Rookie Oliveira pushing Pol for top KTM honours

'We are happy to see Pol and Miguel pushing each other until the flag' - Herve Poncharal after Tech3 KTM rookie Miguel Oliveira finishes just one-tenth of a second behind Pol Espargaro at the Argentina MotoGP.
Rookie Oliveira pushing Pol for top KTM honours

When Miguel Oliveira was slowest of the MotoGP race riders on each of the four days of post-season testing last November, some were already predicting a troubled rookie year on the Tech3 KTM.

However, the Portuguese leapt up the order to 16th on the opening day of February's Sepang test and has not only outpaced team-mate Hafizh Syahrin ever since, but - in only his second race - came within a fraction of beating factory star Pol Espargaro for top KTM.

Oliveira crossed the line just 0.176s behind the tenth-place Spaniard at Termas de Rio Hondo on Sunday, having signalled his potential with ninth and fastest KTM in morning warm-up.

But did Oliveira expect to be fighting with Espargaro for a top ten so soon?

"I didn't expect anything, because we are really trying to discover what is an achievable result," said the cool-headed 24-year-old. "Obviously we look to the side, which is the KTM Factory Racing, and try to see what the guys over there doing in terms of results and what they can achieve.

"So considering that I was one tenth from Pol and almost overtaking him in the last corner I think it shows more-or-less that we are there. From now on we want to continue to work like this and hopefully go back to be the first KTM. This would be always the perfect result."

While Espargaro remained just out of reach, Oliveira beat the other factory KTM of Johann Zarco by no less than four places and eight seconds.

"I think the important thing for us as a group is to try to make the bike better," said Oliveira. "For sure it's always nice to compare yourself [to the factory riders] performance-wise, but we all know that a rider could never perform at the top if the bike does not suit his style or if he's not comfortable with the bike.

"So I think arriving where I am at the moment is the result of trying to get the maximum out of what I get. Actually it's quite hard for me to be disappointed with anything because it's my first year in MotoGP and I have no experience with other MotoGP bikes. I think this is the biggest advantage for me."

17th on his MotoGP debut in Qatar, Oliveira began the Argentine round for 14th on the grid. He initially lost ground at the start, but was directly behind Espargaro within four laps and caught the Spaniard as he battled with brother Aleix at the end of the race.

"The race was quite good. Already yesterday I showed that I had speed and potential to fight between 10th-15th so this was the target and we could manage to do this throughout all of the race.

"Just at the end, I was faster than Aleix and Pol, but I could not overtake. On the straight I lose a lot of speed and this was the main factor for not being able to prepare an overtaking manoeuvre to finish up in the ranking.

"But considering it was the first time fighting for points, I was also conservative at the end of the race and tried to bring the KTM back to the pit box."

The only real question mark for Oliveira after the race was whether the soft rear tyre might have been a better choice than the medium, which was used by all the KTM riders.

"We went with the medium rear option because for us it was much safer in terms of tyre degradation," Oliveira said. "We knew we were not as fast as we could be with the soft rear, but at least the tyre was constant so we went with that option and finally it paid off in the last laps.

"We can never know the outcome if we used the soft rear, so we just have to collect this information and try to figure out some other way of doing stuff considering that most of the pack went with the top rear."

But overall, Oliveira couldn't ask for much more from his second MotoGP race.

"Two races in, I think I can safely say that I'm adapting quite good. I mean, we know that we have our struggles, but already I'm battling with the top guy of KTM, who has much more experience than me.

"So I think it shows that I'm adapting well to the category and also to the bike. I think it's definitely a positive start to the season."

Team boss Herve Poncharal hailed Oliveira's performance as "an incredible job".

"[Miguel] has been really working hard, trying to recover from the slight disappointment to have missed the points in Qatar and he made us very happy, very proud. It’s only his second MotoGP race and I think what he does is the work of a very established and experienced MotoGP rider.

"I believe he is a strong asset for the whole KTM Racing department and we are happy to see Pol and Miguel pushing each other until the flag. I think this is good for KTM to gather all this information from different riding styles."

Oliveira is now three points behind Fabio Quartararo (Petronas Yamaha) and Joan Mir (Suzuki) in the Rookie of the Year standings.

Meanwhile, team-mate Syahrin also had a more competitive weekend than in Qatar, narrowly missing out on the points in 16th place after crossing the line 2.2s from Zarco, but almost 10s from Oliveira.

"A very special thank you to Hafizh Syahrin, who was a bit lost in Qatar. But the way he recovered here in Argentina from FP1 was amazing," said Poncharal.

"He has been fighting the whole race long with Johann Zarco. He has been pushing from the start of the race until the finish line, fighting with other riders and passing the likes of Mir, Rabat, Abraham and Iannone.

"This is something we are very proud of. We knew he had a great potential, but we wanted him to show it on KTM, which is what he has done today."