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Ready for Dakar: A 12-month task


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Ready for Dakar: A 12-month task

Posted in Bikes, Racing

As the KTM Factory Racing Team battled their way through the 2019 Dakar Rally in Peru all eyes were unquestionably focused on the job in hand – that of overcoming the event’s many and varied challenges. But Dakar is an otherworldly undertaking, one that requires a full 12 months of preparation.


Toby Price (AUS) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

The two-week event is not part of any world championship and there is no huge prize fund for the winner – it is simply one of, if not, the greatest offroad motorcycling challenge. The Dakar Rally is the one everybody wants to win.

From a layman’s perspective, it might seem that there isn’t much in the way of competition for the KTM team. Toby Price´s 2019 victory marked the Austrian brand’s 18th consecutive Dakar victory. However, the unequalled record at the race is not down to luck, or a lack of trying by rival teams, it is down to an incredible team, passionate riders and intense preparation. All of which starts the moment the previous year’s rally finishes.

263408_misc_finish_Red Bull KTM Factory Racing_Dakar2019_482 263417_toby.price_finish_Red Bull KTM Factory Racing_Dakar2019_479

Red Bull KTM Rally Factory Racing Team Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

The process of development is always ongoing. In late 2017, the team debuted the newest version of their KTM 450 RALLY machine at the final round of the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship in Morocco – it won first time out under the control of Matthias Walkner who then rode it to victory at the Dakar a few months later.

“The new bike was a massive success,” tells Walkner. “It felt much safer to ride, although faster at the same time. Our sport has changed over the past few years and with the new, younger riders coming through they prefer the lighter, sleeker feel of the new bike.”

Despite its success, the bike has been continually developed throughout the 2018 FIM Cross-Country Rallies season. Work has been done to the engine to make the power delivery even smoother, this becomes incredibly important on the longest of stages where riders start to tire and anything that can conserve a rider’s energy becomes extremely valuable. The suspension is also an area that has received attention over the course of 2018. With such long distances covered and stages comprising a mixture of different types of terrain, the absolute perfect suspension setup is simply not possible. A setting that might suit soft, rolling sand dunes may not perform so well if the stage then takes riders onto a fast, rocky track. It’s all about finding a compromise and an efficient set up that handles well while not making the rider work too hard.


Matthias Walkner (AUT) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

It’s not just the bikes that can be upgraded on the run up to Dakar, so can the riders. Fitness and strength are the obvious attributes needed to race for 100s of kilometers each day for up to two weeks, but one of the less obvious challenges faced by all competitors is the sheer fatigue and mental strain imposed by such a tough event.

Riders prepare for the Dakar by working closely with nutritionists and physiotherapists throughout the year and especially on the lead up to the event. Some, it has to be said, are stricter than others but the fact remains, to compete at the very top level, you have to be in excellent shape. The rally itself takes its toll on the riders, even with an accident-free run, the physical strain is huge. Crashes do happen and even the smallest of falls can produce bruises and sprains that have a cumulative effect as the race progresses. Carrying an injury when entering the rally is of course never a good thing – there can be a lot said for the power of adrenalin when competing. Sometimes riding is the best medicine.


Toby Price (AUS) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

One aspect of cross-country rallying, and the Dakar specifically, is the lack of sleep and mental strain faced by the riders – this situation is not so easy to prepare for. There are few sports in the world where its participants have to perform for so long, at their maximum level, often alone and with very little rest in between each day. The mental strength required to pull this off is huge and not every top-level rider is cut out for the solitude that rallying can present.

“It’s definitely the hardest part of the Dakar for me,” admits KTM Factory Racing’s Laia Sanz. “Even after a couple of days you start to feel drained and the lack of sleep only adds to that. You wake up feeling tired and then have to ride again all day. Unlike other races, when you finish a day’s riding at the Dakar, you have to prepare your roadbook for the following day and then attend the rider’s meeting before you get any rest, it becomes really difficult. The loneliness can get to you, but there is a good side to riding alone too, you experience so many beautiful landscapes and I love the feeling of freedom the Dakar gives. Bad days can really cause you to start questioning why you’re there though, but at the finish it’s definitely feels worth it.”


