Developing and fielding a competitive machine in MotoGP is no easy task. It takes years of track time testing, refining, and struggling after fractions of a second. It takes millions of dollars and numerous experienced technicians, engineers, managers, and riders. KTM knows these facts intimately, and we recently spoke to KTM boss Pit Beirer and KTM's MotoGP Technical Director Sebastian Risse to learn more about the genesis of the RC16 and KTM's MotoGP program as they mark the third season back in the big leagues.

2019 KTM RC16
The latest iteration of the RC16.KTM

“We have such a long tradition in off-road, so step by step we had to go through disciplines,” Beirer explains. “It’s not so long time ago that we had to start to do good things in Supercross in the US. That was definitely also a big milestone for us. Coming over here in 2010 and I found out that we were really representing KTM in the wrong way. Then we changed things, actually also to the point that we could cut Roger DeCoster over. So this was a really big and difficult thing to turn Supercross around. We didn’t even get proper parking in the Supercross paddock, and now lately we are winning championships.

“But then from there, this is of course by far the biggest challenge we took. We won quite many championships in different categories, but we went on in the street segment starting with Moto3. I have a really special relation to Sebastian because when we started on the street I was not responsible for roadracing, but then just in meeting at a certain time they told me, you are responsible from now also for the roadracing side. I was like, okay, wow. But things were not going so well. There was a team and things were prepared, but people weren’t so happy. Then I decided to stop with some technicians and give all the responsibilities to Sebastian.”

Risse was in his late 20s at the time, so faced a lot of pressure. But Beirer’s approach has been to put his faith in the younger members of his team. Not only to foster a respectful professional atmosphere, but to also show that the brand could elevate its roadrace profile with in-house talent.

Bradley Smith riding the 2016 KTM RC16.
The first iteration of the RC16 during testing in late 2016 with Bradley Smith.KTM

“We did it in the first year because people told me I only know about off-road, and they told him that he’s too young. We said okay. We stepped in Moto3 as newcomers. Let’s learn together, because WP was new. The steel chassis was new. Us, we were also pretty new. So we said, ‘Okay, we need to learn now together and if things are getting better, we can grow together,’ but we won the championship in the first year.

“We didn’t know by that time, but without that project we would not have a MotoGP project because that’s when you really started to not outsource our roadracing program to somebody outside like we did in the years before. Then we said we do everything in-house with our young engineers. I was protecting them. I said, ‘They will fight until they win, but we need to believe in them and not say KTM can build great off-road bikes but on the street we will need an outside expert to run the team.’ Many of these guys from these days are still there, and they were the base for the MotoGP project. So from there we started to build up roadracing knowledge in-house. This mixed with some great engineers, and then also quite many guys from outside, that’s what is our MotoGP crew.”

Risse adds, “I think that’s also strong part from our CEO, Mr. Pierer. He really gives trust to really young engineers, even when he’s on the table. Some young people around, he will ask them their opinion. I think that was also a strong point in the last years; that also young engineers, they are allowed to bring their knowledge in and develop great motorcycles. We have some great older guys also there. So the mix between the young guys and experience is building great bikes. But here still we have to prove something. We are not there yet. We are just happy to participate and to survive every day.”

Pol Espargaró racing on a track.
Pol Espargaró during the first full year of KTM’s participation in the premier class.KTM

The faith is slowly paying off, with the RC16 making progress every time they hit the track. At Circuit of The Americas, where we spoke, times in FP2 were nearly three seconds faster than last year in the same session at the same circuit. The trick is to never feel satisfied, to always push forward for more.

“If you stand still in racing, they will pass you next day,” Risse says. “That’s also the crazy thing about racing. You always think you’re on the limit and from here we cannot go faster, but still every year you go faster and you find another second on a roadrace track on that level. It’s amazing. The guys are pushing so hard in that paddock, and all these young engineers are pushing so hard.”

Of course, the rider makes a huge difference as well, not only in their ability to ride the machine to its full potential, but also in terms of the direction of development. Some riders prefer to flow through corners, others prefer to jam hard on the brakes in a more point-and-shoot fashion. That makes a massive difference in the ways the bike progresses, and with four riders this year all bringing variations in style, KTM stands to make big leaps forward by Valencia.

2017 KTM RC16 ridden on a track by Pol Espargaró.
The RC16 continued to get better in 2018.KTM

“That was the biggest difference to last year and I think a big advantage, also a big challenge, especially on the tire side,” Risse explains of the expanded roster. “This is for me the most outstanding thing because when you have two riders and maybe one of them is injured or has a bad weekend, you have very, very limited amount of information, amount of data. The choice of the right tire and how to make these tires work is, especially in this class at the moment, number one, not only in terms of durability but also in terms of over-heating, treating it in the right way, not over-loading it, and so on. Then if suddenly you have the data of four riders, you can make big statistics and you can learn a lot from this. You have much more rider comments and in the end you can share this work because you need to sort out the tires. A lot of times when the conditions are not so constant maybe in two sessions, and then you don’t want to have this lucky punch for the race. You want to know what you’re doing. For this it helps a lot, for example.

“When you look at Pol (Espargaró), he’s really squeezing the bike to the maximum on the brakes,” Risse continues. “If I look at the data, I’m really scared. So he’s completely over the limit you think, but he does it, and he does it reliably and he’s not a crasher. So it is possible with a certain attitude and a certain feeling for the bike, but you have to let it really quite loose. If somebody doesn’t like to do that, already there the problem starts to have the right entry speed.

