until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Folger’s MotoGP comeback is beginning to look pointless

by Simon Patterson
4 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

When the extent of the serious injuries Tech3 GasGas rider Pol Espargaro suffered at the opening round of the 2023 MotoGP season at Portimao in March became apparent, it was obvious right away that the factory-backed team, a part of the KTM group, would need to field a replacement not just for a race or two but for the longer-term.

The man selected for that job? New-for-2023 KTM test rider signing Jonas Folger.

But four rounds in and with Folger set to appear again this weekend at his home race at the Sachsenring – a circuit where he delivered the standout performance of his career against Marc Marquez in 2017 – after a failed medical exam on Tuesday for Espargaro, there’s a question to be asked: what exactly is KTM gaining in having Folger aboard its machine?

The more pertinent question to answer, though, is why Folger?

He was brought into the KTM MotoGP project at the start of 2023 as a younger compliment to its existing test team of Mika Kallio and Dani Pedrosa, both of whom are nearly 10 years older than the German.

Pedrosa, of course, has made it quite clear lately that, despite his heroic performances at home in Spain earlier this year as a wildcard, he has no desire to return to racing even on a temporary full-time basis – something seemingly echoed by Kallio, now 40 years old.

And, with only Folger left on KTM’s testing roster, that means he got the nod, taking over from Espargaro at the Circuit of the Americas and riding every round of the championship since then.

Jonas Folger

Bringing the added value of speaking German natively, something no doubt helpful in translating the minutiae of his feedback to KTM’s Austrian-based engineering team, he made his first appearance with the team at the opening pre-season test of 2023 at Sepang, before also heading to Portimao for the second test alongside his private testing duties away from the spotlight of his official outings.

With that return to testing (the first time he’d ridden a MotoGP machine since walking away from the then-Tech3 Yamaha in the middle of the 2017 season following ongoing illness woes) came the need for KTM to try to get him back up to speed – something it got the opportunity to do when Espargaro was injured in Portugal and it became clear that he would need to be replaced.

However, after four race weekends back with his old team, it’s not entirely obvious that the Folger move has paid off for Gas Gas so far. He hasn’t just been off the pace since his return, he’s been notably behind every other rider by a considerable margin – to the point where you wonder if the factory would have perhaps been better taking a bet on someone else.

On paper, his results don’t actually look that bad. Folger has managed to score seven points so far, so he actually sits ahead of other test riders and super subs including Ducati’s Michele Pirro and Lorenzo Savadori at Aprilia, as well as even outsourcing some full-time MotoGP racers such as Raul Fernandez and 2020 world champion Joan Mir.

Jonas Folger

But Folger isn’t there to score points, he’s there to ride fast and develop the bike – and a deeper look into the statistics of his return are more telling.

Having so far lined up for eight races and taken part in four qualifying sessions on the RC16, he’s finished all but two of them in last place – with only fellow KTM rider Brad Binder behind him once in a race (after crashing and remounting) and Honda substitute Iker Lecuona starting further back once, on a Jerez weekend where he went on to beat Folger by a considerable margin in both the sprint race and the main event.

None of this, of course, is to say that there isn’t a place for Folger within KTM’s testing ranks, because there absolutely is. Factories have always used riders of varying speeds for time-consuming work like reliability testing, something traditionally done by Japanese factories back at home away from prying cameras and using production slicks rather than their precious allocation of Michelin MotoGP slicks.

Jonas Folger

But with KTM just beginning to break through into regular MotoGP podium contention after eight years of hard work to get there and with the two test riders who helped it get there on the verge of retirement, it means it will face a critical point in the not-too-distant future that recent form shows might not be filled by Folger.

With less and less track time than ever before away from races, test riders have become a precious commodity in the championship. There’s a reason why Ducati recently announced a long-term contract extension to keep Pirro among its ranks.

So what are its options? Should KTM be in the market for another German-speaking rider to join Folger, there’s always one that it could make a big offer to: current Honda tester Stefan Bradl, someone held in high regard by Marc Marquez whose defection would bring the double boost of not just adding his name to KTM’s stable but also denying him to a rival, an interesting prospect all round.

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