They may be utilising the near limitless backing of a household sponsor, as well as recruiting some of the best names the industry has to offer. But Pit Beirer believes another aspect of KTM’s MotoGP operation – a willingness to take substantial risks - is responsible for its rapid rate of progress.

KTM’s speed of development caught many off-guard in 2017, a year in which riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith were pushing the class’ top ten in qualifying and racing conditions by the season’s end.

Along with test-rider Mika Kallio, the Austrian factory's three riders scored a total of 95 points across 18 races, a total that was enough to edge Aprilia out of fifth place in the Constructor’s Championship at Valencia. And early signs in winter testing showed the factory’s desire to continue pushing forward would not relent.

Beirer, overseer of the Austrian factory’s motorsport operations, cited two instances in 2017 when KTM fast-tracked major components to its race team without a great deal of prior testing. The German half-jokingly described the approach as “crazy”, but feels it was partly responsible for the company's placing in November.

The first of those came at the Spanish Grand Prix last May, just days after Kallio had put KTM’s new ‘big-bang’ engine through its paces. Upon providing positive feedback, a plan was soon devised to not only transfer the one available engine to Jerez, but to build another motor for the second rider in just a matter of days.

“That’s how crazy KTM people are,” said Beirer, a former MXGP title challenger. “We had a clear development plan, that the big-bang engine had to be ready by Brno [at the beginning of August].

“But of course, to be ready by Brno you have to make a proper test before with your test rider. Then you give it to your race guys to test. Then you bring it to the next race. That was the schedule for Brno.

“But we saw on the test bench what the new engine could do. We went to that Le Mans tyre test. Mika Kallio said, ‘That engine is so much better.’ We flew in Pol and Bradley for the second day. So the tyre test was over and it went into an engine test.

“Then we said, ‘Let’s take that engine down to Jerez on the private plane of Espargaro.’ We knew we had one engine. It was a used engine, without any hours or experience of knowing how many hours the engine can do.

“We went to the engine guy and said, ‘What will happen with this engine? Is it different to the others in terms of reliability?’ He said, ‘Nothing. It’s the same quality level.’ So we took the risk and went to Jerez with this same engine. You saw what happened; it was a big step.

“From that tyre test on Tuesday, the guys worked through in the factory to get the second engine ready for the boys. Then we brought the second engine. By Saturday we had all bikes equipped with the two same engines for Sunday.

“We are crazy to do things like that. It could have gone wrong. You blow up your engine on that day and the race is over, but it went well. It was important. If you can make a step, you have to do it, no matter what it means for the stability or for the end of the season.

“Anytime we can make a shortcut, we can build up from there. If we had the engine, but didn’t race with it for two months, and it was better, then we lose two months. That’s why we took so many times the risk to make steps, and to be on a better base for next year. If we didn’t use that engine at that time, we’d have started two months later with that engine, we wouldn’t know how it’s working for the next year.”

Another ‘milestone’ arrived at Aragon, when KTM arrived with a set of new chassis to be tested after the race. Yet Kallio and Espargaro used the frame on the Sunday, with the Catalan finishing a splendid tenth, just 14s back of race winner Marc Marquez.

While Japanese factories are known for testing – and then repeatedly re-testing – parts for reliability purposes before bringing them to a race-track, KTM appears to revel in its mildly haphazard (by comparison), yet rigorously calculated approach.

According to Beirer, the 14th race of 2017 was another case in point: “Where we made another big breakthrough was at Aragon, where we changed our chassis," he said. "It was supposed to be tested at Aragon after the race, but our people are crazy enough to say, ‘Let’s do it on Friday in the race team because it’s better.’ We made the test in the race and it was the best race, with 14s gap to the winner.

“It improved exactly the weak point where the rider said, ‘Hey, I’m turning and then I see Rossi, who just goes more inside, picks up the bike and goes straight, while I’m still on the side and can’t open.’

“Then we gave the chassis and Pol came back and said, ‘It’s just crazy! I turn, pick up the bike and I’m there. I’m ready to race with these guys now.’ So that was after Le Mans – the big-bang change – the next big milestone. We changed head brackets and small things. But Aragon was another milestone.

“Once you get a milestone you get completely new ideas for the next step. I’m so glad we took all the risk for these steps, preparing next season much better like this.”

Speaking at the end last year, the German also revealed KTM had come to understand its original ‘screamer’ engine configuration was not the optimum design after Kallio encountered chronic rear traction issues in his sole appearance as a race rider at Valencia, ’16.

To change immediately, Bierer said, would have meant tearing up the data it had collected up to that point, and a date for its arrival in 2017 was set.

“[We realised] Maybe last year [‘16] at Valencia! Where it was clear where the future goes. But then we said, ‘We don’t move now.’ We had just collected the first data and said, ‘If we changed the engine immediately, we will be a long way off the top.’

“We knew the engine was strong and reliable. We thought to keep that engine in to find a certain level. Once we have that level, maybe we make the swap. It was in our head for many months but we had no time to do it in the beginning.”


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