Surely one of the more significant signings of the off-season outside the rider market came in the north east of Italy. 2018 wasn’t a happy season for Aprilia as its MotoGP project failed to build on the promise of the year before.

Enter Massimo Rivola, an Italian with an extensive history in the Formula1 paddock. As the newly appointed CEO of Aprilia Racing, the 47-year assumes responsibilities relating to “growing the company, [getting] more resources, more sponsors [and] more performance.” This in turn should free up technical chief Romano Albesiano to focus solely on the performance aspect of the RS-GP.

With Andrea Iannone arriving from Suzuki, Aprilia has a former MotoGP race winner in its ranks for the first time since 2015. Bradley Smith's early showings as rider in the newly formed test team has been well receieved, leading Aleix Espargaro to note how the current set-up “is definitely three times better than the 2017 or ‘18 team.”

A definite sense of optimism surrounds the Noale factory, then. caught up with Rivola, formerly Ferrari's Sporting Director, at the recent MotoGP test in Qatar to discuss this, his new role, what the premier class of motorcycle racing can learn from Formula1 and keeping expectations grounded for the year ahead.
What attracted you to work in MotoGP?

Massimo Rivola:
“Good question. First of all, passion for motorbikes. Obviously, passion for racing is part of my love, so it is not a change. Sometimes in your life you want to have a new challenge. I will tell you in the future if that was the right decision or not, but I feel it is because I always frequented the MotoGP paddock once or twice per year as a guest because I am a rider. I love the bikes. Anytime I used to go to the paddock I was sort of like, ‘Wow, [there is] such a nice atmosphere here,’ because the Formula1 paddock is a bit colder. Not many people. I feel in Europe in MotoGP [there are] too many people, I have to say. But a different atmosphere. So I thought, let’s say, it was the right train to take since the brand is a brand where I feel for it. I thought, “This is a very nice opportunity.” I don't want to think what I have now. I want to think how the challenge will be. So that is the main reason.”
Were motorcycles always a part of your life when you were growing up?

Massimo Rivola:
“Yeah. A bike in the garage. Even for the last ten years I almost never used any kind of bike, but I always had a great bike in the garage because it would make me feel happy. I’m even more happy if I ride the bike, but I have many arguments with my wife. [She says,] ‘Why you don’t sell it because you don’t use it?’ Never say never.”
Your official title is Aprilia Racing CEO. Can you explain what your job is essentially?

Massimo Rivola:
“I feel I have to learn the job quite a lot still, and understand my field and perimeter, really. Regarding the racing company, basically at the moment I’m trying to understand if what we have used is the most efficient way and if we are getting the best out of what we have. For sure, my target is to grow together with the company, to get more resources, to get more sponsors, to get more performance again. Then there is another part of the role that is more related to the production. It’s about knowing that the products are saying what they think and what I think Aprilia should do for the new motorbikes. This is also one of the reasons why I decided to change because my life used to be always racing, racing, racing. I thought it was also an opportunity to start dealing with the product.”
Can you tell us about how the team is a little different from last year? We know that for example Romano Albestiano has really taken a more technical-based role…

Massimo Rivola:
“Honestly, I was not there so it’s a bit difficult for me, but I can tell you that I see, and also from what I hear from my colleagues, is that the team has changed a lot in terms of organisation. I feel that 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. Even more considering that also Romano was involved in part of the production stuff in terms of the series. The fact that we have a test team for sure is a big opportunity, but we need to use the test team properly. So we need to push the company to design parts, we need the person to produce parts with the company to go testing, to do new stuff, not just to have a bike that is riding around the track. So we need to use it properly.

“There are two chief mechanic, technical capos [crew chiefs] we call them, that are with a huge experience. I think we can learn quite a lot from them. Personally for sure I can learn a lot from them. Because of that, having Romano dedicated to being the technical director of the company for sure will bring us performance. I started one month and a half ago, and I think already that his impact on the performance is already visible from the way the company is moving. So I am trying to make the jobs a bit clearer in the company, giving Romano more time for the performance. But performance means also organizing the test benches or whatever, anything that is technical really. His knowledge is quite… It goes from the chassis to the engine, and he knows the company quite well. So this is, I think, a big opportunity.”
Are the resources available in Aprilia’s race department to take on the test team?

Massimo Rivola:
“Luckily, we stopped the [World] Superbike program, because we need also those resources to fill the test team. So, the test team is in a sort of independent unit, almost. For sure the company is quite small. Our numbers are really nothing compared to our competitors. But still I think that if we get the best out of what we have, we can make it a bit better than what it was last year. Then we need to compete with the others and we need to generate more resources. That is an easy equation to make. If our electronics engineers are nine or ten and Ducati is 35, either we are geniuses or there’s something wrong with them.

