MotoGP: Strong start to debut season for KTM
MotoGP: Strong start to debut season for KTM

What a debut season it is turning out to be for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing who made their first appearance in Valencia of the 2016 MotoGP season, and then at the reigns of former Monster Yamaha Tech 3 duo, Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, are proving to be competitive just nine rounds in.

Debut season for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

The machine has been a long time coming; it has come under a lot of development for months once the idea was first launched. The consistency of the two riders, who made their MotoGP debuts with Monster Yamaha Tech 3, meant they had a few years of experience under their leathers before they were chosen to help develop the new bike.

Kalio makes bike’s debut in Valencia at end of 2016

Former MotoGP rider, who is keen to prove that he is still able to compete in the top class, launched the bike in Valencia. He didn’t qualify last on the grid, he started from 22nd. During Free Practice, he was just under three seconds off the fastest man on track, Jorge Lorenzo who was then with Movistar Yamaha and so to make such improvements in four sessions was already a fantastic achievement.

There was still something missing on race day, during the warm-up in the morning, he was still 2.654 seconds off the quickest pace, but still it wasn’t bad considering them bikes he was trying to match the times of had a full season of race experience and development to get them as competitive as they did, it meant that good things were to come with the Austrian manufacturer; who are already thriving in Moto3, and have had a fantastic start to life in Moto2 using the Honda engine.

Small cheap part ruins debut appearance

Come the race debut however, it turned out to be a disappointment as they were forced to retire with 11 laps of their first event remaining. A small, cheap electronic component had gone which meant that they were unable to continue… it was incredibly frustrating but still left us hopeful and intrigued by what was to come.

Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith make KTM debut in Valencia test

Pol and Smith first took the reins of the KTM a few days later in Valencia at the first of the off-season testing. Immediately they made a name for themselves as they ended the first day out of the two in 19th and 20th; behind them were two rookies, a returning rider, two test riders (one of those being a former MotoGP rider) and a Moto3 rider making a guest appearance as a treat. The following day, Pol improved further moving up to 17th, but Smith dropped to 20th during the session and overall during the test.

Pol’s work in just them two days with the new machine meant that he was just 1.878 seconds off the pace by fastest man at the test, Maverick Vinales making his debut with Movistar Yamaha. He had also managed to beat Tito Rabat who was beginning his second season with Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS.

Sepang test followed

It was on to Sepang next for the next three day test. Again Pol was 19th and just 2.073 seconds off the quickest pace, he dropped another position during day two, and then several more down to 23rd on the final day. The best he could do was around the 2:01.5 minute mark on all three days which again remained two seconds off the pace.

Smith on the other hand jumped from 24th on day one where he was three seconds off the pace, to 35th the following day, but then up to 21st on the final day as he improved by over a second from day one and was down to 1.970 seconds off the pace when he lapped under 2:01.4 seconds.

Off to Philipp Island for further off-season testing

Over the three days testing that followed in Philipp Island the two riders were able to make similar improvements on the best lap times on the bikes. Pol ended up 16th during the test having reduced his time by over 1.2 seconds, and was now just 1.2 seconds off the pace, and Smith finished up 18th having made more significant improvements for him personally.

Final test in Qatar before season opener at desert track

The final test to follow on from Australia was in Qatar where they would a few days later make their debuts officially at the 2017 season opener. Pol and Smith were joined by Kalio for the three days of testing before the first race, but unfortunately they found themselves at the bottom of the timesheets over the three days, with Pol finishing 19th in session one. The gap had opened back up but on the new machinery they were still just two seconds off the pace.

Qatar round hindered by rain

The debut did not go as well as planned, and understandably they began the season further down the rankings, but from that moment on, they continued to make a fantastic progress throughout the remainder of the season.

In Qatar, rain hit and so Free Practice 4 and both Qualifying sessions were cancelled because It was too dangerous, for many factors, to continue. So it was down to the warm-up to complete vital track time before the race. A light shower hit right after the sighting lap almost catching several rides out, and again this brought whether the season opener should run or not into dispute.

After a long delay things finally got underway. Both KTM riders finished the race that saw five riders crash out. They were just outside the points also, Pol was 16th and Smith was 17th beating British rookie, Sam Lowes (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) in 18th. More importantly they were just over 30 seconds off the race leaders, and just four seconds off 14th and 15th place.

Argentina sees both riders finish in the points

Argentina was next and already Pol was making progress. Both riders used the first session, as many do, to familiarise with the track and create a base setting to work on, and then began to tweak. Pol gradually crept up the timesheets, whereas Smith struggled to do so more, and then during Qualifying, Pol claimed 20th on the grid, and Smith joined him on the seventh row in 21st.

