MotoGP: Aprilia making steady progress
MotoGP: Aprilia making steady progress

So far this season the Aprilia Racing Team Gresini have made a steady incline of progression within the MotoGP class at the hands of Aleix Espargaro.

All new line up for Aprilia for 2017

The Spaniard was taken on as new rider, alongside former Moto2 rider and British MotoGP rookie of 2017, Sam Lowes bringing to an end their run with Alvaro Bautista (now with Pull & Bear Aspar Team) and Stefan Bradl who returned to the World Superbikes.

The move was always in the plans for Lowes, but for Aleix it came as a result of Jorge Lorenzo deciding to move from Movistar Yamaha to Ducati. Andrea Iannone was let go to make room for the Spaniard, and Maverick Vinales replaced Lorenzo at Ducati so Iannone took the available space at Team Suzuki Ecstar.

Aleix expressed his disappointment in the lack of engagement from his team before they made their decision, and so announced he was looking elsewhere. He soon signed up with Aprilia Racing Team Gresini and Alex Rins took the other spot with Suzuki making his debut year as a MotoGP rider.

Difficult start to the season, especially for the rookie

In what will be their first full season in the MotoGP class, they are definitely heading in the right direction at the hands of their pilots. But the season has proved difficult, especially for rookie, Lowes as he has tried to adjust to life in the MotoGP, he is having to face doing that with a bike that can be different from day to day as it is still very much in development.

The difficulties he has faced has proved stressful and confusing understandably for the rookie; how is he meant to learn if he hasn’t got the same bike to learn with? It means he hasn’t been getting the desired results as he has had a lot to overcome. This in turn has thrown his credibility into light as doubters have started to question whether he should be in the class.

Between the two riders over nine rounds they have crashed out of the race on eight occasions. Both riders have failed to finish the race four times each, so why is all the attention on Lowes to leave?

Aleix Espargaro competitive on the Aprilia

Looking over all the results Aleix has proved competitive and has like mentioned before managed to make a steady incline of progression; it just doesn’t necessarily look this way judging by the results. In several battles throughout the season he has been there, and proved strong enough to fight on the Aprilia. Lowes is still learning the ropes, as is Rins (who missed four rounds due to injury), but their performances would appear less superior to those of the super rookies with the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team, Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger.

In the opening nine rounds before the summer break, Aleix’s best Qualifying came in Catalunya where he was competing on home turf. His best result came at the opening round of the season in Qatar however.

At the floodlit track in the desert, Qualifying was cancelled because of rain which did not mix well with the already slippery sand, or the glare it created on the tarmac under the floodlights. So, Lowes began his first season with Aprilia in 10th, whereas Lowes made his rookie debut starting from 19th on the grid.

Rain meant great grid position and start for Aleix in Qatar

Rain before the race threw the whole event into doubt, but after much deliberation between the riders and officials, it eventually got underway after the track was checked and certified safe by safety officer, MotoGP legend, Loris Capirossi.

After a promising performance on his debut with Aprilia Racing Team Gresini, Aleix finished the first race of the 2017 MotoGP season in sixth. Lowes also got a promising start crossing the line in 18th, but he was last of the race finishers placing there as five riders had crashed out.

Double DNF for the Aprilia riders in Argentina

Argentina followed but it was a struggle for the duo throughout. Finishing 10th during FP3 entitled Aleix to continue straight through to Qualifying 2 to contend for a place on the first four rows of the grid. He worked hard and managed to secure a third row start when he qualified eighth. Lowes was in Qualifying 1, but he crashed out at the end of the session, but although he appeared to be OK, it ended his day short and he was to start from last on the grid.

The race was to turn out to be a disaster for the duo however as both crashed out at different stages of the Argentinian GP. After completing lap one Aleix was in 10th, and then went on to pass Bautista for ninth. But then he two came under attack from rookie, Zarco. Both Zarco and Bautista then passed rookie, Folger leaving the Spaniard to battle things out with him.

Both riders crash out at the Termos De Rio Hondo

Around the eight lap of the race, unfortunately Lowes was forced to retire from the Argentinian GP, it was around the time rookie, Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) crashed out, but the two occurrences weren’t involved.

It was to be a disappointing end to the race for Aleix also as he crashed out of the race with 11 laps remaining. Aleix had continued pushing and was catching Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team). Whilst taking an inside line as he was about to try and pass the Italian, he braked late but lost control and crashed out. In doing so, his bike slid and scooped up Dovizioso bringing him down. For the second time running it meant that would fail to finish in Argentina due to another rider’s actions.

Immediately Aleix, being the gentleman he is, ran over to Dovizioso to apologise and to ensure he was OK. Neither of the two were able to re-join the race; Dovizioso was stunned from unexpected accident. It meant that both Aprilia riders left the Termos de Rio Honda with no points.

