After months of speculation of an impending rider change at KTM, the Austrian factory has issued a press release clarifying its 2018 line up in MotoGP.
The KTM factory team will continue with both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith as their contracted race riders, while Mika Kallio remains contracted as a test rider.
The move will be welcomed inside the team, restoring stability and removing the uncertainty which had surrounded Bradley Smith and his future as a factory rider.
The Englishman had struggled badly to be competitive in the first part of the season, while his teammate Espargaro seemed to go from strength to strength.
Smith’s position was made even more tenuous when test rider Mika Kallio easily outperformed him during the Finn’s wildcard appearances, especially at the team’s home race at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria.
That performances spawned the idea of swapping Kallio and Smith in the factory team. Kallio would become a full-time racer again, as he had made clear was his prime objective.
Smith would take on the role as development and test rider, making occasional wildcard appearances.
By Smith’s own admission, he had been focused too much on developing the bike, and not enough on racing it. See for an example of this, Steve English’s excellent interview with Bradley Smith published on MotoMatters yesterday.
Those rumors gained even more strength after another strong result by Kallio as a wildcard at Aragon, where Smith finished 19 seconds behind the Finnish test rider. When KTM announced that Kallio would get one final wildcard at Valencia, many believed the decision had been made.
That now appears not to have been the case. After meetings in Austria, KTM have decided to clarify the situation, and remove any doubt.
In an interview with German-language publication Speedweek, KTM boss Pit Beirer said that Smith had “not deserved” to be dropped, and they had seen that the pressure coming from the media was starting to weigh on Smith’s performance. They wanted to end that, Beirer said.
There is also a question of just how serious the proposals to replace Smith actually were. In the interview I did with KTM team manager Mike Leitner at Aragon, Leitner was speaking of Bradley Smith as if it was a given he would be remaining as factory rider in 2018.
That, it turns out, was the official position all along. The press release issued today by KTM confirms that.
Photo: © 2017 Sebas Romero / KTM – All Rights Reserved