KTM in Sun and Shadow

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It was a race of laughter and forgetting.

Amid the majestic Moravian hills of Brno in the Czech Republic, what followed (very common given name in Italy and not at all less expected than Dionigi or Dionisio) Dennis Foggia’s maiden Moto3 victory and a lethally inch-perfect ride for the second time in seven days from Enea Bastianini in Moto2 was the unraveling of every narrative your favorite pundit hoped to craft for the 2020 MotoGP season. The baby’s out with the bathwater now: If anyone could be called a favorite going into the weekend, it was Fabio Quartararo. But nobody is a favorite anymore — which is why it’s worth waking up for, of course.

Kraftfahrzeug Trunkenpolz Mattighofen has been chipping away at this since before it unveiled its project bike in mid-2015. The board behind the Austrian motorcycling company that’s been so successful in motocross and offroad enduros for years finally gave up fighting Honda in Moto3 and Moto2, methodically shifting most of its branding and engineering brainpower to grand prix road racing’s premier class. Mika Kallio and Tom Lüthi did the early testing on the RC16 and Kallio debuted it at the closing round of 2016 in Valencia to a DNF. But that was just a dress rehearsal for the real work that would go into 2017, when Tech3 satellite Yamaha riders Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro moved together from one team to another in an effort to build something from nothing.

Smith and Espargaro were decidedly midfield through ‘17 with a few ninths and 10ths, eventually finishing 17th and 21st on the season. 2018 was mostly the same; Espargaro finished 14th and Smith 18th overall. But there was a breakthrough at the scene of their debut a year before: In teeming rain that had even the very best falling off, Pol managed to bring the bike home in third for KTM’s first ever MotoGP podium.

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For 2019, KTM not only poached double Moto2 world champion Johann Zarco from Tech3 to join Espargaro, bumping Smith to test rider, it also poached Tech3 in its entirety from Yamaha to create its own satellite feeder team. Zarco and Espargaro would be joined on the B-team by the eternally optimistic Malaysian Hafizh Syahrin and Moto2 graduate Miguel Oliveira. It was very much a tale of two years: While Espagaro crested 100 points, finished 11th overall and was regularly putting the RC16 in surprising places, Zarco completely lost his way, sullied his reputation and was gone even before season’s end. One day, maybe, one side or the other is going to tell the full story on that.

Whatever the case, for 2020, KTM once again drew from its talent pipeline to graduate Brad Binder to the factory team alongside Espargaro while Oliveira (understandably miffed at holding his station with a satellite ride for another year) and Iker Lecuona would be at Tech3. Espargaro, having been with the team from its first full season, was the de facto lead rider. Promising pace in preseason testing suggested further incremental improvements before the pandemic. The months of waiting. The idle speculation. The shifting politics. The health of humanity.

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When things finally got going again at Jerez, Brad Binder showed that all of KTM’s work, all of his parents’ patience and faith in his talent, all of his commitment to Moto3 world championship-winning form and nearly a Moto2 title to boot on top of that, wasn’t for naught. He hadn’t come 5,000+ miles from toying around with dirtbikes in Potchefstroom to MotoGP’s uppermost echelon just to sit back in awe. The 24-year-old immediately made his mark by running off track in the Spanish Grand Prix before matching lap times with race winner Fabio Quartararo on his way to 13th. A week later, he was well placed to do even better for the Andalusian GP when he collided with Oliveira. And a week after that, the radiant child had come of age: In just his third start, Brad was a convincing MotoGP race winner under the brilliant sunshine of Brno.

First KTM win in MotoGP. First steel-framed bike to win since Suzuki in 1981. First South African to win in the 500cc/MotoGP class. First non-Öhlins suspension win since 2009. First premier class win for an African of any stripe since Rhodesian Jim Redman’s back-to-back triumphs at Hockenheim and Assen in 1966. First rookie winner since Marc Marquez in 2013. First winner from outside Europe since Jack Miller’s absurd Dutch GP win in 2016. First premier-class win by a motorcycle not manufactured in either Japan or Italy since Kim Newcombe on a König (Germany) in Yugoslavia in 1973. Fewest starts from the podium finishers (93) since Qatar 2008’s (very nice) 69. It’s easy to go on.

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Which is the point, of course: It could go on. What Binder has done could go beyond any of the above. He’s given light to an entire continent (which, at least for now, really just means South Africa) and, maybe, showed some young talent back home that if you’re willing to commit everything and get good enough backing (like the world’s largest energy drinks company, but that’s another story), you can get to the top.

