MotoGP: Now Aprilia needs to race

The 2015 season was basically a year-long test session for the Aprilia MotoGP project—now the team needs to show solid results

motogp now aprilia needs to race 2016
Aprilia's lead engineer (and racing director) Romano Albesiano has had a tough task to develop a brand-new MotoGP machine for the company in two years, but it appears the new RS-GP is coming along nicely.Photo courtesy of Aprilia Racing

“In fact, last season we did not race,” Alvaro Bautista explained while talking about his 2015 experience as Aprilia’s factory rider in their return to MotoGP. “We basically tested and tested all kinds of stuff during the GP weekends, and on Sunday we put together the best we had and went out racing. What Suzuki did during two years with their test team, preparing their comeback, we did it live, in front of everybody.”

In the MotoGP scene there is probably no other brand so identified with racing as Aprilia, perhaps even more than Ducati. In all categories they have participated and have won multiple championships and titles…in all except the MotoGP class. In fact, their previous experience in the major class—from 2002 to 2004—almost caused the financial ruin of the company, when the astronomical investments in their MotoGP project ended in failure.

Following the MotoGP project fiasco, the company was absorbed by the Piaggio Group whose money helped to refloat Aprilia. With racing in their DNA, the return to sport activities was unavoidable. Nobody was surprised by their nearly immediate success in WSBK, the same way nobody doubted that sooner or later a MotoGP project would again be on Aprilia’s agenda.

But the way it happened was a surprise. When Aprilia announced their immediate return to MotoGP in 2014, many frowned. Entering into the major league without having a MotoGP bike? How would that be possible? If Suzuki had needed two years to get only partially ready to return to MotoGP after four seasons off, how would Aprilia do it straight out of the box?

motogp now aprilia needs to race 2016
"Last season we did not race,” reveals Aprilia factory rider Alvaro Bautista about the company's 2015 MotoGP effort. “We basically tested and tested all kinds of stuff during the GP weekends, and on Sunday we put together the best we had and went out racing."Photo courtesy of Aprilia Racing

“Our first year was, I would say, an exploration,” said Romano Albesiano, the head of Aprilia’s Reparto Corse since former top engineer Gigi Dall’Igna left the company in his sensational switch to Ducati. “This year is, if we have to give a name...let's call it 'the foundation' because the 2015 bike was basically a two wheeled we are coming with the real machine.”

Always approachable, Albesiano has the character of a typical engineer when sitting down with him for a chat. He always listens to what is asked and his answers are clear and direct. Most of the time, a simple conversation with him is kind of a master class in being a normal human being.

So, following their “experimental year”, 2016 is Aprilia’s second year into its MotoGP project. What does this mean exactly? “The philosophy must be not to make a new bike every year but [to be] like the others," explains Albesiano. "The successful teams are making improvements on a solid base. We are bringing the base and the first check will be, ‘OK, that base is the right one.’ We believe so but we have to prove it. This is our philosophy for our first season with that bike.”

Absent from the two first preseason tests, Aprilia’s new MotoGP will debut at the final test in Qatar next week. Not a very good start for a brand new bike. Why is the 2016 RS-GP running behind schedule, what happened? “What happened?” repeats the Italian engineer. “In such a complicated project having a few weeks of delay is really normal. I wouldn’t even call it a delay. It’s normal [when you are] working that a supplier has a small problem and everything gets held up. You end up with some days or weeks of delay but that’s not the point absolutely.”

motogp now aprilia needs to race 2016
Achieving a full understanding of the new spec software's potential is one of the main objectives for 2016, says Albesiano. When Aprilia was winning championships with its two-stroke racebikes, the company was at the forefront of electronic control technology, but it is now playing catch-up.Photo courtesy of Aprilia Racing

OK, accepted, a few days or weeks aren’t something to worry about. What about competing and creating a successful foundation at the same time? Can Aprilia think about really competing this year? “I hope so!...I think so. Last year was not real competing. It was testing. This year must be competing. The next question will be ‘What is your target?’ Our target is to fight to stay in the top ten, at least from mid-season onwards, and at the same time build the base.”

