As­par’s bikes

It’s the ultimate mo­tor­cy­cle trivia ques­tion – go on, have a go: Which rider was the last to win two Grand Prix road racing World Cham­pi­onships in the same sea­son? Did you say Fred­die Spencer, with his dou­ble-up 250/500GP ti­tles for Honda in 1985? Wrong..

Classic Racer - - WHAT’S INSIDE -

It was the 80cc and 125cc machines that con­tin­u­ously gave us the clos­est GP racing of the 1980s and here’s the in­side-out tale of two of the very best of them and what they did in the same sea­son of shoul­der-to-shoul­der ac­tion.

Con­sult the mo­tor­cy­cling his­tory books and you’ll find the an­swer to the ques­tion: exactly 30 years ago this year, Span­ish star Jorge Martinez ‘As­par’ (a nick­name given to him thanks to his dad’s job as a cob­bler) won both the 1988 80cc world crown for the third time, (to com­plete a hat-trick of ti­tles on his Barcelona-built Derbi tid­dler), as well as the first-ever 125cc world cham­pi­onship to be re­stricted to sin­gle-cylin­der machines, for the same mar­que. As­par’s 1988 dou­ble-up ti­tle year was a vin­tage sea­son for team un­der­dog, be­cause in win­ning the in­au­gu­ral sin­gle-cylin­der 125cc world cham­pi­onship with las balas ro­jas – the red bul­lets – he and Derbi not only tweaked Ja­panese gi­ant Honda’s nose, but also showed that the age of the Euro­pean fac­tory in GP racing was far from over, as com­monly sup­posed. As­par, the reign­ing 80cc world cham­pion, gave the new 125cc Derbi a tri­umphant de­but on home ground at Jarama in spite of a bro­ken ex­haust, then went on to win nine of the 11 GP races held that year to clinch the ti­tle one round early, with just a sin­gle DNF at a drenched Nür­bur­gring. He had a good ex­cuse for that though – hav­ing just spent 40 min­utes splash­ing to vic­tory in the 80cc race, he’d then been whisked di­rectly from parc fermé to the front row of the grid for the 125cc race with­out even the chance to change into a dry set of leathers, let alone at­tend the ros­trum pre­sen­ta­tion. Hardly sur­pris­ing that he was still so wet and cold from his first race vic­tory that he crashed on the third lap of the 125 race, his only mis­take of the year...

The ex­quis­ite 80

Born 1984, died 1989 – rest in peace. The demise of Grand Prix racing’s 80cc class came at the end of the 1989 sea­son, at the bid­ding of the IRTA race team car­tel which had para­dox­i­cally (since the 80cc teams it was try­ing to get rid of were its mem­bers, too!) been try­ing for many years to re­duce the num­ber of Grand Prix classes. How­ever de­ter­mined the rear­guard ac­tion fought by the 80cc pres­sure group, the net re­sult was the end of the then ‘tid­dler’ class at GP level, but it de­liv­ered some great racing over the six short sea­sons of its ex­is­tence. Af­ter kick­ing off in 1984 as a re­place­ment for the 50cc cat­e­gory, the for­tunes of the once-dominant Ger­man Krausers waned in di­rect pro­por­tion to the rise of the all­con­quer­ing Span­ish Derbi team. 1986/88 saw an of­ten ti­tanic strug­gle be­tween the two, which was no less vivid or ex­cit­ing than that be­tween Honda and Yamaha in the big­ger classes. A com­bi­na­tion of the upper hand that Derbi and their star rider, Jorge Martinez ‘As­par’ seemed to have gained by the end of 1987 and the in­tro­duc­tion of the new sin­gle-cylin­der 125cc class, seemed to in­di­cate that the last two years of 80cc GP racing would be a Derbi walkover and a cou­ple of easy ti­tles for As­par. Just to show you shouldn’t take things for granted though, the open­ing race of the 1988 GP sea­son saw a shock de­feat for Derbi in front of their home crowd at Jarama when Swiss for­mer cham­pion Ste­fan Dör­flinger brought his Krauser through from a ter­ri­ble start to pick off the en­tire Derbi fac­tory team. He won eas­ily from As­par, whose bike had been jet­ted much too rich in an ef­fort to over­come a seizure prob­lem in prac­tice. At least As­par made up for it by win­ning the 125GP later that day, im­plic­itly thus re­veal­ing a likely rea­son for the 80cc bike’s ini­tial fail­ure. Derbi had poured all its ef­forts into de­vel­op­ing a 125cc Honda-beater, at the ex­pense of the 80cc bike, which was lit­tle changed from the pre­vi­ous ti­tle-win­ning sea­son. How­ever, Derbi had the re­sources to re­act quickly, and by the next GP a week later in Jerez, the prob­lem was sorted. As­par slayed the Krausers that day, go­ing on to win ev­ery other round in the seven-race se­ries, to pro­claim him­self world cham­pion for the third year in suc­ces­sion. In the his­tory books record­ing the pass­ing of de­funct cat­e­gories at world cham­pi­onship level, the Derbi oc­cu­pies the throne as the ultimate 80cc bike, just as the Van Veen Krei­dlers were in the 50cc cat­e­gory, the tan­dem-twin Kawasaki in the old 350cc class, and the TZ750 Yamaha in the long-gone era of F750 racing. Gone but not for­got­ten.

