These past two pandemic-stricken season have been strange years for me as a journalist. Instead of heading to race tracks almost every weekend, I have been sat at home, staring at a computer screen to talk to riders.
There have been ups and downs: on the plus side, we journalists get to talk to more riders than when we were at the track, because computers make it possible to switch from one rider to another with a couple of mouse clicks, rather than sprint through half the paddock from race truck to hospitality and back again.
I no longer waste hours in trains, planes and cars, traveling from home to airport to hotel to race track. And it is easier to slip in a quick hour on the bicycle between FP1 and FP2, which has undoubtedly improved my fitness and prolonged my life.
But the downsides are major: it is no longer possible to knock on the door of a team manager to ask a quick question, or check some data with IRTA, or stop a crew chief or mechanic in passing to ask something technical.
Casual conversations do not happen. I miss friends and colleagues, people I have worked with for years, through many ups and downs. And though I don’t miss the travel, I do miss the scenery, and the locations.
Aragon is probably the race I miss most. Set above an arid red and orange plain, the views from the circuit are spectacular. The drive into the track passes along a ridge between two hills, with vistas over valleys left and right.
And the mountain village we stay in, and stay on in to go hiking in the week before or after, is beautiful, nestling at the foot of mountains, with a bright, lively river bouncing its way down the gorge to the town below.
Mix ‘n’ Match
The track is special too. It is no Phillip Island or Mugello, but it is still a proper motorcycle racing track, with a bit of everything. It has long, sweeping corners, at Turn 10 and the final two corners.
It has hard braking, for Turn 1, and the nasty chicane at the bottom of the “Sacacorchos”, the Aragon corkscrew at Turns 8 and 9. It has fast changes of direction, like Turn 2 and Turn 3, and tight changes of direction like the entry and exit of the bus stop chicane, Turns 12 and 13, and Turns 14 and 15.
And it has a fast back straight, but downhill, which favors outright horsepower marginally less than other circuits. And it is set on a hill overlooking a plain, with enough elevation changes to make it a real challenge.
That variety offers something for most MotoGP machinery. There are places to make up time on the brakes. The ability to change direction quickly is important, with the series of left-right and right-left switches which litter the track.
There are places to gain on acceleration. Speed helps, though it is not decisive. And the long corners demand the ability to carry speed through corners, whether it be on the edge of the tire, or sliding to help the bike to turn.
That range of demands is perhaps why a Honda has won here so many times. Of the twelve MotoGP rounds held at the track (eleven Grand Prix of Aragon and one Grand Prix of Teruel), a Honda has come out on top in seven of them.
Marc Marquez has won here five times (which is why he is favorite this weekend, as I wrote earlier this week), and Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa have taken one victory each for the Repsol Honda team. Alex Marquez took a podium here last year, and Takaaki Nakagami put the LCR Honda onto pole for second race here in 2020.
The Honda works well, and that bodes well, not just for Marc Marquez, but for Pol Espargaro, buoyed by his pole position and fifth place at Silverstone, and for the LCR Hondas of Alex Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami. If Pol Espargaro wants to build on the momentum he gained at Silverstone, there is no better place than the Motorland Aragon circuit.
But a Yamaha has won here three times too, twice in the hands of Jorge Lorenzo, and once with Franco Morbidelli, on the 2019 Yamaha M1 last year. Even Ducati has won one race, though the Italian manufacturer has seen a lot of the podium, with at least one bike on the podium from 2017 to 2019.
The Suzuki, too, has been outstanding, with victory for Alex Rins at the first round at Aragon last year, and both Rins and Joan Mir on the podium in both races.
Turning It Around
The track may suit the Yamaha, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Fabio Quartararo is going to run away with the race this weekend. It is, he admitted in the pre-event press release, his worst track. In the press conference, he was a little more confident.
“It’s a totally different situation compared to last year,” the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. “In 2019 I didn’t do a bad race but now I have a totally different feeling on the bike, I’m in a different situation and I feel much better. Of course it’s not my favorite track but at some tracks I didn’t like I was pretty fast this year, so it’s not so important.”
Quartararo’s biggest improvement has come in terms of consistency. He has had one bad race, at Jerez when he started to suffer from arm pump halfway into the race.
Beyond that thirteenth place – already a remarkable performance to salvage a that while having no feeling in his right arm – his worst finish has been seventh, and he has been on the podium a total of eight times, including five wins.
