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.
However, switching straight over to the Corser bike for another five-lap stint revealed an even more well-rounded and seemingly more powerful package, with vivid power delivery lower down and what felt like stronger acceleration all through the powerband. I tried hard towards the end of my short five-lap stint to distinguish any step in the power delivery around the 12,000 rpm mark, where Troy's race engineer Dave Marton had told me the TCC-I variable intake system starts to work, but honestly failed. It's just that the whole bike seemed to be a little sharper in engine response, without being at all snatchy or brusque in the way it picked up again mid-turn from a closed throttle, like the old 20-valve R1 used to be, or the 750cc R7 before it.
But it wasn't just the engine that felt better on the Corser Yamaha, which as usual I felt truly comfortable on within the limits of the still unfamiliar circuit. I've ridden Troy's bikes for the past 12 years, and each time I do so I'm reminded that his chosen chassis setup is always the closest to how I prefer my own bikes to be--evenly balanced front and rear, with relatively soft, compliant suspension that doesn't however wallow in turns. The whole bike is ideally set up for keeping up high corner speeds, without sacrificing significant agility on turn-in or in chicanes. The conventional rear shock seemed softer set up than Nori's electronic one, plus on the Corser Yamaha I felt molded to the bike, sitting inside it as a part of it, whereas on Haga's much taller machine I was more perched on top. As last year, the Corser R1 also had a notably different set of gear ratios compared to Haga's, with the bottom three also evenly spaced, but then a tight fourth and fifth and a long sixth.
Another big difference between the two R1s was that Troy had left a lot more engine braking dialed in compared to Nori's bike, presumably adjusting the electronics and the spring settings on the STM slipper clutch to help produce this. That delivered more confidence for my riding style under heavy braking for Portimao's slower turns, especially the first downhill left-hander, where its more balanced setup didn't stop it turning just as tightly as the more nervous, front-loaded Haga bike with its more radical geometry. But that also delivered extra momentum as I accelerated hard uphill to the next turn, with the staged green shifter lights Troy opts for flickering from 13,500 rpm upwards, before a bright red one flashed at 14,200 revs to remind me to tap the sweet-action powershifter lever with my left toe.
Holy video game, Batman! The...
Holy video game, Batman! The Yamaha's left clip-on bristles with switchgear for changing various performance parameters. The yellow "A" button is for switching off the traction control, while the blue "B" button below is for the pitlane speed-limiter. The rocker switch between those two buttons is for choosing between two traction control settings, one with more and the other less intervention. The red and green buttons on the left are for the three-step torque control, which controls the ride-by-wire throttle and determines the amount of torque in the lower three gears.
The Magneti Marelli Marvel...
The Magneti Marelli Marvel 4 ECU system has many of its control boxes attached to the back of the airbox. Note the tiny Marelli generator unit (as well as airflow cooling ducting) mounted inside the stock cavity where the stock alternator used to reside.
Haga preferred the new generation...
Haga preferred the new generation "through-rod" Ohlins TTX fork that is essentially built like a steering damper, with the operating rod running through seals at either end of the damping tube. Corser used the MotoGP-style TTX25 with external accumulator cylinders. The calipers are Brembo lithium monoblock units (lighter than aluminum), with the 320mm discs now 6.5mm in thickness after testing discovered dangerously high metal temps in the thinner discs.
The Yamaha's narrow build makes it seem pretty agile, perhaps because of the way the frame spars run up and over the slantblock motor. This seems to impose a higher C of G on the R1, which helps it steer nicely into turns, but makes it harder to lift up and over from side to side. The Corser R1 was super stable under heavy braking, almost faultless stopping from hard on in top along the main pit straight, then working down through the gears leaned over through the double entry before braking hard, hard, hard for the first-gear right-hander. The bite from the lithium Brembo calipers was superb, but the best thing was the way the Yamaha stayed planted to the line I'd chosen for it under heavy braking.
In 2009 Yamaha will be trying to have the best of both worlds, as listening to new recruit Ben Spies' R1 at Portimao amply illustrated as he trundled down pit lane at the end of the day, past the garage where I was packing up my kit, for the first laps in public of the new 2009-model bike. With its unpainted black bodywork, I thought at first it was a Sterilgarda Ducati as I heard it coming towards me, but not so: it was a four disguised as a twin, in drag!
I guess his spanking new R1 makes the YZF-R1 which Troy Corser and Nori Haga took to the final two places in the 2008 SBK series rostrum already history on wheels, the end of one particular era of four-cylinder Japanese superbikes. It may be gone, but not forgotten.