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Ola Lennström (Öhlins) - Q&A

“Electronic adjustment and active suspension was allowed in 2009 when we won the WSBK championship with Ben Spies but now it isn't allowed any more”
An interview with Ola Lennström from Ohlins, the dominant suspension brand in both MotoGP and WSBK competition...
Why is Öhlins involved in racing, passion, marketing or profit?

Ola Lennström:
You could say all three but first and foremost we're a business and therefore we're in racing to make a profit.

Ever since Öhlins started in motocross we've had a policy of never giving away products for free or sponsoring. Instead of that we try to offer the best possible product and it's our customer's winning which encourages people to use our suspension. In that way it's a pure business case.

If you look at a motorbike, you won't find us on the fairing because people buy our suspension and expertise, we don't give it away for publicity. Our product has to be so good that it's worth buying by top teams.

Having said that though there's huge enthusiasm in the company for racing and it's in our DNA. Our success in racing is more than just an opportunity to make a profit, it gives us credibility.
What makes more profit, racing or selling suspension to the general market?

Ola Lennström:
The racing side is only one small part of what Öhlins does but it is a very important part. What we get and learn from racing we can incorporate into our street products. It also means that when you're using Öhlins for track days or national racing you're using something which comes directly from our experience there.

If you look at the company as a whole, supplying aftermarket and OEM suspension is a bigger part of the company's profits. The same goes for the car side where we supply both as OEM, for aftermarket and for racing.
Weren't you owned by Yamaha until recently?

Ola Lennström:
Yes, we were but in 2007 Kenth [Öhlin – founder] bought the company back from them and we're now a fully private company owned by him. They owned part of us for about 15 or 20 years. We still have a very good relationship with them and they're a very good long-standing customer but we're not a Yamaha company.
Is the racing department autonomous within Öhlins or is it just a sub set of the personnel?

Ola Lennström:
It's actually a part of our R&D department and that in turn is part of engineering.

As regards personnel, people at Öhlins tend to stay in their roles for many years and that's the same for the racing department. It's more that that side of things has grown as we've got more customers and we've had to bring in more engineers and technicians.

As a general rule of thumb the guys in that department tend to be very much into racing and tend to own bikes, go on track days and go car racing and that comes back to the general passion for racing, bikes and cars in the company. Many people in the racing department work with bikes or cars in their spare time.
Which manufacturers do you see as your main competition?

Ola Lennström:
Any OEM manufacturer because some of that equipment is good so that's competition in itself. . Then it's all the suspension brands involved in racing. It can differ a lot from market to market and from championship to championship.

We're fortunate though in that we have a very dominant position in GP and World Superbike racing.
If I'm a racing team and come to Öhlins for my suspension, what do I actually get?

Ola Lennström:
It just depends on your budget really. The first thing is the hardware and that would include the rear shock, the steering damper and the front fork or the cartridge kit where that's allowed (just the internals of the fork).

It's in that hardware that you get the Öhlins technology and development. That includes the choice of material, the shock internals such as valves etc and also the internal settings.

Then you would also get our expertise and again the relationship with Öhlins technicians would vary. In GP teams you often have an Öhlins employed suspension technician working in the team or in the big factory teams there could even be one technician per rider.

They would tend to work with the same rider for many years. That relationship is very important and the suspension technician will become familiar with the rider's style and also how they give feedback and that means that you can reach a good setting quicker.

Another thing is that the guys in the racing department have been working in that environment for many, many years so will have a huge amount of experience of what would and wouldn't work in any number of environments.

We also have a large amount of test data from our road and race tests on top of the data that we've got from racing and that is developed into various set up programs that we can use or offer to our customers. It's those set up programs that our technicians use when they work with the teams. You can simulate various conditions for the suspension and shock absorber.
So a fair amount of your customer's success comes from taking advantage of Öhlins experience and expertise.

Ola Lennström:
That's right. It's not just that we supply a good shock absorber and fork, it's the expertise that comes with that.

Also at each GP race we'll have two Öhlins semi trailers staffed by us where you can service, build or rebuild a shock. We'll have all the equipment there and can pretty much deal with any situation.
What difference would there be in hardware between what Samsung Honda got from you in BSB and what Repsol Honda gets in MotoGP?

Ola Lennström:
Firstly there are some different technologies because MotoGP is a prototype series. In BSB we were using our TTX technology and that's an advanced racing shock that in various configurations can be and is used on road bikes too. In MotoGP we use our TTX with a rod solid piston and that shock could be used in BSB but it doesn't always fit a standard swingarm. Internals of the two can be quite similar.

There are differences in the hardware but the technology filters through very quickly from the very top of GP-racing to national racing and ultimately on the road products as well. In terms of presence in BSB for example some of our service centres in the UK work with our BSB customers there.

