Honda's seven-year domination of the World Supersport Championship was finally broken in 2009, with Yamaha's Cal Crutchlow racking up five victories in 12 races enroute to the title. Crutchlow and Yamaha Europe's World Supersport team, working under the direction of former 250GP rider Wilco Zeelenberg out of the team's Neuss base in Germany, succeeded in bringing the title Yamaha last held in 2000 with Jörg Teuchert. Unfortunately, despite winning the championship, Yamaha was forced to dissolve the team at the conclusion of the '09 season due to budget cuts caused by the struggling economy. Crutchlow has since been moved up to the Yamaha World Superbike team, while Zeelenberg has been chosen as Jorge Lorenzo's new crew chief on the Fiat Yamaha MotoGP squad.
The chance to ride the Crutchlow racebike during the team's mid-season test at Brno underlined how far his race engineer Marcus Eschenbacher-the man who tuned Teuchert's bike-and the rest of the Yamaha Europe race crew have refined the R6's performance to Honda-beating levels. Indeed, the R6 was so fast in Crutchlow's hands that his World Supersport pole position lap time at the Donington Park round would have qualified him for the World Superbike Superpole shootout! For '09, the team concentrated on refining the power delivery for increased torque compared to the '08 version to counter the softer midrange and bottom-end power that's an inevitable spinoff of such a high-revving motor.
Riding the Crutchlow R6 for 20 laps at Brno confirmed the first impressions I had of Yamaha's 600 Supersport contender when I'd briefly ridden it at Portimao eight months earlier, the day after the final race in its 2008 debut season. More than anything else in the class, and especially the slightly bigger Honda CBR600RR, the comparatively tiny R6 seems more like a 250GP bike in the way you must ride it.
Even with the extra torque that the team has sourced for this season, partly via modifications to the YCC-I variable intake system (which I honestly couldn't feel operating in terms of a difference in engine character or exhaust note before and after the 13,600-rpm actuation point), the one aspect that always matters with the Yamaha is that you have to rev it to the moon, in every gear, in every situation. Although the R6 drives okay out of a slow turn from 6000 rpm upwards-3000 rpm lower than a year ago, and a really obvious benefit of the team's hard work last winter that makes the bike much easier to ride-it definitely picks up engine speed quite a bit faster once you've passed 10,000 rpm. Engine rpm is the key to its performance, and you never forget for a moment this is a bike that demands to be kept in the five-figure rpm zone as much as possible. It builds power quite steeply from 12-12,500 rpm upwards before flattening out around 15,500 revs, with the hard-action rev-limiter now set at an average 16,500 rpm (the team varies it slightly in every gear), 300 rpm higher than a year ago. "We can maybe go even higher to 16,800 revs or even 17,000, if really necessary," reveals Zeelenberg.
It actually pays to rev the motor right out to near the rev-limiter in every gear, with the row of shifter lights flashing bright red across the top of the MoTeC dash at exactly 16,200 rpm. There's a big gear indicator on the LCD dash, which also shows your lap time in the middle of the panel, and the bar graph sweep of the tachometer across the top. The vestigial but carefully shaped windscreen gives a surprising amount of protection even to a taller rider flat out in a straight line; but Crutchlow's riding position is quite individual, with the handlebars spread out wide and very flat. This gives better leverage in tight turns or when controlling a slide, and compensates for the fact that the seat pad Crutchlow prefers is positively wafer thin. You actually sit lower than normal, and the fine layer of rubber spread over the surface of the tailpiece gives your leathers some grip that would otherwise be non-existent.
Öhlins internals in the stock...
Öhlins internals in the stock Soqi inverted fork handle front suspension duties, with 310mm Brembo discs clamped by the stock monobloc Sumitomo calipers with YEC kit brake pads bringing everything to a halt.
Beautifully fabricated Bücher...
Beautifully fabricated Bücher radiator and oil cooler bleed off the extra heat generated by the highly tuned engine. Note the nicely constructed fiberglass coolant overflow tank, as well as the carbon fiber case covers.
An Akrapovic exhaust system...
An Akrapovic exhaust system deals with spent combustion gases, with Öhlins' latest Supersport-spec TTX rear shock handling rear wheel control. Note the tire temperature sensors on the swingarm, as well as the lap timer beacon.
It seemed last year when I rode the Yamaha that it preferred wide, sweeping lines-250GP-style-in faster turns, which a wide track like Brno gives plenty of room for. That's how I was riding it to start with; but after my first short five-lap session, I returned to the pits to for an unexpected lesson from Crutchlow. "You're trying to use too much turn speed," said the World Supersport champion. "Because supersport bikes are now getting more power, you have to stand them up as soon as you can out of a turn for less tire wear as well as better grip, so you need to end up riding it more like a superbike. My corner speed on some bends can be [6 mph] slower compared to [Yamaha teammate Fabien] Foret's and [Anthony] West's, and sometimes even than Eugene [Laverty], too, though he also rides his Honda more like a superbike now. But I always get out of the turn faster, and that's the key to quick laps, because it gives you more speed on the straight that comes after, and your tires last better. High corner speeds are okay at keeping up momentum, but often they mess up your speed down the next straight, so brake deeper and get it stood up sooner. Plus there's another thing: I can hear you blipping the throttle on the downchanges for that bend. You don't need to do that, and not just because it's got a slipper clutch. Just brake and change gear with your foot-nothing else-don't even use the clutch. You'll be surprised at what happens!"
Delivering a claimed 145 crankshaft...
