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MotoGP

Breakthrough or anomaly? Aprilia’s drought-breaker assessed

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
9 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Aprilia and Aleix Espargaro may well have won the best grand prix of the MotoGP season – it’s entirely plausible that Silverstone will be the high point in terms of 2023 Sunday entertainment in the premier class – but there are no extra points awarded for putting on a good show, and the 2023 Aprilia RS-GP still doesn’t quite have the points that will have been expected of it coming into the season.

Considering it was an evolution of a bike that was the envy of many rivals back in 2022, lofty expectations had been placed on the new RS-GP and those operating it. That, perhaps, didn’t help.

“At the beginning of the season, maybe the expectation was too high on myself, on my team,” said Espargaro after his win.

“I made too many mistakes, I lost a lot of points. I had good speed, many Fridays, many sessions on the dry I was very close to Pecco, leading. But it doesn’t matter. You have to be fast on Sunday.

“For one reason or another I wasn’t able to match my speed with the results, and obviously we don’t have the points that I think we deserve.”

So much of what he said applies to team-mate Maverick Vinales, too. Yet any narrative that all it took for a taste of success was for the team and its riders to pull the finger out is obviously inaccurate.

And it perhaps showed the relative fragility of the RS-GP package, as good as it is, that Espargaro had to work this hard for the win – that it took pulling off an ambitious move around the outside of Copse, a few corners after Espargaro could’ve crashed out (by his own admission, he nearly highsided at Farm) and left Aprilia’s 2023 dreams dashed yet again.

But, more than any other round in 2023, this was Aprilia’s race to lose – and there were so many reasons why.

A long-standing track affinity

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Aprilia’s stellar recent relationship with the British Grand Prix venue Silverstone is well-documented.

Espargaro ended its long podium drought there in 2021. He took a bad knock in a pre-qualifying practice crash the following year so was in no state to fight out front, so team-mate Vinales picked up the slack and was just four tenths off defeating Pecco Bagnaia.

The layout intuitively just works for the RS-GP and it makes intuitive sense why – it’s a high-speed venue with not a lot of straightline braking and acceleration out of low-speed corners.

“This is our track. We are quite fast. I think the Aprilia was the best bike here,” summed up Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola in conversation with MotoGP.com.

The evidence of that on Sunday was absolutely inescapable.

Out of the box

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As it has been for so much of 2023, qualifying wasn’t particularly helpful to Aprilia’s cause. It was full wet conditions, so both Vinales and particularly Espargaro got lower grid spots than they probably should’ve.

Granted, the bike did look better in the wet than it had in its disastrous Argentina outing, and Vinales was more stymied by a succession of yellow flags than a genuine lack of pace, but Rivola felt that with a more straightforward qualifying there should’ve been multiple Aprilias on the podium.

But the way Aprilia has worked as of late, the constant random variable that was Silverstone weather may have helped, too.

The RS-GP, as evidenced by its routinely great Friday pace and tendency to shine in the early laps of pre-season testing, is a very useful machine to have when you don’t have a lot of representative track time. Whereas someone like Bagnaia has been very methodical in 2023 in growing his pace through the weekend, Aprilia seems to usually start off pretty close to where it should be.

And with all of Saturday proving of limited value for learning due to the specific track conditions, that will have likely helped the RS-GPs on Sunday.

In addition to that, the rain meant not a lot of extra grip was being put down – and that too was clearly to Aprilia’s liking relative to its rivals.

Cold, cold, cold

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The previous round of the championship that’s been most notable for how cold it was was, predictably, Le Mans, and that already was a race Aprilia probably should’ve won.

Vinales was on a tear and scything his way to the lead when he had his incident with Bagnaia. He wasn’t quite the overwhelming race favourite at that point, but definitively at least one of them.

And while the unwelcoming track and air temps of Silverstone were a factor in many a crash, for Aprilia the weather seemed to help mitigate a long-standing concern.

“The conditions with very very cold temperatures helped that the front pressure didn’t really rise up a lot,” said Espargaro. Which meant he could battle and he could follow and he could make the overtakes he needed to make.

That has so often not been the case this season. And yes, the front tyre going haywire in traffic has been an issue up and down the grid, but Aprilia has appeared to be one of the worst-affected. Espargaro was horrified by how badly it conditioned his race in the sweltering Jerez heat.

It was an issue at Assen, too – as was a general unsuitability of the RS-GP to charging through the field, its tendency for carrying corner speed counter-productive when it needs to find a way past a stop-and-go bike, in what sounds effectively like a less extreme version of the inline-four Yamaha’s problem.

