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Of the six manufacturers in MotoGP™, Aprilia Racing Team Gresini is the greatest unknown. There is not much we can learn about 2020 by looking back at what happened in 2019, because 2019 was a year of treading water for the Italian factory. Nor are there many conclusions we can draw from testing: apart from some work on electronics and a few other minor parts, all the Aprilia riders were doing was gathering data. That made for some interesting photographs, with outlandish looking laser sensors fitted to outriggers on the front and rear axles, measuring precisely how the wheels tracked over the surface. But it didn't provide any clues as to what ideas Aprilia have for the coming year.
That is because the biggest changes for Aprilia came inside the racing department and the way it was organised, rather than the hardware of the bike. Massimo Rivola joined Aprilia as Racing CEO at the end of last year from Ferrari's young driver program, and his first task was changing the way the Aprilia Corse worked, to make it more efficient.
The way Rivola has gone about that is reminiscent of what Gigi Dall'Igna did when first joined Ducati (ironically, after leaving Aprilia). Rivola focussed on improving communication, getting everyone on the same page. He took over the organisational side of things from Romano Albesiano, allowing Albesiano to focus on engineering, and building a much faster bike. He brought in new engineers, to work on the engine, to work on the chassis, to work on the electronics, giving Albesiano the resources he needed to make a big push to improve the Aprilia RS-GP.
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"We feel quite guilty as a team" - Aprilia's Rivola
All that work was aimed at the long term, though. To push through a major reorganisation, work on the 2019 bike slowed to a trickle. The focus was on rethinking the RS-GP for 2020, making a radical redesign possible. That was hard to stomach for riders Andrea Iannone and Aleix Espargaro sometimes, Espargaro speaking harshly about a lack of progress on a number of occasions. But as 2020 approached, Espargaro became milder in his criticism, finally able to see the fruits of giving up on 2019 draw nearer.
Before the race at Misano, and after the test there, Aleix Espargaro was still frustrated. "We had nothing new to try at all," he said in September last year. "Everybody was trying many things, my brother had five bikes in the garage and also Yamaha and Ducati had a lot to new things to try. We had nothing to try."
At the Jerez test, the Aprilia Racing Team Gresini rider was a good deal more upbeat. He had seen designs of the bike, and been told much more about it by Romano Albesiano. "I talked with Romano a couple of times," Espargaro said. "I also saw CAD drawings of the bike and it looks good."
But it was about the changes made by Massimo Rivola which Aleix Espargaro is most enthusiastic about. "I'm optimistic," he said. " It looks like we are on the way. Two or three engine guys have arrived, two aerodynamic guys have arrived, another frame guy has arrived. So more than six new people from very competitive places have joined the project, with new ideas. They will help Romano a lot and Romano's team will be a lot stronger. We were missing that and I hope that the new bike and ideas these guys will bring will help."
Over the winter, more details have emerged about the bike, with Italian broadcaster Sky even getting a brief video of the new engine on the dyno. Romano Albesiano has explained what Aprilia are trying to achieve with the new RS-GP. The engine is a 90°V, and Aprilia have put a lot of work into figuring out the right firing interval. They hope to make big power gains – upwards of 20 horsepower, to put them more in line with Yamaha and KTM – but they are also working on rideability, trying to make the power delivery as smooth and controllable as possible.
One of they ways they are attempting to do that is by using an external flywheel, as used by Ducati and, it is rumoured, Honda. By altering the mass of the external flywheel, you alter the character of the engine. Less weight, and the engine is more responsive, but a bit more aggressive. More weight, and the engine doesn't accelerate as hard, but you get more progressive engine braking. Having an external flywheel means you can change it and adapt engine character to each individual circuit without breaking the engine seals. Engine braking is a key target for Aprilia, to help the bike enter corners better.
Will Aprilia's gamble on the new RS-GP pay off? We will get a better idea once the Sepang test gets underway in early February. As a factory with concessions – Aprilia has not scored enough podiums to amass the 6 points required to lose the freedom to test more frequently and modify the engine during the season – the factory riders will be allowed to take part in the shakedown test at Sepang ahead of the start of the official test.
Espargaro is used to carrying most of the load at Aprilia. And the arrival of a new bike should bring him new motivation and energy. The Spaniard has always pushed hard, even when the bike was uncompetitive, so there is no doubting his effort. But his hopes are high: "I hope and truly believe that next season every single race can be like this one," Espargaro said after the race in Aragon, where he finished seventh. "I'm not saying we have to fight for the podium but every race we have to be fighting for top eight and five to fifteen seconds from the top guys." That seems a realistic option, if the new RS-GP is the quantum leap forward which Aprilia is hoping for.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Aprilia's hopes is the fact that we are living in the most competitive era MotoGP™ has ever seen. In 2019, there were four factories capable of winning races, and all six finished in the top ten. In 2020, the gap between winners and losers looks like being even smaller, the competition even tougher.
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Check out the new look 2020 MotoGP™ calendar
Finishing between five and fifteen seconds behind the winner is an admirable and entirely achievable objective. The question is whether that will even be good enough for a top ten in 2020. The Yamahas should be more competitive, Maverick Viñales should be challenging for the title, as should Fabio Quartararo. Valentino Rossi could make one last charge for a title before retiring, and will be chasing podiums every race.
Andrea Dovizioso will be going all out to finally beat Marc Márquez to a championship, and if the Ducati Desmosedici GP20 really has improved in long corners, the bike might finally be good enough to do so. Danilo Petrucci has something to prove, and Jack Miller stands on the verge of a major breakthrough. Pecco Bagnaia could be a wildcard, and who knows whether Johann Zarco can find some of his old magic again?
Joan Mir will be pushing Alex Rins at Suzuki, while Rins will be chasing more wins than the two he picked up in 2019. KTM may not be ready to win races just yet, but Pol Espargaro will be aiming for top sixes as often as possible. Miguel Oliveira will have extra motivation after being passed over for the factory ride, and KTM has two intriguing rookies in Brad Binder and Iker Lecuona.
There is plenty to look forward to at Honda as well. How quickly will Alex Márquez get up to speed in the Repsol Honda team? Will Cal Crutchlow be able to go out on a high at LCR Honda? And what will Takaaki Nakagami be able to do on the 2019 Honda RC213V?
Then there is Marc Márquez. Historically, great riders are at their absolute peak around 27 years of age, and Márquez turns 27 in February this year – his number, 93, is a reference to the year of his birth. The Honda was fast enough for him to win again in 2019, and if the 2020 bike is as good as early tests suggest, he will once again be tough to beat. Ahead of the Sepang test, the competition already looks tougher than it was last year.
It's a great time to be a MotoGP™ fan.
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