(This story was originally published in the April/May 2017 issue of Sport Rider Magazine.)
KTM CEO Stefan Pierer is a very direct person. His answers during interviews are straight and honest, without vagueness or hyperbole. He doesn’t try to be elusive when asked hard questions, in contrast to how Japanese executives often react in the same situation. Interviews with Pierer can be summed up as, “Ask me exactly what you want to know, and I will tell you.”
After achieving outright success in numerous off-road motorcycle racing disciplines—many times over long-dominant Japanese rival companies—KTM is now setting its sights directly on MotoGP. The Austrian manufacturer is fielding a full factory team in 2017, with two established riders (Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaró, both formerly with the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team) on its own RC16 MotoGP racebike that went from CAD designs to fully functioning prototype in three short years. Preseason testing has shown the KTMs to be very, very close to competitive form, no small feat considering the ultra-high level of MotoGP and the very short gestation time of the RC16.
“We are in this to win,” is the main message Pierer sends when asked about the company’s goals in MotoGP. And considering the proud history of the Austrian brand—as well as his forthright personality—Pierer is not one to speak casually about such matters.
What does the MotoGP project represent for you personally?
We had basically everything but success in MotoGP, and this account is still open with KTM. We started everything 20 years ago, with the Paris-Dakar rally and all that, and last year we won the Supercross championship in the USA. Something that took 12 years of hard work and persistence. Now it's time for MotoGP.
For decades the Japanese have been the masters of this category. How realistic are the chances of KTM’s success?
Very realistic! The Japanese cook with the same water as we do. I think we are quicker to make decisions, and we take more risks. Looking at the record, you can learn a lot from the Japanese. We have shown in other specialties that we can beat the Japanese, and it’s fun.
And do you have any "favorite Japanese" you want to defeat?
The most respected [factory], and [the one that] deserves my highest admiration, is Yamaha. Another of my favorite brands is Kawasaki. But the victories that give me the most satisfaction are those that we get over Honda.
In the Moto3 category, the ongoing battles guarantee there will be excitement weekend after weekend…
In Moto3 we have learned a lot. We won’t be “suckers” coming to MotoGP, and this is due in part to the Moto3 project.
What led KTM to take part as a chassis supplier in Moto2, even though someone else’s engine will be used?
With motorcycles it’s not just the engine that makes performance but everything altogether. We are the last to use a multi-tubular chassis on our bikes, and in Moto3 we have shown that you can be very successful with this concept. We want to do the same in MotoGP. In Moto2 we want to show that you can make a difference with a chassis in a single-engine category as well.
Ducati won its only world title with a multi-tubular chassis. But an aluminum-chassis builder can list a thousand reasons their design is better. Why are you so convinced of this alternative?
For decades we have done great in off-road racing with the technology of a multi-tubular steel chassis, and now things have been even more refined. Our multi-tubes are good, are highly sophisticated alloyed steel, chrome molybdenum, and, indeed, our SX motocross chassis is lighter than an aluminum chassis. This means that high-performance steel can make a better chassis that is lighter and with better flexibility. This is the trick. And so I think we’ll show what is the best MotoGP too.
Apparently this technology helps in the development phase of a motorcycle, as the trellis frames are faster to manipulate, when both cutting and welding.
That’s right, everything is very fast. If you want to change the flexibility, you cut and/or add another one to change the characteristics and you’re ready.
In the 500cc Grand Prix era, Cagiva used the strategy of copying Yamaha’s technology without restrictions, and it didn’t help. Do you think your policy of being radically different will give you more chances?
In engine technology, we are the reference. In this area we don’t need to hide from Honda. And if you analyze my group of companies, you’ll find among them a company that supplies motorsports worldwide, from F1 to MotoGP. All internal parts of this MotoGP bike come from Katzenberg, from the cylinder to the connecting rods to crankshafts… So believe me, in the four-stroke world we know what we are doing. You can be sure of this.
Does this mean KTM will be free from the low performance of engines as happened first with Suzuki and now to Aprilia?
