Brad Binder’s rocky journey to MotoGP

The South African bike racer is moving up to MotoGP, but it hasn’t been an easy ride to the big league. For starters, his father spent ‘sickening’ amounts to get him on to the track.

On the second day of August, the Friday before the Czech motorcycle Grand Prix, Brad Binder looked to his left, smiled, breathed deeply and took it all in. The young South African Moto2 rider was at the top table in a packed media room at the Automotodrom Brno circuit, living a dream.

To his left, just three seats away, was Marq Marquez, the current MotoGP world champion. Next to Marquez was Italy’s Valentino Rossi, Binder’s hero, the seven-time world champion he aspires to emulate, perhaps the greatest motorbike racer of them all. 

“I can’t really remember the first Grand Prix race I watched,” said Binder from Brno. “I was so small and used to watch the races with my dad on a Sunday on the couch at home. Valentino Rossi was winning from the day I could open my eyes. He was the legend we all shouted for on a Sunday. It will be an absolutely insane feeling lining up next to him next year. Sitting at the pre-race press conference at the same table as Rossi before the GP in Brno made it all feel even more surreal and yet real.”

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Binder was the only Moto2 rider at the conference, talking about his move up from Moto2 to the big show of the MotoGP class next season. There has been much talk around the massive talent and potential of the South African, but the announcement, which happened in the first week in July, at the beginning of the three-week summer break, came out of the blue in what has been a difficult season thus far for the 2016 Moto3 world champion.

This has not been a good year for Binder and his Red Bull KTM Ajo team. He has been battling with a bike that has befuddled the team with its lack of rear-end grip. He has fought the bike and his opponents, and his frustration at the lack of progress has come close to bubbling over. 

From Carletonville to the big boys 

But in Brno, the 23-year-old South African was bubbling over at signing for the Red Bull KTM Tech 3 team, the satellite team of the official KTM factory squad, his frustrations diluted by the prospect of realising a dream that began on a couch beside his dad in Carletonville.

“This is what I have been dreaming about since I first started racing. I’ve always wanted to be a Grand Prix rider, and I’ve always wanted to be a MotoGP rider, but the dream is to win, not just to be there. So, we have some work to do. I’m going to do what I have always done. Give of my very best every weekend, every test, every practice, and hopefully I will find myself near the front of MotoGP.”

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Binder was born in Potchefstroom in 1995, just two years before Rossi won his first world title in the 125cc class. He didn’t stay in Potchefstroom for long, as he said a few years ago in a previous interview. “I was born in Potch and it was pretty much the one and only day I’ve been there in my entire life.” 

His father, Trevor, had a business involved in mining in Carletonville, where the family lived until Brad Binder was 11 before moving to Krugersdorp. They are a family of four – mother Sharon and younger brother Darryn, who races in Moto3 – and live in a house that has many, many motorbikes and cars.

Trevor Binder was and is a petrolhead, an absolute car and bike “fanatic”, according to Binder. There were always bikes around. There was always a reason to look to go fast. Binder started on karts, riding bikes on the weekends, but he admits that his life was always going to be on two wheels and not four.

‘Sickening’ amounts of money 

“I was always going to be a motorbike rider. My dad used to race when I was really young. We’ve always had motorbikes in the house waiting for us as we grew up. I think when I was born I had a motorbike waiting for me,” said Binder.

“When my dad started racing, he was quite ‘old’ for a rider. He started to race after he had had me and my brother. He raced the 250cc two-strokes, and after that 600cc and 1 000cc. He probably didn’t get to ride as much as he wanted to because he was too busy with work. He would just go to the track and race. He wouldn’t do the practices the day before. He raced for the joy of it. I remember going to the track with my dad, just me and him. I must have been five or six.

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“My first motorbike race was actually a father-son race with my dad on my little 50cc. It was a 40-minute race. The kids would race for 20 minutes and the dads for 20 minutes. It was fun. I came third and remember being so happy because I was going to get a trophy, but then my dad got on the bike and we finished fourth! So, we didn’t get a trophy that day.”

