Brad Binder had a front row seat for one of the most terrifying crashes motorsport has ever seen at this weekend’s Austrian MotoGP.
The South African was right behind Johann Zarco’s Ducati when it collided with Franco Morbidelli’s Yamaha with the riders racing at full throttle. Zarco and Morbidelli were sent flying, while their bikes carried on, becoming potentially lethal projectiles.
That both motorcycles missed hitting Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales was as miraculous as it was extraordinary. Rossi later admitted that the “saint of motorcyclists” must have been watching over him and his teammate.
“I think the luckiest guy in the world right now is Valentino Rossi,” Binder told CNN Sport. The 25-year-old KTM rider shudders when considering what might have happened.
“Honestly I prefer not to even think about,” he admits. “You know the bikes are probably still going at more than 200 kph, and a bike weighing in at 185kgs flying at close to 200 kph, if that hits somebody, I think we all know how that might end.”
Remarkably both Zarco and Morbidelli were able to walk away from the incident, though the Ducati rider has since told L’Equipe that he will undergo surgery for a fractured wrist later this week.
Binder says the risks of racing are always there.
“It’s a danger that everybody knows, that we really just try to keep in the back of our minds and not think about. Unfortunately, the only way to do this job is to approach things in that way. If you’re worried about the risks and the things that could happen, I don’t think you could ever do this job for a living.”
Binder finished fourth after the red-flagged race eventually restarted, an impressive achievement from 17th on the grid. It capped the end of a rollercoaster week for the man born in Potchefstroom, in South Africa’s North West province.
Just seven days earlier, Binder became the first ever South African to win a premier class race, at the Czech Republic GP in Brno, riding in only his third MotoGP.
The victory was also KTM’s first ever MotoGP victory, and Binder was the first rookie to win a race since Marc Marquez’s maiden win at the GP of the Americas in 2013.
“It’s been absolutely fantastic,” he says. “I don’t think we quite expected it so soon, especially in only my third grand prix. It was honestly a dream come true, something that you work towards getting right your entire career as a motorcycle racer.”
Binder and his family moved to Krugersdorp, just outside Johannesburg, when he was 10 years old. He admits that motorsport is not something typically associated with South Africa.
“For sure, when you think of sport and South Africa you think of rugby and cricket or something like that,” he said.
“When I was younger and I started racing in South Africa it was a lot more busy, a lot of racing was going on there and a lot of support, but things died off a bit, but it is slowly coming back.”
The rookie’s success has been well-received at home.
“It’s really cool, because the news really blew up at home,” he says. “I must say, South Africans are always fantastic at backing anyone in sports, and especially their own, so it’s been great to see all the support I’ve had.”
Covid-19 has presented an extra challenge for Binder, and his younger brother Darryn, who competes in the Moto3 class.
“It’s really difficult at the moment with South Africa’s borders being closed,” Binder explains.
“It’s nearly impossible for us to go home. After this weekend’s race we have two weeks off and it would have been great to have shot home and caught up with friends and family for a week and come back. But unfortunately, the way things are at the moment, we’ll just be staying here.”
He admits to being a little homesick.
“South Africa in general is an amazing place, for sure. The main thing about South Africa, I don’t really know how to explain it, it’s just home, you know? It’s that place that I go to and I know exactly how everything works.
“It’s just amazing to go back and go to the places where I grew up and see all your friends and stuff, the stuff I’ve been doing my whole life. It’s all those things. I hope everything gets back to normal soon.”
Life on the road is, however, nothing new for the Binder brothers.
“We’ve both been spending most of our time in Europe and doing this together since 2014,” he says.
The older Binder has been racing in Europe since 2011, winning the Moto3 title in 2016, and finishing a close second to Alex Marquez in last season’s Moto2 championship.
When not competing, he is often found honing his skills in Spain.
“The good thing about Spain is that there are a lot of different tracks and it’s really good for training,” he added.
“The weather’s also good. Spain is always a place I try to go back to if I can’t go home.”
In spite of his nine years’ racing experience, Binder admits the step up to MotoGP was daunting.
“A MotoGP bike is a completely different beast to a Moto2 bike, you have more than double the horsepower and the bike’s actually even lighter, so it’s really tough to get your head around it at the beginning. Each time I get on the bike I feel more and more comfortable,” he said.
This year’s KTM looks to be a formidable package, and a serious challenger to the other factory teams. The arrival of Dani Pedrosa, Marc Marquez’s former Honda teammate, as a test rider is widely credited with turning the team into contenders.
“I actually had a ride on the 2019 bike at the end of last year,” Binder says. “When I got on the 2020 bike in Malaysia you could feel it was a huge step forward, much, much better and much easier to ride too. KTM have been working flat out, Dani has been working incredibly too.”
Ominously for the rest of the field, Binder sees that upward trajectory continuing.
“It’s awesome to see these huge steps forward, and in general I think there’s more to come,” he added.
For now, the exiled Binder is focused on building on his early success in this strangest of MotoGP seasons.
A return visit home would definitely be welcome, but he admits he does keep a little taste of South Africa with him.
“I try to keep a bit of biltong on me – but it’s not always easy to find!”