With no wins, no podiums, two top-fives and just four Q2 appearances total from its four MotoGP riders across the first five races of the 2021 MotoGP season, KTM’s current campaign has so far fallen well short of the expectations established by a remarkable three-win 2020.
But there’s solace to be found in the lower categories. Under the wing of its Red Bull-backed, Aki Ajo-run official junior team is a rider who’s made a mockery of his rookie status this year and has already been tipped for not just a MotoGP future, but a very bright one.
And what’s most remarkable is that you can ctrl+c and ctrl+v that above sentence, because it applies to both Moto3 points leader Pedro Acosta, very much the talk of the town in the MotoGP paddock in 2021, but also Moto2 newcomer Raul Fernandez.
And though Acosta has dazzled, there’s a good argument to be made that for MotoGP manufacturers Fernandez is now both a safer bet and a higher priority.
At this point a suspicion of recency bias can rightly set in in your head. “Does the above argument only exist because Acosta fell at Le Mans and cut his podium streak short, while Fernandez won?”
It’s a fair question, but the answer is more “no” than “yes”. Le Mans should not have done any damage to Acosta’s reputation – he finished eighth despite crashing, was clearly very rapid and still managed to extend his points lead. He is tremendous amounts of fun.
But even before last Sunday’s events, a MotoGP rider on the hunt for a new team-mate made a convincing case for why it’s Fernandez who should be the priority this silly season.
“I like Raul Fernandez a lot,” Aprilia rider Aleix Espargaro said, having pivoted from a question that was about young riders more generally and a different MotoGP hopeful specifically in Fabio Di Giannantonio (who Espargaro also rates, it should be said).
“If we talk about young Moto2 riders, Raul for me, what he’s doing… everyone is talking about Pedro Acosta because he’s, yes, unbelievable, but all respect for him, for all Moto3 riders, but Moto2 is a lot more difficult, it’s another story.
“These Moto2 rookies, for me the word ‘rookies’ is not really correct because they’re coming from the Spanish [CEV Moto3] championship, from Red Bull Rookies [Cup], and the bikes are very similar, they know the tracks – but Moto2 is already a very powerful bike, very difficult, with a lot of talented riders, and what Raul is achieving this year for me is unbelievable.
“Hopefully Aprilia can sign one of the best rookies, Moto2 guys. It would be good for the future because I’m already 31 years old, I cannot stay here forever and they need to cover the future.”
Aprilia is the manufacturer that most obviously has a works ride on offer for any hopeful, but the addition of Andrea Dovizioso in a test rider role suggests the Fernandez pursuit is probably not a priority, or might even be a non-starter.
If that’s the case, Espargaro can at least take comfort in the fact that his comments – which came before the Le Mans Moto2 race – were only further reinforced by Fernandez winning from pole.
Those extra 25 points have taken Fernandez to 88 from a possible 125 in the first five races. That’s not enough to lead the championship – Ajo KTM team-mate and presumptive 2021 MotoGP rider Remy Gardner has one point more – but it’s still a genuinely freakish number, potentially on par with the record-breaking feats Acosta has managed in Moto3.
An 88-point haul from the first five races of a rider’s Moto2 career? That has not happened before, not once, since the class was introduced as replacement for 250cc back in 2010.
The previous best result from a rider’s first five Moto2 outings was 80 points by Toni Elias that very year. And that carries a big asterisk – Elias not only had plenty of prior 250cc experience, but was an actual no-joke MotoGP race winner by that point.
If you want to limit it to genuine intermediate-class rookies, you go down to 62 points, which is what Maverick Vinales (pictured below after winning his first Moto2 race in 2014) managed in his first four Moto2 races. Next up is Francesco Bagnaia at 53 points, and everyone else is below 50.
It’s a pretty formidable list, too. There’s Alex Rins at 49, Joan Mir at 45, Marc Marquez at 45, Andrea Iannone at 43. That’s two MotoGP champions, four MotoGP race winners.
The only other riders to clear 40 points in their first five races were Aron Canet, still climbing the ladder to MotoGP, and Sergio Gadea – an interesting case from 2010 whose career admittedly fizzled out and whose sole full Moto2 campaign came after six years in 125cc.
And Fernandez has more than double that mark! Compare his start on Moto2 to that on the current MotoGP grid – which we’ve done below – and it’s just inescapably better than anything anyone else has managed.
Poles, front row starts, wins, podiums, front row starts – in a sample of the five races in Moto2, Fernandez either has the most or the joint-most in the list above.
Current MotoGP grid & Raul Fernandez, after five Moto2 starts
Of course, it is very important to note that many of the riders here didn’t have the privilege of riding for a team as good as the Ajo operation, and that initial Moto2 success is by no means a barometer for future MotoGP accomplishments. Look at Franco Morbidelli’s record for instance. He turned out alright, didn’t he?
But that consideration cannot diminish 20-year-old Fernandez’s current run of form. If his six poles in his second Moto3 season last year suggested he might just be something special, these five Moto2 races mean MotoGP teams basically know it for a fact now, and really should start desperately pitching for his services.
And this is where the good news come in for KTM. Espargaro’s quotes and Fernandez’s superb Le Mans performance meant he faced questions about MotoGP in both the post-qualifying and the post-race press conference, and though the first time Fernandez stayed firmly within the ranks of the usual ‘too early to say, focusing on the championship’ rhetoric, he went a fair bit beyond it after Sunday’s race.
“I don’t want to think of MotoGP. I think that all riders need minimum two years in all categories,” Fernandez said. “And I think that I want to stay two seasons in Moto2, with my team. Because it’s a great family.”
He also referred to team boss Aki Ajo as “the most important person in my career, I think” and someone who “brings me calm”, and wasn’t swayed by journalists bringing up the examples of Vinales and Mir – two riders who headed straight for MotoGP after a single Moto2 season, and were successes virtually right away.
“At the end I stay with KTM, no?” he said. “I depend on KTM. I think they bring me the best opportunity. If they think I need to continue one year in Moto2, I continue. That is my opinion.”
We don’t know the exact ramifications of Fernandez’s contract, but this is an enthusiastic expression of loyalty, and it should come as music to KTM’s ears. Especially because it has another rider who is believed to be, contractually, first in line for a MotoGP promotion.
“Like Raul says, it’s up to KTM,” Gardner said of his 2022 MotoGP prospects.
“The difference is, I’ve been here a bit longer – and for me, honestly, I would like to make the jump. I think most guys would.”
Theoretically, KTM can accommodate both Gardner and Fernandez in MotoGP in 2022. Danilo Petrucci and Iker Lecuona were good in the wet at Le Mans, but neither has made anywhere near a cast-iron case to remain part of Tech3 beyond the end of this year.
But Fernandez’s public “I will wait” gives KTM room to manoeuvre, even if a degree of caution would still be prudent given Jorge Martin was poached from its programme by Ducati a year prior.
KTM will have a fight on its hands for Acosta in the future, but MotoGP’s other marques would be negligent not to wage a charm offensive on Fernandez. And KTM’s very own RC16 bike is not doing great right now – so in that sense, Fernandez refusing to give off even a hint of having his head turned is a great omen.
Will KTM win the title in MotoGP this year? No. Will it win a race or two? Maybe. But no individual race result will be more valuable to the Austrian firm as making sure its “unbelievable” MotoGP talent continues to see his future in its orange colours.