“Who doesn't enjoy watching a couple of people out on track, dicing with each other” says Adrian Sellers on the Royal Enfield Continental GT Cup
The first season of the Royal Enfield Continental GT Cup was a raging success. We got to witness some proper retro racing action and the top dogs fight it out to win the championship. Racers like Anish Shetty and Allwin Xavier really pushed the limits and showed us just how capable the bikes are and just how competitive the sport can get. Top racers from the country raced the bike and us folks from the media also got a chance to swing our leg over the Continental GTR-650 race bike. In this interview, we catch up with Adrian Sellers, Custom Programme lead and manager, product strategy & industrial design at Royal Enfield and talk about the success and learning from season one and what to expect from season two of the championship that started on September 17.
Karan Ramgopal: Let's talk about the history of Royal Enfield in motorsport. The Continental GT Cup is not the first thing you have done in motorsport?
Adrian Sellers: Correct, in the longer history of Royal Enfield, we haven't been as much of a motorsport company. But there have been some notable individuals who have had great success with Royal Enfield bikes in the motorsport arena. Royal Enfield's Bullet Bose comes to mind, of course, as a prime example. The rest of the world as well, The GT250 and so on, the Big Bear Run for a bit of off-roading and so on. I think our racing and motorsport adventure is really kicking off now more than it ever has before. It's really the first time that we are at a corporate level really supporting it. We see that there's this great untapped avenue for getting people excited. What's more exciting than watching two bikes out there, two riders out there, dicing for position? And so I suppose about five years ago now we started really getting into what we could do in the motorsport sphere. It was also appropriate to our brand. As I said, we don't have a massive history in motorsport. It needed to be something that was Royal Enfield as well. We kept coming back to this idea of providing an experience at every level. Whether its beginner or pro, that idea of giving something to anybody who wanted to join in was really the definition of accessibility. And that accessibility for our brand is really important. We want people to be able to get on our bikes, fall in love with our bikes and have stories with our bikes. We want to make it as easy, as possible for them to do that. When we were looking at entering racing, it became very important to do that with a lense towards both learning as well as competing. That defined our motorsport strategy.
KR: How did this idea that you wanted to go racing come into being?
AS: Well, it looked like fun! Who doesn't enjoy watching a couple of people out on track, dicing with each other. It's always a blast to watch, even if you're not into motorsport at all. You get a rush when you see a good battle out on track. When we started thinking about it, we tried to find areas of motorsport where we could really engage in that very accessible manner. One of those was flat track racing, where we started our adventure with learning, with our slide schools activity, where we actually get people on the bikes, get them to learn, get them to be better riders because of it. Let's not forget also that when you become a better rider out on track, you are also becoming a better rider on the road. You had a lot of fun, but also you learned a lot. When you're in some situations on the road, you're even more able to handle it. We then started doing that at a pro level. It's about providing opportunity for everybody to race, so we provided that opportunity for professionals as well. Then from there we looked at opportunities for on-track riding, on a tarmac track. This is where the idea of a GT Cup came about. "Wouldn't it be fun if we offered people, not just a bunch of pros, but offered people the ability to join." That's where the unique part of our racing activities is, it's really inviting anybody in to do it. But also built-train race programme, where we have people sign up, they are vetted, they try out and then they get out on track. But we are not starting with super professionals here, we are starting with people who are just passionate about it.
KR: How was the response to the first season of the Continental GT Cup?
AS: Fantastic. It's something that people were waiting for Royal Enfield to do for a while. As the only mid-segment modern Indian manufacturer, we are primed for that space. You have enough people taking the GT out on track already. We started doing the activity, our registrations were filled up instantly. As soon as we pushed the upload button on the website, boom! Everything was already packed out. That alone tells us that there's a passion out there, and the drive for it. Obviously, going into the second season. The fact that there is a second season indicates that it has been a success as well.
KR: Did you get the same kind of response for the second season regarding registrations?
AS: Yes, even more so. Before, people were aware of it, we did some promotions and so on. But now obviously they've already done a season, they're more aware of it.. So the registrations were instantaneous. We’ve gone through the selection process. Then we get the lucky narrowed-down group, who'll be able to prove their experience and get a race license and so on. Get them on to the track, and give them a go. You can't have selections for racing without actually getting on a bike and putting people on the bike and see what the timings are. You have qualifying before a race, and that's essentially what we're doing but for a season. So it's always an exciting time because you get at everybody out there and really see who has the mettle.
