Words by: Mat Oxley
Images by: KTM Media
Brad Binder is that rarest of things – a rookie factory MotoGP rider. The 24-year-old South African tells us where he’s from, why he didn’t win the 2019 Moto2 title and what he expects from his first year in the premier class.
Not many riders get to be factory riders in their rookie MotoGP season. Usually this only happens to the greats such as; Marc Marquez and Maverick Vinales. This year, 2016 Moto3 world champion and 2019 Moto2 runner-up Brad Binder rides an RC16 for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing. The youngster has an aggressive, manhandling riding technique, which should work well with the hard-to-handle RC16.
A lot of people expected you to win the 2019 Moto2 title. What went wrong?
The biggest problem was that when I first rode the 2019 bike, I didn’t like it at all. I said, “guys, we need to do something, it’s not good enough”. As soon as you tipped the bike onto full lean the rear wheel literally started to jump, then the whole bike started and you were screwed. They made a couple of small changes but it didn’t change anything. I just knew the bike didn’t work, it had so much chatter it was insane. Even at the end of the season we still had a huge amount. It was really strange because the chatter started at the rear and then went to the front. We tried absolutely everything and we never seemed to be able to get rid of it. Considering where we started last season and where we ended up, it was crazy to think how many steps they took forward. I mean it was tough. I’m really lucky that we had a big company like KTM behind us because I had seven different bikes last year. By the end of the season we were close, it was much better, but we still had the same problem. We didn’t get rid of it completely, but eventually we got it to where it was almost non-existent when I had a new tyre. But then as soon as we lost grip, it got worse and worse which made it extremely difficult at the end of races.
Did KTM go too stiff with the chassis, or what?
I don’t know, to be honest, I haven’t a clue. We tried so many different things, some worked and others didn’t. I remember we were waiting for a brand-new bike for the Brno race, after the mid-season break. I was really excited because I was, like, okay, if we get something good now I can really start to push for the championship. Unfortunately, that bike was a step backwards so we lost that whole weekend. So then we went back to the bike I’d ridden to second place at Assen and Sachsenring. The weekend after Brno, I won on that bike in Austria and we stuck with that for the rest of the season, trying to understand what our problems were and trying not to worry about them too much. The idea was to try and ride around the problems and try to make every other part of the bike the best we could.
When did you get your first updated bike after your first pre-season test?
We started the season in Qatar with version number three, then when we got to Le Mans they brought us version four. Gosh, honestly, I’m a bit lost myself! Maybe we got version four, or at least an update, for Jerez. That bike was slightly better on chatter but we lost a lot of rear grip, so that wasn’t good at all. Then we got version five, which was much better turning-wise, but again we lost more rear grip. Each time I was asking for more rear grip but we kept losing it. Then we got version six, which was a small update on version five, which made the bike more nimble and we found something else that gave us more rear grip. The guys changed a lot – bike balance, everything – and it worked a bit better. After that we got version seven, which didn’t work at all, so we went back to the six.
How did the KTM compare to the Kalex – where did you gain and lose?
We won a lot at the braking points, but we weren’t able to flow with the bike. We couldn’t carry corner speed like the Kalex riders and we couldn’t open the throttle as early as they could. I had to brake to the middle of the corner and turn with the front end with the brake in my hand, then when I opened the gas I just had to deal with it, whereas the Kalex riders could open the gas with some lean angle they and carry the corner speed. If I tried to carry corner speed, I chattered my brains out.
So you had to use a radical style – get into the corner in front at all costs – or you were stuffed…
That was the problem – I couldn’t ride among the other guys. At the start of the season I looked like an idiot because I was riding into everybody. But 90 percent of the time, the other guys were braking 20 or 30 metres earlier than me and they had already turned and were trying to open the gas when I was still holding the front brake into the corner. It was difficult. As the bike progressed we got it slightly closer to the way they rode, but it was still different.
You’re known as an aggressive rider – was that exacerbated last year by the fact that you had to ride differently to everyone else?
I’ve always been quite aggressive but last season especially, because if I got mixed up in the swing of what the other guys were doing it got difficult, because I couldn’t ride the way I needed to, so I lost time. I found that if I got to the front and rode the bike the way it needed to be ridden, it made life hard for the guys behind me because they couldn’t pass and if they did pass me it was quite easy for me to pass them back on the brakes. Where I was fast they were slow and where I was slow they were fast. It was a recipe for disaster, so I had to mix it up a bit. I remember riding into poor Marcel Schrötter four times at the start of the year and not once did I even imagine it happening, but it was just that our riding styles were two completely different things and we ended up clashing, so I’m sorry about that.
Tell us how you got started in racing.
