The point of motorcycle racing is to go faster than everyone else. And because motorcycle racing is a sport composed of many different parts, there are a lot of different parties wanting to be fastest. Riders want to be fastest to win races and championships. Factories want to be fastest to win championships, but also to have the bike with the highest top speed, and to collect lap records. Even tire suppliers want to collect lap records. That, after all, is how they measure progress.
Since coming into the class, Michelin have shattered a lot of records set by Bridgestone, the previous Official Tire Supplier to MotoGP. But not all of them, and if you speak to people from Michelin, this is something they are far from happy about. But they keep chipping away, circuit by circuit, looking for ways to improve the tires to allow the bikes to go faster. This is the way Michelin creates competition for itself, and sets goals for its R&D department to pursue.
So far, they have done pretty well, taking the race lap record at nine of the tracks which MotoGP raced at prior to 2016, when they took over from Bridgestone. Their record on outright lap records is even better. Up until Friday morning, Michelin still had five circuits where they hadn't beaten the fastest ever lap set during practice or qualifying by Bridgestone.
Moving the bar
KTM have decided to replace Johann Zarco effective immediately. From Aragon until the end of 2019, current KTM test rider Mika Kallio will take the place of the Frenchman in the factory Red Bull KTM team.
Though the decision comes as a surprise to the outside world, it makes sense from the perspective of KTM. Zarco has announced his intention to leave at the end of the season, and given his options are limited for 2020, is looking at becoming a test rider, and has been linked to a possible vacancy at Yamaha. With so much work happening on the KTM RC16, and a constant flow of new parts in the garage, KTM have decided it is better to have test rider Mika Kallio on the bike than keeping Johann Zarco.
Test riders are one of the most crucial elements of success for any modern MotoGP team. As testing has been restricted for the factory riders, to cut costs and make a more level playing field for the smaller manufacturers in MotoGP, the importance of having a genuinely fast test rider has grown. In the past, test riders would be 3 seconds off the pace of the factory riders. Now, test riders have to be capable of worrying the multi-million dollar faces of the factory, and making onlookers wonder why other teams or factories haven't signed them up to a permanent contract.
The reasons behind this shift are fascinating. Over the next couple of weeks, we will have a series of interviews with factory bosses on how important their test riders have been to the development programs of KTM, Suzuki, and Ducati. We will round off the series with an interview with Michele Pirro, the unsung hero of Ducati's test program, and the man who did most of the donkey work to get the Desmosedici GP18 where it is today.
We start off with KTM MotoGP team boss Mike Leitner, however. The Austrian was brought in to lead KTM's MotoGP project from the very beginning, after a brief period away from racing when he left the Repsol Honda team, where he had been crew chief for Dani Pedrosa. Leitner was instrumental in driving the direction of the KTM RC16, and was responsible for recruiting Mika Kallio as a test rider, after the Finnish rider was left without a Moto2 ride at the end of 2015.
In our final technical analysis of all six MotoGP factories we look at KTM, the Austrian brand that made excellent progress in its rookie season
When the 2018 MotoGP grid rides out of the Sepang pit lane on Sunday morning there will be no need to speculate which factory has made the biggest forward strides since last year’s first preseason tests.
It’s rookie MotoGP brand KTM, of course, because it’s much easier to move forward when you’re just starting out than when you’re trying to find that last tenth of a second.
During the first four dry races of 2017, KTM’s deficit to the race winner averaged out at over 40 seconds. During the last four dry races, the gap had shrunk to just over 20 seconds. If KTM can repeat that performance this year it will reduce the gap to 10 seconds. Then, if the company signs a MotoGP winner for 2019, it could fight for race victories.
Though the world of motorcycle racing slowed to a crawl over the holiday season, that does not mean that nothing happened whatsoever. Racing news trickled out from around the globe, as riders, teams, and factories made decisions, and racing collided with the real world. So here's a round up of some of the news stories you may have missed while we were away over the past couple of weeks.
Rossi's Ranch wins in the courts
The year started off with good news for Valentino Rossi. Ever since it was built, some local residents have complained about the noise and nuisance caused by Rossi's dirt track ranch, situated just east of his home village of Tavullia. A group of locals lodged formal complaints against the ranch with the Tavullia council, alleging several violations of local rules, such as missing documents including an environmental impact assessment, as well as complaints about excess noise and noise outside of normal operating hours.
