2017 KTM factory MX racers test, Veldhoven, The Netherlands

Back to winning ways

Story: Paul Malin
What a year 2017 has been for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing. The Austrian manufacturer claimed both the MXGP and MX2 titles at the hands of Antonio Cairoli and Pauls Jonass, collected team of the year in both classes and once again proved that as a brand it is well and truly back on top by picking up both manufacturers world championship awards in the process. To help celebrate its success and to share the moment, the Red Bull KTM Factory bikes were put to the test at the annual KTM media test day in the Dutch sand of Veldhoven, just days after the final MXGP of the season.

MXGP KTM_2017_Factory_Bikes_RA_2405The 2017 FIM Motocross World Championship season will go down in history as a memorable one for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing for a number of reasons. It was a year that saw Antonio Cairoli claim his ninth world title after two seasons hampered by injury. Jeffrey Herlings took to MXGP as a rookie and despite a spate of pre-season injuries which saw ‘The Bullet’ get off to a slower than usual start, the Dutchman followed his teammate Cairoli home, showing us that there is still more to come from the three time MX2 world champion. More importantly though, it was the first ever world championship title for the KTM 450 SX-F with Cairoli making his own piece of history in the process; the Sicilian has now taken a 450 SX-F and 350 SX-F to world championship glory in the premier MXGP class.

In MX2 the Latvian Pauls Jonass picked up from where Jeffrey Herlings left off, by winning his first MX2 world championship in convincing style, in what was a year of ‘firsts’ for the former EMX85, EMX125 and FIM Junior World Champion; PJ41 scored his first double moto win in Qatar, became the first Latvian to win a MX2 GP and the first from his country to win a professional world motocross championship title. Whilst the teams get on with preparing for 2018, let’s take a closer look at the machines that conquered the world in 2017.

Antonio Cairoli and Jeffrey Herlings

After seven years with Red Bull KTM Factory Racing as a MX2 rider, the time had come for Jeffrey Herlings to move into MXGP. Under normal circumstances he would have moved ‘next door’ to the De Carli side of the race awning; but never one to follow, Herlings preferred to stay put with the team he knew and worked so well with which meant for the first time, there was a 450 SX-F under the MX2 awning at Red Bull KTM, something of a logistical headache for Technical Director, Dirk Gruebel: ‘It was a challenge yes, because now I have less time for my MX2 boys. I’m constantly back and forth, up and down. Each session is now double. After Free Practice I don’t even make my way back to the truck to speak with the boys after the session.’

Despite this, Gruebel still managed to oversee all aspects of everything technical and when the season first fired into life at the international races, both Cairoli and Herlings bikes were very similar, so too was the speed of both riders. But then Herlings crashed and broke his hand which caused him something of a set-back. That incident alone changed the outcome of the season as well as the bikes that were ridden by the two teammates.

From the naked eye, both Factory 450 SX-F’s look the same, but it’s the tiny detail that sets them apart. Both riders use Renthal handlebars with Tony running the FatBar (827) as opposed to the Twin Wall (997) preferred by Herlings. Cairoli has a smaller seat, cut away to allow him to sit more into the bike. Jeffrey has a higher seat to accommodate his taller physical build. When you throw your leg over the bike and start to check out the ergonomics and the general riding position, you can’t help but feel the difference in the front brake tension as well. Cairoli runs with a 9mm pump whereas Jeffrey favours a much stronger, more aggressive feeling that comes with a 10mm pump; but then again, he always has. Having said that, TC used to use a 10mm pump back in 2015 so it was interesting to see how he has opted for slightly less power on the front brake. The difference is that Tony’s has a slightly MXGP Herlings_KTM_450_2017_RA_0738softer feel to it when you apply the brake; Jeffrey’s is more akin to that of a road race bike; solid, to the point where you question if it’s even possible to have such an aggressive brake, especially for off-road. Handlebar position is also slightly different with Herlings running his ‘bars slightly more forward in the clamp because of his height.

However, the biggest differences are when you get out on track and try to ride these two Factory KTM 450 SX-F offerings, and to say they are radically different would be a massive understatement, and had it not been for the pre-season injury that Herlings picked up, this article might have been very, very different indeed. So, let’s start with Tony!

