“I wasn’t ready for MotoGP but I had to take the opportunity” – Iker Lecuona | MotoGP

Even if you subscribe to the notion of “no regrets”, who does not stop from time to time to ask yourself “What if…?” when it comes to ultimately determining whether things would have been different had you said yes when you should have said no, or gone left instead of right.

That’s something Honda WorldSBK rider Iker Lecuona reflects on when asked if he thinks – in retrospect – he did the right thing by accepting KTM’s hasty offer of a World Championship seat. MotoGP 2020 with Tech 3 Racing.

Indeed, even Lecuona himself will admit he was not an obvious choice for a MotoGP promotion when she arrived.

Making his Moto2 debut in 2017, Lecuona was coming to the end of a second full campaign as the second highest placed rider on the KTM chassis. However, in a year dominated by Kalex, that meant he only hovered around the top ten overall.

Considered an unknown quantity as one of the few riders not to have cut his teeth in Moto3, while Lecuona had shown promise with two podiums so far, at just 19 he clearly still had some maturity left. to do.

Then again, big chances like this rarely come along, so while KTM’s offer did come with some risk for the Valencian – which he acknowledges more looking back than back then – he doesn’t regret the choice he made.

“I wasn’t ready,” concedes Lecuona, who then made his debut in the 2019 MotoGP final in Valencia.

“But when I had the opportunity I said yes because you don’t know what will happen in the future, so in this case KTM gave me the chance and I took it.”

It’s a situation he assesses in retrospect with relaxed honesty, both when assessing his fractured relationship with KTM and his own performance on the steepest learning curves.

If Lecuona can afford such frankness, it may be because he does so from a very happy and sedentary place competing with Honda in the WorldSBK Championship.

Indeed, far from feeling bitter about his MotoGP exit, Lecuona is thriving with his higher status in WorldSBK. It’s a sense of pride gleaned from representing such an esteemed brand that allows Lecuona to believe he’s in exactly the right place when the time comes.

“I don’t think I was ready to take the plunge,” he repeats. “But I knew that if KTM gave me time, I could learn quickly and fight for the top. By the end of the first year, I was fighting in the top ten, fighting with Valentino in Austria. [where he scored his best result of sixth] and I was P6 at Misano with two laps to go [before he crashed].

“It’s a different philosophy in general, in MotoGP you need time as a rider and in my case I didn’t have a lot of that. I’m [was] a rookie, and you want to get to the top fast but I needed more time.

The youngest MotoGP veteran

Two years later, Lecuona’s tenure in MotoGP was already over at 21, a younger age than most riders who have made and will make their debut in the premier class.

That’s not to say his short time in MotoGP saw him disgrace, but a combination of youth, limited GP experience and machines that weren’t always up to snuff were as strong rivals as anyone. with whom he shared the track.

Running on the periphery of KTM’s attention as it focused its efforts on factory setup, Lecuona suffered from not sharing the same internal status as proteges Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira.

Along with KTM’s uneven adherence to its commitment to ensuring the Factory and Tech 3 teams near parity in parts and development, Lecuona often found himself slipping through the cracks.

“I must say that at KTM I tried a lot of new parts. During the tests I used different parts, but that’s because I feel changes [on a bike]. A little change I feel, so I tried a lot of things but they always came late for me to race.

“I’m not a factory rider, so they gave the parts to the other guys. The factory takes a step, then I am the last to collect the material to get closer to the official bike. It was frustrating for me, as my MotoGP bike goes up and down.

“I had factory support, like engineers, but it’s not the same as coming in and feeling like a factory rider. Now [with Honda] I feel like a factory rider, it gives me a new attitude to work.

And so, having taken a leap of faith in accepting his chance in MotoGP, Lecuona now wonders what could have been. However, rather than wondering if he should have waited, he’s glad he took a chance that might never have happened otherwise.

“All my life, when I have an opportunity, I try to seize it and use it,” he continues. “In 2015, I won a Supermotard championship, then I immediately switched to Moto2. Everything is going fast because I used my opportunities. The trick may pass once, twice or three times, but you never know.

“To me, MotoGP is a different level, but it’s different bikes and it’s a world championship, so you have to fight and learn.

“A lot last year [in MotoGP], with all the problems at KTM, I changed my philosophy and tried to enjoy the moments and keep the positives. That’s when I started going fast.