Laia Sanz (ESP) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

As the year progresses and the Dakar looms closer, riders and the team set about their final preparations for the most important event of the year. The bikes and team vehicles are packed up and loaded on to the ‘Heritage Leader’ that sets sail from Le Havre in France. Close to 300 race vehicles travel on the ship across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and arrive at the port of Lima in Peru at the end of December.

The team themselves undergo one last test in the dunes of Abu Dhabi, the aim of which is to finalize those last few settings on the bike and suspension, cover navigation skills one last time and to simply bring the team all together before the trip to South America in January.

The riders then have a few weeks remaining to train, to relax, to prepare themselves mentally for the challenge ahead. Each rider spends his or her time differently with some choosing to maximize their training time and others taking a final chance to relax with friends and family.

2017 Dakar Rally Champion Sam Sunderland is one rider who makes the most of his downtime, he’s never far away from a bike, or the sand.

“During the final few weeks before the race I go to Dubai to get more time in the dunes,” tells Sunderland. “Dubai is like a second home for me anyway, I have family and friends there and always enjoy the atmosphere. Apart from that it’s more training in the gym, maybe some motocross with friends, then we have Christmas and then it’s off to Dakar – there really is very little time to rest. For me I try to push right until the last moment, I think it’s important to keep training and stay sharp.”


Sam Sunderland (GBR) KTM 450 RALLY Dakar 2019 © Marcin Kin

Photos: Marcin Kin


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      Salut ! 
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      Andrea: The first three or four months I had a full overload of information. There were so many new things. You try to ‘push them in’ but there is no space! It slowly starts to sink in and I still don’t know half of the things that are possible with these bikes. The good thing about being here is that you can see and feel the development. Everybody is doing something that has almost started from zero. In another place I think you would just be handed an established platform with less room to grow.
      Andrea Cantó @SebasRomero
      It must be tough for anybody to break into this world and work in this paddock…
      Andrea: I went to college and then did the Monlau engineering school [famous institution in Spain]. I’m sorry to say but I think there is a big percentage of luck, especially when you don’t know anyone in the paddock. That was my case. What happened was that one week before an IRTA test somebody dropped out of a team and they could not find a replacement at that stage because everyone else with experience was taken. So they took the risk in giving a job to a newcomer. I think the teachers at Monlau recommended me and I got lucky. There are more and more motorcycling engineering course available now and post-graduate courses.
      Jenny: I grew up in motor racing. My Dad built kit-cars and my older brother got into karting. He was like a god to me and everything he did I wanted to do. At ten I started karting and started doing data almost as a hobby; I never realized it could lead into a job like I have now. I went from having one sensor to measure the RPM on my kart to looking at the gears and analyzing speed on different corner exits. It evolved as I added more sensors and got more information. I volunteered and did work for other people with data. When I left college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and ended up going to university quite late; I was 22 when I went to study motorsport engineering at Oxford Brookes University. I was working at a car racing team in F3 at the same time and the World Series by Renault. I worked with Kevin Magnussen in my first year actually. I then worked with them full time until this project came up with KTM.
      Beatriz: Contacts are everything. You need them in this world. You can be very good but if nobody knows you then you won’t get the chance to start. My nationality helped because I was able to start in the Spanish championship, that has a good profile. For the MotoGP™ class it is even harder because you need experience and other people in the paddock will ask about you.
