The final piece in the 2017 MotoGP rider puzzle has been slotted into place. Today, the Pull & Bear Aspar team announced that they have signed Karel Abraham to ride for them for 2017.
Abraham will replace Yonny Hernandez, and will race a Ducati Desmosedici GP15.
Hernandez had initially been expected to keep his ride for 2017, but rumors that Aspar was unhappy with the performance of Hernandez had been swirling since mid-season, becoming more concrete at Aragon.
Hernandez is currently 22nd in the MotoGP standings, and last of the regular MotoGP riders. He has scored just 17 points in 15 races, while teammate Eugene Laverty has racked up 71 points and is 12th in the championship, and second satellite Ducati.
Qatar is a tough place to test. First, there’s the timing. The track is open between 4pm and 11pm, giving a full seven hours of track time. In theory, that is. In practice, the first two hours are pretty much unusable, as track temperatures are much higher during daylight than after the sun sets.
The final hour is a risky proposition, as the moisture in the air tends to settle at some point after 10pm, forming dew on the track. The dew is as good as invisible, yet it drastically reduces grip. Crashes start to happen without warning, and at high speed.
Then there’s the sand. The first day of testing is usually more about cleaning the track than setting times, as the dust blows in from the desert to the west. It is better than it was: much of the construction in the area has now been completed, making the sand on the track just a smattering, rather than a full four-ply coating.
Effectively, there are four hours of usable track time, and a little less on the first day of the test. For the first two hours of the Qatar test, only the official test riders present at the track were actually circulating, putting laps on bikes and creating a clean line.
The official MotoGP riders were left to act the vampire, only venturing out once the sun removed its deadly rays from Arabian skies.
What did we learn from the Phillip Island MotoGP test? We learned that the rule changes for 2016, new electronics and Michelin tires, have made learning anything from testing very difficult.
To borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, we learned that there are still plenty of known unknowns, and even more unknown unknowns. The most interesting thing to come out of the test is that a few of the unknown unknowns turned into known unknowns.
To put it more simply and bluntly, we had our noses rubbed in our ignorance. What we learned from Phillip Island is that the teams and manufacturers are still slap bang in the middle of adapting to the new regulations, and that things are changing fast.
The hour of truth is at hand. On Monday morning, MotoGP fans will get their very first look at how the 2016 season is really going to look like. We got a glimpse at Valencia, but it was not a uniform picture.
Though the 2016 electronics and Michelin tires made their debut at the two-day test after the final race of 2015, there were still too many variables.
Everyone was on the Michelins, but some riders were on the spec-electronics, others were on the old proprietary software they had been using for the 2015 season, and the factory teams were using a mixture of both.
It was also the first time the teams had to focus solely on the new tires and electronics, without the pressure of an ongoing championship. Though for both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, the intensity of the season finale had left them drained, making it difficult to generate the necessary enthusiasm for testing.
There was a lot of work to do, for everyone concerned, and nobody did anything but scratch the surface.
MotoGP is headed to Motorland Aragon this weekend, and while the Spanish track is usually a favorite with the GP riders, for Nicky Hayden, it’s looking like a tough weekend already.
Breaking his right thumb while training on minimotos in Italy, Hayden will have to assess his ability to race on Friday, and if he decides to continue with the weekend, will likely have a hard time of things come race day.
After rating the top ten finishers in the championship, it is time to turn our gaze to those outside the top ten worthy of note. Below is a look at the seasons of Aleix Espargaro and Andrea Iannone, in the news in 2013 for very different reasons.
Aleix Espargaro – Championship Position: 11th – Rating: 8/10
Aleix Espargaro became the poster boy for the CRT class in 2012, beating out his teammate Randy De Puniet. The two Aspar riders showed that even with less than a year of development, a slightly modified Superbike could compete with the slower of the satellite prototypes. 2013 saw the Aprilia ART take another step forward, but it was a step only Espargaro could follow, De Puniet complaining of a lack of feeling all year, his performance plummeting.
Espargaro shone in 2013, regularly making it into Q2 under the new two-part qualification system, and even starting from the second row at the Sachsenring and Misano.
The race was always a different matter, the underpowered Aprilia no match for the prototypes, and even after the great start he got in German, running in the top three in the first few laps, Espargaro dropped back through the field as the race progressed.
