At the La Favorita Hotel in Mantova, invited media from across Europe were joined by dealers, partners and KTM staff to form an estimated audience of over two hundred people who witnessed the presentation of their eight-rider works effort to cover MX1, MX2, Women’s World Championship and AMA Motocross. With equal billing was the 350 SX-F; a motorcycle conjured by the hungry MX1 title ambitions of Team Manager and ten times world champion Stefan Everts and KTM Off-Road Sport Director Pit Beirer, the idea sold to CEO Stefan Peirer and since generated by the coordination of the race team and the R&D department in the Mattighofen factory.
In a year where KTM hacked away a hefty percentage of their workforce, severed their reasonably successful road racing wing and endeavored to reduce debts caused by a fall of 25-30 percent sales in Europe and more than 50 percent in the U.S., the attention and motivation for the 350 was a "return to focusing on KTM’s core business," Peirer commented.
The production of the motorcycle –that was seen for the first time at the ICMA show in Milan several months before – benefitted from the development experience of Everts, but the rapid rate in which it was made, evolved and placed in the gate at such scale at the Mantova Starcross the same weekend could only be managed by a dedicated off-road firm; even if the company can still forage ahead proactively thanks to numerical sustenance from the Austrian government. For the Japanese (facing other priorities with a national financial crisis and unfriendly Yen conversions) a similar scheme or project would have been unrealistic, as Everts commented: "It would be impossible."
Everts continued, "That is why I left to come to KTM because they are so open. Mr. Peirer can be quite crazy because he really gets behind any ideas he likes. The Japanese are more secure and closed, but with these people you work directly at the source and there is no going around the block. KTM is a company which is open-minded which I like and we can go in many different directions."
Aside from the addition of a suspension link, something of a radical departure for KTM, another philosophy laid behind the genesis of the bike and the intent to subvert the 450s. "The link is just one part," said Beirer. "We were working on a completely new frame concept with new technology that gives a different feeling to the rider. Everyone’s bikes are getting too strong and too heavy for motocross tracks, from hobby riders up to professionals, and we feel the 350 gives more power back to the rider and more possibilities to pass on the track. People can have fun on this bike."
Can a 350 really establish what the KTM PR representatives were labeling as a ‘new era’ in motocross? "It is a difficult question and we will have to wait and see how the results go," remarked Everts on the influence it could have at the pinnacle of MX1 GP racing. "It is a brand new bike and normally you have some problems that come out in the first year. You will always have some disadvantages against the 450s because they will have more torque and acceleration at some points but there are many tracks where the average speed is quite low so they can be matched. 450s will need to brake earlier and the 350 can carry more corner speed; the advantage will swing back and forth."
And what better way to demonstrate the machine’s potential than to sign the world champion, along with his team? Tony Cairoli’s change from blue to orange and his alliance with 2009 number-two Max Nagl matches a formidable duo. It seemed clear that Nagl would continue with the 450 on which he shone last season, Portugal’s Rui Goncalves would lead development with the 350 and Cairoli could choose between; as long as be brought a title home. With Goncalves’ recent shoulder operation requiring a lengthy lay-off the pressure mounted on Cairoli and boss Claudio De Carli to show the 350’s worth. "I am enjoying the 350 and we still have time to test," the Sicilian said to the audience. "We have to find the right direction with the bike but I think it will be a good season. I prefer riding a 250 compared to a 450 so this bike is good for me. I have been on it for two months so maybe I am a bit better prepared than everyone else."
From Cairoli’s clear speed at Mantova and the bike’s good behavior on a heavy and rough sandy track the signs are already worrying for his rivals, even at this absurdly early stage of 2010. "Tony is a consistent rider and knows how to win a championship, but there will be tracks where the other guys will have trouble to stay with him because this bike handles so easy and well on the jumps and turns," forewarned Everts.
KTM have MX2 world champion Marvin Musquin back by British champion Shaun Simpson and rated Dutch teenager Jeffrey Herlings in MX2, while women’s number one Steffy Laier also maintains factory status. The addition of Mike Alessi, who disappointingly could not manage the harsh nature of the Mantova sand due to a shoulder complaint, means the 350 will be getting input from an American stage. "It is a great motorcycle but it is in the beginning stages," he offered. "It will not happen overnight, but I think it is definitely something that will be looked into in the future. The 450s are too fast."
Alessi will of course face his first serious adventures on the 350 at the opening three rounds of the world championship on the hard-packs of Bulgaria and Italy and then the sand of Valkenswaard in Holland. "After eight or nine months without a race I just want to get out there and get my confidence up, knock those cobwebs out," he said. "I think it is a great series. Being a world champion has a lot of prestige. Not many people can say they are a champion of the world. I believe it has more prestige than the AMA." On racing Cairoli? "I ain’t pulling over for no-one and I’m sure he wouldn’t for me! We are out there to win." KTM are not only hoping but investing in the same belief.