The Grand Prix of Argentina continues its proud tradition of weirdness, with Friday skipped and a day and a half of practice and qualifying crammed into Saturday. The missing cargo, the result of not one but two planes breaking down between Mandalika and Termas de Rio Hondo, meant that Friday was canceled and the work of preparing for practice started around 2am on Saturday morning, as bikes and equipment were delivered up and down pit lane. But MotoGP as a whole pulled it off: apart from the weird schedule, practice and qualifying happened, and history was made.
With missing bikes and parts, teams had gone back to their hotels early on Friday afternoon, to get some sleep ahead of a long night. But you wouldn't know it looking at the pit boxes on Saturday morning. The work of a couple of days was condensed to a few short hours.
With success, for some. The Mooney VR46 Ducatis had turned up in the dead of night, and the crew had worked through the night to get the bikes ready for practice and qualifying. Luca Marini rewarded their grit and hard work with a front row start in Argentina, his second after the one in Misano last year.
No rest for the wicked
"My team did an amazing job so thanks to them and thanks to Ducati because they prepared for me two perfect bikes today," Marini said on Saturday evening. "It was not so easy for them because they did the work in just eight hours. They always do it in two days normally."
The riders and teams had two days of work on track crammed into a couple of extended sessions. MotoGP only took to the track in the early afternoon, after two sessions each for the Moto2 and Moto3 classes. This made a big difference to the state of the track, removing at least some of the dust which had accumulated on a surface which doesn't get used as much as it ought to.
When the Moto3 riders took to the track at 8:15am on Saturday morning, the bikes were throwing up the kind of dust clouds you would normally expect to see at Qatar. By the end of the day, when Aleix Espargaro took a historic pole position for Aprilia, the Spaniard was lapping in the 1'37s, ending with a 1'37.688, just five thousandths of a second off the pole record set back in 2014 by Marc Marquez, back when the track was new.
Fast despite the dust
The speed being set at Termas de Rio Hondo surprised everyone. "Sincerely, it looks super dirty, but everybody is so fast!" Suzuki Ecstar's Alex Rins marveled. "Moto3 was super fast." The fact that there had been a handful of crashes at Turn 1 during MotoGP sessions was normal, Rins insisted, a result of riders pushing for a quick lap. "It's normal that some riders crash on FP2, in the qualifying, in the first corner, because we are trying to push to go to the limit, we don't have a lot of references on the brakes. But overall, I'm quite impressed, because from the outside it looks dirty, but the grip is there."
Having a dirty track had required a bit of a different approach to riding, Jack Miller explained. "The track is dirty, you're pushing, there doesn't seem to be an awful lot of edge grip, more so than other tracks," the factory Ducati rider explained "Every time you put the bike over, it sort of goes away, so you've got to try to keep the bike on the fat part of the tire in order to keep any sort of grip, because as soon as you get the bike on the narrow part of the tire, it seems to slip away. I think it will get better as the track gets more and more clean, but for sure it's, that's what it is."
This was making the bikes look very twitchy, with a lot of moment on corner exit. "You're trying to get those little turns, and that's creating the twitch. Because you can't obviously keep it on the edge of the tire for very long," Miller explained.
Easy over the bumps
The bumps in a few places – Turn 11, Turn 1 – weren't helping, but they weren't anything out of the ordinary, Miller insisted. "The bumps, I think it's just part of the track, I think it gives the track its character, and you have to understand how to ride around it. At the end of the day, they are there for everybody."
Making sure the bike didn't get upset too much was all about the approach to the corners where the bumps were, the Australian said. "The way that the bike reacts to the bumps is how you are using the throttle. I think you've seen every single manufacturer shake over those bumps. It's what you do prior to the bumps that determines how the bike is going to behave when you hit the bumps. It's not to do with the bike itself."
Miller's Ducati Lenovo teammate Pecco Bagnaia had struggled more with the bumps than Miller had. That, Bagnaia said, was down to the bike setup they were using, but he felt his team had a solution up their sleeves for him, a return to a softer setting used to cope with the bumps at Austin last year. "It's more or less the situation of Austin last year, that was very bumpy and was critical," Bagnaia explained."So before the qualifying in Austin we did something, that we will do tomorrow, that for me will be a good thing, to help me be a bit more constant over the bumps. Because looking at the setting of the other Ducatis, it is more of a safety setting, and we will go more in this direction to have less aggressive reaction from my bike."
The two factory Ducatis had been involved in a certain amount of drama on Saturday. Struggling to set a fast lap on new tires at the end of FP2, Bagnaia had pulled to one side to let other riders go past and try to get a tow. At the time, many watching felt he deserved a penalty, but Bagnaia explained he had spoken to the Stewards about it, and told them he had done his best to get out of the way of other riders, because he felt he was struggling.
"The moment I entered in the Stewards room, I just apologized for what I have done, and they understood my situation, and just telling me try to be more careful and try to be more smart in that situation," Bagnaia said. "I want to say sorry, but when you are nervous you make mistakes. I made a mistake, and I was wrong, and it was my mistake."
Miller was less fortunate. He was handed a three-place grid penalty for getting in the way of Fabio Quartararo in Q2. The Australian had headed back out on his second bike after crashing in the early part of qualifying, and was not yet ready to push when Quartararo came up behind him on a very fast lap. There was little Miller could do about it, but the Stewards still felt he had impeded the reigning world champion.
