Neil Morrison MotoGP Blog: The Binder Escape

“You see the race today, and it’s very simple. You don’t have to think, just watch and see.” So said Mike Leitner, manager of KTM’s MotoGP team, of Brad Binder, South Africa’s first grand prix champion in 36 years, and his final race in the Moto3 class.

There is a reason why the Austrian factory value Binder so highly. And Sunday’s win – his seventh in a near faultless run to an emphatic championship victory – was further confirmation of a rider that possesses the necessary brawn to make it far in the grand prix world. You could say that this was an even greater achievement than his back-to-front victory in Jerez.

A technical fault, which caused his KTM to cut out around two corners on the second lap of Sunday’s race, pushed the 21-year old back and outside the top twenty. Such an issue would cause many to panic. Or plod round for a safe, sedate result. After all, the title was long since wrapped up.

But Binder was still stinging from the result in Sepang. Along with missing the chance to add to his win tally, a DNF there meant he lost a bet with his crew made after he claimed the title in Aragon. Win three of the final four races and we’ll all shave our heads, they said. Don’t, and you’ll have to shave yours.

“To lose my hair over a bit of oil sucks,” he joked to the press afterwards. It was clear winning his final outing in the junior class was imperative. “I woke up this morning and I wouldn’t have been happy with anything other than a win today.”

And so he climbed 21 positions in 19 laps to triumph again. It was another demonstration that Binder has been head and shoulders above the rest. To be frank, he’s made a very talented field look ordinary throughout the year, and shown the value of remaining calm, thinking and advancing, bit-by-bit. It sounds simple, but it’s much easier said than done when in the midst of 20 teenagers, high on the buzz of testosterone.

“This category is full of very young riders that they don’t think a lot on the bike,” says Sky VR46 team boss Pablo Nieto. “They want to be first every lap, every corner. It’s not a lot of strategy like before. Now it’s all about fighting and big groups. The strategy is really, really difficult to make.” Along with showcasing your talent, the junior class is increasingly becoming a zone to hone one’s temperament. It is here more than in any other requirement at which Binder has excelled.

His first grand prix win in Jerez was achieved in more spectacular circumstances, climbing 33 places after starting from the back of the grid. But there, he had time to prepare. He also possessed a pace far superior to the rest. And, the field wasn’t as closely packed. On Saturday, one second separated the fastest and 27th placed rider in qualifying.

Perhaps what’s most telling, is this latest astonishing feat came as little surprise. After all, the numbers from Binder’s debut campaign make for impressive reading. Seven wins, seven further podiums and 319 points scored, 21 more than the next best rider in all three classes. Consider too Binder’s advantage over Enea Bastianini, the class’ second best man in ’17 – 142 points was just five lower than the biggest winning advantage ever.

Binder’s transformation from podium contender to serial winner has been stark. It’s one that he feels stems from the feelings transmitted by Aki Ajo’s tightly run Moto3 team. And a maturing on his part. “The biggest change is just the way I approach every weekend,” said the South African, now 20 years old. “I always used to just have a look at the leader board to see where I was, what my position was, and that was the end of it, you know? Now I realise that if you’re fifth but you have good rhythm it doesn’t matter.”

Binder will graduate to Moto2 with the same squad with which he won this year’s title. And the one that brought Johann Zarco serial success in two highly decorated seasons. Binder’s crew chief will be Massimo Branchini, with whom he worked a year ago, and man Casey Stoner charged with teaching him how to give constructive machine feedback. In other words, a highly capable technician.

And with Zarco, Lowes, Rins and Folger all stepping up to the premier class ahead of 2017, an opening exists that could allow the young South African to flourish and rack up some impressive results, fairly fast.

While his contract runs for two seasons in the intermediate class, it is believed the contract stretches for a further two, with KTM keen to bring him up to the premier class in 2019. If so, it would be total vindication for the Austrian factory’s path through the grand prix hierarchy. All the way from the Red Bull Rookies programme to MotoGP. And for Binder it’d show just how far a measured, thoughtful approach can carry you.

Photo by CormacGP