KTM rarely does things by halves. Just four races into 2018, the Austrian factory’s second season in MotoGP, and next year is already firmly in focus. Not only was test rider Mika Kallio on track with a prototype ’19 RC16 at the Spanish Grand Prix. Three announcements arrived in four days at Jerez, confirming Johann Zarco and Pol Espargaro in the factory squad for 2019, with Moto2 title contender Miguel Oliveira’s placement in the Tech 3 squad a signing with future years in mind.

Pit Beirer, the factory's Motorsport Director, knows a thing or two about building success up from the very bottom. Having overseen KTM's rise in various off-road disciplines, his intention is to do the same in MotoGP. No one looking on as KTM embarked on its first serious venture into the premier class of motorcycle racing could accuse them of a lack of commitment. So who better to ask about the current state of the factory than Beirer himself?

Crash.net sat down with the German at Jerez to discuss recent signings, the reasons behind a relatively sluggish start to 2018 and the factory’s development plans for beyond this year.

Crash.net:
There were three announcements in four days before and during the Spanish Grand Prix regarding your MotoGP rider line-up for 2018. Can you talk a little about the signings you have recently made?

Pit Beirer:
I think to succeed in this paddock you need to have a strategy. If it works later on or not is another question but I think we had a really strong plan and commitment coming into this paddock. We made no secret of why we are doing Moto2. It’s not because we want to sell Moto2 bikes, or because there is a bike on the market. No, it’s to finally make sense out of the [Red Bull] Rookies Cup and the Moto3 commitment. Now [it’s] also to grow with our own riders, going into MotoGP.

That’s something we learned in the off-road side. It’s so nice, something that’s driving our passion in motorcycling. We want to grow up our guys like kids, get them older and win championships with them. Of course, that’s not always possible. Some guys will leave us halfway through. Some guys will never succeed. But some of them that have started with us will win championships with us and will maybe even end their career with us. That’s something unique, that we love. If you look at guys like Marc Coma [five-time Dakar Rally winner] or also [Ryan] Dungey [four-time Supercross champion] or [Tony] Cairoli [reigning MXGP world champion], when they stick with us for many, many years, that’s something we enjoy.

So we are trying to create something similar. For us it was really hard to understand – or hard to swallow – in this paddock that you have kids in the Rookies Cup, you go with them to Moto3, and then on the Sunday at Valencia they go with a bag to the truck next door and ride for somebody else. There was not a possibility to give to them. So now, with this strategy and this dream, the structure is in place. Now it’s up to us to fill it with life and results.

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Crash.net:
You have signed Johann Zarco for 2018 while Miguel Oliveira steps up from your Moto2 programme into the Tech 3 squad. What was your thinking behind these two signings?

Pit Beirer:
I mean, if you just look at the ranking, he [Zarco] is now riding at a level where we have never been. It’s one thing to sign a guy like him; another thing much more difficult is also to be a partner that means he can stay at that level. It’s clear at the moment: we need to make another step forward and be a good partner for him. And I feel fully responsible for that because I don’t want to destroy his career, to take him down from his level to our level. I want to lift our project to his level. Then if we are face-to-face, what we are clearing up at the moment, because we are a step lower, then we’ll try to make the next step together – even to win races, which he also didn’t prove yet on a regular basis.

All in all, it’s nice for me to have these signatures now but there is a lot of responsibility behind it. We need to work like crazy to make the next step with our bike. This class is just so brutal. If you look at today [interview was conducted on Saturday evening at Jerez] we are I think 0.9s away from pole position but we are 0.4s away from Marc Marquez at Jerez. If you told me that three years ago we could manage that, I would not even have believed it. You need to deliver an incredible quality to survive in this class. That’s a challenge but this will make us better and we want to take that challenge.

Crash.net:
Johann made no secret of Honda’s desire to capture him in recent weeks. Was it a surprise that he chose to come here instead?

