More settled, healthy, and relishing a brand new challenge, Aussie Jack Miller is primed to hit season 2023 head on
No one can accuse Aussie Jack Miller of shying away from a challenge. The Australian fronts up to one of the biggest of his career in 2023, joining KTM after a five-year spell at Ducati, the marque that conquered all before it last year. If preseason is anything to go by, the Austrian factory still has some catching up to do. But it’s a task the 28-year old is relishing.
For the first time in six seasons, Miller enters the first race knowing his future for the following season is already sorted. The two-year deal on offer to partner Brad Binder in KTM’s factory squad for 2023 and 2024 was one of several reasons he returns to the marque where he fnished second in the 2014 Moto3 world title.
It’s clear to even a casual observer of the sport that KTM isn’t currently on Ducati’s level. The three-day outing at Sepang in early February underlined there is still some way to go as Miller finished with the 18th fastest time, 1.012sec behind pace setter Luca Marini. As such, the four-time MotoGP race winner isn’t expecting miracles at the beginning of his KTM tenure.
“For sure it’s not easy. Switching manufacturers, bikes and riding styles all factors into it,” he said ahead of the commencement of preseason testing. “It’s never easy when you’re stuck in your ways and habits you learned on another motorcycle. You have to get rid of them or adapt. I don’t want to look at other people’s results and base my adaptation off that. I’m just here to do the best I can”.
“In a perfect world if we gel in the first tests then we’d be there in Portimao. But that’s a perfect world. The biggest thing is stay fit and healthy, do as much on the bike to make it second nature as possible and understand what it needs. This first quarter is going to be the most crucial part of the year, just understanding the bike and what we need to do with it.”
Miller wasn’t only signed for his riding prowess (four wins and 22 podiums in 137 MotoGP starts). He comes from a five-year stretch at Ducati where he was partly responsible for its rise to current ruler of the class. As teammate Brad Binder stated: “He comes with all the knowledge of Ducati and the feeling he’s gained over the year. That gives us a great opportunity to see which direction we need to move in.”
Hiring the Australian continues the theme of KTM’s recent strategy of aggressively acquiring figures from Ducati. Prior to last year, names such as Fabio Sterlacchini (Head of Technology MotoGP) and Francesco Guidotti (Team Manager), who worked with Miller at Pramac Ducati, were brought on board to bolster its ranks.
Now Cristhian Pupulin (Miller’s crew chief) and Alberto Giribuola (Performance Engineer) have also joined from Bologna. Seeing some old faces from his Ducati days has helped the Australian bed into KTM’s new way of working.
“It’s been really good to be back working with Francesco. We have a lot of experience together. He’s a fantastic team boss. Then with Pipi my crew chief, to bring him across was a crucial part of it. It’s good you’re not learning new people, it’s not completely foreign, nothing feels really new.”
The first touch with a new machine is often revealing. Valentino Rossi later reflected he knew within several laps of his first test with Ducati at the end of 2010 that the next two years would be a slog. It was tempting to assume Miller would think the same, given he was jumping off the bike that finished first and fifth in the championship to one that scored just two dry-weather podiums all year.
But Miller seemed pleasantly surprised by his first test aboard the RC16 at Valencia last November.
“That showed me a lot,” he recently reflected. “I understood a lot more in a one-day test than I thought I could. I was able to get pretty comfortable relatively quick, make it feel a bit like second nature. We didn’t get to play around that much. My biggest mindset was it’s me riding the bike. I’m not listening to what’s being said outside. I’m there to learn the bike for myself, to not let something niggle and influence my decision or riding. That helped.
“What struck me the most riding the bike was how consistent the bike was. I don’t want to say it was easy, because riding a MotoGP bike isn’t easy, but the way the bike was configured was relatively easy to ride. The bike didn’t want to wheelie too much, didn’t want to slide too much. A lot of limitations, let’s say, in the TC and wheelie department. But when the bike came alive there wasn’t a lot of power there. That was the biggest thing initially.
“Then with KTM, just the professionalism inside the company, inside the project, the amount of guys here writing, taking notes, wanting to hear from you at the end of the day. They’re working extremely hard to make this project succeed. And what struck me the most was how hungry these guys and excited they are to succeed.
“Of course, there are differences. With Ducati, leaving that team, that bike when I did, was my decision. It was something I felt comfortable about and still do – excited for the new challenge
“Working with guys like Fabiano, Pipi, Albie and Francesco, we’ve taken a lot of great guys from Ducati. I believe with the open mentality KTM has and the force they have behind the project, and these great minds involved, there’s no telling where this thing can end. I’m honoured to be part of it.
“There are differences in the bike for sure. Nonetheless the KTM has, as we’ve seen in the past, its strong points and weak points. The goal is to eliminate as many weak points as possible. Having these guys come across, understanding what Ducati did in the past, and seeing whether some of the problems they had in the past correlate with KTM, and if they don’t then it’s about trying to come up with new solutions.
