How does a rookie hold his own against the top dog? Not by copying them, that’s for sure. Only if you’re willing to forge your own path, achieve your goals quickly and prioritise a can-do informality over hierarchy, will you have a real chance at unseating those currently at the pinnacle of the sport. The way KTM is going about joining the elite of motorcycling is an object lesson in just that.
“I don’t care whether it’s raining or not. At some point I need feedback,” says Günter Bauer, KTM’s chief chassis designer. Hanging around is annoying; people want to get down to work. Last night, heavy rainfall hit the track in Sepang, Malaysia, and now, at midday, it still hasn’t dried off completely, or at least not to the point where the engineers might draw any sensible conclusions. This may well be the 46th day of testing in KTM’s short MotoGP career, and also the umpteenth version of the frame of Pol Espargaró and Bradley Smith’s bikes, but in this arena the KTM team are still absolute rookies.
Sepang is the first official test of the 2017 MotoGP season. It’s the first opportunity for them to size themselves up against the opposition; the first time things get real. Rivals like Honda, Yamaha and Ducati all have decades of experience and are technically at their peak, whereas KTM still needs to find its feet.
“My greatest wish?” says British rider Smith, rubbing his hands over his cropped skull as he sits in a fold-up chair on the left-hand side of the pits. “Having 10 more days’ test experience under my belt.”
One man couldn’t agree more: 54-year-old team manager Mike Leitner. He has worked in MotoGP in various capacities at Honda for 15 years, including the role of crew chief for multiple World Championship winner Dani Pedrosa. His main task at KTM has been to build from scratch a team that can keep up with his former employers; a team that will one day beat the world champions using their very own methods. “We do things differently in Mattighofen,” Leitner explains. “We don’t sit around asking ourselves questions forever; we act. It doesn’t matter how many different nationalities you have on board, the parent company sets the cultural tone.”
This means no long-winded board meetings or harmonising with corporate HQ thousands of miles away, but instead achieving your goals in as short a time as possible amid a culture of personal responsibility.
Leitner sought out 37 people cool with this philosophy, most of them coming, not surprisingly, from within the field. Now they have to learn to work together. “Being a total genius won’t help one bit if you’d rather be sitting at home on your laptop, or you spend the working day looking at your watch,” he says. “Anyone who works in my team has to be burning with enthusiasm for the cause; has to be willing to suffer, and needs to be able to cope with constantly being away from home. The best theoretician is no good to me if he doesn’t know how to handle the pits: the pressure, the claustrophobia, the stress. The paddock creates a type of people all of its own.” The majority already have a language in common when arriving for testing. But now KTM has to develop a language of its own.
Andreas Rieger is one of the few ‘civilians’ – that is to say, someone with no background in MotoGP – to have passed muster to work at the track. The mechanic formerly tweaked bikes for a KTM dealer before working his way up to the factory team. “Yesterday, we were in the pits from 8am to 11pm with a 15-minute break in the afternoon,” he reveals. Everyone does, at least, have a room of their own. “If you can’t shut the door behind you at night and have a little bit of privacy, you’ll end up going mad.”
Leitner concurs: “Even if I picked the majority of them from candidates who I knew were used to stress, you still want a team who will work the whole year through. People need space and a chance to step back. We’re stuck with each other all day as it is.”
It sounds like a lot when you first hear that it takes 38 people to get two bikes onto the race track. But there are more jobs to be done than there are people to fill them. “I’d sooner we closed ranks and shared the jobs between us than one of us be out there on the track and not know what he’s doing,” says Leitner. “We’re as big as we have to be, and as small as we can be.”
The truck drivers, for example, are also responsible for the race tyres, and when the riders are on track they’re the ones who communicate with them via boards held above the pit wall. There’s no pit radio in MotoGP as there is in Formula One, so one very important job falls to people who you’d think were further down the pecking order.
“Every rider wants to communicate in his own way. You’ve got to get a feel for him and for the way the race is going,” one crew members reveal. “For one guy, for example, T during a race means time. In other words, go for it. Sometimes the whole board was just full of Ts.”
In Leitner’s understanding of team spirit, there are no unimportant jobs: “The man who rivets the chain lock is just as important as everyone else. That’s what I told everyone on the very first day. What use is the best engine or the best electronics if the wheels aren’t turning? This respect for colleagues comes from the top and is also lived out at the top.”
His prior knowledge comes in handy: “I’ve worked in almost every position. That’s why I can put myself in my team’s shoes and understand why they’ve made the decisions they have. What’s my job? To get my head around the project as a whole, and to optimise it. Not a day passes when I don’t try to improve something.”
The pits, meanwhile, are a hive of activity. The track is now completely dry and testing can begin. They do five laps and then it’s back to the pits to try to come up with a better set-up. Each rider has two bikes, and they can’t even see the difference themselves. “But once you’re on the bike, you can feel it within a matter of metres,” Smith explains. Tiny details matter, like the thickness of the frame, or slight adjustments to the inside of the fork.
Before a rider goes out on track, a set of wheels is fetched from the back of the pits and heated to 90°C. Then two carbon brake discs are fitted, each of which costs €5,000. The wheels are put in place, the brake calipers are screwed on, and the brake system is bled and filled with new brake fluid. Maintenance that you’d have to wait for at your local bike shop is par for the course here. Twelve litres of fuel are taken from the fridge in the pits and put into the bikes.
But why from a fridge? The fuel has to be between 15-20°C during the race, so you must mix room-temperature petrol with the cooled stuff to ride “legally”. Cold petrol is also less voluminous, which means you can take more than the regulation 22 litres with you, hence the point of the exercise.
The tyre warmers come off, the 270hp V4 engine starts, and the primal scream it emits from the titanium exhaust electrifies the pit lane. Espargaró is back 12 minutes later. A laptop is hooked up to download data. A fan cools the bike’s electronics as it stands there. After a quick swig of something to drink, it’s time for a debrief.
“The rear wheel is losing grip at the start of the braking phase,” Espargaró reports. “I have to modulate the braking pressure. The back of the bike judders when that happens. We have to get that under control.” The Spaniard is the man in charge. His crew chief, Paul Trevathan, gives instructions to chief mechanic Christophe Leonce, and the guys get to work. While Leitner interrogates his rider, the trim of the bike is removed, the pivot point adjusted a few millimetres, and the shocks calibrated. Then he’s off again.
This may all seem run-of-the-mill to the layman, but that’s not how Leitner sees it: “We can improve in all areas.” It’s an attitude that pervades the whole team: everyone looks for improvements in their own area. “The bike has to be more mechanic-friendly,” says Rieger. “It still takes three hours to change the engine. That’s too long when push comes to shove. We still have a lot of cable ties and simple solutions for where there are clips and quick-release connectors on the finished bike. If a rider crashes during qualifying, every second counts.”
“We’re building a new frame for the next test. The trim will be different, too,” says chassis engineer Bauer. “Our updates come later on in the season,” adds engine designer Kurt Trieb.
“The team is already really good, but each of us has to squeeze out another one per cent,” says rider Smith. “When 38 people find that in their specialised areas, that’s a whole lot more on the bottom line.” This is where Smith sees the biggest difference between factory teams and the satellite teams he’s ridden for: “There’s no 99 per cent with a factory team.”
Which is exactly the attitude Leitner wants to see. So, what’s next?
“We get seriously blown away in the first race,” he says, “then we come together even more and begin to eat away at the distance that separates us from the more established teams. Any group works when you’re winning. But character really comes into play when you’re down.”