KTM hopes Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith will be able to take the 'next steps' during the factory's second season of MotoGP, which begins in Qatar next weekend.

For Espargaro - who gave KTM a best race result of ninth during its rookie MotoGP season, at Brno and again at Phillip Island - that means 'maybe the top six'.

The Spaniard's tenth place at Aragon was the closest they got to the race winner last year (14-seconds) as KTM also beat Aprilia for fifth place in the final constructors' standings.

Team-mate Smith took a best finish of tenth at Misano and Phillip Island, where he finished a fraction behind Espargaro.

Espargaro was 17th in the world championship on 55 points with Smith, who missed Catalunya with a hand injury and had a mid-season change of crew chief, 21st (29 points).

However it was Espargaro who has suffered an injury blow in pre-season testing, falling heavily at Sepang causing him to miss the final day of the opening test, all of Thailand and one day in Qatar after undergoing back surgery.

“I feel better, much better than a week ago in Qatar," Espargaro said. "I’ve had some time to rest, train and get ready so now we’ll see. It is important to be physically fit because these bikes move a lot and you have to be at the best level for the biggest amount of laps.

"I’m missing some days on track but KTM, Bradley and Mika have done a great job to continue developing the bike.

"One good thing about KTM is that you know where you’ll start in the races but never where you’ll finish: we were the last two in Qatar last year and then we made it to the top ten [at the end of the year].

"I think KTM is the first in history to do something like that in their first year. So we know where we’ll start - fighting for the top ten - but to finish? Maybe the top six, I hope so. I hope we can achieve even more.”

Smith added: “I’m back to normal and back to feeling comfortable, making progress and gaining confidence. We managed 14 days of testing this winter: so lots of laps, understanding and improvement.

"Of course the process never finishes. We were improving in every test and that's all we can ask for.

"It is exciting starting the season in this shape and if we put everything together then we can start where we left off; and that is not ‘a given’ as everyone else has been working."

Both Smith and Espargaro have contracts that expire at the end of this season.

"Six guys are already confirmed for [the 2019 MotoGP season]. I think both me and Pol came to this project to stay for more than two years. The idea is to take this bike from the last couple of positions at the start of last year to eventually a podium or win."

Mika Kallio, who finished tenth in Austria, will continue as a test and wild-card rider. The Finn is scheduled to take part in five European rounds (Barcelona, Germany, Austria and Aragon) with one more event allowed within the rules.

The Finn felt the winter changes made to improve turning on the RC16 had cost them in braking, but were able to work on a better balance at the following tests.

“Last year was quite nice to start where we did and then work our way to make the top ten," Kallio said. "During the winter we had some targets and worked on our weak points. We don't know at the moment if it is enough and we’ll find out at the first race.

"We definitely did not rest in the wintertime but the others did not either! We’ve already been in the top ten so the goal has to be to move up from there.”

KTM Motorsport Director Pit Beirer also expects the 'next step' in 2018.

“We are already very proud with what the team at home, on the track and riders themselves have achieved but there is no time to sit still and we have pushed hard this winter to make the next step and put the riders in a position to fight this year," said the former motocross grand prix star.

"MotoGP has been an adventure and we are happy with where we are at the moment: we will keep the speed up, it’s our passion. It is amazing how tough MotoGP is: if you are within one second of the top guys you can still be out of the top 15.

"We knew this though and wanted the challenge. We have close partners, great relationships and a strong group and now we need to make the next steps."

KTM will expand have four machines on the MotoGP grid next season, after announcing a new partnership with Tech3 from 2019. Beirer also backed up Herve Poncharal comments that all four bikes will be of the latest factory spec.

"I’m happy that our structure - all the way from the Red Bull Rookies Cup to the premier class - is in place and that will mean four bikes on the grid in MotoGP in 2019,"he said. "It’s pretty cool that a rider can stay with the Red Bull KTM family through the classes."

All four RC16 seats are currently still available for next year, although Tech3's Johann Zarco has been linked with a possible move to the Austrian factory.



Loading Comments...