KR: Can you give us a brief on what the bike is like?
AS: We've essentially made an R version, where we've taken a stock Continental GT 650, which is a phenomenal bike to start with, and tweaked it. No major changes, but just adjusted those things that make it better around a race track. Keep in mind, a racetrack is an extreme environment, it's a pressure cooker. On street, even if you're a quick rider, you're still probably not taking the bike to its limit, because that would just be dangerous, so you do it on track. Since you're putting it through such an extreme thing, getting your suspension dialed in is one of the most important things you can possibly do for your motorcycle. You can do it for your street bike as well. First thing when you buy a bike, get your suspension checked, you'll ride so much better. So that's what we've done with the GT. We've adjusted the suspension both front and rear, much better for a track situation. We've created our own tyre compounds, we've put rear sets on to help the rider get more into a tuck. Most noticeable difference ofcourse is also the front fairing on the bike. Obviously from an aerodynamic perspective its great, it gives the rider something to tuck in behind on the straights in particular. Also to be fair, we just love a good fairing on a bike. Those are the major adjustments. Also clip on bars, to get more into a racing tuck. The GT as stock has higher bars so that you can enjoy the cafe racer experience but without the full-committed position. Those sort of minor changes have got into it. Every single change has been made to every single motorcycle equally. The big emphasis here is that it's the skill of the rider that is going to make the winner. Every bike is the same, there is no difference between them. It's up to the rider to take that machine and make the most of it. That's the fun thing about doing something like the GT Cup or any spec series, that you don't have differences in technology or differences in approach that differentiates you. It's really the rider and nothing but that will determine the win.
KR: Coming back to the suspension, is it a single tune for all of them or have you given adjustability that the rider can customise based on their weight and preferences?
AS: We can adjust the suspension. There's a fundamental base tuning for it. To make it good for everybody, to make it more appropriate for the race track, and then they can work with the team to adjust it.
KR: Are there any changes on the bikes for season two?
AS: For season two, we are integrating parts from Harris Performance, which is kind of exciting for us. Harris Performance is a Royal Enfield company. Their business for the last forty-fifty years has been making chassis for racing motorcycles, at the highest levels, like MotoGP and so on. That's what they do and so we've also brought them on to make our race chassis for our flat track effort in American Flat Track and dirt track riders in the UK. They're really masters of their craft and they also make quite a few components for race bikes and we've actually asked them to make some components specifically for the GT, that can help our riders in the GT Cup do even better. So we've integrated those parts this year which is pretty fun.
KR: What are these components?
AS: We are looking at rear sets, split clip ons both made out of billet aluminium and a couple of other bits and bobs for this year. Then we'll see in future years if we want to integrate even more of their parts.
KR: The engine is running the same tune but there's a free flow exhaust right?
AS: The exhaust is a bit more freeflow, its a racetrack so you want as much power as you can. But honestly being a spec series, its not really about the power, its about the racer. You can have the stock exhausts on, and everybody would still have no advantage against each other. But of course, everyone likes the sound of a good bore, a less restricted exhaust. It also helps with cornering as well. The guys are really getting the bikes low down, they're really good riders. It helps every bit of the bike.
KR: Why don't you run 17-inch wheels?
AS: We are fundamentally running a retro race series, its like our masthead. That's where we are positioning it. We are not a performance motorcycle company, we're not going out there in MotoGP or whatever. We're talking about accessible fun racing here. With that in mind, keeping that retro proposition is a really big part of the racing and the experience. Even the look of the bikes. If you put 17s on a retro bike it just doesn't look quite right. You're fighting it the whole way. It was really important for us to maintain that retro proposition, and also to an extent to keep it as close to a stock GT as possible. Because it's also showing people what can be done with the GT. If its a matter of adjusting your suspension, putting some stickier tyres on and racing around a track just as fast as some of those bikes with 17-inch tyres, that kind of proves the point in and of itself, shows that you can do this.
KR: Are you going to be homologating any of these parts on the GTR-650 for road use?
AS: We'd love to eventually. Obviously making something for mass production is always trickier than making a limited set of parts. But with the response being so amazingly positive, and if you're mentioning it as something that occurs to you as well, then why not?
