Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ridden: Yamaha R1

IT is the fastest R1 ever built and the buzz about Yamaha's new superbike has been heightened with promises of the latest MotoGP technology tried, tested and proven on Rossi's championship winning YZR-M1.

Combined with brave new styling and a colour scheme that's divided the biking fraternity, the launch of a new model has never been more exciting.

Moments after the press presentation, my note pad is safely stowed away and I'm clinging to a thundering white missile. The familiar scream of an in-line four-cylinder engine has been traded for a deeper, rounder rumble that sounds far more like a V4.

My mouth's drier than Jeremy Clarkson's wit, my brain's bulging with sensory overload and Australia's Eastern Creek race track is a constant blur of colour. Blue grandstands, a grey pit wall and yellow braking markers morph into a swirl of information that I'm struggling to separate. Concentrate. Breathe. I knock back two gears and, using all my courage, tip full pelt into turn one. I'm drunk on the speed; addicted to the thrill and I don't want to go home.

It's all very well, plying us mere mortals with endless power. But what's the point if you can't use it. 182 raging stallions may sound impressive, but if you're riding them bareback, with no reins and no control, you're just a passenger. Where's the fun in that?

So Yamaha went back to the drawing board, with the help of the living legend Valentino Rossi, to find a way to harness the bike's potential. And it comes in the form of a new crossplane crankshaft and its unequal firing order, the technical ins and outs of which amount to one simple goal; more rider control.

Sportier and more compact riding position
The normal combustion and rotational forces inside an engine can create a blurred or confused feeling of what's really happening at the rear wheel and a rider can easily misjudge the level of traction that's available. That can hurt - take my word for it.

The new crankshaft configuration eliminates these contradicting forces, giving the rider a more direct and precise feel. It's rather like a TV aerial that's weeded out all the fuzz to create a crystal-clear picture. If you know what's happening at the rear, you know how soon and how far you can open the throttle, especially in the corners. And that's the bit we all love.

With a smoother, more consistent delivery of torque and a more direct relationship between the power and the rider's right hand, it stands to reason that Yamaha would have to revise the rest of the bike to suit. So the chassis is less rigid than before to allow for more flex under acceleration. The wheelbase has been shortened by 5mm to encourage a nimble attitude and the engine is mounted at a steeper angle in the frame to help centralise the bike's mass. The riding position's now more compact and sportier, the brakes are only slightly revised, but these alterations, together with a few others, are intended to ensure the 2009 R1 is the best handling yet. It's a totally new generation of bike.

Throttle response is immediate
The changes are indeed noticeable. My first two sessions on track were on standard suspension settings. The front forks are completely new with compression adjustment on the left side and rebound on the right, the simplicity of which offers more precise adjustment.

The 998cc engine sounds and feels similar to a VFR's V4 engine at lower revs (and the back end looks like one too) but it behaves far more like an in-line four further up the rev range. The throttle response is immediate, it's not snatchy, but it is instantaneous to the extent that you'd probably have to be extra smooth on wet roads. However, there are three different electronic throttle mappings to choose from at the flick of a switch.

Interestingly, the standard setting is actually the most rewarding; the power is strong without being overly violent. If you want pure aggression, opt for mode A and brace yourself because it's truly, utterly bonkers, and mode B is gentler, but by no means castrated. There's also a totally pointless throttle indicator on the very comprehensive dash which now also includes a gear indicator. How, or indeed why, Yamaha expects you to look at an instrumental display to see how far you've opened the throttle while you're riding is anyone's guess. Your right hand tells you that, your speed tells you that and the stupid grin plastered across your face tells you that.

To sum up...

With the combination of standard tyres (we used Michelin Pilot Power) standard suspension settings and 24 degrees in the Aussie shade, the bike was fun, but surprisingly easy to provoke on the standard throttle mode and on mode A ... forget about it! I stuck it on mode B and left it there until Yamaha wheeled out the sticky stuff and tweaked the bike for track settings.

I don't mind admitting that initially, the bike felt more intimidating with the new suspension changes. Although it was now more planted at the rear, the front became a tad more nervous and mini headshakes became quite a regular occurrence, especially accelerating out of a corner.

But once I'd given myself a talking to and taken full command, I began to settle into a rhythm. The R1 is no Fireblade, let's get that straight. It doesn't have quite the telepathic, light agility that I'd anticipated, despite being unquestionably special and very steady once it's on its side. It's true, you do develop a level of trust and confidence in the bike that's rewarding and encouraging, it just took a little longer than I'd expected to find it.

While I'm undoubtedly impressed with this new evolution of R1, I can't help but wonder how it will fare on a group test alongside the other in-line fours, V-twins and Aprilia's new V4. A minor lapse in concentration on track had me exiting the uphill turn seven one gear too high and the lack of drive under 8,000rpm was noticeable. That said, get it right and the bike can sing sweeter than a pre-pubescent Charlotte Church. Only time and a comparative te= t will tell if it'll be just as successful.


Model: Yamaha R1 $9,999
Engine: in-line four of 998cc, producing 180hbp at 12,500rpm and 84.87 ft lb at 10,000rpm
Transmission:chain drive through six-speed gearbox
Wet weight (including oil and fuel): 206 kg
Seat height: 835mm
Fuel capacity: 18 litres

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