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Several crashes leading up to race in COTA

They could have made up for it in COTA, but once again neither rider managed to again finish in the top 15. During FP3, Aleix crashed out at turn 13, the first right-hand turn at COTA after several lefts, and he was narrowly avoided by nine times world champion, Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha) on track.

Later on in the session, turn two caught Lowes out. He approached the corner cautiously but lost the front end and slid into the gravel. His bike catapulted once it hit the gravel and ended up smashing against the pit wall; of all the times to crash, during FP3 is not it. Although Lowes was unhurt he appeared to be incredibly disheartened.

Aleix’s team worked hard to ensure he got back out during the session, but then he suffered a second crash. This time he lost the rear of his bike after running wide and again slid. Again he appeared to be uninjured but his frustration was growing; he slammed his clipboard down when he returned to his pit garage. He was forced to sit and watch as the others competed to set fast lap times on track as both bikes were damaged and although his crew were working frantically, there was a small chance that he would get back out on track.

The two crashes for both riders meant that they would both end up in Qualifying 1. During the Final Practice session, Aleix had another moment where he was lifted up and out of his seat; things just weren’t going right for him. Later on, he required a tow back to the pits. Lowes then crashed out at turn two; he was kneeled down looking in amazement at the turn that caught him out for the second time that day.

Things went from bad to worse for Aleix as he had his third crash of the day; at an even worse time than FP3, in Qualifying. Less than four minutes in he had been struggling with the rear once again and did not look comfortable under braking. It meant that he was out of time to improve when it came to qualifying for a decent grid position, he ended up 24th (last); Lowes was on the same row in 22nd.

Both riders out of the points at COTA

Come race-day, Aleix was ninth quickest during the morning warm-up session proving that he had the pace at COTA. But then during the race, he was forced to return to the pits as he was experiencing issues with his front tyre. The crew changed it and he returned to the track but lost so much time in the process. He completed the race, but was lapped twice by the leaders, and crossed the line last in 17th.

Unfortunately too for Lowes, he crashed out with 10 laps remaining. At turn 13 the front folded and he slid out. What was a frustrating weekend ended early for the British rookie.

First of the home rounds for Aleix

The following round was one of the home rounds for Aleix, and the first of the European rounds, in Jerez, Spain. The familiarity with the track, and more than likely the determination to do well after two poor results clearly spurred him on as he was seventh and ninth on day one of the meeting. He finished 14th in FP3 which meant that he was through to Qualifying 1, but he finished in the top two and progressed through to Qualifying 2.

Lowes again found himself further down the timesheets, and at the start of Qualifying 1, he stalled his bike and had to run back to the pits while his bike was checked over. The disappointment at this stage could be seen on his face as he sat down in his garage, he was not having a good time of things and having to sit and watch his team change fuel tanks during the short session was the last thing he wanted to deal with during Qualifying.

Aprilia still very much in development stages

See, with the Aprilia still very much in the early stages of development having only completed one full season since joining the MotoGP class. Parts and modifications will be introduced all the time, and at the same time, prototype parts would essentially be very sparse. So should the bike be damaged or the part be faulty, they cannot be fully relied on and it will waste time for the riders which means they will find things incredibly frustrating.

Vital time lost for Lowes during Jerez Qualifying

Lowes returned to the track just before the half-way point of the session with just over eight minutes remaining. The track was empty, which was good in some ways, but for a rookie meant that he could not copy or chase anyone, benefiting from their slipstream. He was also seen using the new fairing on the bike that was designed to accommodate the winglet ban, but to try and keep the front end down.

The time lost meant he was at the back of the grid again, only this time in 24th, ahead of test rider Takuya Tsuda stepping in for injured Rins at Team Suzuki Ecstar.

Despite Aleix’s extraordinary efforts during Qualifying 1, his day came to an unfortunate and early end when he crashed when the session was coming to a close. He came off at turn two, and was again unhurt whilst he walked away from the bike that was buried in the gravel with his head down; he had to settle for 12th on the grid as the others improved their lap times.

Race day in Jerez

So it was going to come down to the race. Hopefully all their crashes were behind them and they would finish and finish in the points. The Movistar Yamaha riders, Maverick Vinales and Rossi were struggled in Jerez where the Hondas and Ducatis were dominating. After they had dropped down the ranks to sixth (Vinales), eighth (Folger) and Rossi (ninth), Aleix was actually lapping 0.7 seconds quicker than those in front of him.

Aleix caught Rossi and passed him before Rossi ran wide at turn one of the track. Unfortunately, Aleix ran out of time and was able to progress further but he proved that he had the pace and more importantly his bike set-up was lasting well towards the end of the race. He picked up seven points when he finished ninth; and hopefully some confidence in his own doings.

