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

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

By: Tim Carrithers, Roland Brown, 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.

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.

By The Numbers
Ben Spies
2009 World Superbike Champion


As the sixth American champion earning the ninth American championship in 22 years of World Superbike racing, 25-year-old Ben Spies racked up a stunning record between Phillip Island and Portimao. But the 2009 season stands out in the record books for more than just coming down to the wire.

19 World Superbike race number
462 SBK points earned
6 Points margin over runner-up Noriyuki Haga
6 Laps Haga completed before race-one crash
260 Career SBK starts for Haga
41 Career SBK wins for Haga
28 Career SBK starts for Spies
24 Career SBK finishes
14 Career SBK wins
65 Total Yamaha SBK wins
1 Total Yamaha SBK championships
11 Superpoles, a single-season record
6 Fastest lap of races
17 Podium finishes
0 Previous champs earning zero points in the opening race
16 Finishing position in race one at Phillip Island
2 Younger SBK champs: James Toseland in 2004 (23 years, 11 months) and Troy Corser in 1996 (24 years, 11 months)
12 Position on all-time SBK win list after a single season of racing
94 Diamonds in Spies' $45,000 championship ring
3 AMA Superbike Championships
8 Consecutive AMA Superbike wins
7 Finishing position in Yamaha MotoGP debut at Valencia, Spain
5 2009 FIM roadracing titles earned by Yamaha: Superbike, Supersport, MotoGP, 250cc and 125cc
4 MotoGP appearances before his Yamaha debut at Valencia
61 Laps completed at Valencia MotoGP test
4 Final ranking at Valencia MotoGP test
3 Valentino Rossi's final ranking at Valencia MotoGP test
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