KTM’s 2021 MotoGP season has been something of a rollercoaster, and this weekend’s Algarve Grand Prix is no different.
But things went from bad to worse on Saturday at Portimao thanks to one unexpected factor: a rapid performance from soon-to-be-sacked satellite rider Iker Lecuona.
Departing the Tech3 team and the championship after next weekend’s final round at Valencia, Lecuona will move to Honda’s World Superbike effort after two seasons in grand prix racing’s premier class.
And he’s leaving on a high – lining up for today’s race 10th, well clear of the works bikes of home hero Miguel Oliveira in 17th and Austrian Grand Prix winner Brad Binder in 19th.
Even despite the strong result, Lecuona was adamant afterwards that he could have done better after getting caught out by the move from Q1 to Q2.
“For sure it’s a very good Saturday for me, and I feel very strong with the bike,” he enthused.
“It’s just a shame that in the time attack we made a mistake with the rear tyre.
“I knew that if we did good work during FP3 we had a chance to go to Q2.
“Finally, I was just one tenth from it, but the positive is that I did it all alone; I didn’t follow anyone.
“I worked well, I improved the bike, and the settings in the base feel well. Run by run I feel more confident, and in Q1 I felt very strong and finished second and went to Q2.
“The problem is that we used all the soft tyres and I didn’t have a new one, so the first time attack in Q2 was on a new medium.
“I went two tenths slower, but I know that with a new tyre I could have been on the front three rows.”
While it might have been a surprise to see him outqualifying the factory duo and looking stronger than them in the all-important race pace-focused FP4 session, where Lecuona finished fourth, he says that he’s not as shocked as everyone else with the results after working hard all year to improve himself.
“My objective when we talked on Thursday was to try and improve compared to the first GP here, which was a disaster,” he said, referencing his 19th place on the grid and 15th-place finish in April’s Portimao race.
“I like this track, and all year since I’ve worked alone to improve.
“I’ve worked very hard, and I’ve not stopped. Race by race I’ve improved, I’ve learned, and when we arrived here I’ve tried to work hard from the first minute.
“It’s not that I want to show everyone my potential because I’m not in MotoGP next year, because I’ve already shown everyone that.
“It’s more for myself. It’s very positive to keep this spirit, for the team but for myself too.
“For the next two years, I’m a factory rider, and I need to change a lot of things, so to keep focused and working until the last race is a positive thing for that.”
That’s actually something that factory racer Binder was in agreement with, conceding that despite whatever issues KTM might be facing, Lecuona is riding well.
“I felt really confident coming into this weekend, and really believed we could do a good job – but for some reason we’ve been struggling to find pace,” Binder admitted.
“We haven’t had a good rhythm or good outright pace over one lap either.
“It’s been extremely tricky for us, and we’ve got some homework to do.
“It looks like Iker’s riding really well, and I don’t think there’s much else to it.
“He’s riding extremely well here and we’re looking to maybe try and solve some problems by looking too deep instead of just getting on with it.
“It makes life a bit more difficult when you’re trying to solve issues, but it is what it is.”
The situation Binder hints at has been an issue for KTM in the past.
With its extensive Red Bull backing, the firm has tried to engineer its way out of problems perhaps best addressed by simply getting on with the bike at hand – a situation that has possibly been exacerbated by KTM’s loss of concession status in 2020.
Its success last year means it no longer has dispensation to test with its race riders rather than just test riders Dani Pedrosa and Mika Kallio.
Oliveira says that it’s made an impact on KTM’s development this season so far as it’s forced to devote more of its race weekend running to new components.
“When you’re in a difficult place you always want to try new things,” he admitted, “and it’s true that the highest price we paid this year was not testing as much any more outside of the grands prix.
“We just have the official test days after the races, the grip is insanely high, and it masks the performance. We can try things, but it’s not perfect.
“In the past we could test more, with the official riders. That left us the job of filtering, not the engineers or the test riders.
“On a tight grid you can be at the front or the back very easily, and it’s not an easy time. I think we’ve tried what we could.”
With an all-important home race – which Oliveira dominated last November when riding for Tech3 – ahead of him on Sunday, the Portuguese rider isn’t giving up yet.
Oliveira is adamant that the secret to salvaging the day lies somewhere within KTM’s analysis of the differences between the factory RC16 and Tech3’s slightly older spec of frame.
“We had a little more speed in Q1, but not enough to put us where we needed to be, and we have to analyse the information to see what we can do better,” he explained.
“For the moment it looks like Tech3 are able to go a little faster than us, and they have some things which are a little different from us, so we’re looking at the possibility of combining that into a good setting for the race.
“The starting position is very much at the back, but I believe that we can still do a very good job and I’ll put all my energy into that and hopefully it’ll come our way by the end.”