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Opinion
MotoGP Catalan GP

How Espargaro “silenced many mouths” during his underdog MotoGP career

OPINION: Aleix Espargaro will bid farewell to MotoGP at the end of the 2024 season, announcing his retirement in an emotional press conference on Thursday at the Catalan GP. Something of a journeyman, Espargaro made key contributions to two manufacturers and faced down doubters in a career worth celebrating

Aleix Espargaro, Aprilia Racing Team

Whenever an ‘exceptional press conference’ is quickly ushered into the MotoGP weekend schedule for a single rider, it usually means only one thing: retirement.

Growing up in nearby Granollers, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya seemed like the perfect place for 34-year-old Aleix Espargaro to begin winding down a MotoGP career that began in 2004 with a 24th-place finish in the 125cc Valencia Grand Prix on a Honda. It’s a venue which the Espargaro brothers (Aleix two years older than Pol) could hear buzzing with life from their school classes when they were kids; where Aleix scored a maiden GP podium in Moto2 in 2011; where he took Suzuki’s first pole of its return in 2015, and where he scored Aprilia’s first 1-2 in MotoGP in 2023.

That he has three MotoGP wins to his credit (four, if you count his Barcelona sprint race success in 2023 also) defies what many expected from a rider whose efforts for much of his time in the premier class went unrewarded, and certainly unnoticed.

“Especially in the last few years, and despite the fact that people think that the older he gets the worse he is, he has shown everyone that this is not the case,” 2021 world champion Fabio Quartararo said of Espargaro. “He is a rider who has never thrown in the towel.

“The work he has done with Aprilia, starting from zero to win races, work that he has clearly done with his team, is to be underlined. Personally, I want to congratulate him for his career, and I think he has silenced many mouths in recent years.”

In 2021, three-time MotoGP world champion Jorge Lorenzo and Espargaro ended up embroiled in a bizarre feud the former began by (as has often been the case) running his mouth about Cal Crutchlow, which ended with Lorenzo saying on Twitter: “0 victories in 18 years? I knew your manager [Albert Valera, whom both shared at the time] is a beast but the fact you are still in MotoGP can be just magic.”

Espargaro is widely respected by other riders on the grid, and there were plenty of well-wishers following his retirement announcement on Thursday

Espargaro is widely respected by other riders on the grid, and there were plenty of well-wishers following his retirement announcement on Thursday

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

It's unclear if Lorenzo understood the irony of that statement, as his miserable sole year on the factory Honda in 2019 led him to retire at the end of that season - just one year after proving he was still capable of winning grands prix with Ducati.

A truly great career is, of course, measured in statistics. But can you distinguish a great rider and a great sportsperson? Because, to this writer’s mind, those two things are not mutually exclusive in motor racing.

“There are many, many riders in the world – even in this space today – who won a lot more than me,” Espargaro said on Thursday at Barcelona. “But I gave everything that I had, I worked very, very hard. Many times, I felt I didn’t maybe have the talent of other riders. But working hard, I reached quite a high level.”

"The 2018 season I was very, very close to retiring. Actually, I decided to retire, but my wife Laura pushed me [to continue]"
Aleix Espargaro

Espargaro’s path to the top step of a MotoGP podium was arduous. There is no doubting that he isn’t at – and never was – at the same level as a rider like Lorenzo, for example, through his grand prix career. But dedication and relentless belief is a tangible that will get you far if you are willing to suffer.

Beginning his MotoGP tenure in 2009 with four replacement outings on a Pramac Ducati, Espargaro scored points in all four. A full-time ride followed in 2010, where he was again solid, scoring 65 points in an injury-affected campaign that saw him beat team-mate Mika Kallio 65-43 in the points table.

A step back to Moto2 yielded a first grand prix podium, before the CRT regulations in MotoGP that grew the grid with production-derived machinery offered Espargaro route back to the top class with Aspar. Through 2012 and 2013, Espargaro was King of the CRTs, finishing top in those rankings 93-41 and 126-81 in the points rankings to the next-best in class.

