KTM have sliced the better part of two seconds away to the front of the MotoGP™️ field since their premier class debut at the beginning of 2017. Technical Co-ordinator Sebastian Risse explains a little about how they made that happen in double-time.
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing finished 16th and 17th at the 2017 Grand Prix of Qatar – their first event as full-time members of the MotoGP™️ grid – well over 30 seconds away from winner Maverick Viñales. Two years later at the same circuit and Pol Espargaró had moved forward to 12th, 12 seconds adrift and with a best lap-time almost a second faster than the 2017 effort. At the 2020 pre-season test both Espargaró and Brad Binder circulated the Losail International Circuit around the half-second mark from the top of the timing screens.
KTM’s presence and progression has provided a fascinating narrative in Grand Prix. As the ‘new boys’ their engineering, learning and attempts to play catch-up with other manufacturers with decades of experience has provided a looking glass into the demands of racing, and of living within the fractions of a second that constitute success. Splinters of a lap-time can cost vast amounts of cash and thousands of man-hours as well as specialized skill and theorizing. Forging a competitive MotoGP™️ race bike is like cooking a complicated ‘soup’ and can sometimes be hard to replicate the ideal ‘taste’ across circuits around the continents.
Sebastian Risse has been the principal link to the track in shaping the RC16 since the formative stages in 2016 and from the moment the team made their wild-card debut at Valencia, Spain that same year. The German is one of more than 30 people in Red Bull KTM Factory Racing and his influence extends over the whole project that encompasses the staff of Red Bull KTM Tech3 and the 15 employees charged with the test team. Back in Mattighofen more technical experts and a slice of the 600-strong R&D department are also closely implicated.
KTM have moved fast with the RC16. They have revised engine concepts and have evolved their steel frame ideology. They have the capacity to move quickly. One of the best anecdotes involves the test team using a brand-new engine at Le Mans in 2017 for a Michelin tire test. Espargaró then loaded the improved powerplant onto a private plane to travel to Jerez for another shakedown. It was then used at the Le Mans round of the series a few days later.
“You always like to see development going forwards quickly and perhaps even faster but on the other hand you have to be careful that it stays manageable,” explains Risse. “When you develop many changes in parallel at the same time then they all have to be compatible with each other and that increases the complexity a lot. Bringing a new bike for a new season means a lot of decisions and a lot of test items that have to fit together. We are on the border of it being manageable. It means you cannot do more and more because it just won’t work.”
Initially KTM had to get their bearings with the RC16 and assess its merits and their ideas against the rest of the grid. “This project is still so young that you make discoveries all the time and in many areas,” he claims. “Of course, electronics is quite a complex one and where the complexity is happening on the track, whereas with others the complexity is happening at home in developing a new chassis, part or engine. You come to the track, try it, analyze. It’s either better or worse and then you make a decision. The complexity moves around! Whereas with electronics the attention is on every detail and every aspect of what the rider is talking about: you have to keep dipping back into it to find differences between sessions or even runs within a session. The bike also evolves with aerodynamics and we did a lot on the chassis from a stiffness point of view. We started as ‘new’ and as we followed this steel frame concept it was a place where benchmarking did not help us as much in order to find our own way and in other areas. It means you have to do extra steps and extra iterations. It was a big field to work on.”
Risse and his team were constantly making judgements and trying to weave through the labyrinth of improvement. “In the end every resource and budget is limited, and to make the bike faster and better you have to spend it in the best way: it evens-out development,” he says. “If you have an area where you don’t have to spend a lot of resources to see bigger benefits then you do that first … but then you come to a point where it doesn’t happen anymore. So, you have to spread it more evenly. I would say we had a very solid engine base in the beginning, and we spent most of our resources on the chassis stiffness and electronics. Now, during the last two years we made a lot of iterations on the engine side; not in terms of the basic layout but things you don’t necessarily see on the outside. It cost a lot of resources and changes certain characteristics of the bike in a way you cannot do with other things.”
Naturally technical choices carry pressure. If KTM wrongfoot and lose even a few tenths of a second per lap then they are suddenly nearer the back of the grid. Risse is part of the group that makes the call but says he is not the instigator. “When the theory, the data and the rider are commonly pointing in the same direction then super: we are 100% confident. If that’s not the case, then it means there is something to learn. For me the first priority is the rider. He has to be confident with the solution. Ideally you follow the rider and learn in other areas until you have a series that explains ‘why’ [you must change the bike] then you confirm with the data to be in a place you want to be. It’s a process where many things can be at different points.”
MotoGP™️ is at the forefront of motorcycle technology and prototype components as well as hardware and software. This is key not only in getting the last milliseconds off the rider’s lap time, but the information gathered at this level is communicated throughout the R&D department in Austria. A lot of the lessons and know-how filters down into KTM’s Street range.
Being on the grid is a marketing exercise with enormous reach but there are positive repercussions to the race team’s work in the planning meetings in Austria. “For sure,” Risse concurs. “We are working with the KTM STREET guys and production management in R&D for areas like aerodynamics, chassis stiffness and electronics. Not only in terms of single development items but also approaches and analysis: understanding certain effects which can then transfer into another solution of a part or idea that maybe doesn’t look the same [on the two bikes]. There are things that can be gained…but, often, it isn’t that straight forward.” What about an example? “Chassis stiffness,” he answers. “On one hand how do you go about obtaining the stiffness and on the other why do want that stiffness? What problems happen because of a change? Then there are the production processes, especially with production bikes and the translation to MotoGP™️. It can join forces in some areas.”
Risse then talks about one manufacturing technique that has already had a positive impact for the offroad production models and should spread. “Innovative technologies like [3D] printing is an interesting field where you see more and more parts on the motorcycle coming out of a printer; I think that is something that will come into production bikes more frequently. It’s the future, and I think we are a little bit ahead in this way. The need for prototype parts makes it very attractive for racing.”
So far 2020 has stuttered for MotoGP™️, as with most sport on a global level, and paused the momentum both teams had made during competitive pre-season tests. When, and if, KTM can continue racing then their onslaught on the premier class will still rush ahead.