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.
That performances spawned the idea of swapping Kallio and Smith in the factory team. Kallio would become a full-time racer again, as he had made clear was his prime objective. Smith would take on the role as development and test rider, making occasional wildcard appearances. By Smith's own admission, he had been focused too much on developing the bike, and not enough on racing it. (See for an example of this, Steve English' excellent interview with Bradley Smith published here yesterday.)
Those rumors gained even more strength after another strong result by Kallio as a wildcard at Aragon, where Smith finished 19 seconds behind the Finnish test rider. When KTM announced that Kallio would get one final wildcard at Valencia, many believed the decision had been made.
That now appears not to have been the case. After meetings in Austria, KTM have decided to clarify the situation, and remove any doubt. In an interview with German-language publication Speedweek, KTM boss Pit Beirer said that Smith had "not deserved" to be dropped, and they had seen that the pressure coming from the media was starting to weigh on Smith's performance. They wanted to end that, Beirer said.
There is also a question of just how serious the proposals to replace Smith actually were. In the interview I did with KTM team manager Mike Leitner at Aragon, Leitner was speaking of Bradley Smith as if it was a given he would be remaining as factory rider in 2018. That, it turns out, was the official position all along. The press release issued today by KTM confirms that.
Below is the press release announcing the 2018 KTM MotoGP line up:
Red Bull KTM MotoGP Factory Racing look forward to 2018 clarifying rider line up
KTM are about to complete their first year competing in MotoGP but the team are already looking forward to next year with knowledge and data gained from races in 2017. Further to the team’s announcement before the season, KTM clarifies their rider line up for 2018 with Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith following top ten finishes for the pair of them during this opening season with the KTM RC16 motorcycle. The team remains committed to both riders who have remained steadfast and unwavering in their commitment to furthering the biggest motorsport programme KTM has ever undertaken since the company started in 1953.
Pol Espargaro has been resolute and relentless in his drive to take the KTM MotoGP project forward to further success during one of the closest seasons in MotoGP history. Espargaro has taken the best result for KTM so far – ninth at Brno – and has taken some qualifying positions much higher than the team though of before the first wheels were turned at the start of the year. To have the former Moto2 World Champion on board for the second season is fantastic for the Austrian squad.
KTM have supported Bradley Smith from the very first test on the KTM RC16 MotoGP bike in Valencia 2016. He has fitted into the team well and has worked hard at every test, practice and race as a new motorcycle is developed with new parts coming into the garage for every race. The team want to confirm that 2018 will remain as committed to Smith as before as we both look forward to bettering results and lap times. He is a Grand Prix winner and a podium man over the three classes of Grand Prix racing he’s contested, something that KTM wish to repeat with an orange motorcycle underneath him.
Mika Kallio will remain as the team’s test rider for 2018 with selected wildcard rides for the Finn. He has been a huge part of the progress of the MotoGP project through his vast experience in Grand Prix that go back 17 years, knowledge that has been a major factor in the project exceeding the initial expectations for 2017. KTM look forward to Kallio’s ongoing speed and support so the motorcycle can jump forward to the next step in 2018 and beyond. His three races so far this year have been some of the most impressive for a wildcard in recent times with his commitment and speed, something that KTM look forward to seeing again at the season final in Valencia in a month’s time.