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Down Under: The KTM X-BOW in Australia

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Dementor

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Down Under: The KTM X-BOW in Australia

Posted in X-BOW

There are 16,000 kilometers between Graz and Sydney, between the home of the KTM X-BOW manufacturer and the branch of the Australian import company “Simply Sports Cars” that has been officially importing the road-legal variety of the Austrian supercar since the beginning of 2017. At the same time, the Australian racing team “M-Motorsport” nearly managed to win the prestigious and legendary Bathurst 12 hour – and naturally in a KTM X-BOW GT4.

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KTM X-BOW RR

It took a long, long time for the KTM X-BOW to feel some Australian tarmac beneath its wheels. The battle with Australian authorities lasted nearly eight years until they were finally convinced that a vehicle with European small-scale homologation throughout is suitable for the market “down under” – especially since the road-legal variety of the KTM X-BOW is also available with right-hand drive.

The final successful attempt to bring the unique driving experience of the KTM X-BOW to Australian sports car fans was largely helped over the line by current importer “Simply Sports Cars” with Lee Knappet at the helm. Like many of his fellow countrymen, the Brit emigrated to Australia for work. He was a Lotus dealer for many years, before taking over as the main importer for the traditional British brand. But at the same time Knappet had been playing with a little bit on the side – the KTM X-BOW! “Right from the start I was sure that our Australian customers would love the X-BOW,” explains Knappet on his decision to invest considerable time, money and effort with the technicians at KTM Sportcar GmbH to achieve homologation in Australia. “It was a tough battle. And you really have to call it that: it was a proper battle. Every time we thought we’d met all of the conditions and provided all the necessary supporting documents, there was some kind of new problem or stipulation. We only got there in the end because my team worked so well with the guys at KTM.”

It was finally all systems go in February 2017 when the first KTM X-BOW models arrived in Australia. It didn’t take long to find buyers for them: “We hadn’t even taken the first car out of its transport packaging before it had been sold,” explains Knappet with a smile. He has been cautiously but constantly developing the trade in this Austrian supercar ever since. “Two of our sales partners, – including those in Melbourne – are on board, and the interest is mounting. Nothing impresses people more than when we race the cars at the many track days here in Australia. Throw on some semi-slicks and stick a good driver at the wheel and there’s usually no competition. Even people who were skeptical at the beginning are won over by its performance.” Ten to fifteen new cars a year is the target set out by Knappet and the “Simply Sports Cars” team; a figure that they very nearly managed already in the first year. And no wonder – the Australians are a nation of sports car enthusiasts, as demonstrated by their unshakeable love of the V8-powered Holden Commodore and the Ford Falcon. It’s no surprise that Lee Knappet only has one problem to report when it comes to the Australians and the KTM X-BOW: “People are somewhat skeptical at the beginning when they hear that the KTM X-BOW only has a two-liter four-cylinder engine.” It’s all relative though: “In 99 percent of cases, they will have stopped thinking about that after the first test drive …”

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KTM X-BOW R © La Lente Photography

The organizers of the prestigious Bathurst 12 hour were thinking quite differently just at the time when the first KTM X-BOWs were arriving at “Simply Sports Cars”. Under the colors of M-Motorsport, the first KTM X-BOW GT4 racing team appeared in February 2017 at the traditional event at “Mount Panorama” – the legendary Australian race track – looking to succeed in the GT4 class endurance race. Additional weight, limited tank volume, ride h – everything seemed to be designed to slow the KTM car down. For a long time, it still looked as though the four-person crew, consisting of KTM factory driver Reinhard Kofler, engineering factory driver Tomas Enge, as well as Australians Glen Wood and Justin McMillan (the final driver and team leader) might somehow win. After an outstanding pole position in training, the team had a two-lap advantage when, two hours before the finish line, grass accumulated in the diffusor, a fire began, and a brake line melted. Despite the unfortunate ending, the KTM X-BOW GT4 had successfully proved its sensational performance. It signaled the definitive arrival of the Austrian sports car on its fifth continent.