Lowes also completed the race although he was off the pace by a long shot. He was sixteenth, but was 19 seconds of Karel Abraham (Pull & Bear Aspar Tea) in 5th. He wasn’t last however, as Tsuda finished behind him by another 19 seconds. Still, it was a positive that he finished after the tough weekend he had.

Sombre mood heading to Le Mans

Le Mans followed on from Jerez and it was to prove to be another tough weekend for Aleix which was disappointing as he was so competitive the meeting before. The whole paddock was affected by the news of Nicky Hayden who was fighting for his life, and a sombre mood had come over everyone; Nicky Hayden lost his life in between the meetings at Le Mans and Mugello.

Wet start to the French GP

On track, it was raining on day one and Lowes was looking competitive as he battled alongside Hector Barbera (Reale Avintia Racing) and then was able to challenge for a spot further up the timesheets; something had spurred him on. Day two was also wet, but as the track dried lap times dropped. During FP3, Lowes at one point made his way up to eighth on the timesheets; he ended the session in 13th.

It was not to be when it came to qualifying however as Aleix ended up 18th on the grid and Lowes was 23rd. Lowes had crashed at urn seven, suffering a low speed slide at the left hand turn. Aleix also crashed at turn three with two minutes of Q1 left. On race-day, Aleix crashed out with just five laps of the race remaining; his second DNF of the season so far.

There were eight crashers in Le Mans which meant Lowes this time finished in the points. He was 14th, less than two seconds off Bradley Smith (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) and picked up his first two MotoGP championship points.

On to Mugello

When things got underway at the next round in Mugello, a track where the Italian manufacturer were hoping to impress, Lowes again experienced issues that saw him once again be towed back to the pit garage. They both suffered crashes on the opening day, with Aleix coming off at turn five and narrowly being avoided by Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) who paused at the side of the track in amazement. Lowes then crashed out in the second sector, walking round in incredibly dusty leathers that had again done their trick, he was wondering about lost looking for a way back to the pits growing in frustration at the same time.

On the second day, Aleix made a fantastic start, claiming the top spot early on in the session. The team were meant to have received an upgrade that was proving beneficial and effective. It was enough to get him through to Q2 where he ended up claiming sixth on the grid, Lowes qualified 24th; the Brit had not received an upgrade to his machine.

Things went from bad to worse for Aleix

Again it was to end in disappointment on race-day for Aleix as he was penalised for a jump-start at the beginning of the race; he had to complete a ride-through penalty. Later on, he avoided a crash and he and his brother Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) ran through the gravel to avoid it. Later on he retired from the race with five laps to go; but his spate of DNFs was not over.

Lowes was more competitive in Le Mans, and had managed to stick with and battle amongst fellow riders, Loris Baz (Reale Avintia Racing) and Smith on track. Although out of the points, he was not last finishing 19th. He was competitive and able to prove that on track; improvements were being made, he just needed the pressure from speculation in the paddock to be toned down.

More disappointment for Aleix in Catalunya

Once again Aleix’s hard work was all undone when in Catalunya, the second round in Spain, and the second home round for the Spaniard. He again proved that familiarisation helped as his FP3 time got him straight through to Qualifying 2 where he scored a fantastic fifth on the grid; his best position of the season so far with Aprilia. After a promising start, Lowes ended up securing 23rd on the grid.

Aleix had a fantastic start to race-day as he was third quickest during the morning warm-up session with a competitive time in the sun. Everything was in place for him to succeed on home turf. He got a strong start and was fourth as they passed through the opening corners. He defended this position until Dovizioso shot past him on the Ducati.

He went backwards from here, losing another place on the modified track (that had been changed due to the death of Luis Salom the year previous), to Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Racing) but he bit back. He then lost another position to rookie Zarco, and then out of his control, his engine blew ending his race 18 laps early… was he ever going to get a break?

Again Lowes finished last, but again he finished the race. He was 19th, just over six seconds off Pol in 18th; three riders failed to finish in Catalunya. Sadly, his results were only going to get worse from here.

Wet Motul TT Assen once again

The eighth meeting of the season in Assen was haunted by rain as it fell on the opening two days and then threatened just before the race before a shower fell halfway through. It was a struggle for the Aprilia boys as both found themselves further down the ranks, despite finishing seventh in FP3, Aleix missed out on Q2 due to combined times.

He finished fifth, but amazingly, Lowes overcome flying over the bumps in the run off area and a crash at turn 10 during FP2, and finished in the top two and progressed for the first time to Qualifying 2 where he claimed 10th on the grid; maybe things were finally on the up?

Lowes crashes out

On race day, it was wet during the warm-up and Lowes refrained from going out on track but Aleix did and was 13th quickest. During the race Aleix immediately recovered positions moving up to 12th on the opening lap, he and Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) continued to push through the field mugging Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0).