Rid­ing the bikes – The 125

I dis­cov­ered how com­pact even the big­ger bike of the duo was when I lev­ered my­self aboard As­par’s 125cc world cham­pion mo­tor­cy­cle at Jarama. Lev­ered, be­cause he’s about six inches shorter than me, and the Derbi’s wind tun­nelde­signed body­work didn’t al­low mov­ing the seat back to give me more space. This was a bike moulded to the rider, and vice versa. The prob­lem was com­pounded on the first of the two bikes I rode by a deeper, more volup­tuous screen which didn’t give me room to get tucked away be­hind it, and the steeply­dropped bars with which As­par cheated the wind while still re­tain­ing con­trol. The rid­ing po­si­tion was quite extreme, even by 125GP stan­dards, and closely de­rived from Derbi’s 80cc racer on which this bike was so closely based. You sat in a semi-re­clin­ing po­si­tion lean­ing for­wards, with your feet a long way back, your body moulded to the tank, and most of your weight thrown on to the steeply-dropped bars via your wrists. “I do find this tir­ing, but I use the fuel tank to rest my chest on down a straight to take the weight off my arms,” said As­par. “But the 80cc bike has a very sim­i­lar rid­ing po­si­tion, and this was im­por­tant for me to be able to switch from one to the other with­out many prob­lems of ad­just­ment, as I con­stantly had to do in both train­ing and on race day.” The Derbi’s setup helped re­duce the frontal as­pect, in turn im­prov­ing air pen­e­tra­tion, but also had the de­sir­able ef­fect as As­par saw it of load­ing the front wheel as much as pos­si­ble to in­crease the al­ready high 55/45% front­wards weight bias even more, with the rider in place. Un­like the later April­ias, the Derbi had no power valve to smooth out the de­liv­ery and in­crease bot­tom end torque, which dic­tated an ul­tra-del­i­cate touch to ride the bike ef­fec­tively. The Derbi wouldn’t even move for­ward in pit lane till I wound the ta­cho nee­dle up to at least eight grand, and a lot of clutch slip was needed to get it off the mark – much more so than was al­ready usual then. There was none of the flex­i­bil­ity we later took for granted on reed-valvers like the Mx-de­rived Honda RS125R, so I needed to make the clutch my new best friend to keep the Derbi en­gine on the boil in the slower turns abound­ing at Jarama. This in turn made gear­box se­lec­tion crit­i­cal in races – mak­ing it seem­ingly all the more sur­pris­ing the Derbi didn’t have an ex­tractable cas­sette-type gear­box by then com­mon­place in GP racing, so the en­gine had to be split to al­ter the in­ter­nal gear ra­tios, and thus en­sure the right gear for each cor­ner at ev­ery track. How­ever, all these ro­tary-valve idio­syn­cra­sies were noth­ing com­pared to the big­gest sin­gle prob­lem I faced in rid­ing the 125 Derbi – the fact that, with that big carb and those extreme port tim­ings, you had to preload the throt­tle go­ing into turns, ac­cel­er­at­ing into them like in a racing car. This took a lot of get­ting used to: you couldn’t just tear up to a cor­ner, stand on the brakes, zip down three gears with the throt­tle closed and the clutch home, then crack it wide open