Pit Beirer:
That’s crazy to hear. I don’t know who he was talking to but it was refreshing and nice and really one of the highlights of my management career to talk to him and his manager [Laurent Fellon] - I don’t want to call Laurent a manager; more of a friend, partner and training buddy – and how quick they decided with us. They looked at our factory, they looked at our effort. They know us from the past and they said, ‘I trust these guys and with these guys we can create the family feeling,’ which is what Johann wants. He doesn’t want to have a ‘job’ and win races. He wants to feel he’s fighting for a team and for a family. All of this, we could offer. But it’s a big honour that he is giving us this trust. I repeat: we need to make a step to be a strong partner for him. But he can see that [although] there is a huge risk for him, also there is a chance, because if he can make some small steps, it could also be an advantage at one moment. I’m really honoured by his signature.

Crash.net:
At the end of last year, both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith were regularly challenging for the top twelve. They said the aim for the beginning of this year was to be in the mix for the top ten straight away. That hasn’t quite happened yet. What’s the reason for this? Have you been disappointed by the start of the season?

Pit Beirer:
We miss experience in this class. You cannot buy that. There are no shortcuts. You have to go through all the problems yourself. The first three races, we were definitely still testing too much. So I followed that and it was painful to see. In this race format you have no time to play around. You need lap times from the beginning and if you don’t grow up with these lap times with the other guys, and you’re down there, you stay down there. If you take the first practice and compare two chassis, you don’t go to the limit with this first bike. You don’t go to the limit with the other bike because you need to learn where the limit is of this change, of this radical change in the bike. That was difficult for our guys in the first three races. We asked them to go through a big testing schedule. OK, we didn’t think it was that critical but looking back it was.

We didn’t get confused; we got really important results, which will be beneficial today and in the next weeks, that we did a big testing programme in the first three races. But it’s not good for racing, and it’s not good for the results. Then also last year maybe tenth and ninth was a possible result with an OK qualifying and a normal race. We could end there, but now you have two Suzukis way stronger than last year. You have Miller really strong on a Ducati - immediately three tough places again to play with. We are not 100 percent satisfied with the results so far this year. But it looks like this weekend we can go back to that performance, what we showed at the end of last year.

Crash.net:
Will Tech 3 be a ‘junior team’ in 2019? And as they will have identical bikes as the factory team, will development be left to the factory riders? Or will you allow Tech 3’s riders to be part of the development process?

Pit Beirer:
At the moment it looks like Hervé clearly is the ‘junior team’ but he announced himself this name of the ‘junior team.’ We never called them a ‘junior team’. My dream is actually to have four factory bikes on the grid. Of course at the moment our bike is not even good enough to say, ‘We give the best two bikes to these guys, and we’ll give a downgraded bike to the other guys.’ How crazy would this be if we’re not even getting one bike up there? First, the bike needs to improve. Our target is to give four bikes out there. Maybe if there is only one development part for one rider, we will give it to the best rider. If he’s in Hervé’s team or on the other side, there will be absolutely no difference. There will be no political ranking like we hear in the paddock. [Things like] Downgraded RPM for the second team to make engines live longer, or stuff like this because the effort to be in this class, or to be here at all, you need a big budget and you need a huge commitment from the company. I still don’t understand what’s the reason then to not give the best bike to your guy, if you look to the total investment.

Also people talk about a satellite team like it’s easy to give them used bikes from last year. But every part on a MotoGP bike has a mileage. So I cannot give a used Espargaro bike to Oliveira because this bike has an end of mileage. So I need to reproduce new parts and that costs exactly the same if I put the steering angle this way or that way, or the suspension or the brakes… I don’t really see the sense. There is not even cost saving if I give them an old bike. I just try to make four identical bikes. It makes the logistics more easy. We don’t need to think which part goes where. But there will be a moment when only one development part is there only one time. Like I told you, the best guy will get it no matter on which side. So I will now call Hervé and tell him to stop talking about being a ‘junior team’! Please! He made a deal with the factory and that’s why he has factory bikes for his team.

