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|10-13-2015, 02:01 AM||#1|
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Alvaro Bautista and the Aprilia MotoGP project: The Hard Road
Alvaro Bautista is not really racing this year...it's more of a season-long test of various components and design theories to see if they will work for Aprilia's all-new factory MotoGP entry for 2016.
Alvaro Bautista commemorated his 100th race in the premier class at the Aragon GP; and thatís just in MotoGP, as he has another 115 races in the smaller cylinder categories. At age 30, Bautista is one of the veterans of the championship, having competed as an official MotoGP rider for Suzuki, a Honda rider, and starting from this season, as a test rider for Aprilia in its ambitious return to the premier division. A situation that has led to the 2015 season for Bautista being one in which he is merely participating rather than racing. "Itís true, because this year has been quite unusual,Ē relates the Spaniard. ďIt hasnít been a year in which I feel 100% like a rider fighting for the grid positions that I think I should be fighting for."
Hired by Aprilia to guide the development of its MotoGP project, Bautista had to psych himself up for the 2015 season because it was going to basically be a year to determine the characteristics of Apriliaís future MotoGP machine. Note the last part of that sentence: Bautista is basically riding to determine the characteristics of Apriliaís upcoming factory MotoGP entry.
"The bike that we are working on and have been working on since the beginning of the year started from a very different base than Apriliaís bikes (used in the Open class). But also, the work has not been evolving from what we had, because this bike really is a laboratory from which we are developing a new bike.Ē
Although it appears from the outside to be the same RSV4-based package used by some of the Open Class MotoGP teams, Bautista's bike is actually a far cry from those machines, with many different components being tested.
ďIt isnít a case of: ĎOK, this is the bike that we have to improve for next yearí; Itís not like this. The bike we are using is a test bike; we test components and see if they work. And itís with this collected data that the (factory prototype) bike will be manufactured and released to compete. This approach, until the end, means the bike isnít going to improve much."
A year of not competing
Itís a strange situation no doubt, because Aprilia took that step to enter the premier class by completing that step "outside" of the actual GPs. Itís a bit like Suzuki did with their returnófor nearly two years they did thousands of kilometers on test equipment. For Aprilia, it appears as if they skipped that step, but that's not actually the case. "It isnít that they skipped a step," explained Bautista. "They are doing what they said they would do. OK, you could say that this is a year that should have been done outside of racing, like Suzuki did. What do I need to compete in MotoGP? A light engine. What else do I need? This thing this way and that thing the other way...you build it and then come here with a foundation ready to develop. But at Aprilia, this they didnít do it like that; they show up with a motorbike and we develop it during races. We are looking for the path to a Ďgoodí bike: this is a test bike."
Bautista's 2015 MotoGP season has been one of a test rider doing his testing during the GP weekends. "This year has been quite unusual,Ē relates the Spaniard. ďIt hasnít been a year in which I feel 100% like a rider fighting for the grid positions that I think I should be fighting for."
A test bike that is not expected or intended to be competitive. A somewhat strange testbed environment...
"Like I said, the goal is to take all data to the component level: like if the angle of a style of chassis goes well. Because really the basis of the bike is the engine, which right now is a street engine. It is a big engine, too. It's not like the Honda for example which is smaller and you can play with the motor position, the center of gravity...not in this case."
The fact they are using a derivative of a production motorcycle means the engine is bulky and the margins to move it around within the chassis (to experiment with different geometries and weight distribution) are almost nonexistent. "Yeah, in this sense we are completely limited, but next year the foundationówhich is the engineóhas already have been defined. When we begin, the new engine will be much smaller and lighter, and also more powerful. From there we can do things, we can add the components that we are testing this year."
There is still a tremendous amount of work that lies ahead in Noale before they can even think about going racing. At least in one area, the electronics, in which Aprilia pioneered, are up to date...or so we thought before speaking with Bautista. "Let's see," begins Bautista after a pause. "Yes, at the time, Aprilia were a pioneer in electronics, but all these years away from MotoGP have caused them to miss the train and they have become...well when compared for example with the Honda I had, they are pretty far off. They have been in Superbike a long time and itís a different world...you canít compare."
Former teammate Marco Melandri's place on the Aprilia squad has been filled by Stefan Bradl, who is far more competitive. Does Bautista feel anymore pressure? "No pressure, maybe I feel like I've woken up a little more. Now I have to push more because Bradl is putting the pressure on, but I think that's a positive instead of a negative. Besides, he can also try things like me and I'm not the only one who chooses or dismisses an option. He tries it and if he likes it I test it and we compare or vice versa; it's easier that way."
A relaxed Bautista
Itís important to emphasize that Bautista reports all of this without the slightest tone of criticism. When he signed the contract with Aprilia that binds him to the end of 2016 (a good contract, no doubt), he knew exactly what he was getting into. At Suzuki he had a similar role, although in the case of the Japanese factory, the situation was a little different. "Yes, the experience at Suzuki was also different because I came up from another category and I had to understand the bike. At Suzuki they aimed to evolve that bike and it showed when we improved; you could see the progression much more evidently than now. This year, with all the experience, I think I learned how to handle many situations as a rider."
Alvaro references the days he had when nothing worked. The experience of racing in 216 GPs has taught him to be patient and to stay level headed. "I always try to see the glass as half full, I mean, to take advantage of what was happening at the time. I had to work with the mindset of being calm, analyzing everything and thinking about whether or not the changes work. I think right now as a rider, although the results donít show it, Iíve gained more maturity and I am a step ahead of where I've been from other seasons. Iím more sure of myself and able to control all kinds of situations. Maybe it helps not having the pressure of a competitive bike and what having to win brings; this year the days that go right are perfect, but if it goes wrong, no one tells me that I need to (step up) to another level."
Itís clear that 2015 is a year for Bautista to just be a test rider, although it's difficult to imagine that when the lights at the grid go out on Sundays, he is not out to compete. No matter the bike, surely when he is on the grid surrounded by other race machines, he forgets about his role as test rider. "Of course!" he confirms with a smile. "When Iím in the final laps of practice, and I exit the track from testing and comparing things to see if the bike goes better or worse, sometimes you forget you are in a GP practice session because you are so focused on whether a component is better or not. Later during the race we put it all together what I liked throughout the weekend. And then I go to compete."
"Until Germany I think they had no idea where they were," says Bautista with the sincerity he has shown throughout our entire conversation when we asked if Aprilia engineers know what they are doing. "It was like they were getting too much information and were not able to process it. After Germany the mindset changed a bit and now they have more of a method and idea of the direction we have to go. The last few things they tried, even the small things, have gone in the right direction. At first...they did not know what we were talking about."
Obviously the goal for 2016 for Bautista, his team and Aprilia, is to have a better, more competitive bike. Everyone expects that the upcoming changes in regulationóstandard electronics and the introduction of new tiresócan help balance things out. "They donít really tell me much," confesses Bautista when we try to probe him about the features you can expect from the new RSV-GP. "I'm always asking and they tell me they are working and that the engine is designed; now the parts they will mount are starting to arrive. But if I ask if I can take some laps in Valencia the answer is a resounding no, just like in Sepang."
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