A “proud” Pol Espargaro believes Sunday’s astonishing sixth place at the French Grand Prix “100 percent” surpasses his achievements at Valencia last year, when he and KTM scored their debut podium in the MotoGP class.

Espargaro was in inspired form as he took the RC16 inside the top six, finishing a remarkable 5.9 seconds back of race winner Marc Marquez in what was comfortably KTM’s finest dry weather showing since it joined the premier class in 2017.

The Catalan’s performance also caused some head scratching on the opposite side of the garage. Johann Zarco, the outright lap record holder at Le Mans, was 13th and 27 seconds behind his team-mate, showing a good deal of this result was down to Espargaro’s riding style and tenacity.

“It’s simply a stunning result and almost unbelievable after less than two and a half years,” said Espargaro. “What we are achieving…who says that the tubes and WP doesn't work?! We are showing that we are on the way. It is unbelievable and I am so proud of this project.

“For sure the podium [at Valencia last year] gave us a lot of good feelings and good spirit to keep on working but what we have achieved today is unbelievable. There were no crashes in front. We cannot say this was an unfair result.

“We are there because we were fifth, and we were there during the whole race. The competition is so high here with the best riders in the world and we are just five seconds from HRC.

“It is amazing and for sure gives us wings to keep working and be better in the next races to keep fighting for the top ten.”

An extra day of testing at Jerez last Wednesday provided Espargaro with the chance to test a variety of new items, including different engine configurations and a carbon swingarm, which he raced here.

Those components, coupled with the Le Mans layout suiting his aggressive, heavy braking riding style, contributed to this finish, which surpassed Assen, 2018 (15 seconds) in terms of proximity to the race winner.

“I think this track is good for me and my riding style and also for the bike because it is stop and go and dipping with the brakes and on the limit. Together with the improvements we got after the test in Jerez…I think it is a mix of things here.

“To be five seconds away from an HRC Honda means we are doing a lot of things well and we put them together. I’m riding good but I’ve been similar in other races and we haven’t been as close as we were today.

“So the steps we are making with the bike are important and big. We must keep working because the progression is nice and we need to keep it up.

“Just pushing the limit from the first corner until the last. I know that I don't have many opportunities to do what I do today and for sure you need to risk every single braking.

“I’m trying to take the biggest [strong] point of the bike which is braking and I am taking it to the limit and the maximum. Maybe in one you can be falling down and crashing – and I had my moments during the race when I was close! – but it was good.

“I could maintain my pace and do my lap-times, even if I had my moments. I just feel so proud of where we have come from and where we are."

On whether he feared the group, containing Franco Morbidelli, Fabio Quartararo and Cal Crutchlow, behind would ever catch and overtake him, Espargaro added, “When I was doing 2.9, 2.8 I felt I couldn't continue with that because I was on the limit and especially in the first corner because I had big locks at 300Ks per hour.

“I also had some arm-pump from moving the bikes from one side to the other. I was simply on the limit but I could do it, and that meant the bike could, so I continued.

“I also had a Morbidelli wheel mark on my ass! I’ve been hit three times! Franco was fast and trying to overtake but I was defending my position because I think I was faster than him.

“Our stop-and-go in was faster than Yamahas and also in some corners our acceleration was better because out corner speed was less, they were catching me in Turn7 and the only way to overtake me was through corner speed in the corner so that's why they were all going inside like crazy!

“I was trying to lock it because I was faster than them. When you have strong points on the bike then you can fight. If you don’t have them then they just go. It is a matter of locking the doors and taking profit of the advantages of the bike.”

On the bike changes made since Jerez, Espargaro revealed, “The changes we have made on the bike are big and interesting. We have the carbon swingarm and the engine configuration change.

“It is helping a lot but also giving me a different feeling because I can push more on the limit. I can reach things that in Jerez I couldn't. By finding the limits we are taking profit of the strong parts of the bike and this makes me faster because I love those strong points!

“I had so much fun today and was on the limit from start to the end and it was amazing to see we were catching Vale in some places and Petrucci needed to hit me to overtake me. This makes me feel really proud.”

 

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