At the 2021 Hankook 24H BARCELONA, Red Bull KTM Factory rider Miguel Oliveira swapped two wheels for four when he embarked upon his first-ever 24-hour endurance race with CREVENTIC. Keen to see how he got on, we caught up with Portugal’s first MotoGP race winner throughout the weekend to see just how steep a learning curve it was.
Two things spring to mind about Miguel Oliveira after his first interview with CREVENTIC at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
The first is his surprisingly laidback manner. As a three-time MotoGP race winner, the most recent of which came at this very circuit three months ago, Miguel is obviously a man in high demand. We’d half-anticipated, if not outright planned for, our chat to be interrupted by selfie requests, fan-proffered fist bumps (do people still shake hands in the Covid-era?), and/or reminders from KTM-clad engineers of an upcoming briefing. On top of that, the 2021 Hankook 24H BARCELONA is Miguel Oliveira’s first-ever 24-hour endurance race, and given that qualifying is just around the corner, one might reasonably expect the 24H SERIES’ latest debutant to be, at the very least, a tad nervous.
And yet, the 26-year-old, sitting before us in CREVENTIC’s new hospitality suite and still in his civvies, is neither of these. He’s relaxed. Nonchalant. The only break in his composure comes from the half-drunk water bottle he casually ‘springs’ from one hand to the other during our conversation. Does he feel any pressure?
“Not at all!” Miguel explains with a smile. “MotoGP is my job and I take that very seriously, whether I’m part of a top team or not. Every task I do in my life, I take as seriously as possible. But that doesn’t add pressure. That, I think, just adds responsibility to your daily life. I’m hired to perform at my best and people expect the best from me. I’m a professional, so that’s what they’ll get.
“So, this weekend, I have no problems looking like an idiot on-track! I’m here to have fun, do the best I can, and learn from this. That’s what I hope everyone will see.”
To further prove than his first-ever 24-hour race is not a left-field career switch, Miguel even admits that he’d originally been set to compete at the eventually-cancelled Hankook 24H PORTIMAO in July, aboard – shock, horror! – a Porsche Cayman entered by the Autódromo Internacional Algarve itself. Circuit CEO and enthusiast ‘gentleman’ driver Paulo Pinheiro was even set to join him on the driver line-up.
Why? Because Miguel knew the circuit, and, well… he thought it would be fun.
“Mr [Hubert] Trunkenpolz actually made this invitation a few months ago – I think it was around June – where he found out I was doing the 24H SERIES in Portimão and with a Porsche!” Miguel continues. “It was going to be with the circuit’s own team” – Parkalgar Racing – “I drove the car, we had did tests and everything, but then with one week to go, the event was cancelled. So, Mr Trunkenpolz found out and said, ‘why don’t you come and do Barcelona with a KTM? With a proper car?!’ And I accepted.
“We were quite lucky that [the Hankook 24H BARCELONA] was still in-between races. Otherwise that would have been the end of it.”
There’s clearly a lot to learn: Miguel has never competed in a 24-hour race, and his last race on four wheels was over four years ago in 2017: “I did a three-hour race on the dirt, the TT at Vila de Fronteira in Portugal. But that was a completely different experience from the track, and very different speeds.”
Indeed, go-karting at 8 years old aside, motorbikes have been Miguel’s professional focus since 2005, the year he won the MiniGP Portuguese championship at just 10-years-old. In 2010, Miguel came just two points shy of clinching his first major European accolade, the CEV Spanish National Championship (he fell just two points shy of fellow future MotoGP headliner, Maverick Viñales). One year later, he was on the Moto3 grid, securing the tenured Mahindra Racing its first series podium before making the jump to Moto2 for 2016. Though his momentum that year was slowed by a broken collarbone at Aragon, Miguel was back in championship contention in 2018, falling just nine points in arrears this time. Since his arrival in MotoGP with Tech3 in 2019, his focus on bike racing’s elite class has been absolute, leaving very little room for ‘extra-curricular’ racing. As a result, the Portuguese rider really is jumping right in at the deep end this weekend at Barcelona…
“This is going to be challenging, for sure. I’ve done endurance races on a bike, also at Portimão, for 12 hours, and it’s a very different mentality to what I’m used to. I'm much more used to 'attack mode’ for the whole race. For 45 minutes. So it’s going to be challenging keeping the car on the track during the stints without making mistakes. But hopefully everything goes well.”
“My goal is to finish, first of all. And to do the best I can to complete my runs, mistake-free. And to have fun. That is my goal. If we come home 1st, even better! But it’s a very, very long race and anything can happen, so we need to stay humble. Of course we know we can fight for a top position in the category, but we’ll need to see how things go.”
