How Aprilia finally made it to the top of MotoGP

MotoGP

It’s taken Aprilia almost three decades and a variety of different motorcycles – from a two-stroke V-twin to a four-stroke V4 – to win a race in the class of kings. This is how the company did it

Aleix Espargaro celebrates winning the 2022 Argentine GP

Aleix Espargaró celebrates Aprilia’s historic Argentine GP success with his RS-GP

Dorna

Aprilia’s journey to MotoGP winner could hardly have been longer and more fraught with doubts and difficulties.

It all began 28 years ago, at the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix, when the Noale factory wheeled a 400cc two-stroke v-twin onto the 500cc grid at Jerez.

Many scoffed when Aprilia announced it was attacking the premier class with an over-bored 250, because at that time the company hadn’t even won a 250 title. However, the unbelievers soon quietened down when Loris Reggiani put the pretty little lightweight on the second row of the Jerez grid, behind a front row that included the faster but heavier Suzuki and Honda 500cc V4s of Kevin Schwantz and Mick Doohan.

Aprilia and chief engineer Jan Witteveen stuck with the RSW500 – gradually enlarging the engine to very nearly the full half-litre – until the end of the 2000 season, during which Jeremy McWilliams put it on pole at Phillip Island and came within a second of winning at Donington Park.

The Cube sounded like a tumult of bellowing bassoons at the front of an ancient army

By this time Aprilia was the king of the smaller GP classes, taking Valentino Rossi and many others to 250cc and 125cc glory.

Aprilia’s second attempt at MotoGP glory was the RS Cube, a mental inline triple, created for the inaugural 990cc four-stroke MotoGP season in 2002.

The bike was full of innovation. Its Cosworth-designed engine was the first in GP racing to feature pneumatic valves and a ride-by-wire throttle, both standard features today.

During practice for the 2002 Italian GP at Mugello the Cube became the first GP bike to crack the 200mph barrier, so it was very good at going in a straight line, but not much else. Getting car engineers to build a motorcycle engine wasn’t the best of ideas, because super-light engine internals made an engine pick up revs too quick, making it hard to handle.

Regis Laconi, the man who rode the Cube to that 200mph record, used to climb off the bike with eyes bulging and sweat glistening, miming the experience of riding the machine as a horseman might act out a wild-stallion ride toward the apocalypse: arms straining from their sockets as he was dragged towards the horizon at a terrifying rate, with seemingly little control over his destiny.

2002 Aprilia RS Cube

Aprilia’s first four-stroke MotoGP bike – the RS Cube of 2002 – was a beast of a machine

Aprilia

The Cube also sounded mental, like a tumult of bellowing bassoons at the front of an ancient army, weaponry glinting in the sunlight as it rushed onward towards the gates of Hades.

That awesome noise died forever at the end of the 2004 MotoGP season when Piaggio bought Aprilia and decided the Cube was never going to make it, so it cut its losses and quit.

Aprilia stayed out of MotoGP for almost a decade and only really returned because it had strangled the two classes where it had come to dominate. Dorna axed the 250cc championship at the end of 2009 because Aprilia controlled the class, charging whatever it liked to lease its fastest bikes to the richest teams, while the poorer teams had no chance of getting close to the podium with cheaper, lower-spec bikes. Two years later the 125cc class was also axed, for the same reasons.

Aprilia’s next MotoGP bike was the ART, introduced in 2012 under MotoGP’s recession-busting CRT regulations, which allowed teams to run machines powered by road-bike engines, in this case the company’s RSV4 superbike engine, designed by Gigi Dall’Igna.

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In other words, the ART wasn’t a proper MotoGP bike, but Aleix Espargaró rode one to several impressive top-ten finishes in 2012, riding for Jorge Martinez’s team, occasionally hassling a prototype bike or two, costing ten times more.

Three years later Aprilia returned to MotoGP with a factory team, initially using an upgraded RSV4 engine. Only in 2016 did the company start its current, fully prototype RS-GP project, using a narrow-angle V4, instead of the wider 90-degree configuration used by Ducati and Honda.

A 72-degree vee kept the RS-GP short but also made the bike taller. For this and other reasons the machine was never fully competitive.

Then everything changed in 2019 and 2020, when Piaggio management decided to start spending proper money to achieve success.

In 2019 the company hired former Ferrari Formula 1 staffer Massimo Rivola as Aprilia Racing CEO, allowing chief engineer Romano Albesiano to concentrate on engineering, instead of trying to run the team and build the bike.

And in 2020 the RS-GP got an all-new 90-degree engine – after a quarter of a century of attempts at MotoGP glory Aprilia was finally on the right road.

The 90-degree RS-GP’s first season was difficult, because the aero and engine upgrades that Aprilia should’ve been allowed were cancelled due to Covid, but it was immediately obvious that the new bike had huge potential.

2015 Aprilia RS-GP

Marco Melandri aboard the first RS-GP in 2015, the bike equipped with an upgraded RSV4 superbike engine

Aprilia

Some of that potential emerged last year, taking Espargaró to the factory’s first four-stroke MotoGP podium, at Silverstone. Then seven months later its first victory.

So what makes the RS-GP a MotoGP winner?

Somehow Aprilia has always managed to make its V4 MotoGP bikes very rider-friendly, more so than Ducati, Honda and KTM. The RS-GP seems to combine the positives of a V4 (more horsepower) and an inline-four (better handling), so it’s a bit like a V4 version of Yamaha’s YZR-M1.

Albesiano, who started out as a Cagiva chassis engineer in the early 1990s, isn’t exactly sure how he has achieved this, because it’s simply his way of engineering a racing motorcycle, so it’s in the RS-GP’s DNA.

“The bike does look user-friendly,” says Mats Larsson, Öhlins racing manager, who had worked with Aprilia throughout. “Working with them is very good because they really listen to you and they’re very open-minded, so we have a good dialogue and they make the bike work well. Also, they’ve done their homework on the engine side.”

The RS-GP’s engine is also friendlier than most V4s, with a very sweet build from low rpm, so when the rider first touches the throttle at full lean he can look after the all-important edge of the rear tyre.

During Sunday’s race Espargaró’s RS-GP was the third fastest bike, at 212.6mph/342.2kmh, just behind the Ducatis of Jorge Martin (213mph/342.9km/h) and Pecco Bagnaia (213.9mph/244.3km/h).

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The Aprilia may not have the same brute power as the Desmosedici, but it had very similar straight-line performance at Termas de Rio Hondo, thanks to better traction than out of Turns 3 and 4 and its excellent aerodynamics package.

Also important is the RS-GP’s exhaust-valve, which allows engineers to vary engine-braking force for better corner-entry rear traction according to different lean angles and so on.

Then finally, the details…

“I think your performance in MotoGP is very much related to very small detail changes, the optimisation you do with your data engineers and the mental condition of your riders,” says Albesiano.

It’s no coincidence that the RS-GP has enjoyed its greatest successes at fast, flowing tracks like Silverstone and Termas. It may struggle to win at more stop-and-go circuits, but the bike is still improving, so who knows?

All that we do know for sure is that Aprilia leads the MotoGP world championship, making it the fifth Italian marque to do so, after Gilera, MV Agusta, Cagiva and Ducati.