Not all team launches are the same. They vary in style, substance, length, medium. There are live presentations, long prerecorded presentations, and short videos. Their length or content inevitably have no correlation to their information density. When you start, you never know what you are going to get.
The KTM MotoGP launch kicked off with a 4:35 video presentation which was all style and no substance, four minutes of spectacular images, dramatic electronic music, and empty cliches about racing. After the launch, however, things got good. Really good. Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira gave a glimpse of where they felt the KTM RC16 was lacking in 2021, and what needed to improve. Interesting, but not earth-shattering.
Then newly appointed team manager Francesco Guidotti spoke, and a picture started to emerge of how KTM was trying to reshape itself, and address a fundamental weakness in their MotoGP project. Guidotti spoke for 20 minutes in English and another 15 in Italian. And later in the day, the indefatigable Pit Beirer spoke to use for the best part of 45 minutes.
Beirer is one of the most talkative MotoGP bosses in the paddock, but also one of the most informative. And sitting down again to properly listen to what he had to say revealed an awful lot about KTM's involvement in MotoGP. Beirer spoke about why they brought Francesco Guidotti in as team manager, where KTM felt they had gone wrong in previous years, and how they were aiming to address these failings. He talked about the importance of Dani Pedrosa, the budget needed to race in MotoGP, and the benefits it brings to a motorcycle manufacturer. There was an awful lot to take in.
The impression that emerged after the media had spoken to Binder, Oliveira, Guidotti, and Beirer, was of a company making a quiet but quite radical transformation. It reminded me a lot of the changes wrought by Gigi Dall'Igna when he replaced Filippo Preziosi as the head of Ducati Corse. Dall'Igna's biggest change was not technical, but rather organizational. By rotating engineers and getting the various parts of Ducati Corse talking to one another – race team to test team to race department – Ducati could unleash the knowledge and potential inside the factory. Preziosi may have assembled the talent, but it went to waste because the focus was on the engineering, not on the engineers, mechanics, riders.
This, in a nutshell, is the same path KTM have chosen. In their first five years in the championship, the Austrian manufacturer has scored some remarkable successes, winning races and finishing fifth and then sixth in the championship in the last two seasons. Their engineering has proven itself, and they have the trophy cabinet to prove it. But they haven't managed to put it all together to mount a consistent championship challenge.
The human side
Doing that requires a change to the human side of the team. Motorcycle racing may be a technical sport, but 90% of it happens between the ears, not just of the riders, but of the engineers, crew chiefs, mechanics, of everyone involved in the team. Making the right choices at the right time, and focusing on the humans involved, is where KTM have fallen short. The arrival of two Italians, Fabiano Sterlacchini and Francesco Guidotti is aimed at fixing that.
The two Italians have been brought in to take over some of the work previously carried out by Mike Leitner. The Austrian joined KTM right at the start of their MotoGP project, after being dumped as crew chief by Dani Pedrosa, and was tasked with overseeing the racing side of the project. He took on that Herculean task with enormous enthusiasm.
"From where we started, we had to create a new workshop, build trucks, build bikes, hire staff, riders, do everything, influence bike development, test team. There were so many things to do," Pit Beirer said of those early days. Leitner led that process, and kept moving the project along over the ensuing five years. "Step-by-step all these segments got of course more stable, more professional, more running."
Those efforts paid off in 2020, when KTM finally won their first race. But the tally of three wins and five other podiums meant that the Austrian manufacturer lost concessions for the 2021 season. They could no longer take the factory riders and go testing whenever they pleased, they were restricted in development and could only test with the factory riders at official tests, leaving the development work to the test riders.
To get around this, KTM took to doing more testing at the race track on Fridays. KTM felt they had no choice, Beirer insisted. "If you have new parts ready and you wait, and the test team is somewhere else, and you think there is a chance to improve the bike, you bring it to the race track. So we carried again testing to the races."
That had a downside, however. Testing on Friday mornings meant losing valuable track time needed for setup for the race on Sunday. That was where KTM needed to change, Beirer said. "I think now it's the moment for the project to make another step and really give all this test work to the test team. I mean we have I would say the best, fantastic test rider in the world with Dani so we have this crew ready and Dani and Mika together as a team they need to have this pre-work together with the factory."
"We really have split now the bike development responsibilities at home in the factory with the test team and the race team should race. That's where Francesco comes into his perfect role because we need to manage the team as other guys do also on the race track. And try to make the maximum out of the weekend for the riders and the bike performance and stop testing Friday morning," Beirer said.
