Michael Scott: The Card­board Box GP ma­chine

How Suzuki went rac­ing with a card­board box

Classic Racer - - WHAT’S INSIDE - Words: Michael Scott Pho­to­graphs: Don Mor­ley

Clas­sic Racer brought you the fine in-de­tail pho­to­graphs of the TSR Heron Suzuki in the last is­sue and now it’s time to tell the story of this mo­tor­cy­cle that passed through more fa­mous rac­ers’hands than you may be aware of. Great story.

Ithink it might have been me who called it ‘the card­board box’, and the name stuck. Be­cause that is what the chas­sis most re­sem­bled – a sharp-cor­nered struc­ture of folded planes, in a sand­wich ma­te­rial. The sheets en­closed alu­minium hon­ey­comb rather than cor­ru­gated pa­per, but the prin­ci­pal was the same: strength by in­ter­nal re­in­force­ment, stiff­ness with­out weight. Like a card­board box. It rep­re­sented a con­flu­ence of in­spi­ra­tion and des­per­a­tion. Suzuki had un­ex­pect­edly pulled out of GP rac­ing, one year af­ter Honda’s new two-stroke had ended their now ven­er­a­ble square-four RG500 en­gine’s six-year dom­i­na­tion of the con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship. With rider Randy Mamola snapped up by Honda, it left his (and Barry Sheene’s) old Heron Suzuki team with noth­ing much to do. Sev­eral peo­ple were cru­cial to what hap­pened next. Rid­ers of course: it would launch the GP ca­reers of Rob Mcel­nea and Niall Macken­zie. For Aus­tralian Paul Lewis it was a dif­fer­ent kind of launch pad. For Heron Suzuki di­rec­tor Dennis Ro­han, it was a test of char­ac­ter and will, as he strove to con­vince the un­in­ter­ested chair­man and di­rec­tors that rac­ing was a worth­while way of spend­ing money. For team man­ager Mar­tyn Og­borne it was an in­spir­ing project and nowa­days part of a col­lec­tion of unique rac­ing mem­o­ra­bilia; for his suc­ces­sor Garry Tay­lor it was the start of a ca­reer that led to the fac­tory team, and 500-class ti­tle wins with Kevin Sch­wantz and Kenny Roberts Jr. But for its de­signer Nigel Leaper, it was just a step along the way: a bril­liant brain­child that was a step­ping stone to a ca­reer in For­mula 1 with Mclaren and Fer­rari; to Aston Martin and Jaguar,

