Interview: Pit Beirer part three – MotoGP and running multiple race teams

In the third part of our extensive Pit Beirer interview, we look at the MotoGP program, what it takes to run multiple race departments and discover how Roger DeCoster and Ian Harrison played a big part in bringing the R&D and race department closer together.

Moving to MotoGP, I am pretty blown away with the quick success you have had winning races this year, and your progress from last year to this year has been phenomenal, was that big progress a surprise for you? You have Dani Pedrosa as a test rider now but lost concessions because you have done so well, but is that worth to be at the level you now at there?

Yeah, each win (3) is incredible in that class, it took the biggest effort from myself and the company to really start that program. I feel a bit sorry I can’t spend more time with my friends in off-road department, but I know what great people we have in the off-road side.

My leading style was maybe by luck or accident in that I decided I need very strong leaders for each project and I should never be the smartest guy in the group. The best people deserve to run the projects. Fairoli the former enduro world champ to run enduro, Roger to run the US or all the motocross champions we have in the family to run motocross in GP.

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But this was not 100% plan – I don’t know why I did it like that! In the beginning it was very clear with KTM that I would be the motocross guy, I would be linked to racing an motocross for our company but still I could organise these classes they are running very well. If I am there good, if I am not there they run exactly the same, this gave me the chance to focus on building up MotoGP.

Through working like I worked in off-road, I think the company liked that style. With the financial crisis in 2008 we stepped out of road racing and there was still another leadership other than myself, at that time I was there for off-road but when we came back in 2012 I think the bosses asked me to do road-racing in the same style we do off-road. To create teams which are friends, people sticking together and really look at the human side of how to create a team. My signature from the beginning was always that our jobs don’t start from the race track in March, they start years before with a perfect, super clean workshop, great people and if you have that platform as a workshop and great people you can have a great machine. The great machine is not there the great machine is built by great people.

That is how I want work and that is how we stepped into road racing. Our first road race attempt we did many things external with external people, the chassis, the engine was not down within KTM, when the company asked me to do road racing I said yes I really want to do it, but I want to do it in the same style (as off-road). So, we do everything here at home, the bike and our people they have responsibility, and they need to know it’s their bike, it’s not a bike of parts from somewhere all over Europe.

I think that was a more difficult way to start the whole program because you need to do everything yourself if you use a tubular steel frame like us and WP suspension you can’t copy anybody you have to find a way to do it. If you take people from somewhere else, they might know a lot about the sport but don’t know how to treat a tubular frame or our suspension. The next difficult thing is if you build a bike in Europe it’s not easy to find this people at the race track, because other teams they get ready-made bikes and go race. But our people when they go racing in factory program they need to drive home and build their own bike, it’s not that you order a bike and then go racing in March.

So you need to do a lot of homework before you have a bike to race. We start from zero then to have won already this year GPs, it’s amazing, incredible – nobody expected it that here. I felt pressure from the press and also in Austria because it started very well I think, everybody was excited because we had good tracks and good team – but we were too slow! But I think everybody respected us for our first step in, it was a professional first step. In the second was okay but in the third year people already expected results but then we had injuries and the bike was not there. That was the moment we had to keep a strong line and say, ‘ don’t worry it will come,’ that was maybe when we had the first head wind.’

The end of last year was maybe more critical in the program than this year when we win. We had a super good plan when we brought Dani Predosa on-board but then he broke his collarbone again and we lost him again for four or five months but in the background we were preparing a new bike with different engineers, Dani came on-board so going into this year we were ready to go for Qatar but the Corona thing came and we could not prove it!

Everybody still had in their mind from the middle of last year it was not so fantastic, end of last things became better, I think a sixth place in Misano in Aragon we were second in the morning practice then he crashed and broke his hand. I had to tell everybody all winter long, ‘ the bike is better, Pol will be better, the bike is lighter.’ But in racing everything you talk is for nothing, you need to show results and the lap time so again you can imagine that I was very happy that we prove it that we were already start to have podiums and get good results, it was already a big release for me because there was some pressure on.

I see a supercross and you are there, you are at MXGP, you are at MotoGP, how do you fit all that in because I am sure during the week you are really busy as well! What is your schedule and how do you mange to get to all these races and fit in everything during the week?

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First of all I love races so it’s not difficult! Other people, they pay a lot of money to see these races so I mean if you can make your passion your work, that is already a big advantage. I just love to be with these people. They have that spirit that they want to win, want to work so hard – the team and riders. That spirit, I am addicted to it.

