There is a new trumpeting sound to be heard at the GPs. It comes not only from the high-level four-into-one tailpipe of Yamaha's new four-stroke GP bike, but also from the same factory's publicity machine. Though, after the first few races, this has become somewhat muted.
To some, excessive pre-season publicity was the venerable racing factory's biggest mistake with the new YZR M1, which was quickly nicknamed "Mission Impossible" by the Biaggi-friendly Italian press, when it finally faced the opposition, and rather fell on its face. If they hadn't made such a song and dance about it over the preceding year or so, observers might have been a bit more understanding when it fell short not only of the superb V5 Honda and sometimes also the surprisingly good rush-job Suzuki V4, but at several tracks also of the same company's own YZR500 two-stroke, itself unchanged since last year.
Dubbed "awesome" and "mighty" over the preceding period of testing, leaked pictures and a gimcrack so-called "independent" feature story (written by the team press officer but run as if it were the real thing by several craven magazines) had the desired effect. Even I was fooled into thinking that though the R1-like YZR M1 might be lacking in technical adventure (and even possibly as a result of this), extensive testing made it the four-stroke most likely to succeed.
Thus one was pap-bombed into submission - and into overlooking three key facts: firstly that of the new four-strokes, only the M1 doesn't use fuel injection (not necessary, according to Yamaha, vitally important according to everyone else); secondly that it is curiously under the 990cc limit (by some 50cc, apparently); and thirdly that while its road-bike in-line-four technology may please the marketing department, anxious to sell replicas, racing engines are of necessity rather different. For one thing, they don't have to run for tens of thousands of miles. For another, they have to compete against other racing engines.
Of course, there's nothing to say that an in-line four might not be a successful design. But there are a couple of things against what was a rather old-fashioned solution even when MV Agusta dropped it in the last great four-stroke era in favour of a more compact in-line three. Crankshaft width is one drawback; another is internal. It goes without saying that it uses five main bearings, with inevitable mechanical losses from friction. Suzuki's V4 has three mains, Honda's V5 has four.
Then there are the rules, which allow four or five-cylinder engines to run to the same minimum weight limit. Honda exploited this, Yamaha and Suzuki didn't. And, as every amateur engineer knows, more cylinders mean more valve area, which means more horsepower. Making it under-size is even harder to understand, unless Yamaha thought fuel consumption would be an issue. They may be right at the faster tracks, but have been wrong-footed at least in the case of Assen, where the race has been shortened by a lap to avoid any potentially dangerous stuttering-to-a-stop scenarios. I believe the M1 will grow to the full 990cc soon, though I understand it's not quite as simple as just boring it out.
Until then, the M1 continues to suffer from a top-end speed deficit. New Yorkshire resident (honestly!) Carlos Checa managed a fine rostrum third in the wet in the first round in Japan, but was dismayed in round two in South Africa when he lost a hard earned fourth to class rookie Daijiro Kato's two-stroke Honda NSR on the last lap. The 250 champ came flying past on the straight. "His bike was faster than mine. That shows the Yamaha engineers what sort of problems we have," he told me later.
Riders Biaggi and Checa have identified other problems to do with the chassis geometry - the same problem that tipped Biaggi off the two-stroke three times last year. Checa talks of a lack of front-wheel confidence, seriously spoiling corner entry and cramping his style. A fourth chassis is due soon, probably in time for the Italian GP in June. By then, the engine might also have been upgraded, and remembering that an unsuccessful racing machine may only be a few hundredths short of a successful one, these small things might be enough to make a big difference. One must hope so, for the factory team, whose faces are in danger of becoming as red as their team uniforms.
Meantime, at least there is a scapegoat. Step forward John Kocinski, everybody's favourite whipping boy, and the main man in Yamaha's extensive year-long testing programme. A rider with a peculiar style, his reputation for being able to set up bikes is worse than zero, though his lap times are plenty fast. Ah well, let's blame him then. Especially if the real race team does manage to get the M1 to work.
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