KTM has quickly become a common sight at the forefront of the extremely exciting World Supersport 300 championship, and among others Luca Grünwald has been one of the guys piloting the fast KTM RC 390 R. We shadowed the rider of Freudenberg KTM WorldSSP Team around the Assen circuit for the second round of the World Championship.
Wednesday, 8.41 pm
In the Fiat Ducato he borrowed from his dad, 23-year-old Luca Grünwald arrives at the Dutch TT Circuit in Assen, he parks the van neatly between the motorhomes. After nine long hours on the road the German World Supersport 300 rider arrives at his destination where he’s set to compete in only his second race in the championship. “Last year I was on a Superbike in the IDM Championship, but it was unclear whether or not there would even be a German championship to race in this season. When the offer of joining the World Supersport 300 came up, I was in doubt for a while, but in the end I took the chance. This class is so competitive and if you can show what you’re worth here, you might just get a shot at taking a step up into the higher classes in the WorldSBK paddock.” Grünwald has seen quite a few race paddocks over the years. Even though he’s only 23 years old, he’s been involved in the racing world for some time now. He started to make a name in 2007 when he won the ADAC Junior Cup. He then strung together success after success, because in 2010 and 2012 he respectively won the German 125cc and Moto3 championship. Internationally he burst onto the scene in 2011 when he got a shot at the 125cc World Championship. “It’s kind of funny, but we’re seven years down the road and this weekend I’m pretty much back to where it all started for me with my first Grand Prix. I debuted on this Assen track on Freudenberg Racing Team’s KTM 125 GP machine.”
Thursday, 3.32 pm
So far it’s been a quiet affair for the three time German champ. It’s only until later on the Thursday afternoon the World Supersport 300 riders are called to action, for a scrutineering, mind you. Freudenberg Racing Team’s mechanics roll in the KTM RC 390 R, but it’s Grünwald’s own responsibility to deliver his gear up for scrutiny. He quickly grabs his race leathers and crash helmet from the team truck and gets in line. To kill time he chats with someone he knows from back when he used to race for Kiefer Racing. Dutchman Peter Bom was Grünwalds chief mechanic when he raced fulltime in the Grand Prix’. “Obviously it was a dream true for me, but unfortunately it was only short-lived. The bike wasn’t the easiest to get your head around, and it was very difficult to sort out the front-end feel. We never really made it out of there and in the GPs that means things can move very quickly. You only get one shot to show what you’re worth and that pressure adds up. It’s a shame when one year later you’re sidelined, but I can’t say I’m not glad I raced in the Grand Prix’, even if it was just the one season. You learn so much.”
Just as the Waldkraiburg man passes inspection, the track is opened for track walks. Together with teammate Max Kappler he does a few laps on the Assen TT Circuit on a bicycle to get the right mindset for the coming days. “I believe things could get very exciting who comes out on top here, because Assen’s layout makes it very difficult to gap other riders. It’s going to be a close call, and I hope to be right there at the front,” Grünwald says.
Friday, 11.35 am
Twenty minutes left on the clock before Luca Grünwald gets his first outing on the Assen circuit aboard the KTM RC 390 R for the first thirty minute long free practice. He’s just donned his leathers and picks up a sheet with the track layout. “I close my eyes and imagine the track in front of me. I can then work on sections of track that I need to improve at. We don’t get much time to train on track in World Supersport 300, so it’s important to be in it from the word go. If you don’t manage to secure a good starting position, you’ll have your work cut out for you in the race,” the German claims. Because of the scarcity of track time for riders in the class, problems can spell serious trouble. “Say you run into a problem in FP2, that needs setup attention, you’re going to have to wait until Saturday to try it out. And on Saturday you only have a fifteen-minute Superpole session to make it work. And Superpole is such a crucial session in a racing weekend, making adjustments involves some serious risk.” Getting to know new tracks is also hampered by the limited track time they get. “Three of the eight tracks we go to I’ve never raced at, meaning Donington Park, Magny-Cours, and Portimão. I’m going to have to spend a lot of time figuring out the right lines. If you were to crash or get a technical problem, you’re in a world of pain for the rest of the weekend.”
Grünwald is hardly content after the first free practice, posting the nineteenth fastest time. With 1´54.767 he’s a whopping 2.695 seconds slower than fastest man Koen Meuffels, who wrote history at Aragon two weeks before, granting KTM their first World Supersport 300 victory.
Friday, 6.07 pm
Second practice sees some serious improvement for Grünwald with eleventh place, but the results he’s aiming for don’t come easy. To make it into Superpole 2 directly he’s going to have to get into the top ten. So the German rider is going to have to put in some effort tomorrow in order to get that starting position at the front. Right before dinner – a full team affair at the Freudenberg KTM WorldSSP Team tent – the 23-year-old is very open about his future. “You hope you get to race again every single year, but you can never take it for granted. There have been dozens of really fast riders who had to quit the sport, simply because they weren’t able to get the budget to go racing together. If you don’t have the right sponsor who will stick with you, it could all be over in the blink of an eye. I don’t have sponsors like that right now, so a few less than perfect seasons and I’m done for.”