With four riders behind them before the race began they were already at an advantage and in a better position than previous. Smith couldn’t find the pace during the warm-up but once again they both completed the race with both of them finishing in the points. Pol was 14th and Smith was 15th; their reliability in the MotoGP class was paying off. They were part of a group of four riders at the back of the pack (ahead of Team Suzuki Ecstar rider Andrea Iannone who had been penalised) who were approximately 40 seconds off the leaders.

Disappointment followed on from success, at COTA

They then travelled to Austin, Texas for the third round of the season at the Circuit of the Americas. When the meeting started they were once again down at the bottom of the timesheets with the two rookies, Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) and Lowes. Both riders again began making improvements, with Smith jumping up to 17th and Pol up to 19th during FP3. Qualifying saw Smith claim 20th on the grids, and Pol was 23rd, next to his brother Aleix Espargaro who had also switched teams that year to Aprilia Racing Team Gresini.

Again the warm-up demonstrated that both riders were competitive ahead of the race, but during the race, with 12 laps remaining, Pol’s engine on the KTM popped and he was forced to retire. He immediately pulled off the race line as smoke poured out of the exhaust.

Smith however was able to again finish the race but again was just outside the points in 16th; although this time he was riding around on his own with a gap between him and Alvaro Bautista (Pull & Bear Aspar Team) who was 16 seconds ahead. He was not last, but that is cos Aleix had returned to the pits with front tyre issues and returned to collect data.

First European round in Jerez

The next round was the first of the European rounds in Jerez, Spain which was classed as a home round for Spanish born, Pol. As many of the local riders proved at that track, being familiar with your surroundings helped regardless of the machinery as at the end of the wet, opening session, Pol was 14th quickest just 1.4 seconds off fastest man, Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda); Smith was 15th.

After a drier second session, Pol moved up to 10th, as Smith dropped down to 18th during FP2, and after FP3 they were 17th and 18th (Smith 17th). Combining Free Practice times meant that they were both in Qualifying 1, but during FP4 Pol was ninth quickest. Before the first European round, Pol qualified 17th on the grid and Smith was 18th; they were definitely making progress.

Come the race, things were going well for Pol. He got a great start and made several positions in the opening laps but then started to get overtaken. But, he was out of the race with 22 laps to go. Smith was able to continue fighting and finished the race in 14th, again in the points.

Double success at the fifth round in Le Mans

Le Mans followed and collectively as a team the riders got their best win of the season so far. Rain hit, but in the drier sessions, Smith started off strong in FP1 finishing seventh, and it wasn’t until FP3 when Pol also placed seventh in the pack; Smith was 10th during FP3. Both riders had done enough to, for the first time both were through to Qualifying 2.

Beating many high profile names on factory machinery, Pol managed to secure eighth on the grid in Le Mans. Two places behind, on row four, Smith qualified 10th. It was an extraordinary achievement for a team who were officially just five rounds in.

On race-day, the duo didn’t have the pace and started to lose positions. Loris Baz (Reale Avintia Ducati) was able to pass Pol pushing him down to 13th, and as Iannone passed Smith to take 16th. Iannone also went on to pass Pol, but crashes ahead of the duo who completed the race benefited them greatly, and they finished 12th and 13th picking up their best result so far.

Mugello leads to disappointment

Unfortunately they were unable to carry their success on into the next round in Mugello, Italy. Throughout the meeting, where several riders were incredibly strong, they found themselves again near the bottom of the timesheets throughout the build-up. Starting from 20th on the grid, Pol was forced to retire with 10 laps of the race remaining. After struggling all weekend, Smith finished last in 20th, but as part of a group (containing Baz and Lowes) who were 50 seconds behind the leaders.

Emotional return to Spain for the second time during the season

Returning to Spain for a second time, back to home turf for Pol, the seventh round of the season took place at the Circuit de Barcelona, in Catalunya, Spain. Being back on familiar ground, but under emotional circumstances, led Pol to again start off strong despite the changes to the track that had been put in place since his former teammate, Luis Salom lost his life the year before at turn 12 of the track.

Last year, when they decided to continue on with the meeting they resorted to the Formula 1 layout. They returned in 2017 to a modified track, but after day one they again resorted back to the F1 layout to avoid confusion; and to overcome safety issues due to the extra chicane and bumpy tarmac that was different to what it was placed near.

Smith picks up serious injury during FP4

On the second day of the meeting in Spain, unfortunately for Smith he suffered a huge highside at turn five of the track; that not only ended the day, but the Catalunya GP early for him. He went down during FP4, and was forced to crawl to safety at the side of the track; he was in pain.

