RID­ING THE THING

Classic Racer - - CLASSIC RACER IN DETAIL -

All of Swis­sauto’s hard work in smooth­ing out the power de­liv­ery of its V4 en­gine for solo use was pay­ing off when I got out on the bike in Brno in 1996. It wasn’t ex­actly a pussy­cat – no bike that pow­er­ful that car­ried full-time teleme­try just to beat the 130kg class weight limit could pos­si­bly be – but it cer­tainly wasn’t the vi­cious accident-wait­ing-to-hap­pen I’d been led to ex­pect. In terms of tran­si­tion into the strong power­band, the Elf was a lot more pro­gres­sive than the last 500 four I rode whose en­gine was de­rived from a Side­car ap­pli­ca­tion, the Fior 500 back in 1988. Funny – that was French, as well. Whereas per­suad­ing the Fior’s back wheel to hook up out of a turn when I rode it at Nog­aro was a two-wheeled form of Rus­sian roulette, the Elf was much more ride­able thanks to its elec­tron­i­cally-aided re­fine­ment.you just had to be sure you were ready for the strong rush of horse­power that was un­leashed when you twisted your wrist hard with the tacho nee­dle read­ing any­where over 10 grand. It was the sheer fact of hav­ing that much power avail­able that made the bike a lit­tle daunt­ing to ride – okay, a lot! – not the way it was de­liv­ered. The sim­i­lar sin­gle-crank NSR500 Honda was just as hard to ride, and while by then I hadn’t rid­den the RGV500 Suzuki for a cou­ple of years, judg­ing by the last time I’d done so that may have been harder still. In fact, the Elf re­minded me more of a worksyzr500yamaha. It didn’t rev as high as the Suzuki, but it had re­ally mas­sive torque and a sur­pris­ingly pow­er­ful midrange, with a rel­a­tively pro­gres­sive tran­si­tion into the strong power band from low down, re­flect­ing all the hard de­vel­op­ment Urs Wenger and his team had wrought on tam­ing the en­gine that year. More­over, on-track race com­par­isons with Borja aboard had shown the Elf to be ac­tu­ally faster at top speed than the fac­to­ryyama­has, and it was on terms with the best Hon­das. Some go­ing for a new bike. The Elf be­gan to make good power from just over 8000rpm, but it wasn’t un­til the ex­haust valve was fully open at just un­der 10,000 revs that it came on re­ally strong, so in terms of se­lect­ing ra­tios for the cas­sette-type gear­box it was pretty peaky, with just un­der 3000 revs of strong power. Okay, very Side­car-style – but it was the way Swis­sauto’s elec­tron­ics had ra­tio­nalised the ac­tual de­liv­ery of all that horse­power that made it pretty ride­able. Jet­ted slightly rich for a jour­nal­ist to ride, the de­liv­ery flat­tened out around the 12,500rpm power peak, but while there was nor­mally some over-rev avail­able, ap­par­ently it wasn’t ad­vis­able to use too much of this – es­pe­cially on the over­run – be­cause the crank­shaft didn’t like it, and this point was still work in progress on the en­gine when I rode it. While the in­no­va­tive en­gine de­sign’s ver­ti­cal crank­case split meant the crank could be changed in only an hour, the fact it had fewer main bear­ings than any­thing else on the GP grid meant crank life was only 1000km and some­times not even that. It was com­mon prac­tice for the Elf team to change cranks af­ter each day of qual­i­fy­ing, and the one on the test bike went soon af­ter my fi­nal ses­sion on it.this was the Achilles heel of the bike at that stage, not the way the power was de­liv­ered. The bike I was rid­ing was the same one Chris Walker had rid­den to 20th place in the Czech GP the day be­fore, af­ter scor­ing his first World Cham­pi­onship point for the team the pre­vi­ous weekend in the Aus­trian GP at the Salzbur­gring. Its en­gine was car­ry­ing a bal­ance shaft for the first time as a pre­lim­i­nary step to­wards the Big Bang mo­tor Swis­sauto then had un­der de­vel­op­ment.there was still a lit­tle vi­bra­tion through the footrests, though Chris said it was much smoother than be­fore. The en­gine was mounted in Si­lent­bloc rub­ber bushes, which ROC had made to con­tain the vi­bra­tion, al­though the rear pair out of the six mount­ing points could ap­par­ently also be rigid to give a ‘semi-float­ing’ en­gine po­si­tion, which ROC boss Serge Ros­set claimed worked bet­ter at re­duc­ing vibes.the new ver­sion of the mo­tor I was sam­pling had dif­fer­ent crankcases, so ROC had had to mod­ify the chas­sis to in­stall the smoother en­gine. Worth do­ing. I didn’t re­ally care for the gear­box’s shift ac­tion – it had a heavy, me­chan­i­cal-feel to it and lacked the pre­ci­sion I ex­pected.the 500 Ca­giva’s gearshift felt sim­i­larly harsh each time I rode it, but at least it had a speed-shifter that helped counter this.the Elf 500 didn’t have one yet – I told Ros­set this should be a pri­or­ity and would surely drop lap times when it ar­rived. Guess what – it did! The bot­tom line af­ter rid­ing the Elf 500 to­wards the end of its first sea­son of com­pe­ti­tion was that it was a project with a gen­uine po­ten­tial fu­ture that was al­ready re­pay­ing the hard work put into it.thanks to the sup­port of the French oil com­pany, the valu­able Euro-di­men­sion had been re­stored to 500GP grids, bring­ing a tech­ni­cal breath of fresh air with it.this wasn’t an ex­er­cise in al­ter­na­tive tech­nol­ogy for the sake of be­ing dif­fer­ent, but a gen­uine contender for GP rac­ing’s top hon­ours that was in the process of grow­ing up so it could go play with the older kids.to have achieved so much al­ready in the bike’s de­vel­op­ment sea­son must have been very re­ward­ing for the Elf team. My Brno ride on their new 500 four showed they had a gen­uine contender on the grid.

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