“Pol is on one extreme about V-shaping the corner, about stopping a lot in the last part of entry, preparing the exit very well. Then we have the guys coming from Yamaha on another extreme, focusing a lot on the entry speed. Then we have Miguel (Oliveira), kind of a wide paper who sucks up all this kind of information and tries to make the best out of this and gets a little bit of this, a little bit of that. You can see that this can also work very, very well, even with little experience. We try to feed him with information that he needs. He will tailor-make himself to our bike. Of course, when you only do this it can also mean that the bike moves into a direction that is maybe not perhaps optimum. But with the full package we have, I think it’s quite nice, helping out each other in every area.”

Pit Beirer at Circuit of The Americas in 2019.
Pit Beirer looks on during the battle at Circuit of The Americas in 2019.KTM

The opportunity in having four riders with different approaches is that it allows engineers to fill the gaps in knowledge that might otherwise exist with fewer or more similar riders. Johann Zarco, for example, is coming from Yamaha and immediately needed more confidence in the front end.

“The Yamaha is really a corner speed bike and an entry bike, so these were the areas where he was mainly struggling first before we adjusted the bike, confidence on the front, on brakes and entry. Then we were working on this, mainly with setting first to find the direction where you need to go, also with further developments. Then actually already during the winter break, we came to a point where he didn’t feel so bad anymore about this. For sure the Yamaha is more stable in some situations. The stability and then later on grip and turning were the points that he wanted to work on next. But it is iterative, so you solve one thing up to a point where you say, okay, this is not my main problem anymore. Then you go to another area and you improve this one, and then maybe the other one comes back. Not because you went back in the performance, but because you moved the limit. That’s racing. That’s all.”

Pol Espargaró racing at COTA in 2019.
Espargaró on his way to an eighth-place finish at COTA in 2019.KTM

The RC16 has, from the start, had massive potential. The machine was packing a powerful engine early on, which helps to alleviate a lot of issues when going up against more veteran machines.

“The engine was for sure our strong point in that phase. That’s clear. Also because other areas like the frame need iterations, need track time, while the engine is something where when you have very experienced people they can do this kind of steps in the background, in the factory, on the dyno, having certain development targets in mind so that we didn’t need a lot of iterations on the track, so they didn’t see them on track. But for sure a lot of hard work was in there to get to that point. Anyway, it was a strong and also very reliable basis which helped us a lot then also to improve the other things. Because what you don’t need is to have to change the engine every half day and to have problems here and there, but to have a basis where you can focus on the performance weak points of the bike.”

Where things could have gone awry is in the chassis, as KTM was and is the only team to run steel.

“Of course you can make a lot of benchmarking, look at different classes, put together what you think you know and start from there,” Risse says. “That’s what we did, and of course the starting point is anything but perfect. Then from there, it’s really not too much about concept and believing in this solution or that solution, but you have to just use what you have, follow the rider comments quite open-minded. I think then it’s quite independent of things like the material. It is about stiffness numbers. It’s about where you put the stiffness. Then on the stiffness number first to identify what you want to have, and on the other hand how you achieve it. So we have quite good knowledge in how to transfer our target to a frame that does it in terms of numbers. We have very good experience on the steel frame to produce this frame then. But to define the target is the biggest piece of the puzzle.”

“A huge piece of aluminum, we could not make a better frame,” Beirer adds. “It's about that you know where you want the stiffness and how to put it there. Any material can do it. Then you still need to prove that you can build it in such a light, steel way that you are as light as an aluminum chassis. But, still, you need to know where you want to put the stiffness and how to put it there. Every garage wants to know from the other garage where the stiffness is, so it’s more about that.

“I think we know how to handle this material, but we still need to get more experience in how to do it. There was a question mark behind our suspension about our chassis, if we will ever make it. But in Malaysia, for example, from the race which was in the beginning of November we improved by more than a second to the test in February. So with that time from February, this was like Marc Márquez’s times from November in the race. So if you can build a bike in February which could be top three in November, from our position, if you look over to Honda and Marc Márquez, the level is incredibly high. But we are running still behind experience. These guys are building on many, many years of experience and we are just… Everything is new. Every day we do something that’s new.”

Sebastian Risse, technical director for KTM's MotoGP project.
Sebastian Risse, technical director for KTM’s MotoGP project.KTM

And even if it’s made from familiar materials, KTM’s MotoGP frame is anything but ordinary. “We get the tubes from suppliers and even some production bikes have similar tubes in some points,” Risse explains. “But the way we build up the structure is quite different. On a racebike, normally you have quite a low front engine mounting point to have some lateral flex. On most of the production bikes you don’t see that except in supersport, superbike style. Then you have two engine mounts in the back which are basically also quite different to most production bikes because we are basically transferring the forces from the front. Part is through engine, part is through the frame.

“That means this is quite stretched out, while on most production bikes actually the swingarm is mounted either directly in the engine or it is kind of a hybrid system using also frame structure, but in the end it gets its strength a lot of times from the engine itself. So this concept is quite different to that. It also implies that actually the frame has to be more rigid and more loaded in this area. On the other hand, the way that you mount the engine when this is such a rigid structure has to be quite different. Normally, for example, when you look at production steel frames, they are kind of embracing the engine and you just clamp them to the engine. Now you have a stiffer structure, so you have to keep the engine between it but in a way that nothing is under tension. So there’s quite a bit of technology how you do this with engine spanner spacing out everything, how you tighten everything.”

Having your own in-house suspension company doesn’t hurt moving things forward either. “The closer they are (WP Suspension), the better,” Risse continues. “This is just 300 meters so there is all the possibilities there to work together. Of course a big disadvantage is purely that the Öhlins guys have so many different bikes that they work on. Information, knowledge is transferred through the suspension company also between manufacturers, I believe. Of course this cannot happen when WP is just working with and for us. So we are kind of on an island that we have to develop together.”

But it all just takes time, and it’s clear that KTM has a solid approach. Will the brand take more podiums, or even its first win, this year? Unlike the past two years, we think it’s a completely plausible proposition in 2019.