1999 Yamaha YZF-R7 OW-O2
Some people have all the luck and its its not me.
However, even the losers get lucky sometimes.
Sitting beneath me was a full race-kitted Yamaha YZF-R7 on slick tires, the very bike that I drooled over as it sat on the stage at its launch in Munich. It looked so absolutely fantastic that I vowed to ride it one way or another. For most of us the nearest we'll get to one is our dreams, that is unless we're prepared to take up a career in bank robbery and happen to possess a strong racing resume as well. Now, without being a racer or having held up a single bank, one of those 500 R7s was between my legs in the pit lane at Donington Park, Britain's historic Grand Prix and World Superbike circuit. I had already ridden the road bike version but nothing had prepared me for my track experience.
The Track Marshall waved me on and suddenly I awoke from my reverie to the reality of actually riding the R7 on the track. I blipped the throttle and slipped the impossibly light clutch to get the throaty four-cylinder engine turning hard enough to roll me out onto the circuit. With the clutch engaged and only 3000 showing on the tach the bike was already leaping ahead. Here is a four-cylinder that pulls like a V8 car. Anywhere in the range from 3000 to 14,000 rpm produces real power. There is a definite kick at 8000 but even earlier things happen very quickly. In third the front wheel got light when hard on the throttle.
All this engine performance is pointless without a chassis that's up to the challenge. Right from the start Yamaha set out to make this the best handling bike in its class. Lucky for them that they had a template to work with: the YZR500 Grand Prix bike. Using the same dimensions the R7 looks tiny. It's short, low and narrow. The black frame and swingarm look great, as do those sculptured body panels in the red, black and white of Yamaha's race colors. Believe me, it feels as good as it looks. Actually, it feels even better, in fact.
The tires were stone cold. We had just unloaded the R7 from the truck when a Marshall came running out to tell us our slot had been pushed forward and I could get on the track. I only had an hour to ride but what an hour that was. Donington is a difficult track and I am no racer. Get one curve wrong and the next three are wrong as well. For me that meant spending the first 20 minutes warming up the tires and finding a line that seemed to work. This was the first time I had ridden on slicks. Once they were warm the grip was superb, but when they were cold the rear would slide if I opened the throttle too hard. I abused the front-end by braking too late and getting caught by the engine's immediate pick-up, but there were no near-death experiences. Once I got into a groove and started to apply the power hard and early through a turn I began to experience the depth of the bike's abilities. One thing was for certain, it has much more ability than I do.
The engine is simply brilliant. No race engine has a right to be so flexible, pulling better than many street bikes of the same capacity. The raucous noise coming up from underneath me as I ran the tach needle up through the rev range will haunt me for ever. At low revs it sounds almost like a V-4, with a strange off-beat grumble from the intake, rough not in a mechanically-defective way but in a "look-out-I-am-bad" way. Several times I ran laps lazily in fourth, winding through all but the tightest turns without bothering to shift. Out of each corner the motor just growled and built up speed like a jet fighter on after-burners.
This particular R7 was fitted with Nissin racing brakes that put braking into a higher league, scrubbing off speed effortlessly while being so progressive they allowed for deep braking into corners. The stock Ohlins suspension at the front and rear handled some of Donington's bumpier sections without fuss, although winding the power on hard out of some bumpy bends did cause a little wallow at the rear. However, the rear tire fitted for the tests was getting decidedly second-hand, having been used hard during testing in Spain. This may have been the reason for a slight weave down the main straight, something that wasn't evident on the road version. Given the impeccable behavior of the chassis, I'm inclined to blame any undue movement on the too-scrubbed rear tire.
After about 35 minutes on the track I began to try and up my pace. Rather than risk dropping the R7 on difficult sections of the circuit, I cruised the risky bits and attacked the sections I was more comfortable with. Soon I was flying through the bends faster and faster, only to find the R7 becoming more and more willing. The closer I took it to the edge the better it felt. Now I was getting the bike leaned way over in the turns, with the engine singing at over 10,000 rpm. Donington doesn't need brakes for large sections, just big balls. The sweeping sections were the most fun. Joining one curve to another under hard acceleration was easy and the bike doesn't seem to need any effort to turn it.
Whatever I did, the R7 responded with "give-me-more". There is no doubt that this is one of the best motorcycles ever built. To get your hands on one (if you are rich, lucky and know people in the right places) and then ride it on the road is almost a sacrilege. The bike would undoubtedly make a great bike for Sundays spent carving the canyon roads, but that would miss the point. The Yamaha YZF-R7 is built to race and that's what will make it happiest. Not only is it too expensive for a road bike, it's also probably too fast, though not in a Hayabusa-top-speed-fast way but fast as in more than capable of going faster than you are able or allowed. It can get you into a lot of trouble on the road, although the brilliant chassis may just save you from your own over-enthusiastic riding.
To say I enjoyed the short ride I had on both the road and track versions is an understatement. All my life I have dreamed about a bike that is fast but flexible, small and light, one that handles impeccably. Many bikes have promised to reach these heights but riding them has always revealed small flaws. The R1 is the nearest I have experienced to Motorcycle Nirvana, but it has now been totally eclipsed by the R7. Well, I got my ride, and now all I have to do is figure out how I can go about owning one. Where did I put that book, "The Beginners Guide To Bank Robbery"?