But I need to manage it, I can’t be with one category for the whole season because I want to go to all the different disciplines. Of course, MotoGP took the most time because we were far off and had to create everything from new.

So I spent more time there than in motocross and supercross in the last two years but I try to be present as often as I can because still, I think to do a good job, you cannot just do it in the office, you need to be in the front row to get the feeling of the atmosphere. I can see the lap times and results on TV but how the riders feel what they are thinking, that I can notice more on the race track tings which that, maybe I can’t change this week, but I can go back and change something at home that helps us get better the year after.

So I want to be on the front row, I wish I could go to more races but I also have a family at home I want to see so I need to make the balance between the office, races and home. I think it’s all under control, but I need to rely on good people, this is the great value of our group here.

Your daily schedule during the week, what sort of hours is that without taking into consideration the travel?

We have a structure with more that 400 people worldwide in the racing department so if I am not at a race then there is a normal work to do that every big company needs to manage (during the week).

On a Monday morning I talk about for example, budgets, what the budget will be for the future, every month I need to check carefully where we are in every discipline around the world because it’s quite a big budget but you have to be careful when 400 people are spending money all around the world for the company. You understand it’s not possible to control all of that so you give them a lot of trust but still every month we need to see if they stay in the planned channel, so financial management is a big one.

Of course we try to get the papers right if we want that new rider, so we have the contracts right but also many things are like a normal company. We own a huge amount of material from suppliers or within KTM or we machine them ourselves, so how to buy the material, how to store it or how to make quality control. There are many things in this company that is like a normal company in the week but then on the weekends we go racing!

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It’s also the interesting part that it’s all combined.

On the subject of Coronavirus, have you had to adjust much for next season? Geico and JGR folded in the States, there is talk some riders are having to pay for rides in MXGP, have you noticed a difficulty at KTM with Covid?

First of all it was great to see the bike community is stronger than the virus. It was a shock in March, nobody knew what would happen. Our company was closed for two months from lockdown done by the government, this was the most terrifying moment when you shut down the company, you cannot imagine it would happen but it happened.

So we reacted very early and then we tried to cut the costs down for this year as hard as we could for these two months when we wouldn’t move. We used less material, the people are not in the building, you don’t spend on travelling. So we looked at how much money we could save when we were not moving and then immediately started a calculation program on what we would save with less races, how much money we needed to finish the season.

Immediately we were in contact with the promoter of all the disciplines and told them, ‘please try and let’s go racing somehow. We don’t know how but there will be a way.’ I think I was definitely in the front row with some other people to push everybody; the press, the promoters to not give up a full year of racing. And later there was racing and there was fantastic racing.

We packed everything into this year but then the request on bikes after lockdown was very, very positive. Bike sales, they were really strong for us all around the world when things started to roll again. You can never completely make the back the lose of two months when you shut down the company, with more than 4,000 people not working and you don’t produce bikes and sell them, that hole you can never gain back.

You see how you can manage to the end of the year to correct as much as we can so we tried to save wherever we could this year but I got the green light from our board of directors to plan actually with the original budget to go into the 2021 season, so I didn’t have the pressure to reduce something dramatically or stop disciplines or something like that so I am in a lucky position that the company went strong, very strong through this period and we are ready to go again from January.

Does the overall money you have invested, especially in MotoGP and as well in dirt bike racing, do they reflect in bike sales? Do the numbers work or is it more a passion project?

If you look at the figures of our company an you take the two months of Corona this year, you can see a consistent growth . Our board of directors committed many, many years ago that racing is our number one marketing tool and then we learnt with specific examples that it’s working.

We have built a 350 which has 100cc less than the competition but the bike is lighter, less power but less risky for the rider and we won a world championship with that thing and it was for years the biggest selling KTM was the 350 motocross bike, so it was proven if we do something so strong in the sport we can sell the bikes.

Another example was supercross. We were nowhere in results, nowhere in the market. When we stepped into supercross professionally and won our first race with Ryan Dungey in Arizona in 2012, from that moment the bike sales in the US they went through the roof! That’s the day when Roger DeCoster signed with us, that’s the year Ryan Dungey won his first race and that was the first very positive business year for us in the USA.

Saying that, I don’t want to overrate the racing part, that is the showcase, the window where we show the power of the company. Without fantastic product in the background and R&D department who brings these products, sales team who make sure we have a dealer network worldwide which is also important. Without these things this success would mean nothing.

