Team launches are always a little combative. They are, after all, the places where factory bosses, team managers, and riders stake out their intentions for the coming season. They loudly proclaim that they are in it to win it, that their goal is to be champions sooner rather than later, and that they are plainly superior to their competition, both in talent and in engineering prowess and ingenuity. Team launches are a place for hyperbole.
Even by normal standards, though, the words spoken at KTM's team launch were more than ordinarily abrasive. In an interview with Austrian broadcaster Servus TV, KTM CEO Stefan Pierer took plenty of potshots at his rivals. He boasted of KTM passing BMW in terms of sales, adding that beating them in racing would be hard, "because they don't race any more". He spoke of competing against the Japanese manufacturers. "We love racing, and we love beating the Japanese manufacturers."
But Pierer reserved his sharpest ire for Honda. Speaking of the surprise decision to compete in Moto2, he joked that the spec Moto2 engine was supplied by "our most hated rival Honda". He also noted that KTM's entry into MotoGP brought balance to the MSMA, the manufacturers' group which has a vote in the Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP's rule making body. With three European manufacturers against three Japanese manufacturers, they were in a position to prevent Honda from bulldozing through proposals.
"Honda tries everything," Pierer told Servus TV. On the one hand with money, they shower the promoter with cash, and if that doesn't help, they pull all sorts of tricks. Now there's a balance in the Grand Prix Commission. That's important."
Why the venom for Honda? The two manufacturers have a long history of conflict, in many of the series they have raced in. But the feud started in earnest with the birth of Moto2. After great success in 125s, KTM had entered the 250cc class with a two-stroke twin and met with immediate success. Hiroshi Aoyama and Mika Kallio had both won races on the innovative parallel twin, and KTM had been extremely innovative with the machine, also debuting fuel injection on the bike.
So when the FIM and Dorna came up with a plan to replace the 250cc class with 600cc four strokes, and the class that would eventually become Moto2, KTM were furious. The Austrian factory, like many others in the paddock, sensed the hand of Honda behind the decision, as Honda had a long and illustrious history of hating two strokes, and trying to kill them off.
In the late 1970s, Honda had tried but failed to compete with two strokes using the remarkable oval-pistoned NR500, but that bike was never fast enough or reliable enough to beat the two strokes. Honda had been forced to admit defeat and built the NS500, which would go on to become the world-beating NSR500. But their historic aversion to two-stroke engines remained, and so the move to reboot the intermediate class as a four-stroke class immediately raised suspicions of a Honda plot.
When the Moto2 class was announced, KTM immediately pulled out of Grand Prix racing, dropping their 250cc team for the 2009 season, then pulling out of 125s a year later. KTM vowed revenge on Honda, and withdrew to Austria to mull over their future.
Best served cold
When the Moto3 championship was announced, KTM seized the opportunity with both hands. While Honda had built a mildly-tuned engine down to a budget, to stay within the price cap imposed by Dorna, KTM built a thoroughbred racing bike using their 250cc four-stroke motocross engine as a starting point. They won the inaugural Moto3 championship in 2012 with Sandro Cortese, and would have had a clean sweep of the top three had it not been for the remarkable talent of Maverick Viñales, who got the horribly underpowered FTR Honda to do things which were entirely improbable.
Honda was furious, and accused KTM of being unfair. They were violating the spirit of the rules, said HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto, by building an expensive race bike rather than a cheap machine for nurturing talent. KTM were unimpressed by this, pointing out that the rulebook said nothing about the spirit of the rules.
In 2013, KTM supplied all of the top talent in Moto3, sweeping the championship once again. The rules were altered to force manufacturers to supply identical engines to any team which had signed a contract, in an attempt to prevent some teams having de facto factory status, and an unfair advantage.
Anything you can do, I can do better
It was Honda's turn to extract revenge. Throughout the 2013 season, Honda kept putting off an announcement of their plans for 2014, causing many Honda Moto3 teams to lose their nerve and switch to KTM for the 2014 season. This suited Honda, as they had a trick up their sleeves. For 2014, they would supply just six riders, but they supplied them with the all-new Honda NSF250RR, a full factory machine capable of stomping on the competition.
Honda had accused KTM in 2013 of circumventing the price cap rules, by supplying a cheap engine but charging €200,000 for a chassis and support. Their bikes in 2014 cost double that, and nearly half a million euros by 2015, despite both engine and chassis having a price cap. Alex Márquez took the title on a Honda, beating Jack Miller on a KTM.
For 2015, the rev limit was reduced from 14,000 RPM to 13,500, forcing KTM to build a new engine for the Moto3 class. At the end of the season, in which Danny Kent became Moto3 world champion on a Honda with the Kiefer team, KTM's racing director Pit Beirer accused Honda of cheating by exceeding the rev limit. That turned out to be an artifact of the Dell'Orto spec ECU, and the way the Honda engineers were managing the transition into the rev limit. KTM's accusations were rejected by Dorna after studying the data.
In 2016, it was KTM's turn to get their own back, Brad Binder winning the Moto3 championship with ease, and with four races to spare. Honda had no answer, and no riders capable of providing an answer to the domination of Binder and the Red Bull Ajo KTM team.
A feud for the ages
Stefan Pierer's remarks need to be seen in the context of this long and bitter history. The blood feud which exists between KTM and Honda is alive and well, and likely to continue into the future. An observer prone to conspiracy theories might even suggest that KTM's RC16 MotoGP bike bears so many similarities to the Honda RC213V for a very good reason. KTM will surely want to beat Honda in MotoGP, but to do it with a version of their bike which is like Honda's, but better, would be sweetest.
Rivalries are a key part of any sport, and alive and well in MotoGP. Pierer's attack on Honda at the launch of KTM's MotoGP project is a timely reminder that rivalries exist just as much between factories as they do between riders.
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