Over the course of the past few years, we’ve seen multiple false dawns in Aprilia’s MotoGP garage, as the team turns up to testing able to set fast laptimes, only to fail to deliver on its potential when it comes to the only thing that matters – racing.
However, after the opening two days of 2021, the mood inside the camp feels a little different. Completing a very strong two days of action at the Losail International Circuit, the normally exuberant Aleix Espargaro ended the test perhaps more reserved than usual.
But that mood belies the real results of the test. With Espargaro finishing third overall on combined times and, perhaps even more impressively, as high sixth on the long run analysis of the weekend’s action, it genuinely seems that the numerous improvements made to the RS-GP over this winter break might be yielding something more than what Aprilia has had in the past.
There was always a chance to close the gap, mind you, thanks to the small benefits presented to the Noale factory by the coronavirus crisis. One of the first actions brought into effect by the teams was a moratorium on engine and aerodynamic development as a cost-saving measure – but thanks to its concession status, Aprilia has avoided the worst impact of it.
That means that Aprilia has an opportunity in 2021 to finally make inroads towards catching its much more experienced (and better financed) rivals – and technical boss Romano Albesiano says it’s not a chance that Aprilia is going to squander.
“We think that this could be the year where we catch the others,” he told the media at the team’s launch last week.
“This is the real target for this season. The pressure is always there, but there is also some optimism about it, and we’ll see what happens.”
As a result, the RS-GP’s increased pace in 2021 shouldn’t come as a huge shock to Aprilia. The team already went into last year optimistic about an almost entirely redesigned new bike built around a V4 engine with the v-angle moved from 72º to 90º, and it expected strong results from the new machine after testing – even while admitting that it needed more time with the machine to get the best from it.
Of course, Aprilia didn’t get that time, with the world entering an unprecedented pandemic only days after that final test was concluded. When the season finally did get underway again in July it was for a frantic series of triple-header races, giving no time at all for analysis of the mountains of data gathered – and development stalled as a result.
But, with a winter to finally crunch the numbers and refine last year’s bike into a significantly upgraded model, Espargaro and new team-mate Lorenzo Savadori were handed a bike in their first private test in Jerez last month that Espargaro says marked a notable step forward.
“It’s not a revolution,” he said after two days on track, “but a lot of small details make the bike super different. [On Sunday] I did a race simulation to understand the bike, and I expected something different.
“We still have to work to understand a little bit more the bike, to find the balance, because on this bike, due to the aerodynamic changes we did, the downforce is a lot higher.
“We improved a lot in acceleration, and the new engine is a little bit more elastic, a little bit more smooth in the bottom part, so it allowed me to use higher power maps and also with the help of the aerodynamics I can accelerate a lot better than last year.
“But unfortunately we lose a little bit of top speed, so we have to find the balance.”
That’s something that will come through time on the bike and added experience – something Aprilia thankfully still has, with three more days of track time coming up this weekend at Losail to ensure that the RS-GP should be in the best possible shape ahead of the opening two races there.
However, despite all the good signs to show, Espargaro (aided by team boss Massimo Rivola) is doing his best to keep his enthusiasm under check until he turns a wheel in anger for the first time later this month.
Perhaps guilty of too much optimism in the past, it’s not just the team that is taking a more reserved approach this year but also its number one rider.
“The problem is that I say this every season,” Espargaro admitted.
“But yes, I think we deserve it. From the bottom of my heart, I think that we deserve it. We deserve a good year, we deserve to fight with the best bikes and the best riders on the grid. We struggled a little bit last season but this year the bike looks better.
“Massimo is here in front of me and doesn’t allow me to be very happy, to say that we are very competitive,” he added, laughing.
“It’s just the first test, this year the level is once again super high, but we’ve been very, very fast – and with the laptime we’ve proven that we can fight with the best. Also regarding the pace, the race simulation, if I’m not the fastest one, I’m almost [that].
“So, it looks like we’re doing good steps and we can have fun this year.
“I don’t want to be extremely happy because last year I was also very happy and then I had a big shock with reality, when we arrived in Jerez [for the 2020 opener].
“But I’m very motivated – and I want to say again, we deserve it, everybody here and everybody in Noale, we deserve to fight with the best and we’re on the way.”
