LET IT FLOW: HOW KTM UPPED ITS GAME IN MotoGP™ AERODYNAMICS
2023 MotoGP is already deep into the next chapter of motorcycle aerodynamics as the quest for peak downforce, stability and speed continues at pace. How is KTM keeping in the game? We asked aerodynamic team leader, Dan Marshall, at the race workshop in Munderfing.
MotoGP machinery looks very different compared to ten years ago. Race fairings are now artfully and carefully structured sculptures, using curves, wings, and profile to bend airflow at 360 kmph around the motorcycle. Grand Prix bikes look low-slung, dragster-ish and at the same time futuristic and menacing as the battle for expensive aerodynamic superiority rushes ahead and within homologation guidelines (the bike has to fit into an agreed ‘stencil’ shape). The R&D work is not created simply by 3D printers, slung into a wind tunnel, and honed purely for performance: look at the lines of a KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE RR or – more specifically – the aero of the 2023 KTM RC 8C to see how MotoGP thinking has been able to penetrate production and end up in the customers’ hands.
In the chase for the right amount of downforce to aid braking and turning and win precious tenths of a second KTM have expanded their efforts and engaged the know-how of Red Bull Advanced Technologies; a major technical body that have helped the Oracle Red Bull Racing F1 team to two titles in the last two seasons. The effort is necessary. At the Portimao pre-season test 18 riders were separated by just one second in the time sheets. KTM then flew to top seven results at the same circuit and Brad Binder claimed the second-ever Sprint in Argentina a week later. The USA and Spain saw tight but exciting contests where KTM emerged as protagonists; Binder again the ‘Sprint King’ in Jerez.
When the guys are on the ragged edge, then a smooth and optimized edge is the only way…and there are only two chances to homologate aero packages during the campaign.
To ask how KTM has worked with RBAT for the KTM RC16 MotoGP racer and why the collaboration was beneficial, we were able to corner Lead Aerodynamicist Dan Marshall, who heads a small team in Munderfing, to explain some of this secret, pricey and often undervalued world of expertise.
Firstly Dan, how did you end up in charge of aero in the KTM Race Department?
I worked for ten years in F1 and in aerodynamics for Force India. I’ve always had a passion for motorcycles, so I took my career into two-wheels and motorbikes when the opportunity with KTM came up. They wanted to push more into aerodynamics when it was becoming obvious around five years ago that there was a growing importance for competitiveness. Since then, I’ve been able to build a small but efficient team using all the different resources from KTM, KTM Technologies, KISKA and so on, as well as the recent partnership with Red Bull Advanced Technologies [RBAT].
Aerodynamics are now much more integrated into overall bike performance, right?
Yes, through our journey in the last five years we have improved our understanding of a motorbike through the whole lap rather than solely looking at straight line speed, which was the focus of a lot of aerodynamic performance work in the past. With this understanding from the Vehicle Dynamic department, we know where we can apply aerodynamic loads in other places to make the bike quicker in braking or cornering or acceleration. You always get to a point in development where you have squeezed everything out of one area, so you start looking at other ones to find more speed. If you take the pure drag of a motorcycle then there a lot of things we’d like to do but then you’d end-up with something out of the 1950s again. So, we had to keep thinking of the general picture.
It might be quite hard for some people to still accept that a shape of a MotoGP fairing is critical for performance, particularly when you consider the technical complexity of the bike inside…
Yes, certainly until the last couple of years. I’ve analyzed the subject and if you look at the aerodynamic evolution of a race bike then nothing majorly significant happened from 1960s until the end of the millennium. Even when other brands started putting fins onto the bikes they were just bolting them onto an existing fairing. Now we understand a lot more about how the wings and the fairing interact and we don’t consider them independent but more as a singular body working aerodynamically. We are now trying to cast aside this perception of what a motorcycle should look like and consider what is better for performance. The other aspect is that a lot of people have a very emotional attachment to a motorcycle and how it looks. When you start applying all these appendages then it ruins it a little! I think at KTM we make a little bit more effort than some other competitors with regards to aesthetics. We work with KISKA a lot and for sure our bosses want to see a good-looking motorcycle. There is an emotional attachment and personal opinions going into the design and graphics.
Can you really get hands-on with aero parts and 3D printing? Or is most of the work done in CAD design?
You have to get hands-on. It’s about education as well, showing people that have a lot of knowledge – but maybe not so much racing experience – about development and simulations. It’s also about showing mechanics and then design specialists what we need from them. We have a good working relationship with these groups, but the form of the bike now has to be about much more than styling.
So how does the collaboration with Red Bull Advanced Technologies work for you? How do you feel about it and what difference has it made?
I’m grateful that we have fully realized how important aerodynamics is in MotoGP now. It’s always something I have fundamentally believed in. It’s good that we’ve reacted and asked: ‘how do we go about winning a world championship?’ and then taking advantage of the fact that there was a possibility to work with Red Bull Advanced Technologies. We didn’t know how it would work initially but I was fully onboard; anything to help the race bike go faster around the track. We are still leading the project and specifying the targets. It has also been a learning experience for them. It is a two-way partnership and, of course, we have been trying to learn as much from them as possible and they have been learning from our greater understanding of motorcycle behavior. I believe they underestimated how detailed and complicated it can be. They didn’t realize the level that we’re working at.
In terms of logistics how has it been?
Pretty good considering we are 1000 kms apart. Since the pandemic the culture of online meetings has soared. Plus, we have a lot of tools set up to help with data transfer. They visit us periodically and when they do it’s a big help.
You mentioned an ‘underestimation’; that was just about motorcycle dynamics?
Yes, that’s one of the cool things about working at KTM because most of the people seem to be motorbike freaks and it gives that extra bit of understanding that can help with the job. Not everybody here is like that – and you don’t have to be – but it helps at a basic level. The RBAT engineers are really smart guys, and the advantage is that they can then think in alternative ways which might bring better performance. The good thing is that they are smart and experienced, which means they listen to us and try things. It’s not as though they have steamrolled in and said: ‘this is the best package for you, go away and make it’. There has been a lot of give-and-take.
What has been the result?
They have lots of resources, so they are designing and simulating at a much faster rate. They had our base package from 2022, started working and then took hold of our 2023 package which we had developed in-house. They saw what we were doing and homed-in on the performance that we’d found and evolved it faster to come up with a next-generation shape. We took that to Sepang to test. It’s nice for me to see because it validates what we have been doing and that our methods and understanding are correct because their team carried on in the same way.
How do you see the future with aerodynamics in MotoGP?
I think it could go a couple of ways. With the racing now we have seen a trend of less overtaking and I believe this is partly due to the heavier aerodynamics of the bike and being harder to come out of the slipstream and complete the overtake. So, aerodynamics could be banned; hopefully not and how can you ban something that is naturally aerodynamic like a race bike pushing through the air? They could follow the F1 route and allow some active aerodynamics like a DRS system. I’m not a big fan of DRS or KERS because its manipulation of the racing. A route could be to allow some room for aerodynamic creativity and freedom but without the mass of wake and turbulence, which was the problem years ago with the original wings. Riders were complaining about the vortexes and turbulent air. They are still there and, if anything, probably worse than they were five-seven years ago because there are so many aero parts on the bike. The aerodynamic ‘weight’ is getting bigger and bigger and we have to somehow agree on a sensible way to get this under control.