RIDING THE THING
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.