Long travel time

As the need for suc­cess dom­i­nated the psy­cpsy­che of fac­tory teams, at­ten­tion turned to keep­ing the power on the ground...

Classic Dirtbike - - Contents - Words: Norm De­witt Pics: Terry Good

For years scram­blers had only a few inches of sus­pen­sion travel at ei­ther end of their bikes… then came long travel and the world moved on.

For 1972 the Amer­i­can Trans-am se­ries had been ut­terly dom­i­nated by Ake Johns­son on his Maico 400, the new ra­dial fin model. It was a good time to be at Maico, although that re­sult may have flat­tered to de­ceive as De­coster’s fac­tory Suzuki that had won the world cham­pi­onships in 1971 and 1972 wasn’t be­ing used in the Amer­i­can races. How­ever, in the last six GPS of 1972, Ake had two wins and four sec­ond places. An­other ma­jor con­tribut­ing fac­tor to ben­e­fit Maico was the new weight limit of 209lb for the 1973 GP sea­son, tak­ing away much of the Suzuki’s weight ad­van­tage from the pre­vi­ous few sea­sons. John Banks was even back on a four-stroke... the Cheney BSA, as the BSA- based ma­chines could now meet the min­i­mum weight. Maico was now in a per­fect po­si­tion to bring the fight to Suzuki for the com­ing sea­son.

Ger­rit Wolsink had won the first race of the 1973 sea­son over­all on the fac­tory Maico, which was sim­i­lar in spec to the Ake Johns­son ma­chine of 1972. How­ever, for the first four Grands Prix, De­coster con­tin­ued to build up his points lead with vic­to­ries in four of the eight mo­tos. What no­body ex­pected was a ma­jor tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance that was about to change the de­sign of MX ma­chines for­ever. There are many con­flict­ing ac­counts as to the true source of the idea that changed MX sus­pen­sion de­sign for­ever, this ver­sion comes from within the Maico team it­self, the team who first ar­rived at a Grand Prix with the de­sign on their bikes.

Yamaha had led the charge with the new monoshock de­sign that was in­tro­duced early in the 1973 sea­son. It re­ally wasn’t any­thing par­tic­u­larly new, as man­u­fac­tur­ers such as Vincent had used a sim­i­lar con­cept in the past, and even Suzuki had tried out the monoshock de­sign for their MX rac­ers be­fore de­cid­ing to pass on it. It was Maico that noted what the true ad­van­tage was.

The de­but of the long travel Maico came at the Czech Grand Prix, the 5th round of the sea­son. Ger­rit said: “I was one of the first to have a long travel mo­tor­cy­cle, me and (team-mate) Willy Bauer. The funny part is that it was a me­chanic at Maico who found the so­lu­tion, and not one of the en­gi­neers at the fac­tory. That’s how it mostly works in those small com­pa­nies, not the race me­chan­ics… it was the me­chan­ics at the fac­tory that knew the testers, and they also made the progress in the bikes. Adolf Weil was rid­ing 250 GPS and Hakan An­der­s­son had the Yamaha monoshock. Ev­ery­body saw that you needed the monoshock to have good sus­pen­sion. Then this me­chanic said ‘it’s not the monoshock, it’s the travel that makes the dif­fer­ence’.”

This was a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion about the monoshock de­sign, which was thought su­pe­rior pri­mar­ily be­cause it trans­ferred the forces di­rectly to the steer­ing head area of the frame. Wolsink said: “They (Maico) found out how to make the travel at the rear end, and that was sim­ply to move the shock for­ward, it was the eas­i­est way. Of course, you didn’t have the right springs… didn’t have the right shocks… but we used it as it made a huge dif­fer­ence in the rid­ing. When I tried it the first time, I didn’t have a spare bike, I only had the long travel Maico. I rode on it but I didn’t want to drive on it, as it didn’t work, you know? But my lap times were sec­onds faster than the other bike, and it was a strange feel­ing.

