After a stunning first year in MotoGP, KTM was forced into a reality check in 2018, as it didn’t quite match the lofty expectations it set itself back in March. Injuries had a good deal to with it, and with this in mind, one of the year’s more intriguing signings took place.

Factory bosses managed to tempt Dani Pedrosa, a rider who spent an 18-year grand prix career with Honda, into a testing role for 2019, where his experience and prowess should accelerated the development of the RC16 for lead riders Pol Espargaro and Johann Zarco.

Before the 2018 season drew to a close, spoke to Mike Lietner, KTM’s MotoGP team boss, to assess the year as a whole, and to understand the reasoning behind moving to sign a rider of Pedrosa’s calibre.
Why did you approach Dani for the position of your second test rider?

Mike Leitner:
Of course Mika did a great job with us until now with his testing. You have to understand when you start a project from completely zero you cannot take from the first moment a very high value person to bring up. Mika was coming out of Moto2 and we went together. He did one or two years in MotoGP but that was a long time ago with a different tyre brand. So he did the perfect job with the base setting and putting everything in the correct place. So we see he did a great job because we’re getting closer and closer.

But also on the test side it’s necessary to make a step in terms of experience. Dani, of course, will bring a lot of experience. He’s an experienced MotoGP rider and he can focus on aspects that Mika cannot because he’s just missing these years in MotoGP. From the level we have now, I think Dani can help us a lot to make that next step.
He’s also a rider that has won 54 grand prix…

Mike Leitner:
When you look at the success list of course he’s also a completely different level. But without this we know how hard Mika is pushing, and how well he was performing when we brought him to wildcard. So it’s not just this aspect.

Dani can bring something different. I think together, with these two riders, we can make a good job on the testing side and this will help us a lot on the racing side a lot.
A common question I see regards Dani’s weight. Can someone who weighs around 10kg less than the average MotoGP rider offer relevant feedback for guys like Pol and Johann? He’s not an average rider…

Mike Leitner:
People can think what they want. It’s open for every single person to think what they want. But one thing is absolutely clear. Especially with his size and especially with his weight he had to work very precisely to be competitive against others. This is actually, for me, a very positive sign for a test rider. When I worked with him history showed me many times that, let’s say, those stronger, or taller or heavier riders took over bikes from him, and were always immediately fast. So it was never necessary to build a new bike when Casey jumped in, or when Marc jumped in. Actually they started with this bike that was developed from Dani’s side. This gives me very good confidence that he will do a good job.
So he can be extremely sensitive when evaluating parts?

Mike Leitner:
I mean, the test rider is so sensitive so it will help everybody.
And he knows how a front-running bike should behave…

Mike Leitner:
Of course. I mean, he more or less understands how a wining bike or a podium bike should feel. Now let’s start working. He will tell us what he thinks about our bike and we will work with him. But to be fair we will have Zarco in the race team and he will also have his own idea. As a company you have to have to find the correct mix of different riders.

Next year we will have four highly talented riders on our bike. This will give our project a big boost. We’ve even got Dani in this test place, along with Mika, and this will lift completely the KTM project in MotoGP.
We’ve heard Dani will not do wildcards in 2019. Was this your decision?

Mike Leitner:
No, actually it is his decision. For us this was never a priority, that he would do a wildcard or whatever. We have to respect that he’s stopping his career as a race rider. What is the meaning to stop my career as a race rider and then do wildcards? Either you want to race or you don’t want to race. This was very clear that [he didn’t want to race].

Follow Page 2 for the rest of the interview...
The second half of the year was difficult. How big an impact did Pol and Mika’s respective injuries have on your fortunes?

Mike Leitner:
I mean we had a bad middle of the year. We had to carry the injuries longer than expected. So first at the Sachsenring we lost Mika. This completely stopped our development plan. We had to find a rider and of course they are not waiting on each corners, riders who can help you in this project. With Randy we were happy with some base testing. But of course when he’s not in this category and understanding the tyre situation and everything it takes time to build a rider up. This cost us a lot.

In Brno we lost Pol. You have a two-rider team in MotoGP. You lose one rider and 50 percent of the power is gone. I remember just last year when Suzuki was in this situation. Rins was unfit and Iannone had some not so good races. It’s easy, you don’t deliver the result, but this doesn’t always mean you’re doing something wrong. Here we had to suffer and Pol, to be fair, his crash in Brno was hard. The decisions everyone made for this collarbone, we thought it was OK. But then a small slide and a small crash and he broke the collarbone in two parts again. He had another surgery, was unfit again and actually he did his first race after Assen at Motegi. This last result was Assen and his next was Motegi. Of course you see this on the results list. But we see his confidence coming back.

In the middle Bradley did a good job for us. He was in this position between eleventh and 15th. We knew that when Pol is fit he can be slightly better, like he was last year from the middle of the season, but he was missing so we couldn’t show any performance.
At Misano Bradley began racing the ‘new’ bike with a ‘new’ engine that Kallio debuted at Jerez. How would you assess the performance and development of that bike?

Mike Leitner:
The thing is to develop the bike during the season is not so easy, especially when you lose two riders. But even from the rules it’s very difficult. You have to fix some issues before round one, where you announce what you are using in terms of engine specification and all those things. Even if you are a team with concessions you are in this rule. You cannot change some parametres and this makes life very hard. You have an advantage of two more engines out of this rule but you don’t have a clear advantage, like in the old days when this rule was there because the factory bikes had five engines while Ducati had twelve. Plus with two litres more fuel and softer tyres! This is gone.

We are at a beginning. Many times I say to guys who don’t understand, ‘The advantage you have now as a beginner is very small.’ This also stops us in development and what we can bring to a race. We take this challenge. It is like it is, but it’s tough. The competition is five factories, and four of them have experience of 15 to 20 years of constant racing in this category. We have Aprilia who have been here for five or six years. We are in our second year. So from my point of looking there could be many more dramas. We could be blowing up engines at every second event. We had a very good incoming season. I think we had a very good half of ’18 until we had some issues with our riders. You can’t control this. We are here. Four times in a row we missed going through to Q2 by 0.1s. Four times in a row we missed this now! When you are not in this group of people that can achieve that [qualifying for Q2] the weekend turns.

I think the team, the factory, the riders, do a really great job. I respect a lot the job of the others and know how hard they work for it. We are that close. It’s acceptable. And to be honest, I’m happy with the progress.
For this winter will the development be evolutionary? Or are there big things to come?

Mike Leitner:
Big things? I mean big, big things in this class are difficult to come by. I think we have some good points on our bike and we have to fix the weak points. This will only work with hard work in our test team, some hard work on the track, and with some good ideas to bring it together.

This is how it will be. From now on we have to think of each step because it’s also easy to go in the wrong direction. We will do like we did until now.