Interview of the Month: Pit Beirer & KTM Racing – A bit of the past, present and future
There are few more emphatic success stories in the wide breadth of motorcycle racing than Pit Beirer’s stewardship of KTM Racing. The haul of titles has been impressive but it is the diversity of the spoils that is also quite astonishing: Supercross ‘firsts’, Moto3 impact, Rally evolution, MXGP pioneering and now the great peak of MotoGP. And all in the last twelve years since the former MX Grand Prix winner cast his eye over the state of KTM and their competitive effort on tracks around the world. We asked the insanely busy but chatty German for his time to explain how some of that achievement was possible, what he had to go through and learned and a few teasers on racing matters for the future …
When you first started this role could you have ever imagined it becoming this big?
“It has been twelve years now and absolutely not! In the first days I had to get my life in the wheelchair under control [from a crash at the 2003 Grand Prix of Bulgaria] and make the transition from a Motocross rider to an office guy. In that transition I had to find my way and my position. I saw many things in KTM that I knew we could do way-better in the racing department. I’d had the chance to work with one of the best teams in the world championship and of course I gained a lot of experience. I was always talking so much with my good friend Heinz Kinigadner and always told him ‘we are not being professional with things’ or ‘everyone is buying stuff on KTM’s account and nobody respects the money or what the company was putting into racing’. We talked about a lot of things and fundamental basics that were not fantastic. I think Kini liked what he heard – well, not the reality! – but the possibilities for change. I never would have said in those days that we’d be where we are now with all the titles, leading Moto3 and about to step into MotoGP. There was always that big vision and big dream and that came from our CEO Mr Pierer who always seems to think miles ahead of everybody else. The ‘gate dropped’ when I started and the ‘race’ is still going on. We haven’t taken a breath nor looked back. If you are a racer and you push like a racer then you can also move some things. You can get a lot by pushing.”
If I told the Pit Beirer in 2006 about the job with MotoGP, the achievements with Supercross, Husqvarna and even WP management would you have called me crazy?
“Yes! I never really thought about my position and just gave 100% honest advice to the bosses, members of the board and especially Mr Pierer and Heinz Kinigadner. Somehow they were leading and guiding me into this position step-by-step. I never really asked for the next step; it just sort of happened. If you would have told me back then that I’d be creating a MotoGP team then, well, that was never part of the plan! That is how crazy KTM’s world is!”
Was there ever a moment where you thought ‘this is a risk …’ or ‘this could do wrong …’?
“Don’t get me wrong I was not the only guy at KTM that knew about motorsport, there was fantastic motorsport going on already in KTM without me but we did have some milestone projects and I thought ‘we can do much better …’ and that has been proven. I was not long in charge of everything when we decided with Stefan Everts that we should go for a 350 [SX]. That was a high-risk project with huge costs for the company to develop that new motorcycle. If it failed then maybe I’d now be a truck driver for a KTM satellite team! But, looking back, I think that was one of my strong points: when I am sure of something then I have no doubts and I do not hesitate. If I go to a board meeting with an idea then I am sure it can be done. Our market in America was not too fantastic and we were not swimming in money but I presented a Supercross project to bring the team back in-house with better people and to make something out of it. Of course these projects gave me sleepless nights. If you get a ‘greenlight’ then wham! You need to prove something. This is the part I love about my job. I think I can make quite good strategies, present them and then I’m backed-up. The key to the success was that back-up from the bosses. They protected me sometimes when I was on very thin ice and it was sometimes an adventure to convince people in the company.”
You had experience in building your own team when you were racing but presenting those strategies and creating entire factory racing efforts must have been a big step in the dark for you …
“I don’t know where I got that from … there is no school for racing strategies.”
Common sense then perhaps?
