Triumph of an underdog

This is a departure from my usual articles on Miata aerodynamics and DIY, to pay tribute to a MotoGP rider I’ve been following for several years, Aleix Espargaró.

I first became an Aleix Espargaró fan in 2014. I was only dimly aware of his accomplishments before that time, but it was his teaming up with Colin Edwards that brought Aleix into focus. 

You see, I was really a Colin Edwards fan, starting way back in his AMA days. But it was his 2002 World Superbike title that made him a legend. Troy Bayliss had won the first six races, and won another five straight later in the year. In order to win the title, Colin had to win the last nine races in a row! Against all odds, against a dominant Ducati-Bayliss pairing, Colin did it.

So when Colin moved to MotoGP, I followed closely. His career had its ups and downs (nothing more down than catching fire on the Aprilia Cube), and it wasn’t always easy to be the biggest fan of a racer who never won a MotoGP race. From 2003-2014, Colin got a dozen podiums, but not a single win. 

In 2014 Colin was towards the end of his career and moved to Forward racing, and was getting regularly beaten by his teammate. When that kind of thing happens, you either hate on them for making your idol look bad (ahem, Jorge Lorenzo), or you begin to respect them. I was on the fence of how I felt about Aleix Espargaró. 

It was Colin’s support of Aleix that did it for me. First, loaning him his backup bike when Aleix had stacked both of his, and then a single word from Colin, when he tweeted: “Aleix!” after the Spaniard’s stunning pole position. Seeing Colin’s approval of his teammate, I began to follow Aleix. Of his many underdog accomplishments in 2014, his battle with Danny Pedrosa at Assen was the most memorable. 

Since 2014 I’ve been rooting for Aleix, and it was a lot like rooting for Colin. No wins in MotoGP, year after year. Underperforming bikes, then a factory Suzuki, then moving to Aprilia, it’s been a rocky road.

Many people have questioned why Aleix still had a ride, seeing as he’d never won a race, and you can count the number of podiums he’s had on one hand, without using all your fingers. The fact is, it’s really hard to evaluate a rider who’s not on top-notch machinery, or is developing a new bike.

What most people don’t know is that Aleix has outscored every teammate he’s ever had: Mikka Kalio, Axel Pons, Randy De Puniet, Colin Edwards, Scott Redding, Maverick Vinales, Andrea Iannone, and Bradley Smith. Maverick outscored Aleix in their second season at Suzuki together, and so they are 1-1, but Aleix has the upper hand against everyone else he’s been teamed with, on identical machinery, some of them World Champions. 

When you beat your teammates, they don’t stick around for long, and it’s been a revolving door next to Aleix, with very little consistency or support developing the Aprilia. He’s not one to badmouth a teammate. I can recall many times he’s come to the defense of his partner, spoken highly of their progress, and supported them retraining their rides. But despite Aleix’s excellent record against teammates, he was still winless.

After beating Jimmy Conors in 1980, Vitas Gerulaitis famously quipped “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” That is perhaps the most famous quote in tennis. Yeah? How about getting beaten 199 times in a row? 

Last Sunday, on Aleix’s 200th MotoGP start, he got pole position, set the fastest lap, and won his first GP race. Motorsports is full of great stories, and the comebacks are the best. Colin Edwards in 2002, Nicky Hayden in 2006, and now let’s add Aleix Espargaró in 2022. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because it’s a long season, with the closest field in history, but three races in, he leads the world championship. 

As a MotoGP fan, I went from pulling for Colin to Aleix, from one winless rider to another. I’ve spent 19 years supporting the underdog, and my poor wife has had to endure listening to me rooting for the winless for way too long. That’s over now.

I feel like this wasn’t just a win for Aleix, but for everyone still trying to get that first magic first. I’m not alone in recognizing Aleix’s amazing accomplishment. Sports fans across the globe have wished Aleix congratulations. As legendary commentator Nick Harris put it, “There has never been a more popular winner in the 74-year history of Grand Prix racing.”

Enhorabuena Aleix, you had this coming.

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