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Emerging from the drawing boards and centuries of laps it turned in testing, the KTM RC16 made its full time MotoGP™ debut in 2017. Ahead of the Sepang Test, KTM Motorsport Director Pit Beirer sat down with motogp.com to analyse that first season and their ambitious and impressive MotoGP™ project – both what they’ve achieved so far and what they have in their crosshairs for 2018.
Leitner on KTM's debut season and plans for 2018
“Our first year in MotoGP™ was definitely better than we expected,” begins the German, weighing in on the year just gone. “We wanted to step in, do a good job and make a good base. Of course, we had huge respect from all our competitors and the whole World Championship, so we concentrated on doing a proper job for the future; not even looking so much at the results.” Despite not looking too much at them, however, those results got more and more impressive throughout the season – and Beirer says they’re happy with what they managed to achieve. “Looking back now we are happy with the results, because we started the first practice in Qatar 3.5 seconds off the pace and a second slower than the second-to-last bike on the grid. During the season, we were able to shrink that gap to below one second, and we had many top ten results and got quite a few Grand Prix points, so overall we are quite happy with the first year.”
"We will never slow down as long as we’re racing"
Quite a few, in this case, was almost a full century by the end of the year – with riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith’s total also added to by test rider Mika Kallio during the Finnish rider’s multiple (and impressive) wildcard appearances. The progress kept pushing forward, and development, explains Beirer, will continue full speed this season – it’s just the KTM way.
“We will never slow down as long as we’re racing, and we are always going to try the maximum,” he affirms. “And you can imagine the effort will be even bigger now we can see that we aren’t so far away. Of course, the steps are going to be smaller because we came from the middle of nowhere into close company with the top guys, but the difficulty is that the they are not standing still, so you have to close an old gap but also a new gap which has been created by the other manufacturers in the class.
“You need double speed in development until you are with these top guys, but from what we know from the first year, racing in different categories for many years comes down to the same point: you need to look into the mirror and if there are some weak points in your team, process, or bike, then you need to improve that and not tell the media or your riders something that isn’t true. I think if you are honest and you analyse the weak points and you go home and work really hard then you can improve, and that’s what we did with a fantastic team and group of engineers. They are all there, some of them came with a lot of experience, some of them grew working at KTM, but I think the group is even stronger after one year.”
There are some new team members for this season too, but one thing, says Beirer, will always remain the same: the frame. From day one, that wasn’t a negotiable part of KTM’s MotoGP™ project – despite, or maybe due to, its unique character within the paddock.
KTM’s Evolution in 2017
“When we started the project, we had a nice white piece of paper with two fixed parameters - a tubular frame and WP suspension, because we are proud of these two products in our family and all around this we could build a MotoGP bike. With all of the doubts from outside, we had a lot of confidence inside because we know what we are able to achieve with these two products on the bike. To work with a material that we know so well in our company was a huge advantage because the reaction time to bring the experience from the race track into our chassis was so short, because we could do everything in-house without asking a third party. We are using this as an advantage; it was a huge advantage in the first year, it will be in the future. It’s just a disadvantage if you want to copy your competitors. We want to find our own way and it looks like we are in a good place.”
So from the bike, it’s time to turn attention to the riders. Espargaro and Smith, who both moved from Monster Yamaha Tech 3, and Mika Kallio – test rider, wildcard and the man who debuted the RC16 at Valencia in 2016. Is Beirer happy with the job they’ve done? “Absolutely,” he says. “I think, looking back, that we couldn’t find three better riders than the ones we had. Everybody did their part of the job, of the development and we shouldn’t forget that they all took a risk to join a new project where the bike is not competitive in the beginning, meaning you need a huge commitment, especially from Pol and Bradley as they left a competitive bike in the World Championship to come with us into an adventure. They took risks.
“Pol, for example, adapted quicker and could ride around problems much better, whereas with Bradley we also saw that once he had the confidence that he was also very strong, and he saved our manufacturers points in the season for us to finish fifth overall. Mika did a fantastic job with the test team at home also, and I would sign a piece of paper immediately to say that we have the three best riders to push this project forward. We are proud of them and we are really looking forward to racing with them in 2018.”
"Super test!": KTM riders talk Valencia
2018, waiting just around the corner at Sepang International Circuit. So with their modus operandi defined and their first season under their belt, what’s the target now? After the top ten, the goal posts, naturally, have moved:
“From the second half last season we had eight top ten results,” says Beirer, “so the next milestone should be to bring home top fives. I’m not saying this for the championship, but I think this should be possible during the season.”
And, although it’s early, there have been a few headlines around the future rider market and KTM. As expected, Beirer confirms that’s still off the table at the moment – but that the three names signed up remain the men on his wishlist: “There have been no discussions yet. I think what I just said about bike development means we can start with a much better package during the season and I’m really looking forward to seeing how both our boys perform, even Mika in some wildcard races, so the full trust is behind Pol and Bradley to bring the results home. In a perfect world we’d like to stick with them for the future.”
The world is seldom a perfect one, especially in racing. But KTM have proven that practice, step-by-step, can move you closer to it with every lap – and that they’ll be pushing just as hard in 2018 as they were when the lights went out in Qatar last season. Target: the top five.
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