Lowes lost some dropping to 15th where he battled to redeem his position from Baz. The Brit ensured he kept the French Ducati rider under pressure but then unfortunately on the ninth lap, with 18 remaining, he crashed out of the race and was unable to recover; such a shame following on from his best Qualifying performance so far.

Aleix looking more competitive

Aleix, who had also managed to keep Pedrosa at bay was able to gain another position from Scott Redding (Octo Pramac Racing) when he passed him to take eighth on the 15th lap. Rain hit and the white flag was waved to signify that the riders could return to the pits to change bikes that were in the pits ready and waiting with a wet set-up. Aleix chose not to pit, and he gained a position when Zarco did, but the rain saw him lose several positions and he finished the race in 10th collecting six points.

Sachsenring saw mixed results for Aprilia

Sachsenring was the final round for the summer break and there was once again to be success for one Aprilia rider, and disappointment for the other. Aleix again started off strong, claiming fourth, fifth, fourh and seventh during Free Practice and automatically bagging himself a spot in Q2 once again. He qualified eighth, and during the warm-up on race day was third quickest once again.

Lowes also wasn;t doing too bad, he was 15th and ninth on day one, but then dropped down the timesheets on day two and qualified in 23rd on the grid; a crash during FP3 didn’t help things. He gained positions during the warm-up finishing 20th ahead of Baz, Petrucci, orenzo and Smith but then it all went wrong once again during the race.

Aleix began battling with Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) for seventh when the race got underway; he remained competitive but soon lost another position to Dovizioso on track, he fought back, but so did the Italian and he went on to pass Crutchlow.

Aleix in points as Lowes crashes out

All was not over for the Spaniard however as in the second half of the race, after he passed Petrucci, a battle commenced between he, Rossi and Dovizioso. It seemed like Aleix was the one in control as he passed Dovizioso at turn 13, but then he ran wide allowing him back through. He remained in touch, and continued to chase the Ducati down but he kept missing the apex at turn one. He did it one too many times which worked to the advantage of Petrucci who stole sixth from him, and he finished the final race before the break in seventh, collecting nine championship points.

On lap 13 it was a different story for Lowes as he crashed out of the race. Not the result he needed when there were doubts about his future, and contracts talks and decisions to be done over the summer break.

Where they stand in the championship

Finishing in the points on four occasions out of the nine meetings in the first half of the 2017 season meant that Aleix is 14th on the championship, with 32 points. He is just trailing Redding by one point, and has a one point lead over Baz. Lowes only finished in the points on one occasion, and that means he is 24th, but as the lowest placed regular rider.

Difficult season for Aprilia

It’s a difficult position for the two. Like mentioned when discussing the Team Suzuki Ecstar season so far, Andrea Iannone (Team Suzuki Ecstar), because Rins has been out with injury, has had to basically continue developing the bike on his own. It is the same in a way for Aleix who has a teammate who already had a big challenge ahead of him in adapting to the MotoGP, so the work is cut out for both of them.

Lowes has not been afraid to admit that he is in a difficult position. He also mentioned the fact that he realistically hasn’t experienced the same machine from one meeting to the next be that because of the changes to the bike, or the settings being different due to the weather conditions. He remains optimistic however, and is positive that he has a lot more to give, and that he can improve much further.

So what does it mean for Aprilia?

We witnessed last year that they do have the potential, and surely in the first nine rounds they have faced every scenario (f not every one of them, most of them) when it comes to racing in the MotoGP class. The best thing for the two, is Lowes to be left feeling confident that his future is not in jeopardy. He isn’t bringing in the results but he has a bloody good argument as to why he hasn’t.

Not having to worry about whether he will be let go or not, will mean that the British rookie can focus on just that, being a rookie in the top class in the world. He has learned so much so far, in a short space of time, and is finishing races and able to battle with riders who have much more experience than him.

Lowes has always been one to find the limit, as has Aleix in all honesty, and Aprilia should not have expected much less when they hired two of the biggest fallers in the paddock; thankfully they walk away unhurt. They are just like 2016 championship holder, and 2017 championship leader, Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda), who finds the limit on several occasions, yet pulls it off on the race. This is just something that the Aprilia boys have to work on.

They are progressing, the bike is evolving and it is becoming more and more competitive. Once Lowes gets comfortable, they will have two riders working their damn hardest to push that bike to its limits. They need to remember it is still early days, and it wasn’t until the second half of a returning second season for the manufacturer, that Suzuki got that to the top of that podium. It may not quite be in the future so soon for Aprilia, as they have got a rookie at the reigns, but it is proving to be strong an able to fend off championship winning manufacturers such as Honda, Yamaha and Ducati who are much more experienced in the class. It’s all so exciting!