“What I always say is that I’m quite sure that nobody could do such a good job with our resources, but I don't think we are now ready if you have those resources of the others to make such a good job that for example Ducati does. If there’s any change, a little bit of adapting to the situation [is necessary]. Even one person in the team, it’s a sort of potential problem. So you need to put the right person at the right time in the right position. Respecting the culture of this company – that is huge. Noale is a huge racing company. They know how to do a bike. We know how to do motorbike, for the road and for the track. This is something that I’m convinced.”
You have extensive experience in the Formula1 paddock. From your initial impressions here, what do you think MotoGP teams can learn from how Formula1 operates?

Massimo Rivola:
“The approach we have here is, I will say, much more focussed on the rider. In Formula1 we have the approach much more focussed on the car. So I think that for the rider, he has a much bigger impact in the performance than the driver in the car, the rider and the bike. If you think the driver is seated and [the impact of] his body is minimum. On the bike it’s a lot. Even the way he stays in the bike and he moves on the bike. So for sure there is something in-between that can help us. This means a lot of bike analysis. It means a lot of procedures how to move information. How to test information, how to cross the information.

“Obviously, in the Formula we used to have real time with radio, so things that speed up the process of the performance. Here, we don’t have but it doesn’t mean that as soon as the bike is back we cannot download data. I think this is another sort of small change of culture that we should do internally for us. I also think that top teams in MotoGP already work [like this]. But it means that you need to have more bike engineers or performance engineers or more connection to people at home. We come back to the resources.”
So it’s more about downloading and then analysing the data in a quick time during a race weekend, for example?

Massimo Rivola:
“It’s not just about that, but it’s also about how to use the information. It’s a cultural thing, really. We listen a lot to the rider here. We said in F1 we listen more to the car, if you understand what I mean.”
From what you’ve seen at Sepang and at this test are you ready to go racing?

Massimo Rivola:
“There is still a lot to do, but I feel we are ready. The good side is that the bike… I think we got better on our side compared to last year. This is the first target for sure. Obviously, we have our growth as well, and improved the performance. I think we reduced the gap. Still it’s a long way. But is a nice challenge.”
What’s your impression of your rider line-up for 2019? What do you think they are capable of?

Massimo Rivola:
“We have two really talented riders. I don't know what they are capable of. I am very keen to discover that. We have a very, very good test rider. I think Bradley can really bring a lot of performance, not just because of his attitude and his performance but also because he’s quite a smart guy and he knows the direction to take. This is something that I really care for, because I think considering that we have the opportunity to test, this is something that will help us really a lot. I think we will have also the concessions in the future because I don't think we will win a race or make three podiums.

“So I think we have to be with the feet on the ground and think about that if we do top ten with two bikes it’s a fantastic achievement. Obviously, our ambition is always to be there. You see the bike. It is beautiful. It must be fast. Then you think, okay, ‘Let’s fight for the podium. Then you see the stopwatch and you say, ‘Hmm… OK.’ But seeing yesterday, for example, obviously the lap time of yesterday [first day of testing in Qatar] means nothing. But I think P12, P13… I think if we are there with two bikes, it could be that some races or more often we are top ten. That is I think something achievable.

“Considering the level of our riders and the talent they have, I’m also sure that if they are close to the group that is fighting for top ten, they will find something special to be part of the game. If there is that half a second gap or more every lap that makes a different race compared to the top, then it’s part of a mental attitude that everyone has. If you train alone or with someone else, at the end when you train with someone else you want to have the challenge to try to beat them, even if we are not pushing. You need the carrot in front. At the end it’s like that. The rider is considering that they have such a big part in the performance, they will find something special. We really count on this.”
So essentially that’s the aim for the year, for both riders to be in the top ten consistently, possibly by the end of the year?

Massimo Rivola:
“Right. Consistently seems a bit ambitious because either the number of Hondas, the number of Ducatis, the number of Yamahas, and also the Suzuki tthat this year seems to be one of the best bikes, with Rins in particular - if you count the riders and the bikes, 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. When I joined the company, there was a sort of a… Last year was a real shitty season. 2017 was quite promising. Now I feel that we are coming back to that feeling they had in ’17. As I said, everything looks promising and we are ambitious, but still we are a small group. Quite strong and ambitious, and for sure we are not here to give up. They convinced me to change and take this challenge not to give up in two months. My plan is to do many years!”