Rewind to last year’s Hankook 24H BARCELONA. At quarter-distance, and despite being pipped to category pole position the previous day, True-Racing currently holds a commanding 1-2 lead in the ‘SPX’ class. Though attention on the pit perch will stay razor-sharp for the remainder of the event, the mood around us in the German team’s hospitality area is one of quiet confidence.
Few demonstrate that more than the gentleman sitting in front of us. His name is Gerald Kiska, and he’s one of five drivers entered in the #217 True-Racing KTM (our chat actually takes place shortly after his first stint in the GTX). He’s also the founder and namesake of KISKA, the design studio behind KTM for close to three decades. Though not the ‘K’ in KTM, just to belie a common misconception, there’s little Gerald doesn’t know about the Austrian marque.
Nobody is popping champagne corks in the True-Racing trucks just yet though. There’s still 16 hours of flat-out endurance racing left to run, and as we’ve seen many times in the 24H SERIES, anything can, and often does, happen. On top of that, the 2019 24H SERIES Europe season finale is also the first real world test of not only the KTM prototype but also its brand-new, mid/rear-mounted beating heart…
“The major difference is the five-cylinder engine we got from Audi, which they use in the TT RS,” Gerald explains, a bottle of water in-hand to battle the stifling Catalan temperatures. “It’s a 2.5-litre, direct injection five-cylinder that provides around 420hp, compared with the [X-BOW] GT4, which uses a 2-litre four-cylinder. We wanted to test that engine under race conditions to see whether its worth incorporating into future production.
“With the five-cylinder engine, we are quite happy because it’s a very modern engine. Very light in terms of power-to-weght ratio and it’s a brilliant piece of technology. Due to the low weight of the car, it seems to be an ideal package. [Here], we run the standard 2.5-litre standard engine without any kind of tuning. You can gain a little bit by opening the intake and exhust, but it’s not much. Maybe 10-15 horses more than standard.
“We do not have car engines at KTM, and a motorcycle engine is not built for heavy vehicles. The biggest engine KTM produces for two wheelers is 180hp two-cylinder, which would be nowhere near enough to run a car proper. There was no way around that, and it would take a certain amount of money and time to develop a four, five or six cylinder engine. But KTM has always had a very close relationship to Audi. We asked if they could support us and they were more than happy to do that.”
Of course, the new X-BOW GTX is just the latest in a rich – and surprisingly long – history for the company founded as ‘Kraftfahrzeuge Trunkenpolz Mattighofen’ by engineer Hans Trunkenpolz in Mattighofen, Austria, in 1934. Following a re-brand as ‘[new partner, Ernst] Kronreif, Trunkenpolz, Mattighofen’ in 1953 and saved from bankruptcy in 1991, KTM Sportsmotorcycle GmbH has very much become the byword for two-wheeled, off-road competition. As of last year, KTM had already secured – deep breath – 96 MXGP, MX1, and MX2 world championships since 1974; 114 E1, E2, E3, and Super Enduro world titles since 1990; 260 titles in AMA Supercross; 37 world titles in cross country rally races; and is a 15-time winner of the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship.
Then there’s the Dakar Rally record. Having made its debut in 1994, KTM had already secured six podium finishes in the Bikes class prior to the late Fabrizio Meoni’s wins on the event in 2001 and 2002. It would be another 19 years before anything other than a KTM won the Dakar – courtesy of Ricky Brabec’s 2020 win aboard a Honda CRF 450 Rally – by which point the Austrian marque had locked out the Bikes podium 10 times and taken 82 per cent of the podiums since 2001. Not even Kamaz, a 17-time winner with a further 22 podiums to its name, can boast that level of dominance on the world’s toughest rally.
But would KTM ever be ‘ready to race’ on four wheels? Such was the question posed at a meeting between Gerald Kiska and KTM CEO Stefan Pierer in late 2005, during which the “worrying state of the European motorcycle market” led to discussion of a new lightweight sports car. One that characterized KTM’s philosophy of excitement and driving purity, albeit with an additional two wheels. A machine that took Colin Chapman’s ‘add lightness’ concept and brought it into the 21st century.
