At the season-ending 2022 Valencia MotoGP round last November, several strong story lines encouraged fan enthusiasm. Foremost was the title battle between Ducati’s Pecco Bagnaia and Yamaha’s number one Fabio Quartararo. This resolved in Bagnaia’s favor, although some early race drama maintained the hype.
The next story line was the departure of Suzuki from the premier motorcycle championship, a financial decision that didn’t sit well with fans or series organizers Dorna. The fact that Suzuki went out in style, with a victory in their final race appearance by Alex Rins, added drama to the whole affair.
Attracting attention is a more positive way was the work of South African Brad Binder, who pushed all the way through the field to claim second for the factory Red Bull KTM squad. This gave Binder a solid sixth in the final points standings, impressively clear of the other KTM pilots.
The 27-year-old Binder has developed an enviable reputation as “Mr. Sunday,” meaning that no matter how practice and qualifying go, he finds race pace on race day. He first competed on the world stage in the Red Bull Rookies Cup, way back in 2009.
Binder earned the Moto3 World Championship in 2016 for KTM, and continued up the Red Bull ladder, switching to Moto2 with the same Ajo squad. On the Honda-powered spec racer, he was eighth in his first year, third in 2018. When the class moved to Triumph triple power for 2019, Binder earned five wins and nine podiums, winding up second in the standings jut three points behind Champ and brother of a legend, Alex Marquez.
This success moved Binder into the premier class for 2020, and he incredibly won as a rookie, first at Brno, giving the Austrian builder their inaugural premier class success. The next season, Binder was first in dramatic circumstances at Red Bull’s home track in Austria. He took control late in the race as rain began to fall, wisely (as it worked out) gambling to stay out on his Michelin slicks.
Binder’s in house development with KTM and Red Bull is a real positive, given the daring direction of the KTM program for the premier class, and their up and down progress tod ate. Pushing the boundaries of their “ready to race” ethos, KTM have opted for a tubular chassis and WP suspension in an established world of aluminum spar fames and Ohlins forks and shocks.
Binder seems best able to get the most out of this design philosophy, although no one rider has consistently made the most of KTM’s unique MotoGP build format. Does he understand their direction better, given his career as a KTM man, or is he simply that good, regardless?
The answer for these questions would seem to involve the arrival at KTM of popular Australian ace Jack Miller. A product of the Honda system who jumped ship to Ducati, Miller’s decision to move to KTM was last summer’s big shock. Did the Australian see the opportunity to join a team on the rise, or was money the major issue?
Miller’s KTM deal is for two years, while Binder’s current commitment ends at the finish of this season. Tellingly, this is Miller’s first career multi-year agreement, having been on one-year-at-a-time contacts since his Honda RC212V debut in 2015.
During Miller’s five years at Ducati, he won two races in 2021 and a further round last year. With Ducati’s remarkable squad of eight machines on the MotoGP grid, the battle for the best Desmo is a true tussle amongst the sports rising stars. Miller had limited enthusiasm for the assembly of young guns looking for his job on the “A” team, and the move to KTM was more lucrative, too.
While Miller arrived as the seasoned veteran with experience on the title-winning machine, he is the same age as Binder, and maybe not as well regarded in terms of race pace. Miller is expected to put pressure on Binder, and the two are expected to push the KTM’s ever-challenging development program. Beating your teammate remains job one of premier class motorsport.
At Valencia last fall, it was easy to wonder if KTM should have left well enough alone, and just focused their attentions on Binder, given his popularity, attitude and results. Winter testing suggested that KTM weren’t getting anywhere, and then the MotoGP season opened in Portugal.
Miller was a sensation, making the most of the news that he and wife Ruby are expecting their first child. He netted fastest time in a red flag interrupted Friday session, Qualified fifth and then raced at the front in Saturday sprint, leading briefly and winding up 4th. Binder was an unhappy 12th in a very crazy, aggressive debut of the new F1style Sprint format.
In Sunday’s first full length 2023 race at Portimao, Miller was again a front runner, winding up an extremely competitive seventh. Binder staged his now expected charge through the pack, catching Miller and earning sixth in the final results.
“The bike is now in a place geometry wise where I am pretty happy,” started Miller. “Electronically, the engineers have worked really hard since Valencia to grant me my wishes and work in the direction I have been chasing.
“I have been having a lot of moments, thankfully they were just moments, the bike is very user friendly and give me a warning for when I am overstepping the limit.”
Round two in Argentina at the start of April featured another crazy Saturday Sprint, and the clear hero was Binder. From 15th on the grid, he was fifth in turn one, and then climbed quickly into the lead and a popular win. Miller netted tenth.
“The bike worked so well from the first lap,” confirmed Binder. “When I saw an opportunity to go into first, I took it with both hands. My plan from then for whoever passed me was to just dive bomb them straight back! Sometimes, we haven’t been the fastest by any means, but today I had the idea that if I fight the hardest, maybe I can get something.”
Unfortunately, Binder got tangled up in traffic early in the main event and was a DNF on Sunday. However, Miller made the best of the treacherous conditions, earning sixth. In the current World standings heading into the upcoming third round at Circuit of the Americas, Miller holds sixth in the standings, Binder eighth.
It seems KTM’s plan to have two “A” riders in 2023 is paying dividends, and the pair are perhaps the most exciting racers to watch in a very deep field of premier class talent. It will be fascinating to watch as the season progresses and see if either Binder or Miller can establish a consistent pace. If so, watch out!
- From Colin Fraser