Interview of the Month: Mike Leitner: Moving the MotoGP Puzzle Pieces

What’s it like to build and govern a MotoGPTM setup from scratch? We grabbed some time with the man at the peak of the Red Bull KTM operation to find out.

Team Manager of Red Bull KTM MotoGP Factory Racing Mike Leitner, a man who has spent a great proportion of his life in motorcycling and MotoGPTM, sits down to talk with a glass of white wine on Friday evening at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix. In a corner of the magnificent Red Bull Energy Station fortress one member of the vast Red Bull KTM MotoGPTM operation is celebrating a birthday but there is also the feeling that the soon-to-be-55 year old has more than deserved a tipple after the last two years of planning and fast-forward development to get KTM to where they currently are: inhabiting the top ten of the MotoGPTM grid, some twelve-thirteen races into their maiden campaign.

Mike Leitner (AUT) Termas de Río Hondo (ARG) 2017

Leitner has worked and talked solidly about his vocation since joining the Munderfing based racing wing of KTM and since the company decided to disengage traction control and ‘twist the grip’ hard to make a splash at the very tip of motorcycle sport. He even gave us a revealing interview in the setup stages but now the project is rolling with real momentum and the Red Bull KTM framework was complete with the ‘Holzhaus’ hospitality at Mugello this summer.

We wanted to ask the Austrian what it has been like to oversee a staff roster for competition in eighteen rounds, testing and technical evolution that numbers 70-80 people and between 30-40 at the rounds of MotoGPTM. With Moto3 and Moto2 included, the Holzhaus often resembles a buzzing extension of the Munderfing racing HQ. MotoGPTM alone seems like a lot to handle.

Red Bull KTM MotoGP Factory Racing Bikes 2017

Mike, deep into the first full season for KTM has the organization with the race team, test team and the whole operation been what you expected it to be over a year ago?
“Actually when you take on a job like this then it is very hard to know how it will go. There was nothing here or any kind of history in KTM for this kind of job – an in-house road racing team in this image – but we started with a small group and month by month we added more people and we started to make a structure. We are still in this process actually and perhaps are not fully ‘ready’ but it has been good. Sometimes when you start something like this it’s good also to not really know how it will go; and this is the power of young people! They don’t think about what things will be when they are 35, they just go for it. That it is how we started this project and we just reacted to things as they happened.”

You knew KTM would be fast in development – you’ve already had a new engine and the bike continues to morph – but were you surprised how quickly turnaround and material has come through? And therefore progress was made …
“It was pretty clear early on but is also still surprising that we can work in this way. The season is not over yet and there are still many difficult racetracks ahead of us but the way the bike has been going up until now has been impressive and we will try to do another step.”

Pol Espargaró (ESP, #44), Mika Kallio (FIN, #36) & Bradley Smith (GBR, #38) KTM RC16 Red Bull Ring (AUT) 2017

What has it been like to organize all those teams and staff?
“To be fair the most difficult thing when you have quite a few people who have not worked in MotoGPTM is to get the correct thinking or the correct understanding: a way to work and also a way to make the next step. This is difficult. The first year in the company we had many basic meetings because people have an idea but you have to outline the process and say “this will happen when that happens” and “we have to be ready for this situation and that situation”, “when we are in the flyaway races we do this,” and “when it rains we need to take care of that” or “if we need to rebuild then we have to be aware of time constraints”. It was a big job because in the beginning there were not many people around with MotoGPTM experience. Of course, there was experience of motocross and Moto3 and a long history … and there was a deep racing spirit. People had to be ready to learn and adapt and in the second year that became better and we went racing. We recruited and we keep on testing and it is not easy to bring everything to a correct level all the time.”

What was the hardest thing: bringing new systems to a race team or managing all the personalities?
“The hard part is finding the correct people for the correct position. You can hardly go into a shopping center and pick up a few racing specialists! So it’s tricky to get good people on board but it’s also essential. For every experienced racing guy you could take three or four young ones and it was tough to get a really good group together and we’re still in that process.”

Red Bull KTM MotoGP Team KTM RC16 Silverstone (GBR) 2017

Aside from the bike what have been the lessons for the group?
“We’ve had such a big learning curve. After ten rounds we are working differently to how we did after two rounds. Obviously, you learn from mistakes and the experience you gain. How the race team acts and reacts at the track is really professional already and we are really happy with this. I’m in a position now where I cannot be at each race, each test and also be in the office for every decision to be made. We have built a good racing group and we are always in contact and we have a lot of meetings. When things are decided then we are fully in the loop but clearly you spend 200 days out of Mattighofen and there are only 365 in the year. In the last two years we have made a framework that has a good connection and that can be steered from the outside. Pit is in-house and as Racing Director is fully into the project and we have people leading departments of engine, chassis and electronics. When decisions for the future are made we are all together.”

Not only did you have to construct this team but also watch bike development closely and then bring some results as well. It sounds like a lot!
“Ha! What can I say? You can have a lot of knowledge but you must also give freedom [to people] to improve and grow. If a single person wanted to control all of this then it wouldn’t work. There must be an overview but you must also have the trust in others that things can go in the correct way. You can give advice and maybe say “OK, I would maybe go right instead of left now …” and these kind of things but you cannot go into each detail anymore.”

Mike Leitner (AUT) KTM RC16 Barcelona (ESP) 2017

Pol Espargaró was again on the pace at the difficult Silverstone circuit and the Catalan cuts a happy often bemused figure in his media debriefs – as if to say “I didn’t know we’d be this good, this soon”. Thanks to the collective effort KTM are speeding towards their goals.

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“Mr. Totalmotorcycle”. Owner and Founder of Total Motorcycle. Supporting Motorcyclists and Motorcycling for 18 great years.