KTM can certainly smile after six days at Sepang. The Austrian manufacturer has made every effort to develop the RC16 and it was impressive to see all the work going on in the pits at Sepang. With the test team bikes for Pedrosa and Kallio, the factory team with Pol Espargarò and Brad Binder, and Tech3 with Iker Lecuona and Miguel Oliveira, it was clear to everyone how much desire there is to get to the top in Mattighofen.
Pol Espargarò is undoubtedly KTM’s symbol in this project, the only rider who has been able so far to really give satisfaction and also the first podium. In 2019 he went very well, especially in the second part of the season, before his injury at Aragon. Today he was always constantly in the top ten, just as in the first five days of testing. He put in an excellent performance over one lap, but it was above all in race pace that the Austrian bike seems to have taken a clear step forward, solving one of the problems that have always afflicted it in the past.
"It was a successful test for us, and I am really happy especially for the work done in the last three days - said Pol - the sensations are very good, we have been consistently in the top ten, always very fast. In the past we could be fast over one lap, but then we had problems with the race pace. Here the situation was different, we finally solved this problem. Maybe this time we didn't set a very fast time, but it’s clear that this is not the important thing. Here at Sepang in 2019 Bagnaia set an impressive time in the tests, but then the situation was different. It was important for us to improve the race pace and we did it."
What innovations did you try, what changed your situation?
"We tested the new swingarm and it is much better than the previous one. The bike is much more stable when the tyre wears out, it allows you to feel better at the end of the race and this was very important for us. Then there is the new engine, which fortunately has not exploded here and won’t do so either in Qatar (laughs). It’s got a lot more horsepower and performs better in general because it has a softer delivery and allows us to open the gas earlier. We are confident we’ve done a really good job."
Sepang was never the best track for you, yet you were quick.
"Yes, the Sepang track has never been the best for me and for the bike, so improving here has been very important for us. Here power is one of the most important things and in recent years we have always seen Ducati manage to be a benchmark, even with their satellite bikes. KTM have brought a new engine and we have been constantly in the top five for top speed in line with them, so it is a step forward. It is an important aspect of these tests".
What about tyre wear at the end of the race?
"Yesterday we did 23 laps with a single tyre and we were always on a very fast pace. Even today we tried to stress a tyre for 13 laps and in any case after that we lapped in 59.5, which was a great pace. Honestly, I'm surprised how well things are going. I always did runs of just a few laps, at most 4 or 5. We have been here for six days and doing a race simulation would have been madness. My physique wouldn’t have resisted. I saw that Brad did one and it was also fast, so the bike seems ready to tackle the race".
Can you aim high with this KTM in 2020?
"We are really ready for the season; I have never felt this way before the start of a season in the past. We have never been so close to those in front, especially here in Malaysia. If we raced here tomorrow, we would be super competitive for all the sessions. The bike honestly impressed me. It was important to start so well in the tests, because the first races of the season are often a problem for us. Usually we had some problems before arriving in Jerez, instead I think this year will be different. Of course, everything can change in the race, we know that. We must remain focussed, we must maintain the attitude that has allowed us to be fast in every single test from Valencia to Jerez, up to Sepang".
What about the Michelins? Are you satisfied with the new tyres?
"The soft tyres are too soft. I wasn't able to make a big step forward with the prototype tyres, just a couple of tenths. I don't think I would choose them if the race was tomorrow. There were also new solutions for the front, but I haven't tried them, we didn't have time to do it. If you think that we've been here for six days, you can understand how much new material we had to try!".
Audio recording by Matteo Aglio