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Oliveira jags Tech 3's first victory as Espargaro and Miller battle

Words Neil Morrison Pics GnG

Just as MotoGP was showing a touch of predictability, a red flag wiped the slate clean.

At the close of yet another drama-packed weekend, KTM enjoyed its second premier class win in 14 days and had another rider on the podium. Jack Miller’s (Pramac Ducati) thrilling second place a day after tweaking shoulder ligaments thrusted him back into title contention. And it all played out in a breathless final corner, in which the man entering in third emerged victorious. For the third time in as many weekends, the 2020 version of MotoGP outdid its previous high standards.

That the last gasp winner was the lesser fancied Miguel Oliveira (Tech 3 KTM) added to the surprise. The 25-year old started the weekend playing down comments made the previous Sunday in the wake of a collision with stablemate Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM). It was fitting that his typically cool head reigned amid the hot-headed exchanges in front as Miller and Espargaro swapped the lead three times on the last lap.

Oliveira’s last-gasp thrust under Miller, who has just edged Espargaro out wide at the final turn ten, was enough for his first premier class win by three-tenths of a second. In 30 years of trying, Tech 3 and proud team boss Hervé Poncharal final have their first premier class win to savour. “I feel just pure happiness, joy, and a lot of adrenaline,” Oliveira said soon after the event. Anyone lucky enough to watch this, MotoGP’s 900th race, could relate.

It was another MotoGP epic with two seconds covering the top seven at the flag, showing the Marc Marquez’s absence and Michelin’s new rear tyre for 2020 has created the most open and hotly contested season in memory. Joan Mir’s (Ecstar Suzuki) assessment – “like a Moto3 race! Everyone touching at 180mph, crazy,” – wasn’t far wrong. The championship is now as fierce as the racing with the top nine riders covered by 27 points. Any one of them has justifiable dreams of lifting the title come November.

For the second race running an errant Yamaha careering off the track at high brought out the red flags. And for the second race running Maverick Viñales’ (Monster Energy Yamaha) heart was in his mouth. This time he had no choice but to jump from his M1 at 142mph as his front brakes failed in spectacular fashion on the run to turn one. “Suddenly the brakes exploded,” he said after his bike had smashed into the Safety fence, soon turning the whole section into a blaze.

Maverick Vinales crash, Styrian MotoGP. 23 August 2020

The race would turn at this moment. Before then Joan Mir (Ecstar Suzuki) was riding with a freedom and precision that belied his 22 years. A number of the fancied names – namely KTM’s first-ever pole-sitter Espargaro and Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) – were struggling to replicate their free practice speed and were unable to hold on as the brilliant young Spaniard stretched the pack Only Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda) and Miller could just hold on. Even so, Mir’s lead had surpassed 2.4 seconds on lap 16. No one was catching him.

Joan Mir, Styrian MotoGP race 23 August 2020

But just in the same manner, the red flag deprived Espargaro and KTM of glory on the previous weekend, a similar fate would befall Mir and Nakagami. The Spaniard favoured the medium compound front and rear tyres all weekend but didn’t have any left in his allocation. Both he and Nakagmi – favouring the soft rear – had to persevere with their tyre from the first race while Miller, Oliveira, Espargaro and Dovizioso threw new rubber in.

Miller immediately put that into effect, grasping the lead from Mir four turns into the restart. Espargaro was also back in contention, while Oliveira and Dovizioso – seventh and eighth at the time of the stoppage – were handed fresh impetus. So, too, was Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM), inside the top six with Nakagami just behind.

Soon Espargaro was second, outbraking Mir at the third turn three laps in. He was by Miller at turn nine two laps later. And the KTM was just edging clear. Meanwhile Oliveira, Mir and Dovizioso were never far away, a five-way fight for the podium.

It all came down to the final lap. Espargaro has three tenths in hand but entered turn three hot. Miller smelt blood on the run down to turn four. “I thought, ‘It’s now or never,’” he said. “I was going to try and get in front. Did so, but I didn’t get the greatest run out of seven.” That allowed Espargaro to pull alongside when braking for turn nine. Miller switched back for the final turn and went in hot. All the while Oliveira sensed a chance. “I knew I could take advantage of this,” the Portuguese rider said. “I played it a little bit safe and smart and just could be on the inside in the corner.”

Jack Miller, Pol Espargaro, Styrian MotoGP. 23 August 2020

He was by as Miller cut back. Espargaro, pushed onto the green paint on the outside of the track, accelerated home in third, just ahead of Mir, 0.6s covering the four riders. “My feet are on the ground but my head is for sure floating around filled with happiness,” Oliveira, the third first-time winner in the premier class this year, said. Miller added, “Being used to Moto3 when people pass you on the last corner like that there’s normally about six of them. I was waiting for another three to come through and I’d be off the box. But I’m stoked for Miguel and the Tech 3 team.”

Miguel Oliveira, 2020 Styrian MotoGP

Espargaro was magnanimous in defeat. “We enjoyed a good race,” he said after only his second ever MotoGP podium, the first in the dry. “We could win the race for sure. We were first until the last corner. These kind of things happen. I’m happy for the performance of the bike during the whole weekend.” And he offered words for Mir: “I feel quite sorry for Joan. He was so fast in the first race, impossible to follow with an amazing rhythm and going away of everyone.”

Mir struggled to find the words after a near certain win was taken from him. “What can I say? I’m disappointed.” His ire soon turned to the FIM Stewards, who didn’t penalise Espargaro for accelerating over the green pain on the outside of the track. “It makes no sense,” he railed. “I’m really surprised about race direction. And really angry.”

Dovizioso was a despondent fifth, his perfect podium record at this track gone. But for a mistake braking for turn three on the final lap, he could’ve been higher. But for a man so strong in FP4, his lack of bite was puzzling. “Everything worked very bad,” he said. “I was lucky because with the red flag I was able to change the tyre. On corner exit, I’m still bad, and is the reason why I couldn’t prepare the overtake because I couldn’t exit with the same speed.” Alex Rins (Ecstar Suzuki) recovered from a shocking start and a turn three mistake to finish sixth. “It wasn’t our day,” he concluded. A “really, really disappointed and so angry” Nakagami was left to count the cost of the red flag and what could have been. He was seventh.

Binder was in contention for the podium until a mistake when braking for turn one saw him drop to eighth. A switch from his favoured hard front tyre to a medium compound was costly. “I kept locking the front in all the braking zones,” he shrugged. Valentino Rossi (Monster Energy Yamaha) was the best of the M1s on a shocking day for Yamaha. “We have to suffer, because here, the top speed is very important, and this year the difference in top speed is huge, very difficult to manage,” he said. Championship leader Fabio Quartararo (Petronas SRT Yamaha) had another dire day as he fought similar front brake issues to Viñales. “During the race, the front brake was at the limit. The lever was coming every time softer, arriving to one moment where I was going to have no brakes. Really dangerous, and I had no confidence.”

Valentino Rossi, Styrian MotoGP race 23 August 2020

As a result, the title race couldn’t be tighter: Quartararo (70 points) has just three points in hand over Dovizioso (67). Miller (56) climbs to third, 14 points back. And Binder (49), Viñales (48), Nakagami (46), Rossi (45), Mir (44) and Oliveira (43) are all in touch, with 27 points covering nine riders.