Britain’s old colonies have always punched above their weight in motorcycle grand prix racing, largely because bikers in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and elsewhere had nothing to read except Britain’s Isle of Man TT-obsessed biking weeklies. Thus most young racers in those parts of the world grew up dreaming of racing at the TT. And once they had made it to the island most of them went on to contest grands prix in Europe, where the rough and tumble of racing in rudimentary events back home made them fierce competitors.
“Our colonial upbringing had a lot to do with it,” says South African Paddy Driver, who finished third to Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini in the 1965 500cc world championship. “We would make dirt tracks out on the veldt, then we’d get permission from the mayor to close the roads in a local town. They’d put up straw bales and design a circuit out of a few street intersections.
“We all came from the same breed; our grandparents were settlers. In the 19th century they were brought out and dumped in the middle of nowhere with a couple of bags of seed, so nothing was ever a problem for us. That’s the racetrack? Okay, we’ll race on it, no problem at all.
“Out here in the colonies you had to make do. If your Norton engine was so bad you couldn’t use it, you’d put a Triumph twin in there, or whatever, and go race that.
“If you broke down on the road it was the same. It’s 750 miles from Johannesburg to Salisbury[modern day Harare], and the road in those days wasn’t a road, it was just a twin track farm road, so it was a hell of a bloody journey. That helped us on the continent tremendously.”
Since the 1970s South African riders have won several world championships in the smaller classes, thanks in part to their gritty outback spirit. However, they had never even won a race in the premier MotoGP class, until rookie Brad Binder took victory in this year’s Czech Grand Prix at Brno.
Twenty-four-year-old Binder grew up thrashing dirt bikes around the veldt, just like Paddy Driver half a century before him. When he was 10 he started racing on asphalt and when he was 12 his parents brought him to Britain, where he had a few rides in the same series that kickstarted the careers of MotoGP winners Cal Crutchlow and Casey Stoner.
Binder made his grand prix debut in 2011, aged 16, in the junior 125cc and Moto3 classes, thanks to the bank of mum and dad, who had to find around £250,000 to fund his first season in Moto3.
The investment turned out to be sound. In 2016 Binder was signed by Austrian factory team KTM. In May of that year he won his first grand prix, at Jerez, from the back of the grid, the result of a technical infringement. Four months later he secured the Moto3 world title, then graduated to the intermediate Moto2 class, again with KTM. Last year he came within three points of winning that championship and signed with KTM’s Red Bull-backed MotoGP squad.
Binder had his first serious outing on a MotoGP bike, KTM’s 290bhp RC16, at Valencia last November.
“From lap one it was like another world,” he said at the time. “MotoGP bikes are insane: the amount of power, the wheelies. At the beginning I was almost worried – I was like, jeez! The more laps I do the more comfortable I feel, but I still don’t really understand what I’m doing.”
Binder worked hard over the winter and so did the KTM team. At the season-opening Spanish Grand Prix he finished his first MotoGP race in 13th, following an off-track excursion. Analysis of his lap times revealed that in fact this was a very impressive debut– after the mistake his pace was as fast as the race winner’s.
Three weeks later Binder swept into the lead at Brno and won the race by more than five seconds. His first premier-class victory was the earliest by a rookie since reigning MotoGP king Marc Márquez won the second race of his MotoGP career in 2013.
Binder has a great style on the bike – he likes to take the bull by the horns – and he is very good at working out how to ride around problems. This ability is an essential skill in motorcycle racing, where the perfect machine rarely exists.
“Your job as a rider is to go as fast as you can with what you’ve got under you”
“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,” he says. “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.”
Off the motorcycle Binder is relaxed and humble, with no airs and graces and a get-on-with-it attitude. After that debut win at Brno he struggled to take in the enormity of his achievement.
“I was quite shocked to be fifth-fastest in warm-up!” he said.“Honestly, I don’t think it’s ever going to sink in. The first time I won in Moto3 I was quite content with that; if that was the end of it then that would’ve been okay. If we look at where we are today it’s unbelievable.”
Binder’s next target is obvious – to become the first South African to achieve the MotoGP world title and thereby join the Formula 1 legend Jodie Scheckter in their country’s motor-sport pantheon.
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