For the majority of his grand prix motorcycle racing career, Miguel Oliveira has seemingly been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Runner-up in two different world championships, caught out by bankrupt teams and taken down by other riders’ mistakes, he hasn’t had an easy journey to the very top of MotoGP.
But that finally came to an end last Sunday at the Styrian Grand Prix, when the Portuguese rider relied on one of his strongest qualities – his intelligence – to finally put himself in the right place at the right time and make himself a MotoGP race winner for the Tech3 KTM team.
Oliveira set himself up to smartly secure his maiden win by tucking himself into the slipstream of Jack Miller and Pol Espargaro for the frenetic final lap of the red-flagged and restarted race at the Red Bull Ring, powering through when the two made contact to secure victory by a mere three tenths of a second.
Being in the right place at the right time is a new experience for the 25-year-old, in a career marked by perennial bridesmaid status and bad luck.
Already a double Portuguese champion by age 11, Oliveira kicked off his grand prix career in 2010 in the Spanish championship by fighting for the CEV 125cc crown right until the final race against a young local called Maverick Vinales, losing out by a mere two points.
Moving to the new Moto3 class, he became one of the list of top MotoGP talent who learned the hard way, signing up to ride for Indian manufacturer Mahindra as it experimented with two-wheeled racing for the very first time.
Joining names like Brad Binder, Pecco Bagnaia and Jorge Martin, he handed Mahindra its first podium in 2014 before being recruited by Red Bull-backed KTM team Ajo Motorsport.
Again unfortunate in what should have been his big year, a mid-season broken wrist for Oliveira allowed Danny Kent to pull out a whopping 110-point lead on him.
Oliveira put together a stunning second half of the year, and was again incredibly unlucky to miss out on the title by a mere four points at the final round at Valencia.
Moving to Moto2 for 2016 as Kent’s Leopard Racing team-mate, it was another injury-struck learning year for Oliveira before he was reunited with the Ajo team for 2017 onboard KTM’s new middleweight class chassis.
It was far from the best bike on the grid and Oliveira’s success in his rookie season was impressive. He ended the first year a race winner and third overall, before once again finishing second best to Bagnaia in 2018, only nine points adrift.
And 2019 was also far from an easy season for Oliveira, as he adapted to the premier class on a KTM RC16 far removed from 2020’s vastly more refined package.
Taking a single top 10 before injury forced him out of the final three rounds of the season, he was nonetheless doing what he’d demonstrated repeatedly he’s capable of doing best; studying and learning as Herve Poncharal and his Tech3 squad took him under its wing.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that Oliveira is a capable student, either.
One of the most intelligent riders on the grid – and halfway through a degree in dentistry that he’s temporarily paused to race MotoGP – it’s perhaps characteristic of him that he’s spent his time learning the right way and the wrong way to do things.
No stranger to getting knocked back but picking himself up again, it makes Sunday’s fairytale story all the more special given just how tough it has been for him throughout his career.
In fact, he’s even had to do a fair amount of picking himself back up so far in 2020. KTM has twice been the victim of friendly fire in the first four races and Oliveira was forced out in both incidents, with 2021 works team-mate Binder at Jerez and with Espargaro in the first Red Bull Ring round. Those were two races where Oliveira believed he could challenge for the podium.
While Sunday might have been not only his first win but his first podium in the premier class, it’s hard to believe that it’ll be his last visit in 2020.
He’s been using the experience he’s gained to get faster and faster, and the maiden victory should help unlock the road to further success.
There’s one hurdle remaining to be crossed, as Oliveira still experiments with how to get the best qualifying performance from the RC16.
He’s not yet mastered the supreme confidence in the bike that Espargaro is so good at, but once Oliveira starts to secure himself better places on the grid he’ll be a force to be reckoned with every time.
And it’s certainly only the start of Oliveira’s story. Set to step up next year to the factory KTM team alongside former team-mate and fellow 2020 race winner Binder as Espargaro heads to Honda, he’ll have the full support of the Austrian manufacturer.
Though already well-backed by KTM at Tech3, with a closer factory-satellite relationship than perhaps any other pairing in MotoGP, there will nonetheless be a benefit to becoming joint number one rider with Binder as they take over development for the second chapter of the team’s story in MotoGP.
But before this year is even out, he’ll also have the added benefit of something that was only a pipe dream at the beginning of this season: the chance to line up in front of a home crowd as MotoGP returns to Portugal for the first time in nearly a decade.
With the calendar thrown into disarray by the coronavirus pandemic, the news that the championship will conclude at Portimao on the Algarve coast came as a welcome boost to the end of Oliveira’s year.
With the COVID situation improving in the Iberian country, he’ll also be hoping that fans will be allowed back into the track by the time late November comes around.
Hailing from a country with a rich heritage of motorsport but without a grand prix motorbike winner to cheer for until now, he’s developed an extremely passionate backing in his home country.
If he gets his own way though, Oliveira won’t be the only Portuguese winner for long.
Already investing back into the grassroots of the sport in his homeland, he’s set up a beginners series to make sure that pre-teen kids are given the same chance he was at that age by his racing-obsessed father.