15 years after his conceptual re-design of the KTM LC4 had effectively handed him carte blanche over the look of KTM, Gerald was given a clean sheet to work with once again….
“The basic idea was to bring the feeling and experience of a motorcycle ride to the car industry,” Gerald continues. “That meant less weight and more power compared to a standard car, so the original car started with around 850kg and about 300hp. But the design of the car still [resembles] a motorcycle: we show the mechanics, we show the technical side under the skin with just a minium of fairing, and the rest is pretty visible. This was always part of the concept with the X-BOW. It was an illustration of what KTM could do in the car world.
“It’s basically the Lotus Super Seven of the 21st century.”
Thus the basics of the X-BOW were set…wait, hang on…X-BOW…?
“The crossbow is the highest developed mechanical weapon, and that was the leading idea of the car in the first instance. We really wanted to do a mechanical car, not an electronically steered car, so that’s why the name was given. It’s a kind of a weapon, but it’s a mechanical weapon, so the crossbow is probably the best equivalent on the arms side.
“We also wanted to bring the highest safety standards to the car as possible. The stiffness of the X-BOW is a lot higher than any normal streetcar would provide, especially torsional stiffness, where we are three-to-four times better than a standard sports car. Even the seats are integrated, so basically you sit in the monocoque, which only weighs about 70kg. Add a crash structure at the front and aluminium frame – or in case of the 5-cylinder, steel – to hold the engine and gearbox, plus suspension and the fairing, and that’s about it.”
Following its global debut at the 2007 Geneva Motor Show (in “Gleaming White” as opposed to the marque’s hallmark orange), interest in KTM’s first-ever car quickly built-up steam. At the same event one year later, and following more than a million testing kilometres, the limited edition ‘KTM X-BOW Dallara’ series was unveiled in production-ready form, the first of only 100 planned examples set to roll-out to customers from the company’s new Graz facility in the months that followed.
By April, a ‘Race’ version, FIA homologated for GT4 competition, had also been unveiled, two of which were built for that year’s GT4 European Cup. They finished 1-2 in-class first time out at Silverstone, Christopher Haase securing a further two wins en-route to that year’s ‘Sports Light crown’ with Reiter Engineering. That limited edition ‘Dallara’ run of 100 sold out pretty quickly.
With customer intrigue piqued, it wasn’t long before new editions of KTM’s mechanical weapon arrived on the scene. In 2011, the company introduced the ‘X-BOW R’, a faster and nimbler edition boasting a larger turbo and elbowing power up from 240hp to 300hp (that the four-cylinder was also mounted directly to the chassis meant overall rigidity was further improved). By 2013, the ‘R’ had been joined by the ‘GT’, a more user-friendly example boasting such luxuries as a windscreen and side mirrors, albeit with power reined back to a “more manageable” 285hp.
2014 though would prove arguably the most crucial year yet, as the silks were pulled from the ‘X-BOW GT4’, the company’s first thoroughbred race car.
“When the GT4 class became more popular, we decided to make the step up by adding a few pieces to the original ‘street’ car. The GT4 was developed together with Reiter Engineering. From KTM came all the ingredients that were already there with the streetcar, and Hans [Reiter] brought the racing expertise into this relationship. His team has developed all the parts that differentiate the streetcar from the race car.”
Built atop a carbon monocoque, one drawn directly from a Dallara Formula 3 single seater chassis, and with the design once again overseen by KISKA, the new GT4 boasted race-spec suspension, bespoke brakes specifically designed by AP Racing, an FIA-homologated crash cell complete with a carbon-aluminium ‘crashbox’ at the front, and a 1,984cc four-cylinder that sent 360hp and 500Nm to the rear wheels via a six-speed Holinger transmission, the latter equipped with “pure GT3 technology”. It was also absurdly light, tipping the scales at just 975kg, and could thus shift at a vast rate of knots: 0-100kph was done in less than four seconds, lateral acceleration hitting a dizzying 2G in the process.