KR: Last season you had the Buddh International Circuit in the calendar initially, but it was dropped. Do you plan to go to Buddh this year?
AS: We hope so. Getting to Buddh can be tricky, its a big circuit, a premier circuit. It would be nice to, but we're not fully confirming yet.
KR: If you do go to Buddh, will the bike stay the same or will you change the gearing so that it will have better performance down the long straights?
AS: Again, we're not so worried about the performance because each bike is the same. If we were racing somebody else, we'd put a whole ton of work into changing everything because you're trying to compete against somebody else's bike, so you're both guessing what the other's doing, and trying to maximise your bike for that circuit. If you're racing in a spec series you don't need to do that, because each bike is the same, so there's no advantage to anybody for doing it. The bike could get a bit faster down the straights, but again you have that compromise elsewhere so you have to balance it out. I think the way the bike is now is a really good base for it. We've got a good balance of power across the range. Having said that, if it came to it and we really had a problem of riders really struggling on the straights, we would make a change. But any change would have to be across all bikes.
KR: Do you plan on having experience programmes for the GTR-650?
AS: We look at a lot of these programmes like the GT Cup and the slide schools and so on, is we look at them as global properties. We want as many people in the world to be able to experience them. With that in mind, we hope to be able to set them up in different regions whether its in the US or Europe or wherever, we'd like to have some version of that available to anybody. Anywhere that our motorcycles are sold, we'd like to be able to offer them these experiences. Obviously it takes time to get these things setup, racing is not a simple endeavour. But where there's a will there's a way and we definitely have the will.
KR: Do you plan to start a series similar to the GT Cup abroad? In the UK or the US?
AS: Yes, there's a thought towards it, and setting up a racing series is a complicated endeavour, particularly and perhaps even more so where we've got tons of racing series in US and Europe, getting the tracks is an exciting bit of schedule tetris. But its something that we'd love to do. Wherever our motorcycles are sold, people should be able to experience them.
KR: Would you see value somewhere down the line in making a bespoke race bike?
AS: Our American flat track and GTRA bikes are bespoke. It's a hundred percent made for racing chassis by Harris Performance. They are such a benefit to us having that experience of forty years of race bike making. Even if we've never done whatever form of racing we are trying to go to, and this was the case with flat track, their ability to listen and understand the requirements, and then interpret them into metal, is invaluable and a great part of any success we've had to date with those bikes. But it's really our base, our production 650 twins, or in the case of slide schools, the Himalayan, where we haven't really changed our chassis at all similar to the GT Cup. But for the pro racing, obviously, it's a whole different level of competition and in that case, you're really looking at the other teams and you've got that eye over there. A constant change and adapt as to each track and each set of circumstances. That's why you need to have a bespoke chassis. But the core of that twin motor in that case has served us very well. It's an incredibly flexible motor. We don't do a whole lot of changes to it in the GT Cup, but again in racing whether the series, our ability to modify and play with that motor over the years has been amazing. We didn't realise it going in but slowly but surely we discovered, there's a lot we can do here. And there it is, you've got this old-school retro parallel-twin motor, air-cooled, going up against liquid-cooled motors. That's been an amazing discovery.
KR: What else lies in the Royal Enfield motorsport story, what's coming ahead?
AS: As you hopefully noticed, we are growing the motorsport adventure dramatically every year. We are in the second year with the GT Cup, we're now in our third year of slide schools, third year of flat track racing. We are always looking for fun new ways for people to experience the brand, and so we plan to continue growing these properties. Your earlier question about other GT Cups around the world, we're hoping for that in the same way that we've done slide schools. If it's fun in one market, it will be fun in others. There's always slight differences, every market is a bit different, every racing culture is a bit different and we try to mould our endeavour to match that. But we keep the fundamentals of the proposition the same, its the idea of accessible racing, idea of anybody being able to buy a bike and have a go at it, whether it be from a learning perspective or from an actual racing perspective. We want to keep pushing forward and we have been really fortunate in India to have been able to tie up with JK Tyre and taking their expertise as well for getting everything started, that's been a huge benefit. We can't thank them enough for that. But taking that and finding partners around the world is something we're always doing. Because you find that its not just the racers that are interested in doing this stuff but there are partners out there, there's passion around motorsport and to find those passionate persons and companies and series and so on that we can share this experience with is a big deal for us and something that we are always doing.