 

Tony Cairoli’s Factory KTM 450 SX-F

First impressions of Antonio Cairoli’s bike are always very similar, in that he knows what he wants from his motorcycle. He likes a bike to feel small, hence the lower seat for instance, but despite that, his bike still feels very ‘normal’ to the average person; normal as in anybody can sit on it and ride around on it and feel like it’s their own bike, ergonomically at least. Gone are the days though where TC prefers the smooth power that the 350 SX-F used to offer him, instead he likes a much punchier engine more befitting of the moniker 450 SX-F. It is powerful yes, but it is still relatively easy to ride and control. You can open up the power gradually and feel the legs it has or alternatively, whack open the throttle and let the power grab you in an instant.

MXGP KTM_2017_Factory_Bikes_RA_2718The factory 450 SX-F comes equipped with four gears, but on the day, there was no need to reach such heights; second and third is where it’s at, especially third. Even from the not-so tight turns, you could use third and let the power just take you to where you wanted to go, and it just keeps pulling as well. It has a good overall balance and feel to it.

Cornering was a breeze and so too was the movement around the bike even with the foot pegs raised by 5mm (the same as Jonass and Prado in MX2). As for suspension, TC has made changes over recent years, certainly since 2015, mostly due to a linkage change. In 2015 he ran his WP spring forks at 4.6 whilst his rear spring was set to 42kilo. Now however, with a new linkage for improved progression he is running a stiffer fork at 4.7 with the shock being 50kilo. It doesn’t really alter the overall ride height according to WP, but It’s amazing to see how a linkage ratio can change the overall feel of the suspension. However, the circuit was not so bumpy to get a good overall feel, but on jump take-off and landing both the front and rear WP units worked in harmony, and overall the whole bike was about as well-balanced as they come. To sum up Tony’s ride, it’s powerful but very easy to ride. He has power as and when he needs it, a bike that turns on a dime if he chooses and a weapon that still gets him out of the start, with fifteen holeshots in total in 2017. An all-round, fabulous motorcycle.

 

Jeffrey Herlings’ Factory KTM 450 SX-F

Chalk and cheese! A well-known British phrase, used to describe things that are polar opposites. And this is the case between the two 450 SX-F’s of Tony Cairoli and Jeffrey Herlings. Again, the obvious differences have already been mentioned; ‘bars, ‘bar type ‘bar position, seat and seat height preference. All was pretty much the same until February when ‘The Bullet’ found himself on the injured list. When Jeffrey returned back to action, his pace and his confidence had been shot to pieces. His results dropped from MX2 wins to those of a rider hovering just inside the top twenty in MXGP, not what he or we expected after his outstanding performance at the 2016 Motocross of Nations in Italy. His confidence was at an all-time low, so too was his head; this was something we’d never seen before from the three-time champ.

MXGP KTM_2017_Factory_Bikes_RA_3178As Technical Director, Dirk Greubel had to act and he had to act quickly. ‘Until the crash pre-season the two bikes were very similar but then afterwards when Jeffrey struggled we had to bring him back on track because he was doubting his set-up and Tony was winning week after week and had a really good start to the season, whereas Jeffrey didn’t. He hardly cracked the top ten and that was for him, mentally pretty hard to take, but luckily we could turn him around with a lot of testing; we made a different bike set-up for him compared to Tony.’

When he says ‘different’ he doesn’t just mean slightly different, he means completely different. Having ridden Tony’s bike first, a bike that was nice and smooth and easy to ride, riding Jeffrey’s was a shock to the system. The biggest difference and the most notable was the power delivery; it was like a switch. On for go, off to stop! It was hard-hitting and it was instant, and the kind of power that wanted to rip your arms out of your sockets. It was a rocket ship and more. In fact, there are not enough adjectives to describe this kind of power for this kind of motorcycle, but here are a few; crazy, unforgiving, relentless, awesome, scary, phenomenal … you get the point! To ride it you have to be super-fit, super-strong or both.

The other major change was the frame set-up, and this is more noticeable when you get on and ride it; the bike has a tendency to want to run a wider line, it doesn’t want to turn tight as effectively as Cairoli’s. This is because TC and JH run different frame set-up’s. When we say different, it’s all geometry related, as Greubel points out: ‘Jeffrey has a different type of frame, we tried different suspension settings, even the AER Fork. The frame geometry is different. The front end and steering is different. The angle is different but also the way the front part is made is different. He has a slightly longer wheelbase as well. Jeffrey likes to attack the track and stay more on the outside and be fast there, railing berms and stuff. Sometimes Tony turns on a dime and makes a direction change but that’s his riding style. They have two different riding styles and as a result, two different bike set-ups but both are fast.’

