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Sondell Yamaha AS1 125cc racer test

Motorcyclist Illustrated January 1971

When Honda first introduced their ]R93 twin-cylinder machines, they virtually set the 125 cc class alight. Never in the history of the ultra-lightweight class had such sophisticated, beautifully engineered little bikes been made available to the private owner, and they dominated the class for several seasons. On the short circuit racing scene, riders found that if they wanted to win they had to have a Honda - if you didn't have a Honda, you didn't stand a chance. There were one or two exceptions, such as the Tohatsu, but they were very much in the minority.

Then the Hondas went out of production, and Buhaco (who had been on top prior to the Japanese "invasion") took over once more. Using basically the same design, they produced a water-cooled, single-cylinder two-stroke with a six-speed gearbox. These machines were just that bit quicker than the ageing Hondas, possibly because they were considerably lighter and consequently had a more favourable power to weight ratio. However, just over a season ago, Bultaco ceased production as well leaving the 125 cc class in a very sorry state regarding the availability of new, competitive machines.

Last season, Villa, Maico and Aermacchi machines appeared in small numbers, and although successful to a degree, none have made as big an impact as the new Yamaha twins. It seems as if these race-kitted road machines are going to dominate the 125 cc class in the future, just as they have dominated the 250 cc and 350 cc classes in the past.

A few weeks ago, on a very wet and windy afternoon at Brands Hatch, I had the opportunity of testing one of these remark­able little bikes. Although conditions were far from ideal, and the treacherous-looking surface deterred me from trying anything fancy, I did at least get the chance to squirt the bike from one corner to the next, and the resulting performance left me very, very impressed.

The Yamaha that I rode belongs to Alan Jackson, boss of the Sondel Sport motor­cycle shop in North London, and he kindly brought the machine down to Brands for the sole purpose of allowing me to test it. We had organised the date some time previously - it was a pity that the weather hadn't been kinder.

Alan is a comparative newcomer to motorcycling, and 1970 was his first season as a sponsor. Although he has plenty of experience as a competitor in road racing on two wheels, this was not on motorcycles, but in the grind and sweat world of cycle racing. Riding as an international amateur, Alan represented England on no fewer than 12 occasions. He rode in some of the big tours abroad, including Egypt, Sweden, and one behind the Iron Curtain, which took him pedalling through Warsaw, Berlin and Prague. In the 1956 Olympics, held in Australia, he finished third in the 120-mile road race section and won a bronze medal. The English team finished second, so Alan won a silver medal as well. It took only 5Vi hours to complete the course, at an average speed of 22/23 mph - phew! Some average for a pushbike.

"I started a cycle business in partnership with another chap," said Alan, "and we had a pretty good name, due to the racing side, so we made and sold lightweight cycles. After a while sales began to drop so we switched to selling bread and butter cycles. Then, when the sales of all pedal cycles really began to drop, we took on a moped agency. My interest in motorcycles started with the decline in cycles. When Hondas first began to flood the market we took on an agency for them, and have been involved in motorcycles ever since, but we have switched our interests to Yamaha. As Yamaha progressed, our spares side developed too. It/s handy for us, because the Yamaha base is also in London and we get on very well with them; ihere seems to be a good liaison between the company and their dealers. They help us, and we help them, but there is no support or financial backing for racing enterprises."

Ron Bayliss is the Sondel team mechanic, and he also works full-time at the shop as Yamaha spares manager. Previously a motor mechanic and electrical fitter, Ron joined Alan some time ago. He built and raced a 50 cc bike for a while, but due to the responsibilities of a baby daughter he now confines his activities to just building bikes. In fact, he admits that he gets more fun out of building a bike than racing it.

When the 125 cc Yamaha road machines were first introduced, both Alan and Ron thought that the bikes had possibilities for track use. Conversion kits became available around Christmas time in 1969, so the enthusiastic pair exhibited a race-kitted machine at the Sports and Racing Motor­cycle Show during January of 1970.

Grant Gibson, who also lives in London, heard that Sondel were building a racer and wanted a rider; he was very interested and went along to the shop to volunteer his services.

"I breezed into the shop," Grant said with a laugh, "and told them who I was . . . 'Who?' they said. I thought great; that's nice!"

