Since they returned to the MotoGP paddock officially, and not under the guise of the ART, the RSV4-based bike which raced first under the Claiming Rule Team banner, and then in the Open Class, Aprilia have struggled. Their MotoGP program got off to a bad start, the loss of Gigi Dall'Igna to Ducati forcing them to reschedule their plans.
Romano Albesiano, who took over as head of Aprilia Racing, found it hard to combine his role as lead engineer with the organizational duties of managing the racing department. Albesiano came from a development and engineering background, and seemed to lack interest in the practicalities of a running a race team. Those took time away from developing the RS-GP, and so the project floundered.
To solve this situation, Aprilia brought in Massimo Rivola. With his experience running F1 teams and Ferrari's Driver Academy, Rivola was given the organizational side to manage, leaving Albesiano free to lead the engineering side of the project. With a clearer division of responsibilities – and the people doing what they are good at and interested in – some semblance of structure was restored to Aprilia's MotoGP program, and with that came the first green shoots of progress.
It did not always seem like that this year, however. Both Aleix Espargaro and Andrea Iannone suffered a string of technical problems throughout the year, which worryingly seemed to happen most often during the race, forcing retirements. Aleix Espargaro especially became very negative in his remarks to the press, and ever more vocal in his call for more resources, and more change.
Hope and change
The Spaniard appears to have finally been given what he has been asking for, or at least some of it. At the Jerez test last November, the elder Espargaro brother was distinctly upbeat, a big difference to his previous demeanor. He was seeing changes at last, both on the inside of Aprilia, and in updates to the RS-GP. Sure, he won't get his hands on the bike until the test in Sepang, but the plans he had seen were radically different.
Espargaro's optimism was down to the changes Massimo Rivola had been able to make, and was planning to make in the coming season. "I think Massimo was not able to do everything he wants, because when you arrive in a new place you need to understand how it works," Espargaro explained. "For an intelligent person as Massimo, they listen a lot, they wait, they are patient."
"So this needs more time, but the way he arrived and the impact on the first season, I'm very happy. The team is a lot more serious, the garage is ten times more professional than in the other seasons and I think we are changing the image. So right now what we have to change is the competitiveness of the bike and the results, but it's coming because this year more engineers have arrived than in the last ten years in Aprilia!in Just the last two months. So I think in the future we will see the changes."
Engineers and experience
The new engineers had given him hope, Espargaro said. "Two or three engine guys have arrived, two aerodynamic guys have arrived, another frame guy has arrived," the Spaniard told us. "So more than six new people from very competitive places have joined the project, with new ideas. They will help a lot Romano and Romano's team will be a lot stronger. So no excuses. We were missing that and I hope that the new bike and ideas these guys will bring will help. I'm optimistic. Looks like we are on the way."
Rivola's experience from F1 was a difference maker, Espargaro said. He had brought 'many things', from the world of four wheels, he explained. "We tried a couple things coming from Formula One, especially the way they work. I think maybe professional is not the right word, but a lot better organized than us."
Improving communication was one of the key areas. "In terms of communication we are improving a lot," Espargaro said. "We are trying things during this test, like a radio in my helmet to give better information when I arrive in the garage to the engineers at the track. We are trying different ideas that I think are more than welcome."
Aprilia was using the radio inside the garage during the test. When the riders entered the garage, they would speak to the engineers via radios and headsets, so that everyone could clearly hear what the riders were saying. The idea is to avoid the loss of information which is the inevitable result of people mishearing, or passing information on from engineer to engineer. Working in a noisy environment, rider-to-engineer communication can quickly devolve into a game of telephone.
"On the bike it's forbidden, but in the garage you can do it," Espargaro said. Under normal circumstances, it was too easy for information to get lost. "If we have ten engineers around us, the ten engineers cannot hear what I'm saying, it's impossible."
Using radios and headsets made a huge improvement in communication." With this they can be at the track and listen perfectly to what I'm saying and start to work immediately," Espargaro explained. "They don’t have to read the reports. They are just small details. Obviously, the important thing is that the bike is competitive! But these details are more than welcome because we make life easier for the engineers."
