Friday practice in MotoGP is not a surefire predictor for how the weekend will go – see Fabio Quartararo finishing 14th-fastest over the two first sessions of the Andalucian Grand Prix and then going on to utterly dominate the race.
But Friday results are also clearly not irrelevant, and KTM bosses’ eyes must’ve lit up when they looked at the timesheets from the second batch of FP1 and FP2 at Jerez. Here were three KTM RC16s in the top six, led by rookie Brad Binder, in what were fairly representative conditions.
KTM has scored a podium before, and it has been on the front row of the grid before, but both of those were made possible by rain. In the dry, the RC16 had never looked better than the opening race of the delayed 2020 season at Jerez the weekend prior – and now it was looking even better.
And then it fell apart, gradually but spectacularly. Saturday was less good from the start, with Binder and Pol Espargaro only just sneaking into automatic Q2 spots in third practice – and yet Miguel Oliveira qualified handily through Q1, making it a previously-unheard-of three RC16s in the pole shootout.
Oliveira then proceeded to put his Tech3-run machine a spectacular fifth on the grid, yet on the flipside the ever-reliable Espargaro crashed and was consigned to 12th. This was an immediate blow to KTM’s hopes of a first-ever dry podium, because Espargaro’s pace looked virtually as good as anyone but Quartararo’s in what was admittedly a small sample size of laps in practice four.
“Their version is that Danilo upset Brad and that’s why Brad needed to lift up the bike – but in fact, that’s really not what happened” :: Miguel Oliveira
But the worst was yet to come. “I had quite a good start and when I got into Turn 1 I already had my line planned to turn in,” recalled Binder, who had lined up ninth.
“And as I went to tip into the corner I saw like a red flash. Obviously I didn’t realise that I had I think maybe Danilo [Petrucci] on my inside.
“And as I saw that I picked up the bike, and unfortunately as I picked up the bike I went straight into the back of Miguel.”
The contact launched Oliveira – who had slipped back due to an overheating clutch – into the air, the Portuguese rider hitting the ground hard and Binder running out wide. Then, to add injury to already-inflicted injury, Binder was unable to avoid the rolling Oliveira and clobbered him with the works bike, before running into the gravel.
Fortunately, the double impact didn’t cause any major damage. “I’m OK,” Oliveira said. “It was not high speed but a very hard impact on the ground – I have my backside a little bit sore, but all good, physically.”
Oliveira did say, however, that he felt Binder – who he will join at the works KTM team in 2021 – was “too optimistic”, and though he made it clear he was keen not to have any lingering tension, he disputed Binder’s version of events.
“We spoke with [KTM team manager] Mike Leitner and with Brad, of course they came to apologise, because we are going to be future team-mates next year, and the last thing we want is to have friction in our relationship,” Oliveira said.
“But at that time I hadn’t watched the images so I didn’t have anything to argue with them – but then I watched the images.
“Apparently, their version is that Danilo upset Brad and that’s why Brad needed to lift up the bike – but in fact, that’s really not what happened. But I accepted obviously the apology, this is racing.”
Binder, to his credit, owned up to “messing up” regardless of the Petrucci factor, and said: “For me it’s horrible – it sucks because he’s my good mate and he had his best qualifying, so he was up for a good race as well.
“All I can say is sorry and ‘you live and you learn’. I’ll try my best to never do that again.”
Having rejoined the race nine seconds off the back of the pack after his collision with Oliveira, Binder recovered to 12th, only to “tuck the front” and high-side off his bike, thankfully unhurt.
His accident reduced KTM’s contingent in the race to a single RC16, because Tech3 rookie Iker Lecuona had fallen on lap six.
Lecuona had retired while on for decent points in the opener due to a safety concern, as he was made dizzy by the exhaust heat from Petrucci’s Ducati. That was understandable – but a third crash of the Andalucian Grand Prix weekend taking him out of the second race was less so.
“I just say sorry to my team,” said Lecuona, who admitted he was “pushing too hard” to get away from the injured Suzuki rider Alex Rins.
“For sure the first goal now is to finish. I have one week to forget these two weeks – because it’s [been] really difficult for me – to change the chip for Brno.”
Only Espargaro was therefore left standing, which wasn’t a new situation for KTM – the Spaniard has been its standard-bearer virtually since the beginning of its MotoGP programme. But though heavy attrition would help KTM’s flagship rider to seventh, he had endured a miserable time too.
“We have seen manufacturers like Yamaha, they couldn’t finish the races, they were struggling a lot with the engines” :: Pol Espargaro
“I did a mistake trying to overtake Petrucci, and [Johann] Zarco and my brother [Aleix Espargaro] overtook me, and then I was fighting with them like four, five, six laps, trying to overtake them, and I burned myself completely.
“Just by being behind my brother. I had an amazing heat around me. I couldn’t really manage today. I had a feeling at the middle race that the heat was beating me.
“It definitely was the toughest race in my life, for sure.
“My mistake started yesterday, I did a mistake on the qualy and then I started to pay [the price] today. I spent the first lap just fighting with guys that we should not be fighting with.”
But Espargaro was the least disappointed of KTM’s disappointed quartet, and though he’s moving on to Honda next year, he continued – as he had done for so long – to talk up the KTM project and speak with pride of the evolution of the RC16.
Though Sunday hadn’t gone to plan, he pointed out that the bike was still performing clearly above expectations – that too in the kind of hot conditions the RC16 normally loathed – and that it proved reliable.
“I think if someone could ask us before coming here in Jerez to finish after these two rounds fourth in the [manufacturers’] championship [level on points with Honda], we would never trust it. And I think this is the job KTM has done in the winter.
“We need to think that, OK, the bike needs to be good, needs to perform well, but also needs to finish the races. And we have seen manufacturers like Yamaha, they couldn’t finish the races, they were struggling a lot with the engines, also Aprilia, Ducati, but not one KTM had a problem with the engine.
“At the end, this shows that it’s a team sport. It’s not just an individual sport like it seems on the TV, it’s team work and thanks to that we are fourth in the championship.”
Binder, too, had little trouble seeing the bright side. “The positive thing I can really take away is that the speed is there,” he said. “Definitely not the quickest, but we’re in this top… I’d like to say top eight.
“Whenever I’m out on track during the sessions, I’m always in that bunch. And even to be there is amazing.
“Because if you told me if that would be the situation at the end of last year, I’d definitely think you’re lying, you know?”
And even on Tech3’s side, Lecuona felt “more relaxed, more fast, more comfortable”, while Oliveira said: “It was a track which we struggled in the past, and now we are so much more competitive that of course we can only think good things about the future.
“But not taking anything for granted. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.”