Everyone had a good laugh at the recollection of this first meeting. "Well," Alan explained, "we hardly knew anyone in the racing world, either by reputation or personally." Although they received a stack of applications from riders, Grant was the man they chose.

"In all fairness," Grant continued, "the bike didn't look right at first, and Alan wanted to modify a few things before I raced it; but I persuaded him to let me have it for an early season event, just to assess its potential. 'Come on,' I said, 'let's get it out of the window, otherwise we'll never race it.' I ran it in at Snetterton on the Thursday and raced it at Castle Combe the following Saturday. As I already had an entry in the 350 cc class and was going to Castle Combe anyway, I thought that it wouldn't be a bad idea to take the little'un along as well, just for the ride." The meeting was a national one, and Grant finished a very creditable third, on an un-raced machine.

This stage, the bike was a completely standard, race-kitted Yamaha, but the frame had extra struts welded into it for more rigidity, the forks had been substituted for slightly heavier-duty Yamaha units - just to be on the safe side - and a special twin-disc Campagnolo front brake was fitted in place of the standard drum.

Originally, it was intended to keep the bike as standard as possible and sell identical bikes for around £400, but as the season wore on it became apparent that, although these machines would be ideal for a club racer, they needed to steer a bit better to be competitive in national and international events. The engine was quick enough, but the handling, although not bad, was not good enough for scratching round corners on the limit. So, on a trial-and-error basis, the little Yamaha was suitably modified throughout the season. The rear sub-frame was strengthened and Girling racing units substituted for the standard one. The footrest layout had been attached to the swinging arm, which put Grant off at first. "I didn't fancy the idea of my feet pattering up and down as the bike went over bumps, but it didn't bother me at all, once I got used to it."

"No, but it must have put off the blokes behind you," Alan said with a laugh, "seeing your feet bobbing up and down in time with th- rear suspension."

However, once they got organised, Ron made up a special set of plates to accommodate the footrest assemblies, and these are attached conventionally to the frame. Sondel also designed their own tank and seat, which they make in glass fibre.

Well, that's dealt with the background of the bike, so it's on with the testing bit. In fairness, the atrocious conditions did not allow me to do the thing as thoroughly as I would have liked. Of course, the ever-humorous Gibson put me off my stroke before I even went out of the paddock. "Oh, I nearly forgot to tell you," he said, with that characteristic grin on his face, "the gears are the wrong way round - one down and four up!"

"Charming-now he tells me," I thought as I splashed the little bike out on to the track. "What happens when I change down instead of up, coming out of a bend?"

The riding position suited me a treat, but of course, this is a matter of preference. There is no such thing as an ideal standard riding position, as every rider has to tailor a machine to suit his individual requirements. Sondel's seat and tank fined me admirably, especially so because it allowed me to move around a bit on the bike. When I say "move around," I mean backwards and forwards. I don't like the modern "wedged" racing position, where a rider is stuck between the tank and seat, with his weight well to the rear, not able to move either forward or back. I like to move well forward on the seat when sitting up and braking, to transfer as much weight to the front wheel as possible when cornering, especially on a lightweight machine. On a small bike there isn't the power to provoke the back end into breaking adhesion, and because the "wedged in, sitting back position" prevents a rider from getting his weight forward, the front end is always light. This was the case on the 125 cc Honda I used to race. If I started cornering hard on it, the front wheel would break away first - it used to scare the pants off me! With the Yamaha I could transfer my weight on to the front wheel, and if anything moved at all it was always the back end, which was both predictable and controllable.

Steering was light, positive and precise. The bike could be set up on line with the minimum amount of effort. As I said, the front behaved beautifully, but the back end did move around on the ripples on Kidney Bend and could be induced into breaking away, though not once did the bike feel that it was going to take over. Grant said that in the dry, when he is trying hard on a bumpy bend, the back gets skittish, but it's never bad enough to cause concern, once you get used to it.

It was impossible to try the brakes out to their maximum. A pity, because I would like to have sampled the twin-disc to its full potential. All that I can say is that the brakes did have a nice progressive "feel" to them, which is very reassuring in the rain. Just how good they are in the dry, I'm afraid I cannot say, but Grant tells me that they are smooth, progressive and totally adequate -and that's good enough for me. The rear brake is standard, with racing linings.

