Mat Oxley

New name joins MotoGP fray

A new manufacturer will join the grid at the season-ending Valencia Grand Prix on November 13. Austrian firm KTM is hardly unknown in racing – it came out of the dirt-bike scene and has won more than 200 off-road world titles since the 1950s.

The brand – based in Mattighofen, north of Salzburg – is hugely ambitious and is backed all the way by well-known Austrian product, Red Bull. For some years KTM’s directors have yearned for success under the brighter lights of MotoGP. They won their first world title in 2012, beating Honda at their own game to take the Moto3 title. Honda was not amused.

But KTM (an acronym of founders Johann Kronreif and Ernst Trunkenpolz, plus its home town) isn’t afraid of upsetting anyone: it has poached several European staff from Honda, and the engine of its RC16 MotoGP machine is somewhat similar to Honda’s RC213V.

The machine is also pretty fast for a beginner. “Technically, it is within one second of the top pace,” says test rider Alex Hofmann, a former Ducati and Kawasaki MotoGP rider.

KTM has chosen its moment carefully. MotoGP switched to Michelin this season, after many years with Bridgestone, so while Honda and the rest are adapting bikes that were built to work on Bridgestones, the RC16 was engineered from day one for Michelins.

And KTM hasn’t had to create its own electronics system, because MotoGP switched to a unified ECU this year. “The key for every new manufacturer coming into MotoGP is the ECU, because you can build a strong engine and a great frame, but collecting enough electronics information and data is almost impossible,” says Hofmann. “A few years ago Honda brought in new sensors from F1, which took MotoGP electronics to a whole new level. Without the control ECU, KTM might have said no to MotoGP, because it would always have been several years behind the others.”

The RC16 is an all-new machine, powered by a 90-degree 1000cc V4 with pneumatic valves. It is the fourth V4 in MotoGP, alongside the Honda (also 90 degrees with pneumatic valves), Ducati’s Desmosedici (90 degrees with desmodromic valves) and Aprilia’s RS-GP (65 degrees with pneumatic valves). Suzuki and Yamaha both run inline fours.

KTM engine designer Kurt Trieb, formerly of Porsche and BMW, is sure a V4 is the way to go. “There are many advantages in engine performance and mechanical reliability,” he says. “In the end we didn’t have many discussions about configuration, but more about the vee angle – a wider angle avoids the need for a balancer shaft; that sort of thing.”

Hofmann likes the RC16 engine. “When we tested at the Red Bull Ring alongside some other teams, Cal [Crutchlow] told me the bike already accelerates like a Honda.” 

The German also believes that the relatively small size of the KTM operation may help in reacting to new trends and technologies. “I’ve worked for Aprilia and seen how they have to work within the Piaggio group,” he says. “Their process of reacting in this fast-moving world is too slow. But if Pit Beirer [KTM’s motor sports director] calls Stefan Pierer [KTM’s CEO] and says, ‘Look we have a problem, it’ll take this much money to solve’, Stefan might say, ‘OK, go’, and they’ll start working right away.”

While the KTM engine is similar to Honda’s RCV, its frame is unique in MotoGP’s modern era. It is a steel tubular-trellis unit, the same concept used by Ducati during the Italian company’s most successful period in MotoGP, from 2003 to 2007. And there’s an interesting question here: if Ducati hadn’t abandoned its trellis frame, would it have endured all those years in the wilderness, failing with its carbon-fibre monocoque, then taking several more years learning to copy the aluminium-beam frames preferred by the Japanese?

The RC16 frame looks simple, old-fashioned even, but Beirer insists it isn’t. “The frame is fabricated from a very special steel, though I can’t say what kind.” he says. “We can go very thin on wall thickness in some areas and still gain the stiffness we want. Also, how you weld each joint and how you bend each tube makes a big difference to how the frame behaves.”

Hofmann was impressed by the bike’s behaviour on corner exits. “From the first day it had great exit speed. Some bikes transfer the power too far to the outside of the corner, making them wobble and move. But it just hooked up and drove, straight as an arrow.”

Corner-entry performance might be the area where KTM has the most work to do. “Now we have to make the front end steer, make it stick and get the maximum feeling,” Hofmann says. They won’t know exactly where they are in that crucial area until the factory’s 2017 riders (Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro) climb aboard the RC16 for the first time, just days after former Moto2 winner Mika Kallio gives the bike its race debut.

Hofmann believes KTM can go all the way. “There are many good people involved who know their game. The engine guys know it’s not all about the engine, the electronics guys know it’s not all about electronics and so on; they all know it’s a package and they work together. They are as precise as the Japanese, but not so complicated, and they are as passionate as the Italians, but they’re not blinded by passion. Theirs is a very interesting approach to MotoGP.”