Crash.net:
We saw what happened to Suzuki in 2017 when it changed both of its riders. Was one of the reasons you kept Pol to avoid that, and to retain a sense of continuity in the project?

Pit Beirer:
Yeah, but in our place the loyalty factor is counting a lot. Also Pol, he took a risk coming into our new project and it’s clear that you take away the chances of the riders to present themselves at the same level as before [signing with KTM]. He gave us highlights of this project. This is pure commitment and just overriding problems until he makes a great result or is crashing. We felt responsible for him, just to give him another chance. There is no reason not to take him. He’s a nice guy. He’s clicking with the whole team. He has a positive spirit. He’s never negative – he always believes the next part from KTM is always better than the last one, which is a danger part, like we found out. Now we need to ask more critical questions because he trusts us so much, if he hears there is a new part, he wants it on the bike right away on Friday morning. We are now at a level where new parts can also be negative. But all in all we wanted him because he fits with us and we also believe in him. With a better bike and a stronger team partner, we can also bring him on a higher level, where he should ride.

Crash.net:
Does Bradley Smith still feature in your plans?

Pit Beirer:
I mean, there is still a last spot open in our total project and that’s why I said the ‘Junior Team’ is not fitting because even Bradley has a chance of that spot. But his results, they haven’t been like we expected. It’s not like he is dramatically far off because last year he had this leg problem. So this year I see a different Bradley. He is stronger. He is more clear in his questions so I also don’t write him off as a KTM guy and he still has a chance. That fourth place in the team [the second seat in Tech 3] will not be given away in the next weeks. The structure is there. Three riders are committed but that last spot, we’re going to leave open. It could be a very young rider. It could also be a very experienced rider. But Bradley for sure needs to improve something to get this chance. At the moment, it would not be enough that he would stay with us.

Crash.net:
Could you imagine having Bradley as a test rider?

Pit Beirer:
Yeah. Now you’re starting to point a really tough point for us, as KTM, because if the guys are with us and we like them then it’s like family members. For sure, we try to somehow work with him in the future, so why not as a test rider. But if you call now an existing GP rider and ask if they want to be a test rider, for sure it is not his target. I think he will fight with everything he has not to become a test rider. He still wants a spot on that grid. I think he should fight for it. He is better than what we have seen so far on the KTM.

Crash.net:
Pol has said Mika was racing ‘something big’ in terms of development at Jerez. Is that something we can expect to see Pol and Bradley riding before long?

Pit Beirer:
What we are doing now is Mika is not really important for this year. The outlook is more important for ’19. We clearly decided to take away everything that is possible to bring for the races. With Mika, we really want to focus on the ’19 development. I don’t want to say that this is the ’19 bike, what we saw this weekend, but it has some completely new parts. It’s a small, but on the chassis, swingarm, engine, everywhere, all these things [are different] so it would almost be a different motorcycle. That’s really the plan to work on for next year, not to bring it in this season.

Crash.net:
So will you work to refine the ’18 bike for the foreseeable future?

Pit Beirer:
That’s the next level of the project, so we say we should really have a race bike. And then the other rider will work on the development bike. But to bring on the Tuesday at Valencia also a new bike, like last year. We brought new parts every week. We had nothing new at Valencia because we raced the best bike on Sunday. It was the same bike on Tuesday. Slowly we should come to a rhythm where we take away the testing from the racing, like we do in off-road, and like our colleagues do in this paddock. We bring them the new bike when we start the test for a new season. But that’s also something like a luxury to have.

At the moment we are not that far – that we don’t bring the best parts to the race. This bike is different so it’s not so easy to mix it any more. We cannot just bring that swingarm of Mika and put it in that [Pol or Bradley’s] bike. If you need that bike, you need to bring the whole bike. But the homologation for these existing bikes would not allow us to bring the complete bike. It’s not so simple, you know? [It’s not like] If it’s better, let’s go. That’s why we need to look and not now make compromises, and that if we use if for this year, we need to work to make sure this bike is also ready for ’19.

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