Putting Portugal on the racing map: Exclusive interview with Miguel Oliveira
Miguel Oliveira is Portugal’s first and greatest hope in the world championship. At just 16 years of age the Pragal native already had a more than impressive career to show for before he even finished his first race at Qatar this season. Three years ago he blasted onto the international scene when he took the Red Bull Rookies Cup by storm as a guest rider – taking part in three races and comfortably winning two of them, both at circuits he’d never seen before and on a new bike.
Last year he won four out of six races in the highly competitive 125cc Spanish Championship and finished second in the other two. Only an unfortunate crash two laps before the finish line while running second in Albacete meant he eventually lost out on the title to Maverick Viñales – by only two points.
The latter of course is by now hailed in the motorcycle media as the uber-Rookie, meanwhile Oliveira has to battle against technical deficits and injury. It’s a telling story of how important it is in motorsport to have the whole package working perfectly to make the final step to the front. But the young Portuguese is far from discouraged, happily bagging decent Top 10 finishes round after round and looking confident towards the rest of the season.
We met up with the affable youngster at the German Grand Prix and chatted – in excellent English – about his season so far, his early career, motorsport in Portugal and life beyond racing.
The year started off well for you, you’ve been at the front from the beginning with good results but then the injury in Catalunya set you back. How do you personally view the first part of your Rookie season?
I think my season has been really positive, because we set ourselves a target of the top 10 for this year and somehow we are doing it quite well. We finished all the races in the top 10, inside the objective. So far, so good. Unfortunately we crashed in Catalunya and we weren’t able to make the progression as I would like, but so far it’s really positive.
How are you now physically? Obviously you’re still not at 100%.
It was I think a month ago now that I crashed. Now we have the time for the consolidation of the bone. It’s good now, my arm is still not as strong as I would like, but it’s fine.
When do you think you’ll be back to full fitness?
I think by Brno my arm will be 100% fit, because we have a three-week break, so I think it will be enough time for my arm to heal and also to excercise.
You already planned to be back at Assen, but then at the last minute the doctor didn’t give you permission to ride…
When you break a bone, you have to wait at least three or four weeks, a month, and I only had two weeks and a half and the bone was still completely broken, it wasn’t fit to race.
You didn’t have any surgery to fix it, is that correct?
No, that’s why [it took so long], because I didn’t have any surgery. So we expect the normal healing process will take a month and a half, maybe two months.
But considering the circumstances, your first race back in Mugello went rather well.
Yes, Mugello was very good, because I wasn’t pressured, so I think it was really fine. I had to race with a system to keep my arm from moving.
It looked like that system kept your hand pretty stiff as well, were you able to use the clutch normally?
Yes, I could use the clutch normally. But Mugello is a particular circuit, because you have to change the direction of the bike a lot in the corners, there are many esses. So I put my right arm under too much stress and my left arm wasn’t so good… [laughs]
This season everyone is talking about Maverick Viñales, one of your former rivals. You have been racing closely with him for some time and also last year for the most part beat him until the crash in Albacete cost you the CEV title. So your speed is at least equal with his, but do you believe that you can also achieve the same kind of results in this championship now with so many strong Rookies coming in this year?
Yes, I guess so. Because, you know, it’s a great team I think. Maverick has a great team around him with a lot of experience and he has a good bike and, you know, if you are a good rider you need a good bike. And if you want to be first you need to have the fastest bike and I think I don’t have that. But I’m not worried about that. Because I can do quite well with it and I hope to race for many years and this is only my first [year], so I take it very easily, I’m not pressured at all. His level is very high, but I’m sure I’m at the same level as him. Just my bike isn’t. [laughs]
Unfortunately we’ve seen it many times this year, not only with you but also your teammate, that you showed the speed to ride up front and then there were technical problems here, engine failures there… What is for you the main thing that’s still missing on the bike and maybe also for your own riding?
I think it’s a little bit of acceleration and speed, that’s what our bike needs right now. And, you know, if you are in front you learn more. I think in front I would learn a lot more than what I’m learning now, but the circumstances are like that, so we have to adapt to it.
You’re the first Portuguese rider to race a full season in the world championship, so there’s a lot of focus on you in the Portuguese sports media now. Does that put more pressure on you or do you experience it more as helpful that it seems like the whole country is behind you and cheering you on?