      Andrea: In the end it is a high percentage of people coming back every year and rotating around the paddock. Even for me it was not easy to find a job in the MotoGP™ class. I knew others in Moto2™ because you have people with the same schedule. When other bikes are running you don’t pay attention and you miss the window to network. Talking about the job then I think you can learn different roles. If you have good knowledge then I think you can learn to do other stuff.
      Jenny Anderson @SebasRomero
      What’s the sacrifice?
      Beatriz: Everybody has their needs in this big group. I try to get to know everybody a little bit just to know preferences, interests, who has family and so on. It sounds stupid but the travelling is part of the job that is tiring and time-consuming. I cannot do much about a cancelled flight but I will try to do what I can to make sure people are happy getting to their job.
      Andrea: I think it is a kind of lifestyle where if you cross a mark then you don’t know how to do anything else, or to have a normal 9-5. I wouldn’t like to cross that point but it is difficult to know! You get so used to it, and even when we have built the garage then your place to work is always the same. It is a strange lifestyle. For people that stop working here then I think it is because the travelling finally ‘got’ to them. For the moment I am OK. I don’t mind the travelling but I know if I want to have a family then it will be difficult and I think for most of the women that left the paddock then this was the reason. I think, in some ways, we can be very equal with gender in this world but there is not much we can do about physical differences!
      Jenny: It’s not really a job: it’s a life choice. I’ve always spent a lot of weekends at a racetrack because it’s what I love to do. My friends don’t really understand what my job is and how many hours we work. People assume we turn up on a Friday, work a couple of 45 minute sessions and then we leave. Many don’t realize how much goes into it, and not just from us but also at the factory. People are working long hours all the time to achieve what we achieve. There is not a lot of downtime!
      Beatriz: When I talk about my job then a lot of people don’t know much about bikes. They tend to think I am just travelling around and visiting all these places. Other people who know about racing think it is very exciting and they are quite surprised sometimes. Nobody really knows what it is like behind the scenes.
      What’s it like being part of this multi-national and eclectic race team?
      Andrea: I think with this job you also get to appreciate that there are good and bad points about everybody and every nationality. The Spanish are supposed to be lazy, the Italians are supposed to be cocky, the Austrians are supposed to be super-scheduled and you kind of appreciate that there is a truth to these thoughts but also there isn’t at all I like working with people from everywhere.
      Jenny: Often we spent sixteen hours a day for three days in a row with the same people. It’s important to be able to get-on. It is a hard job anyway but if we didn’t have this family atmosphere then it would be tougher. Away from the track we are a good group and we socialize a lot. There is a lot of camaraderie. It’s a big part of the job; when you get chosen then it is as much for how well you’ll fit into the team as for what or how much you know. You need positive and motivated people.
      Beatriz: I love it actually. You get to know different cultures and you can see how different we all are. There are stereotypes…and generally they are true!
      Andrea: My mum made me take English lessons from when I was eight! Normally the people here who know another languages then don’t have too much difficulty to pick up another one; it’s incredible actually. Franco Morbidelli can speak anything and Miguel [Oliveira] speaks Spanish, English, Italian and French: where does it all come from?! I’m super-jealous.
      Beatriz: I never found any bad attitudes or reactions to me. I think you need to be quite open to fit into a team and people will respect you, especially if you can do a good job.
      Jenny: From my experience in cars, drivers often bring the money for a single-seater one-make series spot and it gives them a lot of clout about whom they want to work with. They might not want to work with a woman or it’s because your face doesn’t fit or you are English, Spanish or French. Here or anywhere I don’t think gender really comes into it much any more or no more than any other sport. When I was karting I’d be the only girl in a paddock of two hundred people and I have seen – just in my lifetime – how many more women are now working in motorsport both as drivers or engineering and that can only be positive.