Honda way

Although Lecuona ultimately didn’t realize his MotoGP ambitions, there’s reason to believe that wouldn’t have led to him forging a new career path to the WorldSBK championship with Honda.

What’s more, this time he’s doing it with the full support of the factory behind him, making him feel – for the first time in his career – like a priority.

“As early as December, I walked in and felt that,” he says with a broad smile. “You feel like a factory rider. I have the same people in my garage as in MotoGP, but it feels like a factory team.

“If there is a new suspension part for example, that part works well, I can take it and use it and improve it. It’s a good thing for me – right now you feel like a factory driver.

Lecuona’s transition from MotoGP to WorldSBK is certainly nothing new. Indeed, since Max Biaggi set the standard by abandoning his GP ambitions in favor of an immensely successful Superbike career, many “pilgrims” have walked the same well-worn path.

However, what sets Lecuona apart is that he does it during the nascent phase of his career, when his peers – such as Alvaro Bautista, Marco Melandri, Randy de Puniet and Nicky Hayden – did (do ) at the end of theirs.

It was this sense of “better yet to come” that convinced Honda to place him under its “red wing” for the 2022 WorldSBK Championship, believing it can nurture him for the success he could have achieved in MotoGP in other ways. other circumstances.

“Before signing them [Lecuona and team-mate Xavi Vierge]we did as much homework as we could on the riders,” Honda WorldSBK team boss Leon Camier said in February.

“But until you get to the first test you don’t know how it’s going to go, but the first impressions are really good.

“It will take time for them, there’s a lot to learn, so we don’t expect them to know right away, but it’s something we expect. It’s an investment for the coming. “

While most riders are certainly looking for the attention of factory support, that often comes with added pressure to get results as well.

However, somewhat ironically, Lecuona finds quite the opposite. Indeed, while he can compete under the watchful eye of the world’s biggest manufacturer and its hugely successful motorsport arm, Honda’s modest return to WorldSBK as a factory HRC since 2020 has tempered his expectations. short term.

It was a lower bar that prompted Lecuona to try to pass them, as evidenced by his run to the podium in his second meeting in Assen. Only Honda’s third WorldSBK podium since 2020, it’s no exaggeration to say the result was celebrated as a victory.

“When I came to this team I knew the target and the targets, for the factory, but everyone – the good thing for me – they know the level of the bike. So if I finish seventh it’s a good result, a great fifth, but the podium was a big, big victory… for me.

“During many races we did not speak”

Now more settled and motivated than ever, Lecuona’s current state stands in stark contrast to his final months at KTM. With Remy Gardner known to be tied to Tech 3 for 2022, Lecuona found himself embroiled in an unhealthy rivalry with new teammate Danilo Petrucci for the remaining seat.

This led to Lecuona completely deflecting the amiable Italian in order to gain the advantage over him. However, when it became clear that no riders would be retained for 2023, relations thawed.

In fact, Petrucci praised Lecuona as the 2021 season reached its final stages, calling the Spaniard’s best KTM rider since August.

“Me and Danilo have been frustrated all year. For many races we didn’t talk much because we were fighting to stay in the team. The first races I said ‘no, I don’t feel not well with him

“Then when we knew we were nowhere, we started talking and I realized he was a really good guy.”

While Lecuona emerged from MotoGP on good terms with Petrucci, the same cannot be said for KTM after stoking rivalry between Tech 3 riders, only to hire – decidedly reluctant – Raul Fernandez.

“KTM, on my side, did really, really badly. First with the Moto2 guys Remy and Raul, then also Danilo and me. At the moment I [knew I] didn’t want to stay with KTM. Even Raul, when he was riding Moto2, said he didn’t want to go to KTM in MotoGP.

“It looks really bad for the factory, but I don’t care. That’s life, I’m in WorldSBK with Honda at the factory and I think I’ve chosen the best path.

Although still young, Lecuona nevertheless speaks with a maturity and wisdom that belies his age but betrays the accelerated pace at which he had to develop while competing in the toughest arena of motorcycle racing.

With Honda determined to give their riders the valuable time they lacked at KTM, it was a change in philosophy that Lecuona says made all the difference for him.

“It calms me down, gives me time to relax and not get upset.

“I get angry sometimes because I want to win and I know I can do it – but I know we need time.

“For me, I win a lot in general – personally, professionally…I’m happy.”

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