The Gran Premio de Espanya welcomes MotoGP to Europe this weekend so we caught up with Pol Espargaro; the Yamaha athlete boasting two wins in two different classes at Jerez…
Whether sitting on the grid minutes before a Grand Prix with a Monster Energy cap adorned with two cans and straws, revelling in success or leaping into a Jacuzzi with the Monster girls across a race weekend; Pol Espargaro always seems to love every aspect of being a MotoGP star. The Catalan – and the younger of motorcycle racing’s famous siblings with Aleix also in the MotoGP pack – has never needed much of a reason to crack open a wide grin and find pockets of fun in the GP paddock. Growing up in earshot of track action at Montmelo and the Circuit de Catalunya, Espargaro was destined for greatness as a small and skinny teenager when he immediately demonstrated speed and potential in the 125cc class (now Moto3) and was pushing for podium finishes in just his second season.
He fought for a 125 world championship with Marc Marquez in 2010 and again shared slipstream tows with his countryman in Moto2 two years later. Pol became Spain’s eighteenth world champion when he aced the Moto2 title in 2013. After gathering a MotoGP Rookie of the Year gong in 2014 when he was sixth in the world championship his brakes bit a little harder in 2015 when he struggled to ninth. It was the first time ‘Polyccio’s’ trajectory in Grand Prix had levelled off. It means that 2016 presents a challenge. Espargaro might be limited with the technical resources of being a satellite rider for Yamaha and from within the confines of the proficient and professional Monster Tech3 Yamaha crew but this season is about re-establishing his credentials as a firm bet for the factory set-ups with a raft of contracts up for renewal for 2017. Importantly Pol needs to rediscover some confidence and again unveil that attacking and boisterous style that race fans associate from the bustling black and green form on track.
We remember conducting an interview with Pol several years previously that involved a bizarre language mix of Spanish, Catalan and English. On this occasion Espargaro is immensely expressive in his third ‘idioma’, smiles frequently (he cannot resist it) and nods along with questions that he attacks with a sort of relish. He is a pleasure to talk to and has no qualms approaching ‘tricky’ subjects like the controversial end to the 2015 MotoGP season, his struggles with the Yamaha, his alliances in the MotoGP paddock and on his own frank expectations.
It might easy to dismiss Espargaro as ‘just another Spaniard’ in MotoGP when nine out of twenty-one riders in the field are from the same country but that would be to ignore how much and how quickly he has achieved in his career and his relatively young age. Importantly Pol is also a character and a fighter and certainly has his place in this sport. Pol, how would you describe your emotions coming into your third season in MotoGP? Impatience? Pressure?I think it will be a difficult season for us in that we will have to work much more than last year and especially because there are new electronics and tyres. Ducati were working through last season with a similar electronics package and soft rubber; we didn`t. So now we have a lot to do to adapt. I think it will be a fun season for people watching on TV because there are no expectations…but I think it will be hard for us. Maybe it will only be hard in the first races and then we can improve a lot. When you first came into MotoGP there were a lot of smiles, excitement, boyish enthusiasm. Is that still there or has it gone away a little? [Smiles] It has gone down a bit. The biggest problem here [in MotoGP] is when you take sixth position then you have to feel it is a good result. Everybody is shaking your hand and happy but you are thinking ‘OK…but I’m sixth’. In one way it is good because you have done your job…but looking at other riders who are seventeen seconds ahead is not nice. Even if you are third and twenty seconds from the leader then it doesn`t feel like it’s real [achievement]. I still have the same passion because I am young, only twenty-four, and I’m fully-charged and a lot of bad things still have to happen to me in order to give up! I still have a lot of years ahead and I will keep pushing. Is the cliché true? That racing becomes more like a job and more politics are involved the closer you are to the top? Yeah, a little bit. Everything can be political. You can make good results but when you reach the limit then you cannot go forward anymore. You have to keep some space from the factory and give them a lot of respect. When we are close to them in some places you have to think they are fighting for the championship and look at them like they are your ‘bosses’. You have to think of many things. In Moto2 it was easy - boom – you had a teammate with the same bike as you and one could be first and the other third, fifth or thirteenth; it depended on you and your style. Here [in MotoGP] it goes beyond that and you cannot be where you have to be because there is that limit. But…OK.
I remember watching your breakthrough when you were sixteen and it seemed like your career simply skyrocketed. Do you feel it has plateaued slightly after 2015? Yes, especially last year. In my first year in 125s I made the podium. In the second I had a couple of podiums and the third year more, some victories and third in the championship. Then Moto2 and the first season wasn’t good but I ended the year with podiums. The second I fought for the championship with Marc and had a lot of pole positions and victories and finally then the title. First year in MotoGP was amazing: sixth and first satellite bike. 2015 was like going down. It was the first time [in my career] that I felt like I didn`t improve. I was just blocked. It made me feel frustrated. OK, I knew to improve on my first MotoGP year of sixth was almost impossible but with the troubles we ended up having it was hard to manage.
You are only twenty-four but I remember those seasons and races in 125s with you and Marquez and that must have been so much fun. Do you look back now and think ‘that was racing…’? Especially on the technical side because the bikes were different but it didn`t seem like you needed much to be competitive…
Yeah I remember…[well]! You know the year I had the most fun was not the one where I was world champion; the opposite, in fact, because the season I won the championship I was suffering a lot and wearing huge holes in the Dunlop tyres. It was crazy. The year  fighting with Marc was so nice. We came with a bike that was in development and was not amazing but when I came onto the Kalex I thought ‘we’re going to smash it’. I could attack and be aggressive and try for those Pole laps. I would go to every track and say to my guys “what is the record here? I’m going for it...” This feeling of power is what makes you stronger day-by-day and want to wake up in the morning and go training. When you are blocked you don`t have that same feeling. I loved waking up and thinking ‘I’m the strongest in the paddock’.
