If there was a prize for the most improved manufacturer in MotoGP this year, KTM would most certainly carry the trophy back to Austria in its hand luggage.
The marque-best known for its exploits in motocross and cross-country rally competition before making its grand prix motorcycling debut in the 125cc class in 2003-has established itself as a steady improver since making its full-time premier class bow in ’17.
A blip in its progress after losing relative ground to the front running organisations in its sophomore campaign-despite scoring a maiden rostrum with Pol Espargaro in a crazy season finale at Valencia-was swiftly reversed for ’19, Espargaro in particular becoming a regular top ten runner on his way to 11th in the riders standings.
No one could expect the gargantuan leap KTM would make for ’20 though, especially after its quiet start with the updated RC16 in pre-season testing at Sepang in Malaysia.
It was in fact Aprilia that procured all the attention after its revised RS-GP raised eyebrows with some impressive times, with main rider Aleix Espargaro-Pol’s brother-believing he could have ridden the machine to a podium finish had the Malaysian Grand Prix been held directly after testing.
It would be KTM that made headlines as the season finally got underway at Jerez in July though, with rookie Brad Binder one of the fastest on track throughout the Spanish GP despite suffering an early crash.
The South African would well and truly prove the new RC16’s pedigree with a shock first win in the Czech GP at Brno in commanding style-the first in the history of his nation to do so in the premier class- while Tech 3 satellite KTM racer Miguel Oliveria also enjoyed a strong day to finish sixth.
Things would get even better for KTM as MotoGP moved to a double header in the manufacturers native Austria at the Red Bull Ring, Binder flying to fourth in the opening encounter before Espargaro and Oliveira would come to the fore just seven days later in the Styrian GP.
The duo had been forced to retire from the Austrian GP after coming together while running strongly, putting KTM’s hopes of a home podium on ice early on.
The pair-while displaying solid performance- looked to be just off the outright pace of race leaders Joan Mir, Takaaki Nakagami and Jack Miller, though a red flag brought out following a fearsome crash by Maverick Vinales after suffering brake failure would completely turn the tables.
Espargaro took the lead early on as the race was restarted and looked to ride off to a fairy tale home success for KTM, though pressure seemed to get the best of him as he defended fresh air into Turn 1 on the final tour, allowing Miller close right onto the rear of the ’13 Moto2 world champion.
The two would battle tooth and nail over the final lap, though a final do-or-die lunge from Miller’s Ducati at the final turn would ultimately send both wide, allowing Oliveira to fly past and take the chequered flag for his and Tech 3’s first ever MotoGP win, while also bagging KTM’s first home success.
KTM would continue to be a threat for wins across the remainder of the ’20 season, Espargaro even playing himself into an outside position for the title thanks to his impressive consistency that saw him bag a career-best five rostrums across the year.
The Spaniard would ultimately fail to capture a win for the team he had helped to build up to its newly-found success-alongside test rider Dani Pedrosa- in his final year, having signed a deal to replace Alex Marquez at the factory Honda team for ’21.
He would at least end the year an impressive fifth overall-his and KTM’s highest ever riders championship result- ahead of both factory Yamaha men, while matching the points haul achieved by Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso to boot.
It was Oliveria though who would put in KTM’s most assured performance of its relatively short premier class stay so far though, the Portuguese star leaving his best for last at home in the season finale at Portimao.
He was simply stunning all weekend during MotoGP’s first visit to the undulating Algarve International Circuit, flying to a maiden pole position in the class on Saturday before well and truly schooling the field on his way to a dominant second career win by three seconds over Miller.
Oliveira’s performance marked the first time KTM had really controlled a race weekend throughout, while his efforts-alongside that of factory riders Espargaro and Binder as well as Tech 3 team-mate Iker Lecuona-saw KTM secure a best ever manufacturers standings position of fourth-just four points down on second placed Yamaha while Ducati secured the title a further 17 up the road.
Three wins-plus a further five rostrum results-was a fantastic and rather unexpected return for KTM in 2020 following its rather average ’19 performances, the Austrian giant’s extensive investment finally paying off in collaboration with the talented roster of riders it has worked with over the past few years in Espargaro, Oliveira and Binder, while test riders Pedrosa and Mika Kallio also did their parts.
The pressure is on for KTM to continue its upward trend, but taking its performances across the twilight of the ’20 season into account, ’21 really could be yet another stand-out year for MotoGP’s newest powerhouse.