The stiff­ness co­nun­drum

Back in the mid-1980s, chas­sis stiff­ness was the holy grail. The prin­ci­ple was to made the struc­ture as rigid as pos­si­ble, so that the sus­pen­sion could do its work pre­cisely. More than 30 years later, the goal posts have moved. Con­trolled flex is the epi­cen­tre of rac­ing chas­sis de­sign, while the car­bon-fi­bre-framed Du­cati of 2009-11 was fa­mously un­suc­cess­ful, es­pe­cially in the hands of Valentino Rossi, be­cause it was thought too stiff. The ex­pla­na­tion is that at high an­gles of lean, bumps are act­ing out of line with the sus­pen­sion, so the chas­sis must ab­sorb them. But the sim­plic­ity of this hides a world of com­plex­ity. So what has changed? Leaper has no in­stant ex­pla­na­tion. “I don’t know. I’m not in there do­ing it, but it didn’t ap­pear to be like that when I was there. “Lean an­gles are very def­i­nitely greater from 1984 to now. They are go­ing up to 60 de­grees … we were do­ing 45 or 50 de­grees. They are pulling way more Gs. It’ll be tyres mainly, but you have to have a bike that can cope with it. “My feel­ing would be still ve­hi­cle dy­nam­ics: roll mo­ment of in­er­tia [es­sen­tially the way the weight is dis­trib­uted com­pared with the axis of the cen­tre of grav­ity], and the height of the COG.” Re­duc­ing the roll mo­ment would help a lean­ing bike tra­verse bumps bet­ter. “I would have thought the dis­tri­bu­tion of mass had a big­ger ef­fect than lat­eral flex, which leads you to bikes more or less as they are. They are rel­a­tively high now, com­pared with the 1980 bikes, when you built them rel­a­tively low. “What I was do­ing with that last one I made was like the mass cen­tral­i­sa­tion they talk about now.” But trust a rider for a simpler view. Rob Mac: “I guess it must be about horse­power and grip. It was as stiff as you could get it, and as planted to the floor as you could get it, then you just delt with the chat­ter­ing and rode it. “Nowa­days they have so much tech­nol­ogy, and so much power and grip. I re­mem­ber Foggy at the TT. and the fac­tory sent a fac­tory su­per­bike over. And it was re­ally stiff. Lovely Su­per­bike, but hor­ri­ble round the Isle of Man. We ended up fly­ing some stan­dard forks in, putting it back more like a stan­dard bike, and he got it work­ing. “A stiff bike works some­where, but when you had 130 horse­power like you had then, you just needed to be on rails. Like an over­grown 250, re­ally.” and nowa­days to his own pi­o­neer­ing work with so­lar-pow­ered ve­hi­cles. Ro­han loved rac­ing. He’d ear­lier per­suaded Barry Sheene to re­join the Heron Suzuki team for his fi­nal years. Garry Tay­lor said: “When the fac­tory baled out, that left us with some quite tal­ented peo­ple with­out much to do. But the critical per­son at that point was Dennis, who had enough power to push the project through, and get co­op­er­a­tion from the fac­tory with en­gine bits and stuff like that. He took a lot of flack. Over the years he’s kind of been for­got­ten. We were puff­ing our chests out, but if he hadn’t found the re­sources from in­side Heron it wouldn’t have hap­pened.” He did have an in­ter­est­ing project to sell – thanks to the ar­rival of de­signer Nigel Leaper, fresh from a short-lived rac­ing project with Wad­don. Hav­ing started out with Tony Foale, he adapted the lat­ter’s large sin­gle-tube spine frame to a Ro­tax 250 en­gine. Croy­don-based Wad­don made pro­duc­tion rac­ers and fielded its own team. “We won the TT and the North-west 200,” re­called Leaper. Then Wad­don pulled out. At the same time, a rev­o­lu­tion in sand­wich-board ma­te­ri­als – with plain sheets bonded to (end-on) alu­minium hon­ey­comb – along with the devel­op­ment of car­bon fi­bre had al­ready started to move from avi­a­tion into rac­ing car engi­neer­ing. Light, strong, and amenable to be­ing glued to­gether, M-board (as the all-alu­minium ver­sion was called) was in­creas­ingly be­ing used for chas­sis floor-pans and other com­po­nents. Nor was it just flat. By rout­ing out a groove of pre-de­ter­mined width and cross-sec­tion, the board could be folded and bonded to var­i­ous an­gles, to make box-like struc­tures in a va­ri­ety of shapes. Leaper’s own in­spi­ra­tion, he re­called, came from “a sin­gle sen­tence in a book, Tune to Win by Car­roll Smith. He said that car­bon fi­bre was just be­gin­ning to be used in car rac­ing, just for simple things like body­work and wings, but one day some clever per­son will use it for struc­tural parts. I read that, and thought: ‘Okay, I’ll do that then’.” The tim­ing was right. The British sub­sidiary of Swiss chem­i­cal com­pany Ciba Geigy led the field, sup­ply­ing sand­wich board most no­tably (in car­bon form) for Con­corde; and they were look­ing for fresh ap­pli­ca­tions. Says Leaper: “They were very good. They took me un­der their wing, and I worked in Cam­bridge, where their main fac­tory was, for weeks on end. They took me through all the manufactur­ing pro­cesses. CibaGeigy had the tech­nol­ogy to CNC (Com­puter Numeric Con­trol) rout the stuff, and back in the 1980s that was fairly novel. Now it is noth­ing.” Ciba-geigy in­tro­duced Leaper to a rac­ing-car con­struc­tor, TC Prototypes,al­ready us­ing the cu­tand-fold tech­nique. This was the nu­cleus of Suzuki’s card­board box. “We de­cided not to go straight into car­bon fi­bre, but to make an alu­minium one first. To get up to speed.” The bike was get­ting ready for the 1984 sea­son, with a few false starts. Tay­lor: “I re­mem­ber we were all sexed up and ready for a test at Good­wood. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid with my dad … it was a big deal. “We got all the way down there in our Tran­sit, started the bike up, got half a lap be­fore it broke. And af­ter about an hour of mess­ing about, some­body said: ‘Did any­body ac­tu­ally put any oil in the fuel?’ “That was a de­flat­ing mo­ment.” Trevor Na­tion and Stu Avant took on test­ing

