Subscriber Feature: The Importance Of Test Riders, Part 1 - KTM's Mike Leitner On Why Size Matters

Test riders are one of the most crucial elements of success for any modern MotoGP team. As testing has been restricted for the factory riders, to cut costs and make a more level playing field for the smaller manufacturers in MotoGP, the importance of having a genuinely fast test rider has grown. In the past, test riders would be 3 seconds off the pace of the factory riders. Now, test riders have to be capable of worrying the multi-million dollar faces of the factory, and making onlookers wonder why other teams or factories haven't signed them up to a permanent contract.

The reasons behind this shift are fascinating. Over the next couple of weeks, we will have a series of interviews with factory bosses on how important their test riders have been to the development programs of KTM, Suzuki, and Ducati. We will round off the series with an interview with Michele Pirro, the unsung hero of Ducati's test program, and the man who did most of the donkey work to get the Desmosedici GP18 where it is today.

We start off with KTM MotoGP team boss Mike Leitner, however. The Austrian was brought in to lead KTM's MotoGP project from the very beginning, after a brief period away from racing when he left the Repsol Honda team, where he had been crew chief for Dani Pedrosa. Leitner was instrumental in driving the direction of the KTM RC16, and was responsible for recruiting Mika Kallio as a test rider, after the Finnish rider was left without a Moto2 ride at the end of 2015.

Kallio has proved both invaluable as a test rider, and as quick as factory riders Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith, even coming close to taking Smith's ride in the factory team for the 2018 season. So Leitner's choice of a fast test rider has been justified. I spoke to him about at the combined MotoGP and WorldSBK test at Jerez last November.

Q: What exactly do you need from a test rider?

Mike Leitner: Of course one part is to do the job, to run the bike at a certain speed, to see if the parts keep the performance for a certain amount of kilometers and safety. This is one part of being a test rider, but in our case we also have Mika[Kallio] in this project from the beginning, and he also brought the speed. He was a Moto2 rider, but over these two years he really developed himself again into a MotoGP rider. So it was good for him, and it was good for us.

Especially in the first year, where you have more durability runs and just to make a bike with consistent pace and all these things, he was still a Moto2 rider. But when Bradley [Smith] and Pol [Espargaro] jumped in and they saw the way he was riding, they had good conversations, and he was able to check the data how these MotoGP bikes are now used by these top riders, and he adapted super well, and this was good for the project.

Q: Is it more important to have good technical ability, and explain well, or to be fast?

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Some do travel to the races. Pirro is at a lot of races. Kallio isn't at a lot of races, except for the ones where he is wildcarding at. It depends on other commitments. The Japanese test riders for Honda and Yamaha aren't at the races. 

So glad that you are starting with the newer projects. The points you cover with them should make for some pithy questions for the folks at Honda and Yamaha.

Size and Kallio. The first rider shaking out the KTM was Hoffman who is pretty big. Kallio has a lot of laps on the bike (btw, are you sure it is sufficient to say he is AS fast as Smith?). Interested in Leitner's comments re pace of test riders as needing to be relative to that of the rider of the bike. In this particular case Smith may have spent many sessions rolling around UNDER the pace in which a bike is to be developed. The tail wags the dog?

Pirro is another great example along with Kallio, able to do mid pack pace. An outlier may be Stoner -outstanding case in which he can ride nearly any bike qualitatively DIFFERENLTY. How transferable is his feedback I wonder?

Perhaps the style matters. Here the tires/electronics are a factor, tougher to get a test rider into the MotoGP Bridgestone style than it is now w more conventional Michelins. But now the electronics ask something more eh?

Yamaha using Japanese Superbike and Endurance guys. Even Nakasuga has been only able to generally establish pace that barely gets on a MotoGP grid. Only 2 factory bikes. Sheesh. We all got to peer into the Rossi-Burgess-Furusawa miracle development period to a rare high level. It has left me with a skewed awareness about Yamaha. But then again I wonder, perhaps it isn't me but YAMAHA left w the skew re bike development. Testing is now more limited than it was, especially for the top teams without concessions. Yamaha shows up in Qatar less prepared now and this makes things a bit more interesting to watch.

Suzuki...we have heard more this last year plus re frustrations w petulant Iannone. His very first go on the bike he RIGHT AWAY pushed it up to the full pace, aggressive and driven. Then he expected it to fit HIS style, which was an outlier. He was the first rider we have seen to niche into the pre-Gigi Duc style. It was a bit ironic given the contrast of other riders. After his initial burst of speed he backed off and pushed Suzuki for a different bike. A test rider can't just be fast, smart and articulate. They also need a blue collar attitude. They must create motivation too. It isn't a race weekend. Kallio has been very motivated. Perhaps in part by a desire to get back in MotoGP. Oddly, Smith may look like a better development rider? Methodical. Takes his time to "get it." Suzuki looks to have done well last winter. Tsuda was supplemented by Guintoli to good effect.

Ducati? Well done. What you get from the folks at Honda could be interesting. Historically they have focused on the engineers. They just had a roller coaster of development since 2014. Get them to spill the beans!

For the life of me I can't remember the name of the main test rider for Aprilia. Not surprised, as when I saw it I said "who?!" Very little out there re their test program and hoping for more.

Curious about where this goes. The bikes have been changing a lot lately. Great idea David, thanks!

I remember in Nicky Hayden's championship winning year he had clutch issues they couldn't understand because Honda's test riders weren't fast enough to replicate.

So Honda and Yamaha's test riders mightn't be as quick but they still have to be fast enough.