“Yeah … first of all I’m still an old-school Motocross rider. And I actually finished my real schooling! Which helps you many years after you have finished riding. I didn’t stop school at 12 just to race; I don’t think that is healthy development for our young generation. I finished third in the world championship with my own team. I hired mechanics, an engine guy and took care of my own suspension – by the way I took WP suspension into a Honda to get that result! Just a sidenote! I had to organize and run my little structure and had to do customs carnets. I had to book planes, ferries, travel. I had to run parts of what KTM now has in every single team. It helped in the next step when some of the teams struggled with certain roles; I’d even split an engine! That whole period was a strong entry for me and I could always talk face-to-face to people and I had an interest in things beyond my own racing career. I was already talking with promoters when I was very young about the future of motorsport; how we could promote it better in Germany, put it on the TV and so on. I think that strategic part of how our sport could develop was already in me when I was a rider. I never expected it to go this far however and have this big responsibility for KTM racing and global project.”
I remember you saying in past interviews that your skill in picking the right people was an important factor in success but was there someone that ‘picked’ and helped you? Someone you could almost call a mentor for this role you have? I guess Robert [Jonas] was more like a co-pilot …
“Ha! I remember him also coming in like a rookie. He was in a different department and I thought ‘if I can get this guy then I can double my speed’. Since then we have had this success story. Long-term, without him, we would not have the KTM/Husqvarna show where we currently are. He was the strongest fighter next to me and sometimes I have very strong ideas and I drop a bomb and there is a mess, and Robert helps me get the mess under control! He was key. I was not scared of good people. I was never world champion but I did not have a problem to bring a ten times world champion into the structure. I was always open to the best possible people I could get but was not worried they might take over my job or become more prominent in KTM. For sure this was the key. And I see it in managers across the world – not just in racing – that they are wary of bringing in staff that might be better than them in order to protect their position. I never cared about my position and many times made the joke that nobody in the company wants my chair! I opened up the job by not worrying about protecting myself, and doing what was best for the company and I think this helped in the long-term and with the links I made. With guys onboard like Stefan, like Claudio de Carli, Farioli, Roger de Coster I started learning from the very first moments and meetings with these people. You feel fresh because you sense there is some extra energy about them. The worst thing you can be to me is ‘average’. I like some kind of extreme. It can go wrong but at least you tried and this is the kind of person I like to have around me. With good people I became stronger and there was mutual trust. Kini and Mr Pierer were the leading people who brought me into this role and then I learned from all around me. I think the trust I gave to every single team delivered a lot of energy back. I’m not a classical boss that goes around the workshop saying ‘do this, do that, be in at this hour’. I prefer having people around me that when I announce I want to reach a target then they also want that … I want them to clean the floor because they also want it like that … not because I am ordering it. We reach for targets and that’s how the system works. It seems like it is healthy and it also gave me freedom to move. We have the structure of Team Manager, Technical Co-ordinator, Chief Mechanic and rider support and every team is running like I am not there. I hope they like having me around so we can brainstorm about how to improve but I have not organized one team where I am the most important figure.”
So what are your weak points? Where can you still get better? You seem like an emotional person … does that come into it too much?
“Maybe yes … first of all patience is not one of my strong points! There were a few opportunities – that I won’t name and there are not many – that I destroyed through being disappointed with their answer or their reaction. It is like our heart is on the table when there is a project going on and it can get emotional. But that is also a strong point because it is not just about contracts and money. There is passion … and this same thing probably ruined some of my races because I went too hard, too extreme. I wanted more than I was able to achieve. With that approach you can go pretty far but it can also be painful.”
OK, so one question about each pocket of racing at KTM. First up: MXGP. Will getting Jeffrey Herlings on a new contract from 2018 be one of the most important deals in the racing history of KTM?
“Yes … because the competition in the paddock has become much stronger. I think we have lifted the level of a team in Motocross many years ago but I have always said that this will not be a one-way road. The other guys will try to beat us with our own weapons – which is very normal and logical. You have fantastic teams out there that can offer a good structure, support and a proper salary. On the other side we offer more than money to riders so I am pretty confident that Jeffrey will remember this when we come to negotiations. He has grown up now. When he was younger there was less risk of losing him because he was so crazy that he needed us to stay on the road. Sometimes when he took a wrong turn we could bring him back. He has a strong personality and he will have crazy offers from all over the world but I’m pretty open to face all of that and I still have a very strong personal relationship with him. For sure we will fight to keep this guy with us. We don’t want to give a lot of room to the others!”
