Miguel Oliveira Interview: On KTM's Moto2 Bike, Encouraging Young Talent, And Life As A Dentist

Miguel Oliveira is one of the brightest minds in the Grand Prix paddock. A quiet, calm presence, the Portuguese rider is widely admired throughout the paddock. His modesty and his down-to-earth attitude mean that he does not garner a great deal of attention off track, nor does he seek it. 

His performance on track does, though. Oliveira came very close to winning the 2015 Moto3 championship, staging a remarkable comeback which saw him recover from a 110-point deficit with six races to go to close to within 6 points of Danny Kent at Valencia. At the Jerez Moto2 tests, Oliveira was similarly impressive, finishing regularly in the top three. 

That success is in no small part due to his return to Aki Ajo's Red Bull KTM Ajo Motorsport team. At Jerez, Finnish team manager spoke glowingly of his return to the fold, and Oliveira returned the compliments. We spoke to Oliveira at some length at Jerez, covering a vast range of subjects. Oliveira spoke of the KTM Moto2 bike, and of its development. He told us why he went endurance racing last year, and what he is doing to help develop young Portuguese talent. And he talks about his other career, studying to be a dentist. That study, and his approach to it and to racing, gives a fascinating insight into a very intelligent and grounded young man.

Q: First of all, the switch back to a KTM. How has that been? How is that going?

Miguel Oliveira: Perfectly. They were already kind of joking when I left that I would come back, and finally it was possible to do it this year. It’s where I’ve had my best moments in my career, so of course it makes it special again to come back. It’s a privilege to be working alongside a team which has won two world championships in the intermediate class. I’m accepting this new challenge for KTM, Red Bull. All the guys have put their trust in me to develop this bike. It’s something I want to take the most of it.

Q: How different is this bike to the Kalex that you were on last year? It’s a different concept with a tubular steel frame. Does it feel very much different?

MO: Yeah, people have been asking a lot this question. My answer is the same. I think when you have an engine which the character is the same on the other bike, I think the engine on the bike makes a lot of difference. It affects the behavior of the frame a lot more than the frame itself.

So for sure as soon as I jumped on the bike there was quite more stiffness involved, and we kind of had to work around this problem for a little bit with the geometry and the suspension and everything. But everything reacts quite similar to the Kalex frame, which is positive. So far we don’t have major issues that made us think of building another frame or another swing arm. We have tried different things but none of them have really come out with a good positive.

Q: Does it feel like you’re on a factory team because KTM are so heavily involved in this project?

MO: This is the cool thing about being in this project with KTM on the Moto2 because no other team has the advantage of working with the factory, connected to a big factory, and we have that. WP is in charge of the Moto2 project and they are working directly with our team on the developing. They are working quite hard.

I think also the MotoGP project has brought quite a lot of technical experience to KTM itself they didn’t have in the past. I think they will apply this in the other categories. It will be really good.

Q: What’s the strengths and weaknesses of the bike? Where is it good and where is it not so good? Where does it need work?

MO: At the moment we are going into the sixth day riding here, so we’ve kind of explored basically everything we can on this track. We are kind of moving around and finally we come back to the bike we had. So at the moment I think we need to go into other tracks with different tires especially, different level of grip and try to see what is coming out.

For sure we will find some weakness on the bike, but for us at the moment to find out if at least at this track the bike is quite good, it leaves us a little bit more calm. This track is quite special and if we get the bike to work here, usually the bike can work in other tracks as well.

Q: It seems that the Suter is good in the morning when the track has more grip, than in the afternoon. But looking at the time sheets it looks as if your times were more competitive and were better when there was less grip.

MO: The thing is that ten degrees here on the track makes a lot of difference for everybody. Our times were a little bit closer when it was… It doesn’t mean anything, really, because we have made a 1'42 when it was around 40 degrees, and then we made a 1'43 yesterday when it was over 40. It means nothing, really. As I said before, we need to find other challenge at the moment, to really see what is coming out of the bike.

Q: Because you spend so much time on one track you probably know everything about it?

MO: Yes. But it’s a struggle. Even with the hot conditions we cannot go faster than we went. This is for sure.

Q: Is it good that you’ve got hot conditions? These are almost race conditions, in terms of track temperature.

MO: Yeah. Surprisingly the race conditions last year in May were around 29-30 degrees on the track, and yesterday it was much hotter. So we have done the long run actually in the morning. We were thinking about doing it in the afternoon in the mid-session but we said, okay, now the temperature is going up and we try everything now. It was the closest that we could be to the race. So I think this test in general has not even much of an opportunity to go to the track each time and improve the lap time. So it’s been kind of particular in this sense.

Q: You also do a little bit of endurance racing. Why?

MO: Yeah. This was last year.

Q: You’re also testing at Portimao I think.

