Team: Aprilia Racing Team Gresini
Riders: Aleix Espargaro, Andrea Iannone
Test Rider: Bradley Smith
Bike: Aprilia RS-GP
Best placed rider, 2018: Aleix Espargaro, 17th
Best result, 2018: 6th, Aleix Espargaro
Best placed machine at tests: 10th (Valencia), 16th (Jerez), 7th (Sepang), 14th (Qatar)

Through a good deal of last year it was tough to shake off Aleix Espargaro’s words from the season before. “Now it's time to put everything on the table,” the Catalan said in September, 2017. “Aprilia has never been this close to Yamaha and Honda. We need to invest the maximum we can, in every sense.”

Going off the evidence on show in 2018, that particular rallying cry went unheeded. By mid-season it was apparent the ’18 RS-GP had regressed from its previous model. Espargaro was often exasperated at an inability to repeat his top-six feats of the year before. By November, Aprilia’s final position in the Constructor’s Championship (sixth from six manufacturers) didn’t make for pretty reading for management in Noale HQ.

It wasn’t just that. There was a sense of déjà-vu in how Scott Redding’s fortunes followed those of Stefan Bradl and Sam Lowes in 2016 and ‘17. His profanity-heavy outburst in Austria certainly fell short of the professional levels expected of a factory rider at this level. But it was the boiling over of frustrations that was an indication of the chaos playing out behind closed doors. “There are so many things that … in a team of this level should not be happening,” was one of the Englishman's more printable lines that stood out.

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Which led one to wonder: in its current guise, what does Aprilia realistically hope to achieve here? If the on-track successes of 2017 weren’t repeated, those persistent off-track issues and signs of intenal discord were never far away. Espargaro’s words had fallen on deaf ears.

But the offseason has seen some clear signs of forward thinking from within the Piaggio group. Firstly, it has pulled its involvement conclusively from a half-baked World Superbike entry to free up funds and manpower for a MotoGP assault. A much-needed test team has been set-up with two-time podium finisher Bradley Smith taking on responsibilities. While still maintaining his ability to baffle, Andrea Iannone is a signing of proven quality. The Noale factory now boasts of a MotoGP race winner in its ranks for the first time since 2015.

More pressing is the curious appointment of Massimo Rivola as the new CEO of Aprilia Racing. A figure with 21 years of experience in the Formula1 paddock, the Italian brings genuine elite-level experience to a role that should free up Technical Chief Romano Albesiano to focus on bike development.

Expectations have been reevaluated. Engineers have attempted to return the RS-GP to its characteristics of the 2017 model, and a sense of optimism abounds. One feels Aprilia is better equipped now than any previous year to make good on its hopes to push both riders toward consistent top tens.

‘Three times better than ’17…’

Rarely has one of MotoGP’s smaller players got by on a hope and a prayer. As 2016 and ’17 demonstrated, Albesiano is in possession of a sharp technical mind. Taking the RS-GP, for example, to the top ten by the close of ’16, after missing the first two tests of that year, was an achievement that often went overlooked. Organising the factory’s efforts and making riders feel loved were not his strong suit, however.

Not before time, this has been addressed. Think of the cut-throat world surrounding Maranello, and Rivola clearly wasn’t Ferrari’s longest ever serving Sporting Director by default. Charged with “growing the company, getting more resources … sponsors,” as well as “trying to make jobs a bit clearer in the company,” his changes are already being felt.

“What Romano did so far was a sort of… I don't want to say ‘miracle’, but he took care of so many aspects that for sure it was too much,” Rivola recently told Crash.net. With Albesiano focussing excusively on machine performance and production, he can now call upon the considerable expertise of two new crew-chiefs inside his garage with experience at this level. The appointments of Antonio Jiminez (Espargaro) and Fabrizio Cecchini (Iannone), former capo-tecnicos for Fausto Gresini’s MotoGP squad in its Honda days, have been well received by both riders.

Smith’s appointment isn’t just for show, either. Looking at all six factories, a test team with a proven premier class is now a requisite. This particular squad is packed with experience, too. The Englishman’s crew chief, for example, is Pietro Caprara, an engineer who worked with Espargaro and Andrea Dovizioso in the past. “We stopped the [World] Superbike program, because we need also those resources to fill the test team,” said Rivola. “So, [it’s] a sort of an independent unit, almost.”

