by Neale Bayly
Never in the field of human conflict has one so unworthy done so little with so much!
Ice-cold fingers are running down my spine, the quiet room filled with the sound of my beating heart and an oppressive sense of apprehension. Bare walls, metal chairs and a dozen kit bags are visible in my peripheral vision, as I close my eyes and focus on breathing deeply. The Canadian in the corner is visibly sweating as he fights his demons, nervously pecking at a cell phone in the middle of a transatlantic text conversation. And then the explosion comes, shattering the clammy silence like a mortar round making a direct hit as the floor trembles and the room reverberates from the violent cacophony of sound. Yanking me back to consciousness, it fades as fast as it came: Valentino Rossi’s YZR-M1 is heading toward turn one in the Spanish sunshine and an uneasy sense of calm returns to the room.
Lying back on my gear bag and closing my eyes, the staccato sound of Kalashnikov rifles competes with the quieter, more rapid firing pattern of the opposing M16s. Screeching and slewing along a narrow strip of road through the mountains between Honduras and Nicaragua during the Sandanista/Contra war, I am having the wildest ride of my life. Inside my head the conversation is a crazy debate to decide if my short life will end as a result of a crash, or the bullet I will never hear. To my untrained ear it sounds like Chinese New Year, and burying down among the mess of bodies and bags in the back of the worn out pick up truck, the seconds tick by like hours. And then, as abruptly as the mayhem had started, a dozen Honduran workers and business men are spilling out of the truck at the border, while smiling ladies offer fizzy drinks in plastic bags. Walking away to collect my thoughts in the quiet sunshine, the bullet ricochets off the burned-out metal building almost before the whizzing sound computes in my brain, and I sit bolt up right as the M1 blasts by again. The Canadian is listening to his I-pod while a German journalist is putting his leathers on. I have a few hours before it is my turn to ride one of the fastest, most valuable racing motorcycles on the planet, so I decide to wander down to pit lane to view my fate a little closer.
The terror began before I had even hung up the phone when the initial invite came from Yamaha. “Would I like to ride Valentino Rossi’s World Championship winning motorcycle after the last Moto GP in Valencia, Spain?” Stuttering out some sort of affirmative sound, the following silence at the end of the phone seemed invasive as I stared out of my office window, wondering what my mouth’s ability to talk before thinking had gotten me into this time. I would be riding the Yamaha YZR-M1 at a racetrack I have never been to, with a guest list of test riders that contained more ex world champions and GP stars than I could count on one hand, and have just four laps to evaluate the beast.
Doing some research on the bike didn’t help matters much either. Weighing somewhere around 320 pounds, putting out anywhere from 230-250 horsepower, depending on who’s listing it, and with an estimated value between development soft costs and hard parts in excess of a million dollars, there was nothing in my humble career that came anywhere close. Throw in that the regular rider happens to be one of the most, if not the most, talented road racer to throw a leg over a motorcycle in the history of the sport and the blood pressure started to rise.
Back on pit lane, Yamaha were sharing the track with Kawasaki, and you don’t want to be anywhere close to the green monster when it roars into life. Physically shaking the ground and making pit wall vibrate on idle from thirty yards away, I watched with interest as journalist after journalist stalled the bike trying to make their way down pit lane. In fairly stark contrast, the M1 was a whole lot quieter as it sat idling in the pits. It also didn’t require ramming my earplugs deeper into my cranium to make being near it tolerable. Slipping easily down pit lane, it looked a whole lot easier to manage than the Kawasaki, and this at least added some small measure of comfort. Out on the track, it was literally possible to hear every single gear change the Kawasaki made at every point on the circuit, but not so the M1. Once it had disappeared down pit lane, it wasn’t really until it came down the front straight that it made its presence felt. Forcing a wall of sound in front of it, I could hear two quick gear changes, a shredding, thunderous roar, and another deep boom as the next gear was selected, before the rider let off and downshifted for the corner.
Trying to watch the M1 come at me, then swivel my head to follow, was a futile action as the bike was just traveling too fast. In the saddle for this stint was living legend Giacomo Agostini. Having won 15 World Grand Prix titles in his 17 year career, as well as taking 12 wins at the Isle of Man and one at the Daytona 200, it was a special moment watching the great man circulating the beautiful Valencia race track. He was followed by 500cc World Champion Alex Criville, World Champions Luca Cadalora, Jorge Martinez and Dirk Raudies and GP regulars from the past, Shunji Yatsushiro, Nobby Ueda, Randy Mamola and Steve Parrish. Throw in Sir Alan Cathcart, Matt Oxley and a host of other highly respected journalists and you can see why I was having trouble catching my breath in the rarified air.
