Every MotoGP round has a lot going on, too much to capture on a Sunday night. But the Brno round of MotoGP was even worse than usual, with ten times the usual surprises, and a month's worth of stories and intrigue. On Sunday, I covered Brad Binder's win, KTM's journey, the state of the championship, Yamaha's engine situation, and Ducati's problems since the start of the season. Below is a round up of things I didn't get around to writing about.
It goes without saying that Brad Binder's victory was the biggest story to come out of the MotoGP race at Brno. A rookie winning in MotoGP in just his third race, and claiming the first victory in MotoGP for KTM – coincidentally, the first win for a manufacturer not from either Japan or Italy since Kim Newcombe won the Yugoslavia GP in 1973 on a König, something you can find out much more about in this highly recommended documentary series – is unquestionably a massive event.
But it is easy to overlook the huge steps forward KTM have made in the past 18 months. Pol Espargaro's podium in Valencia 2018, in a wild and drenched final race of the year, was dramatic, but the weather conditions played a massive role in the outcome. Since the start of 2020, the KTM RC16 has been right at the front of testing and the races. There was one KTM in Q2 at the first MotoGP round at Jerez; three in Q2 a week later at the Andalusia round in Jerez; two more in Q2 at Brno. Pol Espargaro finished sixth and seventh at the races in Jerez. In Brno, Brad Binder won, Miguel Oliveira finished sixth, and Pol Espargaro was in position for a podium finish had it not been for the collision with Johann Zarco.
The KTM is a competitive bike now. There is a caveat or two to be made about their success at Brno, without detracting in any way from Binder's victory on Sunday. As a factory with concessions, KTM has had a test at Brno – and at the Red Bull Ring, and at Misano as well – giving them some experience of the conditions there. Dani Pedrosa rode there, though what KTM might have learned ahead of the race weekend is mostly electronics settings. Given the terrible grip and bumps, that could have been valuable.
But electronics settings alone will not win you races. The switch to an oval section steel tubular frame, rather than the traditional steel trellis was one huge step in the right direction. The other was the poaching of one of Ohlins' main engineers for WP suspension, which helped them fill in a couple of key details they had been missing. Putting this all together has produced a competitive motorcycle.
Binder's win was also the first non-Ohlins win since Dani Pedrosa won last race of the 2009 season at Valencia in his last race using Showa suspension. Pedrosa switched to Ohlins at the start of the 2010 season, and in a small irony, left Ohlins and Honda behind at the end of 2018, when he went to KTM as a test rider, using WP suspension. Helping to lay the groundwork for Brad Binder's win at Brno.
Pedrosa's important role in helping push KTM's MotoGP project forward has been discussed many times, but it was part of a much greater team effort. What Pedrosa brought to the project was the ability to take on a key role in the development process, from engineers through to race team. Engineers built new parts based on data from testing and racing. Mika Kallio did preliminary testing on whether parts were better or not, and whether they worked. Dani Pedrosa made a clear selection of the best parts, but more importantly, did the testing required to help assemble packages of parts which all worked together, which frame with which swingarm, which linkage with which shock, etc.
These packages would then be delivered to the factory riders for testing, and they would make the final decision on what they liked, and what they thought worked. In practice, almost all of that testing fell on the shoulders of Pol Espargaro. Last year, Johann Zarco made an early exit from the factory team, Miguel Oliveira sustained a shoulder injury at Silverstone, and Hafizh Syahrin struggled with the KTM in the Tech3 team.
That led to accusations that the KTM RC16 had been built around the demands of Pol Espargaro. In a long online press conference with the media, KTM's Motorsport Director Pit Beirer talked about the long process which had taken the Austrian factory from the start of its project to finally winning a race.
Not just for Pol
"That was the biggest complaint towards us until last year, that we could build only a machine where only Pol Espargaro is able to ride it, because he is risking his life for us," Beirer told us. "And partly this was true, and that's why I have such huge respect for Pol, that he went with us into this adventure, and he had difficult moments to perform on our bike, and he did that quite well. We knew that, but there's nothing you can change overnight in that class."
