Norton’s Lightweight TT race bike and the teenagers who are building it

First glimpse of concept drawing of the Lightweight TT bike

IMAGE: First glimpse of the concept drawing of the Lightweight TT bike.

This June, double Isle of Man TT winner Cameron Donald will line up on two different Norton race bikes at the world famous road races. The revised SG3 will be the Australian’s chariot for the Superbike and Senior races but it’s Norton’s debut in the Lightweight race that’s causing a stir in the paddock.

Donald’s chances of victory lie in the hands of eleven teenagers from the British Motorcycling Manufacturing Academy (BMMA) and their tutor, Adam Wragg. The BMMA is supported by, and located at, Norton Motorcycles’ HQ, next to Donington Park.

On a recent visit to their East Midlands base to meet the team, I observed from the corner of a long, open-plan study area which covers the entire 1st floor directly above the Norton factory. The 2014/15 intake of 40 apprentices radiate enthusiasm in sub-groups working on their own projects. Some are taking engines apart to identify what’s wrong with them while others discuss the budget required to get a non-runner working again.

Adam Wragg and the 11-strong Lightweight TT team

IMAGE: Adam Wragg and the BMMA TT project team.

Adam Wragg is their tutor; a proverbial Pied Piper who offers more than just an education for these apprentices whose time is split between theory and practical. He is the project leader, he's helped them relocate, he's the organiser and he has the final say before proposals go to Norton CEO Stuart Garner and his Head of Design, Simon Skinner.

Garner recrtuited the ex-military man to create and run an academy with a twofold vision. He told us: “The main aim is to get young people involved in manufacturing and to feed the motorcycle manufacturing industry. The other aim is to get young people into biking and grow that side of the industry.”

Launched last summer, the BMMA is financed jointly by Norton and a Government operation known as the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). Santander also chip in by providing an iPad for each apprentice.

The first intake of forty 16-18 year olds were selected from the 700 applications (including some from Spain and South Africa!) because of their motivation and passion with many having relocated. A mixture of theory and practical work will leave them with the choice after year one of either moving on elsewhere or continuing with their education and experience with the BMMA. Norton’s backing allows it to hand-pick the best motorcycle manufacturing talent the academy has to offer.

Adam explained: “Rather than taking people on like a college course with no proper outcome, they will come out of here as rounded individuals with a full apprenticeship framework as well as the added Norton bonuses such as wheel building. There’s no qualification for that.”

It seems grander scale objectives are shared by Norton and the BMMA which are apparent when I ask if all 40 ride a motorcycle:

“One of mine and Stuart’s passions is to get more kids on bikes. The licensing in this country is ridiculous; the industry if you look at it is a whole is on a path to self-destruction. It’s older guys who are buying bikes and we can’t have the industry dying out. Or, when it becomes so niche that it ends up being 10% of what it is now. Bikes are brilliant fun but no one understands the directives that came in a couple of years ago.”

Seems like I touched a nerve. Adam continued: “These are the guys who are passionate about bikes but can’t get into the industry because there are so many barriers to entry from licensing to education. This select 40 could be 40 in any county around the country in reality. We had 700 applications so we want to lobby this at Governmental level.”

Tell us what's wrong with these engines. No? The BMMA guys can.

IMAGE: the BMMA apprentices are challenged to find what's wrong with these engines.

September’s intake are split into three core teams named after Norton bikes; Commando, Domiracer and Dominator. Then there’s the Race Team who are “slightly academically brighter or they’ve got a background in racing”.

The giveaway is in the name but it’s the 11-strong Race Team who are developing the Lightweight TT project.

The Race Bike

As we revealed back in November, the Norton Lightweight TT race bike will use the popular Kawasaki ER-6 engine this year. Although Adam did confirm the long-term plan is to develop their own version of a 650cc twin to comply with the regulations.

“If we end up building our own 650 twin engine, there is the potential for it to be used in a road bike in the future but there’s the potential for components and design work on every Norton race bike to feed into production at some stage. It’s not always about being race specific.” He said.

Obligatory tub of Quality Street aids creativeness

IMAGE: The Race Team hold a meeting. Note the obligatory tub of Quality Street.

Photos of Michael Dunlop’s TT-winning BMW S1000RR, Josh Brookes’ BSB Yamaha R1 and a host of the latest road-based super bikes adorn the walls of the project office. They provide the design inspiration and influence for the team and nestled among them is the concept image of the Lightweight TT bike.

Lying on a ramp next to the concept wall is the beginnings of the bike itself. There's not much to go on but Adam offers further detail: “We’re producing our own chassis and we’ll be using a trellis-based frame. There will be some kind of RS250-based banana style swinging arm and we’re also developing our own aerodynamic elements.”

The beginning's of the Norton Lightweight TT race bike

IMAGE: the beginning's of the Lightweight TT bike.

