After last year's false dawn, will 2021 finally be the season that sees Aprilia's fighting at the front in MotoGP?

For lead rider Aleix Espargaro the answer, based on a private test at Jerez and then third overall at the first Official Qatar Test, was an emphatic yes.

"The problem is that I say this every season, but yes," Espargaro said. "And from the bottom of my heart, I think that we deserve it. We deserve a good year. We deserve to do maybe not the final step, but we deserve to fight with the best bikes, with the best riders on the grid.

"We struggled a little bit last season, but sincerely this year the bike looks better. After two days and very, very good lap times from everybody, we can say that we are in a good shape."

Espargaro made the perfect start to 2021 by putting the heavily updated RS-GP, which took a best race result of eighth last season, on top of the timesheets on the opening day in Qatar.

The Spaniard then backed it up by featuring at the front again on day two, eventually finishing a close third behind Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha) and Jack Miller (Ducati).

But as well as impressive one-lap pace, Espargaro was one of the few to put in a race simulation, during which his lap time dropped by just 0.3s at the end of 20 laps around the Losail circuit, at the same time of night as the March 28 race.

"After the test at Jerez and then two days here in Qatar, I can dream. Why not? It's early, but at least we deserve to dream because this bike works good. We have no problems for the moment. We are competitive," he said.

"But it’s not luck. They worked very hard during the last year and during this winter in Noale. A lot of people. The project is growing. So yes, I’m very optimistic. I think we can dream because we are getting closer to the top bikes.

"Today we proved it on the track, not just one lap – many, many laps fighting with the best bikes of the world. Today there have been a lot of crashes. For the moment, the stability of the bike allowed me to ride with no risk, so I’m very positive.

"With the allocation from Michelin, we don’t have any more the soft tyre of last year. The softer option now is the medium of last year. After just two days, we did '53-'54 low. So we have been very, very fast.

"In lap times we proved that we can fight with the best, and also regarding the pace, the race simulation, if I’m not the fastest one, then almost. So yes, looks like we are doing good steps. Looks like we can have fun this year, because not just here, also in Jerez [private test] we’ve been very competitive.

"Again, I don't want to be extremely happy because last year I was also very happy and then I had a big shock with the reality when we arrived in Jerez race, but I’m very motivated.

"I want to say again, we deserve everybody here and everybody in Noale, we deserve to have a good season. We deserve to fight with the best."

The worry for Aprilia will be that last year's all-new machine, including an engine V-angle changed from 70 to 90 degrees, also performed well in the winter but ultimately fell short when racing began and failed to beat the factory's previous best of sixth place.

Espargaro emphasised that the speed shown so far by this year's bike is step above even the impressive pre-season form of the 2020 machine.

"Obviously last year, yes, I was happy. Yes, we did a good winter test, but we were in the mix finish in sixth to tenth place, which we did in the last part of the season but unfortunately we couldn’t find the balance all season to fight for sixth to tenth place," he explained.

"But this is another story. This test and also in Jerez the lap times we are doing are a lot more competitive than last year. We were leading the timesheets almost all day yesterday and almost all day today.

"And regarding the race simulation I did also many laps in '54. So yes, this bike looks better than last season. The races will be different, but I think it's much better than last season."

'Stability and Acceleration'

Aprilia and KTM are the only MotoGP manufacturers able to revise their entire bike for the start of 2021 season, due to the Concessions rules, the others being forced to run last year's engine designs under the Covid technical freeze.

A lack of acceleration was considered the weakest point of last year's Aprilia and steps taken over the winter have paid off.

"One of the things we improved the most is the stability and the acceleration, but not [just] because the engine," Espargaro said. "It's a combination of things that allows me to accelerate a lot better than last season.

"The engine is smoother. We added a lot more downforce, so we are wheeling less. The stability is higher. So I’m happy about the acceleration."

The 31-year-old, who had been classified 13th fastest at last year's Qatar test, added: "A lot of small details make the [new] bike super different.

"The downforce is a lot higher. So we improved a lot in acceleration. The new engine is a little bit more smooth in the bottom part. So it allows me to use higher power maps. Also with the help of the aerodynamics, I can accelerate a lot better than last year. But unfortunately we lose a little bit of top speed. So we have to find the balance [between downforce and drag].

"Also regarding the chassis and the seat position, I like it more. I feel more inside of the bike, but the bike is a lot more 'heavy'. Sincerely, I’m exhausted physically. It’s the first time with Aprilia that I finish exhausted after a race simulation because the bike stability is a lot higher than 2020. Super heavy.

"So sincerely we still have to find a balance that allows me to have a little bit more agility and hopefully in the next three days [test] we can try different solutions."

Espargaro confirmed he wasn't talking about the total weight of the bike, which is actually under the minimum weight and fitted with ballast, but the effort required to change direction due to the increased stability.

"One of the best things of the RS-GP ’21 is the weight. I was pushing Romano [Albesiano, technical director] from three years ago to be not in the limit of the weight, but under the limit, to be able to move some weight around and change the balance during the season.

" This year they did a great job. When I arrived after Christmas to Noale and I saw the bike and they told me the weight, I was very, very happy. You can feel it when you have almost nothing in the fuel tank, to stop the bike and to accelerate. You can feel that the bike is the lightest ever. This is very, very good.

"But when I say that it’s more heavy, it’s more about the stability and the downforce of the bike, to move the bike and to play with."

At the recent team presentation, Albesiano revealed that considerable effort had been put into the design of the seat unit, which Aprilia believe can be a major cause of performance-sapping chatter [vibrations]. This would also explain the position of Ducati's rumoured mass damper ('salad box') in the rear seat unit.

"Yeah. The first thing is that we have no chatter. In Jerez, a circuit that typically you can have a little bit of chatter, and also here in corners five and six, today we tried one run with just four kilos and I had no chattering. So the seat changed quite a lot the feeling," Espargaro said.

"It’s more rigid, so it allows me also to push more and move more the bike, but all the changes we did go in the same direction – rigidity, stiffness, and stability.

"It’s welcome because one of the best bikes of the world for me is the Yamaha and I think it's the more stable bike. We are going a little bit in this direction regarding the chassis, and I’m happy about it.

"But it’s very heavy now to move, so I will have to maybe train a little bit more my muscles or try different solutions."

Espargaro's rookie team-mate Lorenzo Savadori was 17th fastest out of the 29 bikes.

Aprilia are currently without a test rider, but hoping to confirm an agreement for Bradley Smith to continue in the role.

Meanwhile, rumours suggest the factory is also again in contact with Andrea Dovizioso. The triple title runner-up turned down the race seat for this season and is currently out of work, but might the impressive Qatar form tempt Dovi into thinking again, at least as far as testing the RS-GP?

The second and final Qatar test takes place from March 10-12.

Aleix Espargaro's 2021 Qatar Test Race Simulation:

(Espargaro's best 'time attack' lap of the test = 1'54.152s. The official Qatar race lap record = 1'54.927s)

  1. 1'55.599
  2. 1'54.978
  3. 1'55.299
  4. 1'58.373
  5. 1'55.273
  6. 1'55.180
  7. 1'55.257
  8. 1'54.929
  9. 1'55.124
  10. 1'55.097
  11. 1'55.446
  12. 1'55.247
  13. 1'55.265
  14. 1'55.509
  15. 1'55.543
  16. 1'55.529
  17. 1'55.783
  18. 1'55.735
  19. 1'55.733
  20. 1'55.934


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