But Beirer was still surprised by how quickly KTM had managed to achieve success. "So it was not that long, because you build a bike out of nothing, you realize you are 3.5 seconds back to the leading guys per lap, and then you close the first two seconds quite easily. But then it starts to become harder and harder to bite down the next tenth." Making a bike which multiple riders could be competitive on was important. "This was the clear target from the beginning, to build a bike which is rideable not for one rider, but for more riders, because only that way you can succeed. That's easy to know, but it's not that easy to turn into a better bike. But if you look now, that process cannot even be faster."
Progress had been continuous, but gone in jumps and starts, Beirer said. "The bike was better last year too, but still a critical bike, and you need a brave rider to go fast. But we built a bike from nothing, we went racing, and in the first two years, at every race we brought new parts, so the riders had a consistent testing process."
One step back ...
At the end of the second year, KTM faced a painful choice. To make the next big step, they had to sacrifice 2019. "We had a plan to do that for two years, and then after two years, make kind of a cut, and say, OK we go into the third year on a better level than in the first two years, but it will not be the competitive level. And that was a painful decision, but we said that if the test team and the engineers don't start to focus on the bike for 2020, we will go again with the same stress into 2019 and 2020 and 2021."
This was a lesson learned from racing in MXGP, Supercross, and all the other disciplines in which KTM have won championships. "There is a moment in bike development, which we learned in other disciplines, that you must develop your race bike for next year during this year's season. And in November, when the riders are still fresh and fit and on good lap times, you need to bring them the new bike and confirm what the status was."
It had been a team effort, Beirer said, both in the test team and in the factory. "We did that, we did that bike together with Dani [Pedrosa] last year, Dani, Mika [Kallio], - Mika was a great guy in the whole process to bring the bike where we are today, but then Dani gave it a little different direction. But also the engineers, they just learned a lot in the last years, because we started with nothing."
KTM had deliberately chosen the hard way of building it all themselves, Beirer explained. "Of course I could get some stuff from other manufacturers, but at the end of the day, we have our own chassis, we have our own suspension, we have our own engine, so we could never copy other pieces or pictures or something, so we had to learn it the hard way. But that experience gets more and more and more. You pack it like a travel bag, and it's getting more and more complete, and that's why the bike, that this year's bike is different than the first three years."
Restarting the restart
The delay to the start of the season had frustrated KTM's ability to show right from the start the progress they had made. "It's completely logical, but still it's not proven that it's also better. It was testing, testing, testing, it was better. But then the damned corona came in for all of us, because I was sure we could already prove in Qatar in the beginning of the season that we had made that step."
That meant starting all over again. "We couldn't start racing, and I had to talk and motivate people again; our board of directors, the whole company, the partners, the riders: stay patient, the bike is better. But it was a tough time to even make it through that other gap, until we could race in Jerez."
At Brno, KTM demonstrated how much better their bike is. No longer just on paper, but also out on the track, where it counts. "So finally it's the new bike, and it's better, yes, it's better," Beirer said. "And I'm really really happy because even if it's a better lap time in testing, or in the data, or on the dyno, the reality you get on Sunday evening printed out on paper by Dorna, and when you have a bike there in the top three, then you know. And in dry conditions! We had that third place in the wet. But now to get it in dry conditions, to pass other riders on the way to being on the top, not really heavy crashes in front of us, so it was a clear status of where we are at the moment with the project."
It was no surprise that it took KTM so long to reach the point where they are winning races, Beirer repeated. "I think it's pretty logical that it couldn't be much faster on such a level, because we are fighting the best manufacturers in the world in their playground, on the highest level. So we didn't expect to do it faster."
From the start of KTM's project, there were doubts that they would ever succeed in MotoGP with a steel frame and WP suspension. The aluminum beam frame and Ohlins suspension were a key element of success, was the general consensus. I even had one very senior figure in a rival factory tell me that KTM would be forced to give up on a steel frame, and switch to aluminum like everyone else. That prediction has not played out.
