KTM To Enter MotoGP In 2017 - And Is That Bad News For World Superbikes?
Yet another manufacturer is to enter MotoGP, it was announced yesterday. KTM is to join Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, Suzuki and, most probably, Aprilia in MotoGP, with KTM moving up to the premier class in 2017, a year after the new regulations take effect and Michelin takes over as single tire supplier.
The news was announced by KTM CEO Stefan Pierer, in an exclusive interview with the German-language website Speedweek. In that interview, Pierer set out the approach KTM will take to MotoGP, which will be a departure from the more traditional route of the other manufacturers in the class. The idea is not to enter as a factory team, but to build a bike and make it available to customer teams, much as they currently do in Moto3.
That bike will be a 1000cc V4, housed in a tubular steel trellis frame. The bike will have suspension from KTM subsidiary WP, as supplied with the Moto3 machines. Design work has already started on the V4 engine, and it is due to be tested on the dyno for the first time in May 2015. The complete bike will take to the track at the end of 2015, with 2016 being used to complete development of the bike, ready for the 2017 season. Pierer told Speedweek that wildcard appearances in the second half of 2016 are a definite possibility. The bike will be available to interested teams at a price of around 1 million euros, Pierer said, as that is the price at which Dorna has been trying to get the manufacturers to supply MotoGP bikes.
This would be KTM's second foray into MotoGP. The first attempt was an unmitigated failure, when the Austrian company built a V4 machine for Kenny Roberts' Team KR in 2005. That engine was known for being too aggressive, and suffering badly with underdeveloped electronics. Since then, Pierer emphasized, KTM's engineers had learned a lot about rideability and smoother power delivery. Furthermore, with all MotoGP entries to use spec software from 2016, the issue of software development had also been removed from the equation. The engine for KTM's RC16 (as the MotoGP bike is to be known) is being designed by Kurt Trieb, the engineer who developed the Moto3 powerplant which is dominating that championship.
The interview with Stefan Pierer contains a few aspects which are worthy of note. The first is the refusal to enter as a full factory team, as the other manufacturers have done. This is reminiscent of BMW's strategy, of supporting private teams but not taking part directly. That strategy has been extremely successful for BMW, the German manufacturer able to send out press releases boasting of the success of BMW privateers, without having to take responsibility for their failures. By concentrating on motorcycle design and production, KTM can keep their costs down, while still receiving both the R&D and marketing benefits of participating in MotoGP.
The more interesting aspect of the announcement is the way in which development is to be subsidized. The KTM RC16 is not only to be sold to MotoGP teams, but a cheaper version is also to be sold as a glorified track bike to private individuals. 'Cheaper' is a relative term here: where the full MotoGP version will have a price tag of a million euros, the retail bike will cost in the region of 150,000 to 200,000 euros. It will not be available as a street legal version, as the restrictions imposed on street bikes make it impractical to produce such a high-performance machine. The combined problems of producing a bike which complies with Euro 4 emissions standards and in sufficient quantities to homologate the bike for World Superbikes make that an impractical project, Pierer told Speedweek. It was better to aim at wealthy, dedicated individuals looking for an exclusive high-performance bike. Pierer estimated they should be able to sell at least 100 units of such a machine, which would represent a large proportion of any MotoGP development budget.
One of the reasons given by Pierer for going down the track-only route for the RC16 does not bode well at all for the World Superbike series. The discussions about safety have taken on ridiculous proportions in some EU countries, Pierer told Speedweek, especially after a streak of good weather had produced a string of motorcycle fatalities. There is a lot of pressure on bike manufacturers, and discussions are going on at the EU in Brussels about the possibility of imposing performance restrictions. There have even been calls from some quarters to ban so-called superbikes, Pierer said. KTM saw it as their responsibility to keep motorcycle performance within strict limits, he added. 'Anything with over 200 horsepower has no place on public roads,' Pierer told Speedweek.
Leaving aside the absurdity of the argument - it is virtually impossible to extract maximum performance from any sporting motorcycle on a public road; most fatal accidents occur at speeds a very long way below the maximum of the bike involved; the majority of motorcycle accidents are caused by other vehicles - Pierer's statements point to a significant threat to WSBK. Superbikes have become ever more extreme over the past twenty years, a factor which has played a major role in the decline of their popularity. The original Ducati 916 produced 114 bhp in 1994. This rose to 122 bhp with the 996, and 123bhp with the 998, which was sold until 2002. From 2003, the 999 produced 150bhp, which was then replaced by the 1098. The 2009 Ducati 1098R produced 180 bhp, and the current top-of-the-range Ducati Panigale 1199R is quoted as producing 195bhp. In the space of twenty years, power outputs have risen by over 70%. As power outputs have risen, sales have declined, the performance of such extreme bikes becoming less and less relevant on public roads which are more and more heavily policed, despite improvements in engine response and handling.
By dropping the RC8 and replacing it with a bike which will not be eligible for homologation, KTM has effectively abandoned the World Superbike championship. If the EU or another major motorcycle market imposes performance restrictions - or bans large capacity sportsbikes altogether - then the viability of WSBK in its current form is called into question. The current identity crisis facing WSBK could become a lot worse.