until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


KTM's MotoGP talisman is facing some very uncomfortable questions

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Pedro Acosta's mind-boggling early-2024 MotoGP heroics are potentially adding a new context to a grand prix he had absolutely nothing to do with.

September 2023. Dani Pedrosa, who will turn 38 later that month, rocks up to his second wildcard appearance of the season at Misano.

He was already strong at Jerez, his first round of 2023, but he is stronger still here. He qualifies as the top KTM, ends the sprint as the top KTM and ends the grand prix as the top KTM.

Dani Pedrosa, KTM, MotoGP

OK, KTM full-time lead rider Brad Binder does him a 'solid' by crashing while ahead of him in the race, and there's the factor of Pedrosa having tested at the venue in the lead-up to the weekend, and there's his track record of 31 premier-class wins.

But he's approaching his 40s, yet hanging with the works KTMs despite a lack of consistent race practice. Does it mean, perhaps, that the KTM RC16 is better than its riders - and particularly its ever-reliable lead rider Binder - are making it look? Is there just more performance to extract that is going untapped?

If that question was echoing quietly after Misano 2023, it is now blaring at full volume. It is impossible to avoid. Already after round two of this season at Portimao, Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro said: "Everybody has said that Brad Binder is a very strong rider - he is a very strong rider - but looks like the KTM is also not a bad bike."

And he hadn't even seen the following COTA round yet.

Acosta was bad news for Tech3 Gas Gas team-mate Augusto Fernandez all through the pre-season. He was bad, bad news for Binder's KTM team-mate Jack Miller in Qatar. Now, he is officially bad-bad-bad news for Binder himself.

Binder's grim weekend admittedly cascaded through a series of missteps rather than a clear underlying dearth of performance.

On Friday - after being unimpressed with how he felt on the bike at Portimao - he and his crew were playing around with the set-up of the RC16 and sent themselves down a rabbit hole that ultimately compromised his bid for direct Q2 passage.

He then had a shunt in Q1 that immediately ruined his chances of advancing - because only a heavily-worn front tyre was available for the other bike.

He was never going to salvage anything too big in the sprint from 17th on the grid, and his ride to ninth on Sunday actually looked relatively reasonable given a Raul Fernandez-Alex Marquez-Marco Bezzecchi chain reaction at Turn 1 punted him wide and broke off some crucial aero appendages.

"Fantastic race, really!" he said sarcastically after the finish. "I had to do 20 laps around COTA missing two wings, which was chaos."

He also was struggling to get the rear tyre up to temperature - which was a novelty - until a quarter of the race in.

"Honestly, we just had things that went wrong at bad times. We weren't that bad," added Binder.

"We've been playing with the set-up quite a lot, just trying to find a good balance. But, I think we played a little bit too much this weekend. And me making mistakes at crucial parts of the weekend didn't help zero.

"Right now I'm happy to go anywhere [else]. But to be honest, it looks terrible on paper, but things weren't that bad this weekend. I will be back where we normally are next week."

In a vacuum, to salvage a top-10 from all that is quite forgivable. Doubly so given the context of Binder nursing a foot fracture sustained in a motocross training accident and inevitably giving him discomfort over the COTA bumps.

So, a bit of a salvage job. Unfortunately for Binder, the rookie on the red Gas Gas-badged RC16 is setting different standards - and is that at least partly what's sent Binder and his crew chasing their tails in terms of bike balance last weekend?

Acosta wasn't just quicker in the most important moment, he was quicker in virtually every moment. He was at the sharp end all weekend. He was the top RC16 rider in every session he contested - Binder was just 0.005s off in Sunday warm-up, but otherwise the gaps were more substantial.

The one session Acosta didn't lead the RC16s was Q1, and that's because he wasn't in it, but all of his peers were.

He also made the right tyre choice for the Sunday race. It may have been out of necessity - Acosta, having taken the medium rear to second place behind fellow medium rear runner Maverick Vinales, admitted he probably couldn't have made the soft rear work - but that doesn't really make it better for the others.

"Today, all the KTMs, we chose the soft rear tyre. Just Pedro with the medium - that was a good choice for him," admitted Fernandez, chuckling. "He's a rookie, you know? It's quite embarrassing. It is."

Given all of those missteps, does Binder believe he would've had Acosta's number in a 'normal' weekend? If yes, then by necessity he should also believe he probably would've won the race - because Acosta was within two seconds of the win.

If no, then he will know he is in trouble.

There's contract security on Binder's side - a deal signed last year that takes him through 2026 - and he outscored Miller this weekend anyway. But if Acosta is already too much to handle, the longer-term projection is not great at all.

At Jerez next weekend, he has to strike back. Against Acosta, but also against Pedrosa, making a wildcard appearance again.

There is an urgency for Binder to reassert himself within the KTM/Gas Gas structure, because his reputation as the benchmark RC16 rider is hanging by a thread.

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