Guest Blog: Mat Oxley - KTM: ‘We are at the tip of the iceberg’

MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.


KTM: ‘We are at the tip of the iceberg’

KTM has 40 years less experience than Honda in premier-class Grand Prix racing, so what does the Austrian factory need to do to get closer to the front?

KTM had an impressive rookie season in 2017, but last year the Austrian factory stalled. And when prize signing Johann Zarco first tested the RC16 in November he was shell-shocked.

The arrival of Zarco at KTM is supposed to be the factory’s next big step because he is the strongest rider to sit on the RC16. But the Frenchman’s first outings on the bike suggest the gap between KTM and the front of the pack is still huge, so what did KTM learn from 2018 – and what does it need to do in 2019?

The biggest thing KTM learned last year is that riders are fragile. The company’s second season was cursed by injuries: Pol Espargaró had a huge preseason crash, which required spinal surgery, which left him struggling until Mugello, then he broke a collarbone at Brno and again at Aragon. Meanwhile test rider Mika Kallio smashed a knee at the Sachsenring, ending his season.

“It was frustrating because we improved the bike but we were never in a position to show what we’ve got, at least in the dry,” says Espargaró’s crew chief Paul Trevathan. “At one point the injuries forced us to stop chassis development.”

KTM’s big step last year was switching to a reverse-rotating crankshaft, which Kallio used to beat KTM full-timers Espargaró and Bradley Smith at Jerez, but wasn’t ready for full deployment until later in the season.

Changing the direction of crankshaft rotation changes the entire motorcycle because it changes the forces going into the chassis, so KTM effectively had to start all over again.

“When you change the heart of the motorcycle it affects every little thing and you get a different character from the motorcycle,” adds Trevathan. “We are at the tip of the iceberg now – we know this is where we want to go and we see the benefits but it’s going to take time.”

Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.

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Whilst the riders have been coming from Yamaha, in the main, the bike comes from Ducati in the frame. Ducati dropped steel tubes a long time ago, as well as the L2 for even the superbike. KTM have accepted the V4 and contra-rotation. What’s not to like about aluminium and carbon? I appreciate the aesthetic issues, but tuning complex welded steel frames to the degre required by MotoGP, where everything seems to be at nano scale now, seems to be outdated - exactly the image MotoGP shrinks away from like the plague. 

Moto 2 & 3 tech is not usually carried through either - except wheels being round and other fossil-fuelled motorcycle essences.

Perhaps there is more in the bulk of the MotoGP iceberg that dictates the basics too.

Total votes: 15

I don't think there's any easy, scientific, answer to the chassis question.  There's a degree to which the nature of your argument is, "aluminum is what everyone else is doing, so that must be the direction to follow".  I'm sure both designs have their positives and negatives, but until there's empirical evidence that steel tube chassis have a fundamental design limitation, I think rejecting them is a rush to judgement.  (It's a bit like people who looked at Yamaha's struggles last year and said "maybe they need to switch to a V4".) 

In the case of Ducati, they didn't really reject steel tubes in favor of an aluminum twin spar.  They made the mistake of following an engineer's "theoretically better" idea of a chassis-less Motogp bike, and then managed to get themselves lost in the woods for years...  Ducati's experience is almost an argument against making radical changes in chassis philosophy.  Their switch to aluminum had a lot more to do with the political pressure brought by Rossi and Burgess during their failed years at Ducati, than it did with a rejection of steel tubes (which were basically out of the picture at that point).  When they later hired Dall'igna as chief engineer - who's experience all came from working with aluminum chassis at Aprilia - that new direction was pretty much set in stone.

Motogp is obviously a huge challenge.  Aprilia have chosen an aluminum chassis and a V4, and they're hardly doing any better than KTM, despite having been at it longer.  I'm not sure there are any magic pills beyond smart engineers making smart choices, based on lots of testing.  KTM knows a lot about making a steel tube chassis work; I personally don't think they should throw all that knowledge and experience in the dumpster just yet.

Total votes: 5