du­ties, while up-and-com­ing Rob Mcel­nea (who would win the Se­nior TT that year) was signed up for the GP sea­son. “I re­mem­ber to this day, we were fly­ing some­where with Nigel Leaper, and he said he was go­ing to build me this bike, and they were go­ing to put it to­gether with glue. And I went: ‘Foook’. So he ex­plained how they put aero­planes to­gether with glue, but be­ing a thick steel erec­tor from Scun­thorpe I wasn’t too im­pressed. “But they were re­ally good guys, and I re­ally trusted them: Nigel and Steve Moore, Mar­tyn Og­borne and Mike Sin­clair, a gang of re­ally clever guys, do­ing it for not a lot. We used to turn up in the car­a­van, and I used to make the sand­wiches ev­ery week­end, do all the cook­ing.” The bike was unique. Apart from the chas­sis con­struc­tion, dur­ing that sea­son, work­ing with White Power, the team were the first to use the soon uni­ver­sal so-called upside-down forks, an­other idea that came from air­craft. WP were al­ready us­ing them off-road. A less pre­scient and suc­cess­ful ex­per­i­ment was a rim-mounted sin­gle disc brake, with ter­ri­fy­ing lag fol­lowed by fork-twist­ing power.

Spe­cial

But the over­all pack­age was spe­cial, in spite of the rel­a­tive lack of horse­power, some 20 short of the 150 of the new-gen­er­a­tion Honda and Yamaha V4s. “If you’ve got no power, you can ride the wheels off things,” said Mcel­nea. The chas­sis al­lowed such lib­er­ties. “It felt amaz­ing … re­ally stiff.” The team missed the open­ing round in South Africa, and with points only for the top 10 in those days, Mcel­nea just missed out in Italy, af­ter qual­i­fy­ing eighth. But the bike was good enough to pose a se­ri­ous threat to the fac­tory hege­mony: twice fifth (Aus­tria and Swe­den), with two other top-10s, and a front-row start at the Nur­bur­gring, spoiled by a crash in the race. Leaper re­calls mak­ing two ver­sions of that bike, dubbed ‘the white bike’, be­cause all were painted that way, ac­cord­ing to Og­borne, “be­cause it made them look smaller.” For 1985, the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion was ready – the real thing. The chas­sis was black, made in car­bon-fi­bre … fol­low­ing sev­eral ex­per­i­ments to de­ter­mine the right com­bi­na­tions of ma­te­rial. Sand­wich board had evolved. The start­ing point had been (fire-re­sis­tant) Nomex hon­ey­comb faced with glass fi­bre, at first for air­craft floor­ing, and then (cut and folded) for gal­ley trol­leys and seats, ex­plains Leaper. “Then Con­corde came along, and Ciba-geigy made car­bon-faced Nomex hon­ey­comb, called Fi­breLam 2000. But the car­bon faces were so brit­tle that women with stiletto heels would go through the floor­boards. So they dis­con­tin­ued it.” A Suzuki chas­sis was made with the same ma­te­rial. “We didn’t have fi­nite-el­e­ment anal­y­sis in those days, so we would build, and then test and mea­sure. That one was still­born, be­cause when we tested it with­out even run­ning it we de­cided it was un­der-stiff. “One rea­son is that when you cut and fold car­bon, you are forced into us­ing as thin walls as you can just to be able to bend it. In or­der to get round that we made an in­ter­me­di­ate bike, with an alu­minium skin with a car­bon outer skin. And that worked.” Ciba-geigy were cus­tom-mak­ing board now for Suzuki, in sheets 8ft by 4ft. You could get two chas­sis out of each board, re­called Og­borne, and Leaper con­firmed that it was rel­a­tively cheap, “hun­dreds rather than thou­sands of pounds”. The car­bon chas­sis was more el­e­gant, be­cause an evo­lu­tion of the process along with care­ful choice of ma­te­rial al­lowed com­pound curves rather than the sharp straight edges of the white bikes. “The rea­son you could bend the car­bon was I de­signed it with high-strength low-mod­u­lus fi­bres on the outer skin, which were the ones that flexed, and on the in­side were high­mod­u­lus and high-tem­per­a­ture as well, be­cause they would be see­ing the high ex­haust and en­gine tem­per­a­tures. Those inner skins were a lot thicker, be­cause they didn’t have to bend. “You’d start off with a flat board, vac­uum it down onto the CNC bench, and it was all pre-pro­grammed – press a but­ton and af­ter an hour or an hour-and-a-half you’d get a bike ready to fold.”

