JK Tyre, one of India’s first motorsport sponsors, will kick-start its 2017 National Racing Championship on July 7, 2017. This season comes with a key addition – the Suzuki Gixxer cup, JK’s first shot at fostering grass root motorcycle racing after having run superbike cups as part of its national championship bill. It will run alongside JK’s Formula FB02, Formula LGB and the Touring Car classes.
Selection rounds for the 2017 Gixxer cup have begun, and are being held in Pune, Bengaluru, Aizawl and New Delhi.
The 30-strong grid will comprise 20 riders in the novice category (age 17-24) and 10 riders in the Red Bull Road to Rookies cup (age 12-17); the latter seeing its second run in India. All riders will be trained by coaches appointed by Suzuki. The list of trainers includes Anil Kumar S (Apex Racing, Bengaluru) and racers like Dilip Roggers and Raja Raja. Furthermore, Suzuki is even considering bringing Red Bull’s ace MotoGP riders to mentor the participants.
We spoke to Sanjay Sharma, head of JK Motorsport, and Suresh Babu, national head, marketing, Suzuki Motorcycles India, to dig a little deeper into what changes for 2017.
In a bid to pick racers from all over the country, selections this year have been conducted across India. The organisers have consciously targeted areas close to two-wheeler hotspots like Pune and Bengaluru.
As for picking Aizawl as a selection point, Sharma says “In the North-East, we could have also gone to Guwahati, but there’s racing already happening at Aizawl. The Government has given the locals a defunct airstrip to have fun, and there’s a strong two-wheeler culture there. So instead of expecting a racer from Mizoram/Nagaland to come and participate, he can contest from Aizawl.
Road to MotoGP
JK Racing is known for nurturing racers like Jehan Daruvala and Arjun Maini via its karting programme. For its first crack at two-wheeler racing, the motorsport sponsor is keen on the Red Bull Road to Rookies leg of the Gixxer cup. In fact, the plan is to recreate its success from open-wheel racing on motorcycles. “We’ll treat him (Road to Rookie winner) like our karting kids.”, says Sharma, stating “if we are to excel at MotoGP, I have to find a 12-13 year old, who will get a medal for us two to three years from now.”
He’s already betting big on young talents like 10-year-old Ikshan Sanket Shanbhag, son of two-time INRC champion, Sanket Shanbhag, who is doing very well at Motocross.
Steep learning curve ahead
Suresh Babu told us that the decision to fix the grid at the start of the championship will allow his team of trainers to coach the participants and chart their progress better. The training schedule for the season will comprise of three days of training before every round. This involves riding technique, fitness training and personality development.
What happens to the Gixxer Cup winners?
They enter the Group B Suzuki team in the National Championship supporting Indian Super Sport races with Suzuki’s factory-backed team. This race is contested on fully modified Gixxer SFs. There are two new openings this year. “Depending on their progress, we will chart a way forward. We’ll put them on the Group B bike for a year or two, because these bikes are fast and quite competitive.” said Suresh Babu.
The next step
Explaining the way forward for young Indian racers, Babu told us “We have to train these kids, so for now, we have this progression. As soon as we begin producing riders, we’ll work on it. I don’t know how long it will take for one of them to get selected in the Red Bull Road to MotoGP – which has produced the likes of Marquez – but that’s the aim.”
Speaking about focusing on building a young talent pool, he says, “If they are good enough, we will train them. And we don’t need to train them on big bikes. We should be looking at Moto3 and Moto2. That is why we’re targeting younger riders, focusing on grassroots levels, and not on big bikes. In the international scene, you’ll see that the guys who enter Moto3 are about 15-16-year olds, because that is when you can progress to Moto2 and Moto3, and if you’re talented enough, to MotoGP.”
Why JK pulled out of Rotax Karting
There were two key problems with the Rotax Karting programme, says Sharma. For one, it’s is not yielding results as desired; in the last three years, there’s hardly any new addition.
Also, the Micromax category has become very popular. After acing this class, four out of five young racers, aged 10-11, go abroad for racing. So this has been another detrimental trend.
However, Sharma admits this talent drain is due to India’s sub-par racing skill levels when compared to competition abroad. “Once a 10-11 year old peaks his performance, in the vertical that he’s racing in, he needs to wait till the age of 14 to graduate to a Formula Car. So you do not expect this kid to sit at home for three years after peaking at 11,” he says.
Return to karting on the cards?
JK’s withdrawal from karting came as a surprise to India’s racing community. However, the brand is optimistic about the increase in participation in the coming years, and plans on making a return to it soon.
“It’s not that we have withdrawn from karting. If you notice, last year, we partnered with Rayo Racing for Indy Kart racing. The idea was to go to grassroots, sensitise people and get more kids participating. Only then can we go after the five to seven top racers.”
For 2017, JK has even opened two seats for foreign racers in Formula FB02. “The idea is to find a new benchmark. I cannot race in the circumstances year on year.” says Sharma.