In the past, during the 2-stroke era, Aprilia was a pioneer in the electronic management of their bikes. The advantage they had in this area vanished when they left the GPs. For Albesiano and his engineers this is yet another area to study, and what he has to say about it is significant: “Having or not having the new engine or the new bike is not important now. Now the important thing is to have a real understanding of the potential of the software. That’s the point. You have hundreds of parameters to understand the effect. I would say we are midway. I honestly expected to be more ready than this but we still sometimes struggle quite a lot. We need to accelerate this phase.”

How different is the mandatory software to the type that was in use in 2015? Here Romano’s explanation is out of one of the master classes mentioned before. “You can take any example. We had software and a philosophy, for example, for defining the slip target. The slip target in our system is defined according to a parameter, which can be a lean angle or a combination between a lean angle and acceleration. So this gives you a curve of slip target and then you build your experience, finding the right number and managing the error relative to the slip. In the new system the target of the slip is defined based on other parameters, which you can relate to your parameters. But it’s not the same. So you have to make a physical translation. You have to remake every experience. And this is all for only one part. Then the controller is again acting in a different way. So it’s not better or worse. It is just that every team has to go to school again. We built up a good group of electronics engineers. We are quite a big group but still we are in the learning phase.”

motogp now aprilia needs to race 2016
"The first year the target was to be able to fight between tenth and 15th," Albesiano says. "We did it most of the time in the second part of the season at least. Now will be to make a step to fight inside the top ten, which will be more difficult. We also have more experience and a new weapon. We have to do well in this but it’s possible."Photo courtesy of Aprilia Racing

Albesiano’s quotes regarding the new electronics coincide with the other technicians: the most important thing to take from the preseason tests is to get the best possible understanding of how it operates.

Using Suzuki as a reference, we asked Albesiano if his idea is to develop the new bike the way the Japanese do, by introducing things step-by-step or will Aprilia start with full power and the seamless gearbox all at once. “It’s different matters. On the transmission side, we developed the seamless gearbox with both upshifts and downshifts last year and it works perfectly. It’s OK. We just bring it from there to there. On the engine performance side, every time you build up a new engine you start with a level performance. Then day-by-day you test new parts and the performance increases continuously. What the factory normally does is to bring the highest level of performance they possibly can survive with to the race. This level is continuously moving. It depends on how much work you do, on how many people you have, on how much money you spend, and how many ideas you have.”

What about the starting point for the new engine? An engine, by the way, that will use a new backwards-rotating crankshaft. “At the very first start up of the new engine we had the same power as last year’s. So already we hope we can start the season with more power than now. Power is not the real key point of this machine but on the straight you have to have some power.”

Being the primary project of an industrial conglomerate like the Piaggio Group, Albesiano’s MotoGP challenge will be under the under scrutiny of the bosses in Italy. He knows it and accepts the challenge. “The company has some targets. As I said before we have declared internally, before starting this project, that we have a path to get to the top. The first year the target was to be able to fight between tenth and 15th. We did it most of the time in the second part of the season at least. Now will be to make a step to fight inside the top ten, which will be more difficult. We also have more experience and a new weapon. We have to do well in this but it’s possible”.

It is easy to imagine that one of the targets of the Aprilia MotoGP project is to attract the top riders. When this day comes the company will put the resources needed to sign one of these top riders. “In financial terms we are not taking about Aprilia itself alone, we are talking about Piaggio, which is big group. It’s not a matter of not having the resources. In Italian we say ‘Circolo positivo’. You show your bike is more competitive and this starts to make it attractive to riders. And with good riders sponsors can start to be interested. If you work well it’s like this and you end up with a lighter budget, better riders; top riders maybe and a lot of success.”