Herman Sporn is the father of the KTM SUPER DUKE; an innovator, engineer and a damn fast rider. Here he talks about his work with the 2020 KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R and THE BEAST 3.0 concept, how it compares to the first 990, how KTM has changed and how the ‘ultimate’ Naked bike can still get better…
45 year old Hermann Sporn lights another cigarette. The lofty, grinning Austrian has just stepped off the production motorcycle that he and his team have created from the ground-up; if anything, his satisfaction is reassuring for taller customers that the KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R is a comfortable ride. The fact that Sporn cannot suppress a smile – even after all of the thinking, work and development time of three years for the SUPER DUKE – is vindication of the quality of his work.
The KTM 1290 SUPER DUKE R has been described as the flagship motorcycle for the factory: the embodiment of technology, style, intent and performance that KTM want to convey with their street bikes. Sporn was at the beginning of the story, and thus holds something a veneer of status in the halls of the Mattighofen factory and R&D department.
Afforded a quick talk before he takes another group onto the Portuguese roads around Portimao for the 2020 bike’s official presentation we pushed to know a bit more about his narrative and latest fabrication…
Was the SUPER DUKE your first bike for KTM and how did it come about?
I started at the factory in 2000 and came to KTM with the brief that I had to make a ‘SUPER DUKE’ – there was no real name for it at that time but they had made the first prototypes for the Adventure and wanted to do a two-cylinder Naked bike in parallel. I worked alone for three years and did everything from swingarm, frame, subframe, exhaust system and so on and after we had a good prototype we went to the designer to get a good fairing and shape and then it was ready. We wanted to start in 2004 but then we made some modifications – switching to injectors and improved the capacity from 950 to 990 ccm – and launched it in 2005.
The growth of KTM in that time – and enduring the financial crisis – has been immense. You must have seen some changes…
[Smiles] There were far fewer engineers. Now with all the R&D in Mattighofen and the two construction offices – one in Spain and another in Salzburg – I believe we are round 650 people. When I started we were just sixty! In 2005, with the first SUPER DUKE we got the feedback: the fuel tank was too small and the bike was not so refined – it was a bit too nervous – and that was the start points for the next generation in 2007 and that version was a lot better than the previous one. The production of KTM PowerParts that same year led to the single-seater R: the first one. It’s funny how the R came about actually because a motorcycle magazine contacted KTM as they wanted to make a race bike out of the SUPER DUKE and we said no, and then thought ‘let’s do our own’! We built up the track bike from zero and we used only parts to make the bike lighter, faster and stronger, additionally we wanted the bike to look cool, so my mechanic had the idea of making the frame in orange and I said let’s do the rest in black; everyone ended up liking it so much that it was the first time we had a R version with an orange frame and it has been something that’s been in place ever since. We started making a lot of tests at Pannonia-Ring with Andreas Meklau, who was riding in WorldSBK at this time. My mechanic and I were also doing a lot of riding because we didn’t have any professional test riders at that point.
The KTM SUPER DUKE 1290 R is obviously a sophisticated motorcycle. How do you compare it to the original 990? Is it like an iPhone 11 up against a 1?
I think, it is more like going back to a rotary phone! We built the first SUPER DUKE R fifteen years ago which is why it looks old. It was not refined, and we didn’t have the possibilities that we do now. We have one of the largest test centers in Europe, where the motorcycles are running for weeks with robots at full load, or entire assemblies are checked for lifetime on 2 Poster- and Vibration test benches and of course much more is now possible in FEM calculation and design of the components with the help of topology optimization than before. This meant the current bike was on a much higher level at much earlier stage. Also, you have to count the experience: we started from zero in 2000 with the SUPER DUKE R and the 2014 1290 model was one of the first KTM bikes to have traction control and advanced electronics. It grew with the time.
There are some limitations for development so do you still fully buy-into the Naked bike concept?
Of course. When can you really enjoy a superbike on the road? It is a pain to ride one, literally. In the hands, the leg, the seat, the damping was too harsh. It is a bike made for the racetrack and where there’s no problem to have maximum power, the torque on high rpm and when you want to find the limit you need also the tight damping. The big advantage with the SUPER DUKE was the huge amount of torque; it almost doesn’t matter what gear you were in. It is easy to ride, more comfortable and gives you a better view in traffic due to the upright seating position. In fact, testers were riding the SUPER DUKE for two-three days and well over 1000 km and were saying we should make a touring bike out of it; for that reason, we made a GT version prototype that everybody loved and now that’s into its second generation.
KTM are calling the 2020 model ‘the ultimate Naked bike’. So how can you improve the benchmark?
I like a challenge! We want to maintain the good properties from the previous bike such as the easy rideability, good ergonomics and also good seat comfort for a whole weekend of riding. But, additionally, we wanted better feel from the front end, improved anti squat behavior and also a better handling. For this one we were given a free hand to make our brief, and I had some discussions with my boss, when they saw the number of tests we were making on the track. We said: “this doesn’t mean it will be worse for the street…we have to feel the limit to know if the frame, swingarm and rim stiffness is at a certain level where we feel what the tire is doing”. You can sometimes only make discoveries when you are at the maximum. 95 or even 99% is not enough. It has to be 100. For the future the work goes on and we continue to look at all aspects. We know the motorcycle is arriving to a really high level, but we noticed that we can improve the tire. The standard [Bridgestone] S22 had a problem with the torque-and-power ratio in combination with the low weight from the bike for getting the power to the ground when it started to slide; it was happening too quickly. So, we spoke with Bridgestone and that’s where Jeremy McWilliams was so good. He was able to explain to them that the contact patch was too small, and we didn’t have the grip we needed. We wanted a softer carcass and were given some prototypes and they worked. I remember one test where we used the old tire on the first day in dry conditions and when the bike accelerated hard out of a corner we were always experiencing a huge amount of slide. The following day it was wet and with the new tire the front end was lifting under the same acceleration from the same corner! There was more grip in wet conditions with the new tire than there had been with the old one in the dry! It was amazing how much the performance of the tire improved.