Ironically, when next we catch up with Miguel the following morning, there’s a noticeable change in his demeanour.
We’re still met with a cheery smile, but there’s a more pronounced stoicism enveloping Miguel Oliveira, who’s now clad in a True-Racing branded, Alpinestars racesuit. The more subtle black and white with orange details vividly contrast his Red Bull-dominated bike leathers, and his branded Spark has been replaced this weekend with a plain black Stilo, albeit one with the ‘88’ career number stencilled on one side.
He’s watching team mechanics make final adjustments to the KTM that boasts his name atop the canopy. As we approach, we can’t help but notice that Miguel is hovering, almost impatiently, around several foldaway chairs, across the back of which is KTM’s motorsport tagline: ‘Ready to Race.’
Free Practice and Qualifying have both been and gone, and True-Racing’s weekend is off to a good start. The #716 KTM, in which Miguel has been entered alongside Reinhard Kofler, Ferdinand Stuck, and GT racing stateman Peter Kox laid down the GTX-class benchmark during free practice courtesy of Kox’s 1m 50.866s lap. In qualifying, later that same afternoon, the #716 KTM is pipped to GTX class pole by RTR Projects by an infinitesimal 0.003s.
Miguel’s five-lap stint in Free Practice meanwhile yields a fastest lap of 1m 57.425s. Not bad, given that his first experience of the X-BOW GTX was just one day ago and there’s very few, if any, parallels with his KTM RC16 ‘daily runner’.
“So far, so good. I was surprised because the X-BOW was so friendly and so easy to drive. That’s important, for an amateur like me to come and to immediately be quick! It’s a super competitive car.
“But you still need to be very focused. To go fast with the car, you need to be on the limit quite early and note your reference points quite quickly. With the bike it’s the same but it comes more naturally to me. I’ve been racing bikes for 16 years, so finding the limit with a car is a bit unusual.
“But my teammates have given me some tips about the lines and everything, and that’s been really helpful. It’s a nice atmosphere and something I’m not really used to in MotoGP, teammates helping each other!”
Our chat stalls very briefly as the #716 fires into life stage-right, a mechanic giving the Audi five-cylinder several blips of the throttle before the engineer scanning an adjoining laptop confirms all is well with the drivetrain. Towards the back of the garage, two more engineers, headphones in-place, stand before an almost intimidating bank of TV and timing monitors, as well as their own laptops and additional monitors on the foldaway trestle tables that make up True Racing’s ‘mission control’ this weekend. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. One, or at least a variation thereof, with which KTM factory rider Miguel is all-too familiar.
Bar a fruitless season aboard a Leopard Racing-entered Kalex in 2016, Miguel has been a KTM man for six of the last seven seasons, and it’s a relationship that quickly bore fruit. In his first season with Austria’s most vibrant motoring brand – his swansong year in Moto3 in 2015 – Miguel took his first Motorcyle Grand Prix win, plus five more, en-route to second in the standings. Re-recruited for 2017 by former boss Aki Ajo, Miguel repaid the Finnish team’s confidence in kind by taking KTM’s first THREE wins in Moto2 back-to-back at Phillip Island, Sepang, and Valencia.
Easily Oliveira/KTM’s most memorable accomplishments though have come in MotoGP: following an electric first career win at the Red Bull Ring in 2020 (the Portuguese rider undercut long-time leader Pol Espargaró and Ducati’s Jack Miller at the very last corner), Miguel became KTM’s most successful rider in bike racing’s elite class with his second win on home turf at Portimão. Before he’d even debuted with the factory team!
Safe to say the two parties are well acquainted with the way the other works…
“For me, this is a long-term relationship, and it’s an opportunity. The style and the way KTM works… there are so many, many [manufacturers], but I have not seen one so passionate about racing. When people give you this passion, it’s easy to relate and it’s easy to feel empowered by that.”
There’s just two hours to go before the green flag drops, and things are starting to get serious…
Darkness has fallen at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya when we next catch up with Miguel, and after eight hours, the race is running like clockwork for at least one side of the True-Racing garage. Now one-lap ahead of the Red Camel-Jordans.nl Porsche, the #716 KTM has led GTX for the last six consecutive hours without issue, though the sister #717 – piloted by Klaus Angerhofer, Sehdi Sarmini, Stefan Rosina, and Hubert Trunkenpolz himself – has now slipped to 5th in-class after a gearbox oil pump issue.