At lunch, the M1 was taken into the garage and the mechanics quickly started stripping it. Motorcycle racing is taken a lot more seriously in Europe, and a handful of television crews had been working all morning. Dorna had a helicopter filming, and Yamaha had wired the bike with three onboard cameras. Watching how easily the bodywork popped off, and how low and centrally located the fuel sits in the beautifully welded tank was fascinating. Under the bodywork, there are a mass of wires, braided steel lines, hoses and a massive machined alloy plate on top of the rear shock. I noticed the frame has its own serial number, and even the gas gap has its own special tool to open and close it.
The frame itself is an aluminum twin tube delta box unit, with multi adjustable steering geometry, wheelbase and ride height. All new for ’05, it has revised upper engine mounts and some changes to the main spars. Vertical and twist rigidity remain the same, but the lateral rigidity has been reduced. This helps the rider by allowing more front-end feel when the bike is fully cranked over and the suspension travel has been used up, while still maintaining maximum rigidity under hard braking. The M1 is also taller this year, to allow more weight to be placed on the front wheel as the previous generation M1’s tended to push the front end.
In the rear it uses a massive aluminum swingarm that became inverted in 2004 to lower the center of gravity. Longer again for 2005, this is actually a deliberate move that slows the steering to help the riders slide in and out of corners. It also pays huge dividends when the tires start to deteriorate and there is not so much grip available. Ohlins suspension is used front and rear, and the wheels are 16.5 inch Marchesini, which come in a variety of rim widths wrapped in the Michelin tire de jour. The rear suspension also comes with a variety of links for use at the different tracks, and it was interesting to note how much travel the rear wheel had available in the chain adjustment slots.
Tucked away between the simply massive frame rails, is the most powerful inline normally aspirated four-cylinder motorcycle engine in the world, and one that surprisingly uses a four valve, not a five valve cylinder head. Talking with crew chief Jeremy Burgess, he told me this new unit is the most civilized yet, making a smoother, broader spread of power. Apparently, when Rossi came on board, they tested a variety of engines with four and five valves, and he determined this motor with its irregular firing order to be the most “sweet.” A major advantage with the “big bang” engine is the smoother power delivery, which is easier on the rear tire. The engine also has a reverse rotating crank layout to help the bike turn in faster, and maximum power is delivered at 15,000 rpm. This figure could be anything up to the 250 bhp mentioned earlier, depending on who’s talking, but whatever it is, it’s phenomenal from just 990cc.
To take advantage of all this horsepower and chassis equipment, the M1 is bristling with computer technology. A Magneti Marelli Engine Management System (EMS) controls the Idle Control System (ICS) and the Traction Control System. This ICS keeps two of the four throttle bodies slightly open when the throttle is closed to help control the engine braking and works in real time. Taking its feedback from the amount of tire wear, available grip and weather conditions, it then makes its decisions and does its stuff. The Traction Control works in a similar fashion, reading chassis performance, track conditions and also tire wear.
Visually, there is little noticeable change to this year’s bike, but the aerodynamics have been improved to better keep the rider out of the 200 mph breeze, and to maximize air flow to the new hand built radiator. There is also a new fuel tank to facilitate the redesigned pressurized air box. The graphics are unchanged, with the “Doctor’s” famous number 46 emblazoned on the bright blue bodywork.
Checking my watch, I was jerked into action when the Yamaha Europe guy yelled over the noise that I was up next. They were ahead of schedule and it was game on. Quickly climbing into my leathers, I was greatly relieved that the thinking could stop. Approaching Valentino Rossi’s M1 through a crowd of spectators, photographers and mechanics, I waited patiently for the tire warmers to come off and the bike to be started. A small electric machine bumped the bike off in second gear, and the mechanic slipped it up into neutral with his hand. There was no turning back now, and as another tech revved the engine, I buckled my helmet and carefully climbed on board. I was in the Doctor’s office and have never felt so nervous or unworthy. Taking a big, deep breath I pulled in the super light clutch, gave the throttle a small blip before slipping the gear lever up into first. There was one small problem. I was surrounded by people, and the mechanic had his hand on my shoulder as he yelled something at me. Waiting for the last piece of sage advice that was going to help keep me alive, I looked right at him as he screamed in my helmet, “you crash it and we’ll kill you.”
And so, on that comforting note, I slid past the photographer, around the hot blond girl in the hip hugger jeans with the bored look on her face, and rolled on down pit lane. Finally it all made sense. All the pensive weeks of wondering, imagining and hypothesizing were over. I was in the saddle of the most famous Moto GP bike in the world and there was nowhere else in the world I would have rather been.
First gear is extremely tall and with a good distance before hitting the track, I experimented with the throttle a little. The power delivery down low is very strong, without being shocking, and it is oh so smooth. The bike felt small, but not tiny, and at just under six feet I didn’t feel crunched up. The digital tach is quite large, but I didn’t have much time to focus on the climbing bars as I twisted the throttle and made for turn two. Short shifting up into second just gave more of the same as the tight left hand corner arrived quicker than I thought, and easing on the brakes I tip-toed round the turn trying to get my bearings on the track. With two laps in the pace car, and five laps of Play Station under my belt, at least I had some idea where I was going.
