Image courtesy of WorldSBK.com - Aragon Action Shots
When the dust settled from the Motorland Aragon race weekend, much of the focus will have focused squarely on Max Biaggi's shoulders. The Aprilia factory rider left the event as the strong championship leader, 48 points ahead of his closest rival. En route he would win one of the two races and challenge strongly for the win in the other. Yet despite once again commanding the media spotlight it is not Biaggi who planted the flag of a major milestone for the Italian motorcycle company, a milestone that may indicate a key turning point in the company's development of the superbike program.
It has been no secret that other teams have felt threatened by the Aprilia RSV4's presence in the Superbike class. Pointing to its fully adjustable frame geometry and advanced electronics as starting points for a longer argument, the oft cited complaint was that the RSV4 was more MotoGP prototype than production machine. Over the years, Aprilia did little to assuage their fears. After publically setting the ambitious goal of winning races by the second year of competition and the championship by the third, a goal matched but not completed by an industry rival, the RSV4 shocked the motorcycle community by acheiving each goal far ahead of schedule. Under the skilled hands of Max Biaggi the bike was instantly competitive, winning races and being a title challenger in its maiden season. By the second season Aprilia had captured both the rider and (even more covetted by the factories) manufacturer's titles
The only chink in the otherwise impressively svelte armor was that it seemed to work best with Max Biaggi while other riders struggled. The "Roman Emperor" has always been able to extract the absolute best from the RSV4, pushing the bike to near heroic heights. Take, for example, the near infamous 2012 season's opening round at Phillip Island
. After being run off track at very first corner of the very first lap, Max Biaggi rejoined the race in last place and at least 6 seconds behind the closest rival. Over the next 22 laps Biaggi proceeded to show the world how he earned the moniker "Mad Max" by catching and passing, literally, the entire world superbike field
with the exception of race leader and reigning champion Carlos Checa who had build an impressive lead over 2nd place. When he is "on", no other Aprilia rider has been able to claim to be in the same league as he is.
There lies the rub, as the saying goes. Though by all accounts a very potent weapon, the RSV4 simply worked better for Biaggi than anyone else. The issue did not, could not, lie solely with the riders as a variety of talent have thrown a leg over the 1000cc vee hoping to master it. Shinya Nakano started the 2009 season beside Biaggi on the factory team and rode a best finish of 4th at the second round in Losail. Marco Simoncelli competed in a highly publicized wild card entry in 2009 and crashed out of his first race at Imola. He then beat Biaggi to a podium with a move that even he admitted after was destined to end in a crash if both Biaggi and Spies had not recognized it and backed off - into the gravel. Camier joined as a substitute rider in 2009, and finished with a best of 6th at Portimao. He would continue on as a factory rider through 2011. While his time aboard the Alitalia Aprilia would not culminate in a win, Leon would establish himself as a series contender with several podium finishes for a highest of 2nd. Also in 2011 Noriyuki Haga joined the Aprilia squad on the Pata Racing customer machine. While the move represented several firsts for him, Haga was often strong. Despite a best ride that could have gotten him a 1st place finish had he not crashed out while in a commanding lead of a wet race, he had a best finish of 2nd in the dry at Imola before retiring from racing at the end of the season.
All of this illustrates not only the potency of the RSV4 as a machine, but the difficulty that other riders have traditionally had in taming it consistently. Many eyes were turned to new signings Eugene Laverty, fresh from an impressive season aboard the retiring Yamaha R1, and reigning Supersport chamion Chaz Davies. Eugene started with a bang, being instantly competitive and even besting Max during winter testing. However there is testing, and there is racing. As the season wore on, Eugene found himself falling further behind in the points standing while Max surged ahead. He would taste podium champagne on more than one occassion, but was equally prone to crashing or finishing near the back of the field. Chaz Davies started more moderately, missing the opening round completely and then retiring from his first race at Imola. However he worked his way upwards, breaking into the top 10 by Monza and consistently finishing ahead of the factory backed Laverty.
