An exclusive interview with Red Bull KTM Tech3 boss Herve Poncharal, whose team celebrated its first MotoGP victory - after 20 years of trying - when a stunning finish to the Styrian Grand Prix saw Miguel Oliveira overtake both Jack Miller and Pol Espargaro at the final corner…
It's been over a week since Miguel's victory, has it fully sunk in now?
It depends. For sure I've not been dancing, drinking and partying ever since last Sunday! But the good feeling, the cool feeling, the light feeling is still here.
Because honestly this was something – I don't want to say I didn't believe we could do it – but I was not really expecting it. It was something we were trying to reach, but I knew was very difficult.
For sure, the situation over the past two or three years has helped the Independent teams to be closer to the top in MotoGP. Ducati, Yamaha, Honda and of course KTM are now providing the same spec machinery to their satellite operations, which gives us the possibility to eventually fight for victory.
In recent years, Lucio has won with Cal [on a factory-spec Honda], Fabio showed it's possible [with a factory-spec Yamaha], now we've shown it's possible [with a factory-spec KTM]. And I think it will happen more and more.
But to come back to my feeling, this is something we had dreamed about but not really expected. Because of that, when it happens – the surprise, the happiness, the positive shock - is even bigger.
I used to joke with Jerry Burgess [Rossi's crew chief] some years ago, and now sometimes with Santi Hernandez [Marquez's crew chief] that when you win 10-12-13-14 times in a season, you must get a bit used to it!
For us, it was once in 20 years. So, you can imagine it is sweeter.
It's always difficult to say what is the best day of your life because you need to wait until the end of your life to know! But that day is going to be very important in my life.
My life is very much related to my job, my company, my team. So this means a lot to me. To do it after so many years is a very powerful feeling, but also to do it with KTM, in their home race, is something more special.
We joined the KTM project last year. I can tell you that the bike we tested in Sepang 2019 and the bike that won in Austria were very different bikes. For KTM to have done so much development, so much improvement, in such a short time is something fantastic.
I am somebody who always likes to pay back the people who trust in me and invest in me, which gives me the possibility to carry on doing my job. Of course, Brad did it two weeks before, but it was still an incredible feeling to show KTM and Red Bull we can also do it as a satellite operation. And on their home track.
KTM's slogan is 'ready to race' and the whole company – of course the racing department, but also sales, advertising, design and production – are all so into racing and follow it closely.
So you feel like you've done something special for these guys, who have been wonderful to me and the whole Tech3 team.
What was going through your mind as those three guys went into the final turn? Did you expect something like that from Miguel or were you mainly thinking about trying to keep hold of a podium?
Three laps from the finish I could see that, if there was no stupid move or too much aggressivity, the podium was a reality. Already I was so happy because as I said, a podium in front of the KTM management would mean a lot to me.
But then on the last lap I saw that Miguel was a lot closer and things were getting 'hotter' for Pol and Jack. I was a little bit scared that, once again, things could get a bit too hot and maybe some contact could end with all three of them on the ground.
So I was not very comfortable and also, as everybody knows, that last corner in Austria is a very special corner. We all remember Dovi and Marquez. It's a fast corner with a lot of negative banking. It's easy if you don’t have the right line to go wide.
When you have hot situations on track, Miguel always tries to keep a part of his brain a bit cool in order to think clearly.
There are two right-hand corners at the end of the lap and the first is very important also. I think when he saw Jack and Pol were pushing each other, going that fast and that wide already on the entrance of the corner, he understood they would push each other to the outside of the circuit.
I knew if that happened Miguel would try something in a clever way. But I still couldn't believe it when I saw him getting exactly the right line, the right exit and the right speed, to accelerate earlier than the others.
So it was exciting and beautiful to watch, but I'd be lying if I said I knew it was going to happen like that! I just knew that, out of the three, Miguel would be the coolest and the one thinking the most.
It ended up looking like the perfect pass…
But we also have to be humble and say that Miguel could do that move because of that special situation at the last corner, which nobody could have predicted until it happened.
To say it was the plan at the start of the race to make that move, or that it was in Miguel's head when he started the last lap even, would be pretentious.