And then it all started, the revo­lu­tion of shocks, and oil tanks, and gas, and springs… be­cause the springs would sag. The dan­ger­ous part of it was that the front forks didn’t have enough travel in those days, so we made the front forks longer. Then they de­vel­oped the front forks and it wasn’t un­til 1978 at Suzuki that we had it (sorted)…for four years they had been ex­per­i­ment­ing with all types of shocks and all types of front sus­pen­sions and ev­ery year it was dif­fer­ent.”

1973 had been the be­gin­ning and be­tween the so­lu­tions at Yamaha and Maico, the

revo­lu­tion was pro­ceed­ing at full force, with the monoshock Yamaha de­but ear­lier in the sea­son. That sort of com­mit­ment was miss­ing at Team Suzuki.

Roger De­coster had been de­vel­op­ing the Suzuki him­self for much of 1973, as the fac­tory had been an­gered by the new weight lim­its of 209lb aimed squarely at the feath­er­weight Suzukis. To bring his bike up to weight Roger had to fill the lower sec­tions of the frame with lead. For the USGP the rear sus­pen­sion of the bike was still largely un­changed, and yet De­coster was still lead­ing the world cham­pi­onship com­ing into Carls­bad. Roger even had to move the shocks up him­self later that sum­mer. Roger De­coster said: “We had prob­lems in 1973, we could not get Ja­pan to fix the prob­lems with the sus­pen­sion, as they got bummed out about the rule they made against Suzuki, as their bikes were lighter. The Euro­pean teams had lob­bied strongly to change the rules.”

Syl­vain Ge­boers was on the 250GP Suzuki: “If you wanted to do some­thing mid­sea­son to the bike, you had to do it your­self.” Wolsink: “Oh yeah, that’s for sure. Yeah, but you would do for your­self… I did things on the Suzuki my­self (1974-79) and changed the ge­om­e­try or what­ever, we were al­ways ex­per­i­ment­ing our­selves… and the fac­tory was do­ing its things. But they couldn’t test in Ja­pan, they were too small for the 500s. They didn’t have 500 rid­ers, the Ja­panese. They only had Watan­abe on the 125… the 250 was max­i­mum for them, that’s why they needed us, the big guys for the 500s. All the test­ing was done by us.” Wolsink also had the knowl­edge of be­ing a fac­tory Maico rider, and he brought all that to Suzuki for 1974. Wolsink: “Of course, the en­gine was very good too. Not so much rpm but a high torque en­gine, and I took those en­gine spec­i­fi­ca­tions to Suzuki.”

How­ever, none of that in­for­ma­tion was avail­able to De­coster in 1973 and it was a frus­tra­tion fes­ti­val for the de­fend­ing world cham­pion, per­haps more so than in any other year. He com­pared the ex­pe­ri­ence in the Grand Prix against rid­ing for the US Suzuki team run by Merv Wright. Roger said: “If the rider wants some­thing on the bike, even if it doesn’t make sense, give it to him. If he is a win­ner, don’t even ques­tion it. Merv would say “If he wants a mashed po­tato sand­wich strapped on his gas tank, and he thinks it is go­ing to make him faster, just do it”. Some­times you are look­ing for some­thing

and it may just be in your mind, but if you are happy you are go­ing to do bet­ter. The Ja­panese guys, they had their own ideas, it was hard to com­mu­ni­cate well with them.”

Merv also had the great­est re­spect for Roger De­coster and Ger­rit Wolsink. His old­est daugh­ter named her first child Ger­rit, and Roger was best man at Merv’s wed­ding. Merv: “Roger and Ger­rit were al­ways won­der­ful to work with, very help­ful and per­fect gen­tle­men. Com­pared to some of the prima-don­nas we had on the road rac­ing team, it was al­ways a plea­sure to work with them. We had it in our con­tract with Barry Sheene that he was to wear Suzuki cloth­ing at the track, and we were for­ever in ar­gu­ments or is­su­ing fines be­cause of the Gary Nixon shirts or sim­i­lar. In com­plete con­trast, we sus­pected that Roger De­coster slept in Suzuki pa­ja­mas.”

