Michael Scott: The Cardboard Box GP machine
How Suzuki went racing with a cardboard box
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.
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.”
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.”
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.