We Think We’ve Found The Fastest South African On Two Wheels. You Agree?
Brad Binder is something of an expert in beating the odds. Learn from him.
You’re sitting at the back of the pack. A lonely 35th.
This is your “nothing to lose” moment, just do what you can and leave the results on the track. Go home, crack a beer and try forget about it. But Brad Binder wasn’t happy just doing damage control. “I told my team, I can win this,” he laughs. “They looked at me like they’d seen a ghost.”
It’s race day, and Brad is on the starting line of Jerez’s roller coaster track in Spain. The odds are stacked against him. Not only has a penalty for a mapping infringement set him up to rev up from last place, but it’s been decades since a South African last won a Moto3 World Championship.
The thing is, Brad was going in hot after finishing his qualifiers in blistering speeds. But nobody recovers from this kind of setback. To overtake 34 other riders, to find gaps in the throng, match paces and make the break, to speed past one biker only to see the horde still accelerating in front of you, and to maintain the belief that you can do this – all of that takes a significant amount of raw driving skill, and a lot of mental gymnastics.
“As soon as the lights went out, I just tried to stay relaxed and pip them one at a time,” he says. It had been over three decades since a South African had clinched a Moto3 Grand Prix. And against all the odds, Brad had beat the clock.
Some dads have hobbies. Brad’s old man was a fanatic.
“Bikes, cars, it didn’t matter – I was surrounded with the stuff,” says Brad. “My father was a petrol head, and still is. He’s got around 100 bikes,” he laughs. “What can I say? It was inevitable that I would get into racing.”
This was in Carletonville, the gold mining town in Gauteng where the rider would first discover his racing chops. His home, a jungle of auto-parts, race-ready steeds and gutted cars, became a playground for the kid. On weekends he’d straddle the saddle of a bike, hit the dusty outskirts of the town and attempt to tame it.
Brad’s father had fostered a motoring passion in his son, but maybe his hometown’s hunger for gold was contagious, because the young rider wanted more than free rides and kicking up dust. At just 10 years old, he began competing in road races.
“I remember my first race was actually with my dad,” says Brad. His old man had dabbled in motorsport a few times in his heyday, and keen to encourage his son, the pair doubled up and hit Zwartkops Raceway’s winding track.
The young rider was on form, speeding through chicanes and accelerating into third place. “But then I tagged in my dad and he lost two positions,” he says. “I just remember feeling really bleak.”
It’s a bittersweet memory. Taking part in his own race was something he’d dreamt about on those lazy Sundays, where the Binder lounge roared with dozens of engines and the enthusiastic chatter of the MotoGP’s commentators.
But he hadn’t just fantasised about taking part, he wanted to win. And on his first race day he learnt something important. Losing sucks. But could get better, and he would get better. Doggedly chasing victories, it didn’t take long for Brad to make his mark. Even when his family moved to Krugersdorp, he kept competing.
There was still school,sport and everything in between, but none of it held the same appeal.
“To be honest, racing’s probably one of the only things I’m really good at,” he says. “Or at least, not too bad at. I’ve never been interested in rugby or cricket, anything like that.”
It’s the old adage: forget about your weaknesses and focus on building up your strengths – that’s what will set you apart. For Brad, it paid off. Binder competed in three seasons of the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup. His best finish? Fifth. But it was enough to get his foot in the door, and in 2012 he took part in his first Moto3 Grand Prix in Qatar.
From the outset, he was a strong competitor, racking up podium finishes. But first place proved to be elusive. That was, at least, until this year.
Going into the latest Moto3 series, Brad was looking like a firm favourite. He had nailed his qualifiers, putting pedal to the metal and leaving the pack behind. But after qualifying for the race in Jerez, organisers discovered his KTM superbike was running non-homologated ECU software. To those who aren’t fluent in bike geek, that means his qualifying times were disallowed and he was sent to the tail-end of the grid.
“Mentally I knew it was going to be tough,” he says. “When you line up at the back you see how far you have to go, how many racers you have to overtake and it gets intimidating.”
His teammates were supportive. They told him to relax, they took the pressure off – seriously, today was just not his day. Brad nodded, but there were already other ideas brewing in his head. “I knew I could take this race. I had a really good pace the whole weekend and I felt strong, so I knew that when it came down to the race that I had what it would take to fight my way to the front row,” he says.
“I was nervous, sure. But it’s normal to think a few crazy things before a big race. Sometimes I ask myself, why am I doing this? Those nerves can get to you. But when the visor goes down, I push all of that to the back of my head and try to focus.”
Commentators described Brad’s surge to the front as a “relentless charge”. The rider tore up Jerez’s roller- coaster racetrack, moving into the top 10 after just six laps. He was picking off positions at almost every corner, and before even a third of the race was done, Brad found himself powering into fourth place. Then third, second. Then first.
“It was a crazy moment,” he says. He’d become the first South African to win a motorcycle Grand Prix since Jon Ekerold clinched one in 1981. But the gravity of what he’d accomplished only hit him on his way home. “I’d done this. I’d actually done this,” he laughs.
But for a rider who had struggled to clinch that sought-after poll position, what had changed? Brad says it was all about finding balance. In the past, he’d tried to focus on nothing but racing. The result: he was left feeling burnt out, unfulfilled and frustrated. A far cry from the passion he felt for his sport.
Now, balance means taking breaks, enjoying the time he gets to spend at home in Krugersdorp. Tunnel vision can be your downfall, it’s about knowing when to gun for the finish line and when to enjoy the ride.
It’s an important lesson for Brad to remember. With more victories in the World Championship, he’s on the cusp of winning the tournament. Momentum is behind him, but the pressure is also on.
“The end goal has always been MotoGP. I’ve dreamed of racing against people like Valentino Rossi since I was a child,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I feel pressure from the outside, I think I put more on myself from within. But, when I go out, I’m taking it one lap at a time. If I stay focused and do my job, I know I can come through with wins either way.”