Only the lucky few bring home the bacon just from racing, so Luca Grünwald always keeps in mind there is a world outside the racing paddock. He was in school to become a car mechanic, but then he came across an interesting opportunity. “After finishing school last year, I was out looking for a job, when a friend of mine told me KTM’s R&D Department was looking for a development rider. That’s how I came to work for KTM.” Having him racing a KTM right now as well was purely coincidental. “When I first started working for KTM I was still racing a Suzuki. They didn’t mind, and I’m glad they didn’t. They felt my work for them shouldn’t affect my racing efforts.”
Saturday, 10.12 am
The second day of racing dawns at the Assen track, but for the World Supersport 300 rider all is pretty easy going. If you make it through Superpole 1 – in which only to fastest two pass on through to Superpole 2 – and then partake in the second session along with ten fastest guys on track, you’re still out on track for a total of thirty minutes tops. And that’s only the two fastest riders, the other 37 only have a fifteen minute session to run on Saturday before they’re done for the day. “I would rather have had a third free practice; all we’re doing now is waiting. And we don’t really have time to try things out either, because there’s no way you are going try new thing in Superpole.” With about an hour before Grünwald suits up, he always goes for a run. “To keep my body up to temperature, that’s all that’s for. Get my heartrate up and warm up the muscles a bit. Focus comes automatically then, because when you just sit around your mind wanders off and you lose focus.”
Apart from getting a workout in, the Freudenberg KTM WorldSSP Team rider also uses the Saturday to analyze data and to look back footage from previous sessions, learning from that as he does. “We don’t carry a lot of sensors on the bike but I get plenty of information from the ones we do have. That way we can figure out where there’s progress to be made.” Grünwald manages to make it through Superpole 1 in the end, setting the second fastest time of the session. With 1´51.681 he’s allowed into qualifying with the ten fastest riders in the class, but he doesn’t improve on the time set in Superpole 1, leaving him in P9. That means he’s on the third row for the race; his second in World Supersport 300.
Sunday, 1.56 pm
“Tension rises fast on Sunday, and it starts to build early, too. Our warm up session starts at 8.50 am,” Grünwald explains. “I try to focus as much as I can, channeling all I’ve got into getting off the line well. In this class those first few laps are outright war. Contacts a plenty and you’ll find another rider on every possible line through every single corner. After that things ease up a bit and you can start working on a plan,” explains Grünwald. At Assen round ‘making a plan’ didn’t quite worked out for anyone. Right after the start a large and very wild leading pack forms. Setting a strategy and following it has no use whatsoever. Because a lot of riders received grid penalties, Grünwald was allowed to take off from sixth place, allowing him to slot in with the leading pack. He manages to stay with the leading bunch right until the final lap, striking in the final chicane – the Geert Timmer-bocht. With a small sprint to the line, Grünwald manages to outdrive fellow competitors Glenn van Straalen and Scott Deroue to the line, taking his first World Championship race victory!
A long lap of honor and few sips of champagne on the podium are to follow, after which the German gets dressed in absolute calm. The well-earnt cup is proudly displayed in the Freudenberg KTM WorldSSP Team awning. “What an insane race that was. It was complete chaos again out there,” a smiling Grünwald says. “I knew I’d fit in well in the class, but I did not expect to be taking victory at only my second race in the championship. It does feel really good to be back on the rostrum again. If feels like forever since I last managed that, with my last victory in 2016.”
Sunday, 7.03 pm
There isn’t a great deal of time to celebrate his victory, because the Fiat Ducato is already set to leave the track again. Luca Grünwald has quite a trip ahead of him back home to Waldkraiburg. “Tomorrow is my day off, so I’m going to make the most of that now. I have completely lost track of how many people congratulated me in the paddock. I haven’t even had time to watch the race back myself, apart from that final lap. Everyone in the team kept showing me that on their phones.” The weekend after Assen Grünwald isn’t racing so he’s made plans to enjoy the weekend with a few friends. “I’m going to be celebrating with them!”
Winning the Assen round has moved Grünwald up to second place in the championship, boding well for a good season for the German KTM rider. “I believe I should be able to get on the rostrum on a regular basis this season, and if I can manage that I’ll automatically be in with a shot at the championship. I’m certainly not going to tell you, right here, right now, I’m taking home that trophy at the end of the season, because so much can happen. We all have a long way to go yet, but I want to assure myself I have fun racing. And believe me when I say I’m having fun right now.”
Luca Grünwald – still second in the championship – will be racing at Brno this weekend (from June 8 to June 10). With no German round on the calendar in World Supersport 300, the German KTM rider will go into the Czech round as his home race. Feel like following him? Check out his own Facebook page or that of the team.
Photos: Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions