KTM have finally found a solution to their rider line up problem for 2020. Today, the Austrian factory announced that they will be taking Brad Binder directly into the factory Red Bull KTM team, to race alongside Pol Espargaro, while they have signed Iker Lecuona to race in the Red Bull KTM Tech3 satellite squad opposite Miguel Oliveira.
This is something of a shake up to KTM's original plans, caused by the early departure of Johann Zarco. The Frenchman's decision to leave the Austrian factory at the end of 2019 (accelerated to after Misano by KTM's decision to drop him from Aragon onward) left them with a puzzle to solve.
With almost everyone with MotoGP experience tied up for 2020, and most Moto2 riders holding on for 2021, when the entire MotoGP grid is out of contract, finding a replacement for Zarco was almost impossible. They had already signed Brad Binder to the Tech3 satellite team, and had few options to choose from.
They ended up doing something of an internal reshuffle. Binder has been promoted from the Tech3 team to the factory squad, while Lecuona will be moving up to to the Tech3 MotoGP team, instead of riding in Moto2 with the Ajo squad, as he was signed to do.
These moves are all part of a delicate balancing act. After Zarco announced he would be leaving at the end of 2019, KTM promised Tech3 boss Hervé Poncharal that they wouldn't poach Miguel Oliveira from him. Taking Binder instead of Oliveira is a way around that dilemma, and putting the 19-year-old Lecuona in the Tech3 team gives Poncharal another young and exciting rookie.
There was the minor obstacle of Lecuona already having signed a contract for 2020, but fortune had it that the Spaniard had signed for the Ajo team, currently racing with KTM in Moto2, and still affiliated with KTM despite the Austrian manufacturer's decision to withdraw from Moto2 in 2020. Moving Lecuona up means that Ajo will have to find a replacement for Moto2, but they are recruiting internally.
There had been a number of names linked to the KTM factory MotoGP ride, with former KTM rider and current Aprilia tester Bradley Smith a prominent candidate. But KTM have decided to gamble on youth over experience, turning down Smith, along with other rumored contacts with veterans such as Alvaro Bautista.
There are two reasons to go for young riders over experienced riders. The first is that younger riders are less set in their ways, and fewer ingrained habits or expectations to unlearn. In theory, that should allow them to adapt to the rough-and-ready KTM RC16, a bike that needs a very physical style to ride.
The second is that they are hoping to capture lightning in a bottle in the same way that the Petronas team have with Fabio Quartararo. The MotoGP paddock and team managers are just as susceptible to fads and fashions as everyone else, and with the current feeling that a generation is passing, to be replaced by a younger generation coming into MotoGP, it can sway the decision toward youth over experience.
Binder in the factory team and Oliveira in Tech3 sets up a fascinating battle for the factory seats in 2021. So far, Pol Espargaro has ruled the KTM roost, the RC16 suiting the Spaniard's physical style down to the ground. But Oliveira has shown flashes of real speed on the KTM, and promises to be competitive on the bike once he recovers from the shoulder injury he picked up at Silverstone, where he was taken out in a crash by Johann Zarco.
Espargaro will be 29 at the beginning of the 2021 season, and if Oliveira improves as much as KTM hope, they may decided to keep the Portuguese rider over the Spaniard. Alternatively, they could throw more factory resources at Oliveira in the Tech3 team, and strenghten his challenge. Oliveira's RC16 is already very close in spec to the factory bikes of Pol Espargaro and (now) Mika Kallio, and as KTM are picking up a large part of Tech3's tab, they could easily increase the support they give the Portuguese rider.
KTM will probably have to do that for 2020 anyway. With Zarco gone, and two rookies among four riders, the development will rest largely on the shoulders of Pol Espargaro and Miguel Oliveira, as the only two riders with MotoGP experience. Dani Pedrosa will continue to bear the bulk of the test work, and define the direction of the bike, but Espargaro and Oliveira will be the final arbiters at the track. As Espargaro has a very specific, physical style, it is easy to see that Oliveira will have a key role to play in making the bike a little less tailored to Espargaro's riding style.
With the signing of Binder and Lecuona, the 2020 grid is now complete, in theory at least. Rumors persist over the position of Jorge Lorenzo at Repsol Honda, but the noises coming out of Japan from HRC top brass were that they will keep the five-time world champion for 2020, and make a decision about the future next year, when Silly Season kicks off in earnest, and when everyone is out of contract and available.
The press release from KTM appears below:
Red Bull KTM MotoGP line-up confirmed for 2020
Red Bull KTM will field former world champion and class rookie Brad Binder alongside Pol Espargaro for 2020 MotoGP. The South African’s saddle, initially planned at Red Bull KTM Tech3, will be taken by Spaniard Iker Lecuona.
KTM have decided to invest and trust in the racing instincts of two MotoGP debutants for 2020 and for the next development phase of the factory RC16.
Brad Binder’s impressive progress through Moto3 and Moto2 divisions meant the 24-year old was well on the road to a premier class saddle for 2020 but with a slot opening in the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team Binder has been placed next to Pol Espargaro for his first term.
Iker Lecuona, who has taken Moto2 podium honours in both 2018 and 2019, had been signed for a Moto2 ride in 2020. The 19-year old has now been promoted to the Red Bull KTM Tech3 MotoGP effort alongside Miguel Oliveira.
Four riders, three nationalities and three athletes below the age of 25 means KTM are now set for their fourth year of MotoGP participation.
Pit Beirer, KTM Motorsport Director: “It was clear that our plans for 2020 needed to change following our mid-season announcement. After some thought and talks we decided to move in this direction and let the young, hungry guys with good experience in the other categories of MotoGP show us what they can do. Brad is a rider that has made his way through the KTM structure and we have no doubt whatsoever that he can walk into the Red Bull KTM team and keep showing that same style and never-give-up attitude we have seen for a long time. Iker comes into the Red Bull KTM Tech3 team and we’re super-confident that Hervé and his guys will be able to help and develop another rookie like they have done so well with Miguel this year. We know we are making good and exciting steps with our MotoGP project and with next season now fixed we can really start building up to this new chapter.”
Mike Leitner, Red Bull KTM Team Manager: “I’m super-happy with the duo we have for 2020. We had a long discussion about it but finally I think it is a good decision that KTM made. In Pol we have a very strong rider who has made good results for us and we’ve seen in the other categories what Brad is capable of with our bikes. He is one of the young kids that has come through the rank. It will be a big challenge for him but I think he will have a great future in MotoGP.”
Hervé Poncharal, Red Bull KTM Tech3 Team Principal: “My feeling is that this is the strongest 2020 KTM line-up we could have hoped for. We want to have four riders with talent, passion, will and that they will stick to the project. Personally I am happy to work with a young and talented rookie like Iker. This is the way to go for the future and we have seen that the same approach has brought some success to other teams. Let’s start working on 2020: we have the technical support and we have the right people onboard. I believe we will take a big step next year with both Miguel in his second year and Iker keen to show us what he can do.”