Giuseppe Andreani, a former world-class motocross rider, was passionate about suspension when he was racing. Today, with the AndreaniGroup, he represents Öhlins in Italy and Spain, and officially follows several championships and teams, as well as developing training courses on suspensions. Interviewing him was very easy. We asked him to explain to us what a suspension is and what it is for, he overwhelmed us with his passion and a lot of expertise
I admit the original title I had in mind for this interview was “Everything you always wanted to know about suspension* (*But you never asked the Guru)” because the name Giuseppe Andreani and AndreaniGroup might not be so well known in the UK and in other British-speaking countries as it is in Italy, Spain and within the racing world. But doing so would have probably been disrespectful to the professionalism, expertise and career of a man that, In the world of motorbikes, everyone considers the person to go to when it comes to suspensions.
He started dealing with them while he was still racing, and he quickly found out he was good at fine-tuning them. So the passion of Giuseppe Andreani, thirty years ago, when he put his helmet down, became a job. Today the engineer (and manager) from Pesaro has long linked his name to that of Öhlins, one of the leading companies in the world of suspension.
We met him at his stand, at Eicma, and asked him to introduce us to the world of shock absorbers and forks, to understand something more about how they work. First, however, we asked to tell us a little bit about him and to introduce us to the AndreaniGroup.
“My background is in Motocross. I was a professional driver for a decade in the World Championship, where I managed to win 9 Grand Prix. When I quit, in 1988, I opened my own Motocross school, which has always been my dream. And I have worked hard to find the best way to help other drivers, using my experience“.
“At the same time, I had already started what was then called White Power Italia. And after a few years that work on suspension sucked me in, and I also started to enter the world of road and track, which is a larger universe. I’ve had a lot of experience from there over the years, I’ve been a long time on track in contact with pilots, always with the desire to experiment. And slowly, I arrived at the current situation, where my work is very focused on races. Not so much because it is fundamental for the company, which lives on many other things related to suspension, but rather because I like it”.
“We have seven service trucks and a lot of technicians. We follow all the championships, bike and motorcycle, track, off-road and Supermotard. And we’re also very much into cars. We mainly operate in Italy, but we also have a subsidiary in Spain, the Andreani MHS, which is based in Barcelona and employs 14 people. There we follow the FIM CEV Championship http://www.fimcevrepsol.com/en and the Spanish championships. Maybe we’ll consider expanding further, but things need to be done properly because managing too many things can become difficult“.
So you operate as a service in competitions. Do you also follow the enthusiast who wants to intervene on his bike?
“Yes, not directly, but through our network of dealers.“
Let’s talk about suspensions: could we define them as a key component to obtain a good performance?
“Yes, of course, but especially when it comes to the track, the higher the level, the more results and performance depend on the bike package. If ever there was a very good shock absorber, and I would hope to have it, it could still give a 30-40% increase in performance. However, if we assume that the fork is mounted 5 mm higher or lower, if the rear wheel is not positioned where it should be in ideal conditions, the performance will not be there. Supersport and Superstock bikes are all about the millimetre. There are positions that you will find over time, geometries that you must respect. And that’s true, with its limitations, even for the non-professionals who go on organised track days. Even if he stop the chronometer ten seconds after a World Cup winner.
What’s the plus of good suspension?
“Mostly the ability to make you feel what the tire is doing. A good shock absorber obviously absorbs the roughness, and cannot be too stiff. If it is, if you find even a tiny bump, you risk to fly away. It must be stiff, it must be controlled, and it must not have movements unrelated to its task. That’s the only way you can hear exactly what the tyre is doing on the asphalt. And if the signal is clear, you can dare to push a little harder.”
“I learned this when I was in Motocross school. I had studied the psychology of fear. Finding out that there is this part, I ironically call it the little box – he points the head – that knows our limits, our ability to remedy errors and the ability to solve critical situations. In that situation, everything works well there, but when the situation gets blurred, when you don’t feel, and you don’t understand, the box automatically calls the body and says ‘close the throttle that it’s getting dangerous’. It is the instinct of self-preservation that we all have.
“The great problem is that this link between the psyche and motion is not usually taken into account. Take the example of Marquez, who now recovers the bike even when he lose the front wheel. He’s certainly braver than many other pilots, but he’s not dumb. Rather, he has such characteristics, starting with his physical agility and his driving skills, which have shown himself that if he loses the front of or the rear, he has not yet fallen”.
“A good shock absorber is fundamental in this because it faithfully conveys what the tyre on the ground is doing. But be careful, because maintenance is also needed.