MotoGP: Pol Espargaró and Bradley Smith being on-board is a big statement so now the bike has to meet the level of those riders. You must be excited to get on that path …
“When you talked about projects where I’m not sure where it is going to go then that’s a big one. I gained a lot of confidence in the last months – again – through bringing the good people in. The guys have made the team so strong already. When we started I had the people to make the milestones but not those able to fine-tune a bike to lure a top MotoGP rider. The combination of all these people now is fantastic. Engineers from our company who have outstanding ideas and technology but have not worked with a MotoGP bike on that level and the combination with the track guys … you should see it. The fire is reaching the roof! They have put so much energy into that building [the new race workshop]. I’m impressed by the amount of trust the riders have put into us and have given us a lot of credit in doing that.”
Did you have to make a hard sell? It is an untried motorcycle after all …
“No, I was positively surprised how much trust they had in us that we’d have the bike set. They know very well what we have done so far [in racing] and how we have become successful and if we are going to do something then we do it properly. And – oof – this trust became a form of pressure! It was nice to see but you can observe where these guys are riding on the track and what was their best result and now we need to supply them a bike that was at least as good as the one they have to perform on the same level. For sure we will start slightly behind because they have fantastic bikes right now but on the other side we can only make those last steps with the right riders. So for us it is really important that everything is in place and there are so many choices for bike set-up and we’ll ‘go’ on that Monday after Valencia when they can get on it. Then it will be about how quick we can work on their wishes from Valencia until Qatar. Mika [Kallio] is doing a fantastic job for us developing the bike right now and from the lap-times we have compared to the race times in Jerez, Brno and Mugello we know a lot more. This is just the beginning of a very long-term project and for sure we cannot just enter MotoGP and play with the big boys. We will not give up until we play with them that’s for sure.”
Rally: KTM have been at the top for so long with Dakar and changes in the rules. You’ve had Honda pushing hard as well in recent years. Is the motivation still strong for KTM to succeed?
“We have a very clear strategy and commitment in the company for this. We are putting more effort now into the street segment because that market became bigger than offroad for KTM but we also have the view not to turn down 1mm of effort in the offroad side so this means you are going to see us very strong in Rally in the next years. At the moment we’re starting to discuss with the FIM and the promoters about the future of Enduro because we want to be a big player in that world in the coming years also. That is our passion. Full push. We will not make it easy for our friends at Honda! And they will make it tough for us but we are not ready to give up.”
Supercross: The Red Bull KTM Team in the USA are already full gas with SX and American MX so how do you feel about the rumours of extending the calendar and Supercross going global? Surely it will mean more strain …
“I guess it is about time to bring Supercross global because it is such a fantastic show and race format. To see these guys with the precision they need to race at that level is just unique. If you have not seen a Supercross race then you can only imagine. You get goosebumps just by watching what they can do on a motorcycle in a stadium. For sure you can see sometimes in America that it is not easy to fill every stadium and instead of maybe having a place where you cannot fill the house then we fully support going somewhere else where that might happen. Supercross was another milestone for KTM in terms of how we present ourselves in the motorcycling world and I feel we are pretty competitive there right now so why not show this in Europe or Australia or somewhere else? It is not up to us but we can see some movement in the background. As a brand you always have interest in the best racing shows going global.”
How would the Pit Beirer of the 1990s have done in Supercross?
“Oh! Terrible! Pit Beirer on a Supercross track would be like flying a helicopter indoors! I was a really strong Motocross rider but way-too old when I started to try Supercross. At one moment in 1996 I thought ‘I have to learn it properly’ I called my buddy Michael Craig and went to California for four-five weeks to get ready for the Paris Supercross but the week before there was a race in Stuttgart and there was traffic coming up to a take-off and I jumped a double while one guy behind me did a triple and landed on my hand with his engine and destroyed my hand. At that moment I decided ‘that’s it for me and Supercross!’. I wished I could do it … but focussed then on Motocross.”