It Ain't No Snail
Roland Brown rides the new R1
The rain in Spain was not what the world's bike press had flown to Barcelona to see. American and Japanese journalists who had jetted half-way round the world to ride Yamaha's hot new R1 and limited-edition R1SP were standing in the Catalunya circuit's pit garages looking mournful as it continued to pour down outside. Even this Brit, who'd arrived on a quick £35 EasyJet flight from Luton, was getting depressed.
Fortunately, the rain eventually did stop - and by late-morning I was cautiously accelerating out of the Catalunya circuit's pit lane aboard the R1SP: the most exotic and exclusive open-class superbike that Yamaha has ever built. Those last two letters stand for Sport Production, the traditional racing class for hotted-up streetbikes in many European countries. Although the SP has a standard engine, it has just about enough new chassis parts to justify the designation.
Like most good ideas, this one seems obvious after someone else has had it: Take your top super-sports bike, tweak it for next season's battle as you do every couple of years - and then go a stage further to create an upmarket model that will be built in small numbers and sold at a premium price. The Italian manufacturers have been doing it for so long (with bikes like Ducati's 916SPS) that the only surprise is that the Japs haven't joined in before, unless you count purpose-built homologation specials such as Honda's RC30 and Yamaha's own OW01 and YZF-R7.
This was a good year for Yamaha to introduce the SP and gain some extra publicity and street cred, because the updates to the standard R1 are much less dramatic than we've been used to in the fast four's previous every-other-yearly tweak. The still slinky styling is basically unchanged, and the only significant mods to the 998cc, 20-valve motor are shorter intake valve guides and smoother ports, to boost intake air flow. That gives an extra 3bhp that raises claimed max power to 175bhp at an unchanged 12,500rpm.
The main change to the standard R1's chassis was to fine-tune rigidity, and not in the way that you might expect. Rather than make the frame more rigid, the cast aluminium main spars are slightly thinner between the steering head and front engine mounts, as the resultant reduction in rigidity is claimed to give quicker turn-in and better front-end feedback. I think they mean when you're lapping near the front in an international-level race, not rounding a taxi on the North Circular...
Other areas are modified in search of extra stiffness, however. The bottom triple clamp is thicker, the engine mounts are strengthened, and the 43mm upside-down forks have slightly redesigned sliders. The swing-arm, whose traction-increasing length has been an R1 feature ever since the first model eight years ago, is now a further 16mm longer, stretching wheelbase to a longest yet figure of 1415mm.
Most of Yamaha's R1 development effort this year went on the SP version. There's very little change to the motor, which gains a slipper clutch and gold-coloured silencers but is otherwise the same as the standard R1 unit. But the chassis has numerous improvements, starting with suspension from Öhlins. The 43mm upside-down forks, same size as the stock ones, are matched by a Swedish-built shock that has a hydraulic preload adjuster knob. The SP also gets a ride height adjuster built into its linkage.
Suspension and wheels are particularly useful for racing in the Superstock class, which doesn't allow those parts to be changed. The SP's neat gold forged aluminium Marchesini wheels come shod with super-sticky Pirelli Diablo Corsas instead of the standard R1's Michelin Pilots. Each wheel saves roughly 400g in unsprung weight. That's just as well because the standard R1 weighs a claimed 173kg, one kilo more than last year's model, and the SP is a kilo heavier again due to those Öhlins forks and the slipper clutch.
Not that I was worrying about an extra kilo of weight (I'd had a light breakfast) as I climbed aboard the SP. The 500 units coming to Europe will all be finished in dark "gun smoke blue" and black. It looks classy and understated, if a bit dull compared to the brilliant yellow/white/black anniversary colour scheme that the limited-edition model comes in for the US market.
The SP's top yoke also has a numbered plate, which read 000 in the case of this pre-production machine. That all added to the feeling of riding something extra tasty as I headed down the pit lane, the Yamaha's immediately light and responsive feel thankfully helping to diminish nerves generated by the prospect of caning this ultra-exclusive, 175bhp missile around a still partly damp racetrack.
Howling down the Catalunya start/finish straight, a few laps later, with the digital speedo indicating 165mph and rising as I glanced down just before the 400m board, certainly got the adrenalin flowing. But the SP took it all in its supremely sorted, well-balanced way, slowing fiercely with the aid of the unchanged and hugely powerful radial four-pot front brake calipers, then flicking effortlessly right-left through the chicane, its outstandingly well-balanced feel helping me avoid a mistake. Some bikes are hard work to get turned for the second section, but the Yamaha always felt beautifully balanced and responsive.
That light steering was welcome again moments later, as I nudged the Yam slightly to the right to avoid the damp patches before screaming it up the hill towards the next right-hander. Everywhere else the track was dry, enough so to get the R1's unchanged footrests dragging occasionally given the impressive grip of the Diablo Corsas. Ground clearance wasn't a problem, though - and being tall I was glad of the reasonably roomy riding position that has helped make the R1 the most rider-friendly road bike of the super-sport contenders.
Fuel-injection is unchanged apart from minor tweaking to suit the new intakes, so I wasn't surprised that throttle response was as sweet as the previous R1's. There's a huge amount of midrange torque on tap, which was useful in the dry and even more so later in the day, after the rain had started coming down again. Response in one particularly slow and slippery downhill bend was slightly snatchy, but generally the Yam was impressively docile for such a rip-snorting machine.
It's difficult to judge just how much its new frame contributed to the R1's fine handling, or how much the longer swing-arm helped the Yam storm out of turns with a wonderfully controlled and stable feel despite the fact that its front wheel was getting distinctly light under hard acceleration. To be frank, the R1's handling was already so good that you'd have to be a very fast rider on a track to notice the difference, and even then it would only be marginal.
The standard R1's suspension was excellent, and the SP's Öhlins units gave even more confidence, allowing the bike to be flicked into turns and over track ripples and bumps with the effortlessly controlled feel that only very high-quality suspension provides. Despite that, a twitch entering some bends suggested that the forks needed a couple of clicks of damping fine-tuning before they'd be perfectly set-up. The rain's return before the end of my first session ended my hopes of that, because the track didn't dry out again all day. While the circuit stayed dry the standard Yamaha was fast and agile enough to show why the R1 has been so popular in the last couple of years- during which more than 50,000 units have been sold. Like the SP, the stock Yam screamed down the Catalunya straight at breathtaking speed, revving so quickly that I could barely change gear fast enough to keep up with the rev-warning light that was flickering on the neat digital dashboard, which now includes a lap-timer for the first time.
Some owners will find that timer useful for track days, but overall the improvements to the standard R1 are minor enough that for many others the most important innovation will be that classy Kenny Roberts style yellow-white-black Anniversary paint scheme. At £8999 that version costs £200 more than the standard red or blue alternatives. At £13,999 the SP is much more expensive, and you could arguably uprade a standard model with trick suspension and wheels more cheaply. But if you've got the loot and fancy the ultimate production R1, you're unlikely to be disappointed - although a more comprehensively updated standard model is likely to be unleashed in a year's time.