Bradley Smith is pushing to remain part of Aprilia’s MotoGP project in some form next year, as he waits to see what the team’s next steps will be after Andrea Iannone’s extended ban.
Smith was promoted from tester to racer at the start of the 2020 season to replace the banned Iannone on a temporary basis, as Aprilia continued to bet that the Italian would have his 18-month doping suspension lifted.
However, with the news that it has been instead extended to four years, it has parted ways with him and been left exposed in the 2021 rider market.
“When they made the decision they felt that I wasn’t needed for 2021, but now they’re backtracking and I think I’m firmly needed” :: Bradley Smith
It originally hoped to sign Cal Crutchlow or Andrea Dovizioso, but they have both rejected Aprilia’s offers – increasing speculation that five-time world champion Jorge Lorenzo could be tempted into coming out of retirement to join the team that took him to his 250cc titles in 2006 and ’07.
In the midst of all that confusion surrounding next season, Aprilia then took the unusual move of substituting Smith for fellow test rider and recently-crowned Italian Superbike champion Lorenzo Savadori for the final three races of 2020.
That’s believed to be in part a reward for his national series success as Savadori was originally promised the chance to race in MotoGP as a wildcard should he win the series. MotoGP then cancelled all wildcard entries for 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Smith being sidelined led people to assume that his time with Aprilia was over.
However, speaking exclusively to The Race at this weekend’s Valencian Grand Prix, the 29-year-old set the record straight by confirming that he is still an Aprilia employee – and wants to remain so going forward.
“I wasn’t fired!” Smith insisted.
“I was told that for the benefit of the company that they wanted to give Savadori some track time, which I understand.
“They wanted to boost his level, to give him some experience, because what you can learn in three races is a lot.
“That was never going to benefit me, but I can see why it benefits Aprilia.
“The situation is more vague than people understand. Savadori needed some track time to see if he could become the sole test rider because they thought they had all their bases covered, but as it has all shaken out it looks like they don’t have their bases covered and they’re scrambling a little.
“There is still a hell of a lot of work to do. Anyone who comes has to come full of motivation and with a bit of grit between their teeth” :: Bradley Smith
“I think when they made the decision they felt that I wasn’t needed for 2021, but now with every day that goes by, they’re backtracking and I think I’m firmly needed.
“Both racing and test riding is still on the cards.
“I have to see where they decide I fit in best. I can do both jobs very well but my preference is always going to be to race.
“Their loyalty to Iannone shows a different side to Aprilia from what we’ve seen in the past, and hopefully we can start to build on that and create some continuity.”
Smith is now familiar with every MotoGP machine Aprilia has produced since 2017 thanks to the testing position he’s held since losing his KTM seat at the end of 2018.
But he’s felt hampered by the role he’s been forced into this year.
He’s adamant that a year actually purely racing for Aprilia rather than effectively testing on the side while also being a race rider means he could show more potential.
“I would love to have someone take over my job and have someone test while I race, because all season I’ve never had two bikes the same and I’ve always been riding something new, be it a chassis or an engine configuration or something with the electronics,” said Smith.
“There is still a hell of a lot of work to do. The bike still isn’t a top 10 bike, and that means that anyone who comes has to come full of motivation and with a bit of grit between their teeth.
“This isn’t just a bike you can get on and immediately go fast.
“You’re always being compared to a guy on the other side of the garage who’s been there for four or five years and who is doing a tremendous job as well.”
He’s got support from that other side of the garage, too, with veteran Aprilia rider Aleix Espargaro sharing Smith’s desire for some continuity.
Going into his fifth season with Aprilia in 2021 and so far seeing a different team-mate alongside him every single season, Espargaro admitted yesterday that he’s desperate for someone he can work with.
“Once again it looks like I’ll be alone in the development of the bike and that’s not good” :: Aleix Espargaro
However, it looks more likely that should Smith be retained, it will be in a test rider capacity thanks to repeated rumours linking a duo of young Italian riders to the project.
Both Marco Bezzecchi and Fabio Di Giannantonio has been linked to the Aprilia race ride – something that Espargaro says is positive news but will make life harder for him.
“They are both very fast riders and I like both of them,” he said.
“Bezzecchi can be Moto2 champion and he doesn’t have a MotoGP bike for next year.
“But I’m a little bit upset because they won’t be able to help me from the beginning.
“Once again next season it looks like I’ll be alone in the development of the bike and that’s not good.
“If a young rider is coming, it’ll be very difficult for me again, but that’s how it is.”
Espargaro also clarified his earlier comments about the rumours linking Lorenzo to the Aprilia ride, reiterating that he doesn’t think Lorenzo would be the right fit.
Last week he was dismissive of Lorenzo’s potential given the pace the three-time MotoGP champion showed in the recent Algarve test, and he now believes that current Yamaha test rider isn’t of interest to Aprilia anyway.
“What I said and what I truly believe is that I’m not sure he’s ready, if he’s in shape physically and mentally to come to a project like Aprilia,” Espargaro said.
“This is not Yamaha. But I don’t think that he is an option for Aprilia.”