It has hardly been the blistering start to the season that the KTM riders and management were hoping for, which has been laid bare in qualifying for this weekend’s French Grand Prix. Miguel Oliveira led his teammate Brad Binder to a disappointing 17th and 18th for the factory KTMs. It looked even worse for the beleaguered Tech 3 team with Remy Gardner leading the walking wounded Raul Fernandez to 22nd and 24th, undoubtedly the worst performance of all 5 manufacturers this weekend, so where did it all go so wrong?
Looking at a brilliant 2020 season, where Red Bull KTM took 3rd in the teams and 5th in the rider’s championship, it seemed only a matter of time until KTM would join the big guns at the front in fighting for the World Championship. With Pol Espargaro departing to Repsol Honda they had lost their team leader that had led the team from the depths of the MotoGP rear guard to regular podium contenders. This is potentially a big moment for the team, where the project first began to unravel, as they were also about to lose concessions for the first time. The feedback of a rider such as Pol, who had developed that bike from the ground up, could have been crucial in a 2021 season that immediately proved to be a step more difficult without concessions.
2021 did have its highlights for the Austrian manufacturer with Brad Binder’s Herculean home victory and Miguel Oliveira’s superb mid-season charge that made him seem like a genuine title contender. But post that brilliant win in Austria KTM did not get a single Top 5 let alone a podium to build on their mid-season momentum. This left them with a lot of work to do coming into 2022 and the Qatar Grand Prix.
Pre-Qatar there had been a lot of concerning noises coming out of the tests in Mandalika and Sepang for KTM. It never seemed as though they had gotten on top of their package which left them with a lot of work to do. Come Q2 though, the famed Sunday man, Brad Binder, stuck his KTM at the head of the 3rd row clear of the much-fancied Suzuki duo of Joan Mir and Alex Rins. He would convert this spot to a battling 2nd place close behind race winner Enea Bastianini, seemingly proving the common line for Binder that if he only qualified well he could use his Sunday expertise to get good results.
This however would prove the dry-weather zenith of KTMs season, despite a slightly unrepresentative win for Oliveira in the wet at Mandalika in round 2. In the 4 rounds since Mandalika, there has been just 1 top 5 scored by Oliveira at his home circuit of Portimão. The main problem so far for KTM has seemed to be their qualifying form, which looks as follows so far.
|Circuit||Miguel Oliveira||Brad Binder|
That leaves us with an average qualifying for Oliveira of P14 and Binder a slightly more respectable P12. This is just not good enough for a factory with some of the best funding in MotoGP. Even when there are positive qualifyings there are mechanical issues that get in the way of a good result. While teammate Oliveira was winning the race at Mandalika Brad Binder raced the full distance with a stuck ride height device that only allowed him to finish P8, from a season-best P4 on the grid.
So what can be done? The easy answer is a focus on increasing the outright pace of the RC16. We know how hard it is to overtake in MotoGP in 2022, take Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo as key examples of this. So a focus on maximizing Saturdays is maybe a short-term step that could allow for more results, but what about the long term, how do KTM snap this post-2020 hangover.
With the Withdrawal of Suzuki and the massive ripples in the rider market that has caused I see two possible options. With Joan Mir and Repsol Honda in talks the man who took KTM to their most competitive state yet could be back on the market and without a place to call home. Bringing back Pol Espargaro could easily give the Austrian manufacturer a stable pair of hands to develop the bike back to where it needs to be. The second option is a man who has taken a manufacturer through a very similar situation and led them all the way to a rider’s and teams double, Alex Rins. Rins is seemingly in the form of his life at the moment so if you could convince him to join the struggling team could he be the man that leads KTM to World Championship glory as he did with Suzuki. Maybe he goes one better and takes that Riders crown for himself.