MotoGP 2022: What the hell is going on? — Argentine GP insight

MotoGP

MotoGP has been crazy-tight for the last few years, so tiny differences make big differences to the results, but the 2022 season is already something else

Aleix Espargaro celebrates Argentine GP MotoGP win with Aprilia

Espargaro’s and Aprilia’s historic first MotoGP win in Argentina on Sunday was an emotional moment for all concerned

Aprilia

So far this season there have been three different winners from the first three races and nine different riders on the podium at those races, so not one rider has made the top three more than once, which hasn’t happened since 1952, the fourth year of motorcycling’s world championships.

Plus Aleix Espargaró winning his first grand prix at his 284th attempt, Aprilia winning its first premier-class GP in its 20th season of trying and both leading the world championship.

Aprilia’s first victory is also the fifth in a row by a European manufacturer – following Ducati’s at the last two races of 2021 and the first of 2022 and KTM’s in Indonesia two weeks ago. The last time European brands won five consecutive premier-class Grand Prix victories was almost half a century ago, in 1974, when MV Agusta was just about clinging onto its decade-long dominance as the Japanese factories arrived.

Plus 115-times GP winner Valentino Rossi is no longer around, making headlines whatever he does, and six-times MotoGP king Marc Márquez seems to face an uncertain future.

Espargaró is friendly, happy to talk openly and he races with his heart and with his soul.

And on top of all that last weekend’s race came really quite close to not happening due to a 35-year-old Jumbo 747 cargo plane breaking down in Mombasa, Kenya.

Even if we know the main reason for much of the above (MotoGP’s technical regulations which specify a four-cylinder and 81mm bore limit and spec tyres and software, which make all the bikes perform the same) it is impossible not to feel a bit discombobulated by what’s going on.

Espargaró’s historic win couldn’t have been more of an emotional, feelgood moment, because the 32-year-old is one of the MotoGP grid’s good guys – he’s friendly, always happy to talk openly and he races with his heart and with his soul. And he’s such a generous spirit that he would’ve had a much easier ride on Sunday if he hadn’t helped race-long rival Jorge Martin make it into MotoGP.

“I’m super-happy for Aleix,” said Martin, who led the first 20 of 25 laps. “I come from a humble family, so when I was young he gave me a house, bikes to train with and he fed me at his home, so he’s helped me all my career so far.”

Aleix Espargaro in 2019

Espargaró leads Rossi, Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow in 2019, when he came close to quitting MotoGP

Aprilia

Espargaró, who grew up near the Catalunya circuit, sitting in the classroom, listening to bikes going around, dreaming of making it in MotoGP, had been waiting for his big day since October 31, 2004, when he made his GP debut at Valencia aboard a Honda RS125. For context, that was the year Valentino Rossi won his first world title with Yamaha.

No one has waited longer for a GP win and few have taken so much criticism for racing for so long at the highest level without success. But this is the first year the elder Espargaró brother has had a fully competitive motorcycle; well, apart from 2008, his second season in 250s, when he had an Aprilia RSA.

This is Espargaró’s 13th season in the premier class. He started aboard a Pramac Ducati, when the Desmosedici was at its nastiest, then got relegated to Aprilia CRT machines, with road-bike engines, for the next two years. Then a year-old Yamaha YZR-M1 in 2014 and his first factory contract with Suzuki in 2015 and 2016, the first year of Michelins.

He lost the GSX-RR ride because he was too slow to adapt to Michelin’s front slick.

“Every time I attacked I lost the front: crash, crash, crash,” he told me a while back. “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.”

Aprilia had returned to MotoGP officially in 2015 and was struggling, just like Espargaró, so the Italian factory came knocking at the Spanish rider’s door and they did a deal for 2017: a factory and a rider down on their luck with a long and winding road ahead of them.

Until last year, when Espargaró achieved the factory’s first four-stroke podium at Silverstone, Aprilia had never even troubled the top five.

Espargaró runs a little hot – very excitable, very emotional – so those difficult years weren’t easy for him, so three years ago he came very close to quitting MotoGP.

“I had no energy, the tank was completely empty,” he said after Sunday’s race. “I talked to my wife and I said, ‘Laura, I can’t continue, I’m not enjoying it. I said I’m still young, let’s try to something else’. She helped me a lot, a lot, a lot. Also after the arrival of Massimo Rivola [Aprilia Racing CEO and the factory’s first full-time team manager] everything started to change at Aprilia, so I still believed in the project and finally I think we deserve this win because we have worked very, very hard.