Why do suspensions degrade over time?
“A good shock absorber is manufactured with very tight controls and tolerances. The oil should flow only in the right orifices, where can be controlled and adjusted; and should not leak anywhere else. But a good shock absorber remains good if it doesn’t have air inside. After many hours of operation, gas leaks inside the unit, which then mix with the oil. We see this doing bench tests. At the beginning of the stroke, when there is gas, there is an ’empty’ stretch of one millimetre of travel, which is not even possible to detect at the naked eye. That’s where the continuous, light sway during cornering that confuses the driver comes from. Because the shock absorber gives up before starting to work and gives the pilot a wrong signal, which does not make it clear if it is the bike that moves or if it is the tire that is losing grip. Then you go slower, without even noticing.”
Before, however, you say comes the fine-tuning
“Sure. If your bike is too low in the front because you have pulled out too much of the fork tubes, when you enter the curve and start to turn you have many kilos in front and a few behind. So you lose the front, it closes because it’s too loaded. Or you lose the back, as soon as you start turning the throttle. On the other end, if the bike is too loaded behind you don’t have grip at the front, the bike is hard to bend. And you’ll easily fall because again, you’ll lose the front. So having a balanced bike, with the right heights and weights distributed in the right way, is essential.
“Sometimes – he continues on this subject, to which he obviously cares a great deal – one can see bikes raised without logic. Modified rear linkage arms that raise the bike two centimetres. On motorcycles we talk about millimeters, not centimeters! I understand that it may be nice to have a tail that shoots upwards, but raising a bike behind it means reducing the rake, and changing the trail. It is enough to raise it 5 mm to change all the parameters. It is not only the fact that it puts more weight in front, there is also a rake reduced by 0.2-0.3 degrees. It means that even on the highway, driving fast, the bike becomes more dangerous. And then you lose faith in driving. Not to mention that if you brake too late, you risk losing the front wheel“.
Are settings so different between pilots and amateurs?
“If we talk about Motocross, yes. Those who go so fast in off-road use very hard settings, because they have strong arms and the training to manage them. And they can move on the bike when needed to compensate for the suspensions settings. On the contrary, on the track, the rider must be stuck on the saddle, and even a champion when he takes a hole in a curve needs the suspension to absorb it. So the calibration of racing bikes is very similar to that of road bikes. The difference is that the track systems have a greater progression. Components that we sell for road use are therefore more or less those that we use in single-brand trophies”.
How do the finest racing products make a difference?
“Apart from certain exclusive technologies, the key is usually the very tight tolerances they have. Oil flowing through the calibrated pins is controlled so that there is nothing that leaks anywhere. 2-3 tenths of millimetres more in the tube, one-tenth less in the seal, are tolerances that could leave the oil free to pass. The higher the level, the more fundamental these things become.
“But even for an amateur who goes around the track for fun, to have a bike set up correctly and with the right products and overhauled, moves the limit upward. Maybe not on the first day, because mentally he has to prove to himself that giving the gas in a certain way is not dangerous. And usually, the little boxI mentioned before doesn’t believe it at first. You improve with time because the bike set up correctly pushes you to gradually go a little ‘more’.
Quality of the workmanship is king
“Of course. But the tighter the tolerances, the more expensive the product. And standard shock absorbers, of course, are built with cost constraints in mind. Therefore they cannot have the same level of performance as higher level products. For this reason, for example, standard shock absorbers are built with a single piece of fusion, which includes tube and pan. Öhlins use lapped tubes that are screwed onto a head to which a separately constructed tank must be connected.
Does the degradation of performance over time also apply to motorcycles left stationary?
“I think so, but frankly, I don’t know. We do a lot of tests on the suspensions, to understand the degradation of performance related to the use, but we never considered the possibility of the bike left stationary in the garage”. And he smiles.
We’ve talked about gas building up in the shock absorber, how does that happen?
“There’s air in the oil, too, and we need complex machinery to keep it to a minimum. We use vacuum machines for flushing, which can pull up to a millibar. And then there are others that shoot into the oil under pressure, even removing the air bubbles that are part of the oil itself. But with time, the air leaks through the blazer, which is rubber, a membrane in the tank that separates the oil from the pressurised nitrogen.
Nitrogen then, not air?
