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It is not easy to succeed in MotoGP™. Even for a factory as well-funded and well-prepared as Red Bull KTM Factory Racing. The Austrian factory arrived in MotoGP™ after two years of preparation, test rider Mika Kallio giving the RC16 its debut outing at the final round of 2016 in Valencia. The objectives were clear, KTM CEO Stefan Pierer said at the launch of KTM's MotoGP™ project at the Red Bull Ring in Austria in 2016. "For sure we are facing a learning curve when we go into a segment, but we will reach the podium and the dream of my life is to be world champion in MotoGP™," he told the assembled media.
The learning curve has been steeper than they expected, perhaps. KTM finally racked up their first podium at Valencia in 2018, though it came in torrential conditions, when Pol Espargaro rode a brilliant shortened race on a rain-soaked track. They all count, of course, but KTM didn't come to MotoGP™ to succeed only when conditions allow. The Austrian manufacturer has succeeded in every discipline of motorcycle racing they have taken on; they expect the same success in MotoGP™.
2019 proved to be a year of painful but useful lessons. The Austrian factory had signed Johann Zarco very early – over a year before the 2019 season even began – with the intention of having an obviously podium-ready rider to take the bike to the next level. In his first year in MotoGP™, Zarco had led his first race, started from pole twice, and the front row six times, and finished on the podium three times. Surely that would translate to even greater success in a factory team?
KTM enter the next phase in MotoGP™
It didn't turn out that way. Coming from the sweet-handling Yamaha, the KTM was a shock. Where the Yamaha needed a rider to be as smooth as possible to go fast, the KTM wanted to be bullied and pushed. On the Yamaha, the more focused you were, the faster you were. On the KTM, the harder you pushed, the faster you went.
Johann Zarco never learned to get on with the KTM. At the Red Bull Ring, the Frenchman told KTM that he wanted to get out of his contract a year early, and leave at the end of the 2019 season. At Misano, after Zarco publicly criticised the RC16 once again, KTM decided to release him early, paying him until the end of the year, but putting Mika Kallio on the bike instead.
Looking back, choosing Zarco had been a mistake, KTM racing boss Pit Beirer said. "I think the whole paddock learned more that there are two different characters of bike and which bikes are easier to ride, which ones you are able to ride in a different riding style and which ones you need to win races. Somehow to me it was not clear when we took Johann over that there will be such a difference between two different bikes just from a pure riding style." The major lesson was simple: "Today I wouldn’t sign a Yamaha rider, for sure."
Zarco gives his version of events on the KTM split
The drama around Johann Zarco overshadowed the significant progress which KTM made in 2019. Pol Espargaro nearly doubled his points total compared to the season before, and finished eleventh in the championship, KTM's best result so far. The Spaniard also secured KTM's first front row start, qualifying in second at Misano. Unlike the Valencia podium, Espargaro grabbed this one in the dry, earning it fair and square. The test after Silverstone had helped, but KTM had tested at Misano along with every other MotoGP™ team. There were no unfair advantages had here.
At Misano, Espargaro singled out the work of Dani Pedrosa, now working as KTM's test rider. Pedrosa's analytical and methodical style has been a huge boon to the project, helping to push it forward. Instead of having to test and evaluate individual parts, the factory riders received preselected packages of parts which Pedrosa believes work best together. That speeds up development enormously, and has helped put KTM in a strong position for 2020.
At both the Valencia and Jerez tests, KTM was able to reap some of the benefits of that work. A new, more powerful engine appeared at Valencia, as the basis for the 2020 engine to be tried at the Sepang test in February. But the biggest change was a new chassis, and a departure from the trellis made of steel tubes. Instead of the circular section tubes, the lower section of the top frame rail resembled a beam, which tapered toward the headstock. Technically, it is not a beam, but the shape of the frame rail is a geometric form called a 'stadium'. Somehow fitting for a motorcycle designed for a racetrack.
Pol Espargaro was at pains to explain that this was not a departure from KTM's core concept, of working with steel tubes. "We have done the form on the side so that it looks a bit different but not as much as it looks," the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider told us at the Valencia test. "We still have the KTM DNA with the tubular chassis which I think puts us in a good way but we are still trying to understand things." The frame is still made of steel, but it is much lighter, and helps the bike to turn.
Test times suggest that it was pretty good. Pol Espargaro finished as ninth fastest at both the Valencia and Jerez tests. His times were on a par with all the other factory riders, bar Maverick Viñales. It was a promising test, with more to come.
What will 2020 bring for KTM? Pol Espargaro will once again be called upon to do the heavy lifting, as he enters his fourth season on the RC16, and has the most experience on the bike. Espargaro was entrusted with the bulk of the test work over the winter, as KTM had two rookies in Brad Binder and Iker Lecuona, and Miguel Oliveira, the only other rider with experience, was absent having shoulder surgery.
The objective for Espargaro now is to finish consistently in the top ten, and challenge the top five. 2020 should be the season where he starts scoring podiums of his own accord, earning them in the dry, and not having to hope for conditions to favour him. If podiums were handed out for hard work, Pol Espargaro would be at the front of the queue. But they have to be earned, and so he faces yet more work if he is to gain podiums on merit.
Espargaro will be bearing the brunt of the test work once again, at least in the early part of the season, because he has a rookie teammate. Hopes are high for Brad Binder, the South African having proved himself on difficult bikes in both Moto3 and Moto2. His style is a much better fit for the KTM RC16 than Johann Zarco's was, as he is a much more physical rider. But he has a lot to learn before he is completely up to speed.
Who is Brad Binder?
KTM's choice of Brad Binder to replace the departing Johann Zarco did not sit well with Miguel Oliveira. The Portuguese rider has been impressive in his first season on the Red Bull KTM Tech 3 satellite RC16, often the second fastest KTM rider in 2019, with a best result of eighth at the Red Bull Ring. The obvious choice for KTM would have been to move Oliveira up to the factory team, and bring Brad Binder into the Tech 3 satellite squad. But Oliveira was forced to watch KTM parachute Binder into the factory squad ahead of him, potentially blocking any hope of entering the factory team himself any time soon.
It is a decision which will certainly motivate Miguel Oliveira. The Portuguese rider will be motivated to beat his former teammate – Binder and Oliveira were teammates in both Moto2 and Moto3 – and to prove that he deserves a factory ride. Oliveira is fast and intelligent – he has nearly finished studying to be a dentist – and could prove to be an attractive target for a factory wanting someone to push their project along.
Oliveira will have Iker Lecuona alongside him in the Red Bull KTM Tech 3 squad. The Spanish youngster was a late replacement in the Tech 3 team to take the place of Brad Binder, who was originally pencilled in to ride alongside Oliveira, until Johann Zarco's departure derailed that plan. Lecuona is highly rated, not least because he has made such a rapid rise through the ranks. The Spaniard only started racing on tarmac three years ago, having previously raced Supermoto. Lecuona has shown promise through testing, matching the pace of test rider Dani Pedrosa. He is a raw young talent, with plenty of potential.
2020 has the potential to be a big season for KTM. They have a young, talented line up, led by the experienced Pol Espargaro. Development has been kicked into a higher gear with the arrival of Dani Pedrosa as test rider, and the RC16 is looking more competitive every day. Stefan Pierer's goals may have been ambitious when he set them out in 2016, but they are finally starting to come into reach.
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