The rest of lap one was similar as I wobbled around the track at a pace that a pit scooter could have matched, before tipping into the last corner and seeing the front straight ahead. No more Mr. Nice guy, it was time to twist the throttle. Making sure I was as upright as possible, it was head down and go for it. Rolling on the throttle, shift lights started flashing at 15,200 rpm as somewhere beneath me my foot responded by pushing down on the gear lever. The horizontal view in my peripheral vision began to blur as the world went into hyper drive; not even fast forward could compete with this. Boom, boom, boom, I could see my hands flapping, which meant the front wheel was off the ground, but the bullet was aiming true for its target. Brake markers didn’t exist at this point, only a sense of self-preservation that told me I should roll off the throttle as the postage stamp sized turn one came into view. The smack of air as I sat up was violent, the carbon brakes initially not doing anything. Then, my brain went into a mental seesawing between, “I can’t get it stopped in time” to, “oh my God how can I be stopping this fast.” The sensation of going from not thinking I was going to get it stopped, to being completely terrorized by how fast I was stopping makes dropping acid seem like a mild cure for boredom. And, before you could say, “this is the end of my career,” we were howling though turn one and heading for turn two at an alarming rate. Hard on the brakes, a light flick on the bars, and I am zigzagging through the corner like a drunk performing a straight-line sobriety test as I try to find my line. At my pathetically slow speeds, leaning in just makes the bike want to turn toward the inside gravel trap forcing me to lift up. Of course still being on the throttle, this now sends us off toward the other side of the track before this chopping action finally dumps me into the short straight before turn four. Where, on something like an R6, I would be diving in and trying to connect the corners. I wobbled up the straight, my knees knocking inside my leathers, louder than the M1’s dry clutch on idle. Making matters worse, there were more telephoto lenses sticking out from behind the barriers than quills on a porcupine’s arse, and I am horribly aware my lack of ability is being captured every 250th of a second for the world to see.
Gassing it out of turn five, something had to be wrong. During yesterday’s race I could hear the bikes shifting gears. This had to be a straight, yet I had exited the corner with about six grand showing on the tach, barely got into the terror zone and as the whole world started going mental I was magically there. Exiting six, I should have been hard on the gas and leaned over, but couldn’t muster up the minerals, short shifting up to the 90 degree left. Sliding through on my knee, I was amazed how little effort it took to go over, and it picked back up so quick for the right, I was almost back to my turn 3 antics again. Oh my God! This was worse than my worst nightmare, and running up to the blind right/left flick was no better.
As I was approaching turns eight through nine, “the most likely to crash” spot on the track, a small bump made me instantly aware how stiffly the bike is set up, and before I could congratulate myself on noticing anything but the gray mist of terror surrounding me. I was on the brakes, leaned over heading down hill. Tip-toeing back onto the front straight, there was another chance for some redemption as I pinned it through the gears. Just in awe of the way the bike keeps pulling as if there were no end to the power. At the top end of fourth, hitting fifth was still just as strong, and it seemed to be getting stronger. Knowing that if there were a mile long straight in front of me we would be topping out somewhere on the far side of 220mph, sent shivers down my spine.
This time I got the combination right and went through turn one on my knee at the best pace yet. Up the hill, flick in, accelerate, and flick it in harder; somewhere in the fog a light was beginning to shine. The track was making some sense. I could use the incredibly tall first gear without filling my leathers, or being spit off like a 90-pound weakling on a mechanical bull, and actually started to ride a little. Diverting a little concentration to the bike again, I was aware how stiffly it is set up; in much the same way Jamie Hacking has his Graves R1 adjusted. Mere mortals such as I just don’t open the throttle hard enough to test the suspension, and gaining more speed over the blind rise re-affirmed this for me again.
Pulling into the pits at the end of four laps, all I could see was Jeremy Burgess’s smiling face. He wasn’t pleased to see me, he was just happy to see his bike back in one piece, and with me being the last journalist to ride it he knew nothing could hurt it now. Actually, he kindly took a few minutes to talk and explain his philosophy on making the bike so easy to ride. Having watched the Ducatis struggling through the last corner onto the front straight, compared to the M1, he has more than achieved his goal. And, that a very average rider such as myself could get on it and ride safely round a racetrack with comparatively little drama is further testament to the amazing skill, talent and commitment of the whole Yamaha crew.
Climbing out of my leathers and decompressing in the changing room I felt like I had a concussion. I had just spent the wildest fifteen minutes of my life, with the most incredible motorcycle I have ever ridden, and only small fragments were coming back. Over the next days, the whole experience began to filter in and two weeks out enough had returned to write this article. I have a feeling it will be many years before it is all recalled, and each time something does I will be able to enjoy it all over again, even if the mere thought of the M1 makes my heart race, my mouth go dry and my blood pressure rise.