In this, another protest summer, I’d like to take the optimistic view that even though Binder is white and even though it’s still just South Africa we’re talking about and even though he had to come to Europe to make his name and even though it only feels like a baby step, we’re still talking about an African winning a MotoGP race for the first time in more than half a century, for the first time since fucking LBJ was in office. Rhodesia hasn’t even been a country since 1979. That’s not nothing. So what if the suits with the euros start looking in more unusual places? What if they realize there’s a whole superbike series down south? What if the talent pool isn’t strictly limited to Italy or Spain, or the odd Australian or American, or the token South American? What if it didn’t require €300,000 and going all in on your son just to get enough attention to survive? What if Brad Binder leads us, finally, to where I’m going with this: a black1 person competing in what is quietly, arguably, the planet’s most racist sport?

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The Continental Circus will always be Continental at heart, but like so many other things we’ve opened our eyes to in recent decades, it’s a question of institutional power. The FIM, the sport’s governing body, is in France; Dorna, the series promoters, are in Spain… but that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. Everything we made is capable of changing. Light can shine elsewhere. Or, if you want to put it in easily digestible meme form (because that’s the grotesquely oversimplified endgame, a linguistic scrap heap, a thinking person’s refuse bin, where all the world’s most complex arguments eventually go to die, reborn in some variation of Pepe the Frog or the dog on fire or a reality show gif from a show no one actually watches):

Who will radicalize MotoGP, and why will it be Brad Binder?

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– – – – –

Then there is the shadow, the forgetting.

It’s one of fate’s recognizable cruelties that Pol Espargaro was inadvertently strong-armed out of the Czech GP by his beleaguered former teammate Johann Zarco, who took a flier on a third-tier Ducati just to stay in the game this year, then bent reality to grab pole (Czechia was a French success story, too) before finishing third. Zarco’s tires were going off at the end of the race and it was a miracle he held off a charging Alex Rins to finish on the podium, especially considering he had to take a long lap penalty for colliding with Espargaro. (No one’s done it better, by the way, so if nothing else, he’ll always have this.)

After the race, no one was happy with the decision. Ducati were adamant that it was a racing incident, which every ex-rider and professional analyst I read (not to mention my own eyes in real time) agreed with. Zarco said that he couldn’t even see Pol to his left as they went through the first turn together, Pol slightly ahead on the outside; even with 10 less degrees of lean to work with thanks to the uniformly criticized track surface, replays confirmed you’d have to have been looking for the KTM to notice it in the hundredths of a second before the collision.

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You couldn’t blame Pol for lashing out at Johann, at the result, at the cosmic injustice. Though it’s arguable whether he’d managed his tires well enough to fight for more late in the race, there’s no denying Espargaro was on the move at the time of the fall, faster than Franco Morbidelli, Binder and Zarco ahead of him. He could’ve caused the leading two more problems if he’d had the patience to outwit the Ducati rider somewhere else.

Which is the great irony of Pol Espargaro: His impatience cost him the chance to finally take one home for KTM, for the project he has dedicated his life to for four years. It’s difficult to remember a time when Pol was Marc Marquez’s biggest rival, but it was there, I can tell you it was there, and there are a lot of political reasons beyond just Marc’s embryonic, supernatural talent that he won the 2012 Moto2 title and Pol didn’t. I’ve always liked him, but his commitment to the KTM project has maybe been the most admirable line item of his career. He wanted that first win for the team, it was visible, and it almost felt inevitable at times. He was too close not to finally taste the champagne.

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In July, it was announced that Pol would join Marc Marquez at Repsol Honda in 2021. You have to wonder how much it eats away at him in this photo that he’s crouched directly in front of his radiant child, what might now be the best bike on the grid, while his future lies with what might be the worst. While he sits there grinning and bearing it. Laughing, forgetting.

– – – – –

1In late July, AP announced it would continue to lowercase the term white in racial, ethnic and cultural senses, which followed a move in June to capitalize Black and Indigenous. I’ve thought a lot on this and tried to keep abreast of the discussion not just because it’s my job, but also because it’s interesting to be part of such a significant grammatical change. I understand the urgency behind capitalization moving forward; I appreciate the “consistency” argument some have made in support of lowercase; I’ve read Eve Ewing’s thoughtful take. No one asked, but: I capitalize Black in an ethnic or cultural sense the same way I capitalize Irish or Croat or Catawba, but I lowercase it in a racial sense the same way I would white. Because it’s so difficult to trace one’s ethnic/cultural origins in the Americas due to slavery, Black as a substitute for (e.g.) Baule or Ovimbundu or whatever makes sense to me without upsetting the consistency side of my brain. Of lesser note should be that I find capitalization distracting in print and try to minimize it, so the distinction prevents my English from looking more German than I feel is necessary. I know what I am. I know what it means. But to me, this threads the needle as a compromise. For now, anyway. That’s the thing about a living thing, though, innit.

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