In the late ‘50s, when Soichiro Honda wanted to expand beyond the domestic Japanese market and build Honda into a global brand, the first thing he did was go racing. Mr. Honda thought international racing success would elevate his motorcycles above other Japanese machines, and make the Honda name known beyond Japan’s borders. Of course he was right. Now, almost 60 years later, motorcycle manufacturers in another isolated market—India—want to expand globally and follow Mr. Honda’s path. Will they have the same success?
Mahindra is India’s smallest-volume motorcycle manufacturer, selling “just” 120,000 motorcycles and scooters in India during 2012. This would be a tremendous figure for any Western manufacturer—BMW, for example, sells around 100,000 motorcycles worldwide each year—but in India, where market leader Hero MotoCorp sells 6.2 million units and second-largest Bajaj sells 3.8 million motorcycles and “powered two wheelers” annually, Mahindra is considered a minor player.
Despite its small size, Mahindra is probably India’s best-known motorcycle manufacturer globally, thanks to its substantial investment in World Championship roadracing recently. In 2011, Mahindra became the first Indian manufacturer to enter the MotoGP paddock, participating in the final season of the two-stroke 125GP championship. The next year it entered Moto3 using a 250cc, four-stroke single developed by Engines Engineering in Bologna, Italy, a firm Mahindra purchased a 70-percent stake of in 2008. This effort was less than successful, with a 12th-place finish at the French GP the team’s best result in 2012. Perhaps it’s not a surprise, then, that Mahindra sold its stake in Engines Engineering to competitor company Hero late last year.
Mufaddal Choonia, CEO of Mahindra Racing (center), poses with team riders Miguel Oliveira
Hopes are high for 2013, however. In August of last year, Mahindra Racing CEO Mufaddal Choonia revealed the Indian manufacturer had enlisted Suter Racing Technology to design an all-new 2013 Moto3 racebike, including a new engine. Suter has a winning track record—the Swiss firm, run by ex-500GP racer Eskil Suter, won the 2012 Moto2 Constructor’s title—and is motivated, too, operating under the understanding that Moto3 success will result in Mahindra purchasing a controlling interest in the Suter firm, and commissioning a full-on MotoGP racer next.
With growing awareness of MotoGP in sports-mad India, and the debut Indian round of the World Superbike Championship slated for Delhi’s Buddh circuit in the spring of 2013, Mahindra’s involvement in road racing could have a huge commercial upside. Mahindra plans to produce a customer version of its forthcoming Moto3 machine for a National race series in India aimed at developing homegrown racers. This bike would also form the basis of a look-alike customer race replica for sale in the huge Indian streetbike market—and perhaps other markets too.
“With such an important global group behind the Mahindra team, it has huge potential,” Eskil Suter says. “And when you see a Moto3 team with over 340,000 fans on Facebook—more than any MotoGP team—you know this is serious.”
India represents one of the largest motorcycle markets in the world, with an annual demand for 11 million two-wheeled vehicles—80 percent of which are made in India. As Indian firms expand internationally, Western manufacturers are entering the Indian market. Ducati and BMW recently established Indian distributorships, and Harley-Davidson began CKD production—assembling bikes from “complete knock-down” kits in India to avoid massive import taxes—in 2010. Triumph is setting up a CKD facility in Bangalore right now, and is rumored to be working on a small-displacement model to be manufactured in India.