys, at different races. It'll be consistently Marc at the front.

"So I think he can afford to give away those first two [Qatar] weekends and still come back - fingers crossed with full fitness and riding to Marc's level - in championship contention.

"[But] he will have a period of adaption. I don’t think he will arrive in Portugal and stand on the top step of the podium, as much as everyone thinks the fairy-tale is possible.

"I still think he has to come back with realistic ambitions against the guys who have grown in his absence."

Opening practice for the Portuguese MotoGP begins on Friday morning.