Aleix Espargaro believes a raft of machine upgrades has carried Aprilia closer than ever to rivals Honda and Yamaha, after ending Friday’s free practice ninth at the demanding Brno circuit.

In spite of the searing summer heat, there was no rest in Noale over the month of July as Aprilia engineers sought to maintain the momentum built up over the previous four races, where, for one reason or another, the RS-GP’s impressive potential was very much unfulfilled.

As a result, Espargaro had a new engine, airbox, exhaust and seamless gearbox to test on Friday, along with the different Michelin tyre compounds for the weekend. It doesn’t end there. Aprilia has also brought a new swing arm for the 27-year old to sample in the coming days.

The Catalan was full of praise for the factory engineers that strove to ensure this was ready for the tenth grand prix of the season. The changes were “mostly positive” too, with Espargaro noting how these “small steps” helped the RS-GP gain ground on the rivals it is hoping to match.

“[Today was] Mostly positive,” he said. “Difficult to compare with the old engine, because after four weeks just riding bicycles and this morning, riding in the wet, so it's difficult to compare the new engine with the old one.

“But overall it looks a bit better, smoother everywhere and a little bit more powerful. The exhaust, airbox, we had also the new seamless, we have a completely new swingarm to try, many, many things.

“First of all to say thanks to Aprilia, because they told me that the engineers had no rest, six days in total, working all July to make the RS-GP a more competitive bike. So really proud of the job they did, and now it's my time to put the bike in the top.

“Overall what I'm asking for is to improve the engine. Looks like we made a small step, obviously we are still far from the Ducati, but from the other bikes, we are very, very close. We have to remember that I'm a really tall rider, so it's not easy for them. If some small riders come and ride this bike, the speed will be even better.

“So this is the first thing, and the second one is to make the bike a little bit lighter. This is something we still have to work on the second part of the season, it's one of the goals for the engineers. But just the first year with them, just six or seven months and we are really competitive.”

Asked for his impression of Friday’s two free practice sessions, Espargaro continued: “Good. It's not a track I really like a lot, but normally I'm quite fast. Last year I was fourth on the grid and in the race I was fourth or fifth and then I broke the engine.

“So this year, I tried to do the same. In the wet I was quite competitive this morning, in the dry also I think two or three tenths off P2, which is not bad. Overall conclusion is good.

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“Tomorrow will change a lot, because today's grip was really poor after the rain, so everything will change tomorrow.”

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