MotoGP history-maker Binder: ‘This is insane!’

MotoGP

2020 MotoGP Czech GP insight: Where Brad Binder came from and why he’s winning, how KTM transformed its RC16 from midfield finisher and how Michelin’s 2020 rear slick has changed MotoGP’s balance of power

Brad Binder, Franco Morbidelli, Johan Zarco, Brno 2020

KTM’s Brad Binder leaves Franco Morbidelli (Yamaha) and Johann Zarco (Ducati) trailing at Brno

Red Bull

Brad Binder made history yesterday – the first South African to win a premier-class grand prix. But those proclaiming him as the first rider from the African continent to achieve such success are forgetting Rhodesians Gary Hocking, Jim Redman and Ray Amm, who climbed the top step of 500cc podiums in the 1950s and 1960s.

There is, however, a significance in the fact that Binder hails from a former British colony, just like those three Rhodesians and all the Australians and New Zealanders who have been so strong in bike racing.

These are tough people, most of them only a generation or three away from ancestors who were western pioneers in their countries.

“Colonials are real hard, aggressive people,” says New Zealander Mike Sinclair, who guided Wayne Rainey to his hat-trick of 500cc world championships in the early 1990s.

“You’ve gone to another country and the people don’t want you there, they want to kill you. Even though that was a couple of hundred years ago it’s still in the colonials.”

“We don’t travel 12,000 miles to finish second… we tend to hit the show pretty hard.”

Binder, the first rookie winner since Marc Márquez in 2013 and the first winner from outside Europe since Jack Miller in 2016, comes from that same stock. And one of the big things about the former Moto3 world champion is that he’s a fighter. He doesn’t expect an easy ride from his motorcycle – he’ll wrestle the thing to death if he has to. He proved that last year with KTM’s ill-handling Moto2 bike, with which he very nearly won the Moto2 championship.

Binder seems to have the same mindset that marks out fellow South African Kork Ballington, Australians Mick Doohan and Jack Miller, New Zealander Simon Crafar and many, many more from those parts of the world. It’s an important mix of a humble, no-worries, get-on-with-it attitude that hides a raging furnace of inner desire to go out and destroy anyone who dares get in the way.

What’s behind it all? Possibly the fact that all these countries are hugely into sport, especially outdoor sport. They live to compete from an early age, so perhaps they grow up with the right mentality.

Like Ballington, Doohan and the others, Binder grew up with plenty of room to ride, thrashing dirt bikes around the Veld, outside his hometown of Potchefstroom, a 90-minute drive south-west of Johannesburg. He started out in motocross and might have stayed there if younger brother Darryn (now a Moto3 demon) hadn’t got into karting. Brad joined Darryn on the asphalt and then swapped his kart for a Yamaha TZR50 minibike, which took him to his first title in 2005.

Brad Binder, Moto3, 2016

Binder (#41) on his way to the 2016 Moto3 world title

Red Bull

Two years later he was at the British Grand Prix, contesting the Aprilia Superteens series, which got Casey Stoner, Cal Crutchlow and many others noticed. Stoner won the British GP that weekend and Binder eventually did enough to get himself a ride in the Red Bull Rookies Cup.

Binder spent three seasons in the KTM-backed talent-finding series but never really excelled: 14th in 2009, fifth in 2010 and seventh in 2011, with just one victory. However, his association with Red Bull would serve him well.

Coming from outside Europe, Binder had to travel the same road as Stoner, Miller and the others hailing from the New World. All these men, like Redman and the rest, had to make a massive financial and emotional investment to go GP racing, much bigger than those made by Europeans. This also makes a difference.

“We don’t travel 12,000 miles to finish second,” said Aussie Jeremy Burgess, who took Doohan to five 500cc titles in the mid-1990s. “We don’t get to go home on Monday morning after the race, which is why we tend to hit the show pretty hard.”

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Binder’s parents, like Miller’s and Stoner’s, spent huge amounts of cash getting to Europe and staying there. Stoner’s mum and dad sold everything they had in Australia to come over. Miller’s mum and dad put their lives on hold by leaving home and work behind to crisscross Europe with their son.

Their boy’s first Moto3 season in 2012 cost them around 300,000 Euros. That’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders when you’re 16-years-old – it’s either going to make you or break you.

Binder couldn’t have been more humble after Sunday’s MotoGP victory, which followed eight successes in Moto2 and seven in Moto3.