The enthusiasm shown by Smith for the new role has already endeared him to Espargaro. “This team in Qatar is definitely three times better than the 2017 or ‘18 team,” said the Catalan. “The organisation, the staff, the approach, the bike… Everything is better and definitely we did a great improvement with the test team. We did many meetings with the test team guys and with Bradley, when Andrea and myself are saying to them what we would like him to try, he's super accessible. He's trying many things: race simulation; new parts…”

Then there is Rivola’s means of working. “In bikes your first rival is your team-mate,” noted Espargaro. “But it looks like in F1 it's not like this. They work in one piece. [Now] We’re doing more meetings together, everybody is trying to put their ideas at the same time.” And the new CEO feels there are lessons that can be learned from Formula1 – mainly how to rapidly process data and translate that successfully to settings. “A lot of procedures how to move information, how to test information, how to cross the information” can be implemented here, Rivola said.

Speaking to team personnel, there is greater purpose and greater motivation within the black garage that goes beyond the usual preseason optimism. Time will tell whether this restructuring translates to results.

Taking two steps back, one forward

To see Espargaro revert to the ’17 chassis for the last four races of 2018 was an acknowledgement of the bike’s deficiencies. Not just that. The ’18 RS-GP ultimately lacked its predecessor’s strengths: namely fantastic front-end stability, and a fine means of managing the rear tyre over a full race distance.

The ’19 RS-GP has the appearance of a modified ’17 machine. Having missed last November’s test at Jerez due to gastritis, Espargaro took an instant shine to his new bike at Sepang in early February. “Since I arrived I tried two seats, handlebars and I feel good,” he said in Malaysia. “I start to touch with both elbows and I didn’t all last season.” Then in Qatar: “I am one piece with the bike and myself. This is important.”

But a lack of acceleration persists: “The ’19 bike is super good in the first part of the corner but in the second part we lose a lot,” said Espargaro. “With a little more power I would be able to pick up the bike and have better drive. But it's also a combination with the electronics. I think that regarding the wheelie control and traction control, we have to improve. We are still far from our rivals.”

Albesiano gave a positive impression of the ’19 engine: “It looks good,” he said in Qatar. “We increased a lot the performance, and the stability of the performance of our engine. Looking at the top speed, it’s good. The performance in general, the acceleration, it looks OK.”

‘Still working on comfort’

It wouldn’t be like Iannone to cruise through a preseason without his personal life getting in the way. Taking Instagram at its word (not advisable, we know), MotoGP’s most colourful character lost none of his flair and ability to elicit open sniggers in recent months.

He arrived in Malaysia in early February with his face puffy and slightly out of kilter. Complaints of discomfort at fitting his helmet fuelled rumours cosmetic surgery, aimed at correcting his jawline over the winter months, was culpable for a painful mouth infection that forced the 29-year old to sit out the final day of testing – wasted time when one has the considerable task of adapting to a new machine.

That meant progress slowed. “He started with some problems,” said Albesiano. “He’s a little bit later and still working on his comfort on the bike. But despite this in the lap time he’s not so far. The potential he’s showing us is very, very good.”

Iannone is clearly still in thrall to a public image that sees his private life played out on the pages of glossy gossip magazines in the national press. Let’s reserve judgement, however as Albesiano has a point. The Italian hasn’t been a million miles away. Pace on the final day in Qatar was equal to his team-mate’s best efforts. And he was consistently quicker than all four KTMs.

“I improved, especially with the front,” he said after day one in the desert. “I braked more strong compared to Sepang, and used the lever with more angle, more pressure. The bike reduces the speed well. The feeling is not so bad. For me this was really the first test with normal conditions.

“I don’t want to compare bikes. But the Aprilia is more similar to the Ducati, not the Suzuki. The base of the bike is good for me. We don’t have one negative point. We need to improve all areas.”

Hopes?

Looking in from the outside, Aprilia personnel has expectations more grounded in reality this year. “I think if we are there with two bikes, it could be that some races or more often, we are top ten,” said Rivola. “That is I think something achievable.

“Consistently seems a bit ambitious because either the number of Hondas, the number of Ducatis, the number of Yamahas, and also the Suzuki, you understand that is quite a difficult challenge. But we are not here to be scared about that. We are here because we want to fight. I feel there is this kind of fighting spirit that is coming back.”

To read Crash.net’s full interview with Massimo Rivola click here.

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