"I don't know what more they want from me," an exasperated Miller told us. "I swapped bikes, swapped leathers, trying to get comfortable on both. I don't understand. But anyway, it's not like I was intentionally trying to get in his way."
Quartararo was only mildly annoyed at the situation, and tried not to further inflame the tensions which arose between the two after the incident during the race in Mandalika, in which Miller accused the Frenchman of passing a little too close. Miller had not exactly been sitting in the middle of the racing line, Quartararo acknowledged, but he could have done more to get out of the way.
"Basically he was not really in the line but you know when you have someone in this kind of corner when you arrive in fourth gear really fast and you have someone not in the middle but basically in the racing line, it's disturbing," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "So for me it's not fair when you are racing like that."
The incident did put paid to any hope Quartararo may have had of a front row start. The track is so abrasive that you have to get the best out of a new tire on the first flying lap. "To be honest in this track if you don’t make the lap in the first lap, you lose already, because turn 6 is a corner where basically you are spinning as soon as you are on the left and you have more drive," the Frenchman explained.
Aleix The Unstoppable
Could Quartararo have snatched pole from Aleix Espargaro? Probably not, but he would have had a good shot at the front row. Quartararo and Espargaro are the cream of the MotoGP crop at Argentina, both capable of setting a very fast pace on tires with two-thirds race distance on them. Espargaro's pace is fierce, capable of doing low 1'39s at will in FP2. Quartararo's was pretty much as quick as the Aprilia rider's, though his quickest lap was set on an older tire in a single outing. If Quartararo can get a good start and get ahead of the Ducatis of Jorge Martin and Luca Marini in the early laps, he has a shot at Aleix Espargaro.
The only other rider with the pace of Espargaro and Quartararo is Pecco Bagnaia, but Bagnaia's inability to get any pace out of new tires leaves him down on the fifth row of the grid. "The feeling was quite good with used tires," Bagnaia told us. "Then we put new tires and I struggled a lot to set a good fast lap time. I just improved three tenths, so that's something that is not enough."
So Aleix Espargaro starts the race on Sunday as favorite. Pole position for Aprilia is testament to the hard work done by the Noale factory, and to the grit and determination of Espargaro, sticking at it for such a long time. It is a truly historic pole: Aprilia's first in the MotoGP era, and their first since Jeremy McWilliams put the glorious Aprilia RS500 V-twin on pole at Phillip Island in 2000.
The pole in Australia can be put down to the flowing nature of the track, and the fact that on a good day, the rider can make all the difference. But while Argentina is still very much a rider's track, the massive progress Aprilia have made with the RS-GP is a big factor. The fact that Espargaro's teammate Maverick Viñales starts from fifth is proof that the bike is much better than it was.
This is also another demonstration that the rule package Dorna and IRTA have been working on since the financial crisis decimated the grid at the end of 2008 are working as intended. Last year, Espargaro's podium at Silverstone made Aprilia the sixth manufacturer out of six to take a podium in MotoGP. Espargaro's pole in Argentina means all six manufacturers have now also had a pole position.
It is also historic for Espargaro himself. The Spaniard becomes the only rider in the MotoGP era to take pole on three different bikes: the Forward Yamaha Open class bike in 2014, the Suzuki in 2015, and now the Aprilia in 2022.
Hard work pays off
"I’m really happy, especially proud of what we are achieving," Espargaro told the press conference. "It’s my sixth season in Aprilia and I know how far we came from. I know how I suffered. To prove that at least today we did the fastest bike of the world, is something that makes me happy. I know it’s not super important because the points will come tomorrow, but for a rider to feel this speed, to feel that you are the fastest one is always great."
Espargaro was keeping his feet on the ground, while celebrating all that hard work paying off. "It’s just Saturday," he pointed out. "So more than for me, I’m happy for Aprilia." He contrasted his situation with that of Jorge Martin, who has already racked up five poles in MotoGP with the Pramac Ducati team, who are no strangers to parc ferme. "For example, when Jorge makes pole position they are normal in the garage because he has pole position every weekend. But when Aprilia for the first time do pole position, when you see the faces of everybody there, it’s completely another story. They are super happy."
It has been a long road. "Six years working with this project," Espargaro reflected. "This small moment of joy and happiness is fantastic. I see their faces every day. I’ve been working a long time with them. So, I feel more like part of my second family. So, to see them happy like this is something that makes me very happy. Then everybody in this paddock, the journalists, the teams, everybody was very happy. Everybody congratulates us. So, this is something that makes me very happy, very proud. But once again, it’s just Saturday."
Lights to flag?
Can Espargaro add victory to pole? He has the pace. He has the experience of how to manage the tires. And the only riders who can challenge him are behind him. All the necessary pieces are in place for the Aprilia rider to pull it off.
But this is Argentina, where something weird always happens. And 25 laps is a very long time, and a lot of opportunity for fate to intervene. A win on Sunday would be far more historic than the pole Espargaro has scored. But even if he doesn't manage it, then a win for Aprilia is looking just a matter of time. There are now six competitive manufacturers on the grid, and where just a couple of years ago, riders were turning down the seat at Aprilia, they will soon be falling over themselves to sign up with the Noale factory. It is quite the story.
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