“This morning I was quite shocked that I was fifth in warm-up!” he grinned. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s ever going to sink in. The first time I won in Moto3 [at Jerez in 2016] I thought, ‘This is insane!’. I was quite content with that – if that was the end of it then that would’ve been OK. If we look at where we are today it’s unbelievable. With Red Bull and KTM we’ve won in all three classes – I hope this is the beginning of something great.”

Binder found grip at super-slippery Brno where others could find none to take the flag 5.2 seconds ahead of Valentino Rossi protégé Franco Morbidelli.

In fact, his speed shouldn’t have come as a surprise – he had race-winning pace in the two season-opening races at Jerez – but made mistakes.

Nonetheless, Binder’s third MotoGP race was some turnaround from his first serious MotoGP tests at Valencia and Jerez last November. He finished both in last place, more than two seconds a lap slower than the pacesetters. That experience sent him home to South Africa for the offseason determined to step up mentally and physically. And when MotoGP went into lockdown with the rest of the world he dug even deeper, to improve his mind and muscles some more.

However, the biggest difference coming into the new season was KTM’s revamped 2020 RC16.

KTM: ‘being openminded and not scared to try stuff’

Last year there were still some people in the paddock – and many more outside – who insisted that KTM’s devotion to its steel chassis concept would be the end of the factory’s MotoGP hopes.

After all, the last successful steel-framed MotoGP bikes were Ducati’s early Desmosedicis and the last steel-framed machine to win a premier-class GP before that was Marco Lucchinelli’s Finnish GP success aboard a Suzuki RG500 way back in 1981. In other words, KTM has been flying in the face of four decades of aluminium racing hegemony.

But it hasn’t stopped them. At the end of last year, KTM unleashed its first totally revised RC16 since the company entered MotoGP in 2017.

“When I first rode the [2019] bike at the end of last season I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got some work to do, because this thing is so hard to ride’,” said Binder. “Then I climbed on the new bike at Sepang in February and it was like another world. It felt so much more natural and easier to ride. The guys made an unbelievable job bringing this new motorbike, it’s insane. I need to say a huge thanks.”

Most important of all, the RC16’s original steel trellis frame was replaced by oval-shaped steel beam sections, which transformed the bike’s behaviour, with more longitudinal stiffness for better braking, a crucial improvement in turning performance, refined lateral stiffness for improved cornering and a significant weight reduction.

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“This year’s bike was the first time since the start of the project that we started with a clean piece of paper and the guys did a fantastic job,” says KTM’s Paul Trevathan, crew chief to Pol Espargaró, who was on course to join Binder on the Brno podium until his collision with Johann Zarco. “The concept of how we put the new bike together has been one of the big things this year, and every department has delivered and got things better.

“Even last year Pol said there wasn’t one thing really missing. We just needed to get everything a bit better. The new bike is a combination of a new engine, with more power, better electronics; plus WP suspension have made a step, we learned things with the carbon swingarm and everything is lighter.

“The biggest improvement for this year is purely the step we’ve taken with the new chassis concept. All of a sudden that brought us into a whole new working range. For the rider the biggest thing was that the bike turned better. We still had the same strong points, plus we’d found good turning and race-distance consistency with the rear tyre. Whether the tyre consistency is purely because the bike turns better, so the rider can use the rear tyre in a better way, or it’s something else is still up for debate.”

Brad Binder's KTM RC16

Binder’s RC16 with all-new chassis during preseason testing at Sepang

Oxley

KTM worked itself through innumerable different frame configurations during 2017, 2018 and 2019, with riders sometimes trying two or three different specs in one race weekend. And at last May’s French GP the team introduced a carbon-fibre swingarm. No one knows exactly how many iterations were used, but each spec is designated with a letter and KTM ran through the entire alphabet, with some letters going through two or three additional versions. However, KTM never gave up faith with steel.

“It wasn’t so much about the material, it was more about trying to learn what roadracing needed,” Trevathan continues. “KTM always stuck by steel chassis in motocross, while everyone else when to aluminium, but they kept dominating there too. So steel isn’t something we were ever scared of because we understand the structure of how it works and so on. It was just a case of, ‘What does MGP need?’ I think the MGP project gave the race department the chance to learn. That was always the company philosophy.

“If you remember, Ducati won their only title with a steel frame. For us to go away from steel would’ve been more dangerous than trying to get the best out of what we already know. Going to aluminium would’ve been an even harder learning project.