“Just from Valencia I felt there was a lot of potential with this motorcycle. With the right people around, we can make it work.”
Not that it was all plain sailing. The Malaysian test underscored the scale of the task facing KTM. Across three days, Binder and Miller tried new engines, aerodynamic packages and other parts in a bid to piece the right package together – a tall order in just five days, especially as the Australian was still learning his new steed.
The fastest KTM finished 0.9sec off the quickest Ducati and, after a slow slip-off on the final day, Miller admitted he had “hit a wall” when understanding the best way forward.
“We’re trying to understand what we need from the bike,” he said. “It seems like we hit a wall so understanding in terms of geometry, what we can do to make me a feel a bit more comfortable. We can see on the data I’m suffering quite a lot compared to the other boys mid-corner, getting the thing to rotate and get off the turn.
“Every day I seem to hop on it and find something new, which is cool. It’s exciting to adapt and understand because so many things are different. You can really see some of the positives in there. It’s just about knowing how to ride this thing to exploit the strong points.”
But the prizes of getting it right could land Miller in the history books. Should he become the third different rider to win aboard KTM machinery, he would pull off the unique feat of winning premier class races with three different factories – something no other rider has managed in the four-stroke era.
“It’s an amazing thing to be considered for,” he said of the possibility. “I’m excited. We’ll be pushing week in week out to make this succeed. I want to say I hope so, but MotoGP nowadays is no joke. We’ve done two of the three. Now we’re stepping on the third so we’ll give it a crack.”
Psyched to sprint
This new chapter in Miller’s career comes as MotoGP enters into a new era. For the first time in its 75-year history, the series will pit its competitors against one another in two races a weekend, rather than one. This new format, which sees riders race 42 times across 21 rounds, has been welcomed by the #43.
And there is good reason to suspect it will work to Miller’s strengths. Firstly, the rider from Townsville’s qualifying record has been excellent recently, as he posted 15 front-row starts across the past two seasons. And good starts and strong openings to races were also a trademark of 2022.
Could those traits lend themselves to the sprint format, where races will be held on Saturdays of race weekends over half-race distance.
“I would like to think so,” said Miller. “Coming from Australia, a dirt track and motocross background where you race relatively short races, I did a dirt track race here at home and it took me half a day to understand how important the start and first corner is. If we look to the past, the first half of the races are my strongest.
“I’m super excited to have the sprint races this year to shake it up a bit, to be able to put on an extra show on Saturday for the fans. Also for the riders, MotoGP has been the same for 50 years. To be in a radical change, it’s an amazing time to be here. There are some questions, but I’m sure after the first one or two everyone will love it and some will prefer the sprint races to the full ones.”
And an afternoon of riding at Sepang in the rain underlined the RC16’s potential when wet Michelin tyres are fitted.
“The bike has a huge potential in the wet,” he said. “Maybe one of the weaker points in the dry becomes its strength in the wet, gaining that grip off the corners. We want to have that in the dry. But to have it in our arsenal, if it does rain on a Sunday, we’re ready for it.”
Raised and ready
The Australian summer offered Miller a deserved break after a year that was memorable on both a professional and personal level. He married Ruby Mau at the start of October – just before his home race at Phillip Island – less than seven months after the pair got engaged. Then in March 2023 came the news that Ruby and Jack are expecting their first addition to the newly minted Miller family.
In between motocross riding, competing at the final round of the Australian Superbike Championship at The Bend Motorsport Park and training for the year ahead, Miller got in some downtime before the schedule picked up again.
“Being back home has been really nice,” he said. “I’ve been enjoying summer. I took some weeks off before Christmas to unwind. Now back into the full swing of things. We headed to New Zealand over the break and caught up with the family, and then after being in Austria we went for our honeymoon. It was really nice to have some downtime after such a long year and an even bigger year ahead.”
Once known as something of a party animal, Miller cuts a more settled figure these days. It’s something Guidotti immediately noticed when comparing the 2023 version of Jack to the rider he managed from 2018 to 2020.
“Jack’s a different person,” said the Italian team manager recently. “He grew up a lot in the last two years. He already made a big change during our days together. Also, we’re three years older! So everybody is different, everything has changed quite a lot, especially after 2020 with Covid and everything.
“But Jack looks very mature now. He got married and for sure he’s thinking more. I think it’s the right moment to move from a comfortable zone as he had in Ducati. It’s a new challenge. It’s a strong challenge.
“But for sure he’s really motivated from moving from a factory team to another factory team. It gives him a lot of confidence.”
Ahead of arguably the biggest challenge of his career, that should stand the Australian in good stead in 2023. And every Aussie MotoGP fan will be behind him.
Words Neil Morrison + Photography G&G and KTM