Aleix Espargaro’s dream MotoGP weekend continued at Barcelona as the Aprilia rider claimed two all-time circuit records on his way to pole position.
The Spaniard’s 1’38.742 lap well and truly stole the show in front of his home support, three-hundredths of a second fastest than his morning record from FP3. With his regular podium sitters Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo joining him on the front row for Sunday’s 24-lap Catalan GP.
“Yeah I’m very happy, the first part of the job is done,” Espargaro said from his home paddock on Saturday.
“It was a hard, a very, very hard qualifying. I would say that the most difficult qualifying lap that I did so far this season, because the track was super slippery.
“I wasn’t sure to go under the lap time that I did this morning in FP3. This morning came quite easy actually, I just used one soft rear tyre, but in qualifying was very, very slippery and I didn’t really enjoy the lap because I Iose the front a couple of times. I also had a lot of highside so I really riding the limit of the bike.
“But finally I did the last two corners, I was very, very fast, so very happy to close it. When I enter in the straight, I brake like ‘woa, you close it and you did not crash’ which was already a victory and then when I saw P1! I was very happy because is the home GP, so far in the weekend it’s great.
“Actually the most important part will be tomorrow so feet on the ground for the moment but we were doing a good job - not just for the pole position, which I’m very happy but especially on the free practice four where we put a good pace,” he continued. “We did a good job on the rear tyre because here tomorrow it will not be just to be super fast it’s going to be also to manage the rear tyre so to find this compromise it’s going to be very difficult but yeah, I can’t wait for tomorrow.
“Normally 90 per cent of the races, wins the fastest rider but here in Barcelona, it’s not that easy,” he reflected on the task ahead. “It’s not about to go fast. I can go very, very fast, but you also have to manage the rear tyre and it’s a bit frustrating you know, because there is a certain moment where you cannot do anything. There is nothing you can do, just accelerate and wait for the bike to go because the traction control is stopping you a lot, a lot, a lot.
“In free practice four I try different electronic settings to see if I lose a lot of time or not by saving tyre and we are quite happy with the results. The pace I did is quite strong. So tomorrow is going to be a balance to find this thin line between the speed and the consumption of the rear tyre.
“I think that I have good cards for tomorrow’s game but I will have to play good also. I have the speed, which is difficult always to be fast, but I had the feeling that is not going to be just to go fast. If I try for example to go away from the beginning, this will be a big, big risk because you can really pay a big price in the last five laps by destroying the rear tyre. So step by step. We did a good job and these guys [Quartararo and Bagnaia] tomorrow is going to be very strong.”
While Espargaro’s performance was the talk of the paddock, his Noale teammate Maverick Viñales also impressed as he secured a double attack for the RS-GP in Q2 after winning the Q1 battle.
“I’m happy to have Maverick, I need him actually,” the Spaniard said of his countryman. “If we want to fight for the title, especially as Ducati has 200 bikes there to play with, to have the draft, to have more information, to help them, to help Pecco in terms of points or Enea [Bastianini] in the last part of the championship. So as fast is Maverick, better for me, better for the team. Also in the human side, I have a good relation to him so I’m happy if he’s fast and he helped me also in the first lap because I take his draft in the preparation of the first lap, so I’m very happy.”
A fifth front row start in succession, a home Grand Prix, a new all-time record and the championship favourite for the win on Sunday, Espargaro is facing a lot of media attention and pressure from all sides this weekend. Something that has not been the case in his earlier career.
“It’s a strange situation,” the 32-year-old admitted. “New for me because it’s the Catalan GP. Valentino [Rossi] is not here, which Valentino was always the hero of every single weekend doesn’t matter the country but then Marc [Marquez] is not here also. So I’m the only Spanish Catalan who’s fighting on top this weekend and fighting also for the championship so it’s quite normal.
“I sincerely have more stress this year than in the past. I arrive on Sunday night at home a lot more tired but it’s nice. I’m enjoying a lot. Riding the bike this year is fantastic. So I’m really having fun, fighting with them. They are very, very fast riders so you have to always try to reinvent yourself and I don’t really care about the pressure, that is my home GP, the family, the friends, I’m having fun and trying my best.”
Espargaro has already started from pole position this season - at the ArgentineGP, a race he went on to win - so is he expecting the same result this time around?
“For me it’s different than Argentina,” he answered quickly. “Argentina, is not that it was easy because it’s never easy in MotoGP but I have some margin with my rivals, there I was a little bit faster.
“Here I’m struggling like them because this track with this lack of grip is very difficult to go fast. And as I said before, it’s not just a matter of how fast you go. In FP4 I could go with a medium tyre also in 39.5 but then you destroy the tyre and you are done for the next laps. So to understand what is the limit, to understand how is the consumption, all of this is not that easy.
“In Argentina you could push whatever you want and the tyre was not a problem. Here is not. So starting from pole position will help tomorrow but tomorrow is going to be a very difficult race.”