Miguel Oliveira: How I ride

MotoGP

MotoGP riders use a lot of crazy tricks to get the best out of the world’s fastest, most-complicated racing motorcycles. And there are few better riders to tell us about those tricks than Miguel Oliveira

Oliveira 2

Lots of lean angle, standing on the footpegs, front wheel in the air – the beautiful ballet of MotoGP riding

Red Bull

Miguel Oliveira is KTM’s most successful MotoGP rider, with four wins aboard the RC16. He’s also technical and articulate, so he’s able to offer some fascinating insights into MotoGP riding technique.

The 27-year-old Portuguese rider – who looks set to race a Ducati in 2023 – tells us about the science behind the leg dangle, why traction control makes you slower, why MotoGP riders weave down straights, how downforce aerodynamics change the way you ride, how to get the best out of shapeshifters (ride-height devices), dealing with front-tyre temperature/pressure problems and much more.

 

Mat Oxley: Let’s start with your braking technique – how you balance the front and rear and so on…

Miguel Oliveira: “I think to brake on any MotoGP bike you need a very high and consistent brake load during the braking phase. With our bike we do need to add a lot of rear-brake pressure, so we can also stop the bike with the rear tyre.

We tend to use the rear brake a lot at the apex of the corner because we do need this extra bit of positioning to turn the bike – without the rear brake it would be quite difficult to stop the bike in those last moments.

OKTM team-mates

Oliveira and team-mate Brad Binder braking at Le Mans – Oliveira likes it wheels inline, Binder less so

KTM

We need to use the rear brake into both rights and lefts, so it’s quite tricky sometimes. For example, in Austin, mostly it’s hard braking into left-handers, which makes it tricky to apply very good rear-brake pressure.

Why is it more difficult in lefts?

MO: Because your foot is further from the brake lever.

Many MotoGP riders use thumb-operated, or scooter-style rear brakes now, so why don’t you?

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MO: We tried it once in 2019, we tested a thumb brake, but the pressure wasn’t enough.

So you really murder the rear brake?

MO: Yes, and we couldn’t squeeze out enough pressure with the thumb brake.

What about engine-braking – do you like a lot of engine-brake?

MO: I like the bike to stop! We’ve been trying to get a bit more into this area because over the years we’ve had quite a stable physical setting with the [slipper] clutch and the engine-brake electronics. We think we could find a bit more in this area, so we are starting to explore it more.

I don’t particularly like the bike to be sideways in the entry of the corner. I want the stopping, but I don’t want the sliding. In my case the sliding compromises my entry speed a lot, so I need to keep the bike going straight a little bit longer, instead of just tipping into the corner. If the bike is sliding it’s taking you out wide, so it’s not helping you to turn.

You say you don’t like the sliding but you’re using a lot of rear brake.

MO: The rear brake is just to stop the bike, although sometimes with the rear brake together with the setting we can provoke a little bit of sliding, which is helpful at Austin, for example.

Oliveira dangle

Enea Bastianini dangling his right leg on the brakes. Oliveira can’t because he still uses a foot brake lever

Red Bull

So you’ve taken away all the speed with the brakes, then you’re just using the rear brake as a turning tool.

MO: Exactly, just a little bit at the last moment.

What about the leg dangle? Your team-mate Brad Binder told me recently that he when he takes a leg off the footpeg it puts more force into that arm and therefore into that handlebar, which helps him counter-steer into the corner, so why do you use the dangle?

MO: For example, if you are sitting static on the bike and braking, just raising your upper body when you brake and staying in the centre of the bike, you will have a lot of pitching, so you won’t have a lot of contact between the rear tyre and the track, so you won’t be able to brake with the rear so much.

What the leg dangle does is pull your body mass to the front, then you start moving your body. Let’s not consider the leg to start with… so you shift your body into the corner without dangling your leg. This is what Fabio [Quartararo] does – he positions himself towards the inside of the bike, so his body mass is already hanging off the inside side of the bike.

Then if you take your leg off the footpeg you lower your hip and also your leg is closer to the ground, so you further lower the overall centre of gravity, so that more or less explains why riders dangle the leg.

I cannot take my right leg off the ’peg for right-handers because I really need to use the rear brake, but in lefts it usually happens naturally. If you look at Marc [Marquez] he never took his legs off the ’pegs but now he’s started, so I think this is still evolving.

Oliveira lean

Oliveira exiting Turn One at Red Bull Ring: get the bike turned quicker, so you can stand it up sooner and get on the throttle sooner

Red Bull

So you’re into the corner, what happens next?

MO: One thing you need to keep in mind is to apply a very constant brake pressure. With the guys who use a one-finger braking technique you can really see what they do when they brake.

Like Marc or Fabio, you can see they keep front brake pressure really constant all the way to the apex, so the load on the front tyre is consistent, so you don’t have a sudden little peak of speed when you let go of the front or rear brake, which can create movement from the tyres. So what you need to do is keep constant pressure until the moment you hit the apex.

Next it’s about steering the bike with the throttle. From the corner apex we start with the throttle and we use a few more degrees lean of angle to help turn the bike and then we pick it up. From there onwards it’s just managing the pure acceleration phase.

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I suppose you work at picking up the bike as quick as possible – how do you do this?

MO: This is super-important. This is, let’s say, a reaction effect, because how quick you can pick up the bike depends on how fast you turn. So if you turn quicker you will pick up the bike earlier than the other guys, so you will reach the good performance area of the rear tyre sooner.

I’d say the drive area of the tyre is from 25 to 35 or 40 degrees [from vertical], this is the sweet spot where you can really accelerate, because you have a lot of mass going into the tyre and a lot of tyre contact with the track so you can really drive. It’s also important that you don’t make the tyre spin.

