until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


The strongest sign yet a MotoGP prodigy will escape mediocrity

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

For Raul Fernandez, the two best MotoGP on-track outings of the calendar year 2023 may well have come before the opening race (the Portimao test) and after the final race (the Valencia test).

That is certainly not the ideal recipe for a good season, and Fernandez's season was indeed far from ideal. His qualifying form, once a huge asset in Moto3 and Moto2 but nowhere to be seen in his debut MotoGP season with KTM, was lacking once again and conditioned weekend after weekend.

After a strong pre-season, for much of the actual season he looked firmly the fourth-best of the Aprilia riders - at least for the rounds in which RNF team-mate/fellow 2022-spec Aprilia runner Miguel Oliveira was something resembling fit.

Fernandez's own start to the season was, admittedly, influenced by arm pump, and once that was addressed there was certainly a bit of an uptick. Not necessarily a gigantic one in terms of results, but at least clearly observable - 14 points in the first half of the season, 37 in the second.

Various reliability gremlins and apparent material fatigue likely contributed to underplaying the scope of his improvement, but consistently qualifying outside the top 10 also continued to play its big part.

Overall, expectations were higher than this. Take Aprilia factory rider Aleix Espargaro's blunt view expressed at Phillip Island - Espargaro known as both a long-time Fernandez enthusiast and as someone who does not shy away from a frank assessment.

"Uhm, the reality is that I expected more from Raul. Sincerely," said Espargaro when asked by The Race.

"But I said that to him as well. I consider him as one of the best young talents of this paddock. Last year obviously was his first season with not an easy bike [KTM], with I would say not the best team at all [Tech3].

"But this year he has a winning bike, [Marco] Bezzecchi has a more-or-less similar bike than what he has, because last year my bike [the 2022 Aprilia] won races and Bezzecchi's bike [the 2022 Ducati] won races.

"And Raul still needs to improve a little bit. But he's progressing step by step, and hopefully he will be one of the important guys. In Aprilia, everybody believes a lot in his talent."

In Valencia, amid news of the chaos surrounding his RNF Aprilia team, Fernandez delivered his most complete MotoGP weekend yet - decent practice, decent qualifying, decent sprint, and a very competitive top-five in an attritional race.

He was just 4.636s off the winner in 27 laps, so rightly warranted a healthy serving of plaudits - but for the kind of race that will have expected to come from him in multiple servings this year.

But it was Tuesday, with RNF barred for participating and Fernandez hopping over on a 2023-spec Aprilia that was instead operated under Aprilia's test team entry, that he really shone.

"Pfwuh, amazing, eh?" said Fernandez. "I don't know why but I felt super good. Yeah, when I saw the laptime- this morning we started with the old one, we saw immediately we were more or less immediately on the laptime, on the pace of my race, but when I jumped to the new bike I started to be fast-fast-fast-fast.

"And I don't understand very well, why?"

Fernandez's best laptimes in the sprint and the race were both in the 1m30s range. In the test, he was rattling off 1m29s laps effectively for fun, keeping himself at or near the top of the timing screens for the vast majority of the day and dipping in below that 1m30s barrier more times than anyone else taking part.

"The pace was much better, the feeling with the bike, the feedback I have with the front part is amazing," he said.

"In general, I feel really really comfortable with the bike, I feel that Aprilia works very well with that bike. For me it's the correct way.

"And also we know what we have to do to improve, and also for them I think I gave them really good feedback for this winter, to be ready in Sepang, because I think will be interesting to try many things, because we saw the worst point of the bike."

That "worst point", Fernandez said, was getting on the throttle mid-corner as it remains "quite difficult to turn the bike". But it was not, he insisted, "a big problem".

And the best part, as he alluded to above, was "the front part". "In terms of aerodynamics, they did a step. In terms of feedback, I feel more feedback on the front part. I don't know exactly but I saw that I can attack more with the front part on the entry."

That Fernandez was talented enough to put great MotoGP laptimes on the board is surprising to precisely nobody - but that he felt so rejuvenated by a switch from an RS-GP '22 to an RS-GP '23 is something of an eyebrow-raiser.

After all, the works riders always insisted that this past season's RS-GP was an upgrade - but never that it was a massive upgrade.

When asked about this by The Race, Fernandez answered sardonically: "I was close to one second faster in terms of pace. Maybe something was better."

But was it just the laptimes - or was it the feeling too? "Yeah-yeah-yeah. I felt [it]. Also we saw on the data."

Whether this step forward was enabled by something specifically inherent to Fernandez's style, or the ageing of his previous equipment, or the particularities of the track, is something we'll get a better idea of as his Aprilia career continues in 2024.

Trackhouse, the NASCAR team earmarked to take over RNF's grid slots and therefore set to run Fernandez, is thought to have the financial firepower to give Aprilia a full-factory line-up sooner or later, i.e. a more or less even spec across the whole roster.

But it might not happen from day one, and if there's just one works-spec RS-GP available to the satellite team to begin with, Oliveira should probably get it over Fernandez on the basis of seniority and overall performance across 2023.

For Fernandez, who endearingly described himself as having felt "like a factory boy" in the test, this isn't something to worry about.

Especially if what will be the year-old Aprilia next year actually suits him this well.

Raul Fernandez, Aprilia, MotoGP

Let's be clear, he is not out of the woods yet - a test is only a test and Fernandez is yet to sustain the kind of form he has been tipped for in the premier class for any meaningful stretch of time.

But that doesn't mean we should over-correct and dismiss any and all evidence - and it is at least fair to say that, for whatever this will translate into for 2024, the Valencia test specifically was the most Fernandez has looked like his Moto2-spec self since stepping up to MotoGP.

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