Last year, Aprilia's bubble was somewhat burst when the radically redesigned RS-GP, after being impressive in early testing, was just 16th fastest on day one of the season-opening Spanish MotoGP.

It proved a sign of difficulties to come, with lead rider Aleix Espargaro finishing he season with a best race result of eighth, two places worse than the previous year's bike.

As such, Aprilia's feet have been kept firmly on the ground after another fast start to 2021 testing.

But this time the excellent form continued into the opening race weekend, with Espargaro a competitive eighth fastest, just 0.340s from the top, on day one of the Qatar Grand Prix.

While the final position might not sound impressive, the Spaniard was fastest for most of the second half of the session, said the speed had come even easier than at the test and that he would have gone quicker had he not caught traffic on his last lap.

"I'm very happy because this morning with a very hot conditions I managed to be very very fast and finished P2. And this afternoon I think I was the only one on the grid to manage to do four laps in 1m 53, which is quite impressive here in Qatar," Espargaro said.

"Unfortunately, a little bit angry because I found traffic with Nakagami and Martin with my last tyre because I was sure I was able to fight for the first place. It's just Friday, but you know riders and when you feel as good as I feel now, I want to use that occasion to fight for the top.

"Immediately I felt very comfortable today and I think this year – I don’t know how fast I will be, but I'm sure about one thing, I'm enjoying a lot with this bike. This is the most important. At 31 years old, to stay suffering a lot is very difficult for my psychology."

Aprilia is yet to break into the MotoGP top five during the four-stroke era, but Espargaro is increasingly confident he can be a podium contender on Sunday.

"I'm ready. I don’t know if it's good to say this but I think I'm riding super good the bike and today when everybody was in '54 still at the beginning of the session I did '53.7 which is very fast.

"So yes, I feel I'm ready to fight for the top but when you go in the race with a full fuel tank, consumption of the rear tyre, with a new bike there are many things to discover. We have to go step-by-step. But I think we are in a very good level.

"I'm curious to see how the bike is in the race, because the wings are completely different this year so I don’t know how it will affect when I'm behind another bike. I was completely alone today.

"We are not ready to win, that's clear, but the bike is much better."

While the final proof won't come until Sunday's race, Espargaro's consistently fast form on the RS-GP is only increasing the speculation surrounding Andrea Dovizioso's upcoming Aprilia test.

Rumours, so far officially denied, continue that further tests and perhaps even wild-cards are already under discussion with the out-of-work triple title runner-up.

"I talked to him [Dovi] and yesterday I texted him and made a joke that after all his career fighting with the Honda to follow the Aprilia two-stroke in the straight, now he has an Aprilia so he can be happy!'

"But about the future let's go step-by-step. For Aprilia it's unbelievable to sign a rider like Dovi to test the bike. So let's give him some space.

"I'm very curious to see his reaction because he's been riding the Ducati for a long time and I think the Ducati and Aprilia are very different in many aspects, engine, chassis electronics. So let's give him some time to try the bike, enjoy riding after a lot of months and then the time to decide."

Espargaro added that "obviously" any team in the paddock would want Dovizioso as a race rider, but,: "Let's wait and see if he likes the bike – and I don’t know, it looks like he's enjoying riding motocross, so maybe he just wants to be a test rider.

"Look at Crutchlow, I had a long chat with him after the test and he said he's loving his new life, he can stay with his family and enjoying being with Yamaha as a test rider. So let's go step-by-step."

Espargaro current team-mate, rookie Lorenzo Savadori, was 22nd and last on the timesheets, 2.287s from Ducati's Jack Miller.

 

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