When the news first broke that Monster Energy Yamaha rider Maverick Vinales was plotting to break his contract and move to Aprilia for 2022, it came as a complete shock to most of the MotoGP paddock.
Now supercharged to the extent that he will make his debut for the Italian brand not next year but this weekend at the Aragon Grand Prix following a bitter split from Yamaha, the speed with which the deal has come off has been breathtaking.
However, Aprilia boss Massimo Rivola has revealed exclusively to The Race that there has been a key middleman in the whole negotiation that has helped facilitate Vinales’ contract – his new team-mate Aleix Espargaro.
Formerly team-mates at Suzuki in 2015 and 2016, Vinales and Espargaro remain good friends and travel to races in a private jet together with Aleix’s brother, Repsol Honda rider Pol – and Rivola says that it was during these trips that the seed of the idea to lure Vinales away from Yamaha was first planted and then nurtured.
“To be honest, a key element in this event was Aleix,” Rivola told The Race. “He told me that Maverick was not happy, in fact a lot of months ago. I wasn’t even considering him, considering the fact that he had a very expensive contract. It was a no-brainer.
“But when Aleix told me that he was thinking about moving for next year I told him ‘ok, stop right there and let me have a talk with his manager.’ I don’t remember the date we started to talk, but it was straight after Germany, that very bad race for him.”
And one thing that Rivola has been clear about is that he absolutely does not expect any bad blood between the pair when they’re reunited after four and a half seasons apart. Rather, the former Ferrari F1 man believes that their friendship means that they’ll be able to repeat what they did together at Suzuki and work together to turn Aprilia’s RS-GP into a winning machine.
“It is an opportunity for Aprilia,” admitted a frank Rivola. ”We are all curious to see him on the bike, because we are curious to see where we are. If we look at the statistics of the team-mates of Aleix, in the end Aleix is always the reference.
“It’s true that you need time to get confidence when you change bikes, and at the same time Aleix is at one with this bike. He has so much feeling with the bike, because he’s followed the project for many years, and he is in very good shape mentally and physically.
“I rate Maverick as one of the absolute talents of the paddock, although clearly if he had these problems we need to work on his place in the team so that he feels fine. But I am really curious to see.
“I expect, to be honest, that Aleix will be the reference, but I expect that Maverick can challenge him. Not immediately, but next year for sure. And when you have two riders who can challenge each other, you grow, and if you manage to keep the equilibrium and the respect between the two – and so far they are still friends. Let’s see if they keep the friendship!
“I’m only joking of course, because they were able to do it in Suzuki and in the end for me the best message for me is that a rider like Aleix, who has spent so long in Aprilia, recommended a friend to come.
“It’s a good sign that he believes in the project, that he sees us growing, that he sees a bright light in the future. I don’t recommend something to a friend if it isn’t good. The fact that he recommended us not just from a technical perspective but also from a human one, that he is finding this team’s spirit right, is promising.
“The fact that he sees everything about this team’s future as bright is good.”
From a competitive viewpoint, Vinales couldn’t be arriving at the Italian brand at a better time, fresh off the brand’s first podium in two decades for them last time out in Silverstone.
Still undoubtedly with work to do before the bike is a consistent podium challenger let alone a winner or even a title contender, Rivola is adamant that Aprilia will move mountains to give both Vinales and Espargaro what they need.
“We have the tough task of building a competitive bike – that’s our commitment now,” he explained. “It seems that the base is not bad now, and the 2022 bike won’t be a revolutionary bike, it will be an evolution. We’ve already done too many revolutions every year, changing many things. Now we need to stabilise and grow.
“I told Maverick not to keep his expectations too high, because he is leaving the bike that is winning the championship. It’s not going to be easy. But the good aspect is that we would like to build a winning bike with him. For sure we will dedicate ourselves to this, and I think we will have perhaps the best couple on the grid.”
And while questions remain to be answered about just how things went so wrong at Yamaha, with Vinales eventually being let go after Yamaha accused him of deliberately trying to blow up his bike mid-race at the Styrian Grand Prix, Rivola says that his new employers aren’t going to dwell on the past.
“I don’t want to go into the Yamaha business because it’s not something where I know all the details,” he said, “but for sure what he did was wrong.
“He got the penalty for that, the punishment, and now we have our chance to do our best for him. If that’s not good enough for him, then we can say that we’ve done our best and that we tried. I believe that in any family when things don’t go right, for sure it’s never 100% one person.
“We’ll try to do our best, and I think he’ll try to do the same for us.
“He’s coming with five years’ experience and I hope he can spend five more with us.
“If we are lucky to keep him for five years, we will have him in maybe the best period of his career in terms of age, from a physical and mental perspective.”