Team: Red Bull KTM Factory Racing
Riders: Pol Espargaro, Johann Zarco
Test Riders: Mika Kallio, Dani Pedrosa
Bike: KTM RC16
Best placed rider, 2018: Pol Espargaro, 14th
Best result, 2018: 3rd, Pol Espargaro
Best placed machine at tests: 13th (Valencia), 17th (Jerez), 17th (Sepang), 8th (Qatar)

For any aspiring rider in grand prix, a seat in a factory team is one of the holy grails. But in such environments it isn’t all big money cheques, sponsorship endorsements and glitzy team dos. Much of the sweat, tears and toil away from race weekends go unseen.

One only need consider a weary Pol Espargaro in Andalusia last November, as a punishing calendar year ground to an end. The former Moto2 world champion spent two days at Jerez working through a hefty back-catalogue of parts from the summer-autumn of 2018 that injury had prevented him, or test rider Mika Kallio, from trying.

And this was while the disturbing effects of a heavy warm-up fall at Brno were still being felt. "Especially after the first [track] run I do each morning, I have an electric [shock] feeling in my hands when I put my neck down,” he said wearily. “I need to rest and heal myself because it's been the toughest season of my life. No surgery is needed, just rest.”

The sense of playing catch up, coupled with marquee signing Johann Zarco’s initial struggles to get to grips with its RC16, suggested the winter months came at just the right time. For Espargaro there was a chance to heal. And Zarco was offered the time to ponder the necessary adjustments to his riding style.

But there was very little rest at KTM HQ in the snow-capped hills that surround Mattighofen. Buoyed by a debut podium in last November’s season finale, its test team was at Jerez as late as December 19th with new signing Dani Pedrosa trying out the RC16 for the first time. Engineers also had to decide on a crucial development direction with factory riders possessing styles at opposing ends of the spectrum.

“This pre-season was really focused on not two different directions, but two main areas,” Sebastian Risse, KTM’s MotoGP Project Leader, recently told Crash.net. “Of course, on the one hand with a new rider, getting comfortable, adjusting the bike as much as possible for him. Then learning with him how he can use this bike in the best possible way. It took us some time to find a common direction which all riders agree on. This was basically the target in 2018 in the end, and then in 2019 we could bring some items that helped.”

Only on the final evening in Qatar did the RC16’s potential become clear. It was only going to be a matter of time before KTM began to take advantage of the considerable flexing it showed in last year’s rider’s (and team’s) market. The year ahead promises so much, largely because of its expanded presence in what will be its third season among the premier class heavyweights.

Bosses in Mattighofen pulled off something of a coup in securing Zarco’s services when Honda and Suzuki were showing interest. Forming a new partnership with Tech 3, to bring the total of RC16s on the ’19 grid from two to four, was another. And adding Pedrosa to its test team was a shrewd piece of business. Even if stem cell surgery on an injured left collarbone has kept him out of preseason testing, Espargaro has noted his countryman's enthusiasm for the new project. “Yes Dani’s injured, but he’s ‘here’ as well, talking with all the engineers and the bosses.”

The year was not yet 50 days old and KTM CEO Stefan Pierer was already issuing a call to arms. “This is a five-year programme and by the end we want to see podiums,” he reminded onlookers. “For the upcoming racing season I’d like to see single digit results. For 2019 – in gambler’s speak – it’s ‘all in’.” And by the end of testing Espargaro was just half a second from the fastest rider. ‘All in’ indeed. After its difficult second season, KTM must make good on the promise of ’17 and consistently return to the top ten in the months ahead.

Taming ‘The Bull’

The new rider line-up has posed KTM engineers an interesting dilemma. To borrow Risse’s words, “Pol is an animal and the bike also – they were made for each other.” Zarco, on the other hand, is heavily reliant on smoothness and corner speed. So blending strands of jazz to the RC16’s rock and roll DNA was a kind of experiment that KTM was only too willing to undertake.

The initial struggles of Zarco and Tech 3’s Hafizh Syahrin – Yamaha riders in 2018 – have shown adaption to the RC16 is not easy. “They almost have to forget everything they knew about how to ride a MotoGP bike because the [Yamaha and KTM] are very different,” said Hervé Poncharal, Tech 3 team boss.

It does appear as though the ’19 RC16’s turning deficiencies are not as pronounced as those found in KTM’s MotoGP racers of the past. “[They’ve] been working quite a lot on that since the Jerez test last year,” said Espargaro of the machine’s reaction to the first touch of throttle. “During the winter they focussed on that problem. We are much better.” In Qatar he could use Michelin's softer rear tyre without burning it up. "On the first touch of the throttle it’s much better. Maybe we have some advantage over the others as we are using this tyre, and we can make a lot of laps, and it is not destroying it. We are in the softer range of the tyres."