MotoGP is now so competitive that testing at the race track was impossible. "Now we are on a level where the bike and the riders are so good and so close to each other that we need to leave the riders the time to grow into the race track over the weekend. Friday morning, work on the setup for the race, work on the lap times. And not give us information if chassis A is better than chassis B. And then go into the next practice and find maybe the right setup on the front fork, but then again, I am maybe still thinking about that chassis."
That was what had led their riders astray previously, Beirer explained. "So we brought still too much of that into the racing, and this made the life of our riders for sure more difficult than in some other places, and this we need to get out. So I would call it learning and improving, and not just a mistake."
The emphasis on bike development and the technical side had bled into the way the team handled practice sessions, and had a deleterious effect on the riders. That was what ex Pramac team manager Francesco Guidotti had been brought in to handle. "He will need to really take care of the human power of the team, and make sure that we are one at the race track, and that we don't get stuck with, let's say, the top management of the team in a technical discussion on Friday evening and on Saturday evening, we need the team manager to be there with the riders. And we're also going to have Dani with us at the races quite often. We really want to take care of the riders and their needs, and manage them."
That didn't mean that the team would avoid debates about bike setup and parts on race weekends. "These technical discussions will not stop," Beirer insisted. "But it should not be that, for example the crew chief and the best technicians and the team manager are talking about the bike right after maybe the rider would need some help, and some small things." That was where Guidotti would help. "Before, we were definitely managing still a lot on the bike side and testing too much. So Francesco is clearly not there to be our main technician, he is there to take care of all our people on the race track."
KTM's decision to hire Francesco Guidotti came as a result of Mike Leitner's decision to transition to a consulting role. The leadership of the MotoGP project had realized that KTM needed the team manager to play a different role, a more people-oriented role, and had first discussed with Leitner whether he wanted that job. "The change was already in our mind before, this was agreed also with Mike and we just didn't have the right person," Beirer said.
Sharing the load
Leitner did not feel he was the right person for that job. "We took this decision maybe two months before the end of the season together with Mike, that we are going to have a real, supporting team manager at the race track, but he was not sure if he wants to be that guy, because all the traveling and what's going on, just everything is not so easy any more to be at all the races."
The Austrian team manager was entitled to ease off a fraction. "First of all, now I think he enjoys kind of a break a little, because he has put himself under pressure also for the past 30 years, always trying to win races somewhere with somebody," Beirer told us. "Our project was really quite demanding, and he did much more than a team manager was doing. Then he got some pressure and some criticism for things that for sure were not the job of the team manager. So he was too deeply involved in everything."
That criticism prompted Leitner and KTM to step back and reevaluate what their MotoGP project needed. "We have to analyze every year where we are, how we could build up the project, and in that way, it was the only way to come that far that fast. Because we finished 6th in the championship last year and we have five GP wins on the project."
"It's something crazy what we achieved, but then we saw, OK, now we are starting to make somewhere the same mistakes at the same moment, and we are not making logical steps forward," Beirer said. "So we started to spin a bit, and that's why we said, OK, let's look a bit more from the outside what's the next logical step."
Keeping Leitner as a consultant meant KTM could retain his irreplaceable knowledge of the project, while giving it the room it needed to move forward, Beirer explained. "He is definitely out of the daily racing thing, because with the new organization, the boys also really need room to make a change. It would be really tough to make a restart if there would be something too much from our old style. We really need to change the project a bit, and that's why and how we are going to do it. I cannot confirm more, I can only confirm Mike is still under contract with us, and walking in and out at KTM. But with way less pressure than he had and he put a lot of load on himself to bring the project where it is, and we are extremely thankful for all he did for us. So it's all good on our side."
"That's where we have a long-term friendship with Francesco, and we just picked it up," KTM's sporting director went on. "It went way quicker than even we thought, because we had a very brief talks at the very last race, and then things went quite quickly."
Guidotti himself relished the challenge of managing the people side of things. He described his role as "sporting manager, let's say". That role was needed because of the way the sport had changed. "When you were a rider, you remember that a team was two or three people. Four maybe, including the rider. So it was easy to keep everything together. Now we are ten times more, and we need to have someone that manages this kind of matters. Of course I have not only the human side but also the sporting side of road racing, so this is like a sporting manager, not only a psychologist," the Italian laughed.