“Yes, in advanced suspensions, nitrogen is used instead of air, because it does not dilate with temperature. So the blazer separates oil from nitrogen. On one side the oil in contact with the piston of the suspension, on the other side the nitrogen at 12 atmospheres. In working conditions, on the track, the oil reaches even 80 degrees in summer. And the piston of the suspension pushes it into the tank countless times, for every slightest roughness. So that gas slowly manages to get out and mixes with the oil. And then the behaviour of the suspension changes. Because the operation of the shock absorber is largely based on controlling the oil passages with the valves, but if through these passes oil mixed with gas, the behaviour is different, especially when hot”.
“A professional driver notices this immediately, while a normal driver finds it hard to tell the difference. But if he could turn with his own suspension into which air entered and with a brand new suspension, he would immediately feel the difference. Kind of like the problem we have with our ageing. We look at ourselves in the mirror every day, and we see ourself always the same, but if we could see as we were 20 years ago, we would be hurt. With the suspensions it’s the same thing, their performances degrade slowly, and the driver always gets used to how it works“.
In a nutshell?
“Going fast is all about feeling. If there’s a talent, that’s a different matter. But the normal motorcyclist rides fast and can think of reach certain times and certain satisfactions only when the bike is balanced and when the products are professional, well tuned and with the correct oil.
“Look at the races in Moto2, where the level is very high,” he tells us with a sparkle in his eye that betrays his passion. “In the curves you can always see that the front tire moves, slips. They know that even though it is sliding, it will not give up. But if you have the fork that moves a little bit of its own, how do you know if it is the fork that is moving or the tyre that reached its limit?
“And anyway, and I come back to this too, the geometry in a racing bike is more important than the shock absorber or the fork. The bike is tuned before setting up the shock absorber. If you have to choose, it’s better to have a perfectly good bike with a shock less than ideal, than a good shock absorber with the bike maybe all unbalanced towards the front“.
And how do you find the good tuning of the bike?
“Every motorcycle has its measurements. You find it working with telemetry, with good technicians and good pilots. You set up the bike following instructions that say how much you have to take out the fork, how much the wheelbase has to be, what the height of the rear shock absorber has to be“.
Do you still have a school?
“No longer the Motocross one, there were too many commitments to follow. However, we have a school of suspensions, with courses for both the technicians of our service centres on the territory and for pilots and enthusiasts. They are also affordable courses because you can participate with about 100 euros. We’re interested in teaching, and you can find the dates on our website.
How did you get this passion for suspension?
“As a boy, I once won a $1,000 race. The next day the KTM officer called me and asked me how was the bike. I replied that there were no problems. Strange, he told me, you had a bent shock absorber that didn’t slide!”
“Then things changed. Time passes and the pains begin, the desire to get hurt diminishes. Rider’s skills worsen and the desire to take risks reduces. But you also improve on what you can already do well. And I’ve learned how to set up the suspensions. And they’ve become a job.”
“The important step change was to switch to the asphalt. I used to see the road in a strange way. So much so that when I was told that it was necessary to go on the track, I remember wondering what the suspensions were for in that context. I thought the track was all paved and smooth, and I didn’t need good suspension. Instead, I have discovered that it is more difficult to put fine tune the bike for the track than for Motocross“.
“Yes. In Motocross, the tracks are constantly changing; sometimes they are wet, sometimes grooves are formed. And the riders move around a lot on the bike to compensate. On the track, everything is repeated all the time with the rider bound to stay on the saddle, and fixing bikes and suspensions to get to high levels becomes more difficult“.
Let’s talk about Öhlins, the brand you’re attached to. What’s the secret to their success?
“Investment in research. Öhlins gets paid by everyone very high figures, MotoGP riders pay a lot to use Öhlins products. But the company invests a lot in research with a precise method of work.
“All Öhlins calibrations are filed on the computer. For the TTX, for example, it goes from C1 to C36, with regressive, progressive and linear families -a technical jargon in which we will enter with future articles. If you need a setting you don’t have to invent it, you go to the computer, and it even tells you click 1, 2 or 3. In the company there are engineers who work for months to create these curves with highly sophisticated benches. And there is also a pool of professionals, former top-level riders, with bikes owned by Öhlins equipped with telemetry, who test on the track and develop products and settings. And that also applies to MotoGP. They don’t use the teams to do the tests; rather, they provide them with a product already developed and ready with all the settings. Then, of course, the high-level team further refines that already highly evolved base.
“The result is a monoshock that they deliver all over the world, and with a standard mono you can even run the World Championship.
“This is the secret of the success of a company that has a turnover of 150 million and that, on average, covers 70% of the starters on the starting grid of the races“.