Those complaints were dealt with by a regional court earlier this week, the Regional Administrative Tribunal (TAR) of the Marche region, where Tavullia is located. The court rejected the complaints, dismissing a part as having no grounds to proceed, a part as being inadmissible, and rejecting the remainder.
After months of speculation of an impending rider change at KTM, the Austrian factory has issued a press release clarifying its 2018 line up in MotoGP. The KTM factory team will continue with both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith as their contracted race riders, while Mika Kallio remains contracted as a test rider.
The move will be welcomed inside the team, restoring stability and removing the uncertainty which had surrounded Bradley Smith and his future as a factory rider. The Englishman had struggled badly to be competitive in the first part of the season, while his teammate Espargaro seemed to go from strength to strength. Smith's position was made even more tenuous when test rider Mika Kallio easily outperformed him during the Finn's wildcard appearances, especially at the team's home race at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria.
KTM's MotoGP project has made remarkably rapid progress in the short period since it started. All three of the Austrian factory's riders – factory men Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, and test rider Mika Kallio – have already scored top ten finishes, and the gap to the leading bikes has been cut from three seconds a lap to three quarters of a second.
I sat down with KTM team manager Mike Leitner to discuss the progress. In the first part of the interview, published yesterday, Leitner talked about the technical concepts behind the machine, why the steel trellis frame is here to stay, and the advantage of using suspension supplied by WP, the company owned by Red Bull. Leitner also talked about just how important a role Mika Kallio has played in the development of the bike.
In the second half of the interview, Leitner discusses the issues Bradley Smith has faced in adapting to the bike, and how KTM has been trying to address them. He also talks about the long-term future of the project, and whether KTM will be going after a top-level rider like Marc Márquez, with all of the top riders being out of contract at the end of 2018.
Q: I wanted to ask about the difference between Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith. Pol is totally adapted to the bike. Bradley seems to struggle a lot more. Do you have an explanation for why that is?
The announcement that KTM would be building a bike to compete in MotoGP was met with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism. The addition of another manufacturer to the grid was a cause for celebration, especially one with such a stellar record in other disciplines. The question was, with MotoGP technology at such an already high level, would KTM be able to competitive quickly enough before the board loses interest? And would KTM's insistence on a steel trellis frame mean it could be competitive, when everyone else had moved on to an aluminium beam frame?
With 14 races in the books, the answer to those questions appears to be yes. Before the race at Aragon, Mika Kallio, Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith had already scored a string of top 10 finishes. In the race at the Motorland Aragon circuit, Espargaro finished 10th and Kallio 11th, the Spaniard finishing 14 seconds behind the winner. The bike is making remarkable progress.
On Thursday evening at Aragon, before Sunday's outstanding results, I spoke to KTM MotoGP team manager Mike Leitner, about the progress the team has made. In the first part of this two-part interview, the Austrian team boss talks about the technical choices the team has made, how the project has lived up to expectations, and the role test rider Mika Kallio has played in the factory's success. In the second part, to be published later this week, Leitner talks about the difference between Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, and what the future holds for KTM.
Q: First of all, to me it seems like there’s been much more progress this year than maybe we had any right to expect because it’s taken other factories much longer to get up to speed?
At the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, at the Austrian round of MotoGP, KTM finally officially presented its MotoGP project, the KTM RC16. There had been months of testing, with press releases and photos issued. There had been KTM's participation in the private MotoGP test at the Red Bull Ring in July, alongside the rest of the MotoGP teams. But at the Austrian GP, the fans and media got their first chance to see the bike close up.
What are we to make of it? First, we should ask what we know about the bike. On their corporate blog, KTM list some specs for the bike. There are few surprises: 1000cc V4 engine, using pneumatic valves, housed in a tubular steel trellis frame and an aluminum swing arm. Suspension is by WP, while brakes are by Brembo, and exhaust by Akrapovic. Electronics are the spec MotoGP Magneti Marelli ECU.
What is slightly more interesting are the numbers for maximum engine revs and horsepower. Like all official numbers on values such as torque, horsepower, and revs, they are not to be trusted, but these both seem highly inaccurate. KTM claims the RC16 makes 250hp. It certainly makes that, and probably 10% more, given that most MotoGP engines are believed to make somewhere between 260 and 275 horsepower.