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Miller's KTM move: A 2023 report card

Wednesday, 4 October 2023

With his home Grand Prix looming large on the horizon, how has Jack Miller's first season in Austrian-owned orange played out? Both surprisingly, and predictable…

The ups and downs of Jack Miller's 2023? You could have seen them coming a mile off. There have been some dire days, some events of explosive pace, and a few weekends that have sat somewhere in between.

After five years of riding for Ducati, Miller's seismic switch to KTM in 2023 has been entirely predictable in terms of its fluctuations of fortunes. Except for one thing: the order in which those swings have come and gone. That a season start much better than expected preceded a mid-year speed bump was the surprising part.

In the end, Miller is betting the antidote to that unwelcome surprise sparks a strong run to the season's finish line, which takes in his home race at the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix. But regardless of how this season ends, Miller sees the KTM move as a success. It's hard to argue.


KTM steps up

Rewind 12 months, and the thought of KTM being the manufacturer to emerge as Ducati's biggest challenger was fanciful, at best. But as Aprilia has stagnated while both Honda and Yamaha have been left behind, it's the Austrian marque that has stepped up. 'Challenger', of course, is relative; in the 28 races (Sprints and Grands Prix) this season, Ducati riders have won 22, taken 12 of 14 pole positions and gobbled up 68 per cent of the podium places. But someone has to be second, and few would have pointed to KTM as being 'best of the rest'.

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Miller's factory KTM partner Brad Binder has been more consistent and less peaky, which you'd expect; the South African hasn't ridden anything but a KTM in any world championship class since 2014. But Miller has never second-guessed his move away from the sport's dominant manufacturer to become Binder's teammate.

Yes, there was contract stability with KTM that Ducati was never going to offer. But there was a chance to be part of something ascendent that was crucial for a rider who is now 28 years old and nearing a decade in the top flight.

Fast starter

Things moved quickly – and positively – out of the gate for Miller in his earliest KTM days. Four weekends into the season at Jerez, he was on the podium in the Sprint and Grand Prix races 24 hours apart. It felt like instant vindication.

"The thing is, I'm not that surprised," he said in Spain.

"We're taking it to the big boys now, and it feels really great. It's the fourth Grand Prix, and we have a good package. Now, it's just time … we're slowly but surely arriving at the front.

"I wanted a new challenge. I took a chance on myself … people in business do it all the time, and it's no different here. Yes, it can come back to bite you on the arse – but we took a risk, and it feels mega when it comes off. I didn't think it would happen this quickly, so I'm stoked."

There were blips – France and the Netherlands produced double-zero results across the two races at Le Mans and Assen – but decent results at tracks where he usually sinks (Mugello) and swims (Sachsenring) wrapped up a first half of the year that was, by Miller's own admission, ahead of schedule. Things looked to be heading only in one direction, which made the next four races hard to take.

Losing his way

Bike changes first trialled at Assen – in an attempt for the Australian to marry his set-up more towards the one employed by Binder to carry the KTM project forwards in a consistent direction – tied Miller in knots. Grip issues and tyre consumption – two of Miller's biggest bugbears – bit hard. His confidence in the front-end of the bike was eroded, then snowballed with several offs. In four rounds from Austria to India, he managed a paltry 19 points to Binder's 61.

"We made some changes a few races ago and it doesn't seem like it's been working great, so now we try to maybe take a step back to attempt to go forward," he said in Austria after plummeting to 15th.

"I just struggled with missing grip, started really suffering on the (corner) exits straight away. I started getting into trouble with guys passing me on the straight, my top speed was down simply because the exit wasn't there out of the corners. Braking felt good, but into all the straights, I just couldn't accelerate."

India – where he fell to last after overshooting the first corner on the second lap trying to make up the places he'd lost when being elbowed off track on the first lap – saw a muted recovery to 14th. But help was on the way – and in a manner that, Miller feels, highlights KTM's ambition.

Step one in the turnaround?

Back in Misano in early September, KTM had wildcard Dani Pedrosa race an all-new carbon fibre chassis, a departure from the steel frame used by Binder and Miller all season. Pedrosa finished fourth on it – Binder said the Spaniard was "smoking us" – and gave it the tick of approval. Not even three weeks after trialling it for themselves in the Misano post-race test, Binder and Miller each had their own carbon fibre chassis – with all of the rear drive grip advantages Pedrosa had pinpointed – at their disposal in Japan.

Coincidence or not – Motegi is one of Miller's stronger circuits – the Australian was instantly back on form in Japan, qualifying on the front row for the first time in six races, finishing fourth in the Sprint for his best Saturday in five months, and finishing sixth in a rain-curtailed Grand Prix.

Was Japan the first sign 2023 could finish with a flourish? That remains to be seen, but while a top-six championship result – as he's achieved for the past two seasons – remains within reach, 2023 isn't all about statistics for Miller. It's where KTM is going, and how he can help them get there, that's worth almost as much.

"Ducati are at the top at the moment, but they've been through the wringer in the past 12 years, they didn't get there overnight," he said at Assen.

"They worked and they pulled themselves out of what was really a dire situation. When I jumped to Ducati back in 2018, it wasn't the top bike in the championship. It was getting better and I could see there were some great engineers involved, and I saw the same thing here with KTM.

"If you'd said last year when I signed for KTM that we would be in this position now, the majority of people would have probably been laughing. But we're working extremely hard and keeping the right mindset, the right attitude."

Jack Miller's 2023 season snapshot

  • Portugal: Qualified 5th, Sprint 4th, Grand Prix 7th
  • Argentina: Qualified 16th, Sprint 10th, Grand Prix 6th
  • Americas: Qualified 10th, Sprint 9th, Grand Prix DNF
  • Spain: Qualified 2nd, Sprint 3rd, Grand Prix 3rd
  • France: Qualified 4th, Sprint DNF, Grand Prix DNF
  • Italy: Qualified 5th, Sprint 6th, Grand Prix 7th
  • Germany: Qualified 3rd, Sprint 3rd, Grand Prix 6th
  • Netherlands: Qualified 12th, Sprint 11th, Grand Prix DNF
  • Great Britain: Qualified 2nd, Sprint 7th, Grand Prix 8th
  • Austria: Qualified 4th, Sprint 5th, Grand Prix 15th
  • Catalunya: Qualified 13th, Sprint 16th, Grand Prix 8th
  • San Marino: Qualified 18th, Sprint 15th, Grand Prix DNF
  • India: Qualified 16th, Sprint 7th, Grand Prix 14th
  • Japan: Qualified 3rd, Sprint 4th, Grand Prix 6th