KTM has methodically ticked the boxes at racing’s highest levels. When CEO Stefan Pierer unveiled the Austrian manufacturer’s MotoGP entry two years ago, he said, “If you want to be a serious global sport-motorcycle player, you have to be in the premier class.
Mike Leitner understands the realities of Grand Prix racing. He put away his helmet and leathers long ago but not before making 57 starts over seven seasons in the 125cc class, earning nine top-10 finishes with a pair of fourths in 1987 at the French and Portuguese GPs.
Leitner later transitioned to roles as a mechanic and crew chief, working with Toni Elias, Alex Barros, John Hopkins, Olivier Jacque, Garry McCoy, Jeremy McWilliams, Fonsi Neito, Stefano Perugini, Ralf Waldmann, and Dani Pedrosa, with whom he spent 11 seasons and oversaw two world titles.
Rescued from early retirement four years ago by KTM Motorsport Director Pit Beirer, the 55-year-old Austrian now supervises an ever-expanding staff at KTM’s dedicated racing department in Munderfing and more than three dozen personnel at the circuit.
KTM is applying the same focus and dedication to MotoGP as it did with Dakar, enduro, supercross, and so many other forms of motorcycle racing, including Moto3 and Moto2. Can victory be far away? I spoke with Leitner about the program and its future.
What attracted you to such a challenging role?
When I stopped working as a crew chief, my idea actually was to stop there with this business. I had some plans for what I would maybe do in in the future at home in Austria. I knew people from KTM, but it was never close that we would work together.
Pit Beirer approached me and we made an agreement: Okay, I will help you—some advice, what I could do. Finally, a full-time job. I got the passion back because, after working many years for the same company, it got a little flat. Now I am back in the camp. It’s a big job.
Has the path for KTM in MotoGP been relatively straight or mixed with twists and turns and more mountains to climb?
We still have a lot of mountains to climb. To be fair, where on this planet could you start a MotoGP project from zero? All the teams and bikes already exist. At Honda, you come in at one stage and you spend time there, but the history is already there and will continue.
I know what MotoGP means, how high the level is. After one and a half years, we should be proud of what we have already achieved. But it’s still a long way. This is 100 percent clear. There will be ups and downs. That is the character of this class.
It’s not only that you have to make a good MotoGP bike, you must build a strong structure. You have to build a strong team at the track, and you have to get good riders. In the end, only the most complete package will be successful. We have to grow in each area.
As a former rider, what attributes do you look for in a test rider?
First of all, there are not so many riders on this planet who you can take as a test rider for MotoGP. I mean, you already must have really high riding skill and some experience in the category. We have to make steps in this area.
You will not easily find a rider who can make a better bike than Marc Márquez. You can tell him, check 800K on this engine, or 600K on that gearbox, or tell me something. But you can’t ask him, what can we change so that Marc can go faster?
We are so young and still have so much room to improve. Of course, skilled riders will help us, and we are looking for the best we can get. With Mika Kallio, we have a nice history. He came from Moto2 with us into MotoGP.
We had other riders on the bike. Each gave us a comment on a different angle. Sometimes a rider who is two seconds away can tell you very interesting things of the bike. Sometimes, the rider is very close and can tell you nothing.
It’s not a rule that if the test rider is fast, the test rider is good. It’s a combination. Of course, if you are four seconds slower, there is no meaning. Two seconds to Marc or the fastest guys in MotoGP is already respect. You can give good information.
Are KTM and steel as a chassis material like a marriage—until death do us part?
It’s clear: We will stick with that concept. The history of KTM—I joined four years ago, so I cannot talk so much about the history of KTM—but I see in all other sports, also in the off-road, all other manufacturers work with aluminum chassis.
KTM showed up in MotoGP with the steel-tube chassis. Everybody was smiling, but we achieved it. We proved in Moto3 and Moto2 you can win races. The goal to win a race in MotoGP on a steel-tube chassis is clear because it’s the philosophy of the company.
KTM is also the only manufacturer using WP suspension. It’s a package. This is KTM. I can’t tell you where the limit will be with steel in MotoGP. Until now, we have been able to make it better and better. This is a good sign.
Are you pleased with engine development?
The engine is quite a strong factor in our package at the moment. Speed-wise, we are always quite good with the others. Also, the drivability is not so bad. But, of course, it’s a learning process. Last year, we were a complete beginner.
It’s not only the performance of the engine. How big is the package? Where do I put it in the chassis? It’s so complex. To come into a sport like MotoGP and not blow up many engines in a row is one of our biggest achievements.
The reliability of our engine from the beginning was very good, which gave us the chance to grow the chassis faster. It’s good when people don’t have to stop for technical issues. We get stronger as a company and get more technicians for areas where we think we are weak.
Has knowing the Michelin tire allocation for each round this season impacted your strategy during race weekends?
You understand the tires better the second year, but it’s still a big point to do race distance with a stable lap time. You build the bike out of the rider feeling and the performance you can reach with these tires. All the other manufacturers are in the same situation.
When I watch our bike from last year and our bike now, we are not at that stage where we can say, okay, we can look back so much because it was a completely different bike. As long as our bike is changing and hopefully getting better, we have to go together with the tire.
One day, when we think we are on a competitive level with the other manufacturers, then we can start fine-tuning the last thing on the tire and compare more. But in the moment, we are changing the bike so much.
Last year, Pol Espargaró and Bradley Smith had six top-10 results and were 17th and 21st in the championship. This season, both Smith and Kallio have top-10 finishes, and Espargaró has five 11ths. How do you see their performances?
Bradley has made a good step in his riding. Pol, as well. What we have been able to achieve this year is very close to the end of last season. The level to a 10th or an 11th position now is much harder than last year. It’s much more difficult to be in the top 15.
The riders know the bike better so they have improved their riding. We have also made good steps. For me, what is important is the lap time and the distance to the winner. To be fair, this year we closed the distance to the winner so we are on the correct way.
Dani Pedrosa has decided to retire at the end of this season. Would he have been a good fit for the KTM MotoGP project?
I have good memories of Dani because I worked with him for 11 years. We won two titles and many races in MotoGP. He made his decision to stop racing, and you have to respect it. That’s why we never negotiated if he could be a rider for us.
What is the greatest change you have witnessed in Grand Prix racing?
When you look back, let’s say, to the days of 500s or the beginning of MotoGP, there was some time when second position was 16 seconds behind the winner. Now, you have a sport where, if you are 16 or 20 seconds behind, you are 12th or 13th.
Many riders and manufacturers can now fight for a podium. That’s nice for the sport and why this is a good direction. The rest is like in the old days: People always try to make faster bikes, and riders always try to ride faster. I think spectators are happy to watch this racing.
Is there an aspect of the sport you would like to see return to the way it was when you were racing?
When I was racing? This is so far away and this sport has changed so much. No, I think every period has its rules, and that is how it is. I’m not a guy who thinks back and says, “Ah, it was good in that way.” I look more at what will happen in the future.
One thing where I sometimes have a little doubt for the future is these bikes are getting faster and faster. This could be a problem with the tracks. In this area, people have to start thinking what is next.