Grand Prix wins and world championships mean that Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaró know all about the spoils of MotoGPTM but 2017 was the first year for both as factory riders. We asked them about the experience …
He is used to the surroundings but it is almost possible to detect a small trace of continuing disbelief as Bradley Smith enters the stunning two-storey ‘Holzhaus’ Red Bull Energy Station in the Valencia paddock. It is the last round of 2017 MotoGPTM, the closing episode for KTM after a rapid year of experimentation and progress, the first term where Smith could boast status as a ‘factory’ rider and the Holzhaus still dwarfs the other structures after making its maiden appearance at Mugello in Italy in June.
Inside, the wooden interiors scream class, comfort and luxury. Three bars and a catering area service KTM’s entire MotoGPTM race crew and their guests. The tall tables also entertain Smith and teammate Pol Espargaró and occasional wildcarder Mika Kallio for their media debriefs. Smith now has a routine chair and place around where the journalists gather. “Just look at this place,” he said in astonishment back in Mugello.
Of course being ‘factory’ means more than just a swish place to eat, drink and fulfil media obligations. Smith has endured a turbulent campaign on the KTM RC16 where speed and results struggled to match those of Espargaró’s and even Kallio’s. He crashed heavily in Barcelona and mangled another finger. Then there was speculation that his job could be under threat as the team worked diligently to cut a lap time 2.5 seconds down on the leaders to just 0.8 by the end of the season. Some of his trips to the Holzhaus to speak with the press of his experiences have not been particularly pleasant or easy.
“I have learned a lot, and from many sides; from a racing side, team politics side and media pressure side and everything and above,” he reflects in Valencia. “It has been an interesting nine months for me as an individual. It has been a good season from a learning perspective if not necessarily in terms of performance … but that’s coming.”
Access to KTM’s vast catalog of models, fame, a good contract and being surrounded by a feeling of optimism that comes with a new project that is making fast forward steps (both Smith and Espargaró have talked constantly all year of their amazement in how new and updated parts have emerged from Mattighofen) is part of being a factory athlete compared to a satellite rider. But so is handling extra expectation and a brighter spotlight. “I think for the first time I’m actually looking forward to an end-of-season holiday,” Smith half-smiles. “I feel that I need it; whether it was the extra tests or the extra strain from being a development team or in the development process as a manufacturer … it has been more mentally and physically demanding than I imagined. Fun-wise? A lot. I enjoyed the whole process and it has certainly been an eye-opener. You realize that when you are on a satellite bike you have things a lot easier. You will never have the best [equipment] but you will have an amazing package without all the stuff that comes with it, and it is ‘that stuff’ that can create the difficulties.”
In Valencia KTM Motorsport Director Pit Beirer reiterated his belief in Smith’s contribution and abilities. “Bradley has a contract for next year, so he was always going to have that ride but from the outside we had some pressure because his results were not so good. Of course I could I see that. But these riders also took a big risk to come into a new project with a new bike and when they signed there was a white piece of paper; not even a bike to look at. Coming from a very competitive bike to trust our project was one thing but it would also be unfair to drop them after one season. We decided to give them the time to develop. I know he is better than what he was showing and there was a reason why he was not performing.”
“As the pressure was getting bigger and bigger I took the chance before the overseas to confirm that he will have his ride and take this huge load away from his back: how can you perform when the first question you get when you arrive in this paddock is ‘how many hours do you have before they kick you out?’ I wanted to underline our support. And since then he has been like a different rider and I want to state that all three of our guys have done a great job and where we are now is all done to them and the team. It was a pleasure to confirm he will stay with us.”
Smith rode to 11th in Valencia, his second-best result, after circulating in the top ten for most of the race and had notched 10th place finishes in Misano and Phillip Island. “Finding the balance between testing and racing and mentally deciding whether we are riding or racing the bike,” he says of the challenge of orientating his objectives for 2017. “It was something where I was not doing a good job. I was thinking big-picture instead of short-term but at the end of the day both were being affected. It is better [in the end] if the rider looks short-term and the team looks long. Distinguishing between the two was one of the hardest things I have done this year.”
