Interview: Norton CEO, Stuart Garner

Norton back at the Isle of Man TT

Norton announced last week that they're retuning to racing at the 2012 Isle of Man TT. Mark Forsyth grabbed Norton CEO Stuart Garner at the Isle of Man TT launch event to find out what the firm's plans are..

So you're running a Spondon framed Aprilia V-4 at the TT? Not a parallel twin? Or a rotary engine?

There's no shame and no secret, It's an Aprilia V-4 motor. We've got the blessing of the Aprilia factory.

I had heard rumours that you're building and developing your own V-4 engine?

We've got our own engine schemed out at the factory but the cost of that is multiple millions and probably around two years to get that into a fit and proper condition to race. Being a young, growing company we've got all of our focus on road bikes to make a profitable and sustainable business as opposed to the bottomless pit of racing. So really, the head ruling the heart decision was to go with a proven engine. Yes, it's not a Norton engine and some of our die-hard fans will be a bit aggrieved that it isn't a Norton engine but we've avoided several million pounds of development costs and a two year wait

Going with an already developed engine from an existing manufacturer makes sense right now. We've chosen European, we've chosen V-4 because of the package and the pedigree. It's very much the correct engine to come and do the TT with. The money that we would have spent on (our own) V-4 engine we can now deploy in the road bike business. It's all about cutting a piece of cloth accordingly. Racing is important to the brand but equally we need to build that sustainable, profitable business that supports it

The sceptic in me, when I read the press release about your TT campaign thought, 'That's not a Norton. That's a Spondon Aprilia...

The rules are such that we can't race a homolgated bike in BSB and WSBK, so those doors are closed. We can only go open-class racing

Which is the TT or MotoGP?

Yes. In the last two years since we put Norton back together we've been building a strong global distribution network so we've got showrooms in Japan, America and Europe. When you've got a dealer network with such a geographical spread there is no point racing in a single territory. You need a race format that gives that global appeal and global coverage. You're quite right - it's TT or MotoGP.

It was reasonably well reported, we did have a good look at MotoGP last year with a view to racing this year in 1000cc CRT. There's several million a year needed to just operate the team, never mind the cost of developing a motorbike. The companies we were talking to about sponsorship  wanted to spend their sponsorship money in the areas where growth in their markets existed. We all know the difficulties of Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece. The global corporates that are the sponsor base at that level don't want to be investing their marketing money in countries with flat growth. They want to put their money into territories where unfortunatley MotoGP doesn't race. Formula One have got that right

Or wrong in terms of Bahrain?

Ha, yes. But they're forward thinking, ahead of the curve and they are where the money is. MotoGP is a difficult thing at the moment, it's got a difficult rule book and unless you've got an unlimited budget it's difficult to be competitive - look at Ducati. If you haven't got the necessary budget you may well be four, five, six seconds off the pace. As a privateer that's unpallatable but OK - but as a company, you wouldn't put your brand in that position. For those reasons MotoGP sort of ruled itself out.

And then you come to the TT. Norton won its first TT with Rem Fowler in 1907. The most famous TT race in 1992 with Hislop against Fogarty - lots of things tell you to take the brand back to the TT. You've seen how warm and friendly it is here. This is a much more honest and authentic fan-based race format as opposed to pop-and-crisps, if you like. For lots of reasons, personal and commercial, we're back the Isle of Man

Is it all about brand awareness? Is it to sell bikes?

Not really, no. We're in a real lucky position where the Norton Commando has got a couple-of-year order book and wait list so we're not really racing at the TT to promote sales. But as a brand it helps our brand awareness for our dealers all over the world. Whether that's because it creates interest in the road going motorcycle or whether that's for licenced partners to sell clothing or whatever it may be. Putting the passion and the lustre back into the brand is very important

Brand lustre?

Reflating the brand. If we can do that in a commercial way, like at the TT selling some race clothing and developing the bike to the level of the TT makes us budget-neutral, which this exercise is, as a team and a racing campaign. We've had to put cash in to build and develop the bike but when we're there the sponsorship we get and the clothing sales and other associated sales that we get will actually neutralise all of our spend. No other form of racing on the World stage offers us that opportunity.

So every which way we tried to skin the cat, 'we want to go racing' it pointed back here. The brand tells us we want to race and all the lads at the factory all want to go racing because we're all bikers. We just had a look at everything that suited the brand, suited the budget, suited our pocket and every road was either stone walled or opened up to TT.

We got our heads down a few months ago and said, 'that's what we're going to do.' What do we need? We'd got some chassis that we'd developed with Spondon because of my association with them. We had a good look at different engine packages and because we'd already schemed our own V-4 it was quite obvious that the best racing package with torque, size, weight, etc is a V-4 at the moment

Is this the gear-driven cam Aprilia V-4?

No, we're not gear-driven cam, we're chain driven

What stage is the bike at the moment?

Mackers (Ian Mackman) had a ride on it - it's circulating, it's running. There's loads and loads to do on it. I joked with the TT organisers today and asked them if they could postpone the 2012 TT by a month. We got a no. We've got the bike. Would we like more time? Yes. Would we say the same next year? Yes. It's racing, isn't it?

How long a plan is this then?

We put this together with the intent to develop for three years and between now and that TT in 2014 we will continue to look at what we're doing. The aim at the end of the third year is to be podium-capable. We'd like to think that we're able to develop the bike to be podium-capable in three years

Tell me more about the bike

It's an atypical 7020 extruded tube alloy, triple-section hollow. Standard Spondon fare, in fact, very similar to the chassis from Hizzy's '92 Norton. We've got different yoke set, different head-stock but in essence it's the same

Presumably there's slightly different thinking in terms of weight distribution, geometry and flex?

Yes, very different to the rotary in engine position. By learning off all the different stuff that manufacturers are doing today we've made sure as much as possible is fully adjustable. The engine can go up, it can go down, it can go forwards, it can go back, the same with the swingarm. We've got enough adjustability to try and cover for every eventuality

You're going to be busy aren't you?

People have said, 'you must be mad, building a bike in such a short space of time.' But we don't have to book ourselves in on a track day. At Norton we can spanner a few things up and literally roll out of the factory onto Donington's back track, ride back to the factory, make changes and then ride back to the track again. We can get stuff done in a week that'd take other people two months. We can literally ride the race bike out of the factory and onto the track at Donington

So the bikes not overheating, it's fuelling OK?

No, it runs well. There's still lots to do, though. The engine is a peach. It pulls off the bottom really nicely

We wish you the best of luck...