Something very remarkable has happened in 2022. Seemingly almost overnight Aprilia, the MotoGP grid’s poor relation, has cast aside its ragged reputation to emerge as a leading light.
It started with an out-of-the-blue victory at the third round in Argentina. Three months later, as the circus broke up for the longest-ever summer break with eleven of 20 rounds completed, rider Aleix Espargaro was lying second overall, the strongest challenger to defending champion Fabio Quartararo, just 21 points behind. This after several revelatory results that brought the rider also out of the shadows.
Espargaro, now 33, took that first win at his 200th attempt in the premier class. He had never won in 84 starts in the smaller classes, either, since his debut in 2004. The elder of two brothers from Granollers, within earshot of the circuit of Barcelona-Catalunya, was the very embodiment of a career also-ran.
Aprilia and Espargaro have come out of the shadows side by side. Perhaps the rider has always been that good, but never had the right equipment (a comment that could apply to any number of others scrambling on the scree that guards the upper slopes). The bike, however, was for several years manifestly inferior.
The team, based in Noale, Venice, has been making motorcycles for as long as Ducati, although until relatively recently operating at the lower and less glamorous end of the market with smaller-capacity bikes. Its racing history in the smaller classes is impressive: but when it joined the new four-stroke MotoGP class in 2002 it relied on F1 technology from Cosworth. Its three-cylinder “Cube” was blindingly fast (the first bike to top 200mph) and deafeningly raucous, but so wayward that it was far from competitive. It was canned after 2004.
Aprilia withdrew to concentrate on the smaller classes, where it achieved such superiority that Dorna was moved to change the rules, replacing two-strokes with four-strokes, to break the company’s stifling stronghold.
Much was thanks to the genius of engineer Gigi Dall’Igna, and he presided over subsequent success in World Superbikes and in the short-lived MotoGP sub-category of production-based CRT bikes. But in 2013 he was poached by Ducati, where his innovations brought the Desmosedici out of the doldrums to become a class-leading pioneer in areas ranging from aerodynamics to “shape-shifting” suspension.
Two years later, Aprilia rejoined MotoGP, encouraged by the adoption of levelling-up regulations offering special concessions (including extra engines and testing opportunities) to new entrants. The new bike was a V4, with a 72-degree included angle that echoed its street bikes and racing Superbike. But Aprilia struggled for three years, short of experienced manpower and unable to afford high-level riders. When Espargaro joined in 2017 he was a reject from the factory Suzuki team. The most crippling factor, evidently, was that technical mastermind Romano Albesiano was also tasked with overall team management. It spread him thin. This cycle was broken for 2018, when Massimo Rivola was hired fresh from Formula 1 to run the team. This freed Albesiano to concentrate on engineering.
The next big step was a major engine redesign in 2020. Aprilia switched to the class-standard 90-degree V4, like KTM, Honda and Ducati. Although less compact, it offers better primary balance and most importantly more space for the fuel injection paraphernalia and airbox. A new chassis came too, to fit the different engine.
Espargaro and erstwhile team-mate Bradley Smith still had to wait. The last item on the list was reliability. For the first season, revs were restricted, and likewise performance. For 2021, the bike was closer. Reliability was improved, in spite of a boost in revs and horsepower. Faithful jockey Espargaro finished 13 out of 18 races. More significant were his results. He achieved the company’s first four-stroke podium at Silverstone, while every other finish was in the top ten. In super-close new-style MotoGP, that spoke volumes. But Aprilia was still a lowly “concession team”: other newcomers Suzuki and KTM had achieved the strong results that meant promotion.
So even if it wasn’t exactly overnight, that first win in Argentina was a surprise. Soon to follow, a change in status. Three races later two more podium finishes had earned the points for Aprilia also to lose the “concession-team” stigma, although the most important privilege – free engine development while other teams have designs frozen – remained for the rest of 2022.
Aprilia’s new position makes the bike much more attractive to high-level riders. It had already picked up former Moto3 World Champion Maveric Vinales, whose time on the factory Yamaha had come to an acrimonious end. For 2024, Aprilia have also gained Yamaha’s disillusioned Malaysian-backed RNF team, and will field four rather than two riders.
Success breeds success. And there may be more. One or two hiccups for Fabio Quartararo would mean a real chance of the championship for former underdog Aleix Espargaro.