At the Assen round of the MotoGP championship, Aleix Espargaro of the Suzuki Ecstar MotoGP team once again put in a competitive qualifying performance. Reuben van Niekerk caught up with him trackside, shortly after the qualifying session.
The Suzuki has been good in qualifying this year, also because you have the advantage of a softer tyre. How do you feel about next year with the change of tyre brand to Michelin?
We have a little bit of an advantage in the qualifying with the softer compound. Next year all the riders will have to use the same compound, which means nobody gets an advantage. But I also think that other manufacturers, like Honda, Yamaha and Ducati, have been racing with Bridgestone for a long time now and have naturally tailored their setup to suit the current tyres. For us, it is just the first season, so we did not really build our bike around the Bridgestone tyres as such. Maybe this can give us a bit of an advantage when it comes to setting the Suzuki up to work well with the Michelin tyre next year.
You are fortunate enough to be the senior rider on a new team. Has this given you the opportunity to develop the bike around your riding style?
When I rode the Suzuki for the first time in Valencia, it immediately felt great. The chassis was fantastic, really easy to turn and to manage. Obviously, for every race I make some requests and every race we are getting new parts. Also, I am really tall and the bike is quite small, so they are changing the bike a little to suit me in that regard.
Yamaha has benefited significantly since the debut of its seamless transmission. Will your team be looking at a similar solution?
We are aiming for the seamless transmission because obviously it is a big advantage. The engineers are working really hard in Japan on a solution, but it is not easy as it is a very complex system. However, we are expecting to test the gearbox during the summer break.
How is the team addressing the fact that you are slightly down on power and top speed?
In Catalunya we had a new engine package, but we were expecting a little more power than what we received. It is slightly better. It can rev slightly higher and has a little more power, but we need more, we are still down on power and the top speed.
Do you think that although the bike might be down on top speed, the more compact dimensions are an advantage on the tighter circuits?
When there are fewer straights and less high-speed acceleration, the bike is more competitive. Here at Assen [in the Netherlands] and in Germany we will be less disadvantaged because the straights are shorter. So, yes, until we don’t have more power, these shorter tracks are better for us.
How do the feel about the weekend?
Great. We just came from Barcelona where I qualified on pole and we were really close to the top guys, so that was going to be very difficult to repeat. I didn’t feel good when we arrived at Assen, but we improved a little bit in every session and I am happy with the second position in qualifying.
Does the fact that you crashed out of the previous three races mean that you need to ride more conservatively and rather think about finishing your races?
Yes, obviously the goal is to finish the races. It doesn’t matter what you do in qualifying, the important thing is race day. The last three races were a complete disaster for me. Never before in my career have I had three consecutive zeros. In Le Mans I broke the engine, in Italy a rider hit me and in Barcelona I crashed. So we definitely need to finish the races and take some points home.
The 1-2 in qualifying by yourself and Maverick Viñales in Barcelona was the first time Suzuki had achieved this since Kevin Schwantz and Alex Barros in 1993. That is a big achievement for Suzuki after only being back in MotoGP for six months. How has that affected the morale of the team?
The team was really happy because we didn’t expect to be as close to the front as we are in the first season. The team is new and so are the riders and we are really close to the top guys. It is a fantastic feeling and hopefully we can break some of Schwantz ’s records.
During qualifying at Assen you found yourself first having to get through Q2, because your practice times did not mean automatic advancement to Q1. How did that add to the stress of the weekend?
It was crazy. The level in MotoGP is so high. If you make one small mistake in any session you will be out of the top 10. So making it through Q2 and in to Q1 and then qualifying second on the grid was a great relief and we were happy with the progression over the weekend .
How is your fitness after you had the surgery on your thumb?
I am feeling great after the surgery. In Mugello [in Italy] it was really painful to ride the bike, but it quickly improved and at the previous race in Barcelona [on June 14] I felt perfect and I feel great now.
How is it to have your brother racing against you? When you are on the track do you treat him like any other competitor or how do you handle it?
I like it a lot. To have your brother in the paddock is unbelievable. Even if you have good people around you, your brother is your brother, so it is totally different. We try to help each other as much as possible and I think it is unbelievable to be with my little brother in the top 10 in MotoGP. It is fantastic.
From starting at second on the grid on June 27, Espargaro slipped back through the field and eventually crossed the line in ninth, ahead of teammate Viñales. The next race is on Sunday, June 12, at Sachsenring in Germany.
-Reuben van Niekerk