If the point of the 2012 regulations was to see more manufacturers return to the MotoGP grid, the move is already looking like a success. Both BMW and Aprilia are linked to moves back to MotoGP - though mainly through privateer CRT team efforts, rather than as factory prototypes- and now, another manufacturer looks set to join the fold. For the German-language magazine Speedweek is reporting that the legendary English manufacturer Norton is set to enter a two-man team for 2012.
According to the veteran Austrian journalist Gunther Wiesinger, Norton has asked Dorna for two places on the 2012 grid, and Norton boss Stuart Garner has submitted a signed application to Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta to race when the MotoGP class returns to 1000cc. The MotoGP effort is part of a long-term marketing plan by Norton to change their image from classic motorcycles to modern sportsbike manufacturer, with plans to introduce a range of high-tech road bikes in the future. The Norton website confirms this intention, stating:
"Future development will also lead to the introduction of the all new modern motorcycles and will represent the ultimate expression of the Norton brand."
A return to premier class motorcycle racing is a logical step for Norton. The marque has one of the very longest traditions in motorcycle racing, starting from their domination of what was then called the Continental Circus in the 1930s, to being the mainstay of racing privateers with the single-cylinder Manx Norton from 1950 onwards, including a world championship with Geoff Duke in 1950. The Norton got the careers of many of the early greats off to a start, including Duke, Mike Hailwood, Jim Redman and Derek Minter. So enduring was the bike that it was still scoring world championship points as late as 1970.
The collapse of the British motorcycle industry - and the arrival of the two-stroke engine - put an end to Norton in racing, though the early '90s saw the brand return to the grid with the ill-fated 588 Wankel-engined machine. Arguments over exactly how to calculate the capacity of a Wankel engine, reliability problems and a performance deficit meant that the Norton Wankel bike never became a permanent fixture on the grid.
The arrival of Norton does raise the question of whether their entry is to be accepted as a factory prototype team or as a CRT team. The CRT rules allow any team to enter, even with a prototype engine, but the Grand Prix Commission will decide whether an entry is a CRT entry or a factory prototype entry. The meeting of the Grand Prix Commission at Brno did open up an attractive loophole to factories, allowing teams to be reevaluated part way through the season. This might open the way for small factories like Norton to enter bikes as CRT teams, then get moved up to factory prototype status - losing 3 liters of fuel and (in the first instance) 3 engines per season - if they become too successful.
If Norton are only accepted as a factory prototype, then the big question remains of just how successful they can be. With electronics currently dominating racing as a result of the fuel restrictions, there is the question of whether a brand new manufacturer and a brand new team can learn to use the electronics quickly enough to become competitive. If the factory has only 21 liters of fuel at its disposal, it could be hard to compete against the likes of Honda and Yamaha, who have huge R&D budgets to spend on electronics and fuel metering. If they are initially accepted as a CRT team, then the Norton could be developed more slowly, with the 24 liter fuel allowance making engine control and power delivery more easy to control using conventional methods.
Whether Norton are successful or not in their initial return to the race track, the sight of the glorious old Norton logo circulating with the MotoGP pack will bring a cheer to the hearts of long-time motorcycle race fans all over the world, but especially in Britain. With British involvement and interest in Grand Prix racing at an all-time low, the return of one of the great British names in racing could spark a revival of interest in the series. And given the rumored sums involved in the BBC's contract to broadcast MotoGP, the sound of a British racing Norton on the grid will also be music to Carmelo Ezpeleta's ears.