In his long and storied MotoGP career, Aleix Espargaro has seen many a team-mate come and go. From his days cutting his teeth on rubbish CRT-spec machines at the back of the grid to progressing through the ranks to factory rider, he’s sat opposite many big names on the other side of the garage at teams like Forward, Suzuki and Aprilia.
And yet despite a considerable amount of talent that has lined up next to the 31-year old in his eleven-year career in the premier class, it’s pretty much always been Espargaro who has come out on top – which begs the question: is he the worst team-mate to have in MotoGP?
When you look back through the history books of those nine seasons, it’s a valid argument to make that despite a career that’s never seen much in the way of fireworks, he’s nonetheless one of the toughest opponents you could wish for, right from his very first season.
Making his debut as a wildcard and replacement rider for Pramac Ducati in 2009, Espargaro only rode four races of the 17-round season – but managed to score an impressive 16 points compared to full-time rider Niccolo Canepa’s 38.
He remained with Pramac for a full season in 2010, finishing his first full season in 14th and almost doubling the points total of teammate Mika Kallio, before stepping down to Moto2 for 2011.
Returning from the middleweight class in 2012 riding an Aprilia CRT bike for the Aspar team, Espargaro was joined by Frenchman Randy de Puniet.
A regular race winner in 250cc, a multiple-time podium finisher in MotoGP and a former factory rider for Kawasaki, de Puniet was beaten by his team-mate, who finished just one place above him in 12th.
The same thing happened in 2013, their second year together, as Espargaro came home in 11th and de Puniet managed 15th.
Moving to Forward Racing for 2014 on a bike that was supposed to be a hybrid Yamaha M1-powered machine but in reality was largely a rebadged satellite machine from Iwata, Espargaro didn’t just beat his team-mates – he dominated them.
He was joined for the opening 10 races by double World Superbike world champion Colin Edwards, but by the time the American retired halfway through the season, Espargaro had already put the bike on pole position at Assen – still the only man in history ever to achieve that feat on an open-class machine.
With Edwards replaced by Alex de Angelis for the second half of the season, Espargaro went on to take his only MotoGP podium at Aragon, finishing the season seventh overall, a clear winner in the open-class championship, and with five times the points of both his team-mates combined.
In 2015, the Spaniard’s persistence on mediocre bikes finally paid off, and he was given the nod by Suzuki, joining the newly-restarted team alongside rookie sensation Maverick Vinales. Never setting the world on fire but consistent top-10 runners all season, they finished the year 11th and 12th in the GSX-RR’s first year – with Espargaro, as usual, ahead.
As Vinales delivered on his promise in 2016, it was a different story, though. Taking multiple podium finishes and a dramatic Silverstone victory, Vinales ended the year in an impressive fourth, well clear of Espargaro’s 11th and the only time that Aleix has ever been beaten by a teammate.
A move to Aprilia for 2017 resumed the natural order for Espargaro, however – and things have remained the same ever since even as he has endured a turbulent time at the Italian manufacturer.
Partnered by Sam Lowes, Scott Redding, Andrea Iannone, Bradley Smith and Lorenzo Savadori in only four seasons with Aprilia, he’s hands down been the fastest and most consistent rider throughout.
All of that comes despite a palmares that has been called lacking on more than one occasion. He’s one of the few riders on the MotoGP grid never to have won a single grand prix in any class – an impressive record in itself when you consider that 12 of the 22 riders on the 2021 grid are former world champions.
In fact, Espargaro has a mere two podiums to his name, one in the premier class and one in the Moto2 class in front of a home crowd at the 2011 Catalan Grand Prix. He’s never recorded a fastest lap and started from pole position just twice – so how exactly is he so hard to beat?
In a nutshell, it comes down to two factors: loyalty and raw speed. Espargaro has shown himself to be a team player throughout his time in MotoGP, staying true to teams once he’s signed for them, taking on his share of development burdens and keen to give his fullest to the projects.
That’s seen him rewarded in kind, as he established himself well at Aprilia’s CRT program, in Suzuki’s reborn team, and then again as the steady hand guiding Aprilia’s upgraded MotoGP effort.
With that loyalty has come the ability to help steer development in the right direction for him while (especially at Aprilia) his team-mates have barely been able to get a foot in the door.
There’s also his work ethic. Being one of the fittest riders on the grid and someone never shy of a hard day in the gym or (more likely) on his bike pays dividends both terms of his athleticism and in terms of his team’s opinion of him.
But that’s not taking anything away from the Spaniard’s outright speed, either, especially over one lap and when things feel right for him. He’s regularly a surprise performer in qualifying as he delivers a flat-out lap to secure an impressive grid spot – a knack shared by brother Pol.
And when he does manage to feel comfortable on the bike at a track that he enjoys, he’s shown his ability to override the bike and deliver results. With Espargaro having been a stand-out performer over the years at Aragon, Losail and Jerez to name a few, it’s a strange season when the Spaniard can’t deliver one or two strong results even in the middle of an otherwise difficult year.
And when combined, the net impact of those factors is a rider who can perform year after year, perhaps aided a little bit by circumstance and luck.
With only one defeat to a team-mate in 10 years of MotoGP, it’s a fair argument to make that of all the people in the premier class who you’d least want as a teammate, Espargaro is high on the list.
And what makes it even worse, perhaps, is that you’d never be able to tell him that thanks to his reputation as one of the nicest (if somewhat outspoken) guys on the grid.
He’s tough to beat on track, yes, but Espargaro has also been the fiercest defenders of his team-mates over the years as they’ve come in for criticism.
He was openly and publicly angry at Aprilia’s decision to chop Sam Lowes half way through his rookie season, defended of Scott Redding after a torrid time at the Noale manufacturer, and supported Andrea Iannone through his doping ban despite well-reported conflict between the pair, which is why it’s hard to find someone who has shared a garage with him too willing to criticise him.