When I was a kid I wanted to race motocross, so dad got me a motocross bike, and my brother Darryn wanted to go karting, so he got my brother a kart. We went to try the kart first, I tried it and said I want one, so we both ended up karting for a couple of years. Then as soon as I was old enough we started racing 50cc bikes, on proper tracks like Kyalami and Phakisa. I had a Yamaha TZR50 and I won my first championship in 2005.
When did you first come to Europe?
When I was 12-years-old I went over to England and did a couple of races in the Aprilia Superteen series. I did one at Brands Hatch and one at Donington, which was the curtain-raiser for the 2007 MotoGP round. That was my first time at a GP, it was cool. Then I managed to get into the Red Bull Rookies the year I turned 13.
Did you move to Europe when you were in the Rookies?
No, we were travelling back and forth, which wasn’t too bad, because there weren’t too many Rookies races. Then as soon as I started in Moto3 in 2012 my mom and I started living in Spain, while my dad went home more often.
Presumably your parents had to pay for your Moto3 ride?
Yeah, my old man had to buy my ride for the first year. My dad’s got a company in South Africa, so we are fortunate enough. I wouldn’t say we had the money, because for it was a massive financial ask – 250 grand, 300 grand (in Euros) – something like that. My second season in Moto3 I was lucky enough to get a free ride. I was really fortunate because it’s not often someone manages to find a free ride in their second year. I joined the Ambrosio team and they really looked after me, so I was lucky.
I suppose your breakthrough moment was your first GP win, when you won the 2016 Jerez Moto3 race from the back of the grid?
That was nice – good memories! It really set the tone for a good year. It was something that made me feel, okay, I’d managed to win from the back of the grid, so even on the weekends I struggled I’d say to myself, I’ve done it before, so for sure I can do it from the second or third row. Mentally, it was a real boost.
When did you have your first ride on KTM’s MotoGP bike?
I rode the bike at Brno last summer. I managed to get 30 laps. It was so cool, it was awesome. I had more fun in those 30 laps than I had all year.
How fast were you?!
I wasn’t really fast at all, to be honest, it was just a bit of a shakedown test. Basically I made a deal with Pit [Beirer, KTM’s motor sport director] that if I won a Moto2 race he would give me a ride on the big bike. So it was just a spin, take it for a few laps and enjoy it. I had so much fun on the thing. Then during the tests at Valencia and Jerez I was feeling more and more comfortable on the bike, just doing a lot of laps. I got a good taste for it, but I’ve still got an insanely long way to go. I think I’ve got a lot to think about now in the off-season and hopefully we can try to make a step at Sepang in February. I think I just need to improve my riding; my feeling with the front a bit and just being able to have confidence to put the bike where I want to, especially in the entry to corners. I think once I get that right the rest will fall into place.
Moto2 is a bit of a mongrel grand prix class – road-bike engines in GP chassis – whereas MotoGP bikes are pre-bred, so what was the difference to you?
A MotoGP bike is certainly different: the amount of power is incredible and the level of the electronics is scary. The thing I found incredible was the way the bike stops and the way the electronics work coming off the corner. You can open the throttle flat-out and the bike kind of sorts out the rest, which is incredible. Even though we had electronics in Moto2 from last season there’s no TC [traction control], so if you open the throttle the way you can on the MotoGP bike you’ll have a massive highside. Moto2 doesn’t have TC, it has a throttle-demand map, which you can set up as you like, but I didn’t really use it because I didn’t like it at all. Every time my crew applied the throttle demand I asked them to take it off. All it does is change the throttle opening/torque delivery relation, so you can be at 50 percent throttle and you get 30 percent of torque. I preferred to have everything in my own hand and just feel what was going on.
Presumably you’ve always watched MotoGP closely, preparing for your move to the big class
That’s what I do on a Monday. Monday is my get-on-the-couch day: I just go through and watch all the races and different sessions.
How do you feel about racing in MotoGP?
I’m super excited. It’s something everybody strives to do. KTM seem to be getting a lot stronger; they’re making steps in the right direction. Now I have the opportunity I’m going to take it with both hands and see what we can do.
When you look at riders do you see anyone who you want to emulate in riding technique?
I think each bike needs a different riding style, so you never know. Pol Espargaró seems to be doing a good job on the KTM. If there’s a direction, I’m definitely more towards Pol’s style.
How do you expect to go this season?
Honestly I haven’t got a clue – let’s see. If I’m 20th at the first race it’ll be shit; if it’s a bit better, then great. But I don’t care where I start in MotoGP, it’s where I finish. I’ve never been quickest straight away in any class, but I’ve always made steps forward and been able to get better.
There’s a lot of technology in MotoGP – are you the kind of rider who gets heavily involved or do you prefer to keep your focus elsewhere?
I believe your job as a rider is to go as fast as you can with what you’ve got underneath you at the time. I believe in riding the bike and letting the engineers do their job – they can do what they do and they can see what I need.