Pol Espargaro with family and Aprilia team at Silverstone 2021

Espargaró, with his Aprilia team, wife Laura and children Max and Mia at Silverstone 2021

Aprilia

“I’m a very passionate guy, so when I arrived home from a difficult weekend, which was almost every weekend in the last five years at Aprilia, it was very difficult to be happy.

“My wife supported me a lot and the arrival of the kids gave me a boost of positive energy. I’m very happy to achieve this victory for them because it’s always very hard for me to leave them at home – this is one of the worst things in my life and in my job, to be far from them, so the first thing I thought about when I took the chequered flag was my wife and kids.

“After the race in Qatar, Max (his son) said to me, ‘You said you were going to give me a [podium] trophy and you didn’t’, because before the race I said, ‘Max, I’m strong, I think I can give you a trophy’, so after that race and he was angry, so after today’s race I said, ‘Now I can give you an even more special trophy’. I’m very happy but it’s still one week until I get home so I can hug them, but hopefully I can bring home two trophies, so now we focus on the race in America.”

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Going into the fourth race of ’22, Espargaró leads the world championship from KTM’s Brad Binder, who rode another gritty race on Sunday, from the fourth row to finish sixth, and Qatar winner Enea Bastianini, who spent much of the Termas race in a hectic multi-rider battle at the bottom of the top ten.

Maverick Viñales underlined the Aprilia’s performance with a strong seventh, chasing Pecco Bagnaia and Binder over the line.

Argentina was a complicated weekend for the entire MotoGP grid, with just one day of practice, after the late arrival of the last planeload of freight from the Indonesian GP, and a slippery race on Sunday. As usual, the Moto2 race scrubbed the track clean of Michelin rubber, so most riders struggled to find grip.

Nevertheless Martin – after crashing out of the first two races, once his fault, the other not – was as menacing as ever, counter-attacking Espargaró when his countryman made his first move for the lead and crossing the finish line just eight-tenths down.

“I’m super-happy with my performance this weekend,” said the 24-year-old Spaniard. “I think it was the most consistent of my MotoGP career because I was super-focused, working alone, trying to be consistent.

Aleix Espargaro and Jorge Martin battle in Argentina 2022

Martin and Espargaró fight out during Sunday’s thrilling final laps

motogp.com

“In the race it was almost easy to keep the pace because it wasn’t super-fast because the conditions were really hard. After the Moto2 race, the grip was much less than all weekend. I knew Aleix was coming, so I just tried to keep my pace and make no mistakes. I tried to push at the end to force him into a mistake, but he didn’t make one.”

And then… “I’m super-fast, motivated and confident for the future.”

Meanwhile the factory Ducati team had a horror-show weekend and currently has no riders in the championship top ten. Bagnaia struggled to get his factory Ducati to work over the Termas de Rio Hondo track’s many bumps, qualified a grim 13th fastest, then doggedly worked his way up to fifth at the finish.

Team-mate Jack Miller started 14th and finished 14th, the first time in his GP career he didn’t make a single overtaking manoeuvre. The Aussie must already know that if he doesn’t make a dramatic improvement then Martin will be coming for his factory ride.

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Reigning world champion Fabio Quartararo, who needs grip to exploit the Yamaha’s strong point, corner speed, struggled more than most on Sunday. The Frenchman was outside the top ten for more than half the race, finally making it into eighth, a long way behind the leaders.

“The first few laps were a disaster – I lost a lot of positions,” he said. “I felt straight away that the grip wasn’t the same as practice, then with more Michelin rubber on the track I could go faster.”

Quartararo now stands fifth overall, behind Suzuki’s Alex Rins, who took the last podium place ahead of team-mate Joan Mir. The GSX-RRs were often the fastest bikes on the track in the later stages of the race, their finishing positions as usual constrained by relatively poor qualifying performances, both riders starting from the third row.

Honda had another weekend to forget. Back on the rear slick that the RC213V was designed for – after Michelin’s surprise switch to a 2017/2018 spec rear casing for the Indonesian GP – Pol Espargaró qualified just off the front row and was chasing Rins for third when he crashed out. After the race he gave his older brother a big hug in parc fermé but it was obvious he was as disappointed not to be the first Espargaró to win a MotoGP race as he was happy for Aleix.

Honda will hear in the next day or two whether Marc Márquez has sufficiently recovered from his double-vision issues to race at COTA on Sunday.

And if Márquez does return, will MotoGP return to some sense of normalcy?