A switch to the Forward Racing squad in 2014 on an Open class Yamaha saw him take a fortunate pole at Assen with a well-timed lap before rain fell, while at the wet Aragon GP Espargaro scored his first MotoGP podium, beating Ducati’s Crutchlow on a run to the flag to take second place.

Espargaro built his reputation on CRT bikes before getting his first podium with Forward Racing Yamaha in 2014

Espargaro built his reputation on CRT bikes before getting his first podium with Forward Racing Yamaha in 2014

Photo by: Kevin Wood / Motorsport Images

Earning a factory contract for 2015 with Suzuki to helm its return alongside Maverick Vinales, Espargaro was a solid top eight finisher across 2015 and 2016. And though Vinales’ race-winning 2016 stole the headlines that year, Espargaro’s experience in developing that bike set Suzuki on course for the world title it would win in 2020 with Joan Mir.

He took that development prowess to Aprilia in 2017 but, as the RS-GP remained a backmarker and Espargaro found himself battered by the bike, he had decided in 2018 that retirement was imminent.

“The most difficult one [moment of my career], I would say it was the 2018 season,” he explained. “The 2018 season I was very, very close to retiring. Actually, I decided to retire, but my wife Laura pushed me [to continue].

“We were struggling a lot with the Aprilia, I was crashing a lot, having a lot of injuries, finishing one minute from the top. So, it was very difficult for me to find the motivation at home. Luckily, I had Laura by my side.”

Family has been such a key thing for Espargaro in his career. That is very much something that grew within Aprilia when Massimo Rivola arrived as CEO in 2019. Espargaro extended his contract and became what Rivola began calling its ‘Captain’.

Strong leadership and perseverance typified Aprilia as a new era for it began in 2020, the first helmed by Rivola from the start. The following year Espargaro delivered its first podium in MotoGP at Silverstone; in Argentina in 2022, he scored both his and the marque's first victories.

Espargaro sustained a charge for the title in 2022, coming up short in the final rounds as reliability issues started to blight the RS-GP. A title challenge didn’t materialise again last year, but Espargaro took yet another step, with his wins at Silverstone and Barcelona easily the best of his long career.

That leadership also helped convince Vinales to sign for Aprilia following his acrimonious split from Yamaha midway through 2021. Vinales, of course, scored Aprilia’s fourth grand prix victory earlier this year in Austin.

Espargaro became a race winner at Aprilia, a squad he has been intrinsic into developing

Espargaro became a race winner at Aprilia, a squad he has been intrinsic into developing

Photo by: MotoGP

In his 13 full seasons so far in MotoGP, Espargaro has lost out to a team-mate only once in the standings – and that was Vinales in 2016. Not all of those who shared a garage with Espargaro were up to his level, which skews that stat somewhat. But, particularly in those barren early days at Aprilia it does go some way to highlighting just how deep Espargaro dug to get results.

One win every 108 races isn’t a stunning hit rate, but MotoGP’s 75-year history is littered with riders who never even made it that far. At one stage, that looked like being Espargaro’s reality. The last few years of his career, Espargaro says he “was dreaming”. The RS-GP has legitimately become one of the grid’s best bikes; he has had genuine chances at podiums and wins, not to mention how much he raves about his life at home.

That he has looked at this as a good reason to retire now, with his current contract coming to an end, sheds light on the kind of ego Espargaro possess. Few get to go out on their terms.

The riders could do a lot worse than keep Espargaro around to help in matters relating to safety

“With Aprilia, seeing all these memories, the last two, three seasons were amazing,” he added. “I mean, I was dreaming. So, one of the reasons why I decided to stop is because for me this is enough. I already had a lot of fun; I would like to retire from being a full-time rider with a good feeling.

“This is why I’m extremely happy. It has not been an easy week because I felt sometimes I was jumping into a really strange place. But I’m very happy.”

Last year Espargaro’s points-per-round rate was 10.3 across 20 events. After five rounds in 2024, he is at a production rate of 10.2 PPR. That’s good consistency in MotoGP’s toughest era with sprints and grands prix to contend with. But comparing with team-mate Vinales, it is clear that Espargaro’s results production is only just beginning to slow down.

