Needing to beat Francesco Bagnaia by at least three points at Sepang this weekend just to stay in the title fight, a crestfallen Espargaro managed just five laps in opening practice after problems with both his RS-GPs.

“A difficult beginning to the most important weekend of the season so far,” he said. “I had a big problem with the clutch in bike one. I stopped after one lap, then I restarted and crashed immediately because of this problem.

“Then with the second bike I did just one out-lap and then I had an alarm on the dash and had to stop. It was related to the engine, but I cannot really comment anymore.

“I couldn't continue with that bike [due to] the engine, so I watched the session from my garage!

“Then in the afternoon it rained so… difficult to say something about today.”

Suzuki bike in the bin, WHAT A WASTE! | Malaysian MotoGP 2022

‘It seems for journalists and Aprilia I was too critical’

Asked how frustrating the Friday situation was, given his recent 'critical' comments about how the team must eradicate such mistakes to fight for the MotoGP title, Espargaro said:

“I was a little bit critical with our performance in general, with the team performance, at the last races. And looks like for the journalists and for Aprilia I was too critical.

“Today you can analyse my Free Practice 1, it is how it is, the results [problems] are there.

“We are in the second part of the championship. We are not at the level that we've been in the first part and I can’t do anything else.

“I really believe in this team and I really believe that next year we can fight again for the title if we do the same things we did in the first part of the championship, without any doubt.

“Actually if I did more or less similar [results] from the first part of the championship, I would be leading now. So hopefully we can learn from this.”

Quizzed on why he thinks there has been such a downturn in points, the Spaniard replied cryptically:

“I know perfectly. It's the third year that we've had these problems actually, with both riders slower in the second part of the championship, but it's something that we have to discuss internally.”

Declining to explain exactly what he believes the issue is, Espargaro revealed that it’s not “super difficult to fix” and “can also be” related to bike development during the season.

“During the season, if you analyse also the top speed from beginning until now, I can't overtake nobody in the straight [now]. And in the beginning of the season, the Aprilia was very fast and overtook in the straight quite easy…”

‘Next year we'll be even better’

Espargaro, who like team-mate Maverick Vinales has signed to remain at Aprilia for the next two seasons, insists this year won’t be a one-off MotoGP title challenge and that 2023 can be ‘even better’.

“Aprilia learned a lot this year, how to manage the pressure of being in the top of the championship. They bring a super competitive bike. Also, me as a rider, I learned a lot how to ride with pressure, to fight for the podium, for the victories, for pole positions," he said.

“So I have the feeling that next year will not be the same, but even better. 100% sure.

“But for me it's important to be more constant. I didn't have the speed in the second part of the championship. We did many mistakes and I don't feel the bike as competitive as it was in the first part of the championship, when a lot of people were saying that the Aprilia was the best bike. And now it's not the worst one, but it's not the same.”

Espargaro added: “I'm very proud of what we achieved this year. The bike is completely in another level to all the other versions of the RS-GP. This bike is very competitive.

“But I feel that it's not enough to fight for the title, even if we are almost in the end of the season and we have still some possibilities. But for sure we will learn about this. I'm really convinced 100% that next year will be better than this.”

Honesty the best policy

“I think the team love me because I'm really honest, just like when I’ve said to them, ‘congratulations, the bike is fantastic’," Espargaro said of his straight-talking nature.

“I remember back in 2021 here in Malaysia, when I tried the bike two years ago, the big revolution, I was crying when I came in the pits. Because I felt it from the bottom of my heart.

“But when I'm critical with them it’s because I want to push them more because I feel they are able to do better. We are not at the level of the last races.”

Espargaro went on to finish 21st in the damp FP2 session and, like Bagnaia (11th), must now hope for dry weather in FP3 to have a chance of breaking into the top ten for direct access to Qualifying 2.

Team-mate Maverick Vinales also had a difficult start to the weekend with 19th in FP1, then took sixth in FP2.