Delivering a claimed 145 crankshaft horsepower at 15,400 rpm, the highly tuned R6 engine utilizes Grossewächter camshafts, a slightly higher compression ratio, ported and flowed cylinder head with race kit single valve springs and valves/valve seats reshaped to work with the revised porting. The variable length intake system also has options for trumpet length in 10mm increments from 30mm to 70mm, with the actuation point also adjustable via the MoTeC ECU.
So I headed out on to the track again, and at Brno's first chicane, I did as I was told. Left hand clamped firmly to the handlebar, mentally willing its fingers not to reach for the clutch lever, I lifted my left toe against the shift lever as I braked from fifth for the second-gear left-turn entry-and almost by magic the engine revved up as it hit the lower gear, and again for the next one. Welcome to the wonderful world of automatic throttle blipping, which I've used on MotoGP bikes before, but not on a superbike and never on a supersport bike. I must say I like this feature stored in the MoTeC ECU, because it allows you to take full advantage of the stock slipper clutch fitted to the Yamaha to downshift smoothly and seamlessly without worrying about the throttle or clutch and allow you to fully concentrate on braking and picking a line. Every bike should have one. It took me a while to persuade myself that no mechanical engine damage would result from just slamming downshifts without any clutch or throttle blipping; but any fear of tangling the valves were dismissed by Eschenbacher. "It won't happen-just do it," he insisted. "Cal comes down four gears at a time one after the other for some turns, like the first chicane at Monza, then lets the ECU take care of everything."
The Yamaha really excelled on the brakes, where it was surprisingly stable in spite of the short wheelbase and the extra weight transfer from my additional pounds. Just like a year ago with another rider's settings, the team had the Soqi inverted fork with Öhlins internals dialed in perfectly, with enough compression damping to handle that weight transfer without lifting the back wheel off the ground and swapping the back end entering a turn. There was just enough residual engine braking left to help with final turn-in too. "The brakes are fantastic on this bike," says a satisfied Crutchlow. "Normally I'll leave some braking distance in reserve in qualifying and the morning warm-up, when I don't brake as late as I could. But in the race, if I need to, I'll be able to pass anyone. I tend to brake early, but I don't brake hard; I leave a lot of corner entry speed, and I just brake right deep into the corner. This bike gets the job done on the brakes." The cocktail of twin 310mm Brembo discs with the stock R6 four-piston Sumitomo monobloc calipers is a potent mixture.
No, the Yamaha World Supersport...
No, the Yamaha World Supersport R6 doesn't use traction control (because the team feels it would compromise acceleration too much), but it does make use of a variable idle speed program that works with the slipper clutch to vary engine braking (adjustable via the green buttons), four different engine maps accessible through the red buttons, and the pit lane speed limiter (black button).
Crutchlow is pleased with the settings on the Yamaha, both electronic and chassis, leaving himself free to focus on delivering the results. "I think you can get too wound up about getting the last little detail right on the setting," he says. "I get something right at the start of the year, and it's very, very unlikely that I'll ever change it, I just leave it on the same position all the time, because I'm happy with it. And that's the same with the chassis; I've found a setup now that I'm happy with, so I never change anything with the bike. Just ride it!"
Still, you have to get to that base camp, and after that crucial development season in 2008, Zeelenberg's team settled on Ohlins suspension components. "We worked a lot over the winter with Ohlins, and we took good steps forward with the stability of the bike, especially," says Eschenbacher. The Yamaha's handling is agile but confidence-inspiring-it steers pretty fast into a bend without feeling nervous, and with the reduced 1380mm wheelbase, it's quite forgiving if you need to correct your line, or change it to avoid a slower rider, as on the track day when I rode the bike. But it also felt very predictable, with good feedback from the Pirelli tires helping in maintaining corner speed, and at my level I reckon this is still the best way to ride the bike. But I did notice a couple of corners, like exiting the infield complex, or the uphill chicane before the last turn, where the rear Pirelli was starting to slide under the punishment, as I fed in the power cranked over on the exit for the long run along the next straight. Taking Crutchlow's advice to heart, I lifted the Yamaha exiting the turn superbike-style and that certainly resolved any traction problems. A good tug on the handlebars also helped redress the front end push I'd been experiencing at those turns with the rear Öhlins compressing unduly thanks to the effects of my extra weight compared to the slimmer Mr. Crutchlow.
"This is the first Supersport R6 Yamaha that I've raced," says Crutchlow, winner of the 2006 British Supersport title on a CBR600RR.. "I'd always raced Hondas in Supersport before this, so I know how good the Honda is as a chassis and a package. Maybe the Yamaha engine is a little better at the top end, but for Yamaha to be so competitive against Honda this season has been good, because Honda's been the one to beat over the last nine years or so. We're stronger in some areas, maybe corner entry, and they're stronger sometimes coming out of the corner or mid-corner. But at the end of the day, a Supersport bike is not that hard to ride, but we're riding them right at the very limit; we can't go any faster than we're going, me, Eugene and the boys. That's what I mean when I say there's no point in changing the settings on the bike, because it's already going as fast as it'll go."
It's nice to be wise after the event, and after riding the predecessor of Crutchlow's Yamaha Europe R6 one year ago, I wrote that "one thing's for sure: after a season of development in 2008, the latest Yamaha R6 will be a serious contender for world honors next season." Well, thanks to riding skill and an innate ability to learn new circuits very fast-a skill he shares with the man he'll be replacing in the hot seat of the factory Yamaha R1 Superbike in 2010, Ben Spies-that's the way it's turned out for Britain's Crutchlow in his debut season on the world stage. Yamaha's been waiting for nine years to regain the World Supersport championship, and the Crutchlow R6 was the bike that did it for them.