Then, in a single racing moment at Aragon, everything came to a head. In the background, Eugene and his team had been frantically working to solve the problems that he was experiencing aboard the RSV4. Then during testing at the Aragon circuit, a track for which they already had data, they tracked the problem down to an electronics issue
that caused the ECU to erroneously use the anti-wheelie control during cornering. It took 3 laps to isolate the problem by comparing previously gathered data, but those laps accounted for almost a full second loss per lap during a race. The difference was clear instantly, with Laverty posting much better times for the race weekend and ending the first race in a strong 5th place. Chaz Davies, likewise, was continuing to work on acquainting himself with the ParkinGo Aprilia. With no obscure gremlins to chase, Chaz hung it out for a SBK career best qualifying position of 8th on the grid. Despite being swallowed by the field, Chaz fought back to finish the first race in 4th behind reigning champion Carlos Checa. Max Biaggi fought tooth and nail with fellow Italian Marco Melandri, eventually beating Melandri to the checkered flag for another deserved win.
Race 2 was much of the same, and yet very different. While Melandri and Biaggi immediately began arm wrestling for position, both Laverty and Davies launched to a much better start that would see both of them hounding the leaders by the midway point of the race. Mistakes by both riders opened the door for Laverty and Davies to pounce through, Laverty leading partway through the race and Davies climbing as high as 2nd. These positions were not to be final, Melandri exploiting the power attributes of his machine to take and hold 1st to the checkered flag. Biaggi also fought back against both riders, however every effort against Laverty was rebuffed and he was forced to accept 3rd as Laverty and Melandri pulled away. Then at the end of the race, in a move that was both daring and "clean" in deference to Biaggi's standing in the championship
, Chaz Davies asserted himself to swipe the final spot on the rostrum for his first podium finish in the Superbike class.
On any race weeekend, having two bikes finish on the podium would be a good achievement for the factory, but this is not what marks the Aragon event as a potential game changer for the marque. Instead, it is the list of firsts that stacked one atop the other for the second race. For the first time, the supporting cast of Aprilia riders have been able to beat a decidedly "on" Max Biaggi. Also for the first time, the Aprilia customer bike has been shown able to lock heads with the best of the factory bikes from any marque and come out ahead. This is a tremendous achievement for the brand, as their Italian rival marque has enjoyed the exposure and publicity that comes with that distinction in the class for some time now. Most importantly for the Noale factory, however, is that race 2 at Aragon marks the first time in competition that the brand has been able to flood all of the top positions of a race
except 1. Past Biaggi's runaway wins of the past, or scything through the field at Phillip Island, the shot of all 3 Aprilia entrants fighting for the front of the grid serves as grim notice to the field of how truly strong a development package the machine is.
This may prove to be excellent news for Max Biaggi, who extended his lead over 2nd place to 48 points despite his finish in race 2. With his wealth of experience and race craft, there is little doubt that he is still capable of wringing incredible performance out of his RSV4 Factory. However a surge in performance by his stable mates means that they will stand a better change to serve as a buffer for him, leeching points from his rivals. Though, as at Aragon, there remains a chance that he will not always come out ahead of such entanglements, there is only one of him and many more of his rivals to be affected - and he already has the points lead. As Aragon showed, his several riders taking points from each other can help him to extend his lead (he went from a 38 point lead over Rea in 2nd to a 48 point lead over Melandri) as they jostle for position on the championship table. If he can keep a smart head on his shoulders, he can manage the near 50 point lead all the way to the championship cup at season's end.
Aprilia, of course, is the huge beneficiary either way. The brand moved from a 1.5 point deficit to Ducati in Misano to an 18.5 point lead when the smoke cleared at Aragon thanks to strong finishes by all riders. If the last race is an indication of their coming form, Aprilia will find itself hoisting the manufacturer's cup once again.
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