MotoGP: Aprilia and Espargaró in stealth mode

While Viñales, Rossi, Dovi, and Marquez grabbed the headlines… Aleix Espargaró and his Aprilia RS-GP are sneaking up on the leaders

motogp, 2017 motogp, aprilia, aleix espargaro, rs gp, losail, qatar, dani pedrosa, marc marquez, romano albesiano, honda rcv, ducati desmosedici, yamaha m1
While all the attention at the season-opening Qatar MotoGP race at Losail was concentrated on Maverick Viñales, Andrea Dovizioso, and Marc Márquez, Aleix Espargaró and his Aprilia RS-GP were quietly turning some of the fastest laps of the race and giving Dani Pedrosa and his Honda RC213V fits.Photo courtesy of Michelin

When Maverick Viñales took the checkered flag as the winner in Losail, I’ll confess I didn’t walk over to the Movistar Yamaha pitbox to celebrate his brilliant win with Yamaha. Instead, I ran to the Aprilia Racing Team Gresini box. I’d closely followed the second half of Aleix Espargaró’s race, which not only had moments where the Catalan rider was the fastest rider on the track, but also that he was in fifth place ahead of Dani Pedrosa and his factory Honda RCV. Of course, when Pedrosa saw the RS-GP ahead of him in the final laps, he took action to ensure things finished in their natural order, but this did not stop Espargaró from making an exceptional performance in his first race with Aprilia.

The Team Gresini box observed the second part of the Qatar race intensely. Their rider and bike were locked in hand-to-hand combat with Pedrosa and the HRC RCV, and when Espargaró overtook Pedrosa, Marc Márquez himself became the goal. That's why, when Espargaró crossed the finish line, the members of Aprilia and Team Gresini celebrated it as if it were a victory. The rider's reception upon arriving to the box was tremendous, with everyone embracing each other and congratulating Romano Albesiano, the head of the project.

"It was really nice," Espargaró said of that moment during a phone call with him in Andorra, his present place of residence. "Aprilia is a very big brand, but in MotoGP they never had been so far in front, and to do so well in the first race...it was more than the result, because in the end, a sixth is nothing out of this world. What I take from it is that I managed to lap faster than the winner and almost—almost—finish ahead of the two Hondas. For Aprilia, it’s been like a very large weight has lifted and it validates the work they are doing."

motogp, 2017 motogp, aprilia, aleix espargaro, rs gp, losail, qatar, dani pedrosa, marc marquez, romano albesiano, honda rcv, ducati desmosedici, yamaha m1
Espargaró (shown talking with Michelin's MotoGP boss Nicolas Goubert on the left) says that the Aprilia RS-GP's main strength at the moment is its ability to maintain grip with worn tires during the second half of the race. The Argentina MotoGP with its little-used (and likely not very grippy pavement) might be a perfect fit for the Aprilia.Photo courtesy of Michelin

A half surprise

With all of the things to focus on this pre-season—Lorenzo's arrival to Ducati, Viñales' dominance, Rossi's problems—the Aprilia team has been working away in the background, but as we saw in Losail, they’ve been productive. "I knew that the race pace would be good," Espargaró stated when asked if he had expected that level of competitiveness. "Throughout the season the bike behaved well with old tires; with new tires it actually was more difficult. But yeah, maybe I was not expecting us to be so fast in the last few laps, when we were almost faster than those at the head of the race."

One of the things that struck me the most when Espargaró arrived at his box was that he was the least excited of anyone. While the other team members embraced and congratulated each other, Espargaró seemed disappointed. "Well...I was a bit upset. After seeing 17 riders ahead of me in the first few corners, then how at the end of the race I could almost see the lead group…if we had started further ahead on the grid, I sincerely believe that we could have aspired to the podium. And after all that we finished sixth..."

Espargaró is not without reason, but in this case it’s important to analyze what happened in perspective rather than the result itself. It’s true that, in hindsight, the race was on a very complicated track that probably favored the RS-GP’s characteristics, but if you take into account going head-to-head with the HRC RCV, Ducati Desmosedici, and Yamaha M1, he should be satisfied.

motogp, 2017 motogp, aprilia, aleix espargaro, rs gp, losail, qatar, dani pedrosa, marc marquez, romano albesiano, honda rcv, ducati desmosedici, yamaha m1
Espargaró is reveling in the Aprilia RS-GP's front end feel and stability, something that he was never able to achieve with the Suzuki GSX-RR during a tough two years on that team. The Aprilia has been "flying under the radar" of most of the MotoGP preseason, but not for long...Photo courtesy of Michelin

"Yes, I think so," agreed the 27-year-old Spaniard. "The tricky thing in MotoGP is being competitive the second half of the race, and we were. Without trying to brag, during the second half of the race, we were the fastest and that is something to be proud of. For me, it’s exciting...yes, it was definitely my best race since I’ve been in MotoGP."

