What's the biggest difference between reviewing cars and testing motorcycles?
With the two-wheelers you occasionally get handed the keys to the motorcycle equivalent of a road-ready Formula One car.
Take this Yamaha R1, for example. Complete with freer-flowing accessory exhaust, it's not too far removed from the machines that contest the World Superbike Championship. With just a bit of suspension alchemy and engine tuning, it would be able to compete at a relatively high level. And if you don't believe me, ask Kevin Schwantz, the 1993 World 500cc Grand Prix champion. The lanky Texan recently sampled a brace of 1000cc sportsbikes for a British motorcycle mag, and declared that he could have qualified in Top 10 grid positions on them had they been available during his era of GP racing.
This makes Yamaha's fitting of adjustable traction control and three different throttle modes to the 2012 R1 most welcome. For the brutally-fast Yamaha isn't normally the most friendly choice of 1000cc sportsbike for the road. Its rider ergonomics position you for speed rather than comfort, the race-strength suspension only begins operating at velocities that'll keep your lawyer on speed-dial, and the searing acceleration so blisters your brain that all thoughts turn to mush. Shock therapy no longer has to involve men-in-white attaching electrodes to your head and plugging you into the national grid. Just opening the Yamaha's throttle wide-full-open will suffice.
The difference with the 2012 R1 is that you now have a choice between a bike that's either wild or mild to ride. Previous versions only came with a single persona (and it wasn't Mother Teresa). On the switchblock of the left side handlebar there is now a large TCS (Traction Control System) rocker switch that lets you select one of six levels of electronic intervention for when the rear tyre breaks loose. On the other handlebar, a mode button allows you to choose one of three throttle maps: a quickfire setting for track-day heroics, a standard mode similar to the response of previous R1s, and a slow-mo setting that could be useful when riding on slippery road surfaces. Both the TCS and the throttle settings can be adjusted on the move and, unlike the Euro sportsbikes that first introduced such race-bred electronic riding aids to road- going motorcycles, the access to the adjustments is quick, simple and intuitive.
Being late to the electronic riding aid party has allowed Yamaha to provide class-leading access to the systems and this made a big difference to how much I used them. Without having to first stop the bike and go through a process similar to setting the time on a digital clock, as when riding some European-branded sportsbikes, I found I was constantly using the TCS rocker switch on the left handlebar, although the throttle mode button on the right bar had a lot less action during this test. The latter was kept in standard mode most of the time, and the a and b throttle modes explored briefly for investigative purposes only. Meanwhile, the TCS was constantly tailored to tyre temperature and bike operator mood. A cold rear tyre no longer presented a potential hazard with the TCS armed to the full, and when it came up to operating temperature the system could be turned down the point where it felt like it no longer intervened at all. Like all 1000cc sportsbikes, the new R1 is capable of mega-wheelies, but loopy rear wheelstands are only enabled now by the premeditated act of turning the TCS completely off first.
Apart from the new electronics, new paint schemes, a new engine management computer that massages mid-range performance, and a new MotoGP-inspired top triple clamp to attach the front forks, it's business as unusual for the R1. The bike's inline four-cylinder engine remains a riding highlight due to the positioning of the crankpins at 90 degree-intervals on the crankshaft, which makes it roar with the authority of a V4. The testbike sounded sensational with its accessory exhaust; it halted the refilling action at petrol station forecourts when we pulled up.
The Yamaha's handling is generally satisfying, thanks to an electronically-monitored steering damper that prevents the frisky- steering R1 from shaking its head unduly on bumpy roads. Said damper also makes the turn-in to low-speed corners feel ponderous, and the R1 needs more steering input in such situations than some of its competitors. A tyre upgrade would be nice too, as the Dunlop Qualifier radials were the same rubber that the R1 wore when I last rode a new one three years ago.
That previous R1 cost $23,995 new, while the 2012 version costs $24,495 - a mere $500 more for big advances in what was once the most uncompromising 1000cc sportsbike on the market.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 998cc liquid-cooled dohc 16-valve inline four, stoked by electronic fuel injection to develop 121kW (162bhp) at 12,500rpm and 107Nm at 10,000rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed sequential gearbox, chain final drive.
Frame: Twin-spar alloy frame with alloy rear swingarm, 43mm fully-adjustable inverted front forks and fully adjustable rear monoshock.
Hot: A better bike for the road now that there is the opportunity to turn its race-bred performance down; Cross-plane cranked four sounds sensational
Not: Needs its stabilising steering damper like John Banks needs treatment for potential Alzheimers; six-piston front calipers lack initial bite.
- © Fairfax NZ News