Will MotoGP’s master of testing deception surprise again?

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There was mixed messaging coming out of KTM on the eve of the 2023 MotoGP season.

On one side, team boss Francesco Guidotti was actively acknowledging it had been a rough pre-season.

On the other, newcomer Jack Miller sounded pretty certain the laptimes would be there come crunch time.

And somewhere in the middle was his team-mate Brad Binder – perhaps marginally alarmed by how the winter had gone but ultimately stoic and publicly keeping the faith.

In the end, KTM rocked up to the season opener at Portimao – the same track where it produced little in the way of eye-catching pace in testing just a couple of weeks earlier – and immediately broke the lap record with Miller on the first day of running.

Had it been sandbagging, or at least waiting to really put its package together and put its cards on the table? There was certainly a little bit of that.

But, when talking about this 2024 pre-season compared to that one last month, Binder gave a telling soundbite: “Well, last year I wanted to shoot myself, so I’d say this one’s a bit better.”

Clearly, there was a turnaround between the tests and the season opener last year for the brand – one that set up a good (if maybe not great) season with the best version of the RC16 KTM has ever had.

Going into 2024 then, might KTM’s capacity to pull off such transformations suggest rivals should be alarmed? After all, the KTM camp sounds perhaps more confident now than ever – even if the Lusail laptimes didn’t necessarily suggest cause for celebration.

Up its sleeve

Over the three test days at Sepang, Binder was seventh-fastest, with Miller 14th. In Qatar, Binder was ninth, though Miller improved to 11th.

But in testing, that only means so much – and in KTM’s case it seems to mean nothing at all.

In Malaysia, Binder had a ride height device issue at the most optimal time for time attacks. As a result, his and KTM’s fastest time of the test had come on the second day rather than third. Then, in Qatar, yellow flags compromised his fastest lap.

All the while he has been very complimentary about the new RC16.

KTM had already undergone a major shift last year – in switching to a carbon chassis mid-season – so its off-season development appears to have been more linear. But Binder says the various bits and pieces in line to debut in 2024 have successfully addressed weak points.

The engine braking is now better, easier to tune. The engine itself has more horsepower without changing the character. The turning is also improved, and so is the rear of the bike – specifically rear contact.

“Our bike is working pretty good,” Binder said at the end of the test.

“I think we’ve clearly made a step from last season.”

There’s evidence of that, too, in an impressively consistent race simulation (at the conclusion of which he ran out of fuel) attempted by the South African on the final day in Qatar.

Binder never dipped out of low-1m53s in that simulation, a big contrast to his Qatar Grand Prix ride in November – in which his pace cratered after the halfway point as he went from fighting in the lead group with Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Di Giannantonio to just barely hanging on to fifth place seven seconds adrift.

“There was a little bit of a drop, but nothing crazy,” said Binder of the race sim.

“Much better than the race here last year – so that’s the most important.”

The pace consistency, instead, was more like 2022 – when another quiet-looking pre-season for KTM, and the feeling Lusail was still not fitting its RC16s, was followed up by Binder finishing second in the Qatar opener seemingly out of nowhere.

But is it enough?

“Riders’ comments are – they can’t complain, they’re happy about all the improvements in the areas where we changed something,” Guidotti told MotoGP.com after Qatar’s running.

“So… compared to last race and compared especially to the last winter test, we are clearly a step ahead.

“But… we’re not sure yet if it’s enough.”

And that, of course, remains the big question. As much as KTM has improved on an already-formidable bike from 2023, Ducati may have improved as much on what was its own even-more-formidable bike.

But whether a title challenge is possible this year or not – and Binder certainly hasn’t ruled one out – another step forward and the consolidation of second place in the manufacturers’ pecking order may be enough for now.

After all, KTM has Binder on a deal running through 2026. It has Miller as a very useful asset capable of great peaks – but also Pedro Acosta already making a splash in Gas Gas colours.

As long as tangible forward motion continues, the vibes should be good. And while there was no evidence of said forward motion in the headline times from testing, there was in basically every other aspect – and thus a good reason to expect to see a genuine demonstration when the season begins for real with this weekend’s Qatar Grand Prix.

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