again on the way out, as was nor­mal prac­tice with a reed-valve two-stroke. With the Derbi, you had to prime the throt­tle to keep it partly open and the en­gine un­der load all the time, even on the way into a turn af­ter brak­ing hard for the en­try, then open it up grad­u­ally as you hit the apex un­til you had about half-throt­tle, and could then wind it wide open with­out the en­gine stut­ter­ing. This ac­counted for As­par’s very un­usual tech­nique by two-stroke GP stan­dards of back­shift­ing down through the gears one at a time, four-stroke style. It also ex­plained the very big brakes for such a light bike – twin 250mm front Brem­bos and a sin­gle 200mm rear, with a very pow­er­ful lever ac­tion that gave to­tal brak­ing ef­fect in­stantly with the light­est touch. That’s okay in the dry with the crossply Miche­lin slicks then fit­ted, but in the wet – well, it’s maybe an­other rea­son for that crash in Ger­many. As­par told me he’d never yet locked the front wheel, but cor­rect pad choice would make him one of the must-watch ex­po­nents of late-1980s tid­dler racing as he left his brak­ing death-de­fy­ingly late into cor­ners, slid­ing deep into the apex with both tyres drift­ing, the throt­tle al­ready open to keep the en­gine on the boil for the drive out, the WP up­side down forks (which Derbi were the first to use in GP racing) soak­ing up the bumps and rip­ples as his knee skimmed the tar­mac, all the while keep­ing a watch­ful eye open. What a star. Af­ter 15 laps of Jarama, try­ing in vain to com­pose a sin­gle lap with­out any ma­jor mis­take like let­ting the en­gine bog down ex­it­ing a slow uphill turn, or com­pletely mess­ing up my throt­tle-preload tech­nique into it, I came in and swapped to As­par’s sec­ond bike – the Derbi team had a to­tal of five 125GP engines and three chas­sis. Within half a lap, I wished l’d started out on this one – it felt so com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Apart from hav­ing even fiercer brakes, it had a shal­lower screen which at last al­lowed me to get more or less tucked away down the straight, but more to the point com­pletely dif­fer­ent en­gine char­ac­ter­is­tics, thanks to an al­ter­na­tive Tom­bas-ported cylin­der. The bike I’d started with had the most pow­er­ful 40bhp en­gine, but only at the ex­pense of a nar­rower power­band. While 3bhp less pow­er­ful, this one was not only jet­ted right so that it revved cleanly to 13,000rpm but also pulled hard from 10,200 revs, which cou­pled with a smoother-shift­ing one-up right foot gear change (As­par was a tra­di­tion­al­ist!), sud­denly made ev­ery­thing so much eas­ier. Plus I had my throt­tle-preload tech­nique bet­ter sorted... Ul­ti­mately the fac­tor which As­par owed his against-the-odds 125GP world crown to was that su­perb ro­tary-valve mo­tor, re­li­able as well as the most pow­er­ful in the class. As a sin­gle with­out any power-sap­ping coun­ter­bal­ancer, there was a fair bit of vi­bra­tion which you no­ticed more through the footrests and seat than the ‘bars, but it wasn’t un­com­fort­able and didn’t in­crease rider fa­tigue. It was, though, un­doubt­edly po­tent, and on the sec­ond bike with more torque on tap, I even­tu­ally man­aged to pluck up the nerve to take the Rampa Pe­gaso hard on in fourth gear with­out lift­ing – then found my­self hav­ing to cope with a mi­nor but still def­i­nite wheelie as I hit the bump on the crest, which on a 125 sin­gle with my body weight on board and so much of it in­evitably over the front wheel, was pretty in­cred­i­ble....

Group shot: As­par the great and the team that gave him two in one.these days even BSB teams have big­ger squads than the Derbi set-up in the 1980s. But when push came to shove no­body could hold a light to the men or their machines.Right: At the end of the race, a fa­mil­iar sight. And an un­wel­come one if you were one of As­par's ri­vals.

Small enough to fit in a back­pack, pow­er­ful enough to beat the rest of the world.

Hel­met on tank looks cool. Name on the screen isn’t cob­blers. It’s As­par, of course.

No com­puter-con­trolled fuel in­jec­tion here. Per­fectly set­ting up a carb was al­ways a dark art.

The 125 shares many vis­ual sim­i­lar­i­ties with the 80, as you may ex­pect.

Make do and mend. And mend. And mend.there’s some miles on that mo­tor and it’s still go­ing strong.

The au­thor squeezes him­self onto the small Derbi to dis­cover just how tal­ented As­par was at tuck­ing him­self away.

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