What now?

After Espargaró's result in Qatar, the question arises as to whether the Aprilia RS-GP's performance was a product of the race location, or whether that level of competitiveness was enhanced due to the six days of tests performed there, which are not available ahead of a regular race. Argentina is next weekend and will be a kind of re-evaluation for Espargaró and Aprilia.

"No, I think it’s the contrary,” countered Espargaró. “In Qatar, those who somehow took advantage of the situation were the rookies and other bikes, not us. I want to see what happens at other tracks. The Argentina circuit I like very much, I was second there on the grid two years ago. I know that with our motorcycle I'm going to suffer a lot on Saturdays, because with new tires we find it difficult to be competitive. Our motorcycle is a race bike: on Sundays we can be close to the front."

The Espargaró/Aprilia success is due in part to the RSV-GP allowing the Spaniard to return to a riding style he finds natural, unlike the Suzuki, where he had to adapt to a motorcycle that didn’t provide the feel he needed. With the Aprilia, Espargaró is himself again. "The stability of our bike is spectacular, I can be aggressive again under braking and the electronics and management of the rear tire wear works very well. When everyone has problems with spinning, the Aprilia continues to have a lot of grip, and that's a big advantage."

Thus, the more problematic the grip—as it was in Losail—the better positioned the RS-GP will be. But at tracks with good asphalt that provides excellent traction in most conditions, that advantage will theoretically disappear. It’s important to keep that in mind throughout the season.

motogp, 2017 motogp, aprilia, aleix espargaro, rs gp, losail, qatar, dani pedrosa, marc marquez, romano albesiano, honda rcv, ducati desmosedici, yamaha m1
The Aprilia's big advantage right now is its ability to find grip while the others are spinning and grasping for traction. On the flip side of that equation, Espargaró says that the RS-GP has trouble when the tires are new, with the extra rear traction exposing a lack of torque compared to the others coming off the corners.Photo courtesy of Michelin

"Our traction control works quite well, so if we had more acceleration we wouldn’t have spinning problems," explains Espargaró when asked if the extra power he wants would upset the current balance, especially the traction and tire consumption. Because we already know, in racing improving in one area usually means compromising another.

"It doesn’t happen that from one day to another you find 30 HP. The power you find little by little, that is, you are not going to develop it all of a sudden. Our motorcycle is now running in fifth and sixth, our top speed is good. The problem is early in the race, with a lot of rear grip, exiting the corner in the first few meters we lack torque."

In this sense, the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit on paper is a track that could be an advantage for the Aprilia: it has two strong braking areas but the rest flows. Additionally, it’s a track that is used very little so it’s expected that grip won’t be the best, and also the rider considers it his favorite. The "anomaly" of Qatar could well be repeated in the north of Argentina on Sunday.

Espargaró’s arrival has provided a breath of fresh air into the Aprilia project, something that Albesiano himself admits, emphasizing the young Spaniard's optimism and his ability to motivate the group. For example, before the Qatar race, just prior to the opening of pit lane to enter the track, Espargaró assembled his mechanics and told them that as the smallest factory team, all their endeavors will be suffered through together, with motivation, drive and, above all, optimism. "For me it’s very important to be a family, and at the moment in the world of Aprilia and Gresini this is how I feel," said Espargaró. "Feeling loved and valued for me is very important."

The elder Espargaró brother also admits that his position at Aprilia and the good performance thus far has been liberating after two years with Suzuki, where he struggled. "I had a bad time, very bad. I could not understand the Suzuki's front end and I wasn’t competitive, ever. It seems that the two new riders there are complaining about the same problem as me, and seeing that now, with a less competitive bike than the Suzuki, I’m ahead and can be aggressive again gives me wings. The experience at Suzuki has taught me to be more cautious, to try things in a more controlled manner. It’s not a matter of making a motorcycle competitive and that’s it, but of making a motorcycle capable of fighting with the best. That's my goal with Aprilia."