Among the measures taken by the MotoGP manufacturers in the wake of the Covid pandemic was a cost-cutting technical freeze on engine and aerodynamic development.

Having only rolled out its brand-new RS-GP in January and expecting, as a concession manufacturer, to be able to freely develop all aspects of the motorcycle throughout the season, Aprilia was arguably the hardest hit by the decision. Especially given the lockdown in Italy.

MotoGP's technical freeze was subsequently tweaked so that Aprilia and fellow concession manufacturer KTM could develop their 2020 engine design until the end of June, rather than the March 25 deadline for Honda, Ducati, Yamaha and Suzuki.

But when engine reliability issues emerged in the test session on the eve of July's MotoGP season openers - Danilo Petrucci falling on oil from Aleix Espargaro's machine - Aprilia's only option was to try and seek permission from its rivals to fix the problematic part; the piston.

As Yamaha discovered with its valve issues, achieving 'unanimous consent of the MSMA MotoGP Commission' to change sealed engine parts is no easy task.

Realistically, the difficulty in receiving permission from rivals is no doubt proportional to how competitive the machine is. While Yamaha won both Jerez races, Aprilia - bottom of last year's constructors' standings - finished at the back of the field, having cut RPM to make it through the weekends.

"During the winter tests we have seen that the RS-GP2020 made a big improvement compared to the previous one," said Aprilia Racing Track Manager, Paolo Bonora. "Unfortunately, we had a problem initially at the start of the season with the engine reliability.

"So we asked the other manufacturers to have the possibility to change the piston spec compared to the homologated one and we thank the other manufacturers for this confirmation."

Despite the piston modification, lead rider Aleix Espargaro is yet to finish higher than tenth place this season. The Spaniard recently said the RS-GP engine is still not operating at its maximum potential and is "the slowest engine in the grid in terms of acceleration."

"At the moment we are working so hard on the engine side," confirmed Bonora. "The bike is good for the turning and change of direction, but at the moment we miss a bit in the engine side, so our key point is to work on the engine.

"To gain for sure in the horsepower, because the horsepower is never too much for the rider, but we are working also on the rideability of the engine, meaning we are searching to find a better connection for the initial touch of the throttle to give the maximum acceleration and maximum confidence to the rider.

"At the moment, we didn't see in the track unfortunately the improvement that we did on the bike."

As well as a technical freeze and earlier factory lockdown to contend with, Aprilia has also lost the services of Andrea Iannone, currently awaiting an appeal for his 18-month doping ban.

"Having Andrea Iannone on the track should have been a different situation for us," Bonora said of the former Ducati MotoGP race winner.

Bradley Smith has been promoted from test to race rider to take Iannone's place, but that in-turn means the Englishman's development work has to be squeezed into race weekends.

"For every manufacturer, Covid-19 made a big difficulty for bike development," Bonora said.

"In our case, we are trying to do as many tests as we can during race weekends, but it's difficult to make tests without losing the performance of the rider.

"So having Bradley Smith involved in the races is a difficult situation for us and we are trying to manage as well as we can during the races with Bradley to do some tests."

Espargaro is currently 17th in the world championship with 22 points, with Smith in 20th on 11 points.

Espargaro is confirmed at Aprilia for the next two years, while Smith still doesn't know if he will complete the season, pending the outcome of Iannone's mid-October appeal.

Aprilia will be the only manufacturer able to develop its MotoGP engine during the 2021 season, with KTM losing concessions after achieving two wins and four podiums already this season.

 

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