Cam Donald Shares Why He Parted Ways With Norton
Nothing lasts forever, and this is usually the case when it comes to partnerships in motorsport. Just as MT went to press, I parted ways with Norton and will not be racing for the team at this year’s Isle of Man TT.
I joined Norton at the beginning of 2014 and signed a three-year contract, with an assessment clause at the end of each year. In this day and age there are few racing contracts that last a single season, so a three-year deal is far from normal. Norton’s plan to build a competitive 1000cc Superbike to take on the might of the Japanese factories was something that excited me. It was an ambitious project, but I was ready for the challenge!
If I’m honest, a lot of my motivation was being involved with Norton. It is, after all, one of the oldest names in motorcycling, with a rich history of success at the Isle of Man. When Norton claimed its last TT victory in 1992, with Steve Hislop aboard, it was a huge moment in motorcycling. Not only was it the first British win at the TT for 30 years, it was also a small, underfunded team, that had developed its own rotary engine.
I had no illusions about how monumental the task ahead would be, but relished the thought of helping Norton once again be a TT frontrunner as an underdog.
At that stage I was yet to ride the SG3 Superbike, but received regular reports on development via former-TT winner Steve Plater as test pilot. In 2012, I was teammates at Honda with Steve in World Endurance, so I knew him well.
Arriving in the UK for my first test on the bike, I climbed aboard the SG3 at a cold and cloudy Cadwell Park. With an open mind and no expectations, I took to the track to see what I had to work with. Straight away I was shocked at how bad the bike was – surely this wasn’t the bike I’d been reading so many positive testing reports about.
Thinking back to that day, I remember a television crew on hand to record the event. As I removed my helmet I hadn’t a moment to think before a camera was in my face for comment.
At the time I used words such as ‘raw’ and ‘unrefined’ and that was the truth but, also just a more diplomatic way of saying bad.
What made the bike so hard to ride was the lack of throttle connection. Simply put, the reaction of the engine was not in sync with the rotation of the twist grip. No matter how good your chassis or tyres are, poor electronics will make everything feel out of kilter.
The mountain we had to climb immediately felt steeper, but the team’s enthusiasm was brilliant. Unfortunately, however, no matter how much you want something you still need to know how to get it.
I soon realised the very young team was struggling to deal with the complex issues in need of attention.
Although the team worked day and night, we arrived at the 2014 TT underprepared and paid for it in our results, finishing neither races we started.
I was encouraged by our post-TT team meeting where everybody was brutally honest about what needed to be done. Plans were made and work would start immediately to get things back on track for year two.
Norton purchased three CRT-spec Aprilia MotoGP engines to close the performance gap on the competition. There was some criticism of using another brand’s engine, but I didn’t have an issue with this.
Rem Fowler won the twin-cylinder class of the first TT in 1907 aboard a Norton powered by a Peugeot engine. Nobody would ever dispute that his bike was not a real Norton. Norton is in the development stages of building its own V4 production engine so it made sense. Use a race-proven engine of a similar configuration to allow the engineers to learn about the electronics to suit, etc.
Travelling to the UK much earlier last year involved going straight to work track testing the new SG4. Each time out the bike was improving but the increments were small and, again, we ran out of time. For my second year, the boat crossed the Irish Sea with a bike I knew was going to struggle to be competitive.
In the first Superbike TT race we had a race finish. Eighteenth wasn’t where we wanted to be, but it was a finish. In the Senior TT, another mechanical issue forced me to stop. Another year done.
Returning to Norton HQ in England for another post-TT meeting and no punches were pulled. I left believing that all involved understood the urgency in how soon the new bike needed to be built for testing. A target was set for the new bike to begin track testing before year’s end.
As I write this, the new bike has yet to turn a wheel at a racetrack and I can see history repeating itself. Sure, the bike will most likely be better this year but so will everybody else’s. If the same approach is taken then how can we expect a different result?
I wish Norton well for the future and I’ve learnt a lot from my time racing there, but it’s time to take a different path.
I’ve had surgery to sort my arm and I’m back on the bike and feeling good so racing the TT this year is still my plan.