Aki Ajo, team manager of KTM’s Moto2 effort and Moto3 squad, recently sat down with Crash.net to discuss the factory’s entry into the intermediate class in 2017, Brad Binder’s recovery from injury, a tough campaign in the junior category, and helping his riders find that ‘eureka’ moment when all appears lost.

 

Crash.net:
You’re staying with KTM for two more years in the Moto2 class.

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Aki Ajo:
Yes, that’s really important for us because Moto2 is, let’s say, our main project at the moment. And it’s really interesting what they are doing in Moto2 too. We started together this idea many years ago when Mr [Stefan] Pierer [KTM CEO] said to us, ‘Why not make Moto2?’ Then I was also thinking about moving to Moto2. I go with [Johann] Zarco. I got the crew and they already support us in this moment and step-by-step we go forward. Now we are here. The next two years are really important. That’s why it was really nice to close now for the next two years because really hectic seasons are coming. Triumph is coming into the class. Still, we need to develop this bike for the next year and during next year. At the same time, we need to develop the bike with the Triumph engine. So it’s really nice that we have riders fixed for next year and the contract expires in two years. We can focus only on work, not on negotiations. So I’m really, really happy for that and really motivated of course.

Crash.net:
It has been quite an impressive first year for the chassis in the class.

Aki Ajo:
Yeah, with the new project I have to say that no one expected this. We still need to keep both feet on the ground. Of course, difficult times will come also but we’re really happy to be here and this motivates us and the factory and everyone even more. It’s a nice project.

Crash.net:
Has your speed in Moto2 this season surprised you?

Aki Ajo:
Yes. I have to say yes.

Crash.net:
Before KTM’s arrival in Moto2 and MotoGP, many felt the tubular steel chassis could cause complications.

Aki Ajo:
At the moment I don’t feel like this. It’s difficult to say, always, about this. No one can give the clear answer. You need to trust what you are doing. We have good people that have a good background. We have good motivation. We need to trust ourselves and do our best.

Crash.net:
So KTM’s CEO Stefan Pierer had the idea to enter into Moto2 several years ago?

Aki Ajo:
Yes, a few years ago he asked Pit Beirer and me, ‘Why don’t we do Moto2?’ In this moment he was maybe not ready to do it with the KTM brand. Then, the idea was in process for many years and when we start to win with Zarco and his material, his material – WP - with a Kalex bike in this time they started and we were involved in the WP project. Finally in one moment it was decided this bike would be branded as the KTM bike. So everything go a little bit step-by-step. Mr Pierer and Pit Beirer are really clever guys. They were looking at how things were going and finally the found the final solution that, for KTM and me, was a really great idea. It brings something fresh and new for the Moto2 category, for the whole category.

Crash.net:
One of the first public sightings of the KTM chassis was when Johann Zarco tested it at Aragon the day after the grand prix. How important was it having the reigning world champion available to try that?

Aki Ajo:
Johann was very flexible in those things. We were working really close together so he was immediately also supporting it. He knew he would not be riding the bike in the races but I think we respected and supported each other so much that if we can help each other, we do.

Crash.net:
Was his feedback confirmation that the engineers had the right idea to make a competitive Moto2 chassis?

Aki Ajo:
Yes, it was confirmation that, in some points, it was already in a good direction. For some points that were maybe not working that we had to modify and develop more.

Crash.net:
Are you expecting a huge change in chassis design to accommodate the Triumph engine that is coming into the class in 2019?

Aki Ajo:
The bike will be totally different. Of course, the Triumph engine is a bigger engine because it has more than 700cc. I think physically it’s also smaller. It’s not so wide like the four-cylinder Honda engine. So I think maybe this engine it’s possibly to build a more tiny bike. But everything basically starts from zero when you have a new engine, so it’s a big project in any case.

Crash.net:
When riders like Miguel [Oliveira] or Brad [Binder] come into your Moto2 team, is there a clause in their contracts that could take them to MotoGP, should they sufficiently impress?

Aki Ajo:
Of course, there are options for the future as well. It’s not the only reason, but it’s one big reason that KTM has the MotoGP project. The smaller categories would naturally be the growing places for the riders of the future.

Crash.net:
It is quite clever letting some of the younger riders test the RC16, like Miguel did over the summer break at Aragon. That can act as an incentive…

Aki Ajo:
Yes. That was very nice.

Crash.net:
Looking toward Brad, after three operations on his right arm, there must have been a worry that you could have lost him long-term to injury.