To this, I want to say that we have an exceptional engine builder, Kurt Trieb. He has been working with us for almost 15 years, except for a short period he was in BMW. He is really a unique person. And with the experience we have, I’m not worried at all about the issue of performance of our engines. There is enough power available, but now, of course, we have to make it manageable. Regarding the chassis, we learned a lot in Moto3 and also used the technology in all kinds of specialties; we are very solvent. Over the years we’ve put together a good team, which is located near our factory in Mattighofen. We don’t have employees in Spain, in Italy, or elsewhere; we have our people near our facilities. Our project is a comprehensive project that also involves Pankl and WP—which gives me confidence that we will be competitive relatively quickly. I always say: Suzuki is my reference point. What Suzuki has done has my respect. To achieve what they have achieved [in such a short time] is what we want.
To match the achievements of Suzuki is your short-term goal, so what is your long-term goal? To win MotoGP?
Well of course! We are not in this with Olympic spirit, that is, for the honor and pleasure to participate; we want to get on the podium. And there is always that dream of winning something at some point.
If the time comes to sign an elite champion rider in order to make that last step, are you sure that KTM will have the financial resources to do this?
Ducati bought Lorenzo for 12 to 14 million euros ($13 to $15 million), and they are not sure of winning, even if they have the best bike! Because when it rains he is out of the top places. We are more looking to select talented riders from Moto3 and Moto2 and grow with them and then move them up. This is another reason why we are entering Moto2. Look, the really good riders have all been with us in the small categories at some point: [Casey] Stoner, [Marc] Márquez, [Maverick] Viñales…all of them. And now Brad Binder, who I don’t want to leave off this list. Next year he’ll be in Moto2 with us. And if he continues as he is going now, he will naturally have a place in MotoGP. This saves us millions, without implying that he won’t be paid what he deserves. The figures are now being moved around that provide for the need to develop the bike. And I think we were lucky in choosing riders. We decided very early on Bradley Smith, who is fast and has experience. As for Pol Espargaró, he was about to jump onto an official team, something that in the end did not happen. He was disappointed, so naturally he agreed to come with us. With him we have two young and powerful riders. With them, in a very Japanese style, we are paving a careful path forward, step by step.
KTM is accustomed to selling replicas of its racebikes; do you have plans to do the same with the RC16?
We want to offer nearly exact replicas. We also intend to adjust the price as best as possible. For this purpose some parts could be different, but the principle is to use the same engine. Something similar to what we do with the Rallye, where we manufacture a replica of the racebike.
Will they be production bikes or for circuit use?
For the circuit only; safety is one of our priorities. A motorcycle with 270 or 260 horsepower these days does not make sense on the street.
KTM is part of a group of companies that you have been combining in recent years. How big is your holding right now?
Right now we employ 5,000 people divided into three companies. The first of those is KTM with the second being Husqvarna, which has helped us a lot in recent years. Today we make no fewer than 30,000 Husqvarnas a year. Then naturally there is Pankl with approximately 200 million euros ($215 million) in revenue and 1,400 employees. Finally there is WP, with 600 workers, that has moved 140 million euros ($150 million) in business. The whole group moves between 1.3 to 1.4 billion euros ($1.4 to $1.5 billion) with 5,000 workers, of which 70 percent are in Austria. All our R&D has been and are always in Europe, mainly in Austria.
And the future? What do you see in the future of the motorcycle? Where do you think the bike world is heading?
I think motorcycle racing will become increasingly attractive. And the interest is coming from the loss of interest in car racing. Who is still interested in F1 or any other car races? We are talking about a competition in which drivers have increasingly less influence. In motorcycle racing, however, the riders continue to have a major influence on the racing and the overtaking, and the prices for live competition are affordable. It remains a family event, which you can go with children who can get close to the riders. They are racing as before. We see it in motocross. A well-organized race attracts up to 30,000 spectators. And we're talking about motocross!
On the other hand, the two-wheeled vehicle will recover its role as a transport vehicle. Not that we’ll go back to the ’50s and ’60s, but what young person can afford a car these days? And in a city, it often does not make sense to have one. There are practical scooters, motorcycles, and other two-wheelers. I am convinced that in the next 15 years electric mobility in the form of bicycles and/or motorcycles that need just an A1 license will be imposed. Vehicles with a power of 1, 2, 3, or 4 kilowatts. These vehicles will attract young people. So if you ask me where we go as a company, my answer is certainly toward that segment of the market.