Quartararo has been fast in all conditions, and at every kind of track. Even Spielberg, supposedly a poor track for Yamaha, he finished on the podium at the first grand prix.
The issue for Yamaha, Valentino Rossi said, is the rear tire. “This is a very important race for Quartararo because on paper Aragon is not a Yamaha track. In the past we always suffer, especially the rear tire degradation so it will not be easy but if we can be strong and competitive also here in Aragon I think it’s very important for his championship.”
Whether the track is not good for Yamaha is up for debate, but it certainly hasn’t been good for Rossi. “Aragon is a particular track with an interesting layout,” the Petronas Yamaha rider said.
“In the past it was not my best track, I was not very strong and last year I didn’t race because of Covid unfortunately. But we have to try to find a good feeling with the bike during the weekend, try to be faster, and after we’ll see what happens in the race.”
Bring the Heat
One of the biggest differences to last year is the temperature. The two races held in 2020 took place in mid-October, over a month later than this year’s date.
That will help provide very different conditions: temperatures in the morning struggled to get above 10°C, and temperatures in the afternoon barely exceeded 20°C. Temperatures for FP1 this weekend are forecast to rise to the mid-20s, with qualifying and the race likely to take place with air temperatures of 30°C.
“The conditions are very different, especially compared to last year because last year the problem was that it was too cold,” Rossi said. “Now it looks like being very hot. So we need to understand the way to work on the bike and the tire to use and we will see.”
“When you enter on track and it is 8°C air temperature, it’s not easy,” Pecco Bagnaia said, recalling last year. “And for me more, because I struggle a bit to warm up the front tire. But I think that this year I already changed a lot that point, I never had that problem again because I can enter and push more.”
“In Silverstone it was cold, but I was competitive from the first lap, in Le Mans it was cold and I was competitive from the first lap. So it’s not a problem of mine like last year, and I think that this year will be all different, because it will be 30°C. So it’s a big change.”
This will likely make things a lot easier for all the Ducatis, Bagnaia predicted. “In the past years, this was a good track for Ducati, but last year we struggled a lot for the conditions, I think,” the factory Ducati rider said.
“Only Zarco did a good weekend, but he finished fifth. So it was a good result, compared to the other Ducatis for sure, but not a success for Ducati.”
The Art of Compromise
The difficulty everyone faces is the variety of corners at the circuit. That makes finding the perfect setup impossible, leaving teams to chase the best compromise, deciding which area of the track to sacrifice in the hope of making it up elsewhere.
“It’s quite a complex track in terms of layout. It has a bit of everything,” Miguel Oliveira explained. “We have very high speed corners, fast straights, fast accelerations. Braking with straight bike, braking points with a leaned bike.”
That made it imperative to find the best balance in the bike. “Hard to say we have a weakness or hard to say we have a strong point,” the Red Bull KTM rider said. “I hope we can combine good bike together.”
That is true for the Honda as well. “I like the layout a lot, with a lot of changes of direction,” Alex Marquez said.
“Our bike is always good in the changes of direction, like Silverstone T1, Austin T1, it’s really good on that point, and for that reason we are fast here.”
The LCR Honda rider also tipped his brother Marc to do well. Asked about Marc Marquez being the favorite to take victory at Aragon, brother Alex agreed.
“I think it’s the correct prediction. Before coming here, to choose him, yeah. I think he’s really close. OK, he did some mistakes in the last races, but I think he’s more close than ever to that level that he was. Just need a few things to improve, but he knows which ones they are, and it shows in the data. It shows in the data from him from Portimão to here. He’s again making those magic things.”
Marc Marquez himself was playing things down a little. “I know in FP1 I’ll feel very good,” the Repsol Honda rider said, pointing out that he also knew it would get tougher as the weekend went on.
“It’s something that during the weekend I need to understand. It’s true that this is a circuit I like, a layout I like. Left corners, we will stress less the right arm. Anyway we will see because sometimes the position in the left corners is not completely natural. I want to ride the bike and not think a lot about the arm or the things.”
With four podiums at the two races last year, including two wins by local boy Alex Rins – a native of the village Valdealgorfa, just 40 km away, where he owns a gas station, 42oil – the Suzuki Ecstar team have reason to be optimistic.
The layout of Aragon means they can use their rear ride-height device once again, a key part of their improved performance in Austria. But Rins had also bagged a podium in Silverstone, a track where they had removed it from the bike as dead weight.
