As debut seasons in MotoGP go, Brad Binder has had a blinder. The South African won his third race in the sport’s elite division – the Czech MotoGP in Brno in August – after the Covid-delayed season finally got off the line. It was a dream start for the 2016 Moto3 world champion and it announced his, and the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s arrival in the premier class. Both Binder and KTM are here to stay.
“This is a day I have dreamed about since I was a little boy,” an emotional Binder said after the race. “Today, it came true. I really wish my parents were here because they were the ones that backed me from the beginning.
“I can’t thank my team enough. They put an absolutely insane motorbike underneath me this weekend. Thank you to everyone at home for always supporting me. I hope that this is the start of many more.”
As it was, that was the high point of a superb season that saw Binder become the first South African to win a race in the sport’s premier class.
The win was also the first for the Red Bull KTM Factory Team in the sport’s premier class. They delivered earlier than promised when they entered the elite class in the sport in 2016. KTM set a goal of winning races within five years, but that was before they fully realised what a talent they had in Binder, who rode a KTM all through his formative years in Moto3 and Moto2.
A week later in Austria, he glided into fourth, making the sport look easy in his first few weeks of mixing it with more seasoned riders.
Gradually, reality has set in for Binder and the team. In the subsequent seven races, he hasn’t finished higher than eighth. It’s only because he made such a blistering start to MotoGP in his rookie campaign that recent results feel underwhelming. They are, in fact, where he should be as he learns to handle a 300 horsepower bike on tracks where he has pushed only smaller machines to their limits.
One of his major issues in finding consistency has been the inability to qualify high on the grid. His best qualifying has been sixth and that immediately puts him on the defensive. But his Sunday pace has routinely been fast. The problem is, starting farther back means he has to fight in the pack, which is a recipe for mishaps.
“Qualifying in MotoGP is crucial and a huge factor,” Binder told Daily Maverick this week, during which he was promoting a documentary about his career called Brad Binder: Becoming 33.
“It would be great to qualify better, but the thing is there is so much to learn when you come to a new circuit on a MotoGP bike.
“Friday is almost a waste because you have so much to learn about the bike and track in two 40-minute sessions. On Saturday in FP3 [first practice], you have to be in the top 10 times to get into Q2 [qualifying for grid positions].
“Generally, I’ve only done about 40 laps of a track before I’ve got to do what we call a ‘time attack’ to get through to Q2. Most of my competitors have been coming to these tracks, on these bikes, for the last five or six years, so you have to do a lot of catching up. It just takes a bit of time.
“Normally by race day on Sunday I’ve made a big step forward in terms of pace, but by then it’s too late. We have to do work on my qualifying for sure, but it will come naturally as time goes by and I have more experience [in] MotoGP.”
Groomed for the top
The 25-year-old Binder’s rise has been steady and well planned. His almost instant success in MotoGP, where he became the first race winner in his rookie season since six-time world champion Marc Marquez in 2013, has in fact, been a long journey.
Binder’s natural speed and obvious talent caught the eye of Finnish enthusiast Aki Ajo, who owns a team called Ajo Motorsport. Ajo was famous for spotting talent such as Marquez, who rode for him in 2010.
Binder was part of Ajo’s stable from 2015 to 2019 – his last year in Moto2 – in a team that was a satellite unit under the KTM banner.
“I’ve had a move to MotoGP written into my contract since I was in Moto3, so it was really about which season it would be,” Binder said.
“We started to put the plans together in Jerez in 2018, which is usually in May. That’s when those discussions began. It was a long road to get here, but it’s a big step for any rider to graduate into MotoGP.”
Especially a rider growing up in Carletonville and later Krugersdorp on Johannesburg’s far West Rand. It is not the hotbed of world motorsports, but Binder and his younger brother Darryn, who campaigns in Moto3, have put the towns on the map.
“My dad always loved racing, but he only started when he was well into his 30s. He just did it for a bit of fun on the side, but since I can remember I always had motorbikes waiting for me.
“I used to ride a little scrambler around the garden and then go to a local track and ride there. But real racing started in karting purely because I was too young to race bikes. You had to be eight before you could race in the 50cc bike class, so karts it was, to begin with.
“As soon as I was old enough I raced bikes and eventually karts gave way because I simply enjoyed bikes more. That’s where this whole mess started, I guess.
“When I was old enough I started racing in South Africa and when my parents saw I was fast and not bad at it, I went to England at the age of 12 to race. In 2009 I managed to get into the Red Bull Rookies Cup and from then on my life has been based mostly in Europe.”
The challenge of racing
Although riding a motorbike in excess of 300km/h centimetres away from one or more rivals seems crazy to mere mortals, bike riders don’t see it that way. Unbelievably, Binder doesn’t even consider speed his major attraction to the sport.
“It’s not really the pure speed that excited me, it’s the whole package,” he says. “Being on track and really loving the process of trying to get faster and faster by putting everything together and doing everything as perfectly as possible.
“Once you get that right, you become faster and you have an increasing desire to win. But things also become more competitive at every level you go up. Fundamentally though, from when I was racing a 50cc to racing a 300hp MotoGP bike, the idea is the same.”