We work in a similar way in national racing as well as in GP with Öhlins trained technicians at the races helping the customer teams.

That's how Öhlins started, it was very much an on track enterprise and when Kenth Öhlin started supplying shocks he would go to the race tracks in a van and sell and service the shocks there.
What kind of price is a race spec shock?

Ola Lennström:
Our aftermarket version is from about 1200 Euros plus VAT and a racing spec one for high end national racing can be a bit more depending on specification, fitment required to the bike etc.

We don't have a public price for the actual MotoGP shock themselves because they would come as part of a package and the price would be negotiated with the teams. Looking at an overall budget for a MotoGP team though, suspension makes up a very small part of the overall budget.

Also there are now new rules in WSBK where the shocks have to be homologated. Each suspension manufacturer has to homologate suspension they are offering to the teams and WSBK has put a price cap on the front fork and shock absorbers.
So if I went to Harris and bought a rear shock for my SV1000, would it have a reasonably similar performance to the one that Dani Pedrosa's using?

Ola Lennström:
Yes quite similar, but certainly more similar to the one that Alex Lowes used to win in BSB but it is still a road product so there are differences. When we develop technology for our racing program you'll usually find that kind of technology in our street products within about two years.

In racing we can work in smaller quantities so the material can be more expensive because less is ordered but the pace of development can be faster and there are of course less compromises and it's always about performance.
Will the new shock homologation rules affect with shocks you can supply in WSBK?

Ola Lennström:
Yes, they will slightly because the price has been pushed down a bit so we have had to make some changes but not much.
Given the comparatively modest outlay for good suspension, the performance gains seem to be pretty good value.

Ola Lennström:
Yes and especially with bikes because you've got two wheels and keeping those on the ground will dictate how much power you can use particularly in the corners. Suspension plays a huge part in performance.

The difference in lap times between well set-up and badly set-up suspension can be a lot. It can mean the difference between winning and coming last. That difference comes from performance but it also come from confidence. The suspension is instrumental in giving the rider feedback and that will mean that they're confident to open the throttle.
It sounds to me that a good percentage of the performance gain you get by using Öhlins in racing comes from the expertise of the Öhlins technicians?

Ola Lennström:
Yes, for all our products that's some of the extra value you get, the testing, the data, the expertise, it's all there.

Our engineers are very experienced suspension experts and our racing department is actually a pretty special bunch of people and that shows in the results they're able to achieve.
What adjustments are available on a racing shock?

Ola Lennström:
There would be preload adjustment, compression and rebound. There is also a choice of spring rates, the possibility to change valves and shims, the length of the shock and the internal settings.

The forks would have compression and rebound and also the possibility to change spring rates and internal settings.

The adjustments are made manually by hand and we have pneumatic mechanical preload adjustment to make it easier to make a quick adjustment. The other adjustments are made using adjuster knobs on the shocks and forks.

Electronic suspension adjustments aren't allowed any more so when a bike has its suspension set-up, it stays like that until it comes back into the pits. Electronic adjustment and active suspension was allowed in 2009 when we won the WSBK championship with Ben Spies but now it isn't allowed any more.

That's a difference with modern road bikes because they're more and more going down the electronic suspension route but it's a decision that has to be made in racing as to how much technology you want to run.

A suspension engineer is someone who works physically with the bike as well as with a laptop. The computers will mainly be used for running simulations, making calculations and making predictions.

If the rules allowed it most teams would probably be running all electronic suspension but up to now that has only been used in WSBK.
What's the service life of a shock, how many would a team have?

Ola Lennström:
If you use an Öhlins shock for road use we'd normally recommend a full service every year but in top racing that happens a lot more often. You don't really need to have that many shocks or forks because they're easy to rebuild and adjust but how many shock absorbers you get will depend on the contract you've negotiated. The semi trailers are always there if work is needed.
How do you develop shocks?

Ola Lennström:
We have our own test team and do a lot of testing ourselves especially during the off season. We do tests all round the world because December isn't the best time to test in Sweden.

We have our own test bike, an MGC3 built by a French company with an R1 motor, and the bike is close to a WSB spec. Our main test rider is a Swedish guy called Anders Anderson who used to race in WSBK in the '80s and '90s but we also work with a number of current and former racers.
When developing suspension, do you work in conjunction with tyre manufacturers?

Ola Lennström:
It is more a case of keeping up to date with tyres and using relevant ones for testing. We also need to have good experience of how tyres behave in racing conditions so that we can factor in tyre wear and so forth.
Thanks a lot Ola.

Ola Lennström:
My pleasure.
by Christian Tiburtius

Tagged as: Ohlins

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February 21, 2014 10:36 AM

The reason that bikes with Ohlins go so fast isn't really the hardware, it's the expertise and experience of their engineers. If you had a bike using Showa and brought it to them they could still make it go fast.

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