Back when I was lad with scabbed knees and bogeys, the first incarnation of Yamaha’s YZF-R1 hit the showrooms and blew everyone’s minds. Not only was it feted as a thing of beauty, but it also redefined the perception of what a superbike should be. It looked fast, it rode fast, and it sold fast. Now 20 years and 1,50,000 unit sales later, Yamaha’s flagship model, the R1M has been treated to some special upgrades. Rather than reinvent the wheel and develop a whole new bike, Yamaha have done what any good manufacturer would do by listening to what their customers have asked for and delivering on those demands, which saw a clutchless downshift system added to the arsenal.
“Possibly the greatest upgrade to the new R1M though, is the revised Öhlins Electronic Racing Suspension (ERS).”
Another complaint of the old stock was that the lift control (LIF) would often feel somewhat abrupt, like the taxman banging on your door when he’s after some dosh, so some attention has gone into making the system more sophisticated for a more natural feel. Possibly the greatest upgrade to the new R1M though, is the revised Öhlins Electronic Racing Suspension (ERS). Now featuring the latest SMART EC2 ERS (it’s got to be good with a name like that) the R1M sits on the most advanced bouncy bits in its class and promised to be quite the ballerina around Portimao where we were putting it to test.
On looks alone, the only sign that this bike is the updated 2018 model is the extra carbon visible on its super lightweight bodywork. It’s a surefire sign of the new R1M’s ‘if you have got it, flaunt it’ attitude, and being the exhibitionists we are, we’re big fans of that notion. Carbon aside, the R1M looks just as trick as ever with the ‘blu’ wheels and silver brushed ally tank epitomising both style and panache.
“The riding position is unmistakably sportsbike and when fired up, although far from deafening, there is a definite undertone of fire and brimstone in its song”
And to get the technoholics’ juices flowing, the full colour Thin Film Transistor (TFT) dash resembles the latest iPhone X perched under the bubble, while the GPS receiver set into the rear seat cowl looks like it’s just been taken off a full factory World Superbike. In the same vein, the little diddy LED headlights almost go unnoticed so if it wasn’t for a pair of mirrors grafted to the fairing, you could be forgiven for mistaking the bike for a thoroughbred racing weapon.
Once aloft, the race bike illusion isn’t quelled. The riding position is unmistakably sportsbike and when fired up, although far from deafening, there is a definite undertone of fire and brimstone in its song despite an obvious dampening due to the breezeblock-esque, fun-strangling Euro 4 exhaust.
Dawdling down pitlane the R1M felt a really short bike, and for a 6ft rider like myself, it feels like your head is teetering right over the front wheel. Out on the circuit though, and following our Yamaha representative and lead rider Alex Lowes (yeah, the former BSB champ and World Superbike rider) the aggressive riding position made a lot more sense; the extra-positive feeling of the R1M’s front end made turning the bike a doddle, at any speed.
“On the R1M, like most modern track-focused sportsbikes, the faster you go and the harder you push, the better things get.”
If you have ever ridden at Portimao you will know just how difficult a circuit it is. With a surfeit of blind corners and more ups and downs than a Coronation Street plotline, the first session was spent mostly looking over the bubble rather than through it, trying to remember whether the track went left or right beyond ‘that crest’ which was approaching at somewhere north of 160kmph. The CP4 drives ferociously all through the rev range and the more you ask from it the more it rewards you with its symphonic engine note.
Although for the most part the very welcome downshift system worked faultlessly, on a few occasions in the opening session I unceremoniously fluffed my gear changes on the approach to both fast and slow corners. I put this down to the fact that I was concentrating too much on where the track goes and not enough on riding the bike, as once I had learnt my way around I didn’t have a problem. After a few laps into the second session I was ready to put the proverbial hammer down.
“What sets the R1M apart from the crowd isn’t having the systems, it’s how well it makes them work”
On the R1M, like most modern track-focused sports bikes, the faster you go and the harder you push, the better things get. As the lap-times tumbled the intensity increased, but in the very best of ways. Using the updated shifter to its full potential resulted in more than satisfactory blip assisted clutch free downshifts and full throttle upshifts so slick you could gel your hair with them.
Let’s not pretend this is a revelation though; auto-blippers have been around long enough now and quick-shifters even longer – even on production bikes. To have but a chance of competing in the current marketplace this tech is merely the starting point. What sets the R1M apart from the crowd isn’t having the systems, it’s how well it makes them work.
Up there on the list of the R1M’s 2018 updates is the improved LIF, and Portimao’s undulating tarmac was an ideal place to test it. The start/finish straight is preceded by a flat-out-in-fourth right hander followed by a steep uphill incline that levels off as you run parallel to the pitwall. On a less advanced bike this crest would necessitate a good dollop of rear brake or some serious rollage. Not on the R1M. Over this 210kmph crest, the bike’s LIF is nothing short of remarkable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure, given enough beans in the lower gears you could still flip yourself off the back of an R1M, but through the big, fast crests the front wheel just hovers about 8in off the deck before it’s gently returned back down to terra firma. Nice.
“Whether it’s your hovercraft or your motorcycle we all want and need different things; if I want to go fast, but I’m heavy and my hovercraft is full of eels.”
Equally impressive is the new Öhlins SMART EC2 ERS. I am, and always will be, a huge fan of adjustability. Whether it’s your hovercraft or your motorcycle we all want and need different things; if I want to go fast, but I’m heavy and my hovercraft is full of eels. That’s where Öhlins’ latest Objective Based Tuning Interface (OBTi) system comes into play. The idea is that you can ask for more ‘support’ under braking, cornering or acceleration individually, as well as the overall firmness of the front and rear of the bike. In the first two sessions, with the suspension set to the T1 (Slick) mode and no fiddling, the Yamaha handled very sensibly.
When things started getting a little bit more serious I found that heavy grabbing of the front brake seemed to lock the forks up a bit too much causing the rear to go light (or lift in some cases). I thought I’d have a go at curing it by dialling in a little bit less ‘Brake Support’.
With a slightly softer front end set up (when braking) the front end felt much more malleable and not only inspired later braking but offered much more feel on corner entry. And the best thing about this system is that you can improve the bike in the one area without having to compromise anywhere else. Once I had improved the feel of the bike while braking I did begin to go faster, until the sharpness and strength of the brakes started to become the limiting factor. The brakes aren’t bad at all, and I never suffered with any brake fade, but they lack the bite of say the Panigale V4.
“The brakes aren’t bad at all, and I never suffered with any brake fade, but they lack the bite of say the Panigale V4.”
Another noteworthy trait of the R1M is the unified braking system which applies an amount of rear brake to help haul things up a bit quicker, as well as steady the rear of the bike, in times of keen braking. I’m all for tech like this if it helps to tidy your riding up and slows you down quicker, but in all honestly I only ever noticed it when the tyres were still a bit cool and the rear started stepping out on the brakes. I wouldn’t say it improved my lap times and it certainly didn’t inspire me with the confidence to turn in. It did make me feel like Rossi though, so it gets my vote.
This is one of the most technologically advanced bikes on the market, with all the systems working as unintrusively as you want them to. On the circuit it’s as close to faultless as anything I have ever ridden. As far as road riding goes, the setup that we used on track may well rattle your fillings out, but within seconds you can have the power delivery and suspension feeling as plush and lovely as any sportsbike ever ought to be. It’s true that for the price of the R1M you could go and buy the base model Panigale V4, but would you really choose the poor man’s Panigale over a top of the range, Taste the Difference, R1M? I don’t think I would.
Words by Mike Booth