It turns out he had re-injured a past injury; he ripped the skin off his little finger on his left hand when he refused to let go off the handlebars when he crashed. It was going to require surgery, and to risk further infection and essentially a longer healing process in the long run, they decided it was best that he did not continue on. He also missed the test day at the track the day after the race.

Starting from 22nd on the grid, Espargaro struggled in Catalunya and was to compete as well as he had done before. He finished the race, but was 18th after three riders fell ahead of him.

Pol picks up best finish so far as Smith crashes out

Having to put a bad weekend behind them, they went on to Assen where Pol continued to improve, but once again Smith was unable to finish. It was wet, and it was a chance for them to see how the KTM performs in such sodden conditions. It was like taking them back to day one as they returned down to the bottom of the timesheets and qualified in 21st and 24th.

Smith crashed out on the 14th lap, fortunately he did not appear to damage his already hurt finger, but there was no way he could re-join the race.

Rain allows Pol to pick up positions

It rained during the warm-up, but afterwards the track had dried out as the rain held off. Then just before the race, as they lined up on the grid, the weather changed again for the worse. As conditions cooled when the clouds gathered, riders and teams panicked and doubted tyre choices. Then midway through the race, a rain shower hit and the white flag was waved to symbolise that the riders could return to the pits to switch to bikes waiting with the wet set-up.

This benefited Pol greatly as riders ahead of him either could not adapt to the wet with their current bikes, or they opted to return to the pits to make that change. Either way, Pol gained places and finished the Motul TT Assen in 11th claiming his best race finish as a KTM rider yet.

Sachsenring the final round before the summer break

But he was to improve from there at the final round before the summer creak at the Sachsenring. After a slow start to the meeting again, and a small crash for Pol, he woke on the second day probably in a fantastic mood clearly as he was able to achieve great things. On combined Free Practice times, he had not done enough to automatically get into Q2, but during Qualifying 1, he managed a top two finish that enable to continue on with Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Racing) who was top.

Triple success at the German GP

After a short break he was back out on track for the second session. Finishing just a second off pole position man, Marquez, he qualified seventh on the grid, his best, and KTM’s best MotoGP qualifying ever. It wasn’t too bad a result for Smith either as he started with his best ever KTM qualifying in 17th. It was a three man team for KTM in Sachsenring as they were joined by test rider, Kalio making a wildcard appearance who again wanted to prove his capabilities, and did well to qualify in 19th on the grid (starting with seven others behind him).

KTM end first half of debut season more competitive than ever

Their success continued on during the final race before the summer break, where they proved they were more competitive than ever. Pol again lost positions during the race, but both Smith and Kalio gained some. After being passed, Pol ended up out on the track on his own leaving Smith and Kalio to battle things out. Smith passed Kalio on lap 23, but between then and the end of the 30 lap race, Miller came between them pushing Kalio out of the points. Only one rider crashed ahead of them, it was all their doing otherwise.

Pol finished 13th in Sachsenring, Smith was 14th and Kalio was 16th. It was a strong finish heading into the summer break that not only leaves them on a positive note, it would have given them the confidence boost and symbolise that they are definitely moving forwards/going the right direction/on the right tracks.

The plans for the summer

Over the summer, as well as allowing his finger heal, Smith confirmed that after the test in Aragon he and Pol planned to go to Austria for one day where they were going to complete some testing in the wind-tunnel.

They have one meeting when they return in Brno before the one that they consider to be the most important one for them, at the Red Bull Ring in Austria which is the home round for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing.

The team have made big steps since the start of the season. The gap that was between them and the leaders has closed significantly to the point that they are now actually able to fight for points. Unfortunately, it is not necessarily reflected in the championship as Pol is 20th with 14 points, sixth of Karel Abraham (Pull & Bear Aspar Team) who trails Hector Barbera (Reale Avintia Ducati) in 18th by one point.

Smith is just behind Pol in the championship in 21st with eight points. He only has one regular rider behind him as rookie Lowes has struggled and his future looks to be in doubt. Rins missed four rounds due to a wrist injury on the third round, and he and his replacements follow Smith as well as wildcard rider, Michele Pirro (Ducati Team).

To be honest, the championship is probably not important to the riders and the team although it would feel good to pick up points this season. It is their first complete season, not only do the riders and crew have a lot to learn, the bike has come a long way and still more than likely has a long way to go… but it is getting there. The Red Bull Ring will hopefully produce an amazing performance from the team, and will be the place where they van fully unveil their real potential; then surely it will be nothing but onwards and upwards from there with the help of a strong team and trusty riders.