Guidotti was the second piece of the Italian puzzle which KTM had brought in to take them onto the next step, challenging consistently for a championship. The first piece was a hiring made in the middle of last year, Fabiano Sterlacchini, brought in to be KTM's Technical Director. "Fabiano is now the clear leader from the technical side, but the orchestra was already there, we have all these fantastic guys who have proven that they can build a winning machine with the five wins," Beirer explained.
Sterlacchini had been hired from Ducati because he understood both the engineering side and what a race team needs. "It's not that Fabiano is coming to teach us how to walk, but I think he is an engineer with the racing skills, and it's always important to have people – he's not the only one, we have quite a few people - who understand both sides, what a race team needs to perform on a race track, and what the engineers and the whole group at home need to do. And he will coordinate that," Beirer explained.
"He will bring his experience and I'm really really positively impressed after seven months working with him, that what he brings to the table. In the beginning he will be a lot on the race track and a lot in the factory, so he's also ready to put in a lot of effort. It's part of the big motivation boost that we have right now, that there is another strong guy coming into the group."
Sterlacchini was very much an addition to the group of engineers KTM had already assembled, Beirer emphasized. "I also want to mention Sebastian Risse who is our technical leader on the race track." Sterlacchini and Risse would work together to sort out what needs to be tested and where. "These boys need to decide in the background, OK, this is something we can bring to the riders, this will not distract them from performing normally, but guys, this discussion, we need to do this at home with our engineers, and improve or change before we bring it to the track. So it's just, if you look at the total workload we do, we will just do the same as before, but now I think it's a bit more to take some work from here to there, and restructure the whole project, and put the right people in the right positions."
The riders were enthusiastic about their experience of working with Sterlacchini so far. "Fabiano was an excellent hiring for our technical staff," Miguel Oliveira told us. "I think he's going to give us a lot of help. So far I think we still need some time to see the results and so I would say mainly now he's trying to get involved with the project, know more and more what the bike needs, what the riders ask and with time translate that into solutions."
"Fabiano is a really great guy," Brad Binder agreed. "It’s really awesome to have him in the team. He’s a calm person and really analyzes things and seems really particular at everything he does. I’ve enjoyed having him around. At the end of last season I think he was observing everything and having a look from the back to see how it was going on. This year all the things we’ve learned together from last year, he’s getting more involved and brings the new ideas in all of that. There are a lot of exciting things going on behind the scenes. I’m really looking forward to getting this year started. We’ve made a good step. It seems KTM always makes the biggest steps during the off season so I can't wait to start."
Binder was clear on where Sterlacchini's strengths lay. "He’s really good to analyze where we’re losing time and what our strong points are. We don’t really go maybe chasing things that aren’t going to make us faster. I only really see it from a rider’s point of view. We look at things differently to him and my crew chief, but from what I’ve noticed he puts a lot of focus into the right areas and the things that can really help us improve."
Another part of the people puzzle for KTM was an expanded role for test rider Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard would be at more races, and helping the factory riders, Pit Beirer explained. "For me, it's more important every single day we can have him with us for the riders on the race track, and with his experience what he sees. So he will be more at the races to support our riders, and he will also be responsible for the training we do in the background with our riders to prepare. So we are working there together with him on a project. So he's definitely more deeply involved than ever, besides being a test rider."
Beirer did not rule out wildcard rides for Pedrosa, but stressed that the decision to race as a wild card would be entirely down to Pedrosa himself. "Wildcard is something he can decide for himself. So whenever he wants to do one, we are there. But I told you before that this is not important for us, to have him as a racer."
Throughout his press conference, Pit Beirer kept emphasizing the importance of communication, personnel, and teamwork. KTM is well funded – the project started with a budget of €250 million to be spent over five years – but money is not the be-all and end-all. Having money to spend meant being able to put all the pieces in place, but it was the people involved who would make a success of the project.
"I don't remember the figure we got for the five years from [KTM CEO] Mr Pierer, but the racing budget is good, and we have enough to perform, and that's all good," Beirer said. "But I really want to say now, it was not a matter of money or budget, it's a matter of experience and knowledge. We have all the tools we need to be competitive."
As proof of how there was more to success than just spending money, Beirer pointed out that the KTM project had not used the entire budget in 2021. "We had a margin in the budget at the end of the year, so the end of the year we had not burned down to zero in our racing budget. But there was nothing we needed that you could buy for money. So we have a great team, and we need to work on all these details, and we have a strong budget to compete in this class."
