There is a lot of fascinating news coming out of this week's EICMA motorcycle show in Milan: the boom in smaller capacity motorcycles, an upgraded Fireblade, a massive push from MV Agusta, details of which can be found on our favorite general motorcycling website Asphalt & Rubber. But the show is also making headlines which will affect motorcycle racing as well.
Today at the EICMA, during a presentation on Aprilia's future plans, Piaggio CEO Roberto Colaninno announced that the Italian manufacturer is aiming to make a return to the MotoGP class as a factory entry in 2016. The goal, Colaninno told his audience, was 'to achieve the same success we have enjoyed in World Superbikes', while recognizing that the factory had two years of hard work ahead of them. The aim is for Aprilia to race in MotoGP from 2016 with a pure prototype machine, according to GPone.com, with the objective of winning races.
The task facing Aprilia is sizable. With the defection of Aspar to Honda, Aprilia lost its most important technical partner in MotoGP. Having two strong riders in Aspar helped move development rapidly. However, doubts over whether there was any internal support for Aprilia's ambitious development program for their ART machine came to a head with the defection of Aprilia Racing head Gigi Dall'Igna to Ducati, where he is set to shake up the Ducati Corse department. The loss of the Cardion AB team to Honda leaves only Paul Bird's PBM team still using Aprilia machinery in MotoGP, a team which has much less experience in MotoGP and much less budget for development.
Aprilia's development program is still dependent on outside partners. In an interview with German language website Speedweek, Aprilia Racing's new boss, Romano Albesiano said that the factory was looking for partners to help develop technology for their MotoGP bike. At present, the ART bike - based on championship-winning Aprilia's RSV4 World Superbike machine - uses metal valve springs and a conventional gearbox, instead of the pneumatic (or Desmodromic) valves and seamless gearboxes which are now standard issue on the other factory prototypes. Getting those technologies right on their own will be difficult and time-consuming, as the development of Yamaha's seamless gearbox demonstrated. Even more difficult will be managing to compete with just the 20 liters of fuel allowed in 2014. That proved to be the stumbling point for expanded participation next year, and will remain a massive obstacle to any new factory seeking to join the series.
Aprilia already has experience of just how difficult competing in MotoGP can be. Their first attempt lasted just three seasons, Aprilia entering with the RS3 Cube in 2002, only to leave again at the end of 2004. The Cube was a fire breathing monster of a machine: the 990cc triple, built by Cosworth, made the most ferocious sound of all the MotoGP bikes, and the infamous photo of Colin Edwards riding a ball of flame moments before leaping off at the Sachsenring added to its mystique. But it was never competitive - its riders said it was barely rideable - and Aprilia was forced to abandon the project once it became apparent it would be impossible to make it competitive.
There is good reason to be sceptical of this announcement, however. 2016 is an odd deadline for joining the series, given that the current rule framework has been agreed until 2017. Dorna is known to be pushing hard to have the spec ECU software made compulsory for all MotoGP entries, as well as wanting a rev limit to be imposed and the fuel limits raised. Carmelo Ezpeleta has spoken in the past about more radical changes coming for 2017 and onwards, so for Aprilia to develop a MotoGP machine for just a single year ahead of a major rule shake up seems less than cost effective.
The announcement by Colaninno should perhaps also be seen in the light of the fact that none of the major motorcycle marques operated by the Piaggio Group had a new bike to present. The line up for Aprilia and Moto Guzzi remains unchanged for 2014, and there was little else to report, apart from officially presenting Marco Melandri as Aprilia's new World Superbike rider. A cynic might suggest that announcing Aprilia's MotoGP plans - vague, surrounded by uncertainty, aiming for a date several years in the future - was a classic piece of marketing misdirection. The media is now buzzing with the news of a possible return to MotoGP by Aprilia in the future, rather than the lack of new bikes for the new year. Time will tell whether Aprilia's MotoGP plans are a pipe dream, or a concrete program aimed squarely at the future.