The use of radios was just one of the changes being made, Espargaro said. "Massimo is changing a couple of things about the way we work. We do more meetings. Also I think they were trying to implement like a diet and nutritionist for the guys during the weekend. They change a couple of things in the hospitality. Massimo is strong and he's trying his best. As Massimo is not an engineer there are some things he cannot improve, not related to him, but all the organization is related to him and in just ten months I have to say that this team has changed really a lot."
In many ways, the situation at Aprilia is reminiscent of what happened with Ducati back in 2014. Gigi Dall'Igna took over before the start of that season, and he spent his first year at the Borgo Panigale factory sorting out the organization. Prior to his arrival, the various teams responsible for each part of the bike didn't really communicate, each engineering group focusing solely on what mattered to them. Chassis, engine, and electronics departments all worked with their own priorities, leading to a bike which always ended up less than the sum of its parts.
Dall'Igna changed all that, ensuring each group spoke to the others, and rotating engineers between Bologna and the test and race teams. Before his arrival, the engineers at the factory spoke to the test team, but rarely communicated with the engineers at the race track. Dall'Igna rotated engineers from factory to test team, from test team to race team, and from race team back to the factory again. People got to know each other's areas of expertise, and knew where to turn for help.
That unleashed a revolution. Instead of the Desmosedici being an assembly of independently developed components, Ducati engineers started to think of the bike as a single entity. They took a more holistic approach, developing chassis, engine, and aerodynamics in tandem. The bike became something more than the sum of its individual parts. The Desmosedici went from struggling to score to top sixes to finishing as runner up in the championship for three seasons in a row.
That stability also stems from having the same rider throughout the entire period, Aleix Espargaro pointed out. "I always say to Aprilia it's not good to change the riders every season," the Spaniard said. "I always give the same example, as Dovi is my favorite rider on the grid. How they worked in the last years for me is the clever way to work and I hope this stability will bring also better results in Aprilia."
Journalists were surprised to hear that Andrea Dovizioso was Espargaro's role model. "He is my favorite rider, no doubt," Espargaro emphasized. "I always said that because everybody talks about [Marc] Marquez, sometimes [Maverick] Viñales, Valentino [Rossi]… but for me, what Dovi is doing is impressive. Second in the championship every single year."
It was that steady progress which impressed Espargaro most. "He started with a Ducati that was not that fast and year-by-year he improved the bike, and he had [Andrea] Iannone, [Danilo] Petrucci, [Jorge] Lorenzo – very fast riders at his side. Maybe they beat him in a couple of races, but nobody was able to beat him in a full season and this is what counts. So the way he works, the way he is as a person, the patience."
Dovizioso had a very different temperament to Aleix Espargaro, though, something which the Spaniard said he was trying to emulate. "He's never super happy, never super unhappy, so this stability in general I think is very important and I don’t have it! I'm trying to learn, but I cannot be never happy enough and I get super angry, so this I have to improve!"
The first real test
At the time of the Jerez test, it looked like Espargaro was going to get the stability which he had been hoping for. Andrea Iannone was at the end of his first year of a two-year deal, and set to continue for 2020. "It's important also for the engineers and for me," Espargaro said."In the last part of the season he was more competitive and the important and good thing is that we have 99% the same problems and we push 100% for the same things."
Iannone's failed doping test throws that hope out of the window. With his B sample positive, the chances of Iannone returning to Aprilia in 2020 are as good as nonexistent, barring a miracle.
So Aprilia's new organizational structure faces a challenge. Massimo Rivola has to handle the fallout from the Iannone affair, line up a replacement rider for Iannone, and oversee Aprilia's testing program before the start of the season. He has to ensure minimal disruption to the engineering side of things, allowing Romano Albesiano and his team to get on with the developing the new bike, featuring a much more powerful engine with a 90° V angle and a rumored external flywheel, without distraction.
The easy and most likely choice is to move Bradley Smith into the factory team, and bring in Lorenzo Savadori and perhaps Karel Abraham to take on testing duties. That would minimize unnecessary change, and allow Aprilia to look forward. Because the next challenge coming down the road is the start of MotoGP silly season, likely to kick off before the 2020 season even starts. Aprilia will have choices to make about its 2021 rider line up, even as it deals with the turmoil which has hit their 2020 line up.
2020 looks set to be a baptism of fire for Aprilia's new organizational structure. If they can withstand this, Aprilia might finally start to live up to the expectations which they set out when they started the project.
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