Willy Bauer had swept the Czech GP on the new long travel Maico, which was the race be­fore the USGP. Bauer then won the first moto at Carls­bad to draw nearly even with De­coster on points. Maico may have en­joyed an ad­van­tage with their tractable long stroke, long sus­pen­sion travel 400s (or some­times 450s), yet in the sec­ond moto of the 1973 USGP, there was some­thing that ran en­tirely off-script. Amer­i­can 250cc Na­tional Cham­pion Gary Jones on the pro­to­type 450 Elsi­nore got a mas­sive holeshot giv­ing Honda its first ever 500cc MX race lead. The bike was re­tired soon af­ter, the cause for the with­drawal from the race was hid­den from the pub­lic. Gary Jones: “It was a one-off pro­to­type from Ja­pan… a crappy frame is what it was, like it was made out of but­ter. We pulled it into the pits and threw a blan­ket over it so that no­body would see that the frame had bro­ken, it was the first open bike that they’d ever had.” It was only a few laps be­fore the nor­mal or­der of things was re­stored and Willy Bauer’s Maico was in the lead, fol­lowed home by team-mate Ger­rit Wolsink. It was also the great­est day for Cheney in mo­tocross, with John Banks fin­ish­ing third over­all on the day with the Cheney-bsa.

The Maico dom­i­nance con­tin­ued with Bauer win­ning three of the next four mo­tos in West Ger­many and at Na­mur, Bel­gium. How­ever De­coster’s mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the Suzuki were be­gin­ning to pay off and at the fi­nal round, the Dutch Grand Prix, De­coster’s pair of fourth places moved him two points ahead due to Bauer’s me­chan­i­cal break­down. Roger De­coster had won his third GP World Cham­pi­onship in a row. Once again, Maico had been the eter­nal brides­maid. Iron­i­cally it was former Maico rider Ake Johns­son who had the most suc­cess in the last two races, too lit­tle too late for the Swede with his heav­ily mod­i­fied Yamaha. He had won three of the last four mo­tos, but fin­ished fourth in points be­hind the other Yamaha of van Veltho­van.

Ger­rit Wolsink had won the fi­nal moto of the year for Maico, his good­bye to the team on his way to Suzuki for the fol­low­ing six sea­sons and un­matched suc­cess at the Carls­bad USGP, the over­all win­ner in 1974/75/76/77 and 79. Tragedy was to stalk many of the other greats from that 1973 sea­son. In 1978 Willy Bauer crashed in the Bri­tish 250 Grand Prix and was paral­ysed due to a spinal cord in­jury. Roger De­coster had a hor­rific prac­tice crash pre­sea­son in 1978 where he lost his spleen and nearly died. He came back from this in­jury to com­pete three more sea­sons and won the fi­nal Grand Prix he con­tested, the 1980 Lux­em­bourg GP. Be­tween 1971 and 1977 De­coster had won the World Cham­pi­onship five times, fin­ish­ing sec­ond in the other two years.

Wolsink re­turned to his roots for the 1980 sea­son: “I came back in 1980 on Maico and it was a dis­as­ter. The en­gine wasn’t good enough, they missed the reed valve and the frame was ter­ri­ble. They promised ev­ery­thing but it was a bad year, you know. It was re­ally bad to drive on. I switched to Honda in 1981, Honda was very good then and I got a lit­tle sup­port from the fac­tory and then I got sec­ond again in 1981 on the Honda. I was too old af­ter that and so I quit. 1980 was Roger’s last year at Honda, and he won his last GP rid­ing for them. Roger did all the de­vel­op­ment.”

As with 1973, his­tory re­peated it­self for Wolsink in 1980 as he signed on to a team where De­coster had worked his magic the pre­vi­ous sea­son. It must be nice to have Roger as your de­vel­op­ment rider. Ger­rit: “Oh yeah, and that’s why Roger is so suc­cess­ful now as a team man­ager as with KTM they give him the free­dom to make things and that’s where he col­lided with Suzuki all the time. With KTM he gets a free hand and look at what they are do­ing now.” )

Maico be­gan by mov­ing the rear shocks for­ward but kept to twin­shock. Yamaha started with a pre- mono sus­pen­sion. Ger­rit Wolsink and Norm De­witt (right).

Works bikes were con­stantly up­dated. Once the rear was sorted it was im­por­tant to look at the front.

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