After previous false dawns, many were reserving judgement on the 2021 Aprilia until it had gone head-to-head with its MotoGP rivals over a race distance.

For lead rider Aleix Espargaro, Sunday's Qatar race proved that the RS-GP's fast pre-season form 'was not a joke' and that they are 'better than ever'.

Despite dropping from eighth to tenth with a full fuel tank, Espargaro fought through to finish in seventh place, crossing the finish line 5.9s from race winner Maverick Vinales (Yamaha) after 22 laps.

That's the closest an Aprilia has been to victory in the four-stroke era and, in the process, Espargaro beat a Factory Ducati, the best Honda (just) and all of the KTMs.

Although Espargaro and Aprilia claimed a best-yet sixth place together at the same Qatar circuit in 2017, he had been 7.7s from victory on that occasion.

"I'm happy. It has been a solid race. We showed that the pre-season was not a joke and that we are better than ever and able to fight with the top riders," Espargaro said.

"Unfortunately we still have to learn quite a lot of things, especially at the beginning of the race with the full tank, so I lost quite a lot of ground. Then in mid-race I was able to overtake a couple of riders, and then - with Mir - we arrived to the main group, but at the end I had no more front tyre."

Nonetheless, Espargaro had a "big smile, because we were in the leading group until the last two laps when I lost a lot of time to overtake Miller. Overall I feel good. I can feel the bike has good potential on the brakes and also in acceleration due to the downforce.

"Unfortunately in fifth-sixth gear I suffered more than I expect because I know that when I'm alone I lose a lot of speed. I thought that in the draft I would be able to stay closer to the bikes in front. But it wasn't like this and I lost a lot of time on the straights.

"This is something we have to improve but overall I think this bike is competitive and I did all race with no problems, the electronics worked quite well, the tyres and fuel consumption was very good. Everybody suffered today and we were okay. A good start.

"I think for the next race we will be more ready."

Espargaro also revealed that, while he could have risked more in pursuit of the RS-GP's first ever MotoGP top five, his belief in the package means he chose to focus on solid points at the opening round.

"In another year when I had the same feeling as today maybe I would try to push more, try to overtake and finish in the top five but you can make a mistake very easily.

"It's just the first race and this year it's important to achieve points in every single race. So I think it's a good beginning."

Espargaro didn't mention the strong race-day wind until specifically asked about it, when he revealed it had indeed blunted his form in several corners - another reason for optimism should the weather improve next weekend.

"Yes, I didn't want to say because it sounds like an excuse but for me it was a big problem actually. This new bike is very good, very high stability and we’ve improved a lot the acceleration due to the downforce, but already in warm-up I suffered with the wind a lot," said the Spaniard.

"In corners 7-8-9 I was very strong yesterday in qualifying, I think the third quickest in that sector, and today in the warm-up and race I lost a lot of ground. I was not competitive at all. Very difficult for me to put the bike in the corners, so hopefully next race will be less windy because today we lost a lot of time to the wind."

On the other hand, the headwind also seemed to reduce the top-speed advantage of the Ducatis, which needed to save fuel in the race.

"Yeah, but I hope that one day I can have that power. I'm always every single session with the qualifying map," Espargaro said. "So yes, they removed power due to fuel consumption but they are very good on the engine so it means they can play with the power.

"Also on our side with the new aerodynamics we have this year, not just the big wings that you can see, I suffer a lot with the wind. Sincerely. A lot.

"The bike was very difficult to move corner by corner. I was very disappointed after the warm-up and in the race I tried to limit the damage but I wasn't as competitive as I expected and it sounds an excuse but it's not and hopefully next week will be better."

Espargaro's race came to an exciting conclusion when he held off the Repsol Honda of younger brother Pol by just 0.056s at the line.

"I saw on my board somebody was coming and then three laps to the end I checked the tower and saw the #44 and I said f**k this guy improved a lot! Already in warm-up he was already good with the wind conditions," Espargaro smiled.

"Unfortunately, I lost a lot of time to overtake Miller [4 laps from the end] because he had no rear tyre and a lot of traction problems, but even like this for the Aprilia to overtake the Ducati is not an easy mission.

"So I lost a lot of ground and then once I overtook I pushed again but it was very close for him [Pol] to slipstream me on the straight. I saw the difference between me and him and it was just half a tenth.

"If the finish was three metres further, he would beat me!"

Team-mate Lorenzo Savadori finished his first MotoGP race as a full-time rider in 19th and last, 41-seconds behind Espargaro, whose race form will have done nothing to dampen the speculation surrounding Andrea Dovizioso's upcoming RS-GP test.