Vinales was at 10.2 PPR last year, while in 2024 he is currently at 16.2 PPR. There appears a clear shift within Aprilia, as Vinales looks to have finally found what he needs to be consistently competitive on the RS-GP.

So, the timing is right for Espargaro. His stats show he could continue to be a consistent performer into next year, but what more does he have to prove?

While Vinales has found another gear, Espargaro appears to have plateaued in 2024

While Vinales has found another gear, Espargaro appears to have plateaued in 2024

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Other than a lot more cycling around Andorra, Espargaro hasn’t given much thought to his future. Back in April, he was very welcoming to the idea of becoming a test rider for Aprilia. It’s a proper career now and a vital role. Aprilia, if it can put a deal together, will have a vital asset in Espargaro when the time comes to develop its bike for the 2027 rules overhaul.

As for MotoGP itself, the riders could do a lot worse than keep Espargaro around to help in matters relating to safety. One of the grid’s loudest and most passionate voices on rider issues, Espargaro could still have a role to play in the betterment of the series.

While no one becomes a champion without hard work, pure talent does a good job at masking this element of a competitor’s game. Espargaro’s determination and his work ethic should provide just as much inspiration for young riders as the multiple world champions do.

Aprilia now has a job on to secure the best possible replacement for Espargaro, though filling the leadership role that made the Spaniard such an important part of the brand’s development will most likely be impossible. Finding someone as doggedly determined as him, especially during the harder times, may well prove impossible.

Espargaro may not have the legions of fans that other riders do, but it was clear from the reception of his grid-mates on Thursday as he fought back tears that he has commanded an immense amount of respect over the last 15 years.

Espargaro was emotional as he announced his imminent departure from MotoGP, and will be a tough act to follow

Espargaro was emotional as he announced his imminent departure from MotoGP, and will be a tough act to follow

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

What the 2024 MotoGP grid said of Espargaro’s retirement

Maverick Vinales: “I didn’t expect it, to be honest. I expected for him to continue. He’s still there [competitively]. Obviously in Aprilia we are both commanding the Aprilia side and obviously he’s a very important of my journey when I go onto the track and check data and understand the bike better. But for sure, if he decided this it’s because he feels it. I just want to say that it’s been a pleasure to be his team-mate. He’s one of the toughest team-mates I had, and I had some really big names by my side. But it was tough to beat him and I wish him the best of luck in this new life.”

Jorge Martin: “He’s an important person in my life. I remember in 2013 I was his fan, I have some photos with him and he didn’t even know me. But finally, he’s not only my friend, he’s my brother, sometimes I’m his son. I join him for dinner with his family a lot of days in Andorra and I think he’s one of the most important people in my life. So, I couldn’t not cry and I’m so happy for him because he did a lot to stop a bit, to be with his family. He will have time for himself. Now it will be even more difficult to follow him on the bicycle!”

Alex Rins: “It was big news coming. I’m super happy for him because if he decides to stop racing it’s because he wants to and he deserves to. He did a really great and difficult seasons in the past. His history is not easy. But he’s really a fighter. He fights a lot. He trains a lot day by day to achieve his goals. I’m super proud of him and I’m wishing him a lot of luck in the future.”

Pedro Acosta: “At the end, we share a manager and in the last four, five seasons we started to have a professional relationship. It’s tough because when he started to talk and get quite sentimental, I was close to crying. But anyway, I’m super happy for him. Also we know Aleix really enjoys to do many things in life, like the bicycle and his many other businesses. For this, I think he is going to start to enjoy his new life, also his new priorities. For this, I’m super happy and super happy to be able to share a full MotoGP season with him.”

Joan Mir: “Aleix has given us all a lesson in recent years. He started in a super complicated situation in MotoGP, he held on there and when he has had a competitive bike he has been very fast. There are not so many people who last for a long time in a situation. He is an example and a hard worker. He has earned it and I hope he is very happy, he deserves it.”

Wherever his career takes him next, Espargaro will remain a popular figure with his peers

Wherever his career takes him next, Espargaro will remain a popular figure with his peers

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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