The Austrian manufacturer claimed both the MXGP and MX2 titles at the hands of Tony 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.
The 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 team-mate 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.
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,” he said.
“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 the 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 team-mates.
Let’s take a closer look at the machines that conquered the world in 2017.
To the naked eye, both Factory 450 SX-Fs look the same, but it’s the tiny details that set 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 softer 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!
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.
The 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 15 holeshots in total in 2017. An all-round, fabulous motorcycle.
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-Fs 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 20 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.
As Technical Director, Dirk Greubel had to act and he had to act quickly.
“Until the crash pre-season the two bikes were very similar,” said Greubel.
“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 10 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, 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.
Here’s Herlings’ take on the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing 450 SX-F: “All of the Factory bikes are a little bit the same I would say. Everyone has their personal wishes, but it’s not that there is something really specifically different on my bike from the others.
“I like to have my handlebar a little bit back, and my levers down, which are all personal things – not everybody would like to ride that way. I like a really soft seat, like at home on the couch. I even tell my mechanic to go to the bath tub, put it full of water and put the thing in so it’s nice and soft, because when it’s really hard, man my ass starts hurting! I just want a soft seat.
“With my brake pedal and shift lever mine are quite low in comparison to some of the guys in the team but I’ve always ridden that way. My suspension is pretty neutral, I don’t know too much about it but we find a basic setting and change the clickers from hard to sand and sand to hard.”
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-ups. 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,” added Greubel.
“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.”
In 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 29 race wins, 17 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?
Technical specification 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: Akrapovic, Titanium
- Filters: DT1 (Cairoli, Coldenhoff) TwinAir (Herlings)
- Race fuel: ETS
- Tank capacity: 7 litres (approx)
- Weight (without fuel): 100.2kg (approx)