Interview of the Month: Sweet RC16 – Talking the MotoGP™ motorcycle with the man behind the data

A conversation with MotoGPTM Technical Director Sebastian Risse at the 2019 Qatar Grand Prix about ‘hidden’ winter work, changing the KTM RC16, and how the factory have tried to catch up in just two years of Grand Prix racing.

Sebastian Risse (GER) Silverstone (GBR) 2018 © Sebas Romero

Sebastian Risse lives at the end of a long bench. In front of him is a black desk busy with keyboards and notebooks. Facing him on an orange wall are screens strewn with data and complicated algorithms. Usually there are four other people alongside. Somewhere on the other side of the tall temporary screen in the Red Bull KTM MotoGPTM pitbox is Pol Espargaró’s ‘corner’. The sounds of tools and activity drift over. There the bike exists; here it is broken into numbers and data.

The picture in the Losail pit is a visual definition of Risse’s role of being the head honcho ‘behind the curtain’. He and his team are the creators of the ‘magic trick’ while riders like Espargaró and Johann Zarco are the valuable and essential showman performers in the public eye.

In Qatar for the first race of 2019 Risse is a difficult man to pin down. Three attempts to sit and have a conversation about the evolution of the most expensive and complex machine to be created in the halls of Mattighofen have proved fruitless (orangeless?). Losail and its blend of high-speed corners and wavering temperatures and grip levels has traditionally been a tricky circuit for KTM to master. There is much to mull over for what is the first of three ‘flyaway’ races where KTM are operating largely out of a series of crates and before the championship arrives on European shores in May.

Finally, on Saturday, we find Sebastian free – not deep in consultation or a meeting – and ask to head off into the KTM paddock office to seek some insight. After two years and a maiden MotoGPTM podium, 2019 is the third season for the factory at the pinnacle of motorcycle racing and sees the KTM RC16 count doubled from two to four. KTM AG CEO Stefan Pierer has already requested “single figure” race finishes and while those results would not be forthcoming on Sunday (Espargaró and Zarco would obtain 12th and 15th but less than a second a lap from the eventual race winner in what was the closest top fifteen classification of all time) KTM have significantly narrowed the margin.

Pol Espargaró (ESP) KTM RC16 Losail (QAT) 2019 © Gold and Goose

The season started beginning of March but for you it must have begun much earlier. It seems that everybody in MotoGPTM is keen for a holiday after the last race of the year in Valencia but I imagine for the team back in the factory it is the beginning of another busy phase. Is it like that for you?
“Well, for us, the new season starts the day after the last race! We had a big ‘headline’ this year with those two tests in Valencia and Jerez because of all the changes we had with a different rider and another team. It was a busy time for sure. I think in the beginning the new rider struggled with our bike and we did a good job to adjust it for him so it was already looking better in Jerez and then we had an idea of what we wanted in the winter. We then got back to the factory and confirming those directions and getting everything in order meant an intense time before Christmas.”

That period: Is it a Monday-Friday routine or does it involve some crazy hours? Fans might not fully realize just how much is going on at a technical level. And you also had to contend with prepping four bikes as opposed to two …
“Hmmm. Basically, there are two parts. The first is to analyze and organize: To look at all the reports and the information that everybody puts in and that means long hours and can be done anywhere. After the last test we had some days at home, but I was still focused on this. Then, secondly when we are at the factory, the guys have a different rhythm compared to something like a race team. We had a lot of meetings in what was a Monday-Saturday schedule basically. When things are in place then we roll the ball to our people there. We also use this time to get set for the next racing year. There will be ideas during the season of things that could work differently for the next … and this is the moment to implement them.”

When you said ‘roll the ball to our people’ does that mean the internal guys at the factory for fabrication or R&D?
“We don’t have a specific R&D department but the development is shared between the race team and the factory. Design, production and quality control is done inside the factory and this takes time and needs to be organized. This is where we, as the race team, take a step back.”

Pol Espargaró (ESP) & Team Losail (QAT) 2019 © Gold and Goose

At the tests fans hear from riders and team staff about technical ideas: How much ‘new’ work is going on? It must be impossible to always be creating and generating new stuff … ?
“There are always ideas but then it is about having the time and the parts to try them at a test. We’re talking about two months in the off-season and this – strangely – is almost too long for us! We have too many ideas, and we have to reduce everything to a level where they can be put into the framework and timetable of two three-days tests. As soon as the first race starts then it becomes difficult to test. It [the bike] is not ‘frozen’ but the package must be brought into race rhythm so that means focus on details and tuning. The next moment when you can ‘move’ with the race team is Jerez, which is a long time, so the first races of the season for us are almost like a big long one.”

