British MotoGP: after ten years of trying Italian underdog Aprilia scores its first MotoGP podium


Aleix Espargaró’s brilliant Silverstone third place was the result of years and years of blood, sweat and toil


Finally! Espargaró with Silverstone winner Fabio Quartararo and runner-up Álex Rins


Racing should encourage technical diversity and experiment but it rarely does, at least not since the so-called golden age of the 1960s, when in-line six-cylinder Honda four-strokes battled for victory with V4 Yamaha two-strokes.

That fun ended at the end of the 1960s – that wildest of decades in all areas of endeavour – when people realised this simply could not go on. Honda, Yamaha and all the others couldn’t keep spending money like NASA forever.

The technical regulations were therefore rewritten to ban the wildest engineering fantasies and replace them with more sensible, more restricted tech rules.

Of course some factories still wanted to do things differently – coming up with crazy blue-sky thinking for the racetrack that might somehow create something of delight for the road rider.

In the late 1970s Honda had its 22,000rpm eight-valves-per-cylinder oval-piston NR500 four-stroke, the factory’s quixotic attempt to beat the two-strokes. It was an astonishing motorcycle, but it didn’t score a single grand prix point.

A few years later, after going with the two-stroke flow, Honda built its first NSR500 with the fuel tank under the engine and the expansion chambers over the top, looking a bit like a church organ. The idea was to increase cornering performance by lowering centre of gravity. The bike proved that this wasn’t a good idea. More had been learned.

A decade later Italian factory Aprilia entered the premier class for the first time. The rest of the grid was all 500cc V4 two-strokes, but the little Italian factory entered the game with a bored-and-stroked version of its successful v-twin 250 GP bike. Aprilia raced and developed the bike over six seasons, but never quite overcame the most powerful V4s.

The closest Aprilia got to victory was Jeremy McWilliams’ hard-fought podium at the damp 2000 British GP, less than a second behind Valentino Rossi and the latest iteration of Honda’s NSR.

In 2002, the inaugural season of 990cc MotoGP four-strokes, Aprilia once again did things differently. While Honda created its wondrous five-cylinder RC211V and Suzuki and Yamaha built their less-than-wondrous four-cylinder GSV-R and YZR-M1, Aprilia built its RS3 triple.

The RS3 was the best-sounding MotoGP bike of them all and was the first to crack the 200mph barrier, during practice for the 2002 Italian GP at Mugello, but that was about as good as it got.


Aprilia’s RS3 triple – one of the scariest bikes in modern MotoGP history?


Its engine was engineered by Formula 1 concern Cosworth, and like most F1-created bike kit, didn’t work very well in a motorcycle. RS3 rider Colin Edwards famously said this about riding the bike, “You take a bull, you cut off its balls, dangle them in front of its face, then climb on its back.”.

The RS3 lasted three seasons without once troubling the top five. After that debacle Aprilia stayed out of MotoGP for almost a decade, returning in 2012 with its ART CRT bike, then upping its game in 2015 with a motorcycle powered by an engine from its RSV4 superbike.

This first RS-GP was a laboratory bike, created by Romano Albesiano, who had been moved from Piaggio’s road-bike department (where he worked on Aprilias and Moto Guzzis!) to the race department, taking over from Gigi Dall’Igna, who had defected to Ducati.

In 2016 the RS-GP was powered by a full prototype engine with pneumatic valves and seamless gearbox, but once again Aprilia decided to go its own way. While Ducati and Honda were racing and winning with 90-degree V4s Aprilia opted for a 75-degree V4.

A narrow-angle vee offers several advantages, mainly better packaging of the motorcycle. But like everything in racing it’s a mix of positives and negatives. For example, a narrow-angle vee requires a balance shaft, which means more weight and space and less horsepower.

Finally last year Aprilia did what it had never done before in the premier class: it went with the flow, building a 90-degree V4, using an overall motorcycle configuration not dissimilar to Ducati’s Desmosedici.

All of a sudden the bike was competitive, because in racing it’s best to forget about technical diversity and experimentation, and instead copy whoever’s winning and try to better what they’re doing.

Aleix Espargaró qualified fourth for the bike’s third race and often showed great speed in races, only to be let down by the kind of niggling problems from which an all-new bike inevitably suffers. Not only that, but emergency cost-saving technical regulations written in the wake of Covid-19 prevented Aprilia from doing what it needed to do: introduce engine and aerodynamic upgrades during the season.