Enter, also, the canopy, which had since become one of KTM’s most revered design elements. Admittedly, not by choice.
“That was due to the regulations. The GT4 class doesn’t allow open cars, so we had to put ‘a hat’ on the car. We didn’t want to change the monocoque – it’s exactly the same as we use on the steeetcar, so there was no other way to do it. Plus, it save a lot of complexity, and it saves weight compared to normal construction.
“The canopy doesn’t do much in a crash, but we have a very solid steel structure underneath and the roll cage really protects you from all sides. To be honest, we’ve had a couple of accidents already – all of us! – because we’ve been racing this car for more than 10 years now. If I ever had to have a crash in a car, I would be happy for it to be in an X-BOW.”
Performance potential that, in the 24H SERIES alone, has already raised eyebrows. RTR Projects took the X-BOW GT4’s maiden class podium first time of asking at Brno in 2015, CCS Racing and True-Racing following that up with class podiums of their own during intermittent campaigns in 2016. Amazingly, though plenty more category podiums would follow in the coming years, it wasn’t until RTR Projects collected the ‘SP2’ chequered flag in Mugello in 2019 that the X-BOW finally secured a class victory in the 24H SERIES. Admittedly, this one result opened the floodgates, with three more wins following in rapid succession that year. One of which, fittingly, was True-Racing in Barcelona 2019.
Unfortunately for KISKA, it’s not ‘Gerald’s car’ that collects the win in Barcelona. While the #216 GTX enjoys a flawless run to the flag, and even finishes inside the overall top 10, the sister #217 loses almost 90 minutes to a full engine change shortly after half-distance, rogue tyre pick-up on-track destroying the V-Belt and causing the five-cylinder to overheat. 4th in-class is a solid if slightly disappointing result on an otherwise successful weekend. Indeed, few are surprised when the five-cylinder – a successful maiden outing now in the bag – is confirmed at the heart of KTM’s production X-BOW GTX, set to be released this autumn alongside a 600hp ‘GT2’.
Our story doesn’t end there though. Fast forward to March 2020, and the KTM GTX, now equipped with new electrical power steering (complete with an integrated display in the steering wheel), electrical gearbox actuator, an homologated Recaro competition seat, and the vibrant colours of KTM’s new technical partner Valvoline, has returned to the 24H SERIES fold. Entered for the inaugural Hankook 12H MONZA under the Reiter Engineering umbrella, the newboy, once again, delivers an impressive showing.
Indeed, not only does the Reiter Engineering-entered ‘GTX Concept’ lead Monza’s longest-ever endurance event, on merit, for 35 laps (that Audi five-cylinder can really stretch its legs down the Autodromo’s 1.1km start-finish straight), the GTX also heads the overall field into the event’s overnight intervention. In bittersweet déjà vu though, unforeseen drivetrain issues on Saturday afternoon end up costing the KTM a well-deserved ‘GTX’ class win, and even an overall podium spot. Reiter Engineering do at least manage to salvage 3rd in-class in another impressive showing for the prototype X-BOW GTX.
As a still-smiling Laura Kraihamer collects the team’s silverware on the makeshift Monza podium, I’m reminded of a statement with which Gerald Kiska ended our conversation in the Barcelona paddock six months earlier. One that suggests this is far from the last we’ll see of KTM’s Lotus Super-Seven any time soon…
“We’re going to continue developing this car. The monocoque is good enough for the next 10 years, so there is no need to think about stopping the program. We’re going to continue developing this car. There is no reason to take our foot off the pedal.”
*Gerald Kiska was speaking with James Gent at the 2019 Hankook 24H BARCELONA. Images courtesy of Petr Frýba.