In The Paddock
Money, Method, Motivation—And More Money
Dorna’s quest, through years of increasingly restrictive cost-cutting tech regs, was two-fold: to make the racing closer by hobbling the free-spending factory teams (succeeded) and as a corollary to attract more factories (succeeded).
Put the two together, though, and they don’t necessarily add up. Which is to say, just because you are a newly arrived factory in a more easily competitive premier class doesn’t necessarily open the door to success.
Just ask Aprilia.
What does succeed in racing? Wise former champion and later renowned Yamaha crew chief Kel Carruthers explained this to me many years ago in typical matter-of-fact way: “It’s what succeeded last year, plus a couple of percent.”
One MotoGP factory has been trashing this rule. KTM’s rate of improvement, since the orange Austrian bikes’ 2014 MotoGP arrival has been a great deal more than “a couple of percent” each year.
Now their fourth season has begun, with the RC16 showing strong signs of being properly competitive, a genuine threat. It makes a stern Germanic contrast to Aprilia’s Italian comic opera, struggling since 2014.
One doesn’t want to overplay national stereotypes, and Aprilia has long been hugely successful in racing. Their total domination in 125 and 250 was a factor in canning two-strokes in those classes (headed, by the way, by current Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna). But big bikes, at the highest level, have proved challenging, ever since the terrifying three-cylinder Aprilia “Cube” in the then-new 990cc four-stroke class of 2002.
So, what has KTM done differently? Employed the three Ms – Money, Method and Motivation.
All are important, but the first is essential. Cost-cutting notwithstanding.
Thanks to the copious generosity of mega-billionaire Red Bull founder and extreme-sports fan Dietrich Mateschitz, KTM’s MotoGP budget gives the fellow-Austrians a spending power Aprilia couldn’t ever dream of.
This is easily seen in the scale of their paddock hospitality unit, a massive double-story timber structure that includes not only offices but also a feeding area for the staff and guests, a VIP entertainment penthouse and a generous playpen for the Red Bull Rookies.
It takes 27 men three days to erect it. Or was it three men and 27 days? Can’t recall exactly, but you get the idea. It’s the portable equivalent of a tower block.
This is just the froth on the top of the stein. The real money is spent on engineering, testing and development. And the progress from the first hard-to-handle bikes to the current generation has been spectacular. So spectacular that it looks like it’s time to believe their claim—that their determined use of a steel-tube chassis and in-house WP suspension instead of the conventional aluminum beam and Ӧhlins might be pure heresy but is no drawback at all. As they’ve said all along.
The level has been reached by another 27 (or maybe 270) men working ceaselessly on a well-directed program, where experienced racing pit management and staff combine with original engineers to produce a continuous stream of updates and improvements, most particularly helped over the past several months by the input of test rider Dani Pedrosa. None of this comes cheap.
The V4’s initially jerky throttle response has been tamed by changes to firing intervals to a bigger-bang configuration. One new chassis after another has been flung at the riders, now seemingly having achieved the right degree of stiffness, flexibility and anti-twist along with the right weight transfer. A bike that started out as a real handful emerged in 2020 as something that even class rookies could go fast on.
Why rookies? There’s the rub. As a beginner factory, and irrespective of the depth of the corporate pockets, KTM was not in a position to attract the cream of the crop. They looked as though they had come close when they poached Zarco from Yamaha last year, but as we know that went badly wrong on both sides.
This situation is subject, however, to rapid change. After only three races this year, quality riders like Crutchlow and Dovizioso would be glad of the chance to join the orange squad. Perhaps unfortunately, the factory had already plumped for the dispossessed Danilo Petrucci, a GP winner but not consistent enough to be considered top-ranking.
(Strangely, this situation appears to have worked in reverse by flattering Pol Espargaro, who has performed sterling service for KTM, and as a result was taken up by Repsol Honda, a move that took many observers by surprise.)
So far this year Pol has excelled with a sixth and a seventh, while teammate Miguel Oliveira, in his second MotoGP season, has also impressed. Even more striking, class rookie Brad Binder has been qualifying with the quick guys and setting amazingly fast laps—third fastest at the second Jerez race, less than half-a-second off winner Quartararo.
Maybe better add a double B to those three Ms. CN
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