until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


The sad case of MotoGP's only outcast - and one silver lining

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
9 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

It is a testament to the particular beauty of professional sports - this absurd, almost anti-natural multi-faceted field of human activity we allow ourselves to feel so many things about and feel them so strongly - that almost any ending is a storybook ending if you look closely enough.

This year's Valencian Grand Prix was not supposed to mark the end of Pol Espargaro's full-time MotoGP career - not when he rejoined the KTM camp on a two-year deal after a failed Honda dalliance, not when he reunited with the Tech3 team that gave him his premier-class start, not when he donned Gas Gas red for the first time.

And yet, as of this time of writing, it sure looks like a 14th-place finish at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo has drawn a line under a 17-year stint in grand prix racing. Yes, Espargaro should line up on the grid again, and nobody has quite ruled out a full-schedule return in the future - but it feels fanciful for a rider who will turn 33 next year, juxtaposed against an ever-more youthful premier class roster.

"It's the start of the finish. It's the beginning of the end," said Espargaro after the flag in Valencia, sounding very much not like somebody who is very confident of getting a full-time gig again down the line.

"I feel that one chapter is closing today in my life. And, it's okay that I will race but it's going to be something very different."

But if this 14th place, coming home two laps down on a crashed bike after buckling under pressure from Fabio Quartararo, is indeed "the beginning of the end", there's a poetic symmetry of sorts to it.

Espargaro's trademark MotoGP ride, after all, was also one where he crashed and got back up again. And it was also Valencia - 2018, the rain-hit and restarted race, in which a post-crash third place was not just KTM's first podium in MotoGP but also Espargaro's. Seven more followed, some of them on objectively more impressive weekends, but none as magical.

When KTM wins its first MotoGP title - and that day is coming, sooner or later - that ride is bound to be part of the montage. And the rider behind it will likely feature in it extensively, having played such an important role in the project's formative years and having established a KTM legacy that, in 2023, he was hoping to shore up and add to.


Just how good Espargaro's 2023 was actually going to be, particularly in comparison with an increasingly-established Brad Binder who was already giving him trouble as his works KTM team-mate three years prior, is a valid question to ask. But obviously it should've been much more fruitful than this.

"The lost son was back" was how Tech3 boss Herve Poncharal described Espargaro's return into the KTM fold in a post-season interview with The Race.

"Really, really happy, so full of energy, so full of everything, telling everyone 'I want to be the captain, I want to be Gas Gas captain'. And he was feeling that he was finally in the right place at the right moment, he was having the level, with the experience, not doing the mistakes he was doing before.

"And clearly inside the Pierer Mobility [Group] there was an even treatment, the same treatment for Jack [Miller], Brad and Pol. They were the three top guys. And Pol was quite sure that he was going to be at the level of Jack and Brad, fighting with them, and eventually be the one.

"Clearly [inside the team] there was the boss, the captain, and the rookie [Augusto Fernandez] that was going to learn from the top guy - but not be in the spotlight, be working quiet, in his environment... unfortunately happened what happened in Portimao, which was a real disaster.

"I don't want to comment any more, but that was very scary because it was a very, very bad accident. And Pol has been injured in every department, physically but also mentally."

There's no use relitigating the exact mechanics of the crash - and the specific role of the new format and the particularities of the Portuguese tracks - other than saying Espargaro got a rough deal. Likewise, there is no use revisiting the litany of injuries - jaw, spine, you name it - other than to say Espargaro got a rough deal, but was also fortunate to escape with his life.


"Honestly a lot of us inside the team and inside Pierer Mobility were having doubts about the possibility for him to come back, also when we saw the spine, we were talking to the doctors, it was not easy, he wanted to come [back to riding] but... you remember how many times it was postponed?" recalled Poncharal.

"The doctors said 'oof, in case something happens...'. Anyway, he managed to come back, and although he did his best result the second race he came back, in Spielberg [in the sprint], it was not easy."

Espargaro scored four points in that Red Bull Ring sprint - but he averaged a pretty shocking 0.7 points per weekend, not even per start much less per sprint, the rest of the way.

There were some flashes of speed but never enough to come together for anything even resembling a complete weekend - and while that could also accurately describe some other phases of Espargaro's career, here it was stark and it seemed obvious to everyone involved that he was just never fit.

"With all respect for Pol, you can see that he still hasn't recovered completely," said Poncharal.

"I think both mentally and physically. More physically, clearly.

"In Qatar he was having back pain. But that was not related to his problem, that was muscle, because he is still a bit weak on the left side and then he's using some other muscles too much... and of course he wants to show, and he's in a situation now where he cannot be matching, for example, Brad.

"But he wants to. Because he thinks he can. And then you are [pushing] too much."