Summing up the MXGPs

MXGP KTM_2017_Factory_Bikes_RA_2791In terms of overall suspension, both riders also run totally different settings with Cairoli opting for a 4.7 spring rate up front with a 50 kilo spring at the rear due to a different linkage that gives a more progressive feel. Herlings on the other hand is running a standard linkage; his spring is 48 kilo with much harder forks at 4.9. Two years ago on his MX2 bike Herlings ran 4.4 / 45 and last year, with a different linkage ran 4.6 / 54 by comparison.

As a result, and in a weird way, this is exactly how you want a factory bike to be; powerful, uncontrollable, phenomenally fast, something that stands out from the crowd, something that you can never own or ever want to ride for more than a lap, despite just having had the most thrilling and exhilarating lap of your life. For some, this kind of bike comes at a price, and we are not just talking about the price tag, but more about the physical exertion needed to control it. From Herlings side, he has upped his game, he has put in the hours, he is fitter and stronger than ever and certainly much fitter than he was at the start of the season. This bike is unique to him, and how he races it week-in week-out beggars belief. But it works for him and as a double-act and they are perfectly matched.

The 2017 KTM 450 SX-F that took Cairoli and Herlings to the top two places in MXGP has had a good innings. Cairoli first brought it to our attention in 2015 at the MXGP of Spain where he took its first ever race and GP victory. Back then it was a pre-production 2016 model. This season saw the ‘model ’16 project’ come full circle, and did exactly what it was expected to do; to win the MXGP world championship. In total this KTM 450 SX-F has taken twenty-nine race wins, seventeen overall GP victories has taken second overall twice in the championship standings and won the world title in its final season in its current form. What will the next chapter in KTM’s illustrious history offer?

 

Pauls Jonass and Jorge Prado’s KTM 250 SX-F

MXGP Jonass_KTM_250_2017_RA_0855KTM has led the way in the smaller division since the year 2000, picking up a staggering thirteen world titles in the 125cc class or MX2, but just to be clear, that amounts to ten titles as a 250 SX-F in the last fourteen years. Jeffrey Herlings vacated the class at the end of 2016 and his teammate Pauls Jonass duly picked up from where he left off in what was an impressive season for the Latvian. In the nineteen-round series PJ41 stood on the podium fifteen times, twelve of those consecutively! There were also fourteen race wins along the way as well. As for his teammate Jorge Prado, the rookie in MX2 showed us a glimpse of what’s to come as he claimed his first race win in Trentino, an occasion that also saw him take the overall victory. JP eventually came away with five podiums, with three of them overall victories. In the past, the MX2 bikes at Red Bull KTM have been pretty similar so it was always going to be interesting to see how these two offerings compared.

If you have watched Pauls Jonass closely you will see that whilst he stands up frequently, he also tends to sit quite a lot as well and this simple fact determines how the new world champion goes about getting his 250 SX-F set up perfectly for him. With his new trainer, Marc De Reuver in his corner, PJ is learning to get off the seat a little more but some things you cannot change. Not that that’s bad, far from it. It just means that he still prefers his Renthal FatBar handlebars (827) to sit low in the clamps, except this year they seemed to be much lower than previous years. They probably aren’t, so maybe it was just more a case of all the attention being on his title winning machine instead of Jeffrey’s.

MXGP KTM_2017_Factory_Bikes_RA_2038To a taller guy it feels slightly alien to ride with low bars and as a result you tend to feel slightly off-balance, particularly in the turns. What’s strange is that PJ is not a short guy so for him to prefer that set-up is a little strange. But it works for him. Maybe it’s a simple case of this was his setting when he first stepped up to MX2 and despite a growth spurt, still feels this works to his advantage, which would make more sense.

When you look at all the available information, it’s clear that his set-up is not too dissimilar to that of TC222, in that he uses the same Renthal FatBar bend (827), runs the same linkage as TC222 and the same rear spring as the nine-time champ, opting to use a 50 kilo spring at the rear. The only difference here is a slightly softer fork spring at 4.6 compared to TC’s 4.7. Looking back over the years, this has always been the case as well.

