A Spanish mountain road, an empty pull out and thou.
After years of ridiculous colors combinations that would embarrass a tub of ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins, the time honored Bold New Graphics engineering finally pays off. The R1, with its’ new frame demurely blacked out, has hit a home run with its’ delectable styling.
It is a sportbike that looks like a serious piece of hardware. It is a marine edition stainless steel and graphite Mossberg pump shotgun, not a plastic super soaker. A bike that exudes “probable cause” before the key even hits the ignition.
Now in its fifth year, the R1 has always been a serious piece of hardware and has always been the best looking heavyweight. Last year the GSXR 1000’s 165 bhp resolutely knocked the R1 firmly out of the heavy weight superstock arena and off of podiums world wide but that hasn’t stopped it from being a great street bike.
The Yamaha design criteria for the 2002 R1 is a remarkable departure from the usual cold war of motorcycle development. Heavyweights are usually all about the motor. Big horsepower numbers. Rather than respond to the GSXR 1000 stunning top end, Yamaha focused on the handling of the R1, attacking at the GSXR’s only semblance of a weakness.
The new R1 is all about style and handling with the horsepower victory being ceded to Suzuki, at least for the time being. The Yamaha engine revisions have not boosted peak horsepower significantly (claimed 2 peak horsepower) but have provided for a greater spread of power on the over-rev.
The Yamaha probably has the potential to handle better than the GSXR but mostly likely the difference will not be able to compensate for the HP spread and, given equal riders, in a dash from the last turn to the finish line the GSXR 1000 will win the race in any superstock class. In an unlimited class where the R1 engine can be modified to produce competitive horsepower, the carefully crafted Yamaha chassis might provide a competitive advantage. That will basically only benefit a single team in the US: Graves Motorsports in Formula Extreme AMA racing.
Given that Yamaha has basically ceded the racetrack to Suzuki for the next year (at least) some of the other changes that Yahama made for this year might seem like odd choices. Lower bars, less steering lock, higher footpegs, all of these things firmly indicate that Yamaha still intends the R1 to be a hard core tarmac scratching motorcycle, just one that is now more focused on the canyon crowd rather than the track crowd. On the street there are very few times when a difference between 152 and 165 bhp will be noticeable. There is still sizeable contingency money available for the tuning fork loyalists but a review of 2001 Heavyweight results suggest that the R1 riders will continue to be fighting an uphill battle.
Many of the improvements to the R1 are in direct response to input from racers and customers. The new Yamaha has a bolt-on subframe (with single use aluminum bolts no less!), a much more rigid chassis and revise engine placement and steering geometry to facilitate turn-in to apex. Refinements to the various engine control systems (from the intake tract to the air box snorkel and from the exhaust valves to the EXUP) are focuses at enhancing the experience of the motorcycle from the apex to the curbing.
Yamaha went to great care to build an extremely capable motorcycle chassis, but on a very windy day on the Spanish Catalunya circuit, the limit was easily determined by the new Dunlop D208 tires. On a racetrack with long sweeping turns and fast entrances and exits, the front end of the bike was limited by the tire and the rear was easily overwhelmed by the legendary EXUP torque. Street tires are never meant for race tracks and it would be unfair to review a motorcycle’s race track capabilities based on inadequate traction, traction that proved to be ample on the road test portion of the launch. What follows below is, therefore, the characteristics of the motorcycle that seemed to be lurking underneath a veil of hard dry tires.
The standard issue Yamaha suspension set-up is:
This resulted in having (with a 160 lbs rider) 40mm of sag in the front and 30 in the rear. These sag numbers, coupled with the static sag of 28 front and 7mm rear, suggest that the rear spring rate is about right but the front springs are still a tad weedy. The tires had 36 psi in them as recommended by the Dunlop engineers on site. Catalunya has many fast sweeping turns, a number of places that require hard braking but only one place which requires a fast change of direction from full right to full left. Yamaha’s chassis and engine revisions were done with just such a riding environment in mind. Raising the motor and increasing trail should encourage a bike to turn in quickly and then hold the selected line naturally without continuous correction from the rider. The trade off for raising the center of gravity is that it makes it harder to pick the bike up off of one knee and throw it onto the other knee.