When do you go to full throttle?

MO: You can go to full throttle basically anywhere, because the electronics are protecting you but when they are doing that the bike isn’t performing.

Is that done with the torque-demand maps or the traction control?

MO: It’s TC. The TC is most active when you’re at the edge of the tyre, but of course the power available when you’re using the pure edge grip of the tyre is much less.

What you want is the bike and the electronics to be clean when you pick up the throttle, because then you’ll have good turning and you’ll get a good feeling of connectivity between what’s happening at the rear tyre right and your right wrist.

And what happens if the tyre starts spinning?

MO: If the tyre starts spinning you’re just relying on the TC to cut the power, so you lose all your acceleration, then you’re just waiting for the bike to finish the corner and then you can pick it up. During races, when you lose a bit of edge grip some riders’ lap times drop quite a lot, so you can see who uses the edge of the tyres more than the others.

This is your fourth year in MotoGP and downforce aero has been getting bigger and bigger, so how has that changed the way you exit corners, regarding wheelies and so on?

MP: Before it used to be super-important to keep a certain amount of lean angle even once you were out of the corner, so that you arrived at the wheelie limit of the bike as late as possible.

[The wheelie limit is the point where the bike starts to wheelie, which activates the anti-wheelie program, which reduces power.]

Which is why we see you weaving down the straight, left and right, left and right, to keep the bike leaning?

MO: Yes, we call this weaving ‘the wave’. The wave is super-important because you have to keep the front wheel down. Once you have zero lean angle the bike gets the information that it can release full power, then you have a wheelie and then the anti-wheelie cuts in, reducing power.

Oliveira COTA

Weaving down the straight at COTA because if the bike is upright the ECU will unleash full power, the bike will wheelie and the anti-wheelie will cut in

KTM

So all the time you are trying to avoid using the TC and the anti-wheelie…

MO: Yes, all we do is ride to avoid using them. Now with the ride-height device and the downforce aero we have more acceleration, because they drop the bike’s centre of gravity quite a lot, so you can use more power out of a corner.

KTM started this year with bigger downforce aero, has that also changed the way you brake?

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MO: The way we brake hasn’t really changed but with the device you feel much more pitching when you do brake, because the device lowers the rear of the bike, so you’re coming from a lower to a higher position when you brake.

The wings do have an effect on braking because they create more drag when you’re stopping, but I’d say the biggest effect is on settings, in terms of preload, springs, combinations, that kind of thing.

When do you engage the ride-height device?

MO: Usually you need to engage the device exactly when you’re using the part of the rear tyre that can handle the load you give it when you open the throttle. If you engage the device too soon you won’t finish the corner because the front is too high [i.e. there’s not enough load on the front tyre to keep the bike turning.] If you engage it later it still works but you don’t really gain the benefit.

The first manufacturer to realise that it was really important to hit it just right was Ducati. They really understood the relationship between front-fork extension and device activation, so this was when they made their automatic version: ‘OK, when the bike detects the front fork is fully extended then we drop the rear to delay the wheelie limit as much as possible’. When you watch the Ducatis they almost don’t wheelie. This is why they’ve worked on these details for so many years.

Oliveira wheelie

Oliveira on the gas at Le Mans, shapeshifter engaged to reduce wheelies

KTM

Is the KTM’s ride-height device still manual?

MO: Yes. We did have an automatic device which we used at the first couple of races this year, but I had a problem with it in qualifying at Portimão and Jerez, so we came back to the manual version.

Looking after your front tyre is incredibly important now – not getting it too hot and not allowing the pressure to come up. Obviously on straights you want to use the draft of the bike in front to get more speed, but I suppose you can’t do that anymore because you’ll overheat your front tyre. So how do you manage using the guy’s draft but not getting your front tyre hot?

Now the draft is something you don’t gain any benefit from, because of all the aero, except at really high speeds. But also during races your front tyre cannot handle too much time behind another bike, so the only time you can draft someone is at really high speed.

So during a race you’re trying to find cool air for your front tyre?

MO: Yes. In a race situation it’s really crucial to try to manage the space in front. If you’re fast enough to overtake someone you can overtake, but otherwise it’s a yoyo effect: you gain some time, you catch the guy, then your tyre overheats and you have to drop back again.

Michelin’s MotoGP tyres are really, really high-performance tyres, but on the other hand, like any high-performance machine or equipment, they’re also very sensitive to temperature and pressure changes.

This makes it very easy to crash, or very easy to tie your hands during the race, so you’re not actually racing, just surviving. That’s what we are trying to deal with. It’s not easy for teams to think about and predict what pressure they’ll reach in the race so that we can be in a safe area, because too much pressure and it’s impossible to stop the bike, or we crash. The front tyre becomes a hot balloon and even straight braking is scary because you really cannot stop the bike. The bike is skipping and sliding everywhere, so it’s tricky.

Oliveira Assen

In the midst of the madness it’s not easy to keep your front tyre temperature and pressure under control

KTM

Your rookie MotoGP season was 2019, then Michelin switched to its softer-casing rear slick for 2020. This tyre seemed more difficult to adapt to for the V4s than the inline-fours, because usually V4s are more aggressive in the way they load the rear in corners. Did you have to change a lot to make the RC16 work with the new tyre?

MO: To be honest, our bike was so, so different from 2019 to 2020 [with the RC16’s new frame concept] that it was really hard to say what made what difference – was it the tyre or the bike?

The bigger change for us was the change in front-tyre allocation from 2020 to 2021. The S tyre, which was between the hard we have now and the medium, was removed from the allocation. That tyre had been great for us because we felt like we could be really good with the pressure, grip and stability we got from it. So when that tyre was taken away we did struggle and it took a while to understand how to use the new front allocation.