The news that KTM would be building a MotoGP machine has been public since the beginning of August. In an interview with the German website Speedweek, KTM CEO Stefan Pierer confirmed that the Austrian manufacturer would be building a V4 MotoGP machine ready for the 2017 season.
KTM's MotoGP plans were confirmed again last weekend at Misano. KTM's head of motorsport Pit Beirer told the MotoGP.com website that they would indeed be building a MotoGP bike, and that work on the machine had already started. The bike, Beirer told MotoGP.com, would be a V4, would use a steel trellis frame, just as their Moto3 machines do, and would be kitted with WP suspension. Design work on the bike was already underway, with the bike scheduled to make its debut on track "at the end of next summer," Beirer said.
There would be no prospect of an early entry, however. The bike is to be prepared for the 2017 season, with testing going on from late 2015 onwards. The bike would be designed around the Michelin tires, which will be replacing Bridgestone as the spec tire from 2016 onwards. The bike would also be designed with the spec electronics and unified software package in mind, which is also to be compulsory from the 2016 season.
The entry of KTM to MotoGP will bring the number of manufacturers in MotoGP up to six, with Suzuki and Aprilia set to join from next year. However, unlike the other manufacturers, there will be no KTM factory team, as the bike KTM are building is a pure production racer for sale only. The MotoGP machine will be much more powerful version of a track-only bike to be sold to wealthy private individuals. Where the MotoGP machine will cost around €1 million euros, the track bike will go for some €150,000-200,000.
Though the idea of selling a track version of their bike is an interesting one, only choosing to sell the bike to teams is a risky strategy. The problem KTM will face is finding customers for a machine that has not been proven in the hands of an existing rider. By 2017, the teams will not be short of competitive machinery. Next year, in addition to the sixteen Factory Option bikes (four Hondas, four Yamahas, four Ducatis, two Aprilias and two Suzukis), there will be eight Open class bikes, consisting of four Honda RC213V-RS machines in the Aspar, LCR and Cardion AB teams, two Forward Yamahas in the NGM Forward team, and two Open Ducati GP14s in the Avintia squad. In 2016, when the distinction between the two classes disappears, the factories are likely to provide year-old versions of their current bikes to the private teams at around the €1 million a year mark, though the bikes will be leased rather than sold. By then, all of the bikes sold to private teams should be fairly competitive, and be capable of mixing it with the satellite bikes on any given day.
Persuading one of the private teams to choose a KTM over a year-old Honda could be very difficult indeed. KTM will need some way of proving that the bike is competitive. The normal way of doing so is to compete as a factory team, but KTM have said explicitly they are not interested in doing so. That makes financial sense, as the cost of competing as a factory is huge, and the returns uncertain. Private teams are incredibly conservative and unwilling to take risks, as the fact that the Moto2 class is on the verge of becoming a de facto single-make series proves. Teams and riders would prefer to stick with something they know, or something ridden by others, than take a chance on something altogether new.
There will also not be any new teams coming into the class to sell the bike to. Dorna and IRTA believe the ideal size for the MotoGP grid is 22 bikes. This number is predicated in part by talent: the number of teams capable of putting a bike on the grid which can compete at the highest level, and the number of riders capable of racing competitively in the premier class. But it is also a question of money: each team on the grid receives free tires from the single tire manufacturer, a freight allowance for transporting equipment to the overseas rounds, and financial support in the form of travel allowance, to help with the logisticial cost of competing in MotoGP. The total financial support is equivalent to around €1.7 million per rider, per season. Unless Dorna can increase the revenue they generate from the sport, they cannot afford to subsidize more teams in MotoGP. So far, Dorna have been singularly unsuccessful at drastically increasing income for the series.
Whether KTM can attract customers for their MotoGP bikes or not, the fact that the bike is being tested for MotoGP will at least create the halo effect necessary for selling the track-only bikes to the wealthy clientele they are targeting. The fact that the bike has been developed for MotoGP but is not racing in the series may even be a marketing benefit. Not racing at all may be better for sales than racing around at the back. Unproven potential may be more marketable than a lack of success at the track, especially with halo products such as a track-only sports bike.