Gearbox operation was superb. It was light, positive and sweet, requiring very little pressure on the gear lever. In fact, the lever hardly moved at all and it was only the change in the exhaust note that made me realise that 1 had changed-gear shifting was a real dream. Even though the gearbox operation was the "wrong" way round (down for down, up for up) it couldn't tarnish my impressions of it; anyway, I only forgot once, and changed up twice instead of down going into Clearways.

Not being a two-stroke rider, I must admit to having had difficulty in keeping the revs between 11,500 and 13,500 on the corners, especially on Druids and Clearways. If it hadn't been wet, I don't think I would have had any trouble at all. However, if the revs did drop off the power band while cornering, caution had to be exercised in trying to coax them back up when still leaning over, for as the power came back in with a bang it caused the back wheel to step out-surpris ing punch for such a small engine. At first, I was off the power band more than I was on it, but I did improve towards the end of the session. The exhaust note made real music and produced a lovely tune while juggling with the gears.

All in all, I thought that it was a fabulous little bike and, to be quite honest, I couldn't find any real faults at all. The only small grouse I did have was that the throttle action was a bit on the stiff side; but that isn't fair comment, because I always like the throttle as light as a feather, probably to the degree of being finicky. I used to oil all my cables with Molyslip. Clutch operation was smooth and delightfully light.

Sondel Sport are designing their own frame for next season. They plan to use T45 tubing and aim to produce a frame that is lighter, more rigid and also makes the whole bike lower. They feel that the standard road frame makes the centre of gravity too high. Also, the wheelbase will be slightly lengthened. By doing this and other modifications, Sondel hope to bring the overall weight of their machine down from 190 Ib to 170 Ib.

They intend to market frame kits, seats, tanks, fairings-in fact, anything that they use on their own machine will be available to their customers, once they have tested and proved everything to their satisfaction. Complete machines will also oe available, and these will be supplied according to the customer's specification. Selection will range from a good club racer for around £400, to a top-class machine with all the special bits that will be really competitive in the bigger meetings, and the price of this will be between £575 and £600.

Roll on, next season

rw-iHIS YEAR has been the training JL ground for this enthusiastic little team, and they intend to have a real crack at next season's British championship. In spite of the inevitable teething troubles encountered last year, Grant finished between second and sixth on numerous occasions. At the last meeting of the year, in a national event at Snetterton. he finished fifth in a very strong field after being almost last away. After covering nearly half a lap on one cylinder, he was almost on the point of touring in to retire when the other pot chimed in, so he got his head down and had a go. "The bike was really flying, and I made joint fastest lap in my climb to fifth place. I was really chuffed-roll on next season when we get our new frame and all the 'goodies'." The new bike will be exhibited at the motorcycle show in January.

Sponsors are few and far between in this sport of ours, and it's nice to see a new team come along with some support. Sondel are only a small team; they sponsor only one rider and enter one bike, but they are doing a great job by ploughing something back into the sport in these days of dwindling assistance-pity there weren't more like them. I wish them all the best in their racing ventures, and I personally hope that Grant Gibson wins that elusive British champion­ship for them. Whether he wins or loses, he always wears that characteristic "gay cavalier" grin on his face, and anyone who can keep smiling in the helter-skelter world of motorcycle racing-even when the unpre­dictable catastrophies occur-has my genuine admiration.

Specification (standard road going 125 cc)

  • Yamaha twin cylinder two-stroke with race kit, comprising: racing pistons, barrels, exhausts and expansion boxes.
  • Special ignition system.
  • Special clutch plates and springs.
  • Racing fifth gear.
  • Extras on tested machine:
  • Dunlop racing tyres; alloy rims;
  • Campagnolo twin-disc front brake; Girling racing rear units.
  • Sondel.Sport: racing tank, fairing, and seat.
  • Standard road frame and swinging arm suitably strengthened.
  • Heavier duty Yamaha front forks.
  • Footrests, gear linkage and rear brake conversion.
  • Rev-counter.

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