"He definitely needs now a full winter to work on his body," KTM and Gas Gas motorsport boss Pit Beirer told The Race.

"That's also why, the decision for him [to step aside], you guys followed it, for sure was not easy, but somehow still also took some pressure off his shoulders. Because he's not 100 percent there."

"For sure I need time," Espargaro himself acknowledged.

"I thought that I would recover the muscles, that I still have not recovered, much faster. But still there are some muscles that, doctors told me, they could take three months or one year and a half. You never know when the nerves recover at 100 percent.

"But it's obvious there are muscles that still I have like 40 percent of power. These don't disturb me so, so much riding the bike - but as soon as it's a long race distance, after the sprint race, my body gives up, collapses, especially in the left corners. And I really feel, after 10-12-13 laps, I start to feel this. It's a big problem.

"For sure I need some time this winter."


In the meantime, KTM/Gas Gas found themselves in a pickle. Rookie Fernandez was riding too well to be discarded, also because the optics would've been truly rancid given KTM had already dropped two rookies the year before. Pedro Acosta was doing too well in Moto2 to hang around. And MotoGP promoter Dorna just would not budge on allowing a new premier-class team to enter and run a couple more KTM RC16s.

A popular perception was that Espargaro would just step aside and solve the problem, but Espargaro himself made it repeatedly clear he had little interest in doing so. Yet that was the eventual outcome in the end.

KTM higher-ups have been keen on projecting this as a mutual decision, which, contractually, it had to be. But some decisions are more mutual then others.

"It was difficult to swallow for him, but which after a while he understood," said Poncharal of Espargaro. "He understood well.

"Even after Qatar he told me 'f***, I can do a lap, but for the race distance I'm not physically- I cannot do it yet'. Maybe '25 he will be [able to], I don't know. So now he understands."

"Pol helped us to basically fix our huge problem" was how Beirer framed it.

Ultimately though, Espargaro himself never went on record to suggest he was being moved aside against his wishes, or that his ties with the brand(s) had been undermined, and every indication is that he is being taken care of financially.

And, even though the off-season will have obviously helped Espargaro, you can also understand why KTM would prioritise building around Acosta and Fernandez rather than waiting to see whether it would get the Espargaro it signed back - even if ideally (and contractually) it would've gladly paid up to satisfy both requirements.


Poncharal added: "Also he understands he's got two beautiful daughters, a beautiful wife. He has a good place now in Andorra. The life is good.

"This is something that he's done - but clearly the Tech3 Gas Gas MotoGP development was a lot relying on him for results."

Espargaro's Portimao crash was obviously horrifying regardless of his family status - losing him, or seeing him end up with injuries that would've torpedoed his quality of life longer-term, would've been no less a tragedy if he were a committed bachelor.

But when you think of the toll 2023 took not just on Espargaro but on his wife Carlota, even if it doesn't necessarily translate to a higher risk of re-injury or what have you relative to his MotoGP peers (whose health is equally valuable), there's something perhaps irrational that makes it feel like it's the right time for him to largely step aside.

Yes, the 32-year-old Espargaro will almost certainly retire winless. But a tie for 14th-most MotoGP starts all-time with Kenny Roberts Jr. (Espargaro will break that tie with his first wildcard, albeit will also be overtaken by the likes of Maverick Vinales and Jack Miller soon enough), eight podiums, three poles, nearly 900 points, some really good seasons and a Moto2 title - that's a good career, a proud career.

Right now, Espargaro is in the middle of what he planned to be quite an intense, fitness-oriented winter. If he's back to his best physically for his wildcards - of which KTM will now be allowed six next year, although surely you'd also want at least one or two to go to Dani Pedrosa - then 2025 hasn't really been taken off the table.

"If he's back to the form where he was and where he wanted him and where he was our planned captain of the Gas Gas project, we will talk about it," said Beirer.

"But of course now it's a lot of if and when and maybe, because we don't have a third team! If we have a third team, for sure he's in the game to be one of the main riders."

For a variety of reasons, it sounds like a long shot, and reading between the lines Espargaro sounds okay with slowly but surely pivoting to perhaps an off-track role in the project - ambassadorial or whichever form it will take.

Don't forget, after all, that he rebuffed a Honda approach to potentially return to its camp for 2024 as a full-time rider.

"At the moment I'm pleased where I am," he said.

You really want to believe that. Especially if you suspect - and I do - that a 2025 return is probably a long shot.

Espargaro the tester, Espargaro the ambassador - and maybe one day Espargaro the manager? - are all roles that seem a good way for the capable, affable Spaniard to remain in the MotoGP orbit.

Maybe there was more to achieve on track. He was, after all, one final-corner melee away from being a grand prix winner in 2020. And if 2023 was the swan song, it was not befitting of his talents.

But if it truly is a happy ending, then none of that really matters.

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