“I wasn’t ready for MotoGP but I had to take the opportunity” - Iker Lecuona

Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? That's surely what WorldSBK rookie Iker Lecuona was thinking after his two-year stint in MotoGP came to an end last year?
Iker Lecuona, Tech 3 KTM MotoGP
Iker Lecuona, Tech 3 KTM MotoGP

Even if you subscribe to the notion of ‘no regrets’, who doesn’t occasionally stop and ponder ‘what if…?’ when it comes to determining down the line whether things would have been different had you said yes when you should have said no, or turned left instead of turning right.

It’s something Honda WorldSBK rider Iker Lecuona mulls over when asked whether he feels - in retrospect - he did the right thing in accepting KTM’s hurried offer of a 2020 MotoGP World Championship seat with Tech 3 Racing.

Indeed, even Lecuona himself will admit he wasn’t an obvious choice for a MotoGP promotion when it arrived. 

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Making his Moto2 debut in 2017, Lecuona was coming to the end of a second full campaign as the next best placed rider on the KTM chassis after Brad Binder. However, in a year dominated by Kalex, this meant he was only hovering around the top ten overall.

Considered something of an unknown quantity as one of the few riders not to have cut his teeth in Moto3 first, while Lecuona had shown promise with two podiums to date, at just 19-years old there was clearly still some maturing to be done.

Then again, big chances like this rarely come around, so while KTM’s offer came with a degree of risk for the Valencian - the extent of which he recognises more looking back than he did at the time - he doesn’t regret the choice he made.

“I wasn’t ready,” concedes Lecuona, who went on to make his debut in the 2019 MotoGP finale in Valencia.

“But when I had the opportunity I said yes because you don’t know what happens in the future, so in this case KTM gave me the chance and I took it.”

It’s a situation he evaluates in retrospect with relaxed honesty, both when assessing his fractured relationship with KTM and his own performances on the steepest of learning curves.

If Lecuona can afford such candour then it’s perhaps because he is doing so from a very happy and settled place competing with Honda in the WorldSBK Championship.

Iker Lecuona, Donington Park WorldSBK, 17 July
Iker Lecuona, Donington Park WorldSBK, 17 July

Indeed, far from feeling bitter about his MotoGP exit, Lecuona is thriving with his higher profile status in WorldSBK. It’s a sense of pride gleaned from representing such an esteemed brand that empowers Lecuona into believing he is in exactly the right place for when his time comes.

“I don’t think I was ready to make the jump,” he repeats. “But I knew if KTM gave me some time, I could learn quickly and I could fight for the top. By the end of the first year I was fighting in the top ten, fighting with Valentino in Austria [where he scored his best result of sixth] and I was P6 in Misano with two laps to go [before he crashed].

“It is a different philosophy in general, in MotoGP you need time as a rider and in my case I didn’t have a lot of it. I am [was] a rookie, and you want to go quickly to the top but I needed more time.”

The youngest MotoGP veteran

Two years later and Lecuona’s tenure in MotoGP was already over at 21, a younger age than many of the riders that have and will go on to make their debuts in the premier class.

That’s not to say his short period in MotoGP saw him disgrace himself, but a combination of youth, scant GP experience and machinery that wasn’t always up to the job were rivals as potent as any he shared the track with.

Racing on the periphery of KTM’s attention as it focused its efforts on the Factory set-up, Lecuona suffered for not sharing the same internal status as protégés Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira.

Together with KTM’s patchy honouring of a commitment to ensure the Factory and Tech 3 teams enjoyed near-parity in terms of parts and development, Lecuona often found himself slipping through the cracks.

“I need to say, at KTM I tried a lot of new pieces. In testing I was using different pieces, but this is because I feel changes [on a bike]. A small change, I can feel it, so I tried a lot of things but they always arrived late for me to race.

“I am not a factory rider, so they gave the pieces to the other guys. The factory does a step, then I am the last one to get the material to bring me closer to the official bike. It was frustrating to me, because my MotoGP bike is up and down.

Iker Lecuona, Valencia MotoGP race, 14 November
Iker Lecuona, Valencia MotoGP race, 14 November

“I had support from the factory, like engineers, but it is not the same as going in and feeling like a factory rider. Now [with Honda] I feel like a factory rider, it gives me a new attitude to work.”

And so, having taken a leap of faith in accepting his MotoGP chance, Lecuona is now left wondering what might have been. However, rather than agonise over whether he should have waited, he is pleased he grasped a chance that may have never otherwise come 

“All my life, when I have an opportunity I try to take it and use it,” he continues. “In 2015, I won a Supermotard Championship, then straight away I went to Moto2. Everything happens fast because I used my opportunities. The turn may pass one, two or three times, but you never know.  

“For me, MotoGP is a different level, but these are different bikes and it is a World Championship, so you need to fight and learn. 