“A lot of thought and a lot of different ideas went into how we do this kind of thing. 3D printing has been another beautiful thing we’ve worked with – it’s helped us a lot, because we can move things around in different ways that you could never do before.”

The RC16’s strongest point has always been its front end, which gives awesome braking and initial corner-entry performance, something that Binder showcased on Sunday.

“That front end has been something that’s always been there – it was like that from the beginning. When Pol first got on the bike he was amazed by the front end and the stopping power. It’s something we’ve managed to keep even when we’ve changed various things. Dani [Pedrosa, KTM’s chief test rider] hasn’t always thought we need to be that good in the front, so he’s always trying to make a bike that’s a very rounded package, but Pol always wanted to keep the front-end advantage. The problem is that you have to pass and you have to defend. When we struggled in other areas the only way we could do that was by being strong in the front.

“It could be something in the concept, or how KTM put it all together, or the welds, or the structure of that part of the bike, but I think it’s just the DNA of the bike. Also we worked very hard on the front with WP suspension. Having them in-house at KTM is great because we can push them to work in a really quick way.”

2019 KTM RC16

Last year’s KTM RC16, with steel trellis frame

Oxley

The KTM’s engine is a 90-degree V4, the same layout used by Ducati, Honda and Aprilia. It’s also been through numerous iterations since 2017, most importantly the switch to reverse-rotating crankshaft and big-bang firing order during 2018.

“We understood we needed to make the heart of the motorcycle better to make life easier for the electronics,” Trevathan explains. “Kurt [Trieb, KTM engine designer who also created the company’s original MotoGP V4 in 2005] and all the guys have done a fantastic job on the engine, with a constant gain in horsepower and rideability.”

KTM has also made huge progress with its use of MotoGP’s spec Magneti Marelli electronics, without hiring former Magneti staff, as most other factories have done.

“We stumbled across a couple of geniuses at the beginning and those guys are super hard-working. They got the thing together for us, they’ve taught themselves and they’ve learned by themselves. We’ve had another couple of people come in bringing new ideas and just being openminded and not scared to try stuff.

“Electronics are a massive part of the project. The main guy we got at the beginning was Dan Goodwin, from McLaren, and then we got Jenny Anderson, who also came from cars. Those two were the backbone of getting the bike up and running and Luca Faso has been the brainpower behind the strategies.”

KTM’s first victory makes it the 17th manufacturer to win a premier class race, after (in order of success) Honda, Yamaha, MV Agusta, Suzuki, Ducati, Gilera, Norton, AJS, Cagiva, Matchless, Moto Guzzi, Kawasaki, Jawa-CZ, Konig, Linto and Sanvenero. It also completed a full house of victories, after wins in 125s, 250s, Moto3 and Moto2, as well as just about everything in the off-road world, from Supercross to the Dakar.

Also significant, the win brings KTM to the brink of losing the concessions that allow it to do more testing and use more engines than the established manufacturers.

Sunday was also a great day for KTM-owned WP suspension, which won its first premier-class victory. This was the first non-Öhlins win since Dani Petrosa won the 2009 Valencia GP with Showa.

Andrea Dovizioso, Jack Miller, Brno 2020

Michelin’s new rear slick isn’t working for Dovizioso and Miller

Ducati

New Michelin has changed MotoGP’s balance of power

You have to feel for Andrea Dovizioso and Ducati. Over the past three years the only thing that stopped them winning the MotoGP title was Marc Márquez. And now that Márquez is out of the equation (barring miracles) their hopes are being ruined by a rear tyre that’s got them in a spin.

At the same time Yamaha is back in the game. Over three races its YZR-M1 has used Michelin’s 2020 rear slick better than any other of the bikes, either through luck or judgement. Yamaha has had six riders on the podium on three Sundays, the first time the company has managed that since the days of Bridgestone tyres. No doubt about it, the new Michelin has changed MotoGP’s balance of power in MotoGP.

The new rear slick – with softer construction which gives a bigger contact patch for more grip – was designed to make everyone faster, but as is often the case with spec rubber the tyre seems to favour some bikes more than others. Perhaps the previous rear slick favoured the V4s over the inline-fours, but we just never looked at it like that?

More rear grip isn’t necessarily a good thing, because the previous rear slick already over-powered Michelin’s front slick, so the 2020 rear exacerbates that problem.

