No one and everyone was with Brad Binder as he stood on the podium at the Automotodrom in Brno on 9 August, two days before his 25th birthday. He was a MotoGP race winner. He took a breath, pulled off his cap in the hot European sun, and blew out a hard sigh that puffed out his cheeks and fought for space with his disbelieving and unending smile.
He sighed and blew hard again. Then again. And again. Then closed his eyes and tilted his head towards the sky as the South African anthem rolled out. They only played the first half of the anthem. It is long, perhaps too long for podium ceremonies. Maybe that was a good thing for Binder. He may have run out of hard sighs if they had played the whole thing.
In these times of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were no crowds to greet the winner of the Czech Republic motorcycle Grand Prix, but everyone who helped Binder become the first South African to win a MotoGP race was with him. There was Pit Beirer, the KTM Motorsports director who oversees the Red Bull KTM Factory team, sitting in front of the podium in the wheelchair to which he has been confined since a motocross GP accident in 2003.
He had been lifted bodily out of that wheelchair in a bear hug after Binder crossed the finish line and gave KTM their first MotoGP victory. It was Beirer who decided to give Binder his MotoGP debut ride in the factory squad instead of their Red Bull KTM Tech 3 satellite team. His trust had been repaid, but for Binder, this win, was unexpected.
Beirer said in July that the new KTM RC16 bike – with its lighter frame, improved trim, better handling and improved electronics – had been “tailor-made for our top rider, Pol Espargaró”, Binder’s teammate. Indeed, the delay in the start of the season allowed KTM to clear their benches and make the changes they needed.
“The honeymoon period is over and we feel that we’ve taken the next step forward with the new bike. It’s our fourth year now and we’ve built a complete infrastructure, but it would be foolhardy of us to expect wins in 2020,” said Beirer.
This was supposed to be the season in which Binder gained experience while Espargaró won them points. That Binder overtook Espargaró with an audacious move on the second lap will not have gone unnoticed. As the commentators kept saying during the Brno race, Espargaró, who has been with KTM since 2017, wanted to be the one to win the first race for KTM. A crash and Binder put paid to that plan.
“The difference between a Moto2 and MotoGP bike?” said Binder. “Think of driving a car and then getting into a race car. The difference is insane. The more I got into the bike, the more I started to figure out what a beast it is. What power it has, the acceleration in the lower gears, the lean angle. It’s all different and it’s all more.”
What sets Binder apart
“In his mind, [Binder] was assuming that we were going to offer the free spot to our experienced test rider Mika Kallio. When we moved Brad Binder into the factory team instead, there was a minor explosion. But everything’s good again now, partly because everyone knows that KTM provides four spots to riders that are all as good as each other,” said Beirer.
Beirer was drawn to Binder’s distinctive riding style, saying he was quite aggressive on the bike and slid it quite a lot compared with other riders. It’s a style that suits the RC16. In his first MotoGP, in Jerez, Binder just missed out on qualifying for Q2, which determines the starting order at the front of the grid. But during the race, he worked his way up to seventh from a 12th place start. A little overenthusiasm, however, saw him run wide and into the gravel, relegating him to last place. As he charged back though, his lap times were as quick as those of the race frontrunners.
A week later, in the Andalucía Grand Prix, also at Jerez, Binder qualified ninth fastest and started on the third row of the grid. A first-corner tangle saw him held up and pushed to the back of the field again, but he recorded the third-fastest lap of the race before he crashed heavily and high-sided off his bucking bronco of a bike and on to the tarmac. Two weeks later, as he sighed on the podium in Brno, Binder would have remembered how he had joked with the media that his first priority for the race was to make sure he stayed out of the gravel. Job done.
In a post-race interview, Binder said he wished his parents could have been there. Sharon and Trevor Binder were at home in Krugersdorp. Their financial and emotional investment in Brad and his younger brother Darryn, who competes in Moto3, can never be underestimated. Binder said last year that the amount of money his parents have spent on his racing is “sickening”, and that for a couple “attached at the hip” they sacrificed an incredible amount of time together in the first five years that Binder was in Europe as one of them had to accompany him.