"There were absolutely no doubts from my side," Pit Beirer told us, "because if you are leading a race department with so many people, and more than 100 people in the MotoGP project, and I would doubt the basics and open the door to if we think that maybe another material would be better, this would of course be crazy, and we could not succeed."
Steel is fundamental to KTM's philosophy, as they believe it has some key advantages. "This is the philosophy of our company, but not because it's a marketing story. We learned how to build motorcycles with this material, and we have the knowledge for this material. And we invented together with Pankl the printing process to print parts of the frame with the highest technology."
It's not what you've got, but how you use it
There are good reasons to build a MotoGP chassis using steel, Beirer explained. "Steel is three times harder than aluminum, it allows us to build the chassis three times smaller in dimensions than in aluminum. It's lighter than any other chassis out there." Understanding how a material behaves was more important than just the material itself. "So it's not about the material, it's more that you really have to understand what you have to do with it. And also, it's really important to give the rider the flex in the bike where he wants to have it. If I do it with aluminum or with steel, for the rider it doesn't matter. He wants it more in the front, or more in the back. He wants the traction and you have to find out how to do it."
This criticism of their choice of materials is something KTM have heard many times before. "The critics were there. Any sport we started - motocross, or I went in 2010 to see the first Supercross, in the Dakar – always the top riders and very strong people in the sport told us, OK, you're nice guys, you're a great company, but with a steel frame and WP suspension, you will not succeed in this class. It will work in motocross, but it will not work here."
They faced the same criticism in MotoGP. "We had that same headwind in MotoGP. But of course, now we had to prove it in the highest category of motorcycle racing in the world, so the pressure was there." Binder's win at Brno proved the critics wrong, Beirer told us. "People said, we're still not there because we are still not using aluminum and Ohlins suspension, but I'm sure we are only there already because of our tubular frame and WP suspension. Because we can do everything in house."
Freedom to innovate
That was more difficult, but it was also more rewarding for KTM, because it gave them more freedom. "That's the harder way, because we cannot copy something. But we build it together with our engineers, and we think that the new chassis must be a little bit different, and we have a drawing ready in the evening, we start to build that chassis the next morning, and at the end of the week, this chassis is on the racetrack. So we don't call a supplier and wait for somebody to make something or whatever, we do it here in house," Beirer said.
It had been a long road, but finally KTM have arrived, Beirer believes. "It was rough from the beginning, but now I feel very comfortable with that base that we know what we had to do to make the steps. It was not the easy way, and believe me, it's quite easy to talk today, but the win was not proven until Sunday. So of course we had to prove that it's working, but I think you don't win a MotoGP race for nothing, you never get a present in that class. If not everything is great on the bike, and the rider, and the team, and the complete package, if something is missing, and not correct, you go nowhere. So I think we have a platform now for the future."
Rins battles on
While Brad Binder had rightly claimed much of the attention over the weekend, what Alex Rins achieved should not be overlooked. Despite still suffering with damaged ligaments in his shoulder, Rins brought the Suzuki home to fourth, with a podium almost within reach. But after the race, the pain had come flooding back.
"Right now I'm so tired," Rins said. "I have more pain in the shoulder. But after an incredible effort, it's normal. I'm so happy, because I was able to control the race, control the tire life, the position also. I was with Valentino [Rossi] a lot of time, at 0.4, 0.6. But it was a good race. I'm happy for the result."
Having a target to try to catch had helped distract him from the pain once the painkillers started wearing off, Rins told us. "The pain in the shoulder was there during all the race. I had like a bad situation between lap five until lap twelve, because I was feeling a lot of pain there. But I tried to concentrate on riding and on trying to catch the rider in front. For sure if I had nobody in front of me during the race, for sure I would feel more pain. But my head was busy, thinking how can I be faster to catch the rider in front."