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This hurts the bikes that really attack the corners, trail braking to the max, which means the Ducati and the Honda, which use more of a V-shaped line to the U-shape used by the inline-fours. The shift in traction balance towards the rear makes the rear tyre grip more than the front going into corners, so the bike understeers and the rider ends up wide into the corner. That sets in motion a chain of events: the rider needs to use more lean angle for longer to make the bike turn, so he’s later on the throttle, which ruins his corner exit.

This is why Ducati and Honda riders need to slide the rear into corners, to overcome that understeer and point the bike at the apex.

“The tyre is the only difference compared to last year,” says Dovizioso, MotoGP runner-up in 2017, 2018 and 2019. “When I have to do the lap time and push harder on the front I’m not able to use the potential of bike and tyres. I’m not riding in a good way like in the past, when I was able to brake hard, control the slide to the middle of the corner to be a bit wider and then come back very close to the apex and pick up the bike.”

And it’s not only corner entry, the new tyre hurts the Ducati and Honda on corner exits too. Again, because V4 and inline-four machines use rear tyres in a different way. While Yamaha and Suzuki riders take smooth, arcing lines through corners, Ducati and Honda riders dive in, turn the bike physically, pick it up onto the fatter part of the title and unleash their inline-four-killing horsepower. So while inline-fours use the whole tyre, the V4s rely particularly on the shoulder of the tyre.

“The way we work the rear tyre we rely more on the drive area of the tyre, whereas the Yamaha and Suzuki guys use more of the whole of the tyre,” says Pramac Ducati rider Jack Miller.

Franco Morbidelli, Petronas SRT

Franco Morbidelli got his long-awaited first MotoGP podium on Sunday, with the new tyre

Petronas SRT

KTM’s Pol Espargaró noticed this problem while following Ducati riders in practice at Brno.

“Ducati have always been strong in that part – the last part of the corner, where they pick up the bike and they give throttle with some lean angle and they have good grip and acceleration. I guess they have the problem there,” he said.

And then there’s the mystery of Johann Zarco, who rode his GP19 to the podium at Brno, almost ten seconds ahead of the GP20s of Miller, Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci. Could the answer be in the Frenchman’s smoother – Jorge Lorenzo-style – riding technique?

“This is the second race where a Ducati rider with a different set-up and a different way of riding has made a really good race,” added Dovizioso, referring also to Pecco Bagnaia’s stirring ride last time out at Jerez. “If you look at Danilo, Jack and me, we have a lot of experience with this bike and we have more or less the same problems, so maybe because Pecco and Zarco have less experience with the bike they went in a different way. It could be this.”

Miller was more succinct. “It’s a head-scratcher and that’s what we’ve got to analyse.”

And how has KTM got the 2020 rear slick working so well? Either the tyre just happens to work with the RC16 or the company’s engineers have done a better job tuning the bike to suit the tyre.

“It’s all about how you stress the tyre casing from the chassis stiffness and the suspension,” said Espargaró’s crew chief Paul Trevathan. “The Michelin casing works so much more [than the Bridgestone], so you can easily go too far, so the tyre goes too flat and then the bike doesn’t want to turn.”

Espargaró seems less happy with the tyre than Binder. “The tyre isn’t really working well, but it’s the only one we’ve got,” said the Spaniard. Perhaps once again this is the less-experienced Binder working with the tyre in a more open-minded way.

Believe it or not, luck certainly does come into the equation. Ducati admits that the switch to Michelin in 2016 helped its Desmosedici, just as Michelin 2004 rear slick helped the M1 but hindered Honda’s RC211V, helping Yamaha to win the title. Will it be the same this year?

“For me the 2020 rear tyre is a bit better, but I expect it’s a bit better for everybody, because the grip between the edge of the tyre and the traction area is less different, so it’s easier to ride,” said Rossi, who obviously hasn’t been talking to Dovizioso and Márquez!

World championship leader Fabio Quartararo slumped to seventh on Sunday, due to a suspect rear tyre. “From the first lap its potential was really bad – a huge difference from practice,” he said. Fellow Yamaha rider Maverick Viñales also had a suspect rear tyre – inconsistency of performance is an ongoing issue at Michelin.

Quartararo won’t have an easy time at the next two races at Red Bull Ring, where good acceleration and top speed are vital. However, Michelin will provide its special heat-resistant slick for these races (also used at Buriram), which really helps the M1 perform. Last year, when the tyre was available for the first time in Austria, Quartararo finished, behind Dovizioso and Márquez.