In the fifth part of our season review of 2014, we turn to the Espargaro brothers. Both Pol and Aleix had excellent seasons, impressing many with their speed. If you would like to read the four previous parts of our season review, they are here: Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso.
6th - 136 points - Pol Espargaro
Being a MotoGP rookie got a lot tougher after 2013. Marc Márquez raised the bar to an almost unattainable level by winning his second ever MotoGP race, the title in his debut season, and smash a metric cartload of records. Anyone entering the class after Márquez inevitably ends up standing in his shadow.
Which is a shame, as it means that Pol Espargaro's rookie season has not received the acclaim it deserves. The 2013 Moto2 champion started off the season on the back foot, breaking his collarbone at the final test, just a couple of weeks before the first race at Qatar. He crashed again during that opening race, but quickly found his feet. He came up just short of his first podium at Le Mans, nudged back to fourth place by Alvaro Bautista.
It would be his best result of the season, but the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider was to be consistently found in and around the top six. Espargaro would go on to bag a couple of fifth places and six sixth spots. That is where he would end the year, sixth in the championship behind the factory Hondas and Yamahas, and the factory Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso. Ignoring the exception that is Marc Márquez, it was the best start to a season by a rookie since Ben Spies joined the premier class in 2010. The Texan did secure two podiums that year, and fairly comprehensively outscored Pol Espargaro in comparison.
What the younger of the Espargaro brothers struggled with most was the radically different style needed to ride the Yamaha M1. Moving up from Moto2, he had to change his approach completely. On a Moto2 bike, the harder you push, the more the bike moves, and the faster you go, giving you clear feedback on where the limit is. On a Yamaha YZR-M1, the harder you push, and the more the bike moves, the slower you go. The calmer you stay, the smoother you can be, the more relaxed you can ride, the faster you go. To ride a Moto2 fast, you need the attitude of a Viking beserker. To ride a Yamaha MotoGP bike fast, you need to be a Buddhist monk.
This, of course, poses a problem for Yamaha. Riders are no longer coming to MotoGP through the 250 class, where the key to going fast was to keep the wheels in line and exploit corner speed. With limited electronics, Moto2 riders learn to use engine braking to slide the rear wheel and help slow the bike, and have to clamber all over the bike to limit wheelies on corner exit. The two classes require a completely different skill set.
Yamaha knows this, and is starting to experiment using the younger Espargaro brother as a test bed. At tracks like Le Mans and Motegi, where there is a lot of straight-line braking, Espargaro was allowed to slide the bike more, let it move around. The data generated is likely to end up helping define the future course of the Yamaha M1, once the current generation of former 250 riders retires.
Yamaha believes that Pol Espargaro is the future, and is using the young Spaniard to shape the future of its bikes. The problem he faces is that despite being on a factory contract with Yamaha, neither Valentino Rossi nor Jorge Lorenzo look like leaving the factory team. Espargaro will have to make another step in 2015, and start challenging for the podium regularly. Then, Yamaha will have to start looking at ways to make room for him in the factory team.
7th – 126 points - Aleix Espargaro
After being the best CRT rider two years running, all Aleix Espargaro wanted was to get a chance to test himself against the best riders on the world on equal machinery. In 2014, he came very close to doing just that. Riding the Forward Yamaha – basically a 2012 Yamaha YZR-M1 with bodywork, triple clamps, linkage, and other peripheral parts built by FTR – in the Open class put the elder Espargaro brother on a bike which was fast enough to scare factory Yamaha rider Jorge Lorenzo into demanding that Yamaha seriously consider switching to the Open class. As the season progressed, it would become apparent that there were still serious performance differences between the Forward Yamaha and the factory bikes. Yet Aleix Espargaro still ended the year having impressed a lot of people, and earning himself a factory ride for 2015.
It wasn't all plain sailing, though. Espargaro generated a lot of excitement during preseason testing, consistently elbowing his way into the top five, and topping the Qatar test when the factory riders were absent. The pressure of that success may have got to him, however: after dominating free practice, Espargaro cracked during qualifying suffering a big crash and ending up ninth on the grid. He redeemed himself somewhat during the race, finishing in fourth, some eleven seconds behind the winner. His finishing position had been helped by the crashfest ahead of him, with Jorge Lorenzo, Alvaro Bautista, Stefan Bradl and Bradley Smith all taking themselves out and handing Espargaro a position.
That result at Qatar would prove prophetic. Aleix Espargaro demonstrated time and time again that he was capable of posting a fast lap during qualifying, benefiting from the extra soft tire which the Open bikes could use. During the race, the Open bikes were at more of a disadvantage, the spec electronics making it harder to get the tires to last until the end of the race. While Espargaro consistently qualified on the second row of the grid, only rarely did he manage to convert that into a top six finish during the race.
He ended the season with a pole and a podium, though he had help from the weather with both. At Assen, Espargaro timed his pole run perfectly, getting out early and pushing hard just before the rain came. At Aragon, the Forward Yamaha man judged the weather right and held off a late charge from Cal Crutchlow to grab second in the flag-to-flag race.
The remainder of Espargaro's season was marked by a lack of consistency, and a tendency to make errors. There was also a healthy dose of bad luck, being taken out twice by Stefan Bradl, at Indianapolis and Phillip Island, while he in turn took Alvaro Bautista out at Sepang. But he also proved that he was fast when he wanted to be, and fearless in dogfights, and possessed the real will to win.
Perhaps one way to judge Aleix Espargaro is to measure him against his teammate, and by that standard, Espargaro the Elder excelled. While Aleix was nearly always in Q2 for qualifying and battling for top 10 spots in the race, teammate Colin Edwards was struggling to score points, as was Alex De Angelis, who replaced the Texan after Indianapolis. Espargaro was consistently a second or more faster than whoever was on the second bike. That fact makes you suspect that Espargaro's results say far more about him than about the machine he was riding.
Will 2015 finally be Aleix Espargaro's chance to measure himself with the best? Though he is on a factory bike at last, the Suzuki obviously still needs a lot of work doing to it before it is truly on the same level as the Yamaha and the Honda. Maybe we won't see what Espargaro is truly capable of in 2015. 2016, on the other hand …
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