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Fuel, frame or fluke? – How a MotoGP manufacturer bounced back

by Simon Patterson
4 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

It hasn’t been an easy start to the 2021 MotoGP season for KTM as it has struggled to replicate the competitiveness it demonstrated last season that took it to its maiden top-class win.

Completely out of podium contention at the opening rounds of the year, it looked like KTM was in real trouble – until somehow everything turned around last weekend at the Italian Grand Prix, with second place for Miguel Oliveira and a podium charge for Brad Binder halted only by contact with Marc Marquez.

So how exactly did the factory manage to fix its problems in such a short period of time, given that only a month ago at Jerez – a track where it expected to perform well – KTM looked to be in real trouble?

May 31 : MotoGP Italian Grand Prix review

The official line from KTM is that, at least in part, it has been aided by the arrival of a new race fuel from relative unknowns ETS. A French company formed by a group of former Elf engineers (KTM’s previous fuel partners), it seems to have had an impact on top speeds, as Binder matched Johann Zarco’s all-time MotoGP record of 362.4kph at Mugello.

But while the fuel might make for nice PR headlines with a new partner, the real change has come from a modified chassis first introduced at the Jerez post-race test last month. Not raced in Le Mans thanks to the unpredictable weather conditions and the need to dial in a base setting, it seems to have marked a serious upgrade for the team.

“The main point that we’ve improved with the new frame is that we’ve found a bit of natural turning,” explained Binder after Sunday’s race. “Obviously when the bike turns a little bit more naturally, you don’t have to lie it on the edge of the tyre for as long and it’s better for the rear tyre life for race distance.

“You can get onto a bigger contact patch quicker, and you can prepare the exit of the corners better. I’m happy with the step we’ve made, and I think it’ll be good for us in the coming races.”

There’s a golden chance to test that theory sooner rather than later, too, as MotoGP heads straight into another race weekend at the Catalan Grand Prix – an opportunity that Binder is excited to realise.

“Barcelona is a track where the tyre wear is incredibly high, and the quicker you can get off the edge of the tyre the better you are in the long run. It’s a track where our bike worked really well last year, and I expect that this week we have a really good opportunity to see how the frame works – but I’m confident we’ve made a step forward regardless of where we go.”


One of the natural benefits of KTM’s tubular steel frame ideology is its ability to make small modifications rapidly – but that’s been perhaps somewhat hampered in 2021 by the loss of its concession status and the extra testing time that came with it.

But while it might not have been able to test its new developments the way that they might have prepared, Binder says it hasn’t made the team back at headquarters in Mattighofen any less motivated – and that this is just the start.

“One great thing with KTM is that they don’t like to come second,” he laughed. “All the guys back at the factory, the amount of effort that goes in behind the scenes – I feel super lucky to be in this situation where I have this amazing team behind me. They try everything possible, and we make steps forward.

“This isn’t the end and there are definitely things still in the pocket – it’s a good place to be. We need to see now how far we can push it, but I’m sure the guys will be working hard to have more things ready for us in the near future.”


It was his team-mate Oliveira who was able to secure KTM’s first podium of the year in Mugello despite Binder having the better race pace though, after something of a freak incident on Sunday that was out of the South African’s hands and might have prevented an even better day for KTM.

“When Marc rode into the side of me, my airbag went off!” he admitted after the race. “I rode with it inflated for a whole lap, and I could barely breathe or move so much on the bike, and I lost a lot of time. It took a while to get back into my own rhythm and push until the end.

“When it went off it was super difficult to move – it felt really hard to hang off the bike and move around. The most difficult thing was to tuck in, and when you can’t hide from the wind at 350kph your helmet comes a couple of centimetres closer to your neck!”

There’s one warning sign from the weekend that perhaps should act as a handbrake on KTM’s enthusiasm though. The first time that they’ve raced the radically different current RC16 machine at Mugello also marked the best dry results of the season so far for satellite team Tech3.

Yet with the French team of Danilo Petrucci and Iker Lecuona not given either the new fuel or the new frame, it could be that at least some of the performance we saw at the weekend was due to the track characteristics rather than an engineering improvement.

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