KTM's glass house aids MotoGP title challenge: Mat Oxley

“KTM’s progress in the most challenging class in motorcycling is a miracle”

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Honda contested its first MotoGP (née 500cc) world championship in 1966 and is now contesting its 42nd season. Suzuki arrived five years later, dipping in and out according to management whim and wallet, its experience now totalling 44 seasons.

Ducati also raced its first MotoGP event in 1971, but soon withdrew and only returned in 2003, making a total of 21 years in the class. Yamaha started in 1973 and has so far completed 49 seasons. Aprilia has also been in and out, since 1994, and is currently contesting its 16th season of MotoGP

KTM commenced its first MotoGP campaign in March 2017. Its RC16 MotoGP bike achieved its first victories last year and has won more races this season. The company’s progress in the most challenging class in motorcycling has been something of a miracle.

The Austrian brand has been around since the 1930s but not until the 1970s did the company enjoy racing success, in motocross. Since then there’s hardly an off-road world title that KTM hasn’t won, from motocross to supercross and from enduro to rally.

KTM contested its first roadracing grands prix in 2004, in the 125cc class. Twice-MotoGP champion Casey Stoner scored KTM’s first roadrace GP victory at Malaysia at the end of that year. Many more successes followed, in the 125cc, 250cc and Moto3 classes.

However, when KTM announced its intention to attack the MotoGP championship paddock insiders wondered if this might be a step too far for a relatively small company with no knowledge of the category.

KTM’s RC16 MotoGP bike uses a 90-degree V4 engine, similar to those successfully campaigned by Ducati and Honda, and designed by former Porsche and BMW engineer Kurt Trieb, so at least KTM didn’t tread too far into the unknown with the heart of its motorcycle.

KTM also timed its entry to coincide with MotoGP’s introduction of a spec ECU, thus saving its engineers the immense task of building their own electronic control systems.

However, KTM chose to deviate from the norm in two hugely important areas of performance. It housed Trieb’s engine in a tubular steel frame, while the rest of the grid used aluminium-alloy beam frames. And it fitted KTM’s in-house WP suspension, unlike the Öhlins kit used by other manufacturers.

The opening race of 2017 gave KTM a good idea of the size of the mountain it had to climb. Riders Pol Espargaró and Bradley Smith finished 16th and 17th, taking the chequered flag more than half a minute behind the winner. By the end of the year they had done no better than a couple of ninth places.

“KTM’s MotoGP library is nil,” explained Red Bull KTM crew chief Paul Trevathan at the time. “Everything we do is trying to understand more and luckily we’ve got a group of guys who aren’t scared to learn.”

“The heart of its success is the philosophy within the group”

Over the next few seasons KTM changed engine specs (firing configuration, direction of crankshaft rotation and so on) and frame designs (mostly different geometry and revised stiffness) with dizzying frequency, helped along this road by Red Bull largesse.

And yet the results were slow to come – in 2018 one tenth place and a third at a rain-lashed Valencia were as good as it got.

Some pitlane experts suggested that KTM’s chassis specification would forever hold the company back. One of the negatives of spec-tyre racing (MotoGP switched to spec tyres in 2009) is that the tyre supplier must create rubber that works for most of the grid, so if your chassis differs from the norm you may struggle to make the tyres work.

But KTM was not for turning. “The concept of this project is to make a MotoGP bike with the same technology we sell at KTM – and our customers buy KTMs with steel frames and WP suspension,” said team manager Mike Leitner.

By 2019 KTM’s library of knowledge had grown sufficiently for the breakthrough: Espargaró finished sixth at Le Mans. Yet it wasn’t until last year that the factory finally put all the pieces together. A heavily revised frame propelled the RC16 to its first victories, at Brno, with rookie Brad Binder, and at Red Bull Ring and Portimão, with Miguel Oliveira.

KTM’s remarkable ability to accelerate around problems was proven again at the start of 2021. A pre-season change of front-tyre spec caused KTM’s riders huge problems at the first few races but engineers revised the chassis to take Oliveira to second place at Mugello and victory at Barcelona.

It isn’t only the company’s engineering abilities that deserve admiration. The real heart of KTM’s success is the philosophy within the entire racing group which seems to work as one, with none of the petty rivalries or jealousies that destroy some operations.

KTM racing technical director Wolfgang Felber understands the importance of communication at all levels. The engineering offices surround the workshop area, separated by glass walls and doors, which encourage mechanics to visit the engineers whenever they have a bright idea. Because all great technology is ultimately human.

Five years ago very few thought KTM would worry the established names, but now the company is challenging for the MotoGP title. It’s a unique story.

Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley