until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


The savage paradox of Miller's first KTM season

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
8 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

A grand prix podium, a couple of sprint podiums, a handful of front-row starts and a consistent presence in Q2 are, ultimately, the building blocks of a fairly healthy first season for someone making as big a switch as Jack Miller made - onto a KTM RC16 after five years of various Ducatis.

The order those results were arranged in, though? That's the part that left something to be desired.

This was more or less the thesis The Race put to Miller ahead of the final weekend of his first campaign as a KTM works rider, and Miller did agree with the idea his 2023 would've looked better flipped.

"Of course. Of course. But that's the beauty of MotoGP these days," he said.

"I mean, it does - I wouldn't say 'get forgotten' - but it does get overshone, because there's so many twists and turns throughout the year.

"But I feel as fast if not faster now than I had been at the beginning of the year. But the progression hasn't been as steep as some of the other guys. And that's the issue that we're facing a little bit."

Miller's plateau

Miller, admittedly, then went on to nearly cap off his season with a win. At a circuit where he's clearly got something extra, Valencia's Circuit Ricardo Tormo, Miller found himself in the lead around the halfway point, "smoking cigarettes" as he put it, with a clear pathway to victory in front of him.

You know how that went next - Miller ended up in the gravel after losing temperature on the right-hand side of his tyre and falling off after the change of direction - but the fact he was in position to lead was in any case a bit of a narrative-breaker.

Because, as far as a global view of his season goes, the highlights were largely contained in the beginning - chief among those being the fastest time on Friday with what was then a new Portimao lap record on his first race weekend as a KTM rider, then running out front all weekend at Jerez.

This was an ultra-fast adaptation, and it boded so well for the choice KTM had made. Excluding the very beginning of the programme, its past efforts to recruit riders from rival MotoGP manufacturers comprised what should've been the massive coup of Johann Zarco (below) and the addition of Danilo Petrucci as a big name for its satellite Tech3 team.

Zarco's move was a hideous disaster. Petrucci's wasn't much better. Both never came to look anywhere near as comfortable and fast on the RC16 (yes, previous versions of the RC16, but still) than Miller did right away.

And then... everything plateaued. While a six-crash early outing at Circuit of the Americas was seemingly shrugged off with relative ease, a "weekend of mistakes" at Le Mans may have lingered a bit. Or maybe it was just the progress other riders and brands were making.

Having repeatedly pointed to his issues with corner speed and specifically those corners that required the rider to roll rather than squeeze the brakes, Miller and his crew seemingly accelerated just how much they were playing around with the set-up - and for a bit there in the mid-season he seemed to get quite slow.

The introduction of KTM's carbon chassis was a boost, although mostly in terms of grip rather than that other stuff, but only really restored Miller to 'there or thereabouts' compared to his early-year form.

It wasn't just him - the evidence is decent that KTM's entire roster was finding life harder in the second half of the season.

None of the riders that entered full-time in 2023 scored more in the second 10 rounds of the year than in the first. Which, yes, somehow that stat is also true for Pol Espargaro, despite him contesting only four of the first 20 races (sprints and GPs) compared to 19 of the last 19.

KTM/Gas Gas riders' 2023

First 10 rounds (20 races)

Brad Binder - 160pts
Jack Miller - 96pts
Augusto Fernandez - 51pts
Pol Espargaro - 8pts

Last 10 rounds (19 races)

Brad Binder - 133pts (-27)
Jack Miller - 67pts (-29)
Augusto Fernandez - 20pts (-31)
Pol Espargaro - 7pts (-1)

Whether it was statistical noise, or the consequence of a couple of Ducati riders really hitting their stride, or a genuine sign of KTM having been outdeveloped (one development battleground where it did get reeled in a bit was the starts) is slightly academic as far as Miller's performance is concerned.

But if the target for the in-season progression was to, say, close the gap to the more KTM-established Binder, evidence of that happening as a genuine pattern was pretty scant indeed.

Pushing KTM forward

Miller's assessment of 2023 was that it was a "good year" and that "we can be pretty proud of what we've done".

The "we" in that context is not necessarily just his crew, but KTM as a whole. Miller has hardly shied away from discussing his presence at KTM as something that, in addition to bringing silverware, is supposed to help the Austrian manufacturer scale new heights in the premier class.

He had acknowledged starting out that his Ducati experience was "one of the main reasons" he was recruited, having also come as a package deal with crew chief Cristhian Pupulin - those two being far from alone in having transferred from the Italian brand to KTM.

Miller's feeling was that the recruits from Ducati, including himself, were "elevating" KTM, and he clearly took a personal pride in the part he'd played in a season in which KTM finished the highest it ever had in the constructors' championship (second) and in the riders' championship (fourth with Binder).

"We're fighting with the likes of the Ducatis, pretty much the only manufacturer consistently fighting there with and against the Ducatis," he said.

"If we look on the whole where this project was sort of this time last year, to where they are now, I feel like a lot of people were turning away from the KTM at this point last year, and I think it's one of the, let's say, top bikes to try and get on at the moment, if you look at people's perception.

"So that just shows you how quick it can change.

"I think we're in the process of trying to dethrone them [Ducati] and this year was a big step."

But having championed both the RC16 as it started out, its development and his crew's efforts to maximise the material - the words "rewriting code" in reference to the electronics set-up were deployed on many an occasion this season - Miller also emphasised that he'd helped unleash the RC16's versatility.

"I feel like the work we have done with the team and with the manufacturer, to turn that [situation] round in such a short amount of time, has been awesome, and showed that you can ride a Ducati but also ride a KTM, you don't have to be just a KTM rider to make this bike work.

"I think we've done that as well with Augusto [Fernandez] and Pol. We've got four riders with four very different riding styles and they're all working pretty well and that's basically taking a leaf out of what Ducati have done, with so many different riders with so many different riding styles but making the bike be able to work for all of the above."

Was this, The Race asked him, not just a point of pride but a big part of the selling point when it came to bringing him over to KTM?

"Definitely. Definitely. I think that's the thing, being able to set a bike up that can work for anybody - and that's definitely been one of the biggest factors in them sort of chasing that.

"[Hiring me] cost them a bit of money, but they've been able to extract quite a bit out of me already, and I feel like my days are definitely not done.

"I've got a lot more to give, we've got a lot more to work on next year, and I think obviously the plan is to try and come back next year and be fighting for that championship, too, in Valencia."

There lies the paradox

Miller clearly feels underrated by MotoGP's press pack - in the latest example of that at Valencia, he mentioned that, back when he'd signed his two-year KTM deal, some were tipping for him to be let go after just one season anyway.

In the end, there was no argument for a one-and-done to be found in Miller's 2023. He has more than earned/justified his (already contractually guaranteed) second season.

But if his on- and off-track impact is indeed accelerating KTM's journey towards MotoGP promised land, and there's decent reason to believe it is, then Miller the development rider is really not helping Miller the free agent very much.

Binder was extended through the end of 2026 back in August, and is anyway undroppable. And the works KTM ride alongside him is now as attractive as it has ever been - especially after the memory of Zarco's 'what have I done?!' 2019 detour has been overwritten by Miller storming out of the blocks at Portimao.

KTM has Pedro Acosta in its ranks, now as a Tech3 Gas Gas rider, and will surely do whatever it takes to keep him sweet if his MotoGP rookie season next year is even above average. So what if Acosta ends up fancying a switch from the factory-ish surroundings of Tech3 to the factory surroundings of KTM? There's just one seat to take.

But what if Acosta struggles, or is happy at Tech3, or both? Well, here are some names - Marc Marquez, Jorge Martin, Marco Bezzecchi, Enea Bastianini. Four Ducati 2024 riders who cannot all go into the factory Ducati team for 2025, and who have undoubtedly noticed that a Ducati-to-KTM swap can now be quite a pain-free adaptation. And, well, there's just one seat to take.

Or, say, what if Fabio Quartararo remains unconvinced by Yamaha and gets on the phone, willing to cross the Monster Energy/Red Bull divide? He's quite good, right? Well, wouldn't you know it - one seat to take.

In scenarios like these, a third KTM RC16 team obviously eases the pressure - though the path to that doesn't look straightforward - and even under the current set-up Miller could well find good refuge at Gas Gas.

None of that is to say he can't make an ironclad case to keep his seat - he would need to be much closer to Binder in year two, but why shouldn't that be possible?

But if it's a similar year to his first one, the paradox of his 2023 - a year in which he proved the KTM a friendly bike, and thus effectively ensured superstars will be in the mix for his seat in the very near future - will surely create an unwinnable seat tussle.

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