The RS-GP’s 2020 aero was a particular problem – it was designed for higher-gearing tracks that require less downforce – so the bike wheelied far too much all year, robbing it of acceleration.


Marco Melandri on the first RS-GP MotoGP bike – with road engine – during 2015 preseason testing


Last winter Aprilia fixed all those issues and from the first race of 2021 Espargaró was right in the mix. At Losail and Jerez he finished five seconds behind the winner, just two tenths of a lap too slow off the victory pace

At the Austrian GP, two weeks before Silverstone, he was five seconds down and closing before the rain arrived.

“When Aleix was catching the first group at Spielberg, which isn’t a great track for us, I said, we are ready,” commented Albesiano after celebrating his first MotoGP podium on Sunday.

Espargaró, who had previously scored one MotoGP top-three, aboard an open-spec Yamaha YZR-M1 at the rain-soaked 2014 Aragon GP, was as relieved as anything after chasing winner Fabio Quartararo and runner-up Álex Rins over the line.

“We’ve been very, very close in the previous races,” said the 32-year-old Spaniard who is contesting his 12th season in MotoGP and his fifth with Aprilia. “Finally, to finish on the podium is something that gives me more motivation to keep working and improving the bike.

Related article

“I think we really deserve this podium because it’s been a long five years, especially two years ago it was very difficult and I suffered a lot. The bike wasn’t competitive, so I crashed many, many times. Sincerely, it was one of my most difficult years. Now the future looks promising, so hopefully we can keep the momentum.”

Within the next few races Espargaró will have Maverick Viñales for a team-mate. That’s a very strong line-up, so long as Aprilia can fully harness Vinales’s talent.

Albesiano has been working towards this moment for eight years.

“Of course it really started for us last season [with the 90-degree engine], but everything is always a progression and this year we’ve really reached our engineering targets, especially in chassis issues, like centre of gravity position, aerodynamics and tyre management.”

Albesiano isn’t only talking tyre management in the race, but also how the team manages the Michelin mystery in the garage.

“We have one guy dedicated to tyre management – how to treat the tyres to get the best from them. Even a difference of 0.5 bar can make a difference when the competition is so tight.”

This year Espargaró has been able to battle much more strongly thanks largely to an adjustment to overall bike balance

“The area we have improved the most this season is in braking,” Albesiano adds. “We improved the braking phase a lot and this makes a big difference, especially in race situations.”


Espargaró and the 2021 RS-GP on their way towards the podium at Silverstone

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

The dynamics of a V4 engine usually make V4-powered MotoGP bikes a bit twitchy and unstable, but the RS-GP looks like the friendliest of the V4s.

“Two years ago our bike was not like this – it was much more nervous, so it was difficult for the rider to use all the power. Stability is a key factor in MotoGP, so we have worked a lot on aerodynamics, chassis stiffness and getting the centre of gravity in the right place.”

Of course there’s more to come.

“There is a margin to improve even more in the braking phase and in the cornering phase, by using the tyres in the optimum way, by putting the correct load on them.”

MotoGP’s next race is at Aragon – Espargaró’s favourite.

“Aleix loves the track and we expect to be very strong there, like we’ve been at other tracks many times this year. Our performance was good from the start of the season – it was just a matter of waiting for the right conditions and situation.”

Aprilia achieved its first podium in a historic race – the first premier-class grand prix since the 1972 Yugoslav GP to feature six different makes of motorcycle in the top six.

The winner that day at Opatija – a rock-lined street circuit that wound its way along the Adriatic coast – was, of course, an MV Agusta triple, ridden by Alberto Pagani, because Giacomo Agostini’s bike failed to make the finish.

Second was Chas Mortimer on an over-bored Yamaha TR3 350cc two-stroke, available to anyone for around £1200 (£17,000 in today’s money). The podium was completed by Paul Eickelberg, riding a Konig, one of the strangest GP bikes of all time, because it was powered by a flat-four two-stroke outboard engine.

Eickelberg was the last rider not lapped by Pagani, which means the next three finishers took the flag something like three minutes after the winner.

Fourth was Guido Mandracci aboard a Suzuki XR05 two-stroke twin, fifth was Bo Granath on a Husqvarna two-stroke twin, created from two 250cc single-cylinder motocross engines, and sixth was Charlie Dobson, riding a Kawasaki H1R two-stroke triple, a tuned road bike engine in a rudimentary race chassis.

Things were different then.

You may also like