Superbikes: Ben Spies' Yamaha YZF-R1 - Spy vs. Spies

Uncovering the secret to Big Ben's Sterilgarda Yamaha YZF-R1 Superbike

By: Roland Brown, Tim Carrithers, Photography by StudioZac, Yamaha

One day after its moment of triumph on this strip of rubber-streaked Portimao tarmac, the blue-and-white Yamaha is unchanged but the feelings of its rider could hardly be more different. As the factory YZF-R1 sweeps through the last, fast right-hand curve and onto the Portuguese circuit's pit straight, I'm savoring its stunningly strong and smooth acceleration, enjoying the crisp four-cylinder howl from the underseat exhaust and wishing my all-too-brief ride could last just a few more laps.

What a difference to Ben Spies' emotions in the World Superbike finale just one day earlier, as he had ridden past a crowded and anxious pit wall in fifth place toward the end of the second race, checking his board yet again to see the number of laps remaining count down with agonizing slowness. He was desperately hoping that nothing unexpected would happen, that the exhaust note wouldn't falter to signal some problem. That finally the checkered flag would be waiting and he'd become Yamaha's first ever World Superbike Champion.

That is exactly what happened, of course, as the 25-year-old Texan crossed the finish line to earn the 11 points sufficient to cap a memorable roller-coaster of a season, and end Yamaha's two-decade-long wait for the title. Not that Spies ever remotely looked like making a mistake in those final laps, as he ended the season with the same controlled aggression with which he had begun it. Having taken pole, he dominated race one while title rival Noriyuki Haga buckled under the pressure and crashed out.

It was a spectacular debut season from Spies, who stamped his class on the championship. He earned his promotion to Yamaha's MotoGP team with a record total of 11 pole positions and 14 race victories, most on circuits he had never seen. His season was a hugely impressive display of pace, consistency and commitment.

And it was an equally brilliant first year for the revamped R1, which had achieved in one season something its predecessors never managed, despite coming agonizingly close several times. The racebike's performance vindicated Yamaha's decision to give the production R1 the most comprehensive redesign since its introduction in 1998, and in particular to follow the firm's YZR-M1 in adopting the crossplane crankshaft whose smoother power pulses helped Valentino Rossi transform the firm's MotoGP fortunes a few years earlier.

I'd suspected that the new production R1 would make the basis for a great racebike ever since being blown away by its outstanding throttle response at its press launch at Eastern Creek in Australia last January. Despite that, few people had expected Spies to make such an impressive start as he did at nearby Phillip Island the following month, when he took pole position plus a win in race two, after being run off the track twice in the opener.

Eight months later, the R1 in the Portimao pit lane had acquired Sterilgarda sponsor logos but was otherwise little changed. At a glance it looked like a hotted-up version of the production bike, albeit one tuned with the very best components from suppliers including Öhlins, Brembo, Marchesini and Akrapovic. Look more closely, however, and the clues to its exotic breeding are clear in the high-tech Marelli dashboard, the host of buttons for adjusting fuelling and traction control, and in the many electronic sensors.

As the Yamaha mechanics unrolled the tire-warmers from the #19 bike, I threw a leg over its thinly padded seat and found it felt typically light, tall and firm. I briefly took in the cockpit's blend of bare carbon-fiber fairing inners and big, black-anodized triple clamps with broad, gold-finished Öhlins fork tops poking through.

Despite its production origins, this is one seriously high-tech motorbike. On its left handlebar are four round, colored buttons for pit lane speed limit, launch control, and to allow Spies to adjust the engine map and traction control to suit conditions and tire wear. Those variables can also be adjusted automatically, depending on gear position or GPS-determined location on the circuit.

Given all this, it seemed slightly strange when a mechanic stepped forward to fire up the engine by pressing a button on the opposite handlebar, as though this bike was straight out of a showroom. Yamaha can meet the 356-pound minimum weight limit with starter in place, so retains it. There was no mistaking this R1 for anything remotely ordinary, though. Even at virtually idle the exhaust note was gravelly, deep and malevolent, leaving no doubt about this engine's intentions.

Yet there was no hint of bad manners from the bike as I pulled in the light-action clutch, hooked into gear, blipped the equally low-effort throttle and pulled away up the Portimao pit lane. Out onto the circuit, wind open the throttle fairly cautiously, and-blam! The R1 shot toward the first turn with a gorgeously crisp and well-metered torrent of acceleration, immediately feeling as viciously powerful yet rider-friendly as you'd hope of an all-conquering racebike.

For today's test Yamaha had turned down the power slightly and increased the level of traction control, though the R1 was still kicking out close to 200 horsepower through its 190mm-wide Pirelli slick. And making lots of smooth power through the midrange, too, though inevitably it lost some drive when I went through a couple of turns a gear too high on my first lap. The engine pulled from about 6000 rpm, but with nowhere near the force available at higher revs. The R1 lacks some of the rival Ducati 1098R's low-rev torque, but benefits from having alternative gearbox ratios.

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