Things haven’t been easy for the quartet of Aprilia MotoGP riders this season, with punishing crashes and a lack of performance leaving them far from the level a manufacturer that was a 2022 title contender expected to come into 2023 with.
But things have looked worst for one of the four of late – to the extent that Maverick Vinales has largely disappeared both on and off the track.
It’s not been an easy year to ride an Aprilia full stop. Team leader Aleix Espargaro – Vinales’ factory team-mate – has been up front and honest about the level of the bike, conceding that while it’s one of a multitude of factories that has managed to improve, it’s been left behind by the might of Ducati.
Espargaro is also carrying a nasty (if somewhat self-inflicted) injury, sustained when he crashed his bicycle while texting, adding a series of broken bones to the other medical issues suffered by Aprilia’s new-for-2023 satellite line-up at RNF.
Raul Fernandez has yet to even come close to living up to his potential, a situation complicated by the extensive arm pump surgery he needed a few rounds ago, while Miguel Oliveira might be the unluckiest rider on the grid, having twice suffered significant injuries when wiped out by Marc Marquez and Fabio Quartararo.
In fact, there’s only one Aprilia rider who so far hasn’t been impacted by injury, and it can’t be a coincidence that Vinales is also its best performer of the season so far in terms of race results – recording the only Aprilia podium of the year so far at the opening round at Portimao and backing it up with fourth at the Circuit of the Americas.
Yet since that Texas race in April, four rounds ago, Vinales has seemingly all but disappeared from sight and is on a run of form that brings worrying flashbacks to his high-profile departure from Yamaha halfway through the 2021 season.
He has scored only seven points across the four most recent rounds (and zero at the Sachsenring last weekend thanks to first a crash in the sprint and then an engine failure in the main race), which means that even the injured Espargaro has been able to overhaul him in the standings despite having a broken heel and two cracked ribs at the last two rounds.
It isn’t just on track where Vinales has disappeared, either, having failed to attend not just his post-race media debrief session at Mugello (where he scored only four points in two races) but also every single one of his scheduled daily sessions at the Sachsenring a weekend later.
And in that behaviour there should be some worrying warning flags for Aprilia.
We know from past experience not just during his time in MotoGP with Yamaha but throughout his career that Vinales is a rider who needs things to be just right inside the team – and that when they’re not, the whole thing can unravel very quickly.
There was a rapid fall from grace for Vinales at Yamaha over the course of only a handful of races in 2021, when he went from being on the podium at Assen in round eight to attempting to blow up the bike during round 10 at the Red Bull Ring in a bid to be released from his contract.
Surely this history has to be causing some concern within the Aprilia camp right now.
Luckily, it has one trump card to play that hopefully allows it to keep a lid on the situation: the presence of veteran team boss Massimo Rivola.
The former sporting director of Ferrari’s Formula 1 team has proven himself in the past to be adept at managing these sorts of situations, which is a welcome change from the Aprilia team leadership of the past, where changing riders every single year was part and parcel of its meat grinder of talent.
But all the while the no-shows continue on and off the track, it’s a worrying sign that the Vinales of old isn’t far off making a appearance.