So how is it to deal with the threshold of results in MotoGP because you don`t have those ‘factory’ resources? I know a podium result is always a possibility but how do you deal with being ‘blocked’ as you say…?
It is something I speak about and have experienced with my brother [Aleix]. He was in the CRT class when I was in Moto2 and we’d watch our races in the pit box of the other. For me [when I watched him] it was like seeing my future because as CRT his top result was to make a ninth or tenth. He came after the satellite bikes and that was his limit. I remember one race where he finished ninth and all his team were happy and shaking hands and so was I! Everyone was really happy…but what you feel inside is often not what you feel on the bike. I think it was Le Mans, and he’d had a good race and didn`t seem that happy. I said to him “Why are you not happy?!” and he replied “Pol, I was ninth. I cannot be happy with that…” I told him he’d done his best and the team were really pleased but he just saw that ninth place. I feel that now. Last year in Valencia I was fifth and everyone was happy but [Jorge] Lorenzo and the others were fifteen seconds away.
Do you then have to be careful and think about your next move in the sport? I guess you cannot afford to take too many wrong steps…
Yes, a lot. One wrong move can break your career. I remember in Moto2 I was close to staying with the same team for my second season after making some good results - but not amazing - at the end of the championship. Going with Sito [Pons] and with the team where I’d eventually be world champion was the other option. I was on the line, and very close to signing again with the first team. The moment when I decided I would go with Sito is one of the most important in my life. It allowed me to have a good bike, to learn a lot and to fight with Marquez and then be a champion in two years. If I hadn’t have done that then maybe I would not be here [in MotoGP] now. So in one season your life can change. Just look at Avintia [Ducati] and what speed they had in Australia [tests] or Maverick [Viñales] now with Suzuki. You never really know where you can make the jump to be near the top.
And especially now in MotoGP with the technical changes…
Yeah…those new rules and seeing what is happening with the Ducatis. For many years the Tech3 bike was the first satellite but after the tests the Pramac and Avintia Ducatis were ahead and so was Cal [Crutchlow]. We were quite bad! In Malaysia the factory bikes were ahead by two seconds and you think ‘come on! Where did that come from?’ but then in Phillip Island I was 0.4 from Valentino [Rossi] and in front of Jorge! So it is all very strange. You cannot plan. That is why I say this year will be good for the fans. Maybe in Argentina Suzuki will smash us, then we go to the next race and Ducati get us, and then we move again and we are on the top! So unpredictable.
What about the impact for you though? Yeah, well, the press just want to sell the drama and I understand this. We don’t see too many stories in the press about a football player who has set up a school in Africa to help kids. It is more about what Cristiano [Rinaldo] has said about his teammates not being any good! This is bullshit. Maybe Cristiano did not even say this! Like I said I understand the reason for these stories but we have to try to forget it and just ride and hope for our day. We had one in Moto2 when I was world champion and need to keep focussing on our job to have it again. How do you fit in this ‘Game of Thrones’ type story? Do people see you as a Lorenzo guy? A Rossi or Marquez guy?
It is funny because when I took the plane to come to the Qatar test there was a Spanish guy who recognised me and he said “How are you?” and then directly: “what happened with Valentino? You are with Marquez no? What do you have to say?” I had to palm-it-off as “ah, it was just something that happened blah blah”. I was then in a taxi in Milan and the driver recognised me and said “you’re with Valentino no?” It is funny that people are still talking about it, and you cannot put yourself in a group or with a rider because whatever you say or do then somehow it is going to hurt! You have to pay attention in situations like that because your words can be badly interpreted. You can get in trouble! I’m honest and I don’t bullshit people, and I like Vale a lot, the way he does things and the way he is a showman. A lot of people know and love him so from Rossi, Jorge and Marc then Vale is my favourite. But being Spanish I cannot say the action in Malaysia was good or I liked it. Catalunya [home race] has always been a nice Grand Prix for you but how has that race weekend experience changed for you personally over the ten years you have been on the grid? More pressure? More workmanlike? When you are given the schedule for the week and you see there are already things to do on Tuesday then you know very well that it’s time for Barcelona! I normally get to the end of each day with a headache because we do not stop for a single minute but it is part of the job and it would be a problem if I did not have this problem! If I am busy then it’s because we have good sponsors onboard and we are close to the top. It’s because people want to see me and recognize me and that`s good. It’s true that there is a lot of pressure because of friends, family and sponsors and everyone wants you to have a good weekend and just one small mistake can send everything to the rubbish. I have to say that I work really well under pressure and I took my first 125 Pole Position at Montmelo and won races there, in Moto2 also. I am not the kind of rider who folds with pressure: the opposite in fact. In Japan the [Moto2] championship was on the line but I still fought for the win. I keep motivated and very focussed.
Does the heart beat a little faster on the grid at Montmelo though? Just because of that environment and the track knowledge…? Actually I would say we’ve done more laps at Valencia than Montmelo even though I have lived only two-three kilometres from the track for most of my life! I’ve tested more in Valencia but Montmelo is a race I go to on my scooter! I wake up in the morning in my own bed! That must be very weird for a Grand Prix weekend? It is! It’s crazy and the opposite of normal. Usually you can feel nervous at a race but because it is ‘home’ you don`t feel that. You feel that you have lived that moment many times and you are very familiar with it. That weekend is such a mix of feelings. At Montmelo it is important to have good people around you that protect you and make you as free and easy as possible. I have that! So it is easier for me…but still a crazy weekend.