KTM R&D: What next?

In the last of our chats with two senior figures from the depths of the immense R&D Department in Mattighofen we grabbed exclusive opinions on some of the topics motorcycle riders could be thinking about …

KTM R&D building

Our font for information in the forms of Vice President of R&D Street, Gerald Matschl, and Vice President of R&D Offroad, Bernhard Plazotta, has allowed us to cover design, racing development and how ideas for bike ‘bits’ eventually make it onto the motorcycle that sits gleaming on the dealer floor just waiting to be tested.

There were a couple of strands of inquisition left over though. What about Euro emissions regulations? How will 2-strokes form part of the product catalog? Will the split with Husqvarna become even more pronounced? What about the future? Some questions were harder to glean information from than others but we put Gerald and Bernhard on the spot and tried to squeeze for some fresh details. Here are the results … read on.

On the resurgence of 2-strokes and their relevance …
Plazotta: “When I started working here I was told ‘2-strokes are dying …’ They did not think it would be possible to homologate them. I think with Extreme Enduro becoming more popular the 2-strokes thrived to the point where we are now using a counter balancer because the biggest disadvantage of these bikes was always the issue with vibration. We were struggling a lot to setup suspension. It is getting more and more easier now. It is lighter, less expensive and there are not so many temperature issues. For sure it helps us more to sell the 2-strokes. The next step is to get rid of the carburetor …”

143518_KTM EXC MY 2017 Action 2-stroke_Counter balancer shaft
KTM 300 EXC MY2017

On how much a dirt bike can still be developed …
Plazotta: “I’m pretty sure that it is slowing down a little bit on the 4-stroke side. On the 2-strokes there are some changes – and especially with the [competition] regulations because the 250s can be mixed – so there are some new challenges. The KTM 350 SX-F was born with the idea to reduce the capacity for Supercross but the Japanese did not want to do it. Overall I think you will see small steps with the 4-strokes in terms of hardware. When it comes to electronics we’ll have to see. There are also rules in place for racing – for the use of additional sensors – and I think there will also be small steps when it comes to traction control. For sure electronics is one thing but the focus has to be on finding a benefit for the rider. Some electronics can be just gimmicks and that shouldn’t be the target.”

On how Husqvarna take a different path …
Plazotta: “I would say the focus is a little bit different … the Husky with the carbon composite subframe is an example of a big step. Sales people would like even more separation in some areas but I don’t want to make one bike worse than the other just because I have to separate them. It is always a bit of a challenge. For example if you get the ideal surface on a side fairing then you don’t want to change it for the other models. It can be tricky when it comes to the design side.”

Flagship store Vienna (AUT)

On how R&D will evolve in KTM …
Matschl: “I think the only way ahead is to have more specialists. A motorcycle has become so complex now that it is not possible for just one person to overview all these things. Ten years ago it might have been possible for the project leader to oversee all. Now you really need specialists for the different fields like electronics, ergonomics, aerodynamics, … Motorcycles generally now are much more ‘ready’ and usable than they were ten years ago and there is a lot of competition between all the brands so we all face the same challenges to move ahead. Therefore part of the answer is to have more specialists and then knowledgeable project leaders coordinating and keeping the overview. What KTM doesn’t want is that the project leaders are just sitting there at a computer creating Excel sheets. In our way of thinking the leader has to give a lot of technical input also to the other members. He is the one that has to bring all the pieces and people together, the one who has been there from the beginning and keeping that common understanding all through the development process and making sure there is not one specialist going in the wrong direction. It is important that the project leader makes the right demands.”

On the effects of Euro emission rules …
Plazotta: “On the offroad side I would say the homologation issue is the biggest challenge. Now we have Euro 4 but for model year 2020-21 we have to hit the Euro 5. Completely new technologies is another subject and for things like electric engines in offroad then it is still complicated. As of December 2016 we still didn’t know about Euro 5 as it has yet to be clarified. We have been told the target from the ignition side but not for the noise level. It seemed that there was not going to be a change and now it looks like there will be and that’s our biggest issue. For a 2020 model we need to know as soon as possible. We need a control unit with onboard diagnostics and it takes a minimum of two years for that and then you need to do the mapping and that’s quite tricky.”

Photos: KTM