At the start of the 2008 season, you'd have bet good money on Yamaha finally overturning its unenviable record as the only Japanese manufacturer without a World Superbike Championship to its credit. The all-new 16-valve version of its flagship YZF-R1 sportbike had enjoyed a successful debut season in 2007, with Nori Haga dominating the last half of the season before coming up an agonizing two points short of finally clinching his long-awaited WSB title. But Yamaha did win the Manufacturers world title, though, thanks to the strong support performance of former champion Troy Corser in his first season with the team.
With Honda, Kawasaki and Ducati all introducing new models this past season, it seemed the Yamaha was ready to pick up where it left off in '08 as the front-runner for the championship. History will record that the introduction of the 1200cc twin-cylinder rule, coupled with the peerless skills of another Aussie bloke named Troy, put paid to that idea. The championship ended up in favor of Ducati, with Yamaha in second and third. Thus, the chance to ride the Yamaha the day after the final race of the season at Portimao on the brilliant (but demanding) new Portuguese track during FGSport's end-of-season pressfest was an insight into just how good the "screamer" R1 actually got to be before being retired in favor of the new crossplane crank version.
The hilly, challenging Portuguese circuit's blind apexes, steep descents and high-speed turn make it a faster version of the equally demanding Barber racetrack in the USA, but being much longer, it takes a lot of learning. Especially with 20 other blokes lining up behind me to ride the bike, each ready to commit murder if I bent it bad enough to deprive them of their chance to ride! After nearly binning the Corser bike by getting too eager with the right hand on the slippery exit of a tight turn--hmm, I guess they didn't have the traction control dialed in right for my ham-fisted technique--survival rather than stardom was the order of the day. "I told you last year, you can't just crack it wide open leaned over, otherwise you'll crash!" said Corser afterward. "What traction control does is take from five to 15 percent of the power away from you when you get back on the throttle again too hard for the available grip. But if you ask too much of it, it'll still spit you off!"
Anyway, at least I was honored to be the only press tester given a ride impression of both Yamahas, starting with Haga's bike. Each year the Haga hotrod always has the most radical, idiosyncratic chassis setup of any Superbike I get to ride. This year it fully lived up to expectations, with a high rear ride height, tight steering geometry with little trail and a steep effective head angle because of the tall rear end. All of which made it eager to tip into turns on autopilot, at the expense of straight-line stability, especially with my extra weight aboard.
But having said that, the Haga R1 didn't lift the front wheel as easily as the Corser bike did cresting Portimao's hills hard on the throttle. This was probably thanks to a combination of that high rear ride height that loaded the front end more, as well as what seemed like a much stiffer shock setting than I remember Haga's bike having a year ago. "That's right, it's because it's the electronic shock," said Yamaha's crew chief Silvano Galbusera. "This has a stiffer spring setting because of the active suspension damping control, so it's better for you, I think. Also, the electronic shock is programmed to have extra compression damping in certain points, so as not to bottom out in the fast downhill dips here, so that's another reason it's better." I could get used to it, but I can also see why Corser opted not to use the shock on the grounds that it was too stiff with little feel. In my short time on the bike there didn't seem to be a lot of feedback from the rear tire in the handful of turns I felt brave enough to be aggressive with the throttle.
The Ohlins Active Suspension...
The Ohlins Active Suspension rear shock allows real-time changes to rebound and compression damping according to riding conditions via a separate programmable control unit in the tailpiece that uses three-axis gyros to determine when and how much to modify the damping. Haga used the shock, but Corser opted not to because he didn't like the feel.
The engine of Haga's R1 seemed peakier than the other fours, just like a year ago. In spite of being more top-end oriented, it didn't have any noticeable steps in the power delivery as the Yamaha drove hard from as low as 6500 rpm, coming on strong at around 8000 rpm before building power all the way to the quite aggressive 14,500 rpm rev-limiter, which on Haga's bike gives no warning of its arrival. That's because he still scorns the use of shifter lights, preferring instead to change up by feel and sound, just when it seems right. It took me a while to learn to do the same, tapping the smooth-action race-pattern powershifter with my left toe when the engine seemed to tell me it wanted me to. Haga's evenly-spaced choice of gear ratios meant that short-shifting inadvertently as I kept on doing while groping my way round the new track didn't seem to impact acceleration too much. Each upward shift still landed you back in the fat part of the power and torque curves again, so the 16-valve motor does have a pretty broad spread of grunt.