Well, it’s a fact that makes me really proud, to be the first Portuguese [in the championship].
But after all, if you look around, you are racing with humans. No matter what nationality, no matter what colour they are. So I am not worried about that, because I am racing against humans, flesh and bone, they are like me and not “Portuguese”, “Spanish” or whatever. I don’t care about that.
Motorsport in general doesn’t seem to be so popular in Portugal, but does the fact of you being the only rider on world level make it easier for you to find sponsors or is it still difficult?
It’s still difficult. We thought the same you did, being the first Portuguese, you know, that I’ll have a lot of sponsors and everything because I am the first one. But it wasn’t like that. Motorsport in Portugal is not known as in Spain. And Portuguese companies don’t want to invest in motorsport because it is not recognized there.
You’ve also got most of your racing eduction in Spain instead of Portugal. When did you start racing in Spain?
I started racing in 2004 in the Portuguese Championship with the Metrakit and I started to go to Spain in the same year. At the end of that year we went to the competition of the World Festival of Metrakit and everybody of every country went there and that was my first year that I went to Spain. Next in 2005 I went there quite often. And since 2006 I’ve been progressing through all the championships in Spain and I entered the 125cc Spanish Championship in 2009.
You’ve also participated in the Red Bull Rookies Cup in 2008 as a guest rider and astoundingly won two races out of three. How did you experience the Rookies Cup?
The Red Bull Rookies Cup is really competitive. At that time I heard about the competition and I was really excited to go there. And in the Red Bull Rookies Cup the bikes are the same for everyone, what really counts is your riding. The braking, the acceleration, that’s with you all the time. For example here in the world championship it’s not like that, you have to work with different things, with the acceleration of the bike, because everybody can touch it. But in the Rookies Cup it wasn’t like that, it was equal for everbody and so what really counts is the riding.
You were only 13 when you won in the Rookies Cup and then showed impressive speed in the CEV, so it would have been likely for you to move up to the world championship in 2010 already, but then the entry age was raised from 15 to 16. For you personally, do you think it was an advantage for you, having to wait another year to gain more experience and fight for the CEV title, or would you have preferred to come here last year already?
No, I think with the age raised to 16, that one more year in the Spanish Championship was really good for me. Because I learned things that I didn’t know and I learned with this [same] team [Andalucia Cajasol], so I thought that I shouldn’t make the step to the world championship, even if I could have when I was 15 years old, because I didn’t have any experience at all. So I think that year in the Spanish Championship gave me a lot of experience.
The Spanish Championship is said to be the national championship with the level closest to the world championship. How big is the step to come from there to here?
The Spanish Championship is really competitive. You make a lot of really fast laptimes and you learn a lot, because the competition is really high. Most of the teams in the world championship go to Spain to test, so it really shows how great the Spanish Championship is. It’s not a big step to move to the world championship, I think the Spanish Championship is the closest one to it, yes.
Was there a difference for you in terms of the bike, working with the team, etc or does it feel the same?
No, because the team is the same and it’s the environment of the team itself that makes you comfortable. I think this team has that, because it makes me really comfortable, I’m with the same people as last year, the same mechanics. The difference is travelling and knowing new tracks and of course the rhythm is really high, because you get really quickly to fast laptimes. It costs you a lot in the world championship to do that, because in the Spanish Championship it’s like: Friday you go very slow, Saturday you start becoming fast and Sunday you go really fast. [laughs] Here [in the world championship] you have to go really fast [from] Friday on and you have to adapt to that.
Talking about travelling, you’re also still going to school, is that correct? How do you manage to balance that with the busy racing schedule?
Yes. You know, I believe if you want something really bad then you work for it. And I very much want to do school and I want to be someone in the future. So I think it’s really important if you like something you take time to do everything.
So presumably you don’t just want to finish school to then concentrate completely on racing?
No, I want to go into medicine.
Miguel and the rest of the world championship riders will be back in action this weekend for the Czech Grand Prix at Brno.
We’d like to thank Miguel Oliveira for the interview and his father for kindly providing the right photo props.
Interview and photos by Simona Vogel for Vroom Media.