Exclusive Interview with Miguel Oliveira: “Motorsport is never a clear science”
After a less than ideal opening day at the Dutch Grand Prix, Miguel Oliveira completely turned his fortunes around in qualifying and took his first ever pole position at the legendary track – the first of a Portuguese rider in any world championship class and the first for Indian manufacturer Mahindra in the Moto3 class. Following up on the pole position Miguel showed yet another great race performance, sticking with the almighty KTMs throughout the entire race and just missing out on a well-deserved podium position over the line, still suffering with inferior engine power against the KTMs. He repeated that performance just two weeks later with another fourth place at the German Grand Prix.
It was once again a perfect demonstration of how far Mahindra has come since last season when they struggled to get to the points positions regularly and how well their absolutely dedicated investment in the class and new collaboration with Swiss manufacturer Suter has paid off. And it was a demonstration of the sheer speed and racing talent of the only Portuguese rider in the paddock, Miguel Oliveira showing impressive glimpses of his talent ever since he arrived at just 16 years of age two seasons ago and now regularly mixing it up at the front as his new team and bike get more and more competitive.
We caught up with Miguel at Assen on Thursday evening for our traditional yearly interview, encountering an initially somewhat downbeat young man who quickly lightened up again before things eventually turned for the better in qualifying and the race.
(Which we absolutely take as a sign for being a lucky charm, of course…)
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us again. A lot of things have changed for you this year with the switch to Mahindra. How satisfied are you with your season so far? Do you feel like you’ve reached 100% of what’s possible?
Right now I’m at the top of what I can do with the bike. But I think overall I need to be happy, because it’s an all-new project, a new bike and we are learning. We have to understand what the bike requests to go faster. And basically there have been two races where I didn’t score any points and if I did, I think a top five result would have been very possible, so in the championship I think I would be fourth or fifth. But I think in the last races we have been constant with two front row starts and a fastest lap in Mugello, so it really shows the potential of our bike and also for me it’s good. So far I think it’s a positive championship.
In Catalunya especially it was very visible that you lost out a lot on the straight compared to the KTM riders. Is the engine power the bike’s main issue right now? What are you currently looking at most to improve?
Well, now we are looking here at the circuit mainly, at the setting, to improve what we have. In the factory the engineers are also looking at new solutions for the engine to get the best performance. But mainly, yes, I think this is our problem, in the straights. But in Catalunya we had a small problem with the sensor and I was losing a little bit of oil. But also the fight with Jack Miller broke up the group and it’s just those things – if you are in the group you can catch slipstreams and more or less you can be there. But I still think that in the last part [of the race] they have been really fast, I dont think I could have followed them on that part. But still at the end I could be there, so we never know. Still, sixth place is good for the championship and we have to be happy.
So it was mainly losing oil and the slipstream or them getting quicker at the end?
I think they were going quicker. It happens when you go into a race and you know it’s going to be in a group and in Moto3 it’s always like that. So the final ratio, you just make it a little longer. So if you don’t have an engine that has a lot of power when you are by yourself, it makes it really difficult to go fast. I think that was the key to losing so much time to the first group. But yeah, it was a good race. I think my aim was the podium, but I saw in qualifying that this would be really difficult.
Mahindra really improved quite impressively since last year which already showed in the preseason performance. How much input did you have on the current bike? Did they change a lot to what you are now riding during the season?
No, the philosophy of the bike is really the same that we had with Suter last year. We have changed some things of course, but as I said, the bike, the frame is really the same. We changed a little bit on the setting. Now I think we took the best performance we could of what we have. Now it is small things that have to make the difference, like engine, exhaust, some settings at the circuit. Overall, motorsport is never a clear science. So it’s difficult to say which problems come up in which race, you just have to solve them then. Some races I am more comfortable, others not.
Last year you were already in a big team with plenty of important sponsors behind you. This year it seems like an even bigger team with so much factory and fan support, especially in India. How is the atmosphere, do you feel like a real factory rider with complete support?
Yes, I do feel supported in this team. Also last year I was happy. But of course you feel the support in different ways, you know. Mahindra has a lot of fans on Facebook for example. In the other team we had big sponsors, big companies behind us and it’s difficult to compare. Mahindra is the only sponsor that we have now, it’s full factory and I really feel as a factory rider.
