He has never won a grand prix in ten years of trying but Aleix Espargaro is the man of the moment in MotoGP.
World championships? Zero against the name of Espargaro, now 24.
Espargaro dominated free practice for the opening race of the season, easily posting the fastest time of the three sessions in advance of qualifying on Saturday.
Espargaro, on a factory Yamaha M1 running in the Open Class, was 0.4s faster than Andrea Iannone (Ducati GP14) – also running open spec.
Rossi, seven-time World Champion and winner of 80 MotoGP races, was amazingly 10th and a massive 0.9s slower.
Espargaro and the Forward Racing Team have unwittingly become the trojan horse for the campaign to level the playing field with the big budget, high technology factory teams.
Espargaro and the other open class riders have been gifted an extra-soft tire and a power-boosting 24 liter fuel allocation compared to the 20 liter tank and harder compound tires for the factory teams.
Rossi predicts Espargaro will be favorite for pole position in Qatar and based on practice times it makes sense. The race may be a different story.
“I don’t want to say I am the favorite because it is not nice,” Espargaro said after his stunning practice performance.
“I finished in front by 0.4s so if nobody comes crazy and improves a lot the setup I think we can battle for the pole.
“It will be a dream and I will be really happy but my target is to stay on the podium in the race.”
And it is the 22-lap race that is unknown territory for Espargaro, who is yet to complete a full race simulation at any of the preseason tests at Sepang and Qatar.
Espargaro’s time sheets at Qatar are full of three lap runs.
Most of his factory rivals including Lorenzo, Rossi, Marquez and Dani Pedrosa have been more diligent in this regard and completed race simulations at Sepang and Phillip Island although they remain concerned with the grip performance of the 2014-spec Bridgestone tires.
For the race in Qatar, Espargaro admits that the extra-soft tire is unlikely to be a safe option for 22 laps and that he, like other open class riders, will have to switch to the harder rubber allocated to the factory teams.
Another crucial point is the lower level electronics package of the open class – especially reduced traction control – which helps riders control wheel spin as tires degrade over the race distance.
The final five laps of Sunday’s race in Doha will be a massive test for Espargaro’s talent and race craft. Will he have saved enough tire performance to be a podium contender and fulfil a dream?
“Absolutely I didn’t expect to be in this position,” he said.
“When I was training in my house in the winter I didn’t think I could be first on the opening night by 0.5s and almost the same tonight and it is unbelievable.
“We know we have potential with the softer tire but the most impressive thing is with the hard tire we have a really good pace and we can have really options in the race.
“I don’t know if it is realistic to fight for the podium but it is our goal. I know it is difficult and I have a good team and they make a big effort with this bike and we need to believe.”
The fastest of the factory-spec bikes in practice was Alvaro Bautista (Honda RC213V) in third with Honda’s defending World Champion Marc Marquez fifth, 0.6s behind Espargaro.
The curious thing about Espargaro’s sudden rise to prominence is that even in his own family, he was not tagged by MotoGP talent scouts as the next big thing.
That role went to his younger brother Pol, 22, who last year was signed to a full factory Yamaha contract and placed in the Tech3 Yamaha as the next rising star.
Did Yamaha sign the wrong Espargaro brother?
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