Despite his disadvantages, he still bagged a bunch of top tens, consistently finishing ahead of the Ducatis. Espargaro demonstrated that the rider is still a key part of the equation in motorcycle racing.
The track was a lot busier on Tuesday at Valencia, after the halfhearted beginning to MotoGP testing on Monday afternoon. A group of well-rested riders took to the track to get prepared for the 2014 onslaught, and take the first steps on the road to a new season.
Some familiar faces, some new faces, but also a couple of new bikes, with the Yamaha FTR machines run by Forward Racing making their debut on the track, and Nicky Hayden getting his first taste of the Honda RCV1000R.
The times set by the brand new Open class bikes hardly set the world on fire, but that was to be expected given the fact that this was the first time either of them had seen serious use in the hands of Grand Prix riders. “Don’t forget that Casey [Stoner] did just five laps in Motegi with that bike,” Honda principal Livio Suppo told me. “It’s really just a first shakedown with the riders.”
That point was illustrated by Scott Redding, who has a problem with the wiring loom on Gresini’s Honda RCV1000R, and had to wait while they fixed that problem.
Aleix Espargaro and Colin Edwards will race for the NGM Forward team in MotoGP next year, riding FTR-based Yamaha production machines.
The announcement had been expected for a very long time, but confirmation only came on Saturday morning at Valencia, as haggling over buying out Espargaro’s contract had continued over the past couple of months. Negotiations have finally been completed, and Espargaro has been cleared to join Forward.
Though the factory seats in MotoGP are all filled, the prime seats on the non-factory entries are still open. Top favorites among the riders are the NGM Forward team, with the leased and FTR-kitted Yamaha M1s, and the Aspar team, which will be running factory-backed Aprilias, though not as an official factory team.
These four are the most competitive of the non-factory bikes, and any rider dreaming at a shot of a return to a factory ride, with Suzuki in 2015 perhaps, will want to be on board one of these bikes. At the moment, there are two lynchpins around which all of the rest of the choices revolve.
The Power Electronics Aspar team have seized the opportunity offered by the CRT rules with both hands. By teaming up with Aprilia and employing two talented and fast riders, Aspar has helped turn the RSV4-based ART machine into a genuinely competitive machine, in every respect except for horsepower.
At Assen, Aleix Espargaro finished eighth, ahead of two factory Ducatis and three other satellite MotoGP machines. The bike is clearly good.
For 2014, however, Aspar must face a dilemma. With the introduction of the spec-electronics system, teams choosing to race the ART bikes will lose the current advantage those machines have, a highly-developed and very effective electronics package.
Teams running ART machines must choose, either to accept the Magneti Marelli developed software, and keep 24 liters of fuel and 12 engines, or persuade Aprilia to port their software to the spec-ECU Marelli, and try to race with 20 liters of fuel and either 5 or 9 engines, depending on whether the Grand Prix Commission decided Aprilia had already been competing in MotoGP as an MSMA member or not.
For qualifying at Phillip Island, it would be safe to say that the weather conditions were tricky. Cold, cloudy, windy, with at times drops of rain, both MotoGP and Moto2 had to overcome the variable climate at the coastal Australian track.
With three turns clocking well over 200 km/h (~125 mph), Phillip Island is a fast circuit, but not necessarily a circuit dominated by bikes with a lot of horsepower. Instead, rhythm is the name of the game at PI, with the riders who are able to navigate the circuit’s intricacies benefiting the most: cue Casey Stoner.
Almost a full season now into the great CRT experiment, Phillip Island is one of the circuits where the production-motor machines can shine brighter, and none of them shine brighter than Team Aspar’s Aprilia ART.
Embarrassing some prototype machines during Saturday’s sessions, Randy de Puniet will start on the grid Sunday right next to Valentino Rossi, having qualified only 0.006 seconds behind the factory Ducati rider. Behind him will be the other prototype Ducatis, with Aleix Espargaro also in the mix.
The progress of the Aprilia ART is said to be down to Aspar getting a new set of motors from Aprilia Racing for the Australian GP, with those new motors making a sizable step in horsepower (+10hp according to Cal Crutchlow).
With the WSBK-spec Aprilia RSV4 Factory proving to be a potent machine in its own right, MotoGP’s CRT riders are clearly benefiting from getting closer to Aprilia Racing’s capabilities, but what about the Honda-powered 600cc Moto2 machines?