How much influence do you have on the future developments, does the input you give to the technicians directly going into the factory back in India?
No, we don’t produce in India, we produce directly in the Suter factory in Switzerland, so the feedback goes directly to them. Because this is a project with two companies combined, Mahindra with help of Suter support. And Suter furnishes the engineers and everything, so that’s our technical support. Everything I say goes back to the factory and they work there.
You said that at the tracks you’re mainly working on adjusting your settings to suit it better. Did you also have to adapt your riding style to the bike a little?
No, But I do adjust my riding style, but not for the bike, but to improve on some things that I didn’t like about my riding style last year. So now I am quite constant, I know how to make a fast lap, I keep calm in qualifying and don’t screw up things too much. [laughs] And in the races just to learn how to think and try to stay calm and really small steps, but I think I’m improving.
Is there still anything in particular you need to improve, that you still need to learn?
No, nothing in particular. Just small details, it depends on the circuit. But maybe I would like to improve not attacking too much with the front brake. I am really a hard braker, so I would like to improve that. It’s a good thing for overtaking, but when you’re by yourself you just lose out.
Considering it’s only your second full year in the class, what’s lying ahead in your future, how long is your contract with Mahindra?
So you’re gonna stay with them in Moto3 next season?
Yes, I hope so. Now it’s just working out the agreement with them again and then we’ll see.
But looking back it would give you a well-deserved bit of stability in your further career after riding for three teams in three seasons.
Yeah, it’s a long-term project. When you enter this kind of project and if the people are happy with you and your performance and you’re happy with what you’re doing and with the bike, there’s no reason to change. I feel like here everyone wants to do better each race and I really feel that people want me to be on podiums and so on and I really feel pleased here. So there’s no reason to go.
The interviews and press releases from the team since you joined seem to suggest the same, everyone is happy with the progress made so far, but nobody really wants to define a goal in terms of results. For you personally, what is your goal towards the end of the season? What do you think is possible?
At this moment I’m giving 200% in the races. I really can see with the other riders at the beginning of the race that they save themselves, they save the tyres and it’s quite difficult with having less power on the engine compared to the KTMs. I’m always on the limit. I don’t have any room for mistakes. Doing this I still don’t end up winning races, so I don’t know how I’ll finish at the end of the season. But I think we can reduce the advantage they have on the engine.
Estoril is unfortunately no longer on the MotoGP calendar. Do you feel that this has a big influence on the support in Portugal, the press or fans?
Well, I think it had some influence. Because when you are getting some sponsor or anything, the first question always is if the championship comes to Portugal. And we have to say no, the last time was last year. It’s quite difficult. For the fans we miss an opportunity, to show them what we do. We miss an opportunity to do something together, to get closer to them and I think they feel that. But now they don’t have the Grand Prix, but they go to other ones instead.
But you haven’t lost any sponsors over this, have you?
No, not because of this.
Looking at the rest of the season, what’s your favourite track still on the calendar?
I don’t have a favourite track.
Really? Every rider seems to has a few favourites.
No… Well, maybe Philip Island. I’m also looking forward to Indianapolis, I always go fast there. But you know, it’s quite hard to say, because the one track I didn’t like so far was Mugello and I did very well there…
So liking or disliking tracks is not a recipe for good results…
Yeah, we don’t know.
Indy is an interesting choice though. I think quite a few riders like it, but because of its patchy nature some said the past that it had a bit of a disjointed feeling to it. That doesn’t bother you?
No, I quite like it. Now with the new asphalt it must be better as well. The track had some bumps, it was a little difficult, but now with the new asphalt it should be better.
You told me before that you don’t mind riding in wet conditions. And with less engine power the wet conditions usually level the playing field a bit. Do you feel any difference with this bike in the wet?
No, wet conditions is wet conditions. If you have a good feeling you go fast. If you haven’t, forget about it.
But you feel comfortable in the wet?
Yes, I feel comfortable… It depends on the track. [laughs] It’s not a clear science. For me, going in the rain, I don’t like it, but I’m not afraid of it. But I prefer riding in the dry, like any rider.
Miguel, thank you for the interview.
Interview & Photos: Simona Vogel for Vroom Media