Also there, if I talk about team and spirit, we push for the same spirit in the company because they don’t get racing without a strong market but we can influence that strong market with racing. But then if our R&D department don’t build fantastic bikes, the market won’t like the bikes. It’s such a strong link and this goes so deep that, every Wednesday since I have been leading this motorsport department, the R&D people (non race team) and the top racing people they meet at a table and they share information about developing bikes and then the race team doing even more radical things. So all this feedback goes straight into the product, so all that together make racing a success.

Back to your question, when we stepped in to MotoGP and the comapny could grow more and we could increase turnover in the street segment worldwide. For sure there is many countries where we only started to sell motircycles and the brand wasn’t so famous like it was in Europe where everybody knows KTM. in these countries you have nothing else on TV other than a MotoGP race so they know Valentino Rossi, MotoGP and nothing else. So if they see MotoGP is on the grid with Valentino Rossi it brings you to a different platform. We can confirm that the step into MotoGP was a good one for our company and made the company even stronger and bigger.

Would you say MXGP, supercross and MotoGP are three biggest avenues of exposure for the brand in the racing world, is that why you put so much emphasis on that?

Yes, but I would also mention the rally because that was also something that made the company famous and big, the Dakar program. Dakar is only a small part of the year but there is nothing else going on in that period. But Motocross, supercross, MotoGP and rally, for sure are the strong sports with the most publicity where we can make the brand more famous.

Enduro is not that present on TV but we are very close to our customer. You look at a race like Erzberg you have 1500 participants and 1300 on our bikes and you mix with the pros. That was a personal wish from my side why we pushed the extreme enduros so hard in the last two or three years, because it is not on TV, it is a huge loop and they go into the forest, you cannot transport the fantastic part of that sport to the wider public because it’s impossible for a camera to get in.

Everything they do is super difficult and super hard but people don’t see. I was sure and now it’s proven, it’s much nice to combine the professionals with the amateurs and at least have huge paddock, crowd together by the participants because if there is 1500 participants and everybody bring three or four family members you have already ten to 15 thousand people already there. That’s where I see the future, to have the pros there to show what is really possible and then to have amateur say I was on the start line with say Graham Jarvis and it is crazy what these guys can do on these climbs up these mountains.

It’s a different sport and much closer to the customer than the wider public. In MotoGP it’s the other end, you cannot buy that product in the shop but you are there with the brand in world wide TV coverage.

Regarding development of motocross bikes and the US and Europe, Mikes Sleeter was a guy you had in the States testing and you have your GP, European guys, where does most of your information that goes into production come from?

I mean, there is only one good motocross bike. You cannot make a good one for Europe, a good one for supercross and a good one for the public. I think sometimes overate a little bit the performance of a factory bike in motocross.

You need a very strong standard product otherwise you cannot succeed. If you need to produce your own bike, own chassis, own everything and in our group with 15 to 18 factory riders all over the world, you cannot bring the level they are on with competitive bikes, so you need to bring a very strong standard product.

That is enforced by the US because you have to use a stock frame, stock swingarm, many parts under the production rule so that is forcing you to build… if you want to win a supercross championship, that stock frame must be good enough to build a supercross championship! So that brings already the quality of all motocross bikes to a very high level and then that Wednesday meeting I told you about before, it’s why it’s very important. Because if a stock bike is ready in production there is some fundamental things you cannot change anymore so you must make sure that bike has everything you can win GPs or supercross with and that’s why it’s so important that these people are talking to each other.

When I went to KTM, the race department wanted to show the R&D people that they could build a better race bike, the R&D people would say, ‘but they will crack the frame,’ and then they will laugh and say the production bike is better! It was a kind of a competition that was not healthy, but now we have a competition that is healthy. We want to build from a great standard product and then try to make to make it better everything we know we tell them and everything they know they tell us.

I must also say that Roger Decoster and Ian Harrison, they helped a lot to get the friction out of these whole thing. They had a very good way to explain to our R&D engineers what they needed. They didn’t just say what they were doing was wrong or anything like that, they explained very well, can you help us to do it like this? Because we know Ryan Dungey wants it like this and if we don’t do it like this, like, for example, so the dirt is not sticking under the footpeg when you lift it up, because then we have a problem in racing. So they found a really good way to bring all of our opinions together so this was really good cross-over project for the US, Europe and our R&D department in the factory.

I am pretty proud we could bring all these people together, all these people are still there and all these people are still pushing for the next bike generation.

To see part one of the interview (MXGP) go here and for part two (USA) go here. For part four on Pit’s career what makes a champion, go here.

Interview: Jonathan McCready

Images: Simon Cudby, Ray Archer, Future7media and Polarity