His engine is very well balanced, as has always been the case. It is strong right off the bottom and continues to pull right the way through the range. It has an incredible spread of power and once again third gear is what makes this thing tick. It is and always has been its strong point, with the main advantage being you don’t have to constantly keep going up and down the gearbox to get around the track effectively, leaving the rider to just concentrate on his riding.

MXGP Prado_KTM_250_2017_RA_0950As for his teammate Prado, despite his rear shock being a tad softer at 48 kilo, the overall balance of his bike feels just a little more together. Prado runs  672 Renthal FatBar ‘bars and a lower seat as well, and with his foot pegs re-positioned 5mm higher you’d expect to feel pretty cramped, but because his ‘bar shape has a different bend and sit higher in the clamp, the overall feel is much more comfortable. The overall package allows you to turn much easier and because his bars are slightly higher because he is constantly stood up on the pegs, the overall balance feels much more together. That’s not to pitch one bike against the other or to say one bike is better than the other. Not at all. MXGP KTM_2017_Factory_Bikes_RA_2141What this does is highlight the fact that two different set-up’s have come about because of two different riding styles. They are both effective, both have the same incredible engine and to both riders, they have the best handling bikes out there. The two bikes, overall are very similar; same engine setting, same pipe, and mostly the same gearing. Pauls runs a 14/53 whilst Prado runs 14/52 although the sixteen year-old Spaniard will opt for a tooth longer every now and then.

With how Prado’s bike was set-up you could really feel the overall potential of the 250 SX-F and it’s hardly surprising that KTM came out on top once again.

 

Technical specification

KTM 450 SX-F

Engine Type: Single cylinder, 4-stroke
Displacement: 449.9cc
Bore / stroke: 95 x 63.4mm
Starter: Electric starter
Transmission: 4 gears
ECU: Athena
Piston: Pankl
Radiators: H20
Fuel systems: Keihin EMS with EFi
Control: 4V / OHC
Final drive: 14:48 Cairoli / Herlings 14:49
Sprockets: Renthal
Chain: Regina
Cooling: Liquid cooled
Lubricants: Motorex
Clutch: Hinson, Wet multi-disc clutch, operated hydraulics
Frame / Subframe: Chromium molybdenum / Titanium
Handlebar: Renthal, Cairoli FatBar 827 – Herlings Twin wall 997
Seat: Selle Dalla Valle
Front / rear suspension: WP USD 52 MA / WP with linkage – TC 4.7/50 – JH 4.9/48
Triple clamps: Neken
Suspension travel: 310 / 300mm
Front / rear brakes: Brembo, Moto-Master Disc brake 260mm / 220mm
Front / rear rims: Excel, 1.60 x 21” / 2.15 x 19” – Kite hubs
Front / rear tyres: Pirelli, 80/100-21” / 120/80-19”
Silencer: Akrapović, Titanium
Filters: DT1 (Cairoli, Coldenhoff) TwinAir (Herlings)
Race fuel: ETS
Tank capacity: 7 litres (approx.)
Weight (without fuel): 100.2kg (approx.)

 

KTM 250 SX-F

Engine Type: Single cylinder, 4-stroke
Displacement: 249.9cc
Bore / stroke: 78 x 52.3mm
Starter: Electric starter
Transmission: 5 gears
ECU: Athena
Piston: Pankl
Fuel systems: Keihin EMS with EFi
Control: 4V / OHC
Final drive: 14:53 Jonass / 14:52 Prado
Cooling: Liquid cooled
Clutch: Hinson, wet multi-disc clutch, operated hydraulics
Frame / Subframe: Chromium molybdenum / Titanium
Handlebar: Renthal FatBar
Seat: Selle Dalla Valle – OEM Shape Jonass – Low shape Prado
Front / rear suspension: WP USD 52 MA / WP with linkage – PJ 4.6/50 – JP 4.6/48
Suspension travel: 310 / 300mm
Front / rear brakes: Brembo disc brake 260mm / 220mm
Front / rear rims: Excel Rims 1.60 x 21” / 2.15 x 19” – Kite hubs
Front / rear tyres: Pirelli 80/100-21” / 120/80-19”
Silencer: Akrapović Titanium
Filters: TwinAir
Tank capacity: 7 litres (approx.)
Weight (without fuel): 98.2kg (approx.)

 

Gallery (click to enlarge):

 

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