Aki Ajo:
Yeah, he missed two months so it’s reality! But in racing you need to accept this happens sometimes. The correct attitude is important after injuries and everything. He lose something this year. OK, he maybe delay something for the career but maybe somehow I feel that this makes him stronger. He always needs difficulties to learn and this just makes us stronger when you have the correct attitude. I feel this is something which builds Brad into an even stronger rider in the future. But of course maybe people outside don’t even understand how much this was disturbing him. When he had the injury [in November ‘16] he was still in ‘Moto3 shape’ – a very small guy with not so many muscles. He was very small in Moto3. It was his intention to start during winter to make a lot of training, especially for the upped body to be ready for Moto2; a bigger bike. He lost everything. So after winter and especially after the third operation at the end of May-beginning of June, he was in even smaller condition than in Moto3. So this means now the recovery started when he recovered from the third operation to be on the bike. It still takes months, months, months and I think next year he will be ready to be the big Moto2 guy. That’s why he has to give time to himself and for sure we give time to him. We know that mentally he is growing up all the time. Physically he is growing up all the time and I think next year he will be really tough and a strong rider in Moto2.

Crash.net:
Was it difficult ensuring Brad didn’t do too much too soon?

Aki Ajo:
Let’s say we had to do this a little bit every day. He wants so much, so quick. Of course, it’s a good point but also the team and rider have to control and make sure the expectation is not too high. Or at least not too quick.

Crash.net:
Judging by recent results, you must think that you have two riders that can challenge for the Moto2 championship in 2018.

Aki Ajo:
We feel like that. We are really, really strong. I cannot dream of anything better at the moment rider-wise. We are really happy about the riders.

Crash.net:
Turning our attention to Moto3, what is your assessment of your riders’ performances thus far?

Aki Ajo:
Yes, that’s true. It has been much more difficult than in many years. On the other hand I have been in racing a long time and this happens sometimes. You cannot win every year and for sure in one moment it has been a difficult year. In Moto3 we have more difficulties. Now it looks like everything is a little bit better, especially with Bo. Unfortunately Nico still has this injury with his back and he’s not in best condition. Bo, as we see, is improving all the time. Like I said before about Brad, sometimes we need difficult times to be even stronger in the future and learn something more. If you are just winning all the time you are also losing something. So difficult times just make you more strong.

Crash.net:
The top six riders in the Moto3 championship are riding Hondas. Do you feel this year’s KTM is that much weaker than the Honda?

Aki Ajo:
We have seen many KTM riders at the front this season. Also, Bo has made many good positions already so now KTM are working very hard. It’s always in Moto3 in the last years like this. In 2015 at the beginning of the year, when Miguel and Brad were with us, we had a lot of problems. At the end of the year we were incredibly strong so never give up. Racing is like that. It’s hard competition and it’s changing all the time.

Crash.net:
So you feel KTM has recovered a lot of ground in recent races?

Aki Ajo:
Yes. Now I don’t see this gap too much any more. But hopefully the next year is the opposite.

Crash.net:
What’s your assessment of Nico Antonelli? He has had an injury but I guess there is no disguising that it has been a tough year.

Aki Ajo:
Yes, I have to say that he has struggled a lot. Of course, the expectation was that, together, we can do something more than we have achieved more. But it’s something like this and we are trying to understand how we can come back. But I have to say that it has not been easy.

Crash.net:
I read something you said in an interview at the end of last year, that you enjoy selecting riders that represent a real challenge. Even after a complicated year for your Moto3 team like this one, will you continue with that approach?

Aki Ajo:
Yes. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it takes a longer time. I have to say that when we saw Brad he was not a completely ready rider. He had some highlights but also up and downs. The first year Brad was riding with us, in 2015, it was really difficult. Until August – more than half of the season – it was really difficult. Then it clicked and he found it. He got three podiums. He got mentally stronger over the winter and since the beginning of 2016, incredible. Like I said, you never give up. Never give up.

Crash.net:
And I guess it was the same when Johann Zarco first came to your team…

Aki Ajo:
Sure. When he came to me in 125cc in 2011. He did nothing before. Not suddenly, but during the season we found really good speed with him as well. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. That’s racing. That’s what makes everything so interesting.

Crash.net:
How do you explain this moment that clicks? Is it about ensuring the rider finally feels comfortable? Is it about these riders becoming accustomed to your methods, and the team structure?

Aki Ajo:
I think our style is that we try and keep everything simple, just focussing on the right things. Finally racing is really simple if you just find the way. Sometimes it’s easy to say this. At least our style and my personal style is to try and keep things very simple so that you find the way to focus more on racing.

Crash.net:
You had Danny Kent come into your team for two races this year. Are you surprised at how his career has unfolded after he won the world title in 2015?

Aki Ajo:
First of all Danny is a really big natural talent. As we see in Danny’s career, there have been many ups and downs also. Maybe this has been his weak point. He never really had one complete solid season. Even the year he was world champion, he was incredible at the beginning of the season but at the end of the season he was not so good anymore. So maybe this a little bit Danny’s weak point. I don’t know exactly the reasons, but I hope one day when he will find the consistency and keep week-by-week, race-by-race the level where he should be considering his talent. Then he will be a very tough rider.

Crash.net:
We saw with Romano Fenati that after some time away from the paddock he came back as a more consistent challenger.

Aki Ajo:
It could be, hopefully. I hope he’s growing over the problems.