Expectations for and attention on the 2023 MotoGP season's sole rookie Augusto Fernandez weren’t high, given the size of the hill he had to climb.
The GasGas-branded KTM he'd be riding was a less competitive starting point than the Ducatis many rookies have been able to jump straight on lately, there were no other newcomers to judge him against (unlike the five-strong rookie class of 2022) and he was entering the championship at a time when the adaptation process seems to be harder than ever. The odds were stacked against him from day one.
Things got harder before the grid had even lined up in anger for the first time, when his veteran Tech3 GasGas team-mate Pol Espaergaro sustained life threatening injuries on the opening practice day of the season, unexpectedly thrusting rookie Fernandez into a team leader position for the first half of the year as Espargaro made a slow recovery.
That series of circumstances might have been more than enough to grind down anyone else. But to his credit Fernandez rose to the occasion, not just impressing by rookie standards but racking up some very strong results along the way including a stunning fourth place at the team’s home race in France.
Even aside from the Le Mans result, the rest of the season was a strong one as he slowly but steadily built on his progress weekend after weekend, chipping away at his weaknesses until he ended the year stronger than anyone had expected - and very content about it - despite all the challenges he faced along the way.
“It’s been a positive one,” he told The Race in an exclusive interview as the season wrapped up. “As I’ve said many times, I feel that maybe before the season started the expectation was one thing, and I’ve been happy with how things have went.
“But lately I’m feeling stronger, and I’m happy with it. I have to be happy with how things have gone, because the level is good and we’re improving.
“It’s been a very tough one. A positive one, with many new things like the tyres - even in Qatar [in November], we tried a new front tyre that I’ve not had all season, and it’s still hard to understand these things - even now, with the experience I have in MotoGP.
“Everything has been super new and super difficult from what I’ve been used to.”
Of all of those challenges that he’s had to face in 2023, perhaps none has been as substantial as making the move from a Moto2 machine to the modern MotoGP bikes which are now vastly different beasts.
While the middleweight class’s development (and subsequently, the riding style it requires) has remained largely fixed since the introduction of Triumph’s control engine in 2019, the huge expansion of aerodynamics in MotoGP has changed the premier class substantially - as Fernandez discovered when he made his debut on the bike.
“When I talk to Brad [Binder] or Pol [Espargaro] or Joan [Mir], riders who I have relationships with, when they came to MotoGP it wasn’t like this," he explains.
"It was a bike, a motorbike, and it was much easier to ride.
“Much better than the Moto2 bike, more powerful, better tyres, better everything. It’s still like this, but it’s very difficult to be in the performance window.
“It’s very good, but it’s nothing until it goes very, very bad or the feeling is so strange, with the pressures, the temperature, all the wings and aero things. It’s very good, sometimes, but it’s very easy to be very bad, too.”
Suddenly finding himself solo for the first two rounds, until KTM drafted in inexperienced test rider Jonas Folger as Espargaro’s stand-in, meant that Fernandez also lost his reference. That made the job even harder - even if KTM’s factory team did try to step in and help Fernandez out.
“I was alone,” he admitted bluntly. “Luckily, the other team, the official KTM one, helped me a lot in terms of information from Brad and Jack [Miller]. I have to say, they gave me whatever I wanted.
“It’s not the same because with Pol I can compare myself at the same time - I jump off the bike, I go to the data guy, I ask for Pol’s lap, and I have it.
“With Brad and Jack, I have to wait until the afternoon to maybe compare things. It’s been different, but I have to say that they’ve helped me as much as they could and I’m happy with it.
“It was a big change, but the Tech3 team supported me well and I had no pressure at all. I was just trying to learn things and make the little steps. I felt supported by everyone here, and I felt good through the adaptation. It was helpful, not just being alone.”
All those obstacles came alongside the natural mental adjustment to going from top dog as 2022 Moto2 champion to struggling as MotoGP's only newcomer, and struggling to find a comparison point that being the sole rookie meant he didn’t really have.
“Especially at the beginning of the year when I was comparing myself to the rest of the riders with lots of experience, and being last, last, last and pushing like hell," he adds.
“Yeah, being at my maximum and being last is maybe the most mentally hardest part of this adaptation.
"Now it’s a bit better because I’m not last anymore - and because I can read it in a different way.
“But at the beginning when you’re used to being one, two, three, first, second, third in Moto2 for the last years, it’s hard to be fighting for the last positions.”
With that first year now behind him and with the 26-year-old adamant that he ended 2023 exactly where he needed to be to kick off 2024 in a strong way, Fernandez now feels able to focus on being a competitive racer again - and has set his sights high as he goes into a new season.
“I don’t know about results because in MotoGP you never know and you need to have everything," he begins when thinking about his 2024 goals, "but I want to fight to be the best KTM on the grid, more up there with Brad, or with Jack or with [new team-mate] Pedro [Acosta] if it’s them.
"To perform as the best KTM bike is the main goal at every race next year."
What might best KTM status mean in terms of overall results in 2024? Asked if he was expecting an improved bike, he replied: “You never know, but I really think that we’re improving a lot. Our time is coming, because I really think that from last year a lot of things have changed.
“We’ve taken a direction and of course it’s a long way, but we’re going step by step and we’re always improving. We’re getting closer.
“It needs time, because we’re talking about the Ducati that has won the last two years, a very good bike over the last three or four or five years already. We are only new and we need time, but I think we are going to get there.
“Thankfully in this last part of the season I’ve been improving a lot, and seeing good results. Well, good things, not results, because on Sundays in the end I’m not performing as I want.
“But I’m seeing different positive things that make me want to keep going and keep racing, even if for sure we need some time and some rest to come back stronger for another tough season.”
There'll be another tough element in that season: new rookie team-mate Acosta, already the focus of so much attention at the post-season Valencia test.
For Fernandez, being reunited with his old Moto2 stablemate is no bad thing even if the targets for the very highly-rated Acosta are set far higher than they were for Fernandez 12 months before.
“There’s a strong one coming!” he joked. “I’m looking forward to having him in the box, and I think he’s going to adapt quickly to the bike like he did in Moto2.
“I’ve said many times in the past that when he was competitive on a weekend in Moto2, it just helped me. It made me better, let me see where he was faster than me on data. We pushed each other and improved the level.
“For sure we want to beat each other because we’re team-mates and that is the first one that you want to beat, but I think it’s just going to be good for the brand, for the team and for me to have him strong as soon as possible.
“We try to remember the people, the Spanish part of the team with GasGas. Again next year, we’ll have two Spanish riders, and I think that it’s a strong team to go against the factory one.
“That’s what we’ll try at least and let’s see if we can fight to be the best Pierer Mobility bike on the grid.”