KTM pinning hopes on Pol Espargaro saying no to Honda

KTM is still hoping Pol Espargaro chooses the Austrian team over Repsol Honda amid talk that he is on his way to the title-winning MotoGP team

Pol Espargaro - KTM Factory Racing [1200]

KTM race manager Mike Leitner says he remains hopeful Pol Espargaro will choose to commit his future to the Austrian team despite the offer a switch to the title winning Repsol Honda team for the 2021 MotoGP season.

Last week rumours emerged that Espargaro had been offered a deal to join Marc Marquez in the all-conquering team, though it is unclear if the deal has been done.

From KTM’s perspective, they say it isn’t ‘100 per cent’ certain the Spaniard, who joined KTM for its MotoGP debut in 2017 and has helped it progress into a regular top ten finisher, will be on his way out at the end of the year.

Despite the potentially abrupt end to their relationship, Leitner has nothing but praise for the performance of Espargaro and says it is testament to the nurturing environment of KTM to bring the best out of the Spaniard and attract a team like Honda.

“For us, this is not yet 100 percent certain,” he told Speedweek. “But I still hope that the situation with Pol turns out differently than everyone thinks now. And in the event that it is not, we are currently talking to a few drivers.

“You have to recognize that we have apparently done a very good job in the past three years because not only has our motorcycle become more competitive, but because our MotoGP project has also grown Pol as a rider. We have to accept that we are now in a situation where the Honda factory team wants the Pol Espargaró. I would certainly prefer it to be different... But now it is.”

Espargaro’s exit would leave KTM with a major headache with regards to replacing him, having been forced to put its faith in a largely inexperienced line-up (Brad Binder, Miguel Oliveira, Iker Lecuona) following Johann Zarco’s premature and disruptive exit just six months into a two-year deal last year.

One option would be to convince its ultra-experienced and MotoGP race-winning development rider Dani Pedrosa to return to a race seat, but Leitner doesn’t want to force him to compete if he doesn’t want to.

“You have to ask Dani. I can't look into his head. KTM will be careful not to persuade a rider to ride MotoGP.”

What are KTM’s options if Pol Espargaro leaves?

Danilo Petrucci has already put himself forward for a KTM ride following confirmation he is on his way out of Ducati at the end of the year.

The Italian says he is keen on the idea of joining a burgeoning project such as KTM, though this could also apply to Aprilia who are likely to take a punt on him if Andrea Iannone’s fails in his bid to overturn his current drugs suspension.

Another rider that could find himself out of a ride at the end of the year is Cal Crutchlow, who could end up the big loser from Honda’s Espargaro-influenced reshuffle. Many expect Honda to hold onto Alex Marquez, but would shift him over to the LCR Honda squad where he’s most likely to be paired with Takaaki Nakagami.

As such, Crutchlow could find himself courting KTM for a ride and given his experience, plus his intimate knowledge of the Honda RC213V – said to be most comparable to the RC16 – he could prove asset of a signing.

Alternatively, Alex Marquez – who was targeted for 2020 - could remain an option too if he cuts himself loose at the prospect of losing a factory ride.

KTM may also put their faith in their existing line-up with Oliveira, who by then will be starting his third season with the manufacturer and bring in another youngster for its Tech 3 satellite team.