MotoGP has welcomed three new manufacturers since 2015, but it's KTM that looks set to soon be up against the top teams. David Gruz explains why.
Grand Prix motorcycle racing has long been dominated by two Japanese powerhouses: Yamaha and Honda, who between them have won 35 out of the past 42 premier class titles.
Suzuki has been the third force for most of that period, albeit being surpassed by Ducati when the Italian manufacturer joined MotoGP in the early 2000s.
While Ducati took the 2007 title with Casey Stoner, since then it hasn't been able to break the Japanese hegemony - but now there is another European brand poised to do exactly that.
Given KTM's success elsewhere in racing - notably in motocross and cross-country, as well as Moto3 in recent years - it's amazing to think its only previous MotoGP experience before the RC16 was conceived was an unsuccessful 10-race long relationship with Kenny Roberts’ team in 2005.
After MotoGP recovered from a period when a secondary class had to be created in order to keep a healthy grid size, the series looked to be in the right state for KTM to finally have a proper shot.
The Mattighofen-based operation took its time to prepare, signing Dani Pedrosa’s former crew chief Mike Leitner and then two of the best non-factory riders on the grid, Tech 3 Yamaha teammates Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith.
Having built a bike from scratch, KTM was expected to spend the year at the back.
The beginning was indeed fairly muted – both riders only beat Aprilia’s underperforming rookie Sam Lowes in Qatar and, when the Briton retired in the next two races, Espargaro and Smith couldn’t beat anyone else fair and square in Argentina and Austin.
But then there was a big improvement for the first European round at Jerez, partly because of a new engine that changed the old ’screamer’ configuration to the ’big bang’ set-up used by the rest of the field.
Espargaro and Smith suddenly found themselves fifth and sixth in the first part of qualifying, just two tenths off a Q2 spot, and were significantly closer to the midfield in the following races as well.
While a few mechanical failures, as well as wet-weather chaos, limited the available data to track KTM’s progress, especially with regards to benchmark rider Espargaro, Sachsenring was the scene of a breakthrough.
At the German track, Espargaro and Smith were 13th and 14th, a result they reached before, but it wasn’t due to the high number of retirements this time around.
The duo beat six opponents, plus KTM’s wildcard Mika Kallio, including Ducati, Honda and Suzuki bikes.
"From the beginning, I expected to be last, which we were, which is fine, but then we moved forward pretty rapidly," said Smith after Sachsenring. "Then we became a little bit stagnant in terms of our positions, but at Sachsenring we earned the positions that we had.
"I think our boss says openly to the press that he expects top 10s at some point during the second half of the season so we are supposed to keep him happy we need to follow the same objectives."
Those expectations were met instantly. Next up was Brno, which was on the back of a big test for KTM at Aragon, and it was a complete success.
Espargaro took full advantage of flag-to-flag conditions to take ninth, but it wasn’t the mixed weather that allowed him to secure that spot, but rather the ability to pass several bikes in the second half of the race.
Then came the home track of the Red Bull Ring, a largely different layout compared to Brno. However, another strong result arrived in a much more straightforward race.
Moreover, this time it was test rider Kallio, who grabbed a 10th-place finish, just 19.7s off the race winner.
Whether that will be the trend from now on remains a question due to the unpredictable nature of MotoGP, but KTM’s start to the second half of the season has been a massive improvement so far.
When compared to the first years of Suzuki and Aprilia, KTM at first seemed to be more like the latter, which arrived somewhat unprepared in 2015, often losing more than a minute in the races.
However, now KTM appears to have made a jump and looked more like Suzuki did in 2015.
Two years ago, Suzuki regularly placed in the lower half of the top 10 with both Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales, with the gap to the winner averaging around 20 and 30 seconds – all of this very similar to KTM’s recent performances.
Suzuki became a race winner a year later, and while KTM will be hard-pressed to achieve this in only its second season, its arrival in the top half of the field could come quicker than expected.
According to Espargaro, the 2018 bike will change a lot: "We have some ideas at the end of this year, next year the bike is going to be super-different.
"We producing [parts] double than Honda in MotoGP, we are doing double and all the rest, we are doing so many chassis, we are on the N chassis and before the N there is A, B, C, D etc, it is crazy.
"Everything will be different, inside and outside. Hopefully, in Valencia we can start testing the new bike because we need it."
With this year’s bike already featuring innovative elements such as steel tubular chassis, WP suspension and the ultimately failed experiment of a ’screamer’ engine, a "super-different" 2018 bike is an exciting prospect.
Red Bull muscle
The brand new bike should be complemented well by a very healthy budget, too.
Being an Austrian brand, and having been long associated in other series, it came as no surprise that KTM and Red Bull joined forces for MotoGP, a series where the energy drink company has a history of supporting riders, most notably Marc Marquez.
It also sponsored Yamaha team WCM until 2002, and had a brief dalliance with Suzuki in 2005 - but just like KTM’s short tenure with KR the same year, that was not to last.
Apart from providing an enviable budget, as well as free drinks for the thirsty media in the KTM hospitality, Red Bull is also solidifying the brand's name in the category.
In the previous round in Austria, KTM fully enjoyed a home track advantage, with some grandstands awash with orange-coloured flags and merchandise.
Such popularity it may only enjoy in its homeland for now, but at least it enjoys uncontested focus in that area - while the loyalties of Japanese and Italian fans are divided.
Then there's the potential advantage of KTM securing a top rider through the Red Bull connection.
Should it become competitive enough to win races during the next contract cycle in 2019-20, KTM could be seen as a viable option for Marquez, who is, again, sponsored by Red Bull.
The Spaniard will likely need to prove his brilliance outside with another manufacturer in order to be one day mentioned in the same high regard as Valentino Rossi is.
At the moment it seems a stretch, with Marquez deemed highly unlikely to leave Honda at the end of his existing contract in 2018.
But, this gives KTM the time it needs to prove itself - and once a team can attract a rider like Marquez, there is no telling how big it could become.
What will help even more is the fact that the pressure on KTM in its second year of MotoGP competition will be considerably less than that on Aprilia and Suzuki, which will both be in their fourth season since returning to the premier class.
Six different manufacturers regularly contending for wins or even podiums is never going to be possible, and that will inevitably lead to some of them eventually calling it quits.
While the 'big three' of Honda, Yamaha and Ducati all look secure, Suzuki and Aprilia surely cannot be too satisfied with where they are.
After challenging the top three last year, pretty much all of Suzuki’s progress disappeared when its star rider Vinales left for Yamaha and was replaced by Andrea Iannone.
Iannone's apparent inability to lead the team from a development point of view and the injuries that have blighted Alex Rins' rookie campaign have both been major factors in Suzuki's step back this year.
Yet, the Hamamatsu brand's return to MotoGP has still been a greater success than it has been for Aprilia, which has yet to record a top-five finish, let alone a podium or victory.
Out of 22 starts in 2017, Aprilia only has five top 10 finishes, as Aleix Espargaro has failed to finish six races - mainly due to reliability issues - and Sam Lowes has struggled to adapt to the RS-GP in his rookie MotoGP season.
The impatience of Aprilia's leadership for results to improve was on display when the Noale brand decided to put a premature end to Lowes' two-year contract and sign Scott Redding in his place.
But should Redding fail to succeed where Lowes could not, Aprilia would likely struggle to attract a star name when contract renewal time comes around again, and remain firmly stuck in its competitive rut.