What the long-run data says
Information about tyre use and compounds has not been too plentiful in these two-day tests, but the pure laptimes are all there to be mined, and even beyond the headline fastest times they paint a good picture for Aprilia.
In the below table, we’ve taken every long run of six or more flying laps that averaged out to less than 1m56s per lap when the obvious outlier laps were removed from the calculation.
A fair few riders – KTM’s Miguel Oliveira being probably the most notable case – didn’t really bother with runs longer than four consecutive laps, and the runs in the below table happened not only across two days but at different times of the day, with the Losail International Circuit at different states of windiness and sandiness.
So it will definitely not be an exhaustive list of riders capable of running a good pace in race conditions, but it’s informative nonetheless – and it really makes for good reading for Aprilia.
|Rider||Team||Run average (1m–s)
||Fastest lap (1m–s)
|J Mir||Suzuki||54.950||8||Day 2||54.688|
|F Quartararo||Yamaha||55.131||6*||Day 2||55.007|
|M Vinales||Yamaha||55.220||12*||Day 2||54.774|
|P Espargaro||Honda||55.266||7**||Day 2||55.082|
|S Bradl||Honda||55.305||6*||Day 2||54.798|
|A Espargaro||Aprilia||55.322||6*||Day 2||54.791|
|F Morbidelli||Petronas SRT||55.329||6||Day 2||55.042|
|M Vinales||Yamaha||55.333||9**||Day 2||55.23|
|M Vinales||Yamaha||55.383||6*||Day 2||54.845|
|J Miller||Ducati||55.391||6*||Day 2||55.209|
|A Espargaro||Aprilia||55.393||20*||Day 2||54.978|
|J Miller||Ducati||55.399||6**||Day 2||54.862|
|F Quartararo||Yamaha||55.644||6*||Day 2||55.380|
|A Espargaro||Aprilia||55.689||7||Day 1||55.393|
|J Miller||Ducati||55.776||8||Day 1||55.540|
|S Bradl||Honda||55.779||7||Day 1||55.085|
|V Rossi||Petronas SRT||55.848||7*||Day 1||55.584|
|M Vinales||Yamaha||55.848||6||Day 1||55.466|
|P Espargaro||Honda||55.885||9**||Day 2||55.381|
|A Espargaro||Aprilia||55.889||9||Day 1||55.410|
|A Marquez||LCR||55.969||6**||Day 2||55.790|
* – number of outlier laps removed from the average
Three of the rows in this table are not like the other. The first one is champion Joan Mir’s excellent late-Sunday eight-lap run – no off laps, great peak lap, great average. Maverick Vinales’ 12-lap run is in a similar category, slightly slower but slightly longer and therefore also quite encouraging.
And then there’s Aleix Espargaro’s 20-lap monstrosity further down the table. Nobody else in the test did anything like this, which does suggest that Aprilia is further along in its programme than virtually any other team, thanks to private testing earlier in the year and the shakedown on Friday.
Yet the average clearly suggests that the Noale factory means business. Espargaro’s times did trail off somewhat in the final laps, tallying with his suggestion that he’d gotten more “exhausted physically” on the bike than ever before due to the added downforce – but even then there was no massive drop-off.
The following comparison may be somewhat meaningless, but if you rocked up with laptimes like these to MotoGP’s two most recent Qatar races, they would be absolutely good enough for a win on both occasions.
And while Espargaro has looked to keep his expectations in check, when it was put to him by The Race that this kind of pre-season form was something new for Aprilia and clearly better than its previous testing performances, he said: “No, I fully agree.
“Obviously last year, yes, I was happy, we did a good winter test, but we were in the fix to finish between sixth or 10th place – which we did in the last part of the season, but unfortunately we couldn’t find the balance to fight for sixth to 10th place all season, which I was aiming for in the pre-season test.
“But this is another story. This test, and also in Jerez, the laptimes we are doing, are a lot more competitive than last year. We were leading the timesheets almost all day yesterday and almost all day today, and at the end I just missed [the top spot] for two tenths.
“And regarding the race simulation, I did also many laps in [1m]54[s].
“So yes, this bike looks better than last season, and the races will be different but, yes, I think it’s much better than last season.”