GROWING THE ORANGE: KTM AND RACING TALENT
The KTM GP Academy is driving fresh and exciting talent into MotoGP™ in the same way that the KTM system of ‘product-discovery-support-nurture’ unearthed such rich results in motocross and MXGP. We asked two of the youngest and clearest examples – Jorge Prado and Rene Hofer – for their stories…
‘Product’ means Ready To Race machinery. ‘Discovery’ is singling-out the first shoots of talent, the character or family backing for a potential race winner. ‘Support’ means providing the resources to progress (bikes, parts, mechanics). ‘Nurture’ is the final steps to professional status and perhaps glory.
In MotoGP™ KTM will have a line-up for 2022 where all four of their riders – Brad Binder, Raul Fernandez, Remy Gardner and Miguel Oliveira – have developed through levels such as the Red Bull MotoGP™ Rookies Cup, Moto3™ and Moto2™ classes, and have evolved on KTM race bikes and equipment such as WP Suspension. The South African, Spaniard, Australian and Portuguese are also well acquainted with the ethos of KTM and what it means to compete in orange.
The KTM GP Academy is producing fruit by growing branches into the sport. The scheme is still relatively new, despite the fact that KTM have supplied the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup with motorcycles for fifteen years and won the first Moto3 championship in 2012. In a sense, the Academy is trying to emulate the success KTM have had in motocross where riders are identified and then assisted through a pyramid of racing.
It can begin when they are in their early teens and when youngsters are demonstrating levels of performance and commitment through 65, 85 and 125cc European and World Championship competitions. Since 2011 the EMX125 and EMX250 European Championships have run at Grand Prix events and on FIM world championship spec-circuits, boosting development and placing starlets right under the noses of the teams and brands. The finest picks make their way to the MX2 Grand Prix class – where there is an age ceiling of 23 years – whereupon the final vault is the premier division of MXGP.
Grand Prix winners and world champions like Marvin Musquin, Jeffrey Herlings, Jordi Tixier, Pauls Jonass and lately Jorge Prado, Tom Vialle and Rene Hofer have come through this web. They are either still in KTM colours or marked their career highlights while in the factory Red Bull KTM squad: the nest at the top of the tree.
The first contact
“When I was six years old my Dad bought me a KTM,” remembers 20-year-old Prado, a technically-gifted once-in-a-generation talent that heralds from the western Galician region of Spain. “A team from my local town helped me with material as we started to race. The KTM 65SX was the best bike for kids from the box. At ten years of age, I won the 65cc World and European Championships. After that I got a call right away from KTM, and the link started there. We’ve been together many years now.”
Prado took a podium result on his very first MX2 GP appearance as a 15-year-old and has already won two MX2 world championships. He has claimed Grand Prix victories in both MX2 and MXGP classes – all with Red Bull KTM and with SX machinery from those first days. “Being able to win the 65cc classes was key,” he says. “I didn’t speak much English back then! But after those results the connection was direct with the race department at the factory and I remember signing the contract and thinking ‘this is like a dream’.”
Rene Hofer joined the Red Bull KTM set-up for MX2 in 2020 and is the first Austrian to represent the factory team since 2000. The 19-year-old’s nationality is bound to carry sway with an Austrian manufacturer, but Hofer was able to forge links with the factory while still very young. “I was eight years old, I think, when I became a ‘test rider’ for R&D in KTM!” he smiles.
“I was the fastest Austrian when I was young and my Dad knew people in the department so I helped with the development of the KTM 50, 65 and 85 SXs. We had stock bikes and I won the Junior World Championship in 2016 which meant I gained a link with the racing department and things became a bit more professional. It was pretty stressful. I was in school Monday to Friday and then travelling to Austrian or ADAC German races, as well trying to get to international races to get some experience and learn more. It was demanding for the family and they needed to spend all their free time to make it possible.”
Hofer and Prado were both able to shine with their results but their families were vital ingredients towards that success. It meant the investment from KTM’s side was well spent.
“I signed a five-year contract in 2011, so for the first year we were still living in Spain,” Prado says. “We had material and spares and my Dad was still my mechanic but at the European rounds KTM provided a van and a mechanic. In the summer of 2012 my whole family decided to relocate to Belgium and it made things much easier because the factory team has a workshop there with all the material and the staff. Down in Spain we were quite isolated. It would have been very, very difficult for us to improve because I was always alone and riding the same tracks. So, there was no-one to compare and learn from.”
