In November 2014, at the Valencia post-race test, there was something of a buzz. Aprilia to make a return to MotoGP as a factory team for the 2015 season, albeit under the umbrella of the Gresini squad. Up until that point, Aprilias had been racing in MotoGP, but they were modified versions of the Noale factory's RSV-4 superbike, with a lot of chassis work and a much more powerful engine. They would be racing more or less the same bikes in 2015, but the ambition was to step up development and build a genuinely competitive motorcycle.
To do that, they had abandoned their factory entry in the WorldSBK championship – a championship which Sylvain Guintoli had won for them the previous year – and drafted in Alvaro Bautista and Marco Melandri. Bautista was keen to push the project forward, but from the very first moment he appeared in the MotoGP paddock again, Melandri made it glaringly obvious he did not want to be there.
The Italian had signed a factory contract with Aprilia to win races and chase a WorldSBK title. He had exactly zero desire to be a backmarker on an uncompetitive Aprilia in MotoGP, and he was only there because buying his way out of the contract was too expensive. Heading down to talk to Melandri at the end of each day was a depressing experience, the Italian cloaked in an infectious feeling of gloom.
Eight years' wait
Fast forward to 2021, and the many, many years of hard work showed signs of finally paying off. Aleix Espargaro scored Aprilia's first podium in the MotoGP era at Silverstone, just rewards for his sticking with the project. Ironically, Espargaro had been one of the first riders to jump on Aprilia's ART machine in the CRT class back in 2012, the subcategory brought in to fill out the MotoGP grid from the 17 bikes which started the 2011 season, going on to take the CRT crown that season.
A year later, and Espargaro bagged the Italian factory's first pole position since 2000 at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina. And a day after that, he took their first victory in the premier class, and his first win in grand prix racing. A fitting end to a long journey through the history of MotoGP, and Espargaro's long history in the premier class. History was made in more ways than one.
For Espargaro to take this victory for Aprilia is so fitting, for his history, Aprilia's history, and the transformation of MotoGP from a series scraping around for bikes to a thriving successful class with six competitive manufacturers are intimately intertwined. Espargaro made his MotoGP debut at the tender age of 20, replacing Mika Kallio on the Pramac Ducati at Indianapolis in 2009. He had a full season with Pramac in 2010, before being forced back to Moto2 the following year.
2012 was a watershed in MotoGP, for many reasons. It was the first year of the return to 1000cc engines for MotoGP, after the 800cc bikes had almost killed the class. The switch from 990cc to 800cc had been done to reduce speeds, but costs had spiraled, as factories threw all their efforts into producing as much power as possible from the smaller engines, and then using electronics to control it. After the global financial crisis, as grids thinned and the racing became ever more processional, it was clear that something had to be done.
The problem was that addressing MotoGP's weakness required loosening the vice-like grip which the manufacturers, and Honda in particular, had on the sport. So Dorna came up with a new set of rules and a new subcategory, the CRT or Claiming Rule Teams, bikes based on production engines in prototype chassis. Independent teams were encouraged to enter this category, with a separate subchampionship held to celebrate it. Aleix Espargaro would win that first CRT title.
The art of persuasion
Dorna's ploy – I say Dorna's, it was the brainchild of many people inside Dorna and IRTA – was successful. First, they managed to force a spec ECU on the class, against the wishes of Honda and the MSMA. That allowed them to replace the CRT category with the Open Class, MotoGP bikes running spec software on the spec ECU. Then the spec software was made compulsory, completing a transition to fully spec electronics.
Alongside the spec electronics, a system of concessions was introduced. Manufacturers who hadn't won a race would be allowed extra development, extra testing, and extra engines. It gave factories who lagged behind Honda and Yamaha – by that time the only consistently competitive manufacturers – a chance to catch up.
Ducati were the first factory to make use of it, the Italian manufacturer finding itself deep in the doldrums after Casey Stoner left for Honda. After Gigi Dall'Igna arrived in 2014 – leaving Aprilia – he spotted the opportunity offered by the Open Class and CRT, supplying bikes to a range of teams to gather data, while his engineering team worked on the factory bike. After five years without a win, Ducati finally scored their first victory in Austria in 2016.
Closing the gap
Suzuki followed suit, using the introduction of spec electronics to focus on building a competitive engine and frame, returning in 2015, and quickly becoming competitive, Maverick Viñales scoring the first win for the Japanese factory in 2016. Then came KTM, entering MotoGP in 2017, and progressing far enough to win three races in 2020.
All this time, Aprilia had been plodding along, making slow progress, the bike clearly getting better but also clearly flawed. Aleix Espargaro, who had signed for the Noale factory after leaving Suzuki at the end of 2016, ground through season after season of achingly slow progress hampered by continual mechanical problems.
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