It was a hot last lap. Both Pol and Jack were trying their best and rode very well. Miguel had the luck to be right behind, to watch and learn. Then it's easier to take advantage of the situation.
I think at that moment Pol and Jack were just looking at each other. And they almost forgot Miguel, who has been cool and clever. But nobody did anything stupid and all three of them deserved the win.
Unfortunately, there is only one winner. Fortunately for us, it was our guy.
Miguel also deserved some luck after the previous races…
I think we deserved that win because in Jerez we were taken down at Turn 1 when we could have been on the podium, I'm pretty sure. Then in Spielberg 1, there was definitely the possibility of a top five.
Also in the Czech Republic there was a possibility to fight for the victory, but we threw it away on the last lap of FP3, which took us out of Qualifying 2 so we had a poor grid position and were out of the game.
So there were a lot of points thrown away and I was a bit desperate after the first race in Austria.
When you have so much bad luck, when nothing seems to be working, you start to get almost superstitious. It's like there is somebody up there in the sky saying 'Tech3 won’t do it!'
This is also why I think the victory came at the right moment to give the boost to everyone - to give the Tech3 team the extra energy to carry on pushing, to give Miguel the joy and confidence that he can do it as well as Brad and Pol. And to show that KTM can win with Brad but also Miguel, with the factory team and also the satellite operation.
So it was fantastic for all of us.
When we spoke just before the start of the season you predicted a lot of what we've seen; Marc pushing hard to win race one and show he's still the boss, Fabio being even stronger after his new contract and challenging Vinales to be top Yamaha. But I think no-one expected the KTM to be this good, this soon. Is it also a surprise for you?
Until you prove something it's only words. Only talk. Because the bike that won in Brno and Austria is the same bike we were using at the Sepang test. Because after Qatar came the lockdown and the factories were closed.
So when we first started to test in January, KTM's 2020 bike was already that competitive. But everybody at a test is focussed on one lap and people draw conclusions on one lap.
We worked a lot, with the KTM management and riders, on race pace because last year we had a good qualifying position, but race pace was always a problem. And we used the tests in Malaysia and Qatar to prepare our package.
We knew it was going to be better than last year, but it's always difficult to know how much better because at a test a lot of people are hiding their cards.
Sometimes you do one fast lap with the soft tyres and everybody's impressed, but the rest of the laps are not so fast. Sometimes you don’t want to show your potential at all.
Also, you always want to have a humble attitude and think 'wow, Yamaha, Honda, Ducati have so much more experience. Last year we were quite far, so we are not going to close that gap too quickly'.
I said to you 'regular top tens, eventually some top fives and why not try to target the podium' this season. So that was what we were thinking, but we were all waiting for the races to understand where we stood.
At Jerez we were unlucky in a way, all of us at KTM, but we could see that we were not so far. But until you are on the podium there is not much to say. It's better to work, keep a low profile, shut your mouth and carry on pushing.
Straight after Jerez we arrived in the Czech Republic and – bang – there was the win [with Brad Binder]. Then, even though Pol and Miguel didn't finish after what happened between them in Austria 1, Brad still ended up fourth. Then came Miguel's win and Pol's podium in race 2.
It's funny how people behave though, even though I'm used to it because I've been here a long time. Before our bike was seen by some as 'that will never win' and now we hear some guys say 'the KTM is the best bike on the grid!'
I think the truth is always in-between.
We have a competitive bike. We still have a lot of work to do. We have to respect our opponents. We were very fast in the Czech Republic and Austria, but now let's wait and see what's going to happen in Misano.
The story of a racing life is that every day you start from scratch. Every time you go to a circuit, it’s a new adventure.
Also, we are coming from the Czech Republic and Austria, which are fast circuits, to a twisty circuit like Misano where we know Yamaha is very fast, I'm sure Suzuki is going to be very fast and Ducati knows the track off-by-heart.
But the secret to a winning package is to be fast everywhere, without having to change the settings on the bike too much.
So if we can be competitive at Jerez - because don't forget what Brad did before crashing, he could have been fighting for the podium – then Brno, Red Bull Ring and also Misano, it'll be very interesting…