The departure of Cal Crutchlow (35), Andrea Dovizioso (34) and Tito Rabat (31) means Aleix Espargaro now becomes the second-oldest rider on the MotoGP grid, after Valentino Rossi.

At 31, the Spaniard is ten years younger than Rossi, but the only other riders over 30 at the scheduled 2021 season-opener in Qatar will be Johann Zarco and Danilo Petrucci, plus Bradley Smith, if he gets the second Aprilia race seat alongside Espargaro.

"The old guys always say 'I feel better than ever in my career!' But in my case, I really feel like this," Espargaro smiled. "I'm more in shape than ever, I'm lighter than ever, I've never been in 64-65kgs like I am now.

"I feel very strong because I changed a little bit my diet and also my training method in the last 2-3 years. So I feel very good.

"I have to say also that now I have my dream family it's difficult for me to be far from them, especially in a calendar like [2020]. This was the most difficult thing for me. But I feel very good with the Aprilia people because I've known them for a long time so they are like my family.

"I feel strong, and I think I'm proving that I'm still a very fast rider."

Aprilia's highest-ranked rider since joining the factory in 2017, Espargaro admitted he had been happy spending time at home with his family in Andorra during the lockdown and was prepared to accept retirement had no suitable 2021 offers been forthcoming.

"But after the pre-season test in Malaysia I had felt very good with the new bike. Then during the lockdown, Aprilia offered me a very good contract and I decided to stay to prove that we can put the bike in the top," Espargaro said.

That mission was not accomplished in 2020, but Espargaro now has two more years to finally show Aprilia can compete at the front in MotoGP.

While the heavily-revised 2020 RS-GP had been impressive in testing, the Covid pandemic prompted an unexpected technical freeze that - for Aprilia - meant changes to engine design were now banned during the season.

That meant the factory's planned program of updates was lost, as well as the chance to directly address any reliability issues, which duly emerged during testing on the eve of the delayed opening round at Jerez.

Espargaro saved his best for last with eighth place in the Portimao finale, but four earlier DNFs left him just 17th overall in the world championship.

"I enjoyed riding the bike here," Espargaro said at Portimao, after finishing in the middle of a big group fighting over fourth. "When I said this year that Aprilia is growing and I felt strong, I wanted to prove it in races like this. So I'm satisfied and at the same time angry because I expected all season to be like today.

"Sincerely, I'm very angry about this season. Because we never proved that the bike is close to the top bikes. And there is still a lot of work to do, but the pace we did [at Portimao] you cannot do if the bike is not good.

"It's still the 'worst' bike of the grid but by nothing. We are very close, so I think [2021] is crucial for us."

Aprilia missing acceleration, traction

The good news for Espargaro and Aprilia is that, as the special technical freeze begins to thaw, engine design modifications will be allowed for the RS-GP during 2021.

Espargaro feels engine performance, 'especially in the acceleration phase' is the main area that needs improving, although an updated aerodynamics package should also contribute to corner-exit form.

"It's clear that the 2020 RS-GP had more performance than the old spec," Espargaro said. "I felt better. I think the balance of the bike improved a lot and the consistency we showed in every circuit; we showed that we are a little bit faster and a little bit closer.

"For sure it's not enough to fight where we want to fight, but the 2020 bike was better and what I miss is power, especially in the acceleration phase, and also we have to improve the traction a little bit.

"So I have a lot of hopes on the new bike, because the 2020 bike was much better than the others, so if we continue to grow again 2021 can be very good for us."

Espargaro: From CRT to Factory in MotoGP

Espargaro made his grand prix debut as a wild-card in the 125cc class back in 2004, progressing to the 250cc class midway through 2006. Despite taking what was then his best grand prix finish of fifth in the penultimate round of 2008, Espargaro was without a full-time ride in 2009 when the Campetella team withdrew.

What could have been the end of his world championship career instead proved an unexpected opportunity, first as a stand-in at the Balatonring Team, where he finished fourth and a whisker from Marco Simoncelli and a podium on his Assen debut.

But the pivotal moment came when Espargaro was offered a MotoGP debut with Pramac Ducati at Indianapolis, riding in place of Mika Kallio, who had been called-up to the factory team to substitute for Casey Stoner.

Espargaro scored points in both Pramac appearances, most notably eleventh place at Misano, a result he then matched when called-up again at the end of the season when Kallio's team-mate Niccolo Canepa was injured.

Those performances saw the Spaniard rewarded with a full-time Pramac Ducati ride for 2010, where he finished 14th in the world championship with a best finish of eighth and comfortably ahead of team-mate Kallio.

Espargaro switched back to Moto2 for 2011, signing for the Pons team and finally claiming a first grand prix rostrum. However, the hoped-for title challenge didn't materialise and Espargaro returned to the premier-class, where he was the top CRT rider for Aspar in 2012 and 2013.

A switch to Forward Racing gave Espargaro access to a more competitive Open-class Yamaha and he celebrated his only premier-class podium to date with second place at Aragon.

The CRT/Open heroics also put Espargaro on Suzuki's radar for its 2015 return, where he was signed as the experienced hand alongside rookie Maverick Vinales.

A best finish of fourth and eleventh in the world championship wasn't enough to keep the GSX- RR seat during the next round of contracts and he instead switched to Aprilia, where he has raced ever since, matching the factory's best MotoGP-era result of sixth place on three occasions.

 

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