“We removed it at Silverstone because I was trying to use in FP1 and FP2 and I had not enough time to pull it,” Rins told us. “Let’s see if we can use on this track. Apparently yes, because exiting on the back straight we are doing a lot of wheelie and also before the corkscrew also there is a lot of wheelie there, so maybe we will use a lot.”
Rins’ hopes were high, however. “Aragon GP is like a home GP, I’m so happy to start the engines again here,” the Suzuki rider said. “Especially after Silverstone because we are coming from a podium, second position, so my expectations are exactly the same.”
“For sure it will be difficult to be fast here with the Yamahas, the Ducatis, but anyway let’s try to push. I think a lot of people like and enjoy this track so the lap times will be very close.”
The Big Question
Of course all the interest is in who might with the race on Sunday, and how it will affect the championship, but the biggest story is arguably the return of Maverick Viñales.
After his spectacular blow up with Yamaha after the first race in Austria, which saw him sacked, and free to join Aprilia a few months ahead of schedule, not only does Viñales get a chance to ride the bike on a race weekend, but we, the public, get a chance to see Viñales on the Aprilia against other riders.
With two days of testing at Misano under his belt, at least the Spaniard arrives with a basic understanding of the Aprilia RS-GP.
Was he excited, Viñales was asked in the pre-event press conference? “More than excited I’m very hungry and also very motivated to start this story with Aprilia,” the Spaniard said.
“Right now these six races ahead is just a present, to prepare the next year much better, so our priority is trying to learn. Sure it’s very different, so I need to learn a lot, I need to learn quick, this is the most important.”
He still had a long way to go before he understood the bike, Viñales said. “I didn’t have time to compare, I just have time to adapt to the bike, making laps. This was the main priority. Also understanding a little bit the torque of the bike, that is very different. So I need to adapt quick, but it’s not an easy job right now.”
Seeing new teammate Aleix Espargaro score Aprilia’s first podium had served as an inspiration for Viñales. “For sure this set up a lot of fire inside of myself because all we want is to push,” the Spaniard said.
“I’ve been away for a while, but I think we come back on a good way. After the two day test, I feel very positive to be here, to get experience also on a race weekend and we just need to learn, this is our main priority.”
Espargaro, who is also a close friend of Viñales, had helped persuade the Spaniard that signing for Aprilia would be the right move. Not so much by talking to him about where the bike was now, but more the potential Espargaro saw in the RS-GP.
“He’s important,” Viñales said of the eldest Espargaro. “I don’t think to convince me to do anything. It was important because I have a lot of trust in him away from the bikes.”
“So it was important, and also to have him along on my side has been important. So more than convincing me about if the bike is going well or not, we talked more about where we can arrive. And this is what really convinced me.”
Leaving Yamaha had lifted an enormous weight from his shoulders, Viñales said, though he was careful not to go into much detail on his relationship with the Japanese factory.
“It has been a release for me, because I needed to do something different, honestly,” the Spaniard told us. “I was in a blocked moment, I needed to move on and to improve myself. So that was the occasion and also the opportunity.”
He did not want to dwell on the past, but rather look ahead to the future. “Honestly, everything went so fast,” Viñales replied when asked about the end of the relationship with Yamaha.
“So I don’t want to talk about the rest, or anything else. I want to talk about Aprilia, because at the end of the day, I’m here, I’m here to learn, to get experience, and especially I’m here to improve and develop myself.”
What can we expect from Viñales? Fans’ hopes of a podium or a maiden victory seem to be wildly optimistic.
He is up against a field of riders who have spent a test and twelve races on their respective machines, and have a wealth of experience with their bikes. In the current era of MotoGP, where the margins are so tight, the smallest disadvantage can end up in a major gap to the front.
Viñales still has a lot to learn about the RS-GP, and though is talent is beyond question, he still has so many of the nuances of the bike to learn before he can exploit its real potential.
The bigger and more interesting question is not what position Viñales ends up on track, but how he fits in with the team on a race weekend. Right now, expectations are low, and so setbacks are not an issue.
But as time progresses and Viñales gets closer to the front, tension will start to grow. He still wants to be world champion, and now he has to attempt to do that with Aprilia.
When he gets to the point where he believes he understands the bike enough to fight for wins and championships, then frustration will start to rise when things don’t go his way.
It is not the good times which will show where Maverick Viñales stands. It is the bad times. Right now, expectations are low, and so it is hard to fail. One day, however, that will change.
When Viñales expects to win, and finishes seventh, then we will know how the project is going.