MO: Yeah, with my bike. This was just for fun. Basically I got the invitation from the owners of the track at Portimao. They were building this team. At that moment they were thinking of doing only Portuguese riders, but the third one we couldn’t find it. We couldn't find someone competitive enough, so we asked a guy from France to come. I did it for fun because I don’t have any races in Portugal. It was the only chance for me to ride in my country. It’s not a big, big race but still it’s a world championship race.

Q: Did you get to race at Estoril?

MO: I did two years. ’11 and ’12 was the last year, 2012. I know there is a lot of people telling that they loved to go to Estoril and the country, the food, everything. It is true. We have the best food, the weather, everything is great. It’s just politicians, money… You know how it is.

Q: Do you have some kind of a talent program as well? Are you working with young riders?

MO: Yeah, I am. This year we are making basically a cup with the small bikes. They have 250 engines, around 22 horsepower, twelve-inch wheels. So it’s quite a small bikes, and we are doing this cup for the young riders. It’s kind of a responsibility I feel in some way to start something in Portugal really to give at least the opportunity for the kids to start in the sport and maybe one day we can have more Portuguese riders.

Q: You need someone to take your place when you stop, right?

MO: It would be good because at the moment we don’t have anyone.

Q: This junior series, it’s on kart tracks mainly?

MO: Yeah, only small tracks. Kids between ages of 10 to 16. We will have different categories in the same day racing. Kids from 7 to 10 and even further for the adults. These bikes are convertible that you switch the handlebar to a motocross handlebar.

This is how I ride the bike also. I train a lot with it. Adults can race as well. This is the idea. Only carting tracks because at the moment the lower categories have 85 cc, but only in the big tracks. For me it doesn’t make sense a kid which doesn’t know how to shift gears go to Estoril or Portimao to ride on a 20 meter wide track. He will feel a little bit slow.

So the program is this. We found a few partners, but the rest is me who is really investing. My father is alongside me and he’s the one in charge in front of everything. We’ll see how it goes.

Q: Have you finished your training as a dentist?

MO: No. If everything goes well I still have 20 or 15 years. The priority now is racing for sure. That program, now I’m in the second year. The program is really intense. We do the first two years the same disciplines as medicine. Basically we have to study all the theory first. This is the boring part. We study many things which we will not use at all in daily practice, but we have to do all the stages to get there. So at the moment I’m doing a little bit each semester, and this is the only way I can do it.

Q: You definitely intend to finish no matter what happens? Even if let’s say you go to MotoGP and you’re offered a big contract to ride in MotoGP, then maybe you’ll have enough money to not have to work?

MO: The money is not the question. I’ve always had the idea that was passed from my father that I should go to school. I should learn something and have a real, normal job. Actually we don’t know what can happen in the future. Today you are remembered, tomorrow you are no one. So it’s easy for people to forget who you are.

Of course, when you are up there you get so much attention that it’s easy to go behind that attention and just go with the flow and get this useless attention for nothing. I don’t want to follow that road. For sure, if I’m recognized by the people this would be great, but I’m not going to live that every day. This is kind of the background I want to build and someday we will see what happens. For sure my dream is to be in MotoGP, so I hope to reach that goal and then we will see what happens.

Q: But even after you finish, if you do make it to MotoGP then maybe you do make a lot of money and you don’t really need to work, would you still finish your training?

MO: Yeah, I think so. It’s a goal I put to myself. In ten years we’ll see, but at least this is the goal.

Q: Why dentistry?

MO: I was at school and the easiest way was to go to engineer, mechanics, or something like this, but I don’t like. I don’t like at all. I was looking into medicine, something connected with health. Physiotherapy, nurse, something like this. Finally I pick up dentistry because I had some friends that they were already dentists. They showed me a little bit the world and I was surprised I liked it. But I was looking to the end when they are already doctors. But all the stages to go through there, it’s the ugly part. But this is the price you have to pay.

It’s like racing. You have to spend hours and hours training and being fit and not eating food and all the rest just so you can go race.

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Riders who impress me both with their riding on track and as people off track are a rare breed and Miguel is most certainly one of the few. When I met him for the first time as a Rookie, he was already so incredibly mature at just 16, it felt like talking to a 30-year veteran of the sport. Coupled with his obvious intelligence, the kind of natural self-assurance that doesn't need cockiness or swagger and, even at that age, the rare conviction that "racing is not everything" he really impressed me and still does to this day. His honest efforts to support future Portuguese talent basically out of his own pocket are held in high regard.

However, as you mention, he is not a flashy character by any means and people as down to earth as he is usually don't get a lot of attention in the MotoGP media circus. So, long babble short: Thank you for partly righting that wrong and "introducing" him to more people. Much appreciated.

of giving us these insights David, worth the subscription alone. Interested in GPs since the 70s and started traveling abroad to them from 1985; this year Sachsenring & Misano, the thrill never abates. But throughout all this and, as a writer myself, I cannot recall a vessel of information that wanders into the long grass to bring us back intelligent, thoughtful and original work that broadens my understanding of the highest level of motorcycle racing. I hope your value and worth continues to be appreciated.