Pol Espargaro’s MotoGP rivals are already tipping the new Repsol Honda rider for success as soon as the 2021 season starts later this month in Qatar.
The KTM convert is continuing to make rapid and somewhat unexpected progress in adapting himself to the notoriously rider-unfriendly RC213V machine.
Honda has signed Espargaro in an attempt to solve its long-term problem of riders other than Marc Marquez struggling with its factory bike. He’s likely to start the season as the team’s lead hope if Marquez isn’t fit to return for the opener and Stefan Bradl continues to deputise.
Espargaro is switching to the factory Honda team after four years with KTM and its RC16 bike. Though that’s a machine that was at least initially heavily influenced by the Honda RC213V, many expected that the process of adaptation would take Espargaro some time thanks to the aggressive nature of his new bike.
Yet the 29-year-old has instead jumped rapidly up the order, finishing yesterday’s first day of the final test in fifth place.
That led factory Ducati rider Jack Miller to suggest that, rather than needing more time to adapt, Espargaro could well be a contender at the opening race.
“I think Pol has been the real standout of this test,” Miller said.
“He’s had the biggest job of this test, switching manufacturers after being on the KTM for quite a few years, and with the KTM having a steel chassis and everything, I’m sure the characteristics are completely different over at Honda.
“I think that he’s adapted to it very well, and he’s putting in some fantastic lap times and pace.
“I’m pleasantly surprised at it, because as we’ve seen in the past not everyone can manage the Honda.
“I think we all sort of thought that with Pol’s aggressive style of riding, all elbows out and everything, that if anyone could do it, it would be him – and it’s showing.”
One rider less surprised than most by the speed with which Espargaro has adapted is satellite Honda rider Taka Nakagami.
In part responsible for helping modify the RC213V into a more manageable machine last year while Marc Marquez was absent through injury, Nakagami says that he expected a good start thanks to Espargaro’s riding style.
“Of course I knew that Pol can adapt very soon with the Honda bike, because his riding style is a kind of aggressive style,” said Nakagami, who rides a factory-spec Honda for satellite team LCR.
“I knew that he can adapt really soon and it looks day by day he’s going faster.
“It’s of course good to see. It means Honda’s bike is pretty competitive.
“Now it’s time for each rider to show the best performance to prepare for the race weekend. So of course I can say that it’s good to see Pol staying inside the top 10 or even top five. It’s a good sign, I’m happy to see it.”
But while Espargaro’s rivals might be tipping him to be in the fight for the win in two weeks’ time, he’s less sure about that – at least for now.
Working hard throughout the three days of pre-season testing MotoGP has had so far on finding the Honda’s limit rather than trying new parts, he says the process is working but that he still needs time.
“Until today I’ve just been testing myself,” he said yesterday evening.
“But we’ve started trying a few things now, just moving a couple of things up and down, some electronics.
“It’s the first time that we’ve been trying different stuff on the bike, and I’m happy about it, because I was a little worried I’d not be ready for the first race with the front of the bike – to go into it not knowing when the front might close or where the limit is.
“Today is the first day where I made some laps on the limit and felt the limit of the front when braking in a straight line.
“I still feel like I need more corner speed, like I’m not hitting the limit there, but going into the corner I could feel the front closing, which is very good.
“I found the limit and didn’t crash, so it looks like I’m controlling the situation.”
And with that effort comes a big toll on the rider. It takes supreme concentration (and sometimes bravery) to push for one lap – something that Espargaro has always shown to be excellent at – and he knows he still needs more time to become comfortable running at that knife edge.
“It’s stressful, especially on hot laps,” he conceded.
“At race pace, I feel so much more relaxed and I don’t get as tired because you are controlling the situation better, less nervous, less tight on the bike. You flow a little bit more.
“But on a hot lap, I still don’t know if the rear is going to launch me, if the front is going to close, what is going to happen.
“That’s where you’re trying to find the limit, and I didn’t expect to be as fast.
“A lot of places on that lap, I felt on the limit, like I didn’t know how the bike was going to react – but for now it’s staying quite smooth, more than I expected.
“I don’t know when I try to raise the level what will happen, but for now the bike allows it.”
With that in mind, he’s not yet thinking about the chance for victories – at least, not until he’s had the opportunity to experience the bike not just in testing but also in the different environment of a race weekend.
“I don’t feel ready to win yet,” Espargaro said.
“We’re in a test where everyone can push to the limit, and if you crash you don’t lose anything.
“In the race, especially in qualifying or even in practice, you can’t push as much because you have a limit on the number of tyres and you can’t waste them. You have to be so careful and pay so much attention.
“Now, there’s freedom in the playground and you can do whatever you want with no pressure or no stress. When you play without all of this, it’s much easier.
“I want to see myself after the two more days of testing that I feel like I really need.”