Young Turk: The mind of Deniz Öncü
By Adam Wheeler
2023 was the fourth and final Moto3™ season for 20-year-old Turkish racer Deniz Öncü and a term where he won three Grands Prix – his first victories – often with explosive and captivating displays. Now on the threshold of a Moto2™ challenge with his Red Bull KTM Ajo team for 2024 we decided to get 1-1 on discussions with Deniz.
At the end of the 2018 MotoGP™ season the Ricardo Tormo Circuit in Valencia was grey, cold and soaking wet. The Grand Prix was a washout, but it was also the stage for the ‘Öncü’ name to make a first big splash. Fifteen-year-old Can, the 2018 Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup Champion that year, cut through the puddles for an amazing debut wildcard win. Twin brother Deniz, making his own steps along the MotoGP talent pyramid, looked on in awe.
Skip forward to the start of 2023 and Deniz is now a three season ‘veteran’ of Moto3. Can is still racing on the world stage but his brother is making a mark in Grand Prix and has switched from Red Bull KTM Tech3 to Red Bull KTM Ajo to eye a path through the KTM GP Academy. Moto2 is on the horizon but the chance of the Moto3 championship remains in the palm. 2023 would turn out to be a ‘very Deniz Öncü’ campaign; full of unpredictable action, amazing highs (such as his first GP wins in Germany, Austria and Australia), mistakes and moments of controversy (like the last corner contact with David Muñoz in Barcelona that cost him a podium finish). While his results have improved and there is more consistency, Öncü has also shown clear signs of progress. He was a clear protagonist in Moto3, a leading name in title contention, and is currently one of the most curious figures in the KTM GP Academy thanks to his transition to Moto2 for 2024, to replace the MotoGP-bound Pedro Acosta.
Deniz attracts interest regardless of his scorecard or his speed. The mischievous grin accompanies a very strong personality. Fans will either love him or hate him and his future rivals in Moto2 and maybe MotoGP will quickly feel the depth of his determination. We sit in the Red Bull hospitality unit in Phillip Island, Australia as the wind begins to pick up and buffet the large windows. Deniz has also blown his own path through Moto3 in 2022 and 2023 especially. How does he feel about the journey?
Deniz, when Can won in Valencia what was going through your mind?
This moment when he won was super-amazing for all our family. My brother and me are the same, no? When he or I make a good result then we are both very proud of each other. I was very emotional, and I was thinking ‘it’s possible!’ If he could do it, then I knew I could. I could see myself in that place as well and I have been working for it ever since.
You’ve made progress quickly in the last two seasons: this must be down to mentality as much as physical and technical development…
Yes. Mentality, like you say, and two things with this: to be more strong but also more calm because normally I am a very aggressive rider and I’m very crazy. I was either arriving to the finish line or I was making a mistake.
Your natural ability is evident but were the family and the team the catalyst for the rest?
For sure. My family was always pushing me to be cleaner. They said I was too aggressive and doing crazy things and it meant the results were not coming. Nobody really understood why we were not finishing where we should. Changing team also helped me a lot. Before I thought ‘if I attack everywhere then I can win…’ and I changed this mindset and I noticed if I calmed down and thought slower then I could plan the next lap or the last moves to win the race. I stopped being a ‘question mark’ and just going like hell; riding the bike with more strategy helped me a lot.
You show your emotions easily, which is endearing but also leaves you a bit exposed to criticism…
I don’t care what people say or think about me. I don’t give a s**t! I’m here to work and chase my passion. I will say that I have started to change my feelings in the last year because when I am too ‘hot’ or emotional then I see it doesn’t work so good on the bike. It’s best to be like a robot: all the time the same and without emotion. Now, when I am on track, I just think about flowing with the bike and at the same time riding with strategy.
Being a robot might be good but you also want to show character and maybe inspire other riders or kids…?
Yeah, sure. When I take off the helmet then I am a totally different character then when I have it on. At the circuit you need to be a bit of a b**tard but otherwise I’m just myself. I do think the race starts ‘before the lights’. If you are already beating some riders mentally then you are a tenth ahead. Even some conversations with riders can be important for this. In general, though I am a very friendly character! I enjoy what I do and I do what I want.
What other sports do you like and look towards for inspiration?
I like all extreme sports. Also BMX. Surfing I like a lot. For training it is running, cycling or crossfit; which is really nice. Basically, I like any sport that has wheels! I don’t really take reference from any other sport. I’m here because I like it [racing]. And I want to be the best.
Do you always go home during the races or do you have a base somewhere else?
I normally always go back to Turkey between races. It’s my home, and we also have a ‘ranch’ with Kenan [Sofuoğlu] and some other riders like Toprak [Razgatlıoğlu] and my brother. We live a sporting life. We are always pushing each other. We wake up and start the day by running or cycling together, then by midday we are in the circuit riding, then to finish it will be crossfit or something. On free days we just hang out. Sometimes PlayStation together. Almost everything we do is a competition. Someone always wants to win at something. Always pushing.
2023 was the first full year with Aki and now you’re looking to Moto2…
When I moved to this team I knew the pressure would be very high because it is one of the best, maybe the best, and you always have to be winning or fighting at the top. There are no excuses. For me there was a point where I thought ‘is this the right decision or not?’ but in the end I’m happy because we managed the situation quite well and the relationship inside the team is good. It was a season where we could think about the championship. We had really good speed and we showed how strong we were but there have also been unlucky moments for us. We managed a lot of situations in the right way. Even when we were bad, we found some way to improve.
Moto3 craziness, talk about it…
Well, every race has a different scenario for the circuit. I would describe it as ‘too-aggressive’, ‘great fun’ and ‘very instinctive’. Without thinking I might dive to the inside and pass five riders. It’s an automatic thing. Sometimes I crash, sometimes not! You have to be a bit crazy to be in this Moto3 category. If you are not then you won’t find a way. It’s not always about the last lap, and another factor is luck; you can do your very best but you also need a bit of luck in Moto3. It is not like MotoGP where they might be five seconds between a few riders. In Moto3 there is half a second between five of us! There are a lot of factors like the size, the weight, the setup, the speed of the bike and the position.
Moto2: curious or excited? Some riders adapt quicker than others…
Honestly, I haven’t thought about it! It’s clear I will be there…but that’s next year. I’m here to be my best, enjoy and be the best in every session. I enjoy my life and my category and I want to win. I will have a good think about Moto2 after my last Moto3 lap!