      Images: Sebas Romero, KTM
    • De Dementor
      It’s no secret that synergy has helped KTM and Akrapovič grow from strength to strength across their over 20-year relationship working together to deliver the best products not just for KTM Factory Racing teams, but for every rider too. KTM Blog takes a closer look into the past, present and future of this solid partnership.
      @Sebas Romero
      Some quick facts: 130 world titles, 76 achieved with KTM, 9 Red Dot awards for design accrued over 28 years of operation. Founded by an ex-racer who used his passion for motorsport to develop market leading hardware in terms of both quality and performance and a name synonymous with the best. This can only be one company: Akrapovič.
      To see how the great achievements celebrated in the top tiers of motorcycle racing filter down to the products available to the grass roots racer, KTM Blog talks with some of the brains behind the brawn of Akrapovič, Head of Racing R&D, Alojz “Slavko” Trstenjak.
      Slavko Trstenjak @Akrapovič
      Slavko has been working alongside Igor Akrapovič since the infancy of the market leading manufacturer, with his own responsibilities, experience and book of stories growing along with the company and its now 1200 plus strong team.
      “I started working full-time for Akrapovič at the beginning of 1993, but I’d already been working with the company a few months before that. At the beginning I worked as a mechanic, as an engine builder, because at that time the company specialized in motorcycle tuning, and it was later that it specialized in exhaust systems. During the first years we were all multitasking, we were involved in several areas, which was necessary because there were very few of us at the company, less than ten. After that I focused on work with Igor Akrapovič on the dyno as a tester, looking for and defining new exhaust configurations. I did that for almost ten years. After that I took over leadership of the still relatively small R&D department – and in a few years it expanded to over 40 engineers in the department. Later I shifted to managing the Racing R&D department for developing racing exhausts for all kinds of motorcycles.”
      Joel Smets (2003) @KTM
      During this time the Slovenian company has celebrated a staggering number of victories across a wide array of disciplines, when asked Slavko proudly recalled some of his personal highlights:
      “An unforgettable milestone for sure was our first world champion using an Akrapovič exhaust – Colin Edwards on a Honda in the WorldSBK series. This title was won after almost ten years of hard development work and visiting countless WorldSBK races and the German championship. Before this, there was an important achievement a year earlier, when we partnered with all the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers in WorldSBK. All the Japanese factory teams and Aprilia relied on our know-how and our achievements. Personally, as a big offroad enthusiast, I was very satisfied when I was also able to help the company start developing exhausts for Offroad motorcycles, and we saw our first successes with these pretty quickly, including the first world champion title on motocross with KTM and Joël Smets, and we also celebrated success in the Dakar Rally with a two-cylinder KTM.”
      The special relationship between KTM and Akrapovič ensures the highest levels of quality and a seamless fit.
      Thierry Van Den Bosch (2004) @KTM
      “From the very beginning, cooperation between KTM and Akrapovič was based on exchanging information in the early phase of development while seeking the best solutions together. Over the years of cooperation, we had a big impact on the design trend of exhaust systems on production bikes manufactured by KTM, especially in the offroad segment. Our engineers are usually already involved in the early phase of designing the motorcycle itself and in preproduction bikes, where we usually prepare prototypes for KTM’s basic testing; these are essential for developing other components of the bike in the development phase. This work method especially applies to certain motorsport categories like MotoGP™, where developing the exhaust system takes place at the same time as developing the other components, and toward the end all the components are fused into a complete whole. These days all the parts can be developed in a 3D model, and then the 3D models are exchanged among the engineers. The work takes place simultaneously.”
      There are some differences in the design process for production bikes compared to those intended for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing teams. This is mostly due to timing as new designs are developed in racing first, and then there are some other factors to consider. Slavko explained further for us:
      “If we’re talking about bikes that are intended exclusively for racing, we usually develop their exhaust systems before our exhausts used for production motorcycles. When we’re talking about the general production bikes sold by KTM, the Racing R&D department doesn’t have anything to do with that; they’re developed separately, between KTM and Akrapovič’s R&D department. Here engineers already closely cooperate in the development phase and with the first prototypes, which determine the development guidelines based on the demands that define today’s development of exhaust systems, such as shapes and environmental requirements regarding emissions and noise restrictions.”
      Fabrizio Meoni (2004) @KTM
      “For racing exhausts, I can confirm that the shape is developed exclusively in our Racing R&D department, and we provide the guidelines. For exhaust systems installed on production bikes like the Adventure segment and all others, as far as the shape is concerned, KTM designers are also involved. We follow the principle “form follows function” and we work so that the exhaust systems are made to be used, for which we have lots of feedback and invaluable experience from close cooperation with the factory racing teams that use our exhaust systems.”
      Although Slavko is not overseeing the work carried out for production bikes, this does not mean that the hard work of his team does not greatly influence the design of the product.
      “We absolutely use the knowledge and experience from the Racing department for production bikes. Looking at offroad bikes, it’s an advantage to the end-users that they receive an exhaust system that’s virtually identical to the one the KTM factory teams are racing with – for example, what Cairoli, Herlings, Prado, and others are using. Most times there are minimal changes because of certain components required by layout, but regarding performance, weight, and other characteristics we try to retain the characteristics as much as possible from the racing environment to the production exhaust. With the exhaust systems for enduro and extreme enduro, it’s a nearly identical system”