“Silverstone is a very wide track, so it’s quite easy to overtake,” Espargaro maintained. But it’s not like it was a total cakewalk.

He did overtake several Ducatis – Luca Marini, Alex Marquez, Bagnaia – on track, which is already quite the outlier for Aprilia’s season, but some help still had to come in, in the form of Brad Binder sending Jorge Martin to an alternative Silverstone layout at the start, Marco Bezzecchi crashing out out second and team-mate Vinales accidentally nerfing Jack Miller (and also himself) out of Espargaro’s way at Copse.

Vinales still seemed to struggle a little bit with overtaking and cooked his tyres while pushing desperately to make up ground lost in traffic.

Start me up

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For much of the season, grid positions of eighth and 12th were potentially ruinous for Aprilia not just because of the tyre pressure problems, but because sub-optimal starts would usually turn those into even worse positions on the opening lap.

Espargaro, still reeling from his Jerez experience (in which he started from pole four times due to red flag stoppages across two races, and was absolutely humiliated off the line by rival bikes each and every time), was “angry” and pushing for change, and felt placated at Silverstone, crediting Aprilia for “working very hard” with test rider Lorenzo Savadori.

Truth be told, the RS-GPs only looked about break-even off the line in both sprint and the main race, but both Vinales and Espargaro were happy.

They are still emphatically not the KTMs – how Vinales’ grand prix started was a very telling visual in that regard, him getting away about equal with the Pramac Ducati bikes either side of him on row three but then seeing Binder immediately draw alongside him on the left (before removing himself and Martin out of the way).

But improvement is still paramount, and if this one transfers to future rounds it will go down as a hugely important step for Aprilia.

UPGRADES

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Aprilia had a decent amount of new stuff to play with at Silverstone, which was perhaps unsurprising given it was the first race after the summer break.

Vinales ran a new swingarm that he described as something of a departure for Aprilia and tailored for his style specifically, but ultimately felt he may have left something on the table by racing it already. He could’ve switched to the older spec but didn’t feel comfortable given the lack of in-weekend mileage with it.

Espargaro, meanwhile, was particularly satisfied with the new aero fairing and revised front end.

“I felt that I could close the corner better. Then I was able to prepare the pick-up a little bit earlier. Actually, to do the pick-up and the acceleration phase is still one of the points that I have to improve the most. Maverick is always better on the pick-up phase.

“So, I improved a lot during this weekend with the new fairing. And I think was the key. I had a lot of traction because I was able to pick up the bike much better than in the past.

“In the past I accelerated super leaned. So this has been a very important upgrade.”

THE NEW RULE?

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Espargaro is now even a little bit fond of the new tyre pressure rules, and specifically the front tyre pressure minimum that he – and so many of his peers – consider to be way too high.

But he also mentioned on Friday that, for all of the tyre pressure misbehaviour in traffic, “we were inside of this rule [before it was being enforced]. Aprilia was one of the best teams [in that regard]”.

“The perfect pressure for Aprilia would be under the limit of Dorna,” Espargaro acknowledged on Sunday – but there’s a prevailing theory that the perfect pressure for, say, Ducati is still lower than that.

And though Ducati’s lead riders have been fairly stoic in the face of the new limit, Johann Zarco did suggest something interesting on Sunday – that not only was his own race severely hampered by a mid-race case of the front tyre overheating likely brought on by a too-high starting pressure, but that the new rule was something Bagnaia may be struggling with, too.

HERE TO STAY?

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Aprilia’s British GP performance was clearly a confluence of factors, both single-event and longer-term.

On the one hand, it was Silverstone, and the RS-GP is innately good at Silverstone. You don’t need to dig too deep in the classification to find supporting evidence – just see the race Miguel Oliveira had in the RNF-run 2022 Aprilia. The arrival of rain and his confidence in the face of said rain did help him to a fifth-place finish, but he was already having a great ride even before weather had intervened.

On the other hand, the fact Espargaro won from 12th can’t help but be encouraging, strongly suggesting that on pure performance Aprilia didn’t just have the measure of Ducati but had it and all of the other rival marques pretty well covered.

The stop-and-go Red Bull Ring – which will apparently feature some more new Aprilia bits – is likely to provide a significant litmus test, and perhaps a reality check for Espargaro’s claim from earlier in the season that the RS-GP is a pretty good bike more or less everywhere, just with multiple Achilles’ heels that make its results lesser than its pace.

But in any case, even if Aprilia could’ve and maybe should’ve won before Silverstone this year, it feels unlikely that it will have won as convincingly as this.

After the win, Espargaro described his RS-GP as “very competitive but still not the best bike”. Silverstone was the first strong bit of evidence in a long time that it can be the best bike.

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