The single combination on the track which would require such antics was also one of the only left turns. Requiring use of the cold side of the tire, this turn was the site of the days only scratched body panels and encouraged discretion rather than aggressive testing of the Yamaha’s ability to rapidly switch from full right to full left. On the tight and curvy roads of coastal Spain, the bike did not seem to resist repeated full commit right to full commit left transitions. This suggests that raising the motor in the frame was a successful revision although only a race at Texas World Speedway in August will we be able to know for certain.
The other dramatic change to the R1 Chassis set up is the increase in trail. Trail provides much of the restoring force when steering. The trail increase was done to settle the R1 in the turn faster, require fewer corrections mid-corner and allow the rider to tap into the well regulated and ample power of the engine. This would be ideal for the long long sweepers of Catalunya and the effect is probably best illustrate by two factors: gusty wind which would blow the bike off line (and, in one case, topple a slow speed maneuvering rider) and a tire which was not suited to the task. Despite reduced traction on the front end (from the tire) and gusting winds, the R1 tended to track on line without constant pressure and correction. The neutral and stable steering was a welcome time to relax my grip on the bars to let my right forearm recover from the braking effort.
The brakes obviously have a huge amount of potential, however, either Yamaha choose a very un-intimidating brake pad material (read: “weak”), my particular example had glazed brake pads, or some combination of the two. Although the brakes were fine trailing into corners on the road and other spirited street riding, on the race track they required a huge amount of lever effort to get the bike slowed down from the sort of speeds that 152 bhp and an long straight fed by a third gear corner generate. I am confident that a pad swap to a sassier compound would alleviate all of those woes.
After a few sessions to learn the track we took a stab at improving the suspension settings. The fork springs are stiffer than in the past, but would still be considered too soft by most aftermarket front end people. However, I was reluctant to wind in pre-load as that would raise the front end and slow the steering since I had no way to raise the rear ride height without adding preload and rear traction was already at a premium. I added five click of rebound (to 8 from full on) to quiet down the fork movement, added three clicks of compression to the back ( to 12) and dropped the tire pressures to 33 front and 34 rear. These changes improved the handling of the bike but the tires remained the limiting factor of the day. We were using up the tires at a rate of a set of tires every two track sessions, or about an hour of riding.
Although the tires could not allow the bike to demonstrate it’s potential, they did illustrate the bike’s fundamental strengths. The feedback through the extremely rigid chassis (from the handlebars to the rear axle) was ample and accurate and the very well mannered power plant allowed for long controlled drifts. Only occasionally would these drifts turn into straight gut wrenching heart stopping slides but, given the conditions, the fact that no one ultimately high-sided is a testament to how well the R1 allows the rider to meter the, no longer class leading, but nevertheless abundant, horsepower.
The throttle response on the track was excellent. It seems that most marquees require a couple of tries before releasing a successfully fuel injected bike that does not suffer from sniggling on/of throttle response problems. The R1’s unique approach to the problem of regulating intake tract speed air flow is a complete success. On the track the connection between throttle and power was almost electric. On the road there was the slightest hesitation from off to on but it had more to do with the amount of power available coupled with normal motorcycle drive train lash.
What would seem like a departure from the more street focus is the lower bars and higher pegs. Of course, I, like most other sport bike enthusiasts, love low bars and high pegs so I think this is just another step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the lower bars required the loss of three degrees of steering lock on both sides. While this is not a problem when you are in familiar territory, it makes course changes trickier when lost in Spain. In many cases it was easier to U-turn the bike tapping into the R1 strength, the horsepower, by just spinning up the rear tire and gently pushing one way or the other. On a smaller note, the pegs, although heavily textured, could be ever more toothy and the rear brake master cylinder was causing a slight interference with my right boot when I would try to reposition my foot to hang off to the right. Depending on your style of riding you might never notice this.
Not only is the R1 extremely adept at what you would expect, such as wheelies, burnouts, covering distance is a very short period of time and looking great while cruising the beach, it is was also very well mannered at some sorts of riding that you would not normally associate with a heavy sport bike. The R1, with its expansive powerband, nimble steering, light weight and excellent engine control system, was pure pleasure in ultra tight winding mountain roads. Sticking it in second gear and let the torque pull you from 4,000 rpm to redline while gracefully carving left to right. The R1 still has the handling of a middleweight, the torque of a truck and the looks of an exotic.
Although a fundamentally different experience than the Ducati, the compelling styling has greatly closed the fashion gap and it might just be time for my friend to trade in his Italian character for some Japanese performance.