Axing Espargaro shows KTM ‘family’ is nothing but talk
“I have always said that Pol is a real fighter, Pol was a key player in the Pierer Mobility KTM MotoGP programme, and I’m delighted to announce he is back in the family.” Those are the words that Gas Gas Tech3 team boss Herve Poncharal used to welcome former rider Pol Espargaro back to his team just over one year ago.
And they’re words that ring particularly hollow following Friday’s news that the Spaniard would be unexpectedly dumped from the team’s ranks halfway through his two-year contract and as he continues to recover from severe injuries earlier this year, with KTM’s first-ever MotoGP full-time rider signing (back in 2016) unceremoniously cleared out to make room for up and coming star Pedro Acosta.
It’s made doubly painful by Espargaro’s own words earlier this season about the commitment given to him by KTM senior management during his time on the sidelines – and his belief that, despite KTM finding itself in a complicated contractual spot, he’d been promised personally that his future was secure.
Crashing out at Portimao in March and breaking both his back and his jaw in the process when he hit an unprotected tyre wall, he underwent multiple surgeries, spent months in in rehabilitation and even had his jaw wired shut for weeks as he recovered, causing him to lose not only a considerable amount of strength, fitness and muscle, but also to effectively miss the first half of the 2023 season.
However, while it was obvious that there was going to be a tricky decision-making process ahead for the Austrian brand thanks to the contract shenanigans it had placed itself in and a bold bet on being able to secure additional grid spots to fit in everyone it’d signed deals with, it’s one that Espargaro seemed largely convinced that he wasn’t involved in.
“I have a two year contract, and I’ve been injured, not even thinking about it,” he told the media at the Dutch TT in June on his first appearance back in the paddock. “My contract is fixed for two years, and KTM are not for me a team like this, they are a family.
“I talk with Pit [Beirer, KTM motorsport boss], with Hubert [Trunkenpolz, KTM board member], like they are my friends, and honestly we chat super open. We’ve been talking about how all the riders are doing, they’ve been telling me about new riders coming, and honestly we talk very openly and nice.
“At the moment, I’m just focused on recovering and coming back because my contract is for one and a half years in advance. I’m focused on coming back and showing them that I need to stay.
“If I don’t do better results, or good enough results to be here, then I’ll be glad to move to the side and let another guy come in my place. But at the moment I want to prove that I still have some speed.”
It’s been hard to argue that Espargaro’s results have been particularly poor, either, even as he’s struggled to make up for the huge physical toll that the crash and recovery had taken on him. He has been consistently running inside the points and slowly but steadily making progress back towards the form he had showed in pre-season testing, where he was on par not just with KTM’s newcomer Jack Miller but at times its lead rider Brad Binder, too.
This was something he alluded to in a statement released on his social media hours after the news broke.
Insisting that the decision was a mutual one (something indeed likely to be the case given the 11th-hour announcement and subsequent lack of all available alternative options now), he also stressed that he still believes that he deserves a MotoGP seat given his pace.
“It is true that I would have liked to continue racing full-time in MotoGP because I think I still have the speed to be among the best,” the Spaniard posted, “but the truth is that the step aside that I will take next year by joining the test team and making several wildcards is the result of an understanding between the two parties given the contractual problems in which the group is at the moment and thinking of a long-term collaboration to make Pierer Mobility Group the reference in the MotoGP world championship.”
The reality is, with the 32-year-old parked by KTM next season yet still under contract to them, the factory may have essentially ended his career.
Particularly if the grid size stays as it is in 2025, it is hard to see a way back onto the grid for him on a full-time basis.
For all KTM’s talk of family, a recurring buzzword in the Austrian factory, it’s nonetheless hardly a surprise to see its ruthless nature once again come to the fore.
Names like Danilo Petrucci, Iker Lecuona and then-reigning Moto2 world champion Remy Gardner have got the same treatment in the past few years and it’s perhaps no surprise that it’d lost Jorge Martin, once the prized jewel of its junior programme.
And while it was inevitable that someone was going to lose out for 2024, that’s because of a situation that KTM alone made when it backed itself into a corner by committing to more riders than it had machines for.
Betting big on being allowed to expand its grid presence for next season by at least one bike, that option failed to materialise when series promoters Dorna inexplicably blocked the opportunity, leaving KTM – which seems intent to try again next year – scrambling to manage the situation and pick one of five riders to demote.
But KTM didn’t exactly shower itself in glory by leaving that problem to fester rather than trying to address it right away, instead allowing it to drag on until October, with all the remaining seats on the grid now filled and no opportunity for Espargaro to take anything but the test rider option offered to him.