Massimo Rivola, CEO of Aprilia Racing, is the man who is largely responsible for the Noale-based motorcycle maker’s turnaround performance in MotoGP in the last few years. Massimo has a wealth of experience in motorsports – he has worked with Ferrari as Sports Director for 10 years, and he was also instrumental in taking Charles Leclerc from F3 to F1. We got to chat with him over an online interaction to pick his brains on everything from aerodynamics, the current challenges facing the future of MotoGP, the prospects of MotoGP’s arrival in India, the key difference between Formula One and MotoGP, and a lot more...
Thanks for taking time out for this interaction, and I'm hoping it's not much of an inconvenience as MotoGP is currently on a three-week break. So, how are you spending your time off?
There’s not much resting between races because you have to try to be perfect all the time. And even when the championship is over, you realise that you hardly have any time left for preparation for the following year. So, let's say that racing is a kind of job that you love and do because it’s your passion, but it’s incredibly demanding and takes everything from your life.
Regarding the 2023 season, Aprilia came in as a hot favourite for the title, but it hasn't really gone to plan so far…
You are right when you say that things haven’t exactly gone to plan. I think we showed that the speed is there, but for one reason or the other, we haven’t delivered the right performance, especially on Sunday. But, then, there’s not much that you can do about things you cannot control. Where we are right now, we need to be perfect in all areas to succeed. And it’s not just about being perfect in every session but also when you are not in one. For sure, we are looking forward to that race which will give us a bit more rewarding result. And I'm sure that once we win our first race this year, we will get a few more in a row.
Aleix Espargaro fought for the championship last year with the RS-GP, showing that Aprilia has a championship-winning motorcycle. Can you tell us about all the areas in which you have improved it for the 2023 season?
Yeah! We have upgraded it in many areas, especially those that give you gains in terms of numbers. I’m talking about the engine performance and aerodynamics, and when you're testing in a wind tunnel, you can see them. But, at the same time, you can’t measure everything in a wind tunnel because we get different feedback from the riders on the track. But I must say that from the aerodynamic point of view, 2023 is a step forward. We have also made improvements in other areas, but they are less visible, like electronics, chassis, etc. So today, I don’t think it’s a matter of gaining half-a-second advantage because you can invent something good, it’s about fine-tuning different parts to get that one- to perhaps three-tenths of a second. And that’s how you get the best out of your package.
Aerodynamics is a hot topic in MotoGP these days. Fans and even riders are complaining that it has made racing/overtaking difficult and that MotoGP is going the F1 way. Since you have an F1 background, what’s your take on this? And how can it be fixed?
It’s a very interesting question because when I joined MotoGP, I was deployed straightaway at my first race. And I said that if we focus on aerodynamics development, we are going to hurt ourselves because it will not only make bringing performance very expensive but also the show a bit more difficult – not better or worse, but more difficult.
The kind of aero package we have now has indeed made overtaking more difficult. And I’m one of those who pushed the team in this area by bringing Formula 1 engineers into the team for aerodynamics development. Of course, F1 and MotoGP are different regarding aero, but smart engineers can bring good ideas from one area to another. The rule change is supposed to take effect only in 2027. So, we will have three more years in which bikes will keep improving and getting faster and faster. And we will keep adding more and more aero packages. I even propose to reduce the aero starting from next year because I believe that it's going to be a bit too much. But to change the regulation before 2027, all manufacturers need to agree. And it's very difficult to find that agreement between all manufacturers. But despite that, I think we are one of the leaders in MotoGP from this point of view, in this particular area. And I'm happy to take one step back and reduce the aero effect on the bike to give more control to the rider. So, I kind of agree with you. Now, FIM is the only one that can change the rule because of safety reasons.
And now that we are going to fast tracks like Mugello, Silverstone, and Assen, let's see the speed we will achieve on straights and in corners. The latter is even more important because corner speed can be a safety concern on the track, in particular in the run-off area. The faster you’re in a corner, the larger the run-off area you need. So, perhaps it’s going to be a problem of track homologation in terms of safety. So, let's see what's going to happen. But if nothing happens, and I know that it may sound a bit silly, we will keep pushing the aero development as much as we can because it brings performance.
Do you think that’s why Japanese manufacturers are struggling now as compared to European manufacturers?
I think, yes, aerodynamics is one of the main reasons. While I can’t speak for the Japanese, I can speak from our point of view. When we design a bike, the aero part is not something that we add in the end. It’s something that is part of the design from the very beginning. Also, Europeans are used to working with a faster reaction time than the Japanese, especially in Aprilia racing. We are a small company, and the process of thinking of a solution and applying it is quite fast, which, I believe, is one of the advantages that we have.
You now have a satellite team in the form of RNF Racing, and you’ve got a seasoned rider in Miguel Oliveira. How important is that from a development point of view?
I'm very happy to have a satellite team. It took a lot of effort to get four bikes on the track, and we work very closely with them. We want the best for them too because at the end there are two Aprilia racing riders on those bikes, even though they are using the 2022-spec bike. There are things that we can offer them in terms of development, and they are very useful in bettering the performance. For example, even the slowest rider of the four will be quicker than the others in at least one corner, so the other three get to learn even from the slower rider. And that’s a simple way to improve, as we gather a lot of data.
What’s your take on using synthetic fuels or going fully electric in MotoGP in the future?
I have a lot of respect for electric mobility, but I think that MotoGP should always be super noisy and super-performing. And, therefore, I think the current situation is the right one and should stay the same. I’m not sure if the engine capacity will remain the same in the future, but we’ll find a way to lower fuel consumption and emissions. I also trust in the potential of new e-fuels. We will switch to 40% (non-fossil) in 2024, and then 100% in 2027. So, we’re striving to be carbon neutral. I'm also a big fan of good bike noise or rather sound. And you know how these bikes activate one of the five senses, giving you a great adrenaline rush.
What are your prospects in terms of MotoGP coming to India later this year?
India is a very important market, and I believe that there will be a lot of passion for motorbikes there. So, I’m very positive about the prospects. For MotoGP, it’s going to be one of the most important races of the season, for sure. Last year, we included Indonesia, and this year India. It’s a big step forward. So, I’m looking forward to it.
Last question. It’s a bit tricky. Tell us a non-Aprilia rider who you would be interested in hiring or working with in the future.
I have to say that I am happy with my current rider line-up, and I’m proud that I managed to achieve that. Aleix is our captain, who was fighting for the title last year. I think Maverick is the best talent on the grid, and we were not surprised to see Miguel Oliveira’s performance, even though he was very unlucky two times in races this year, given his body was destroyed by someone else. But I think he’s another potential champion. I also trust Raul Fernandez, and I’m sure he will be at the top very, very soon.
If you ask me which one is the best? Well, the numbers tell us that Marc Marquez is still Marc Marquez. He's the kind of rider who can bypass a bike’s problems and be super competitive despite the bike’s performance. I'm sure that Marc will fight for all the races till the end of the season. Hopefully, we can beat him, but he’s one of the guys who’s always there. So, I respect that.