When NASCAR frontrunner Trackhouse Racing announced it was taking over the satellite Aprilia team RNF Racing for the 2024 MotoGP season, it promised a big shake-up in how the squad is run.
But while on-track success might be the long-term goal, team boss Justin Marks says that step one will be turning the outfit into a whole new type of independent-class team with closer-than-ever links to the Italian factory.
There’s been considerable speculation about what impact the new addition to the grid is going to have, because of the immediate impression Trackhouse made on NASCAR when it first arrived there with a marketing and content creation approach very different from what had come before.
However, while there are plans to shake up the world of two-wheeled racing in a similar way, it’s clear the relationship with Aprilia is where the team is betting big, according to Marks - who sat down with The Race for an exclusive interview.
Set not just to become an Aprilia partner but to run its team’s motorcycling operations directly out of the brand’s headquarters in Noale (near Venice), it’s an opportunity to replicate how Trackhouse have worked with Chevrolet to become a race-winning team in only its second season in the pre-eminent stock car series.
“When we came into NASCAR,” Marks explained, “I worked to create a structure where everybody involved sees the relationship as being powerful and additive to what they’re trying to do.
“It was a new concept, a new idea, but we went to Aprilia and said that instead of us having a workshop somewhere else and trying to manage all this stuff, why don’t we just find strength in numbers?
“Why don’t we just combine our resources and our vision? It’s not factory and customer, it’s two partner organisations.
"If the Trackhouse team are on the 2024 equipment, then all the parts are the same and the communication is that much more powerful. Aprilia has double the data that they can use to develop, find strength and grow.
“That’s essentially what I presented them with and I think that it resonated. This is just something that they’ve been waiting for.
“When we were looking at all the opportunities, the Japanese bikes [Honda and Yamaha] just didn’t make sense, KTM are pretty devoted to what they were doing, and Ducati is this big machine with all these partners on track.
“Aprilia is just this smaller boutique operation that we saw a lot of ourselves in. They’re racers, like us, and it was very comfortable for me to take this scenario to them. I thought that they would respond favourably to it, and they did.
“[Team boss] Massimo [Rivola] is very motivated, they’re working really hard to get our 2024 stuff together, and I think it’ll be a powerful united front in MotoGP next year.”
It has already been confirmed by Rivola - as reported in German-language publication Speedweek.com - that Trackhouse rider Miguel Oliveira will already receive a 2024-spec Aprilia to start the season, and Speedweek.com also says the less experienced team-mate Raul Fernandez is in line to be upgraded to factory-spec at Mugello (round eight) or sooner.
Trackhouse's predecessor RNF had been running older-spec Aprilias instead, and was set to continue doing so in 2024 before it was replaced.
"I've done this before"
While the decision to jump into MotoGP might have emerged only at the eleventh hour, with the team putting together a deal to take over the RNF grid slot only at the final round of the 2023 season, Marks is insistent that the experience that he and his management team have of pulling off similar successes in the past means that it’s going to be a relatively painless transition for Oliveira and Fernandez.
“I’ve done this before,” he insisted. “I’ve done it with the NASCAR team [Trackhouse's Cup entry came from a takeover of Chip Ganassi Racing's operation in the series].
"Obviously all forms of motorsport are different - the players are different, the economics are different - but the exercise is kind of the same. It’s about learning what sort of assets need to be created, what sort of staff needs to be created.
“The same thing exists in NASCAR in that we need to have a very close relationship with our manufacturer, our OEM, who is Chevrolet. Once we identified that it would be Aprilia in MotoGP, it was about going to them and presenting them with a partnership structure that would help accelerate our process of getting on the grid.
“We went to Rivola and said ‘hey, look, would you be interested in taking some of this on because otherwise we can’t do this in eight weeks’. We needed their help, otherwise it would have been impossible.
“We’ve done that before with NASCAR so it wasn’t a daunting task in understanding how it all works, it was just the timeframe.
“We needed [MotoGP promoter] Dorna, our people at Trackhose, Aprilia, and some other elements, all motivated for it to work in the same timeframe that MotoGP provided, and thankfully they did get it all together. It’s pretty remarkable, really.”
The approach to 2024 results
While the team might be accustomed to success elsewhere, it seems fair to say from Marks’ comments that immediate results in MotoGP won’t be the name of the game in 2024 as Trackhouse instead looks to build from its hastily-assembled base into something with long-term potential.
Nonetheless, with both Fernandez (who topped post-season testing in Valencia) and five-time race winner Oliveira undoubtedly hoping to start the year strong, it doesn’t mean that expectations will be low even if there’s lots of work to do.
“We’ll have some good performances on the track,” Marks insisted, “and I think that there’s a lot of potential with the bike and we’ve got good riders. But because it’s so new, there's so much unknown.
“It’s a new relationship with Aprilia, all the mechanics on the team and [team manager] Wilco [Zeelenberg] are working with us for the first time, we’re learning the paddock for the first time.
"All these unknowns and building a team from scratch means it’s very difficult to say ‘OK guys, we need one bike in the top 10’.
“My goals for 2024 are to develop the relationship with Aprilia, develop the relationship with [Aprilia owner] Piaggio Group, to understand what’s important to Aprilia, what direction they’re going in with the development of their bike for the next couple of years.
“To get to know everyone on the team and learn how we extract the best possible performance from everyone, not just the riders. The mechanics, the crew chiefs, everyone.
“To get everyone to know me and understand what the vision is. To get our process right, to make sure that data-sharing is right and that the way we operate as a team is efficient and productive. If we focus on those things, I kind of hope that the results will start to take care of themselves.
“If we keep Raul and Miguel motivated and happy and supported, if you invest in those kinds of things, then the results tend to start presenting themselves. But I don’t know and I can’t have any expectations on the track because all that other stuff that I’ve just said is going to be so much work.
“It’s going to be fun to get to Sundays and Saturdays and just sit back and see what our guys have got.”