Im­prove­ment

Mcel­nea was again the rider, and noted an im­prove­ment in per­for­mance as well as ap­pear­ance and pack­ag­ing. “It was the next step, the next level. I don’t know if it had more flex, but it felt more plush, and more planted. But we were giv­ing away a fair few horse­power, and I was a fairly large chap … three stone heav­ier than any­body else. I didn’t cut through the wind as well as them boys. They used to like to get be­hind me to get a good draft. In Aus­tria I was re­ally quick through the part by the start-fin­ish, so they’d get be­hind me there, and get be­hind me up the hill. Ed­die got pole af­ter he’d slip­streamed me up the hill. Gave me a big high five. “I think I led the first cor­ner at Mugello on that one. Got to the first cor­ner be­fore Fred­die. Then it all went back­wards.” He still fin­ished ninth, one of six top-10 fi­fifin­ishes out of 12 races, with a best of fifth in Aus­tria. By then the pre­vi­ous XR40 en­gine had been re­placed with the slightly more pow­er­ful XR45, but the re­sults came from cor­ner­ing and brak­ing per­for­mance rather than speed. Rob Mac’s performanc­es “put me on the map. I had a big-money of­fer from Ca­giva, and an of­fer to ride the fac­tory Yamaha for Agos­tini for peanuts, so I took that one.”

Now spon­sored by Skoal Ban­dits, the bike needed a rider. They re­cruited Aus­tralian Paul ‘Loopy’ Lewis, a small man with huge glasses. Lewis was fast and very dar­ing, but prone to spec­tac­u­lar crashes. This at least proved the strength of the chas­sis. “If Paul couldn’t break it, nobody could,” joked Tay­lor. “He had some real pearlers, and if there was more than a scratch here or there the peo­ple in the crew were re­ally sur­prised.” As Wayne Gard­ner and Ed­die Law­son traded blows on the faster V4s, Heron Suzuki’s re­sults suf­fered, with a ninth and a cou­ple of tenth places. At the same time, an­other British car­bon-fi­bre frame was mak­ing waves in the 250 class – the moulded Armstrong, rid­den by Niall Macken­zie and Don­nie Macleod. For the last three GPS of 1986, Macken­zie was signed up to ride the Suzuki in the 500 races, as well as his 250 du­ties. Macken­zie: “The Armstrong was no­tice­ably stiff com­pared with other 250 GP bikes I had rid­den. We def­i­nitely had a lot of chat­ter prob­lems where the other man­u­fac­tur­ers didn’t. I was very in­ex­pe­ri­enced and so was the Armstrong team, but I guess it was down to the stiff­ness, though the light weight made up for some of the prob­lems. “Get­ting onto the Suzuki, it didn’t feel over­s­tiff, or chat­ter. It felt very rid­able. I rode at three com­pletely dif­fer­ent tracks: Sil­ver­stone, An­der­storp and Misano, and it worked re­ally well, com­fort­ably in the top seven or eight each prac­tice. “I think they’d built a re­ally good bike, still quite com­pet­i­tive com­pared with the Honda and Yamaha V4s even though it didn’t have the top speed. It was cer­tainly nice to ride. I qual­i­fied third at Misano, against the best fac­tory bikes. Ev­ery­one thought be­cause I was go­ing so quickly that I was about to have the big­gest crash ever, but the bike felt su­per­planted all week­end. “I re­ally rode it like a big 250. It felt like a big arm­chair. I found it re­ally easy. The RG500 was a nice en­gine, so I guess that was what made it most easy. It lacked top speed but in terms of stop­ping, turn­ing, han­dling, it was a match for any­thing at the time. Maybe my lack of ex­pe­ri­ence and a lit­tle lack of horse­power were its only dis­ad­van­tage.”

