A New Threat?

Somewhere, among the nervous shifting in his seat and avoidance of questioning, there was a revelation of sorts in Fabio Quartararo’s debrief on Sunday. Aware that a further penalty was coming his way, the Frenchman was doing his best to give away next-to-nothing on the odd closing exchange at Montmeló as his challenge quite literally came apart at the seams.

While his responses were clipped, his body crossed and eyes darted nervously from left to right, the Frenchman shed light on how the race would have ended even if hadn’t had disrobed. Quartararo’s response intimated that while he was “saving the tyre” for a late push, “Miguel was so strong… I didn’t have the feeling of this morning.”

This observation went somewhat unnoticed on Sunday evening amid the clamour to understand how his leathers had come undone, and how a victory that had been talked about as a ‘given’, had somehow slipped through his grasp. Yes, a series of events contrived for him to fail. But as the 22-year old said himself, the number one factor in the result wasn’t his faults; it was Oliveira’s brilliance.

The Portuguese rider was perfect at a track where KTM’s RC16 had scored a previous best result of seventh. The last fortnight might rank as the Austrian factory’s finest in MotoGP. In what has been a remarkable turnaround from floundering at the first round one of the year both Mugello and Catalunya underlined KTM’s ability to react. While riders of Japanese factories appeared worn down by the flaws of their machines – Suzuki’s inability to qualify and Honda’s inability to do anything – KTM engineers in Mattighofen had addressed its riders’ concerns. And fast.

An altered chassis, tested at the post-race test at Jerez was “a massive step for us,” according to Motorsport Director Pit Beirer at Mugello. “Massive – I mean really small changes to the chassis and small parts, swingarm area and how we mount the engine.” From then, both Oliveira and team-mate Brad Binder have been able to square corners off to a better degree. A switch in fuel – Elf to ETS – has also aided an increased top speed. Now the RC16 can at least live with the Ducatis on the straight, and apply power through the rear tyre in a better way.

And while KTM’s quick reactions in this have unquestionably played a role in this recent turnaround, Oliveira’s riding has been equally impressive. As team boss Mike Leitner said on Sunday, “Miguel did a brilliant race without any mistake. At this circuit this is very difficult, the grip is very critical.” A day later, Quartararo pointed to where the Portuguese rider was so strong: “In turns seven and eight, Miguel in Moto2 was much faster than me, and with MotoGP he was even faster. (Then) He was on average at least one tenth per lap faster than me in turns ten and eleven.”

It’s an achievement in itself that Oliveira’s head didn’t drop after a tough opening to the year. He scored just nine points in races one to five, a scant offering when many of his preseason comments centred around him placing his name in the title fight. He has once again rallied. Even Quartararo was speaking of him as a championship contender at Monday’s test. After the past fortnight, I’m inclined to agree.

Oliveira has always stood out since his early days in Moto3. His performances on a sweet-handling but hopelessly underpowered Mahindra showed he had the early markings of a star. “It’s like two years that you spend running with a five-kilo weight on each leg,” he told me in 2016 of those formative years. “Once you take them off, you are fast as hell.”

Anytime I came across him back then I was struck by that stare that is still occasionally on show: a pitying glance that informs you how your question wasn’t that bright. (When I relayed this to veteran reporter Michael Scott, a big fan of the Portuguese, his response, delivered with trademark sneer, always stuck with me: “What do you expect? You’re a journalist.”)

There has always been something that stood Oliveira apart. He certainly has a bit of a rebel in him. Take, for example, his reaction to learning Brad Binder would be fast-tracked from Moto2 to KTM’s factory MotoGP in 2020 over him. Oliveira, going through a tough rookie premier class campaign in its satellite squad, had been briefed specifically not to air his frustrations. But at Phillip Island, air them he did. “If you look at the overall picture, it makes sense to them. But it’s only to them that it makes sense,” he railed. I’m sure he got a proper ticking off for that one.

Some colleagues have told me they see him as brash and a little too arrogant for their liking. The pointing at himself with one hand, holding up his index finger with the other to denote he is very much the #1 would suggest this. But I see a figure completely convinced of his own ability. Even in the closing months of 2018, when a brilliant Moto2 title fight was going in the way of Pecco Bagnaia and Kalex, Oliveira rarely came across as fazed. He was sure he was extracting the most from his KTM chassis. That was satisfying enough. “We have to wonder whether we should just be happy with what we did, putting the KTM so high with a two-year old bike,” he said on the day Bagnaia was crowned champ. 

It’s easy to forget Oliveira’s route to the top has been far from typical. Although located just next to Spain, Portugal lacked the culture of its Iberian neighbour, whereby kids race from a young age. “It’s hard,” he told me some time ago. “We don’t have the conditions, or the mentality where a father puts his son on the bike.” Originally interested in racing go-karts, but put off because of the money involved, he didn’t start racing until he was nine. Much of his childhood was spent in his dad’s car, as they drove to races in Spain. “We made a lot of Ks,” he said.

And I always thought it fairly remarkable he was capable of juggling the stresses of racing at world championship level while studying for a profession as time-sapping as dentistry. But to hear him talk of it, the feat seemed so nonchalant. “I’ve never had so much free time,” he said in an interview back in 2016. “I think a rider, he is not boring, but when he is at home he can’t do anything other than motocross, go to the gym, go cycling… This doesn’t take up all of your day. So, the rest you’re just chilling on the couch, or going to the movies… I find it hard to have a life like this. For me it’s more stressful to do nothing than to be occupied. I go cycling, I go to the gym, but it’s just I have another occupation where I’m surrounded by my colleagues.”

Following a different path has honed him into a formidable figure. Last year hinted at it. But the past fortnight has confirmed that Oliveira has the package and ability that compliment his intelligence and self-belief to be a regular at the very top level. And as Quartararo said, there is more to come.

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by Polarity Photo @polarityphoto

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