If roughly €50 million a year seems like a lot of money, it is because KTM, like other MotoGP manufacturers, believe the return on that investment is worth it. The proof of that was the increased budget over the course of their time in MotoGP, as KTM's business had grown. "It went more over the years, because also the company could grow very successfully, and our group passed for the first time in history the €2 billion turnover last business year," Beirer said.
"So also the company became even stronger during our short life here in MotoGP. And I'm very happy about it, because you spend a lot of money in MotoGP, you need a lot of money to perform on that level, but it means the company could also use maybe with publicity of MotoGP to grow. For sure not just because of MotoGP, you need to have a fantastic organization in all segments, in the development, in the sales and marketing, it goes through a huge company, that they can also use what MotoGP does in terms of publicity."
Failure is not an option
Beirer also highlighted the risks of entering MotoGP and not achieving the required results. "At the end of the day, it's also our job to do positive marketing for our company, and that's why MotoGP is such a critical, dangerous class, and not everybody goes there just easy to do it. Because it can also be a huge project with a huge budget to give bad marketing or publicity to your company, so you need to be very careful with the gift you get, if you get a racing budget for MotoGP. That's what we did."
This underlines the importance of succeeding in MotoGP. Going in with insufficient resources and commitment is more likely to do more harm than good. That is the lesson of previous eras of MotoGP, when the technical regulations pushed cost through the roof and made it almost impossible for anyone not already winning to be successful. That is a lesson which Kawasaki, for example, learned in their time in MotoGP, when they spent €65 million a season to run around near the back. It is also a reason they are unlikely to return any time soon.
Success is an imperative for KTM. "Last year was the most successful motorsport season ever, with 21 world titles for our group, so we could make quite a lot of riders very happy all around the world, in the US, in Europe, in Rally, in motocross, in enduro," Pit Beirer told us. "At Christmas I was sitting at home and you see these titles, it's like, wow! But each of these titles is difficult. It's not like you win a motocross championship more easily than another championship. A lot of effort and manpower behind."
Beirer again underlined that this success was a direct result of paying attention to the human side of racing. "And why? Happy riders. If you don't have a rider who is feeling comfortable, he will not perform." That was also why KTM would not hold onto riders at all cost, as they demonstrated with Johann Zarco in the middle of 2019. "That's also why sometimes if a rider wants to leave, even if he has a contract, it's better. He's leaving because it's not healthy in the long term."
The aim, Beirer underlined, was to keep their riders inside the KTM family. "With all that passion, of course we want riders also on our side. But we cannot hold our riders forever. I would like to keep our riders as long as we can. Last night I had dinner with [Supercross and AMA MX star] Marvin Musquin over here in America, he's been with us 11 years. It's nice to have these guys with long term relationships, and winning races for us."
Pit Beirer spent a lot of time talking to journalists over his zoom call, getting up early in the US especially for the purpose. And his debrief revealed the underlying truth of motorcycle racing: that no matter how hard the science and technology behind it, to win, to be successful, the 'soft' side is what makes the difference. Communication, empathy, the ability to understand what each member of the team needs to do their job to the best of their ability, from rider to mechanic to truck driver to hospitality staff.
The human factor
KTM had almost all of these pieces in place, but there were one or two key parts missing. Mike Leitner taking too much of the load on his shoulders, an emphasis on the bike over the rider, worrying about technology rather than personnel.
Beirer laid out how they intended to fix this. A separation of the responsibilities borne by Leitner between Fabiano Sterlacchini on the technical side and Francesco Guidotti on the personnel management side. A move away from trying to make the perfect bike each weekend with parts, rather than giving the riders the best bike available at the start of the weekend and trusting in them and their crew chiefs to get the most out of it.
The increased presence of Dani Pedrosa is illustrative here. Pedrosa will be at the race track more often to help the riders get more out of themselves and the bike, while also taking on more of the testing burden himself. A further separation of testing from racing, to allow a better focus.
In the end, the changes made by KTM are a shift of focus from the purely technical to the broad range of human experience. Ducati made the same change nearly a decade ago, coming from a much weaker position to be runner up in the championship for four of the past five seasons. KTM are starting from a much stronger position. These changes must surely bring them closer to achieving their goal of winning a championship.
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