‘Fresh’ from his 55-lap double stint, we find Miguel seated in one of the ‘Ready to Race’ foldaway chairs in front of the garage-mounted TV screens. The Catalan Grand Prix winner looks pleased, if a little tired, with his efforts so far, and justifiably so: having bounced between 1m 58s and 1m 56s during his first stint – itself an endurance under the beating, midday Spanish sun – Miguel would consistently run in the 1m 54s and 1m 55s during his extended second stint. Come the end of the race, his fastest lap – a 1m 52.558s – was just half a second slower than more experienced teammates Reinhard Kofler and Peter Kox.
Similarly, True-Racing’s engineers, be they on the prat perch or poised at mission control, seem equally content with their progress. Despite the #717’s early problems and a heavier than expected Code 60 caution period forcing a quick strategy change, the team is methodically working its way through its driver rotation: Ferdinand Stuck has just taken the KTM out for his second stint, and is set to take on the bulk of the night running with Kofler. No fuss. No drama.
Miguel does admit though, despite the team’s consistent running, that competing in a four-wheeled endurance race compared with a two-wheeled sprint is taking longer to adapt to than he’d anticipated…
“I would like to say there are some similarities, but it’s just completely different! As I said yesterday, the lines, the braking points, the acceleration… the way you drive a car is just completely different to riding a bike, and there’s very little from ‘my world’ I can put in. Not even the format of racing! When I get close to cars, I get quite competitive and I want to overtake everyone. That’s the only thing I’ve brought across from MotoGP!
“It’s like a long trip, which is super cool. You need to [avoid] risks and save the car, and not make mistakes. This is a different kind of mindset than I’m used to, but I’m managing well. I’m having fun, I’m enjoying the car, I haven’t made any mistakes, my last run was the longest I’ve done in the car so far… yeah, I’m pretty happy!”
After one final debrief, Miguel is dismissed for the evening, True-Racing understandably deciding that, save his six mandatory laps during official Night Practice, Miguel has enough to focus on without throwing racing in the dark into the mix too.
How right they are. In the hours that follow, fatigue begins to hit home, exhausted machinery begins to leave cars stranded by the side of the track, and, in one particularly scary moment, a Code 60 is called when the RABDAN by MRS GT-Racing Porsche suffers brake disc failure on the high-speed entry to turn one. Fortunately Saif Alameri walks away uninjured.
In a dramatic twist, fate would also strike the #716 True-Racing KTM during the night…
It’s a more mentally drained Miguel Oliveira we find the following morning in Barcelona, the event’s natural fatigue compounded by an incident for his teammate Peter Kox during the night. Coming onto the start-finish straight at two-thirds distance, the #716’s Audi five-cylinder suddenly loses all power, and, despite a dogged attempt by the Dutchman to get the lightweight sportscar back to the pits, is forced to pull off-track at turn eight. More than 35 minutes are lost repairing a suspected transmission gremlin, True-Racing’s three-lap lead over Reiter Engineering becoming a 20-lap deficit in the process.
Though the #716 runs error-free across the remaining eight hours, so too does Reiter’s own KTM X-BOW GTX, and come the chequered flag, True-Racing has only been able to claw back one of is fallen laps. There’s a ripple of applause by the team’s weary mechanics as Miguel collects the chequered flag on his first 24-hour outing, securing a hard-earnt 2nd in-class in the process. The celebrations are tinged with frustration though, as the team – mechanics, engineers, VIPs and drivers alike – rue a victory that slipped through their fingers in Barcelona.
For Miguel Oliveira meanwhile, it’s mission completed.
“This was a different race for me, but I’m very happy to have finished on the podium,” he explains in the rapidly collapsing True-Racing garage, the echoing sounds of radiolemans.com’s Nick Daman reverberating through the circuit’s tannoy system behind him. “I’m happy with my performance, and we had a lot of fun, and this was always the target.
“As a driver, I still have a lot to improve on. I didn’t drive during the most challenging hours, even though it was really hot during the day, but overtaking was a little stressful. It was quite hard to keep up my pace in traffic, and it was difficult to know how much of a risk to take.
“But this will all come in its own time. Right now, I’m focusing on my MotoGP season and this was only for just fun. Hopefully I’ll get another change in the future.”
Our final update is a brief one, as shortly after his maiden 24H SERIES podium celebration, Miguel has to dash to the airport. Circuit Catalunya is a brief pit stop for the Portuguese rider, who, two weeks after a frustrating race at Silverstone, will shortly make his way to Alcańiz for the Aragon Grand Prix. Before that, he has sponsor commitments to uphold in Portugal as well.
And yet, despite the time constraints and the frustrations, we receive the same jovial if slightly flagging smile we have all weekend from KTM’s most successful MotoGP rider to-date. 24 hours after our first chat, he’s still relaxed. Nonchalant. The difference is, now he has another podium at Barcelona under his belt.
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba, KTM Media, and J.Kernasenko