PETER MACKENZIE rides Yamaha's latest contender in the litre bike market, the cross-plane crankshaft 2009 YZF R1.
Mention Yamaha's 2009 YZF-R1 sports bike and conversation inevitably spotlights how the bike's cross-plane crankshaft defines its character.
The firing order of its four cylinders, unlike normal flat-plane crankshaft fours sitting 180 degrees apart (with all the crankpins sitting in one plane to achieve a dead even firing sequence), is instead set at 90-degree intervals to produce a pulsed beat at lower revs.
Most big fours are built to accelerate progressively up to medium revs until the intake velocity of air/fuel mixture hits a critical threshold, igniting the powerband.
Thousand cc motors are hardly gutless low down, but the hiss and roar comes towards the redline. This is where the cross-plane crank makes the biggest difference.
Unlike previous R1s, the 2009 bike simply feels, pulls and sounds like a V-twin from idle to 5000 revs. It punches off the line, storms through and out of corners - but when you pass the five grand mark, its beat is counterbalanced away to unleash an ultra free-revving race motor.
This is thanks also to a super short stroke (150% oversquare cylinders with a 78mm bore and 52.2mm stroke) and near inertia-less titanium valves.
From about 5000rpm, there's fully nine thousand revs of wicky, usable powerband before touching redline, the big four responding like its been blueprinted. Balanced like a Rolls-Royce jet rotor, it can be blipped from idle to redline a flash.
It can pull harder than most riders could hope to command and needs a racetrack to fully stretch its legs. Response time between apexes and braking points is wickedly fast.
At Levels racetrack there's an extra 30kmh on the straight over the previous R1, which could pull 240kmh. Fortunately, the engine is more tractable too, and no trouble to ride slowly, marking 4,300rpm at 100kmh.
A variable-size intake manifold (with shower injectors like Yamaha's even higher revving R6) tunes the flow of mixture into the cylinders to suit revs and throttle demand.
Push the starter button and even at idle there's an audible change from earlier R1s. Lightly open the throttle and the motor has a pulsing beat. Wind the throttle and it whips to redline, imitating Rossi's YZR M1 exhaust note. The R1's racing pedigree is a given: it's an unashamed track-honed machine with minor detuning and the street-legal necessities.
Helping tame a bike with well over 150 horses on tap is an on-the-fly variable engine map system. In the default Standard mode, all that power's available in a fairly predictable way.
You can also choose the more cautious B mode that cuts response to throttle inputs by 30% over quarter- to half-throttle. It is a blessing on dark, twisty, wet side roads like those to Kaka or Nugget Point. Find a sunny, open section to pass the semi-trailer you're stuck behind and you can choose A mode, which intensifies response to your throttle inputs by 30% above Standard mode settings. You'll then appreciate the holding power of the low seat as the handlebars try pulling your arms from your shoulder sockets.
The previous R1 was no slug, but A-mode changes the intake roar and exhaust howl to a racing soundtrack as surroundings turn to a blur.
B mode can even be useful for throttling hard out of tight corners: it constrains the torque delivery to prevent wheelspin spitting you clean off the bike.
Seating seems less stretched forward on the new R1, with less weight on the handlebars making a more comfortable crouch. The pelvis-shoulder-hands triangle that governs the riding position is steeper, its base narrower from the 1.75cm shorter cockpit.
Adjustable footpeg mounting allows better fitting to different riders and it's easier to get your toes under the shifter. It's a bit easier to twist to see around, but care with mirrors and vehicle proximity alertness still warrant due attention.
The R1 weighs just over 200kg, but the mass seems to sit centred and low in a sweet spot. The motor sits 9 degrees steeper and 8mm forward, so weight is redistributed 52.4/47.6 front to rear in a 5mm shorter (1415mm) wheelbase. Other efforts to centralise mass include titanium mufflers, magnesium subframe, and generator repositioning to make room for lowering the fuel tank.
You don't have to wrestle the bike, it falls into corners, picking a line best communicated via hips and knees. It can handle bumps in corners without getting upset, but it is a sports bike optimised for smoother tarmac, so you'll feel big bumps. Ridden in its element it's a sublime experience, even on tighter corners.
It's got power to burn across a broad, muscular powerband, clean ground clearance and neutral handling that lets the bike fall into corners, throttle response to lift it up and over the other side, plus anchors as good as they come. The front end set-up has a way of making hard braking feel like the whole bike is crouching down on its haunches and digging in its claws to pull up short and straight. It doesn't nosedive. Massive six-pot stopping power on the front (with lever-play adjustable on the fly), a sensitive rear disc set-up, and just the right amount of engine compression are all in balance.
You can cut and thrust through a series of corners on the throttle, controlling the bike's position using just engine torque and an optimised level of compression braking. The R1 slipper clutch stops unmediated compression on throttle roll-off at higher revs from locking up the rear end.
This bike richly rewards accurate throttle inputs. The Dunlop Sportsmax tryes on the test bike were nicely scrubbed-in from a track day, so it stuck well to the roads I travelled on a winter excursion into the Catlins. They were tenacious on smooth road and allowed careful braking well into apexes.
Clutch action is light and the six-speed box is faultless, snick-snicking down four gears easily into a 50kmh zone.
Suspension wasn't a shortcoming on earlier R1s, but it's even better this time around with a stiffer, even better chassis putting a touch more weight forward. Fork compression and rebound damping adjustments are isolated by putting the units each in one fork. Ohlins could this way optimise a unit for the upstroke and another for the downstroke, plus they're easier to adjust.
The R1 sits on the road like a rock, with solid feedback and a speed-sensitive steering damper for stability. You never doubt how well the front wheel's making contact (or the shape of what it just ran over.) Not plush, the bike is set up to hold on hard.
Finish is right up there with the best from Japan. It all fits; nothing rattles or feels under-engineered.
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