Punching above its weight in racing

How a relative newcomer made it to the top

Aprilia hasn’t been making motorcycles for very long but has achieved a huge amount of success in road racing during the past few decades.

Just like Ducati, the company began life soon after the Second World War, but Aprilia started out producing bicycles, not motorcycles. In the late 1960s Aprilia ventured into powered two wheelers – mopeds first, then motocross bikes.

By the mid-1980s Aprilia had built its first Grand Prix bike, powered by a Rotax Tandem-Twin 250 two-stroke. In August 1987 Loris Reggiani rode the machine to the company’s first GP win.

The Aprilia/Rotax relationship blossomed. By the early 1990s Rotax-powered Aprilias were the fastest bikes in the 125 and 250 classes. But the more vicious power delivery of the rotary-valve engines made the machines harder to ride than the rival hondas and Yamahas, powered by reed-valve two-strokes.

Thanks to clever use of fast-improving engine-management technology, Aprilia tamed their engines until they were good enough to win World Championships. The factory won the 125 title in 1992 and the 250 in 1994 with Max Biaggi, who would return many years later to give Aprilia its first World superbike crown.

Aprilia has now won a total of 37 world titles in GP racing (18 riders’ crowns and 19 constructors’) and 294 GP victories in the 125 and 250 classes. Only Honda and Yamaha – both of them much, much bigger companies – have won more GP victories.

Aprilia’s success in the smaller GP classes was helped by the fact that Honda and Yamaha gave up two-stroke development. Eventually the Italians became so dominant that MotoGP rights-holder Dorna took measures to prevent that dominance continuing. Dorna hated the fact that Aprilia monopolised both the 125 and 250 grids, charging extortionate prices (in Dorna’s opinion) and choosing which riders were blessed with the best bikes and which got lesser machinery. In the end, Dorna broke the monopoly by killing off both classes and replacing them with the four-stroke Moto3 and Moto2 Championships.

Aprilia had known the game was up for some while. The two-stroke street bike was being legislated out of existence by environmental restrictions. That’s why Aprilia started diversifying into four-stroke superbikes, first with the RSV Mille V-twin in the late 1990s, then with the RSV4 in 2009.

Aprilia has also had a go at MotoGP. In 2002 its RS3 Cube, using a three-cylinder 990cc engine largely designed by Cosworth, became the first MotoGP machine to crack 200mph.
the RS3 scored other firsts: it was the first MotoGP machine to use pneumatic valve springs and a ride-by-wire throttle.

But the bike didn’t live up to its promise and the project was scrapped after the company was bought by piaggio – best known for Vespa scooters – in 2004. In fact races dominated by Aprilia two-strokes are not entirely a thing of the past. In Britain, Aprilia’s superteen race series gives teenagers the chance to start their careers on barely modified RS125 two-stroke road bikes. The low-cost championship allows riders to compete at the same level. Current MotoGP and World Superbike riders Casey Stoner, Cal Crutchlow, Chaz Davies, Bradley Smith and Leon Camier all started out in superteens.

On the road, Aprilia is the choice of riders who desire italian exotica but prefer not to make the obvious choice.