“A lot in the last year [in MotoGP], with all the problems at KTM, I changed my philosophy and tried to enjoy the moments and to keep the positive points. This is when I started to go fast.”

Honda way

While Lecuona may not have ultimately fulfilled his ambitions in MotoGP, there is a strong case to argue that it wouldn’t have led him towards forging a new career path towards the WorldSBK Championship with Honda. 

Not only that, this time he is doing it with the full weight of factory support behind him, allowing him to feel - for the first time in his career - like a priority.

“Straight away in December, I went in and felt it,” he says with a broad smile. “You feel like you're a factory rider. I have the same people in my garage as I did in MotoGP, but it feels like a factory team. 

“If there is a new piece of suspension for instance, this piece works well, I can take it and use and improve. This is a good thing for me - in this moment you feel like a factory rider.”

Lecuona’s transition from MotoGP to WorldSBK is certainly nothing new. Indeed, ever since Max Biaggi set the standard by abandoning his GP ambitions in favour of an immensely successful Superbike career, numerous ‘pilgrims’ have traversed the same well-worn path.

However, what sets Lecuona apart is he is doing so while in the burgeoning phase of his career, whereas his peers - such as Alvaro Bautista, Marco Melandri, Randy de Puniet and Nicky Hayden - did (are doing) so at the latter end of theirs.

It’s this ‘best is yet to come’ impression that convinced Honda to bring him under its ‘red wing’ for the 2022 WorldSBK Championship, reckoning it can nurture him to the success he might have gone on to achieve in MotoGP under different circumstances.

“Before we signed them [Lecuona and team-mate Xavi Vierge], we did as much homework on the riders as we could,” Honda WorldSBK team boss Leon Camier said back in February

“But until you get to the first test, you don’t know how it will go but first impressions are really good. 

“It will take time for them, there is a lot to learn, so we are not expecting them to be up to speed straight away but this is something we are expecting. This is an investment for the future.”

While most riders certainly crave the attention of factory support, it often comes with the flip side of added pressure to deliver results too.

However, somewhat ironically, Lecuona is instead finding the opposite to be true. Indeed, while he may be competing under the watchful eye of the world’s largest manufacturer and its immensely successful motorsport arm, Honda’s modest return to WorldSBK in a works HRC capacity since 2020 has tempered its expectations in the short-term.

It’s a lower bar that has spurred Lecuona on to try and exceed them, as typified by his run to the podium in his second meeting at Assen. Only Honda’s third WorldSBK podium since 2020, it’s no exaggeration to say the result was celebrated like a win.

“When I arrived at this team I knew the objective and the goals, for the factory, but everybody - the good thing for me - they know the level from the bike. So if I finish seventh is a good result, fifth great, but the podium?  Big, big victory… for me.”

“For many races we didn’t talk”

Now more settled and motivated than ever, Lecuona’s current state is in stark contrast to his final months at KTM. With Remy Gardner known to be Tech 3-bound for 2022, Lecuona found himself pitched into an unhealthy rivalry with new team-mate Danilo Petrucci for the remaining seat.

Iker Lecuona, Valencia MotoGP race, 14 November
Iker Lecuona, Valencia MotoGP race, 14 November

It led to Lecuona swerving the amiable Italian altogether in order to gain an edge over him. However, when it became apparent neither rider would be retained for 2023, relations thawed.

In fact, Petrucci shed high praise for Lecuona as the 2021 season reached the closing stages, calling the Spaniard KTM's best rider since August.

“Myself and Danilo were frustrated all year. For many races we didn’t talk a lot because we were fighting to stay in the team. The first races I said ‘no, I don’t feel good with him’ 

“Then when we knew both of us were not anywhere, we started to talk and I realised he was a really good guy.”

If Lecuona came away from MotoGP on good terms with Petrucci, the same cannot be said for KTM after it stirred the rivalry between the Tech 3 riders, only to then hire - a decidedly reluctant - Raul Fernandez. 

“KTM, from my side, did really, really bad. First with the Moto2 guys Remy and Raul, then also Danilo and me. In this moment, I [knew I] didn’t want to stay with KTM. Even Raul, when he was riding in Moto2, said he didn’t want to go to KTM in MotoGP. 

“It looks really bad for the factory, but I don’t care. This is life, I am in WorldSBK with Honda in the factory and I think I chose the best way.” 

Young though he may still be, Lecuona nevertheless speaks with a maturity and wisdom that both belies his age but betrays the accelerated rate at which he had to develop while competing in motorcycle racing’s toughest arena.

With Honda committed to giving its riders the precious time he found lacking at KTM, it’s a change of philosophy Lecuona says has made all the difference for him.

“It calms me, gives me time to relax and not get pissed off. 

“I get pissed off sometimes because I want to win and I know I can do it - but I know we need some time. 

“For me, I win a lot in general - personally, professionally… I am happy.”

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