To many riders and teams in MotoGP, one man epitomises the professionalism and commitment needed to succeed in this results-driven sport - Mats Larsson...
The Öhlins’ Racing Manager has now worked in the high-octane GP paddock since 1987 and in that time he has witnessed some colossal changes to the sport, including the move from 500cc two-strokes to 1000cc four-strokes, the dependence on electronics and of course the rise of a certain superstar racer…Valentino Rossi.
The fifty-one year old from the arctic like North of Sweden explains how it all started, “I joined the company in ’84 because it seemed like a good way of working on motocross bike and still have a job! Then things started getting serious and by ‘87 we were in 500cc GPs – just me , big Lars (Isaksson) and skinny Lars (Osth)
“We developed upside-down forks for MX but the bikes weren’t ready for them because the forks were super stiff and the frames were still too flexible. So we thought maybe these will be better on road race bikes. I was told not to waste too much time on inverted forks so we designed them on the quiet and did work in the labs at night. In 1987 Swedish racer Anders Anderson used our forks to qualify well in the F1 Championship and then he finished third in the race - so we knew they would work.
“The next year we devised the first set of upside-down GP forks for Eddie Lawson’s Yamaha YZR500. We rocked up to Salzburg, Austria, yet we’d not had a chance to test them at all. Eddie said ‘let’s go with them and use them in the race on Sunday.’ To be honest I was so nervous I couldn’t sleep before the race but he won. We were so happy- it really made us focus on road racing and was a big turning point for the company and I guess also for me personally.
“It started the beginning of a great relationship with Yamaha (the Japanese company famously ‘bought’ into the suspension company in 1987) which continues to this day.”
These days Mats splits his time between the world’s race circuits and the Öhlins base near Stockholm. An average day now is looking after the schedules of 30 race technicians (some in Sweden, some out at the tracks), talking to teams about their racing progress and suggesting tests. He still enjoys working on new designs from the drawing board but the company now has over 20 CAD systems for computer design and development. As much as 75% of all racing technology eventually finds its way to the aftermarket and Mats is a vital link between the departments.
“I used to attend every GP and every test including maybe three trips to Phillip Island, Australia, – after a while you realise that you have good guys and you don’t have to be at every single event! Only now have I started relaxing a bit when I’m at home, enjoying life with my family, but of course always with the TV on for the racing…
“I still ride MX which is how I got into Öhlins in the beginning, it’s a great sport and I’ve ridden since 1973. But, I had to have a bit of a sabbatical though as the doctor’s have threatened to install titanium joints in my knees…
Mats other big passion is American muscle cars; “I have a 1965 Ford Galaxy Nascar replica 6.4 litre V8 – my neighbours love me! I took my father who’s 81 to go buy it with me and he wasn’t sure, but loved the ‘in your face’ noise - even if he had to turn down his hearing aid. I did a big burn out with him in it and then we bought it I try not to grow up, it’s like I’ve been having an ‘all life crisis’ not a just mid life one!”
Contracts for Öhlins Racing include the mighty HRC, Yamaha Racing, Ducati Corse (MotoGP and WSB) , Ten Kate, Aprilia Racing, BMW Mottorad and many more.
“What is so important, and always has been, is having a good relationship with the team managers and owners. You can spend time at the circuits but you also need to go see the bosses and understand how they work whether that be Hammatsu, Amsterdam or Bologna.
“Talking of Bologna, I see the Rossi situation both ways. Sometimes it’s not just a suspension issue, it’s the way the rider, suspension, chassis and tyres all relate to each other. In this case they don’t! - and it will be very interesting to see how Rossi gets on back at Yamaha. In my opinion he can describe what a bike is doing better than anyone, how it needs changing and he can actually separate suspension characteristics from tyre deflection.”
Mats has worked with every top rider you’ve ever heard of so which ones stand out for him? “Wow that’s hard, so many great names and personalities. As I said Rossi for his feeling of the bike and also his calm way of giving feedback, very un-Italian! Wayne Rainey was a unique guy to work with, he tried so hard in every session, always pushing, pushing. A second was terrible to him and he could be so hard, angry and aggressive. Then you’d see him at the airport and was the nicest guy and would take time to ask how everything was going, it was like two different guys.
“Marco Simoncelli will be missed in so many ways, he had a lovely character. I remember him coming up and saying ‘Thank you so much for all your help and service’- how many riders do that?”
And tracks? “I love Mugello and Jerez - both real ‘fans’ tracks, great layout and with amazing atmosphere. Laguna Seca is special too, so fast in the turns, bumpy and spectacular.
“We are at an incredible place right now with bike racing in particular – you see we have complete domination in MotoGP, World Superbike, Moto2 and Moto3.
“I think the best part of working here is its one of the few jobs I see where you have freedom to come up with ideas and test things - and the environment is so far from ‘corporate’. You’re surrounded by guys who get up every morning with a fierce drive and will to win, like they have an inner drive. This is the Swedish way.
“I love coming back from races to Sweden not particularly for the Swedish way of life, compared to some of the places we go this is like returning to a desert island each week!”