Trevor saw the potential in Brad and, indeed, Darryn. He backed Brad as he began racing in Europe from the age of 12. He took part in the Red Bull Rookies Cup and in 2011 graduated to the 125cc class. His mother lived with him in Spain, while Darryn stayed at home with his father. Binder says his parents were usually “joined at the hip”, so to spend most of a year apart was difficult for them. 

He describes the amount of money his father has spent on him as “sickening” and remembers his mother sitting beside the track in those early years, reading a book, looking up to see him come past on every lap. “She may just have bought about every book on Amazon,” said Binder.

Brad’s eyes only on racing 

His awareness of the sacrifices his family made for him have driven Binder to the point that he is obsessive about racing, perhaps to the exclusion of all else. Ask him what he does on a race weekend for fun, what sights he has seen on his travels around the world, and he smiles and tells you it is all about the bike. There will be time for fun later.

Binder moved to Moto3 in 2012 and picked up his first race points. In 2014, he made the podium for the first time, in Germany. He met Finnish rider Niki Ajo at a Grand Prix during that time. Niki’s father, Aki, is the owner of Ajo Motorsport, and has built his team and reputation on being able to spot and develop talent. Marquez rode for him as a 17-year-old in 2010 and won the 125cc Grand Prix. He liked the cut of the jib of this young South African and signed him to his Red Bull KTM Ajo team in 2015. 

It paid off. In 2016, Binder was crowned the Moto3 world champion, winning seven races in the season and finishing on the podium in all but three. The moment of magic, when the rush for the world championship began, was the Spanish Grand Prix in Jerez.

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Binder was forced to start from the back of the grid in 35th place as a penalty for a technical issue. “I remember thinking that the start lights were so far away,” laughed Binder.

He sliced through the pack, winning by more than three seconds, taking his first Moto3 victory and becoming just the second person since Marquez to win a Grand Prix from the back of the field. He dominated for the rest of the season. Ajo told him there was a space on his Moto2 team and that Binder was the perfect rider to fill it for 2017. 

But fate had other plans. While testing the Moto2 bike in Valencia, Binder high-sided on turn nine, his back wheel sliding, the bike overcorrecting and bucking him high into the air. He landed hard on his arm, breaking it and dislocating his wrist. He had a plate and seven screws inserted.

Binder’s recovery was expected to take just over a month, but it took much longer. His fitness suffered. His riding suffered. He needed to be stronger to handle the bigger, quicker, harder-braking Moto2 machine. 

The dream lives on 

The 2017 season was a tough learning curve as his body slowly recovered, but just two podiums near the end of the season felt like a failure. He went into 2018 with high hopes, but struggled to find a setup on the bike that would suit his aggressive style. The team eventually found the right mix as the season wore on and Binder won three races, consolation victories if you will. It would have been frustrating for Binder to see his teammate, Miguel Oliveira, finish second in the championship and make the move up to MotoGP before him.

Hope sprang eternal for 2019. But it was a false dawn. 

Early-season testing revealed issues with “chatter” from the bike, vibration between the surface of the track and the tyres. “It feels like there is a jackhammer underneath the bike,” said Binder. “It starts skipping on the surface of the track and pushes the bike wide and can make it really easy to crash.”

KTM designed a totally new bike for Binder for the second half of the season. At the Czech MotoGP, Binder crashed it on the 11th corner while biffing and bashing in 10th place. The new bike needs lots of work to make it right, but Binder will push and work and fight until the end of the season. His hard work and the bike playing ball came together in grand fashion in Austria, the home of KTM, on his 24th birthday on 11 August. He won the Austrian Moto2 Grand Prix, his first win this season.  

Binder could do worse than look to his idol, Rossi, who finished sixth in Brno after failing to finish in three of the past four races, for inspiration. Rossi is now 40 years old. He will be 41 next year. He keeps on going, fighting the march of age and the brilliance of Marquez. 

There may be a time next season when Binder looks to his left and sees Rossi lined up next to him. Brad Binder. MotoGP rider. The dream lives on.

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