So very nearly
Being so close to the podium was frustrating, but Rins had never expected to be that competitive. "With Zarco, sincerely, it's a shame. With one more lap or half a lap, I think I was able to try to overtake him, because I arrived so fast the last two laps," the Suzuki rider told us. "But OK, fourth position is enough. I was in the motorhome after the race and I was thinking, if you would finish on the podium with all this effort, it would be incredible. But anyway, fourth position, it's enough for us."
The biggest difference his shoulder had made was in the ease with which he was able to pass other riders, Rins explained. "Usually, when I'm recovering positions, and I find a rider, I'm able to overtake him easily, in two or three corners. In this race, I was struggling more. I lost a lot of time with Aleix Espargaro, a lot of time with Quartararo, looking for where the ideal place to overtake is." If it hadn't been for his shoulder, more might have been possible.
The wisdom of Rins deciding to keep racing, rather than get the shoulder fixed, may be questionable, but getting this close to the podium leaves little room for argument. Things are not going to get much better, with so little time between races. "The problem with the shoulder will remain a lot of races, because as you say, next week Austria, the next week after that, Austria again," Rins told us. "If I have luck and I don't have any hard crashes, I will keep it like this and let's see in the end of the championship. I hope to reduce the pain day by day or week by week. Let's see how it goes."
Long way down
On the other side of the card sits Maverick Viñales. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider entered Brno as one of the two favorites for the championship, sitting 10 points behind Fabio Quartararo having finished second in the first two races. Brno should be a track which suited the Yamaha – Franco Morbidelli's second place suggested it was – but Viñales came up a long way short last Sunday. Last of the Yamahas, a long way behind teammate Valentino Rossi, who had a strong outing to finish fifth, and championship leader Quartararo who crossed the line in seventh.
It was a familiar story, of Viñales having a bike which was fine for the morning warm up, but failing to cope with the conditions in the afternoon: a hot, greasy track, and a surface covered in Dunlop rubber after the Moto2 race.
Viñales remained at a loss, however. "It’s very difficult to explain. Even us, we can't explain that. Even this morning in the warm up, I felt so good with the bike. Straight away I was doing 1'57.0. I could make many 1'57, even with fifteen laps on the tire, which was used. But then on the race since the first lap it was impossible. A lot of spin. Then lap by lap, it increased, increased, increased. Then at the end it was very unsafe even to ride the bike. I try to make my best always. So that was the best we could do."
P14 is not enough
The way the tires reacted at Brno and the lack of grip at the track had been a problem all weekend, Viñales said. "All the weekend we have been struggling with the tires. I don’t know. For me, it’s hard to say. It’s difficult to understand why in the warm up I could be second and so fast, and then in the race I was P14. It was a long time since I made P14 in my life, so it was a difficult result. Very hard to eat that result. The only thing we can do is to keep a positive mind. We need to work very hard. We understand that nothing is perfect in this life."
What did it mean for the championship? "I don’t even think about the championship, honestly. You can not fight for the championship doing P14. This is impossible," Viñales said. "The only positive point I can find is that Fabio made seventh, and Dovi was just two places in front of myself. So this is the only positive I can take of today. We have one Yamaha in the second place, and it’s the bike from last year. So we need to understand and to work and to see why in Jerez we were able to be so fast and consistent, and here, I don’t know. The race was very difficult."
MotoGP titles are won on your bad days. On your good days, you take the wins that you can, and run up the score as high as possible. But on the bad days, how you manage to limit the damage counts above all. Marc Márquez has won his titles in the past couple of years by making sure that the bad days were never disasters. Andrea Dovizioso has missed out on titles because his worst days were worse than Marc Márquez' worst days.
This seems to be Maverick Viñales' biggest hurdle to a championship. On his bad days, he loses too much ground, and can't find a way to salvage a result. Fabio Quartararo had a bad day, but still ended up finishing seventh, and scoring 9 more points to extend his lead over Viñales to 17 points. Andrea Dovizioso managed to close the gap to Viñales from 14 to 11 points. Viñales doesn't just need some good results to stand a chance of winning the title. He needs to ensure that his bad results aren't this bad.
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