After a poor start to the 2021 MotoGP season, KTM and Miguel Oliveira made a miraculous turnaround by scoring 65 out of a possible 75 points during the succesive Catalunya-Mugello-Sachsenring races.
If Oliveira and the RC16 had continued that form, with over a half a season still to go, it would have carried them into title contention.
But the podiums, and Mugello victory, vanished as suddenly as they had arrived.
After collecting 76 points in the opening half of the season Oliveira scored a barely believable 9 points over the final nine rounds.
The Portuguese explained that a variety of factors combined to cause the slump, not least a wrist injury in Austria, while some costly crashes exaggerated the points drop.
Nonetheless, consistency and maintaining his average is a main goal for 2022.
“It’s never easy to go to the limit and still not crash. But I found that my season was too spiky, either the result was very good or very bad. I could never do ‘average’,” Oliveira said.
“When I felt good with the bike I was very fast and I could deliver very good results. But when I didn’t feel so good with the bike, I just couldn’t do average and that’s what really lacks during my season.”
The crack in Oliveira’s right wrist, sustained during a free practice fall in Austria, also hampered his riding for several rounds.
“After the summer my wrist was not helping at all,” said Oliveira, who initially underestimated the problem, until arriving at the fast and flowing Silverstone circuit.
“In Spielberg everything is more braking upright, do the corner and then just go. It’s a typical drag race kind of track. In Silverstone I had the real first impact of the effect of my injury and how limiting it was for me,” Oliveira explained.
“After finishing the race in Silverstone outside of the points I realised that 3 weeks after the injury there was still a long way to go. At that point I couldn’t just say ‘I cannot ride anymore for 3 races and I have to rest’.
“So it was quite difficult. A challenge mentally because you want to go forward but you cannot. You do things on the bike that on the data you see that it’s not completely right and with such close competition it’s very easy to qualify 17th-18th-20th and just then survive during the race, hope someone crashes and you make it to the points. It’s quite frustrating to go to a race like that.
“Then when you start at the back in MotoGP it’s hard to go forward. Super hard. then you make mistakes. Then you touch with some guys. You lose time. And so the chance of a good result is kind of gone. Even for one lap pace my wrist was not allowing me to be fast and I just had sort of to wait a little bit until it goes away.”
The injury ultimately took until Austin, round 15 of 18, to heal: “The first time where I didn’t have any pain was in Austin. It was close to 100%. So from Austin onwards the wrist was fine.”
“In the second half of the season our competitors raised up a step, especially Ducati,” Oliveira said. “So that made it even harder.
“I would say the one lap pace that in the second half of the season really hurt the result.”
With his right wrist back in physical shape, the focus is now on technical development of the 2022-spec RC16.
But while pre-season talk usually revolves around riders wishing to acquire as many new parts as possible, Oliveira stressed that set-up work with the current package is even more important.
“Technically the bike is going to suffer a few changes of course, a few evolutions in terms of the pure hardware of the bike and the main thing that we are looking for to improve is on the set-up,” he said.
“Of course, we believe that new parts are going to help a lot to find the speed and direction with the bike. But if you add my results and Brad’s results [from last season together] it’s not so bad at all.
“We believe there is still a lot of room to find speed and more consistency in the races with the current package and a few little changes can translate into much better results.
“I think that last year there was progress, but we couldn’t really see it in the results. Bikes are never perfect and we will always want to work on [new parts], but I’m confident that we can do a good job with this package.”
That approach of extracting the maximum from the existing package rather than major changes also applies to solvig KTM’s issues with the softer front tyre compounds.
“It was one of the problems [last year]. I was quite sensitive to this, the changes of pressure. It’s within tyre conditioning department and also the bike set-up,” Oliveira confirmed.
“I would say these are two things which now we have to try and find the solution to make me feel like I can still stop the bike, still force the bike to turn. Without having this sensitivity to the differences of pressure and temperature.
“I need to feel at home on the bike and we need to start working already during these short 5 days of testing that we have to set up the bike and to start slowly the championship and building the speed and pace to strong finishes.
“And we should also be reminded again that we haven’t raced with the full championship. We haven’t been to Malaysia, Motegi, Australia. Many places where the track layouts are completely different.
“So I think we should take that into account when designing a future direction or even think about a different philosophy for the construction of it.”
In light of last year’s multiple complications, Oliveira takes the view that 2022 can only be better.
“I am confident, for many reasons. I think that the tough year we had means that we can only have a better one this season. This makes me optimistic and looking forward to the future.”
KTM motorsport director Pit Beirer said the factory is targeting the title top 3. However, the tumultuous nature of last season means Oliveira will be waiting until the second half to gauge his championship potential.
“I think we need to first grow step-by-step. The title is built during the season, many things can happen, I would say that for the moment I’m just focussing on the consistency and then from mid-season onwards we will start thinking about where could be our place in the standings,” he said.
2022 will be Oliveira’s fourth MotoGP season, following a debut with Tech3 KTM in 2019, two victories for the French team in 2020, then a move to the factory Red Bull squad alongside Brad Binder in 2021.
Binder, who also took one win last season, finished sixth in the world championship.