Prado’s parents found new jobs while the teenager and his younger sister adapted to a new school and life while trying to make the grade in motocross. “In Belgium we had the presence of the team, different types of tracks and many other riders,” he adds. “You could be on a track with ten GP riders in one day. You could see who was fast and how and what to learn, especially in the sand, which I had never ridden in my life. Also, the travelling. Just to reach the Spanish border from my town meant an 8-9 hour drive. We needed to race the European rounds against the best riders, and the 85s at that time meant a strong group from Belgium, Holland and France, it would have been too much, too crazy to go back and forth.”
Prado and Hofer used KTM SX machinery to win. They were then ‘secured’ by the KTM race department and entered the phase of trying to make good on their potential with the resources the factory provided. For Hofer this was an entry to the former KTM Junior Team.
“Once I came into the factory’s racing structure then there was a small ‘team’ with four of us in a junior programme with the goal to at least have one of us make it to the world championship. Actually, at the Italian GP the other week three of us were in the Grand Prix gate, so we made quite big steps,” Hofer explains. I was fourteen at that time and Didi Lacher was our trainer. It was good timing because I would be based sometimes with Didi and my parents could step back a little bit. I also had a mechanic from KTM, so to go and race was a lot easier. The group training really helped the intensity during the winter and helped improve our speed. Our preparation was more professional. We got faster as we trained. The education system in Austria means you study until you are eighteen, so I was lucky with my school in that they let me escape a bit to train and race.”
“I started to have the same sort of support as I have now, except then they were stock bikes instead of full factory,” reveals Prado. “For my first year on a 125 we kept the same system: my father was still my mechanic but we had a factory guy for European Championship races. I was in Belgium and everything centred around me and my Dad, who would take me to the races and also training but then all my material was next to the MX2 guys in the workshop, so that was Jeffrey [Herlings] or Pauls [Jonass] in 2015. I really felt part of the team even if I wasn’t racing with them as the 85s calendar was separate from the GPs.”
While Prado thrived in a ‘hub’ of motocross in Belgium, the situation was slightly different for Hofer. He had the passport and the close proximity to the factory – and of course the Junior team structure – but Rene was one of very few standouts from his country and had to fight the perception that the better riders could be found elsewhere, like France or Holland.
“In Austria…it is difficult,” he sighs. “There is no programme from the Federation like there is in France or the Netherlands to support the youth, so a lot depends on the families and the parents’ possibilities to go racing. I know KTM give assistance to riders, and they are looking at EMX85 and EMX125 to select them as early as possible. They look at the family background for stability and support because that cannot be underestimated.”
The big move
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing is arguably the premium team in MXGP, winning all but four MX2 titles since 2004 and eight MXGP championships in the last eleven years. KTM have nurtured Ben Townley, Tyla Rattray, Musquin, Herlings, Tixier, Jonass, Prado and Vialle, plus other GP winners to contribute to that haul and create an imposing presence on the track. The team generates the setting for the athlete to fully express themselves. That means 360 support, technically and personally, and the best conditions for success to arrive. It’s at that point where the Prados and Hofers have to seize their opportunity.
“Luckily every year I made a step forward and every year showed results,” Rene says. “If that hadn’t happened, then I don’t know how things would have been. You have to show you are getting faster, especially in the junior classes, that’s the route to get to the world championship and luckily that happened to me even though I had some injuries. I always made a step, and the bosses at KTM saw that. I don’t know how they handle riders who have had an injury or don’t make that progression because the chance to do it goes very fast. You’re fourteen when you’re aiming for the 125s and if you’re not in the top five by the time you’re seventeen then you are already struggling because it only gets more difficult and you have to move up, move bikes and you don’t get the best material. I worked hard and always managed to be in the first three in my age category, so it turned out perfectly until I reached the dream of the factory team.”
“KTM really helped me…but I’m the one that worked and pushed to be world champion and arrive to the top,” Prado states. “There are many others that get support or the possibilities to ride with a good team or brand but they don’t make it. Even some of my teammates in the past are not in GPs now. I had help but I also had to train a lot. The support of the parents and family is so important until you get into that professional team environment. It was easier for me because I had the benefit of the material but that doesn’t mean you get the win, you need to work for it.”
KTM’s proactivity with young riders is an enviable approach. Other brands have also tried their own initiatives to scout for the stars rather than making big money signings, but KTM’s success in road racing is now shedding even more light on their strategy. Especially as new series like the Northern Talent Cup provide another breeding ground and hotshots like Pedro Acosta are sizzling through Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup & Moto3. Crucially KTM do their best to back their best prospects. “That’s what I really love about KTM because you see it with Jeffrey, Pauls, Jorge and me,” says Hofer. “The riders also tend to stay with KTM and you don’t see that with many other brands.”