The Catalan also feels the bike has calmed down somewhat. “More and more we are faster but also the bike is moving less and it keeps you a bit cooler. It feels good. And I think we are on that line, to make faster races.”

And Risse was determined to ensure the machine’s character hasn’t been sacrificed to accommodate the needs of Zarco. “What he and also I don’t want is just make it a compromise in the area where he thinks this is the way to be fast in this class,” he said. “We don’t make compromise. He keeps his style. Some areas, he knows even his previous style was maybe not the style of the top guys, so he’s very willing to adjust it. It depends really on that aspect."

“Like a wave I kept surfing all day….”

His words weren’t overly negative. But it was hard to forget the chastened look in Zarco’s eyes. “Worse than expected,” was his frank assessment of the second test day at Valencia back in November. Used to the manoeuvrable nature of the Yamaha M1 chassis, the double Moto2 world champion quickly found the turning capabilities and front-end feel offered by the RC16 severely lacking.

A tough start. But since Zarco has made steady progress that has rarely been spectacular. There was a breakthrough of sorts at Sepang in early February. Or as the Frenchman described it, “like a wave … then I kept surfing it all day.” There he made a considerable step with front-end confidence. “I got this feeling into the corner that is coming more naturally,” he said. “Immediately I could be focused on other things of the riding.”

Under the floodlights in Qatar, he felt further progress with the rear of the bike on the second day. But a crash on the final day disrupted progress. “I have the bike well under control, but I miss too much the corner speed into the corner,” he said. “When I want to be faster, the bike is not coming. Sometimes I can change a few things but it’s not really what I want to do. About the performance, it’s difficult to get it.”

There have been changes to his riding style, namely on corner exit. “If it’s necessary also to ride aggressive, I think the last test in Sepang you saw him changing his style a lot,” noted Risse. “The way that he’s picking the bike up, I haven’t seen that on a Yamaha.”

In Qatar Zarco also confirmed he has cut all ties with Laurent Fellon, his long-time manager and trainer. For a rider who was essentially raised by the eccentric ex-racer, this was a fairly big step.

“We really split everything together,” he confirmed in Qatar. “Now it’s a new area and we had to take a decision during the winter. I’m happy with the way I’m going. About the riding things I have enough experience to analyse myself and I’m quite happy about riding and on-track. I cannot say I don’t need someone, but we have Mika Kallio now. His comments are different to Laurent, because Mika can be much more precise on details.”

With a best testing performance of 17th it’s clear he is still some way off the pole positions (three) and podiums (six) of the past two years.

‘There won’t be less engines, less RPM…’

Then there is the welcome addition of Tech 3 to the Austrian ranks. Pit Beirer, Motorsport Director, has been clear from the start that its riders will compete on machinery that is more or less identical to Espargaro and Zarco.

"The first thing Pit did on Tuesday morning at the Valencia test was to come to our garage. He asked everyone in the team to be there and made a speech," Poncharal told Crash.net. "Pit said 'there will be four full-factory KTM bikes on the grid next year. There will not be less engines, less RPM, or less this and that for Tech3. All we want is for KTM to win. It doesn't matter if it’s a Tech3 or factory team bike. We don't care'. It was a really good speech and my guys were really fired up."

On Tech 3’s contribution to KTM’s progress, Risse still feels there is a good deal to come. “This is something we didn’t reach the top of yet,” he said. “The Tech 3 team and the riders have to adjust themselves to the bike before you can bring more and more test items. So we used them already for some items where they were also heading in the development, and some other areas at least when they found something they like we can give to them.

“If four riders say this, if two riders say this, that’s already a difference. Also you can be sure this is the way then they accept that direction quickly, while if you have only one rider, like we had last year when we had injuries, both riders you have to check more. Maybe you need to have an event on another track to find this out. It is accelerating the situation quite a bit with four riders, for sure.”

Hopes?

On his hopes for the year ahead, Risse said, “It’s really hard to say. I think it’s a bit easier than last year. I think we saw especially with Pol that top ten during the winter test was do-able. Sometimes better, especially during the day and watching the pace - better quite a lot of times. So of course last year it was our target to come back at least to this top ten situation of 2017.

“We had a superb end of the season, the last race. But looking at the average, the others made probably faster development. So to bridge this big gap, we want to be consistently in the top ten and fighting for results.”

Comments

Loading Comments...