      Antonio Cairoli (2012) @KTM
      Each racing environment demands different specifications in order to meet the needs of the rider, and ultimately win. Thanks to their broad team of engineers and scientists Akrapovič can control all factors of the design of the exhaust. Using an in-house metallurgical laboratory, they can even predetermine the titanium’s properties before being formed, ensuring the perfect finish. Slavko went on to explain some of the differences that can be seen between disciplines:
      “The finish itself involves an added value that’s been present since the very beginnings of the Akrapovič company. With a lot of exhaust systems, we further increased their durability through the use of custom materials; for example, Rally is the only motorcycle series in which we use special 1.2 mm thick titanium, and not tubes with the usual 0.9 mm thickness. We know that Rally is a very long race where the exhaust has to survive the entire race for amateur racers – an unforgiving two-week torture test. This is why the choice of material and optimizing it is really important. In MotoGP™, for example, there’s a big emphasis on weight, but this isn’t the main reason we use 0.65 mm thick tubes. At the same time, we have to make sure that the material can withstand the high temperatures, stresses, and pressures that are created in the exhaust system, and so we dedicate great attention to the choice of material and constant checks. All of this already takes place in the very selection of the material supplier.”
      “The Akrapovič brand is known for its race-proven products; it was born in races that we know demand performance, light weight, great sound, drivability, throttle response, and other characteristics. For a product to achieve this, you have to give it your all and pay attention to every detail, to every gram, to every mounting element.”
      Brad Binder (2016) @FocusPollution
      If you stop to ask any motorcyclist about what makes Akrapovič stand out, then quality and this precise attention to detail will come up. The vast majority will answer with the distinctive sound.
      “Considering all the different categories of motorsport that exist today, it’s clear that we can’t ensure the characteristic Akrapovič sound for each and every one of them – but it’s true that we strive to make that sound a pleasure sound as much as possible. It’s impossible to compare the sounds of so many different championships – say, from enduro to MotoGP™. Oftentimes the configuration determines the sound produced by these instruments, but we make great efforts to tune them well, so they produce the very best sound for both the rider and the environment.”
      After creating various designs, simulating models and manufacturing prototypes comes the real testing. Even in an age of advanced computer technologies and accurate simulations, Akrapovič follow an intense program of both dyno runs and real-world testing as ultimately the success of the product on track is directly related to riders’ preferences.
      Pol Espargaro (2018) @Sebas Romero
      “In the offroad segment we make use of testing on the motocross track near the company, and we also carry out a lot of testing on it with racers and teams. We also take part in factory team tests held at various locations, usually in Italy and Belgium, where they’re held in the winter. There we make the “final touch” and choose the configuration. The dyno is only a tool for making measurements and obtaining results, but the dyno itself doesn’t decide which configuration is the best. Here, as developers and engineers, we have to make a preselection, and we leave the final choice to the racing riders. Our philosophy is that the end user has to be satisfied. If the rider isn’t satisfied with the character of the power, with the responsiveness of the engine, then – regardless of the results that can be measured on the dyno – we haven’t achieved our goal. Conceptually, the development of an exhaust system begins on the drawing board or at the computer and with creating a prototype. This is followed by comparative testing on the dyno, and after that even more testing. These tests are often carried out by our test riders, and after them the factory racers do the final testing. In this way we can evaluate our feedback on the configurations, see if we’re working in the right direction, and whether the feedback result is relevant or not.”
      “Each exhaust is unique, a development story in itself; we don’t have universal exhaust systems. Each exhaust is made for a very specific kind of motorcycle, developed to optimize its power, reduce its weight, and satisfy any type-approval requirements that apply to that kind of system.”
      Nathan Watson (2019) @Future7Media
      And there’s no resting on their laurels either! Constant development and product evolution go on year on year, with new products released as they maintain their position as the world’s premier exhaust manufacturer. This can be seen in the release of an all new look for the KTM ENDURO MY20 range.
      “A new shape is a new beginning for the EXC family era. We’ve been working on the most stress-laden parts of the exhaust system, weak points, and research directions to improve the current exhaust and optimize it. This is why we moved to the “relief profile” of the exterior sleeve, which ensures greater durability, better scratch resistance, and more resilience to the impacts and damage that can be expected in enduro use every day. The development goal is to preserve the maximum volume in a limited space along with ensuring the lowest sound level friendly to the environment.”
      To round things up we asked Slavko to summarize what he thinks is the number one benefit of an Akrapovič exhaust is to a KTM rider, regardless of their level of riding:
      “The biggest benefit to end customers is that when they use our exhaust systems, they really get identical materials and solutions, and often also the identical exhaust system configuration that we create for factory bikes. End users buy what we produce for world champions, regardless of whether they’re racers or recreational riders. The end user gets a product that’s the result of working together with factory teams. This is really important to me.”
      Images: KTM, Akrapovič