Im­pres­sive

Niall’s re­sults were im­pres­sive: sev­enth at Sil­ver­stone, where he was also tenth in the 250 race, and eighth at Misano af­ter his front-row start. For 1987, Suzuki had an­nounced they were re­turn­ing with a V4, and hopes were high for the British squad, and Leaper de­signed and built a sand­wich-board chas­sis for the com­pact new en­gine. This was an­other step for­ward in com­pound-curve so­phis­ti­ca­tion, in­cor­po­rat­ing other lessons learned. One dif­fer­ence was use of a much thicker board. Leaper: “The white bike was 25mm thick; the car­bon bike 20mm – but for the V4 we used 40mm board. But it wasn’t bulky: the en­gine was tiny.” Over­all, the de­sign had been a great suc­cess. Leaper: “I’d say the weak­ness was air­flow, in­side to out. That was its ma­jor down­fall. Also the ad­he­sives in those days – there were only a cou­ple avail­able – were too low-tem­per­a­ture. “Noth­ing ever broke, be­cause all of the bosses were de­signed in such a way that even if there was no glue they held the sand­wich struc­ture to­gether. I think we had one is­sue at the tail-end of run­ning the square four at Snet­ter­ton where Paul Lewis was say­ing some­thing was loose. We couldn’t find any­thing, then after­wards we found that where the ex­haust pipes ran straight past the rocker pivot, and the rocker piv­ots were loose, but they weren’t de­tached. That was be­cause at high­tem­per­a­ture the ad­he­sives had be­come brit­tle. Nowa­days there are a mul­ti­tude of things that would work.” But the V4 card­board box would never turn a wheel. Leaper built a cou­ple of chas­sis, one for the fac­tory, but “they didn’t do any­thing with it.” The tech­nique just didn’t match any­thing that Suzuki was do­ing. “I don’t think it lends it­self to mass pro­duc­tion. They weren’t go­ing to be able to make it in any quan­tity.” Was Leaper miffed? Not a bit. The project informed a forth­com­ing highly suc­cess­ful ca­reer. “I’d al­ways wanted to be a car de­signer, not a mo­tor­cy­cle de­signer. So I then went and worked for Ma­claren.” He worked in F1 for 30 years, in Mclaren, Re­nault and Fer­rari, with one high­light be­ing hands-on in the Ma­claren in which Ayr­ton Senna won the ti­tle. And the card­board boxes be­came mu­seum pieces, in the way of old rac­ing ma­chines.

Paul Lewis – aka The An­gry Ant – mus­cles the C-G com­pos­ite over at the 1986 Span­ish GP. Mag­nif­i­cent.

Kevin Sch­wantz gets ‘kinda squir­relly’ on the C-G com­pos­ite framed 500 (note the green wheels) at the Bel­gian GP in 1986.

Paul Lewis – aka Loopy Lewis – sans hel­met but avec specs and long hair. 1986.

Rob Mcel­nea leaves pit lane for his last ride on the Ciba Geigy Suzuki in the 1985 Swan Series, Aus­tralia.

Sch­wants leads Ed­die Law­son at Assen in 1986.

...just need a minute to get back in the seat. Sch­wantz on the C-G, Bel­gium 1986.

Big ol' high­side kind of saved...

...1984. A time of polyester and hats. And com­pos­ite chas­sis.

That's the tiny, tiny 500 slot­ted in there...

Mcel­nea hus­tles the C-G on French soil in the GP. It's 1985.

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