Poncharal: MotoGP put 'beast' Lecuona on HRC’s radar, hope he’ll win SBK title

KTM’s decision to drop Iker Lecuona at the end of the 2021 season may have been controversial but the Spaniard’s two seasons in MotoGP paved the way for him to ‘shine’ as a factory Honda World Superbike rider.
iker Lecuona, Assen WorldSBK race2, 24 April
iker Lecuona, Assen WorldSBK race2, 24 April

That’s the opinion of Lecuona’s former Tech3 MotoGP team boss Herve Poncharal, who pushed to sign the unknown teenager – who took one podium from 55 races in Moto2 - when he suddenly needed a new rider for 2020.

“Let’s remember the background,” Poncharal told Crash.net. “My initial team for 2020 was Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira. Then Zarco left KTM midway through 2019, so it was decided that Brad Binder would not be with us the next year and would instead replace Zarco.

“That was decided at Phillip Island, so I was left without a rider very late in the [2019] season. So I said, ‘I’d like to bet on that young rider; Iker Lecuona’. They [KTM] were a bit scared but I said, ‘Hey, you already took Brad! Let me do it!’ Iker deserved it.”

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Lecuona made a promising early Tech3 MotoGP debut, in place of the injured Oliveira, at Valencia 2019 when Poncharal’s faith was swiftly vindicated as Lecuona outpaced KTM riders Mika Kallio and Hafizh Syahrin in free practice.

“Iker did a great first weekend in Valencia. He crashed in the race, but he was fast and I was really happy. Then in 2020 we did some good races, the best was being in P6 in Misano when he crashed with four laps to go, behind Miguel. But the potential was there.

“Iker is a very fast rider. He has a lot of talent. He is a beast and can master a lot of bikes, including a MotoGP bike.”

But crucially for Lecuona’s MotoGP career, he didn’t build on that promise during the opening half of 2021, just as KTM was under pressure to promote both its Moto2 title leaders Remy Gardner and Raul Fernandez to Tech3 the following year.

Non-scores in six of the opening nine races meant Lecuona went into the summer break just 21st in the world championship with a best result of ninth. The other KTM riders were seventh (Binder), ninth (Oliveira) and 17th (Danilo Petrucci).

Adding to the tension at KTM were approaches by rival MotoGP factories for the services of their rookie Moto2 star Fernandez, who was starting to close on title leader Gardner.

Danilo Petrucci Iker Lecuona. Valencia MotoGP. 14 November
Danilo Petrucci Iker Lecuona. Valencia MotoGP. 14 November

'Sometimes you have to take a decision'

“2021 was a bit of a disappointing season for Iker compared to 2020,” Poncharal admitted. “And there was the possibility to take the riders that were first and second in Moto2. There were a lot of discussions, and the decision was taken.

“That doesn't mean nobody trusted Iker’s potential. Sometimes you have to take a decision, right or wrong.

“That was the decision and of course if you open up some space in Moto2 then it’s easier for Acosta to move up and for young riders to move into his place in Moto3. So there is that path to consider.

“We only have two bikes and the KTM management, after thinking a lot, decided, ‘OK, we want to give the possibility to our riders that are first and second in Moto2’ That doesn’t mean nobody liked Iker, but you have to decide.”

In a classic case of what might have been, once the decision was issued to drop both Lecuona and Petrucci from Tech3, the Spaniard began delivering his best MotoGP results: Sixth and seventh at the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone was followed by consistent speed in practice, despite older spec parts.

"[Lecuona] didn't deserve to go out of MotoGP because he's the youngest on the grid and he's got some experience [now]," team-mate and double MotoGP winner Petrucci said at the time.

"I told the KTM guys in Austria when they said, ‘you are not in the team [next year]’, 'if you have to choose, it's better to continue with Iker' because he's very young and for me he's got big potential.

"It's my personal opinion, but for sure in the second part of the championship, of the four KTM riders Iker is the one who is riding better.”

But as one door closed for Lecuona, another opened.

Lecuona’s late 2021 form had caught the eye of Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig, looking to recruit promising young riders for HRC’s factory World Superbike team.

“I spoke with Alberto Puig last year at Silverstone and he asked me a lot of things about Iker. I told him honestly only good things, including that I would do it [sign Lecuona] if I were him,” Poncharal said.

“If Iker hadn’t joined MotoGP, I don’t think he would have had the [Honda WorldSBK] offer, clearly. So I am very happy we brought Iker Lecuona onto the ‘radar’, if you know what I mean.”

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

Lecuona 'young enough to come back' to MotoGP

While disappointed that his MotoGP dream had come to an early end, Lecuona soon turned the page by being a top-six contender from his first WorldSBK appearance.

Peaking with a podium at Assen, his first world championship rostrum since Buriram 2019, Lecuona was eighth in the standings when he was forced to miss the final rounds due to a back injury at Mandalika.

Nevertheless, the 23-year-old finished his rookie WorldSBK campaign in ninth overall, beating any of his grand prix seasons, and was one place ahead of team-mate and Moto2 race winner Xavi Vierge.

“I’m not surprised by what Iker’s doing in Superbike. I’m really happy Iker is doing well and I wish him all the best,” Poncharal said.

“I’ve read a few things, some of them on Crash.net, and Iker was maybe a bit bitter [at leaving MotoGP]. But I am happy for Iker. We did two challenging seasons together, up and down, but I enjoyed those two seasons.

“Until the very last race we did everything we could for him, fully motivated. Iker was not too unhappy [with us] because he gave his leathers and helmets to the team (pictured).

"He was also happy because he was not without a job, he had got a full factory seat in the Superbike championship.

“I still believe the two years he spent with KTM helped him to have a name that was on the radar of HRC and learn how to ride a big bike, which is giving him the chance to shine now.

“I hope he’s going to shine as much as he can. I hope he’s going to grow, win that championship, then either be happy to stay there or eventually come back to MotoGP - he’s young enough to do that.”

Lecuona and Vierge will remain at the Honda World Superbike team in 2023 when Tech3 will have another all-new MotoGP line-up of Pol Espargaro and Augusto Fernandez. 

While Raul Fernandez is switching to RNF Aprilia, Gardner will attempt to replicate Lecuona's impressive transition to WorldSBK at GRT Yamaha.

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