Photos: La Lente Photography | KTM Sportcar GmbH


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      “We know he can go fast with what we have given him, and sometimes new riders can get lost if you give them too much to go in their own way. Firstly, he needs to live up to the abilities of the bike and then we can do more. He is demanding and he knows what he wants.”
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      Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team Matterley Basin (GBR) 2019 © Ray Archer
      From Vialle’s side the presence of his dad and family – the people who were key and central to his racing before the KTM chance arose – is another factor. Red Bull KTM have witnessed different types of family scenarios; some overbearing parents, some the opposite. With the Vialles the chemistry seems to be promising. “Tom had a good education and is a nice person but he is also very realistic and humble,” says Smets. “They knew from the first day when the contract was signed that this was just the start, and they were not at the top yet. They have their feet on the ground.”
      “It is something very different for the family,” Frederic Vialle observes. “Last year we had a stock bike and were on a privateer team, just me and Tom. So, a factory team is very different: two mechanics, Dirk, Joel and the winter training, living in Lommel … I just keep an eye on Tom now because the organization around him is so good.”
      “Many riders have pressure but we look at it like we have a very good team and a very good motorcycle – the KTM is very fast – and with these tools if you have a good rider then he should make a good result,” he understates.
      “The family situation helps a lot,” stresses Smets. “Even in my day racing I could see how situations with parents could go very wrong and then since retiring and watching young kids then a lot more. Ok, it’s not easy to be a mum or dad of a sports guy that is at a high level but the Vialles are very stable and they know that hard work is the only way to ‘get there’. It is not flashy bikes or equipment or a Red Bull helmet that will make you win: It is the hard work that will decide if you make it or not.”
      Vialle family Pietramurata (ITA) 2019 © Ray Archer
      What next? Vialle has already caused a stir with his results. “That surprised me a lot and clearly he is making a big improvement, coming from the European Championship it is not easy to already be so good in the first two rounds,” Tony Cairoli said of Vialle’s first podium walk at round two. “I’m really happy for him and I hope he can continue in this stride and be on the podium a lot more: I think he can do it, he is very technical and focused and I don’t see many mistakes.”
      The team are still being protective. “We shouldn’t make the mistake to create too high expectations,” warns Smets. “We must have realistic goal setting.” There is also frank awareness of his weakness (his level of English is another area to work on). “He maybe has the same problems that Jorge had in 2017,” Gruebel assesses. “He is riding good and has talent but maybe does not have the strength yet to push all the way until the end of the race. If he has a good start then he can run up front for a while and hold on as long as he can. In his first year Jorge won four GPs but also didn’t finish four GPs. He wasn’t strong enough but he also developed and the more he races the better he’ll get.”
      “He has a very nice style and is a good starter but just needs to improve his speed,” opines Vialle Senior. “The gap between EMX and GP is seen in the strength of the riders and the physical condition. The bike is very fast and he needs time to adapt. He will take so much experience in the next months. I think he has the speed over one lap and he has the technique but because everything is so new for him he needs as much racing as possible … and to avoid the crashes.”
      Tom Vialle (FRA) KTM 250 SX-F Matterley Basin (GBR) 2019 © Ray Archer
      In the first phases of MXGP in 2019 Red Bull KTM are again flying. Prado is undefeated, Cairoli holds the red plate and Vialle has, amazingly, stepped up to be their peer. It is a slightly surprising situation for the racing team and the management but not an unusual one considering the impact of their former racers. Somehow the magic keeps being mixed.
      Photos: Ray Archer | P. Haudiquert
    • De Dementor
      Getting into MotoGP™
      Posted in People, Racing Breaking into the high profile but highly-occupying MotoGPTM paddock is understandably tough (it’s the peak of motorcycle sport after all) so we decided to ask John Eyre, one of our Red Bull KTM technicians, about making it as a mechanic.
      John Eyre (GBR) KTM RC16 © Rob Gray
      One of the hallmarks of 21st century life to date has been the increased ease to self-market. Social media, networking platforms and recruitment websites mean that it is possible to make shortcuts and directly target the vocational niche of your choosing.
      While there are still no substitutes for experience, contacts and knowledge, the possibilities to break into a desired field like MotoGPTM racing can seem a little clearer. There are even specific ‘race engineering academies’ that can train an aspiring mechanic in the processes and demands of preparing competition-spec equipment. In Spain ‘schools’ like the Monlau facility in Barcelona now have an element of prestige.
      There are different ways in. Alex Merhand, part of Miguel Oliveira’s Tech3 crew, studied and qualified as a data engineer, served his ‘laptop apprenticeship’ for two years for a factory team in MXGP and then graduated to MotoGPTM. On the other side of the ‘entry coin’ is John Eyre, a Brit now three years in Red Bull KTM as a mechanic looking after one of Johann Zarco’s KTM RC16s. Almost two decades in MotoGPTM John submerged himself in the scene by working part-time for a local rider in the British Superbike series. “The best thing to do now is to get a good qualification if you want to be working with data or electronics but if you want to be a mechanic then you just have to get experience and see if you can find someone that will take you on for weekends,” he says. “Do your studies during the week and get to the track at weekends. A lot of people at BSB will do that.”
