Winner of the 1990 West German 250GP as a rider, Zeelenberg’s first major success as a team manager came when Cal Crutchlow won the 2009 World Supersport title for Yamaha.

Zeelenberg then moved to MotoGP the following season, remaining in the factory Yamaha team alongside Jorge Lorenzo and then Maverick Vinales until joining the newly formed Petronas SRT project in 2019.

The Malaysian team scored six wins with Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli and finished 2020 title runner-up before Petronas pulled the plug on funding at the end of 2021.

RNF was formed out of SRT’s ashes, operating on a shaky one-year Yamaha deal. Rather than renew for 2023, Razlan Razali signed a longer-term agreement with Aprilia, the surprise of this season with one win, eight podiums and a title challenge.

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Completing the fresh start are two new riders, Miguel Oliveira and Raul Fernandez, both arriving from KTM, who got their first taste of RNF and Aprilia at the Valencia test.

“It's not so easy, changing [manufacturer] from one day to the other,” Zeelenberg said. "It took months to prepare for those six hours.

“Basically Sunday [Valencia race] was a Yamaha day so we put everything outside, to close the doors and stop the relationship in a good way, giving back the laptops and all the data.

“Then we started fresh with material from Aprilia on the Monday morning. We had only two bikes, but Aprilia prepared those bikes very well for us.

“Each rider also had two extra mechanics from the test team, just to help also our mechanics, because before they were Yamaha mechanics so if something happens it's nice to have the [Aprilia] boys that have been building the bike there.

“But next year we will also have two mechanics more than we had with Yamaha. One of them is an Aprilia mechanic and the other from Suzuki.”

Quizzed on his first impressions of the difference between working with Yamaha and Aprilia, Zeelenberg said:

“Communication-wise it’s a bit easier [with Aprilia]… Not just talking [language]. But also sometimes [with Yamaha] you would misunderstand each other. It's just a big difference in culture with the Japanese and that will never change.

“And with Italians, it’s clearly directly about racing. ‘How do you want to have it, like this? OK, change’. Quicker actions and understanding it's a championship at stake and it's directly about performance.”

'Pace is there to perform', important for Aprilia to understand other bikes

RNF’s first day as an Aprilia team ended with Oliveira an impressive fourth fastest at the Valencia test and Fernandez 1.3s from the top in 21st.

“I would say the pace is there to perform, but of course not everything is already exactly how we want,” Zeelenberg said.

Among those eager to hear the feedback of the new RNF riders was Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola, present in the RNF pit box.

“Riders remember things from their old bike for 3-4 days, then basically you forget everything about the old bike!” Zeelenberg smiled.

“So I think [for Aprilia] to have fresh riders coming from another manufacturer, it's very important to understand where other bikes are better or worse than the Aprilia - is it electronics? Is it acceleration? Is it wheelie? - and he [Rivola] was very keen on that.”

‘No more A, B and C spec’

During the Yamaha years, when Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli won six races, SRT received factory-spec M1s for one rider and A-spec bikes for the other.

Both RNF riders will use year-old Aprilias in 2023, but Zeelenberg doesn’t expect a big difference in performance.

“Okay, you can maybe play a little bit with RPM or whatever to make the bike safer [more milage]. But you don't have an A, B and C [engine] spec anymore,” Zeelenberg said. “It's all about electronics, aerodynamics and tyre wear.”

Having a satellite MotoGP team is a new experience for Aprilia, might the factory use RNF to help race-develop new parts in the way that Ducati often does with Pramac?

“No, not as ‘test riders’ anyway, because both boys [Oliveira and Fernandez] are too ambitious to do that,” Zeelenberg said.

“With Cal [Crutchlow, who finished the 2022 season at RNF] I have to say, yeah he was trying things that were requested by Yamaha and he's a retired rider so he agreed. No problem at all.

“But I don't see us doing crazy things next year, that is a little bit out of the line. But of course, with four riders it gives you much more flexibility [to test different tyres and set-ups].”

RNF’s next test will be at Sepang in Malaysia next February.