How Indian heritage props up MotoGP's leading championship contenders

There will be no local stars to cheer for when India makes its highly-anticipated MotoGP debut this weekend, but the top four spots in the championship are all occupied by riders who learned the ropes of motorcycle racing with one of the country’s leading automotive manufacturers.

Francesco Bagnaia, Aspar Team Mahindra Moto3

For a country the size of India, home to the world’s biggest market for two-wheelers, it is quite surprising that no rider has managed to come up the ranks and gain a place in the premier class of motorcycle racing.

Indeed, apart from a wildcard appearance in the Moto3 class for national champion KY Ahamed, there will be no representation from India in the country’s first-ever home event.

However, turn the clock a few years back and Mahindra was an important part of the grand prix ladder, supplying bikes and honing up-and-coming riders in what was originally the 125cc class before it morphed into the present-day Moto3 series in 2012.

Admittedly, the Mahindra MG030 package was the weakest on the grid and the bike was no match to its Honda, KTM or Kalex rivals, despite some significant upgrades over the years.

However, many riders spent their formative years racing with Mahindra, and continue to credit the Indian manufacturer for the success they currently enjoy in MotoGP.

Undoubtedly, the most high-profile graduate from Mahindra’s now-defunct Moto3 effort is reigning champion Francesco Bagnaia, who spent two years with its factory team Aspar in 2015-16 after finding little success on Honda and KTM machinery the previous years.

In his maiden campaign, Bagnaia showed flashes of pace, scoring a podium at Le Mans en route to 14th in the championship, a small but significant improvement over his previous campaign with the VR46 team.

Francesco Bagnaia, Aspar Team Mahindra

Francesco Bagnaia, Aspar Team Mahindra

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

But it was in 2016 where he came to the fore as Mahindra enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in Moto3 - with Bagnaia leading the charge for the marque.

A regular podium contender from the very first race, Bagnaia made history in Assen when he claimed his and Mahindra's first grand prix win at the age of just 19.

That result firmly put him in the thick of the title fight and he ended the season a strong fourth in the championship, scoring another win at Sepang along the way - which earned him his first taste of MotoGP machinery, as Aspar let him test its Ducati in Valencia that November.

Bagnaia went on to graduate to Moto2 the following season and won the championship on his second attempt in 2018, but the Italian rider believes his two years of schooling at Mahindra were crucial in shaping him into the rider that he is today.

Bagnaia was full of praise of the handling of the MGP030 and believes a horsepower deficit only served to improve his riding in the entry-level class of grand prix racing.

“If you consider, all the riders that moved from Mahindra have done something incredible in the championship,” he said.

“All have won a title or have been runner-up, so I think it's a really great school because the level of the bike was really great for handling but was missing on the engine with the power, that was clear for everybody.

“But it puts you in a situation where you have to do the maximum every time and I think it was really great school, so I'm very happy, very proud to have been part of the Mahindra family.

“I always say that it was the best Moto3 team I ever had to improve myself.”

Third place Marco Bezzecchi, CIP-Unicom Starker

Third place Marco Bezzecchi, CIP-Unicom Starker

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Bagnaia is not the only rider to have enjoyed his first success in grand prix racing with Mahindra. In fact, his title rivals Jorge Martin, Marco Bezzecchi and Brad Binder all scored their first podiums riding the MGP030 - although none of the trio could bag a race win.

Bezzecchi’s third-place finish at Motegi in 2017 was significant in more ways than one, as it would turn out to be Mahindra’s final rostrum result in grand prix racing.

The Indian manufacturer had already decided by then to exit the category at the end of the season, as part of a shift to electric mobility and flagging sales of its two-wheeler business.

Recalling his stint with Mahindra, which included a handful of Moto3 outings in 2015-16 before he stepped into a full-time seat with satellite squad CIP the following year, Bezzecchi said: “It was fantastic,” he said. “First of all because without them and the [VR46] academy it was probably very difficult to step on the world championship, because they were very really investing in young riders and they were really helping us.

“It was fantastic to be part of the Mahindra family - unfortunately for not much time.

“But anyway, it was a big school, I learned a lot to be more precise and more consistent, missing a bit of power.

“I had fun, I had a podium and it was the last podium also for Mahindra, so it was very nice.”

Brad Binder, Ambrogio Racing

Brad Binder, Ambrogio Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Current KTM ace Binder shifted to a Mahindra bike late into the 2013 season and could only break inside the top 10 once but, in his first full campaign with the Indian manufacturer he shone on the MG030, with podium finishes at Sachsenring and Motegi being the key highlights of his season.

His ride to ninth in the Valencia 2014 finale continues to be the last time he rode a bike other than KTM in any of the three classes of grand prix racing.

Asked what role his Mahindra learning years played in his career, Binder said: “Thinking back at it now is wild.

“Honestly, we had a lot of good days for sure. I think I rode it before these guys. It was ambitious but honestly like Pecco said the thing's handling was incredible and when you're lacking power you need to try to figure out how to make it up elsewhere, and for me it was one of the best steps in my career so far.”

Martin was Bagnaia’s team-mate at Aspar in both 2015 and 2016 and although he didn’t enjoy as much success as the Italian, who was much more experienced than him at that point of time, his podium result at Brno in his second season played a key role in him securing the Gresini Honda ride that eventually won him the title in 2018.

Martin explained that the underpowered Mahindra package did leave him with a lot of work to do in races, but he feels he was able to show his true talent once he managed to find a bike that was more rounded that the MGP030.

“When you're with a bike where the engine has a bit less power, you have to do much more than the rest to be at the same level,” he said.

Jorge Martin, Aspar Team Mahindra

Jorge Martin, Aspar Team Mahindra

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“So there were quite difficult moments, because when you're inside it's complicated.

“But finally, when you arrive at a really high level and we move to a more competitive bike we were super competitive.”

This weekend’s 13th round of the 2023 season officially marks MotoGP’s foray into India, but one shouldn’t forget that grand prix racing’s association with the country goes back more than a decade - and many of the series’ current riders have their early stints on an Indian-manufacturer to thank for playing a key role in turning them into the stars of today.

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