In contrast Pol Espargaró has bounded into his debriefs barely able to contain that distinctive smirk. The fact that the Catalan was third fastest in FP1 in Valencia and quicker than his effort with the satellite Yamaha bike at the Ricardo Tormo circuit twelve months earlier was typical of his evolution with the orange race bike this year. The 26 year old classified sixteenth and outside of the points in his KTM debut in Qatar in March but then scored in nine races in the second half of the term and was a regular in-and-around the top ten. An accessible and popular rider with a cheery disposition, Pol has nevertheless relished the fruits of being at the center of a competitive engineering and sport project with vast resources. “In Qatar we were talking about how many times they [the leaders] would pass us in one race; the gap was huge and it was difficult to keep the motivation pumped up,” #44 admits. “Now the closer we are the motivation is increasing. It is super-nice to jump on the bike and see that progression and that we are normally in the top ten.”
Pol is quick to offer insight into the extra weight of responsibility. Being a Red Bull KTM rider means being part of a ‘rookie’ team but Espargaró and Smith are experienced and successful racers. As part of the wider Race Department – that numbers over 400 people worldwide – both are also naturally elevated in a big pecking order. “With our staff we fire up 72 factory riders around the world,” says Beirer. “That’s a lot of teams, trucks, workshops, sprinters, tires and [everything]. It is amazing how much material and manpower you need to run those riders.”
“If you see it from the outside then it is true that there is a little bit more pressure because there are many more people working with – or for – you than in the past, and behind this project is a lot of money,” Pol says. “It is huge. We – as the riders – are the guys who are handling the money and bringing the bike ‘up’. If you see it this way then it is super-pressure. As riders we need to look at it in another way. I have always given 200% and the extra pressure does not change me. You can see it as a point of pressure or of support and I see it as something good. Every time we have a problem we have a lot of support and a lot of pieces to try.”
‘Learning’ is a big word that can be used to underline KTM’s baptism in MotoGPTM in 2017. Espargaró and Smith have been key cogs in the machine for that didactic trip, but personally, Pol is also continuing his journey as a competitive part of the MotoGPTM cast list and offers an opinion on where he has ‘grown’ most in the last twelve months and couple of years in the premier class. “The lesson has been about character and attitude and this is everything,” he states. “How to react after winning or losing races and I have learned a lot how to manage it. I am still young and I have fire inside – and can be too wild – but I have learned a lot since I came into this paddock at 15. I changed a lot and want to continue changing.”
“When you are young and come in this world you need to have good people around you. You are on the TV, on camera and you start to earn money and a lot of people start to say how great you are and how fast you are. It is super-easy to go to the moon and lose yourself. It happens to many young riders; they come to MotoGPTM and make amazing results in the first year and then drop a lot and I think it is because of the pressure and the handling of these riders is not correct.”
Bradley and Pol have worn the visible shield of KTM’s most ambitious racing project ever and needed to have strong enough shoulders to keep it fixed. After the last race of 2017 work took place in Jerez in order to prepare for 2018. The whole effort cranks-up just a little more for the second season where the appetite for results to match flowering performance will also be whet. “We need all pre-season to reach the top five,” asserts Espargaró, almost eager to get started. “We are more or less one second from the top guys and we need to be 0.5 so we need to improve half a second and to do that we need to work on a lot of things on the bike. We will start from zero at the Tuesday test and have all winter to work. This is the start of another ‘time’ in our project: we need to be really precise. Before new pieces were coming and we were nearly improving almost all the time. Now I think a lot of them will not work! It will be hard to improve the bike but we have a lot to try. It is optimistic but I think we can be where we want to be.”
Who wouldn’t want to be a factory MotoGPTM rider?
Photos: Gold and Goose | KTM | Jesús Robledo | Sebas Romero | Philip Platzer