      John Eyre (GBR) & Adam Wheeler (GBR) © Rob Gray
      Eyre started his journey as an eager kid obsessed by bikes. “Everybody asks ‘how did you start?’. Well I began working at races in the British Championship for a guy in the 250 series who was from the same village as me. Instead of taking holidays I went racing on the weekends. That was between 1993 and 1998 mainly as a kid.”
      “My Dad used to race grass track, road racing and vintage bikes – I have vintage bikes at home – so it was a bit of a passion thing [inherited] from him,” he says. “I did a bit of racing but you quickly realize that it’s expensive and if you crash then you still need to go to work on a Monday morning. So, I went more into mechanic-ing and the technical side.”
      KTM RC16 © Rob Gray
      Once in the race paddock then the relationships John made, the work he performed and a particular character towards the job meant he was in a position to start moving: A role working for Paul Brown in Supersport led to a year with Steve Hislop in Superbike and then finally the opening to arrive to Grand Prix at the end of 2000. “Steve was really good and I really enjoyed working with him,” he recalls. “I always wanted to get into Grand Prix and a friend was working at the Shell Advance Team and a job came up. I was thinking about it because I was 21 and it meant moving to Spain. That was 2001 and it was with Leon Haslam in the 500s.”
      As well as a mechanical mind, concentration and diligence seem to be two essential skills. Making a mistake in race bike prep can be perilous but Eyre is quite forthright about the mentality required. “A motorcycle is only nuts and bots: You just have to put it together properly. I always double check everything and was brought up to be extra sure. Then when you are in a team you bounce off each other in terms of the jobs: When that feels easy and second nature then you know you are in a good crew.”
      John Eyre (GBR) KTM RC16 © Rob Gray
      At MotoGPTM level a stripped-down racing prototype looks like a complicated collection of exotic parts and tech. For Eyre and his peers it is all relative. “It is technical … but the bike still has two wheels, two handlebars, a seat! I have worked on a lot of bikes; 2-strokes and a lot of engine stripping. Nowadays you get an engine and you just place it in the chassis. Before you had to do all the maintenance yourself with the pistons, rings, cranks: That was almost a daily job. I miss working inside the engine: the gearbox, cylinders. We used to build everything but now it is just placement of the engine, there is even a specific guy just for the gearbox.”
      “When new stuff comes you have to have a little look and think about it … but generally if it is made right and properly then it should go together nicely,” he adds on the evolution of parts and ideas in MotoGPTM.
      John Eyre (GBR) © Rob Gray
      Eyre could be the best spannerman in the business but a crucial part of his job (and something anyone looking to reach his position should be aware of) is blending with his co-workers – around 5-6 in the immediate vicinity – and making the best team environment. “I think you have to be easy-going with everybody,” he says of the personality needed to spend so many days and hours on the road and in pitboxes. “You have to be open-minded and then you’ll warm to them and them to you. We have a new Crew Chief this year and he has been absolutely brilliant.”
      He spent more than ten years at HRC (as part of the unit around KTM’s new test rider Dani Pedrosa, “I’d worked with Mike [Leitner] for about nine years and I was looking for a different challenge”) and this was a big marker on his CV. It meant that his name and face was firmly entrenched in the MotoGPTM scene: Another boost to employment prospects. “It’s not easy,” he smiles of making contacts and the ‘networking’ element of breaking into the paddock. “I remember one guy telling me it was easier to get in the Arsenal football club first eleven than it was to get into our team in BSB!”
      Knowing the job, being good with people (thus building contacts) and having the disposition to handle a race situation: If a wannabe mechanic still believes they are suitable then the next step is persistence. “What you cannot beat is race experience,” Eyre stresses. “You can have all the qualifications under the sun but that experience counts for a lot. The group really matters as well. When you have a good group of lads then you tend to know what they want before they know themselves and vice-versa. There are a lot of shortcuts and it seems to click.”
      John Eyre (GBR) & co-workers © Rob Gray
      To achieve any goal takes sacrifice. Reaching MotoGPTM might be a promised land for many but, as with anything “you have to take the rough with the smooth,” Eyre says. Nineteen weekends of racing on five continents plus tests means a long haul of kilometers on the road and in the air, and many days away from home. Much of the work formerly done in workshops is also carried out in the pitboxes of the circuits.
      “The travelling is massive. There has to be a compromise now because if they keep putting more and more races then there won’t be an off-season. I remember when I first started Grands Prix then we didn’t begin racing until April and we’d have a test in Malaysia and Jerez and that was it. Now we start the day after the last race of the year! Testing is hard work compared to racing. The travelling can be a burden but if you want to be in the world championship then you have to deal with it. I enjoy the job when I’m here.”
      Above all – and like the riders themselves and anybody else striving for results at elite level sport – Eyre says commitment and determination is what will help you make it in the end. “If you are into it then just keep trying and don’t give up,” he insists. “You have to have a passion for it. I remember being at school and saying that I wanted to go grand prix racing. Half of the teachers said ‘you won’t do anything like that’ but if you keep your head down and carry on …”
      John Eyre (GBR) © Rob Gray
      Photos: Rob Gray 
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