One of MotoGP’s most exciting riders tells us how he gets the best out of his bikes, tyres and electronics
Aleix Espargaró is yet to win a MotoGP race but he is one of the category’s most exciting riders, with an all-attack riding technique.
The Aprilia RS-GP rider, who I interviewed halfway through last season, is one of those who is happy to go pretty deep when he’s explaining his riding technique. He offers many fascinating revelations about MotoGP riding styles, as well as the behaviour of MotoGP engines, tyres and electronics.
You’ve been in MotoGP on and off since 2009, so how much did the change from Bridgestones and factory electronics to Michelins and unified software change things?
The thing that changes the life of the rider and engineer the most is the tyres. You can have the worst bike on the grid with the best tyres and you could win the race; or you could give Marc [Márquez] the worst tyres and he would finish 15th.
So the change of tyres has changed our riding style, the way the factories need to design the bikes, and the way the engineers need to set up the bikes.
With the unified electronics we struggled at the beginning, because we had to change the way the traction control works and how the engine-braking works, but it wasn’t a big drama.
Sometimes when the track is very slippery you feel the difference in electronics, but the bike depends more on the tyres than on the electronics, so it’s still the tyres that change things the most.
In 2012 when I rode the CRT Aprilia with the soft rear Bridgestone [CRT bikes were allowed grippier tyres than full-on MotoGP prototypes] the grip was unbelievable, but it wasn’t easy to set up the bike because the rear tyre had so much grip that it pushed the front tyre.
I need to feel connected, so I tell the engineers that I need to feel like I’m holding the throttle cable, like the old bikes
Sometimes, when you released the front brake, the front would push and you crashed, a lot. So you had to understand and set up the bike to make time with the throttle, not with the brake. Sometimes when you fitted new tyres for qualifying you tried to brake later, but this wasn’t the right way to go fast, because although you could brake a bit later you needed to use a lot of corner speed and then a lot of throttle because there was enough grip for that.
When I was on an Open bike in 2014, without the CRT’s tyres, I had to change my style a bit. Then when we changed to Michelins in 2016 I had the worst year of my career, because I struggled a lot with the front.
Especially at the beginning you had to brake only in a straight line because you couldn’t brake leaning into the corner, which was very difficult to understand. That’s why I’m not at Suzuki anymore, because I wasn’t able to adjust to the Michelin front in that first year.
Every time I attacked, I lost the front: crash, crash, crash. In the second half of the season I was fast, but it was too late to keep my ride, because everything in this paddock moves super fast.
How did you change your technique for the Michelins?
By looking at a lot of data! I remember spending many afternoons with Tom [O’Kane, his Suzuki crew chief] in front of the computer, checking and understanding the combination between lean-angle degrees and front-brake pressure. From there I became more balanced, using less lean angle and less brake pressure.
It’s easy for someone to tell you this and you can see it on the computer every time, but when you are on the bike it’s very difficult to change your riding style. It made my life very difficult.
But Michelin has done a great job because we now beat the lap record pretty much wherever we go. At every track we touch our elbows on the ground and we are asking more and more from the front tyre. And the rear tyre is very good; more stable over race distance.
The front has improved a lot since 2016, so now it’s very close to the Bridgestone front, but it’s still not the same. I remember with the Bridgestone front, having 15 bar of [front brake] pressure with 60 degrees of lean, elbow on the ground, locking the front and not crashing. This is impossible with the Michelin. The Bridgestone was like a rear qualifying tyre in the front: unbelievable!
With the Michelin the time between when you start braking and when you release the front brake has to be at the very minimum. Andrea Dovizioso is the best at this.
Whenever I’m with Dovizioso he never brakes later than me. We start braking at the same place but when he releases the front brake he’s 5kph [3mph] slower than me, so in the same few metres he has lost more speed than me, so when we start leaning into the corner I’m risking 75 per cent while he’s risking 65 per cent.
It’s all about stopping the bike in a straight line as fast as possible.
Even in 2017, at tracks like Austria and Austin, we locked the front during straight braking if we didn’t have a good front-end set-up to help the front tyre. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand whether you aren’t putting enough weight on the tyre or whether you’re collapsing the tyre, because the result can feel the same.
Sometimes I tell my engineers that we are collapsing the front tyre on the brakes because the bike is moving so much. But after a lot of analysis we realised that we weren’t putting enough pressure on the tyre to help it grip, so it’s not easy to understand!
What about riding position: do you lean off the bike more to help cornering?
I don’t lean my body out of the bike so much and this is something I need to improve. I try to train myself to lean out more but it’s not easy for me. I can do it on left-handers, but I need to improve overall.
Valentino [Rossi] is unbelievable, [especially considering] how he has adapted to the new era.
But then again, Dovizioso is one of the strongest riders of recent years and Cal [Crutchlow] is very fast, but neither lean off the bike so much. Many people tell me I will be much faster if I lean out more. I don’t fully agree. I really want to try to work on this, so I’ll know if it’s true or not. If I don’t try I’ll never know.
Some say that leaning off a long way can make the bike unstable…
I agree. It’s a very fine line and a very personal thing. Mid-corner it’s not a big advantage for me to lean off, but as soon as I touch the throttle it can be an advantage, because if you lean off maybe you will use two degrees less lean, which will save the rear tyre and give you an advantage at the end of the race.
Do you prefer riding with fewer electronics?
When Aprilia had our new engine at the start of 2018 the engineers asked me to do some laps with the traction control completely off, to see the pure behaviour of the engine. The engine was so much better! Every time you use the traction control, you screw up the engine, but, of course, you have 260 horsepower, so you need the TC.
But when there is no grip I don’t like to increase the TC or the wheelie control. I prefer to work with power reduction in the engine management, so if I ask the bike for 85 per cent power the bike just gives me 75 per cent, because if you use the TC you ruin the engine and you get more movement from the suspension and the chassis, so the bike becomes very unstable.
Also, the wheelie control makes the bike a disaster! To me the bike is better with less traction and wheelie control. Definitely.
If there’s a particular corner where I need more grip, the engineers can map the power corner by corner, but it’s not easy for them to know where to reduce the power, because sometimes I’ll say I need less power at the moment I first touch the throttle, but in fact I’m already at 55 per cent throttle.
This is why the factory teams with more electronic engineers find answers quicker.
Do like the fact that the power is more in your hands than in a computer?
Yes, it’s more fun and easier, at least for me. I need to feel connected, so I tell the engineers that I need to feel like I’m holding the throttle cable, like the old bikes. I need to feel that my right hand is connected to the engine, not to the throttle bodies.
What about tyre choice, it can be tricky these days…
When it’s very hot you think you need to go harder and harder with the tyres, but it’s not like this anymore. Sometimes in 2017 [Johann] Zarco chose the soft rear on super-hot race days, so the rest of us said, no way will he finish the race, but in fact he finished on the podium!
I don’t have an explanation, but I think it’s something like this: When the track temperature increases, the grip improves and keeps improving, to a certain level. Then once the track gets hotter than around 40deg C, the grip starts to decrease, so when the track temperature is very high, you once again need the soft compound that you usually only use in cool conditions.
The grip is less so you need softer tyres, because the tyre isn’t gripping the track. After Mugello  I talked to Marc [Márquez, who crashed in the race]. The track was so hot – 55deg C – that he chose the hardest front, but it was like ice during the first laps, so it was a mistake to choose that tyre.