He continues: “The chassis is the key for us, if we can get that right and handling the way that we want it to, the rest will fall into place. All the games are on the chassis, there's not a lot to go on with the engine. There's a lot of competition in this class with many eyes wondering what we're up to. So there's an element of mystique around what we're doing, it may make people chuckle from the industry but it thinks they will get a shock when we're out there and we're doing well.”

The team are understandably quite specific of keeping a Norton identity for future commercial value you see. Expect to see Domiracer-based components like Ohlins all round and Brembo monoblocks once the team have been downstairs to the spares department for a supermarket-sweep style shopping trip.

Kawasaki ZX-10 forks are the norm for the Lightweight class and the Norton/BMMA hybrid bike will follow suit.

Remaining realistic about the challenge ahead, Adam said on behalf of the project team: “The industry is poised. Ever since your article in November the rumour mill started and the Lightweight teams are talking about us! It’s exciting but I don’t want anyone to think we’re not taking it seriously. We are 100% serious and we want to be competitive straight out of the box, we determined not just to enter but to win."

"I want us to give the likes of (Ryan) Farquhar a run for his money, I doubt he’ll be quaking in his boots just yet! The first measure is reliability. There’s no point in us making a 100 horse power engine that’s just going to blow up, I think this year, if we come away and we finish then I’ll be very happy."

The full project team are due to make the trip across the Irish Sea for the TT in June but only the two or three with relevant experience will be in the pits, all overseen by the existing Norton race team. The team have an extra advantage by having Cameron Donald involved. His feedback is an important part of the project and he will be involved in the bike’s testing schedule too, although he won’t be the only test rider. In return, he’ll be rewarded with precious additional track time on the Island as the SG3 team look to improve on early retirements from the Superbike and Senior races last year.

Cameron Donald flies over Ballaugh on Norton's SG3

IMAGE: Cameron Donald flies over Ballaugh Bridge on the Norton SG3.

The project schedule has chassis platform completed next month and the team will use a slightly-tuned ER6 engine for the first round of testing.

Adam summed things up: “I think the Lightweight TT project is our opportunity to get ourselves (BMMA) on the map, especially if we do well. As the bike evolves, the students will evolve and those two work hand-in-hand.

Meet three from the team

16-year old Dan. The youngest team member.Dan is youngest of the group at 16 but he’s a man with a plan. Originally from Southampton but now living locally, he relies on the support from his colleagues and the focus on the TT project to take his mind of any home-sickness.

“The project is a really great team effort and we all feed into the processes, step by step and we all collaborate together to make sure the bike is perfect.”

“We all really want to win but getting the bike to the finish without it breaking down, with sufficient lap times and not in last place then we can concentrate on improvements for next year. The apprenticeship is one year but then there's the option of reapplying for a second year with a third year for about half of us, we get jobs with to focus on diagnostics downstairs (Norton's main factory), which is my aim. I really want to work with the Norton race team in diagnostics and if not, then back down south with a race team down there.”

19 year old Dylan. Recently knocked off his 125 by a taxiDylan is 19 and originally from Bristol. He’s sporting an injured shoulder after a taxi ran a red light in Derby and knocked him off his Honda CBR125.

“Quite a lot if the guys here are younger than me so I've got a bit more experience which I think is why I was chosen to work on this project. It's a big project and I knew it was something I wanted to get involved with, planning every detail meticulously.”

“I can't wait to be a part of the Isle of Man TT. It'll be a proud and special moment when we take our own bike that we've designed and developed from the ground up, except the engine. Fingers crossed it'll be competitive.

“After that then we'll have to focus on our apprenticeship and provided we do quite at the TT there'll also be things to think about with the evolution of that platform.”

“I want to stay here and earn a qualification and then hopefully get a job within the industry. If we do well at the TT, it could open a few doors for us in the future.”

Sam has just turned 17 which means he can now ride his YZF-125 on the roadSam is from Derby and just turned 17. He applied after hearing about the academy on Radio Derby.

“I've got a YZF-125 Yamaha which I can ride now I'm 17. I was planning on being at Burton college to do motorcycle engineering but the Norton opportunity was going to offer me more. Initially we had to design a more substantial work trolley for the Norton workshop and when Stuart came up to see it, he told us about the TT project and we were all right shocked.”

“Hopefully we'll have made a fair name for ourselves at the TT and we've got a bike that doesn't show us up and proved to people that it's turned out alright. I'd like to carry on, I'm into the racing but the Norton road bikes are stunning looking machines too.”

The Lightweight TT takes place on Friday 12th June 2015 prior to the Senior TT. The 2014 race was won by Dean Harrison who took his maiden Isle of Man TT victory, 16 seconds clear of James Hillier. Keith Amor set the fastest lap at an average of 118.989mph.

Will the Norton/BMMA team achieve a podium finish?  or