I can’t help it, but as I twist the Yamaha R1’s throttle to the max on the way out of the Killarney race track’s notoriously difficult and outrageously bumpy Malmesbury corner and the handlebars snap ever so briefly into opposite lock as the front wheel hovers centimetres above the surface, I am Valentino Rossi. Yes, I’m 48 years old and a motorcycle journalist, but I’m also a racing fan who hero-worships his idols as passionately as any teenager. And no, I’m not ashamed of it and I will hopefully always feel this level of excitement and wonder at the bikes and people who make motorcycle racing the unparalleled spectacle it is. The back straight at Killarney isn’t actually that straight, kinking away slightly to the left as it heads off to the final turn, a banked hairpin that fires you up towards the start/finish line.
Exiting Malmesbury in third gear there is enough time to dispense with fourth — and a good portion of fifth — with the digital speed readout registering somewhere in mid-260km/h territory, before fear and wisdom dictate I grab a big handful of the front brake. David McFadden is a Capetonian who is splitting his racing duties between British Superbike and World Superbike championships this year. The lad is talented, brave and very, very fast. With him on board, the R1 registers (with photographic evidence from our TV cameras) 294km/h. In fifth. On a bumpy track where the straight isn’t that long, or that straight.
This kind of performance used to be the preserve of Grand Prix race machines, but now it comes in a package with lights, mirrors and a number plate. With only a couple of sessions under my belt, I’m already of the opinion that this is the most impressive standard superbike I’ve ever ridden. And this from a man who, filled with conviction, recently wrote that BMW’s latest version of its S 1000 RR was so good I couldn’t see anything better coming along any time soon. For once, I don’t mind being proven wrong. My prediction was based on the knowledge that the S 1000 RR is utterly brilliant, and the fact that Yamaha hadn’t provided us with a noteworthy update of the R1 since 2009. It was entirely appropriate that Yamaha launched the R1 at a race circuit, because racing is this bike’s sole raison d’être. You can tell that by simply looking at the bike’s nose. A second glance is required to locate the headlights. The engineers constructed the best race bike they could, and only then worried about where to put the lights and make it street legal — hence aerodynamic and air-intake function outweighed aesthetic form. Having said that, this is still a great-looking bike. It closely resembles — intentionally — the M1 MotoGP machines of Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo.
No surprise there. Other than the obvious marketing benefits, what better place to start designing the ultimate production superbike than with your own MotoGP championship-winning racer? The R1’s chassis is a remarkably close reproduction of what makes the MotoGP machine such a feared competitor in the hundreds of twists and turns of the racing calendar. It might not be the quickest in a straight line, but Rossi’s weapon is nearly always the best into, through and out of the corners. This is probably true of the new R1 too. Not that it’s slow — its claimed 147kW is pretty much par for the course these days with Kawasaki, BMW and Ducati all generating similar levels of horsepower. The in-line four-cylinder engine has a decent enough mid-range, as you’d expect, but it doesn’t feel like anything special. What does grab your attention, though, is the way it wakes up between 7 000 and 8 000rpm, where it suddenly transforms itself from merely fast to ridiculously so. Accompanied by an intoxicatingly realistic Yamaha MotoGP howl, the R1 reels in both the redline and the horizon at a rate that forces the rider into recalibrating what constitutes fast.
The same sort of mental readjustment is required to master braking too. With a set of Brembo’s top radial callipers and huge front discs, speed is scrubbed off so effectively that the result is often a slower corner entry than you’d planned. It’s not the outright stopping power that impresses so much, but rather the uncanny calmness of the whole procedure. No tail wagging around as the front bites into the tar, no chattering of the suspension — just a blissfully smooth corner entry that lets you concentrate on taming the track instead of the bike. Electronic intervention rather than mechanical excellence is the icing on this braking cake. Yamaha’s Unified Braking System brings both front and rear stoppers into play, even as you operate only the front brake lever. The rear is activated to help with stability, and as you peel into the turn, it gradually removes the rear brake’s influence as you settle into the mid-corner. Electronic aids such as these not only make the R1 safer, but also make you quicker; trying to get the most out of such a ferocious beast would be beyond most mortals without this help.
In fact, given the amount of power on tap in a chassis sharp enough to give you paper cuts, it would probably be all but unridable. Of the four available riding modes, only one actually cuts any power — “D” is effectively a rain mode. The modes denoted by the first three letters of the alphabet dish out the full power, but slow the response of the throttle bodies to actual input on the throttle. “A” is a one-to-one response that means you get the full effect when you operate the twist grip. At the heart of the R1’s electronic wizardry is a six-axis gyroscope that is constantly measuring pitch, roll and slip angles. This information allows the bike’s brain to more accurately manage traction control, slide control and anti-wheelie systems — all of them adjustable individually.
Thus you can set the bike up in its most aggressive “A” mode, yet also fine-tune the riding aids to suit your particular requirements. Perhaps you prefer the front to rise more on the power rather than less, or you might like increased traction control, while letting the rear end step out further sideways before being reined in. Our restricted time with the R1 didn’t permit too much in the way of experimentation, and the nervous Yamaha technicians (there are only three bikes in the country at the moment) had set some of the bike’s parameters higher than I would have liked. Having said that, at no point did I feel like I was being held back by the aids, so subtle are they in their operation. Blasting on to the straight — with full throttle and the front wheel just skimming the surface of the track — showed the anti-lift working beautifully. Without it I would have constantly been ad- justing the throttle while climb- ing over the front end to keep it down.
Given the power available I might also have been busy trying to use a bit of back brake to calm the whole bucking, rearing mess down a bit. With the electronics managing the unwanted side effects of try- ing to go fast on a superbike (unwanted wheelies, spinning tyre, sliding rear end) I was able to focus on pointing the missile in the right direction and just prod the gear lever for another deliciously smooth and rapid quick- shifter-assisted gear change. The R1 is the best four-cylinder superbike I’ve ever sampled at a track, but it can be even better. The R1M is a more racy version, with carbon fibre everywhere and, more importantly, electronic semi-active suspension.
On a fast lap it feels more in control, calmer even, as it continually adjusts to the track and the rider’s demands. Undoubtedly amazing, but not very relevant to South Africans since of the 500 being built worldwide, only seven have made it to these shores, and they’re sold already. Prices are yet to be finalised, but when the R1 goes on sale later this month you can expect to pay around R240 000. Yes, it’s a heck of a lot of money, but there’s no arguing that it’s also a heck of a lot of bike. If you fancy playing at being Rossi, the dream is now more real than ever.
Engine: 998cc in-line 4
Power: 147kW at 13 500rpm
Torque: 112Nm at 11 500rpm
Gearbox: six speed
Weight: 199kg (full tank)
Fuel Tank: 17 litres
Price: R240 000