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

Once I'd worked out which gear I needed to be in, the Yamaha was as breathtakingly rapid as I'd expected, revving so quickly through the lower gears that I was glad to be able to shift with a slight tap of my left boot on the quick-shifter. Out of the slightly uphill left-hand fourth turn, it lifted its front wheel slightly and held it there as I hung off to the left and shifted into third, the bike's perfect fuelling and balance making what might have seemed scary hugely thrilling.

Revs built with stunning rapidity until triggering the instrument console's row of lights at the 15,000-rpm limit, slightly up on last year's R1 Superbike. Peak power is increased by a small margin, too. Yamaha claimed "over 210 bhp" for the R1 last season and was even vaguer this year, when the figure is about 215 bhp. That puts the R1 roughly on par with the opposition, perhaps slightly down on the Aprilia RSV4 and Honda CBR1000RR, although not enough to be at a notable disadvantage.

The Yamaha was into fifth gear and revving hard by the time I ran out of nerve and sat up to brake toward the end of the pit straight, by which time it was travelling seriously fast-though not at the 190 mph that Spies had managed en route to victory a day earlier. He was fastest through the speed trap in Portimao, and although the R1 was rarely the fastest bike throughout the season, it always had the speed to keep Spies in contention.

What's clear from this Superbike season is that now, more than ever, absolute horsepower is not critical. More important is how that power is delivered, with help from the increasingly sophisticated electronics used by all the teams. As Yamaha's racing manager, Laurens Klein Koerkamp, put it, "We were thereabouts on top speed. If you can win in Monza you can't be too bad, and we should have won both races." Robbed of victory after running out of fuel in the last turn at the team's home circuit, Spies' win in race two came despite his top speed of 195 mph being well down on the 202 mph of Max Biaggi's Aprilia.

In my handful of laps I didn't feel the traction control kick in, possibly because I wasn't going fast enough to spin the rear Pirelli, and perhaps because it's not easy to detect. "The system is very smooth. We control the torque rather than cut it," said the team's electrical expert, Davide Gentile. "Today it's a bit softer than the racing setting, so you can slide less. Spies did not need a lot of wheelie control. Usually he rode with a very strong engine, and not much traction control."

While Spies openly praised the crossplane engine's throttle response, a less well-known issue was the relatively heavy crankshaft's detrimental effect on handling. "You need a lot of strength to turn the bike," said Gentile. "The torque delivery is so good, and it [the crankshaft layout] is much better for the tires, but it made it difficult for the handling."

Everything's relative, of course, and by the standards of a production supersport this ultra-light and superbly suspended R1 felt wonderfully quick and easy to turn. In this it was helped by Spies' riding position, which has footrests set well back and very wide handlebars to give more leverage. Part of the reason I didn't have a problem turning the R1 was doubtless that, at 6'4" and 185 lbs., I'm even taller and heavier than Spies, who at a very fit 5'11" and 160 lbs. is big for a racer. "You need some muscle with this bike," Gentile says. "It can work with a very strong rider, not with a smooth riding style. Luckily, Ben is big and strong."

Spies' size also meant the R1's suspension was better set-up to cope with my weight, so its Öhlins fork wasn't remotely fazed when I called on the huge stopping power of the ultra-trick Brembo radial four-pot calipers at the end of the straight. The Yamaha's firm, Öhlins-equipped rear end also meant that it stayed stable as it powered onto that same straight through the fourth-gear right-hander, while I jammed my head behind the low screen, glanced up at the pit wall and wished I had a few more laps on this searingly fast yet rider-friendly Superbike.

As the closeness of the title race suggests, there was very little between the Japanese Yamaha four and the Italian Ducati twin in this most competitive and thrilling of seasons. The R1 was certainly very good, as it confirmed by winning national titles in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Britain. At world championship level, the most crucial factor was arguably not the R1 but its rider. Spies kept his cool until the very last lap, while Haga couldn't quite cope with the increasing pressure of chasing his own first championship after years of trying.

The combination of Spies and the Yamaha was blindingly fast, won half of the year's races and overcame some bad luck to win the title by a narrow margin. The R1 wasn't perfect but it was competitive in every area, and Spies' physical strength allowed him to negate its potential weakness. Overall, the revamped R1 was fast and agile enough to get the job done, and to deliver that first World Superbike title to Yamaha. Ultimately, that was all that mattered.

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