For anyone with a keen eye for detail, the first session of free practice on the Friday of a MotoGP event is always fascinating. FP1 is where riders will try new parts, or more experimental setup changes. Helpfully, those changes are almost always tested back to back with the standard setup, for the sake of comparison.
Even more useful is the fact that the first run of the day is done on the bike which the rider has been using so far this season, to give them a quick reminder of exactly how the bike feels and set a baseline. They then jump onto the second bike (using the same tires) with the altered setup or new parts. It makes spotting differences a good deal easier.
When those new parts are updates to the aerodynamics package, spotting differences becomes a piece of cake. Fortunately for people like me with poor eyesight and addled brains.
Mugello is the ideal place to try aerodynamics updates. The season starts at a selection of tracks which are predominantly stop and go, where limiting wheelie is at a premium. After Qatar, Mugello is the first of a few wide open, sweeping tracks where wheelie is less of an issue, and top speed is at a premium. The high-downforce aero used for the first races creates too much drag on Mugello's long, fast straight, and so the factories debut their low downforce options, built to reduce drag and raise the top speed, while sacrificing wheelie control.
Which is exactly what we saw from Yamaha and KTM on Friday morning. In FP1, Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo tested the new aero package back to back with the one they started the season with, to see how much of an advantage they could gain, and whether what they gave up would be worth the sacrifice.
For reference, in the photo above, Franco Morbidelli is using the standard aero package the Monster Energy Yamaha team started the season off with. The most obvious distinguishing feature is the long lower lip pouting in front of the air intake.
Compare that with the photo below, of Fabio Quartararo using the new aero. The pouting lip is gone, and the wings are slightly reduced.
Not visible in the photo above is the fact that the side pods, the extra wings stuck to the side of the fairing, have also been removed. That is clearer in the side-on view, as seen below.
What difference did the change make? On Fabio Quartararo's first run in FP1, when he was using the old fairing, his top speed was clocked at just under 344 km/h, with a couple of laps where he reached 345 km/h. After he swapped to the bike with the low-drag aero, Quartararo clocked one 348.3 km/h through the traps, along with four times a 347.2 km/h. That's a decent gain of around 3 km/h.
That still leaves the reigning world champion languishing in the both third of top speeds. But the gap with the top is 8 km/h, rather than 11 km/h, a difference which fractionally easier to bridge or to compensate for.
"Looks like it’s a little bit better on top speed," was Quartararo's appraisal. The gain in speed had come at a cost, but it was a compromise worth making, he explained. "We have a lot of wheelie. It's really similar as last year aero package but out of the corner we have a lot of wheelie so it's not not easy, but we decided to - even if it's 1 km/h - we decided to put the new fairing."
What Yamaha sacrificed with the new fairing was wheelie control. Quartararo explained where they suffered most. "Out of Turn 3, Turn 5, Turn 9, 11 before arriving to 12. So it's a bit tricky because it’s just before you have to brake. So it's a bit tricky but then you need to adapt if I want that extra km/h on the straight, so we have positive but also negative."
At KTM, they took the simple route, removing the large side pods to leave a plain, flat surface. The removal of the side pods made the bike a bit more agile, though the difference was minimal. "We took off the side pods, basically to try to make the bike more agile and less critical on brakes," Miguel Oliveira explained. "And it seems that it works a bit better. But at the moment, we find that the setting is so different that we need to maybe adjust a little bit more. But that's it, there's more room for that. And for the rest of the season, we will remain with both options. So we'll see which one will work better in every track."
But the biggest experiment took place in the Aprilia garage of test rider Lorenzo Savadori. The Italian went out with a different tail section, in two different versions. Again, for reference, here is the standard tail unit, as used by Maverick Viñales at Mugello.
And here is a shot of the tail used by Savadori, complete with standing winglet. Note also the different shape of the tail, with the raised edges and a flat, aerodynamic shape to the tail, where the standard tail is all round edges.
What Aprilia have done is to exploit another loophole in the rules. The FIM regulations defined the aero body as consisting of two sections which can be upgraded separately: the fender or mudguard, and the fairing. But as you can see in the diagram taken from the FIM rulebook, there is nothing in there about the rear of the bike. That is completely free and open.
Why would Aprilia stick something on a part of the bike which is largely in the wind shadow of the rider? We should not underestimate the effect it still has, Aleix Espargaro warned. "I saw the data of the wind tunnel and it's interesting. Looks like it's just pure marketing, but believe me, it makes the difference, gives you a lot of weight in some places and now in MotoGP we're talking about details."
This was one solution to a lack of loading on the rear which Espargaro had been asking Aprilia for. "In some places we are losing a little bit of weight on the rear," the Spaniard told us. "This is why I cannot increase the engine brake so this is why I pushed them to create more load on the rear. So they're working in different areas to improve this and one was the aerodynamics."
Aprilia have been in the news a lot this weekend. First, with the renewal of the contracts with Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales for the next two seasons. In FP1 with the rear wing on Savadori's bike (which was removed for FP2). And then just before FP1, Aleix Espargaro prematurely tweeted to welcome the WithU RNF team into the Aprilia fold.
The original plan had been to announce the alliance in the afternoon, but Espargaro tweeted it too early, then deleted his tweet, but not before it had been screenshotted and saved for posterity. Aprilia and RNF had no choice but to hurry out the press releases they had prepared for later in the day.
The future of RNF
I spoke to Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola together with MotoMatters.com contributor Niki Kovács. The full text of the interview will be posted in the next day or two, but the main point of what Rivola told us revolved around RNF becoming a true junior team. The riders would be contracted directly to Aprilia, much as they are at, for example, Pramac Ducati, with the aim being to sign young riders to prepare them for bigger things once they had some experience under their belts.
Aprilia would supply RNF with the bikes used at the end of the current season, though Rivola believed those bikes would be very close to the 2023 spec machines. They would also consider continuing development on the bikes being used by RNF.
It wouldn't just be riders that would be trained inside RNF. Engineers and technicians would also be drafted in to RNF to learn how to operate in a grand prix environment.
Rider choice was still open, with a definitive choice likely to come only after the summer break. The withdrawal of Suzuki had thrown a spanner in the works of the planning, mainly because it had blown the rider market wide open. All of a sudden, Aprilia and RNF found themselves considering choices they had never even thought might be available.
Rivola remained coy on who might ride for RNF. "I have my wishlist also on the rider side, but I think it's not the time now to speak about riders," the Aprilia CEO told us. The same was true for crew chiefs and engineers, with Suzuki's withdrawal putting a lot of top-flight engineers on the market.
As the icing on the cake, Aleix Espargaro was fastest overall on the first day of practice. There is still a long way to go this season, but so far, you can see why the Aprilia has become such an attractive proposition.
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