Binder would likely have thought of Aki Ajo, too, the Finnish owner of Ajo Motorsport who nurtured and believed in the South African at the Red Bull KTM Ajo team. Binder won the Moto3 world championship for him in 2016 as well as eight Grands Prix.
“Aki is a really good, humble person,” said Binder. “One of the great things about him is that he is always the first to tell you when you have done a good job and when you have done something wrong, he will let you know straight away. It’s the best way to manage a team and riders. With Aki there are no hard feelings. There is no bull with Aki. You aren’t left with any resentment or other thoughts. You know where you stand. It’s an honest relationship, which is why he has been so successful. I’ve learnt so much from him and I can’t thank him enough for it.”
‘You are the man’
Miguel Oliveira was one of the first people to stop and congratulate Binder after his win, despite the two riders having had to clear the air after Binder played a part in Oliveria’s crash on the first corner of the second race in Jerez. Binder drifted into a gap but did not see Ducati’s Danilo Petrucci on his right and, as he lifted his bike, clipped Oliveira’s rear tyre. Oliveria was catapulted off his bike and then hit by Binder as he tried to ride around him.
Oliveria, the Portuguese rider on the Red Bull KTM Tech 3 team, was teammates with Binder under Ajo and had made the jump to MotoGP a season before. The two, according to Red Bull South Africa athlete manager Hayley Venter, are as “thick as thieves”. The two will make a formidable pairing next season when they ride together on the factory team.
The South African will no doubt relish the moment when Valentino Rossi rode up to him at the end of the race to congratulate him. The Italian veteran grabbed his arm, pointed at him and said: “You are the man.” Rossi was Binder’s hero as a kid and he grew up watching him race on television with his dad.
His brother Darryn, who took a tough 12th place in the Moto3 class in Brno, was the first to jump over the barriers to hug Brad and give him a South African flag to drape around his shoulders for his victory lap.
Darryn came in fourth in the second race of his season in Jerez, after qualifying in 25th position. He made the podium in Argentina last year after working his way up the pack from 20th to second place, a race he could have won had he not slipped a gear change. He is 22 years old. There is much to come from him, too.
An emotional ride
Brad Binder appeared to be slightly in shock at what he had just achieved. He started seventh on the grid and was already up to fifth place in the first lap, third by the second lap. With 13 laps to make a move on Fabio Quartararo, the Frenchman leading the world championship standings, he closed the gap on the first, long right-hand corner and stuck close on the quick snap to the second corner, a left-hander. Then Binder attacked hard on the brakes into turn number three.
Quartararo stuck his leg out in that awkward balancing-act move that has become such a part of bike racing, but Binder, who doesn’t put his leg out, braked harder and made it stick on the left-hander. He had the line into the right-handed fourth turn.
Then he was 1.547 seconds behind leader Franco Morbidelli of Italy. He romped away from Quartararo, his KTM working as well as it never had before. Binder had been worried about how his tyres would hold up, having gone with a hard rear and medium front tyre. He was going into the unknown. How badly would they begin to disintegrate towards the end of the race? Morbidelli had a hard rear and soft front.
Race commentators Steve Day, Matt Birt and Simon Crafar began to believe.
“He’s got to go for it. No one would be miff with him if he didn’t,” said Day.
“Binder can just go for this. He can go for broke,” agreed Birt.
“Look how much more confident Brad is on the front tyre,” said Crafar.
Four laps later and he was past the Italian. He romped away, drifting, sliding, powering and believing. His last three laps were the “cleanest three laps I’ve ever done”, said Binder.
When Binder found out last year that he would be a MotoGP rider this season, he said: “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.”
On Sunday, Binder sighed, blew out his cheeks, puffed out his chest and smiled. In front of no one and everyone, he had found himself as near the front of a MotoGP as it is possible to get.