THE FAMILY LINE
The 1996 Elf 500 marked the return to the GP arena of the French petroleum giant with a bike bearing its own name for the first time since 1988. However, whereas Elf’s previous involvement in GP racing was concerned with pushing back the frontiers of two-wheeled chassis design, this time around the emphasis was on the avantgarde design features of the Swissauto engine, housed in a relatively conventional ROC chassis.the originality of many of these features was thoroughly in keeping with Elf’s emphasis on breaking new ground technically, which has been displayed down the years by the bikes bearing its own name. Here’s a walk down Elf’s memory lane:
1978: French car designer André de Cortanze, an enthusiastic biker, builds a radical hub-centre racer for the French oil company with atz750yamaha engine, known as the Elf X. It’s never raced, but the enthusiastic public response dictates a follow-up.
1981-83: Elf links with Honda to produce the Elfe endurance racer, designed by de Cortanze and powered by a Honda RSC 1000 four-stroke engine, and raced by top riders like Dave Aldana, Didier de Radiguès, Walter Villa and Christian Leliard to a series of impressive results. Among the ground-breaking features of this hub-centre design were the first use of carbon brakes in motorcycle racing and the single-sided rear swingarm design later christened the Pro-arm, and used by Honda on the RC30 and its many successors under licence.
1984: ELF switches to 500cc GP racing with another hub-centre de Cortanze design, the Elf2, powered by Honda’s NS500 two-stroke triple and equipped with a unique push-pull steering design. But this is hard to become accustomed to, and the bike does not prove to be a success.
1985: De Cortanze produces the Elf2a, with which Leliard makes Elf’s 500cc GP debut, using an ever greater number of car-derived design features. It isn’t a success either – André returns to the car world, later to become the chief engineer of the Ligier Formula 1 team.
1986: Elf gets pragmatic, without sacrificing original thought, and hires Serge Rosset to run their GP team, with de Cortanze’s former right-hand man Dantrema designing the Elf3, equipped with a special front end design called the VGC system. Ron Haslam takes it to ninth place in the 500cc World Championship, still powered by Honda’s now outdated three-cylinder engine.trema later becomes ‘le grand fromage’ of Elf sponsorship, in charge of the company’s entire motorsports activity.
1987: Honda agrees to supply Elf with its NSR500 four-cylinder engine, but this doesn’t turn up until after the start of the season, so thetrema-designed Elf4, broadly based on the Elf3, arrives late and is never properly developed.
1988: The Nsr500-engined Elf5 takes Haslam to 11th place in the World Championship and proves the fundamental worth of thetrema/rosset design module. Elf retires from direct involvement in racing at the end of the season...
1989-95: ...but still stays involved in GP racing as a trade sponsor, winning the 125cc world title with Loris Capirossi and the 500cc world crown with Mick Doohan, etc.
1996-97: ELF is back in business in 500GP racing – but shouldn’t they have called the Swissauto-engined, Roc-framed Elf 500 the Elf6?