The performance of Aleix Espargaro and Randy de Puniet has made it clear that Aprilia's ART machine is the bike to be on for any rider not on a factory or satellite machine. There are a lot of reasons for the bike's success: the engine in its standard state is very strong, the bike handles exceptionally well, and is very easy to ride. But perhaps the biggest advantage which the Aprilia has is the use of Aprilia's WSBK-derived electronics package, which is helping to make the bike extremely competitive. "Electronics are 75% of the bike," Aleix Espargaro said in a recent interview with the Dutch magazine MOTOR Magazine.
And here lies Aprilia's dilemma. From 2014, Aprilia will be forced to choose. If they wish to continue as a non-factory entry (as the category replacing the CRT will be called), they must use the Dorna-supplied spec software, written by Magneti Marelli for the spec ECU. Though the spec electronics has made huge bounds in the six months since it was introduced, it is still very much a project under development. Aprilia's software is a proven package, with many years of development behind it.
The alternative is to compete under the factory banner, and continue with their own proprietary software ported to the Magneti Marelli hardware. Though the electronics would be better, the problem will come with the engine durability and more especially, the requirement to race with just 20 liters of fuel on board. As a new manufacturer - Aprilia have not competed in the MotoGP class as an MSMA manufacturer since 2007 - Aprilia will be allowed 9 engines per season, rather than just the five the other factories must use, making engine durability less of a problem. Lasting an entire race with just 20 liters of fuel is too difficult for Aprilia at the moment. When asked about this recently by MotoMatters, Gino Borsoi said that they were finishing most races using very close to the current limit of 21 liters.
Aprilia are keen to resolve this problem. According to the ever-reliable GPOne.com, Aprilia asked the MSMA, the organization representing the existing manufacturers, for an exemption from the fuel limits, and an allowance of 22 liters rather than 20 liters. The MSMA rejected that application, on the grounds that there should be a single rule for all of the factories. GPOne.com rightly points out that when Suzuki asked for exceptions - extra engines, an exemption from the rule barring rookies joining factory teams - the Japanese manufacturer was granted them. Aprilia is now asking for an exception on similar grounds to Suzuki, but the MSMA is not prepared to make the same allowances for them as they were for Suzuki.
The fear, GPOne speculates, is that with an extra 2 liters of fuel and their proprietary software, the Aprilia could be a very attractive option. The ART has already proven its worth, and some bigger upgrades are on the cards. In an interview with the German website Motorsport Total, Aprilia test rider Alex Hofmann revealed that Aprilia has a new set of barrels and top end ready to test, with an 81mm bore rather than the current 78mm. This would allow the engine to rev more and make more power, and reduce the deficit to the Yamahas and Hondas in the area the ART is weakest. When added to the pneumatic valves which Aprilia believes could be easily implemented, this would give the ART even more power, and make it a very attractive option for the teams.
The real trouble with the Aprilia is of course the price. Where factory prototypes are being leased for upwards of two million euros, and Honda's and Yamaha's CRT replacements are on offer for around a million euros, Aprilia is offering its bike for around the half million euro mark. For a bike that could potentially be capable of troubling the satellite bikes, that is a very attractive price indeed, and could easily price the Hondas and Yamahas out of the market. The existing factories fear Aprilia taking over the class via the back door, and are therefore insisting that Aprilia compete under the rules as they stand: if they want to use their own software, they have to make do with 20 liters of fuel.
The ball is now in Dorna's court. The fuel restrictions - a demand by the MSMA, as they present the kind of 'engineering challenge' which they can sell to their boards as a reason for competing - are deeply unloved by both senior Dorna staff and the teams. They are a massive barrier to entry for new competitors, and one of the major reasons for Suzuki delaying their reentry into the class until 2015, rather than 2014 as first planned. Dorna could impose an exception for new factories entering the class via the Permanent Bureau (consisting of a Dorna representative and an FIM representative), but that would be a direct challenge to the existing factories. How the factories would respond to that is the big question. But with Aprilia offering bikes at half a million euros a shot, it is hard to argue against it as a cost-cutting measure.