Australian native Byron Draper lives and breathes suspension from his workshop at Öhlins company headquarters just north of Stockholm. Now a key member of the brand’s development of its dealer training and product development, Byron has spent much of his life out on the race circuit, helping riders such as Troy Bayliss get the perfect set-up. This is his story...
“I grew up racing MX and that got me working in my local bike shop. The work helped me to ride and the racing gave me a focus to work. I soon met top Australian rider and coach Stephen Gall and started helping him with his coaching schools. He introduced me to some of the most professional Australian teams where I gained experience working as a mechanic.
Eventually I needed to decide whether to concentrate on racing, or focus more on a technical role. I couldn’t really decide but looking back maybe I didn’t have the absolute dedication needed to be a top racer.
So I started working for the Kawasaki Australia MX team in 2001 and then helped a friend, (Australian motocross guru Lyndon Heffernan) set up and run a Yamaha supported team in 2003.
My first overseas trip was with this team to the MX des Nations in Belgium. It was a fantastic atmosphere and I became hooked on the European MX scene.
With the help of another Aussie MX star and friend Kim Ashkenazi I managed to land a job as mechanic for Tanel Leok with the Motovision Suzuki Team in the UK for 2004. That year we campaigned in three different series with around 48 race and testing weekends... it nearly killed me to be honest!
I met the legendary ‘Moose’ (Grant Covus - a well known Öhlins technician) and through him Mats Larsson (Road racing manager at Öhlins) offered me a job in the race department. It was to be in 125 road race GP’s but by the time I started it had changed and I was working for the factory Ducati World Superbike team. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I’d never even been to a road race before!
It was a massive step and I’ll be honest I was slightly nervous. But when you’re this far from home you make sure you swim when thrown in the deep water! 2005 saw me working with Regis Laconi and James Toseland; the current WSBK Champion. It was a great team and they treated me like one of the family. I learned a lot there and still have many friends from that team.
The next year Troy Bayliss came back to the team from MotoGP... It was like a member of the family returning, we got along immediately and been mates ever since.
During this time the boss was Davide Tardozzi, who I rate highly as a team manager. He was a great character who provided a strong structure for the team. I spent six years at Ducati until they pulled out of WSB, at which point I went to the BMW factory team. It was as you would expect a completely different culture and they started from zero as a non-racing manufacturer, so it was good to be able to draw on some of my experiences at Ducati.
I learned in the race paddock that the job of a suspension technician was less technical and more about understanding and getting on with people.The interaction between rider and technicians is key. Sometimes you have to realise that if you tell a rider something, even if it is true, it can affect their perception and maybe even their race pace. Knowing when, what and how to say things is crucial in this environment. Troy seemed to be able to ride around a problem to some extent and leave the changes to the team, whereas other riders needed to know exactly what changes were being made. This takes up a lot of mental energy, maybe energy that could be concentrated more on track.
Whenever I was back at the factory I was keen to learn new techniques and about all road suspension, not just racing. I met a local lady who became my wife, settled here and worked my way into a job at the HQ.
I worked for quite a time in the lab, doing R&D on race components and became responsible for the ‘setting libraries’; which are databases of settings for each product we produce. I also got to fill in at races if a technician had to miss a round. I’m now the Product Specialist for Motorcycles (in the Road and Track product group). We look after the dealer network so technicians come to the factory for training from all over the globe and we also go to visit them where necessary. We are developing a training package which the National distributor can then use to help local dealers raise the skill level of their technicians.
My job also involves market research. Recently I attended the Sao Paulo motorcycle show, and it opened my eyes to the South American market, there is obviously massive potential there. It’s good to see how Öhlins is perceived around the world and I think helps us understand where we can improve also.
I do miss the competitive side of racing and visiting the events but definitely not the frequency … too much travelling can be tough with a family! To stay fit and try to scratch that competitive itch I race mountain bikes and now one of my boys has started BMX... so we’re always busy with bikes of some sort!
Recently it was great to see Troy back on a superbike and I think he proved that he still has what it takes. I was excited but not too shocked to see him do so well in his return to WSB. He actually epitomises what is great about Öhlins- the company may be diversifying but will always have its heritage and passion of racing flowing through its veins!"