Test riders are one of the most crucial elements of success for any modern MotoGP team. As testing has been restricted for the factory riders, to cut costs and make a more level playing field for the smaller manufacturers in MotoGP, the importance of having a genuinely fast test rider has grown. In the past, test riders would be 3 seconds off the pace of the factory riders. Now, test riders have to be capable of worrying the multi-million dollar faces of the factory, and making onlookers wonder why other teams or factories haven't signed them up to a permanent contract.
The reasons behind this shift are fascinating. Over the next couple of weeks, we will have a series of interviews with factory bosses on how important their test riders have been to the development programs of KTM, Suzuki, and Ducati. We will round off the series with an interview with Michele Pirro, the unsung hero of Ducati's test program, and the man who did most of the donkey work to get the Desmosedici GP18 where it is today.
We start off with KTM MotoGP team boss Mike Leitner, however. The Austrian was brought in to lead KTM's MotoGP project from the very beginning, after a brief period away from racing when he left the Repsol Honda team, where he had been crew chief for Dani Pedrosa. Leitner was instrumental in driving the direction of the KTM RC16, and was responsible for recruiting Mika Kallio as a test rider, after the Finnish rider was left without a Moto2 ride at the end of 2015.
Kallio has proved both invaluable as a test rider, and as quick as factory riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, even coming close to taking Smith's ride in the factory team for the 2018 season. So Leitner's choice of a fast test rider has been justified. I spoke to him about at the combined MotoGP and WorldSBK test at Jerez last November.
Q: What exactly do you need from a test rider?
Mike Leitner: Of course one part is to do the job, to run the bike at a certain speed, to see if the parts keep the performance for a certain amount of kilometers and safety. This is one part of being a test rider, but in our case we also have Mika[Kallio] in this project from the beginning, and he also brought the speed. He was a Moto2 rider, but over these two years he really developed himself again into a MotoGP rider. So it was good for him, and it was good for us.
Especially in the first year, where you have more durability runs and just to make a bike with consistent pace and all these things, he was still a Moto2 rider. But when Bradley [Smith] and Pol [Espargaro] jumped in and they saw the way he was riding, they had good conversations, and he was able to check the data how these MotoGP bikes are now used by these top riders, and he adapted super well, and this was good for the project.
Q: Is it more important to have good technical ability, and explain well, or to be fast?
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