The 2019 KTM RC16: How much of an evolution are we talking about from 2016 and that first testing model?
“This is not so easy to distinguish. It is one thing to redo something and then another for how radically you redo do it! I’d say that each year there is not much left from the previous bike in terms of the physical parts. Of course, you get a clearer and clearer picture of how something should look so the changes to the parts are not so massive any more in some areas. Everybody has limited resources so that means you have focus on the aspects that deliver the most performance and leave the rest as stable as possible without compromise. It is something you have to discover depending on the situation and what problem you are facing and where you are looking for performance. We try not to change more than we need to but basically it is quite different every year.”

An example of one area that it has change radically?
“Well the most visual example is the fairing. In 2016 and 2017 we made big steps where it looked very different and now we are developing it but we also don’t want to change something that is already good. The changes might be less obvious, but it is a different part and the fabrication process starts again.”

KTM RC16 2019 © Sebas Romero

The engine configuration was another big change; it was like changing the heart of the bike. What are your thoughts on that?
“The engine is continually changing. It is the heart of the bike and it is quite a good heart I think. So, we don’t change everything but if you look at the actual details then an engine from one year will not fit into the bike of the next! The aspects that need to be separated are pure engine performance in terms of output – the drivetrain – and areas where the way the engine is influencing bike dynamics. Then the whole bike package and geometry. We are working all the time in these areas and the steps we have made have been positive and quite clear. It is also clear after three years that this is not the optimum state but that picture of where to go with the bike is revealing itself.”

2019 has just started so what has been the biggest lesson for you with the KTM RC16 from the first test bike to its current edition?
“We have learned in every area. If you look back then you’ll see the main problem areas for the riders have changed. Which means we improved something … but then something else became a problem! Or perhaps it was the next priority on the list. In this process we went through every aspect I think, and it is something that never stops.”

Again, TV viewers will hear a rider talking about a problem like turning the bike but then to make something like a new chassis appear cannot be a small job, even for a factory as fast and reactive as KTM …
“If it was really something as easy as making a new chassis this would be the least of our budget and resources and time spent on it. The point is to understand what you need to change and that’s where it gets expensive in terms of research, simulations and analysis and then trying different options of one chassis that might do the job.”

Johann Zarco (FRA) KTM RC16 IRTA Test Sepang (MAL) 2019 © Gold and Goose

You mentioned the bike is not optimum, but how satisfied are you with it?
“There are always two ways of looking at it. One is to think that we can always be proud that we continuously made the bike better, but it is in the spirit of racing that everybody does this. Not a single bike stands still and if one did then it would go backwards. It means rising through the ranks is a different game than simply making the bike better: you have to do it quicker and at a higher rate than the others. If you make that improvement and go through the leaderboard then great and this is what you saw in 2017. Then during 2018 we made the bike better, but the others also made a big progression at phases of the season and we were a bit out of rhythm because some development was a bit delayed. It means managing resources wisely and planning ahead. You cannot always follow the plan and this makes a difference to the rate of progression. At the moment I think we have made huge steps over the winter with different riders and a lot of input and a lot of adjustment to that input and that is where I saw the bike becoming quite different again, even if it is only with the settings. Big steps with the setting can be the same as big steps with hardware development. We have to go into detail and optimize through these three overseas races without big hardware development and this will stabilize the situation, and we’ll find the next weak spot that we cannot fix by ourselves inside the race team and then it is the turn of hardware development in the factory.“

Lastly four KTMs on the grid so there is obviously much more information and data available now … but is that also a way to get lost? Having four avenues doesn’t always lead into one path …
“Yes, this is true. It is about managing all this extra input. We will have two test riders this season and four guys on the grid so much more, and to manage this is a challenge that we have to face inside the team and the factory. Our idea is to keep all four KTMs as close as possible to gather that information for development but there are also boundaries and we might not be able to have the same bikes at every moment. If you know you only have two parts for something then you know where it will go [to the factory machines]. Then there is also the phase of development where a bike will not be raceable spec but something to be tested whether at a private test, IRTA test or a wildcard. A part goes through many stages and this means the bike itself can be different.”

Photos: Sebas Romero | Gold and Goose