Whatever your impressions of Pol Espargaro, you can’t doubt his courage. It’s now over a year since the rider from Granollers, Catalonia chose to sign for Repsol Honda, leaving KTM’s factory team, which he helped build from the ground up. The seat has been something of a poisoned chalice in recent times. There, Dani Pedrosa’s racing career sizzled out in disappointment. Jorge Lorenzo’s sole year in orange turned into a personal ordeal. And Alex Márquez was informed he would be leaving the squad at the end of his first season before he had even raced. It turns out being team-mate to this generation’s greatest talent is no walk in the park.
Yet Espargaro jumped at the chance to measure himself against Marc Márquez He had long harboured that goal, telling me in 2019 without hesitation he’d choose racing his old Moto2 nemesis on the same bike over any other rider in history. While he was more than a match for his countryman in the junior categories – Pol narrowly lost out to Marc in fiery championship battles in 125s in 2010 and Moto2 in 2012 – their fortunes in the premier class diverged. As Márquez racked up records and titles at a dizzying race, Espargaro forged his reputation aiding KTM’s rise from class rookies to multiple race winners.
Some felt the move was foolish. Not least when KTM started the 2020 season all guns blazing, taking first and second MotoGP wins in races three and five. By then Espargaro had communicated his plans to leave for Honda’s factory team, a squad in the midst of its worst premier class campaign since HRC came into existence at the beginning of 1982. But the lure of joining the team that turned Alex Crivillé, Pedrosa and Márquez into national and international icons, not to mention won 16 of the past 27 premier class titles, was too much to turn down.
“The best Spanish riders in history have been in this team, have grown in this team, have taken victories and world championships in this team,” Espargaro explained over a Zoom call on the eve of the French Grand Prix. “For a Spaniard, to be in Repsol Honda is something super special. Also, historically to be a Repsol Honda rider means you are a top rider. Sure, in the past (years) Honda hasn’t been amazingly successful apart from Marc. But inside every rider, you think you can be as fast as the top guys. It’s what I’m trying to do. I want to be world champion and to be in this team, it means you raise your level, you raise your image. Hopefully I can reach my dreams here in Repsol Honda.”
It speaks of Espargaro’s grit that he turned a potentially difficult 2020 into his best season yet. There were many hurdles to overcome. A figure with a lesser focus would have fixated on the contrasting fortunes of the factory he was going to leave, and the one he was about join. He then watched on as Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira took KTM’s first wins in races he himself was capable of winning. And staying in a team that is aware of your desire to leave can often turn the atmosphere sour.
But after a shaky start, Espargaro’s results were steadily impressive. He ended the year with five podium finishes, and a run of seven top fours in ten races – an astonishing improvement for a man (and factory) that broke into the top six just one season before. Not only that; he left amid a flood of tributes from the factory’s top brass.
Regarding KTM’s stunning jump forward, surely there was a time during 2020 when a tinge of regret entered his mind. Espargaro is forthright. “At the end, I was enjoying so much the moment, I was not thinking about the future,” he said. “After four years of suffering blood and sweat in KTM to try and get the results, to finally get them almost every single weekend, I was really enjoying the situation.
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