Used Test: Haga's 2005 Yamaha R1

Our very own James Whitham goes out on Noriyuki Haga's ultra-trick Yamaha R1 WSB racer - and finds out that things have changed a bit since his day...

I still count myself as a very lucky man. Yes, I'm having to work for a living now that I've stopped racing, but occasionally the work is almost as good as the racing used to be (and without the nerves - I can stray more than 20 feet from a toilet on a Sunday morning now.) So how giddy was I to be sent off to Monza to have a go on 'Nitro Nori' Haga's World Superbike front-running R1?

I know what you're thinking. Fast circuit plus 210bhp R1 plus northern monkey equals carnage.  A friend of mine said it would be like when the Russian scientists used to put chimps in rockets and fire them into space. Well, I'm pleased to say I proved you all wrong!

Haga's crew chief, Silvano Galbusera, who I worked with when I rode for this same team when it was called Belgarda Yamaha - it's now called Yamaha Motor Italy - explained that the bike was just as it finished the last race at Magny Cours, except for new Pirelli tyres and the final drive ratio changed (that's changing the sprockets to you and me) to suit the long Monza straights.

Although the team has a few more members now, the nucleus is the same bunch of people I raced with in Supersports during 2000, '01, and '02. It's a properly funded, well organised, experienced and professional team that is passionate about racing. And, incidentally, the team's workshop is only one door away from Yamaha's MotoGP team workshop.

From the head of Yamaha Motor Italy, Claudio Consonni, team manager (and my old team-mate) Massimo 'Maio' Meregalli and crew chief Silvano right down to the truck drivers, it's like a big family that I still count as my friends. Obviously there was a bit of a language barrier when I first joined them. I did the usual Brits abroad thing of still speaking to them in English, but a bit slower and a lot louder. It soon became apparent that they'd all have to learn English. Even now most of them do it with a Yorkshire dialect.

I asked Maio why they were caught with their pants down in results terms early in the '05 season. He explained that the bikes didn't arrive until December '04 and then Haga, because of the contract with his previous team, couldn't ride for them until January. So they were only able to get three days testing in before the first round of the championship in mid-February. The team knew it was always going to be a steep learning curve but, during the last half of the season, as the bike evolved and improved, the results from both riders were pretty solid. Maio thinks that once Haga got his first rostrum, at the Silverstone round, he started to believe in the bike and the team. And then he never looked back. Maio's belief is that with more pre-season testing, Haga could have battled for the championship. Now they've got a full winter testing programme planned. The main thrust of development will be focused on handling. They need to make the bike physically easier to ride and be less aggressive on the tyres.

Noriyuki Haga, Yamaha WSB 2005

Taking a look round the bike, you realise just how different it is from a stock R1. The frame has to remain standard to stay within the rules. A certain amount of bracing is permissible but, after hours testing the lateral, longitudinal and torsional strength of the stock frame on an in-house jig back at the workshop, the team decided against it. Likewise they've found it hard to improve on the standard swingarm. A more rigid unit gives less chatter, but less grip. Conversely, a less rigid one more chatter but more grip.  They've found it best to use the standard swingarm, modified to accept the non-standard wheels, brakes, and tyres.

Almost everything else on the bike is non-standard... and dead trick. Suspension back and front is Öhlins, although Haga still prefered to use conventional forks rather than the new 'gas' ones that his team-mate Andrew Pitt now runs. The exhausts are made by Termignoni and have been the subject of much experimentation this season. The best for top end power is a four into one, the other can being a dummy. The brake calipers are four-pot, four-pad Brembos matched to 320mm petal type discs.

The rear subframe has been removed in favour of a monocoque composite seat unit that supports the twin exhaust cans and the rider's arse. Everything else you can see is exquisitely fashioned from titanium, carbon fibre, or machined aluminium. The team have spent a good deal of time and effort on weight saving and 'mass centralisation' and have even built a jig to measure exactly where the centre of gravity is for each set-up. This means the bike can have a starter motor fitted and still remain on the 162kg minimum weight limit for the class. This saves the team having to faff about with one of those little auxiliary starters made from a lawn mower engine and a go-kart wheel.

Haga is a rider who likes to 'square' the corners off, going in deep on the brakes, having the bike leant over for the shortest time possible and then opening the throttle as early as possible. Racers with this riding style tend to have their bikes low at the front, high at the back and generally firm on both springs and damping. This proved to be the case. Even sitting on its stand in the pit garage, the number 41 Yamaha looked aggressive, like it would try to bite you or at least spit at you if you walked too close.

By the time I got kitted up the sun was starting to burn through and I was getting a bit excited, not to mention nervous about riding this weapon around one of my favourite circuits - a track I thought I'd never ride again after I retired... sorry, I'm getting a bit emotional.

Even going down the pitlane, I could feel how much power the thing has. The digital tacho only starts at 7000rpm, and by the time it hits 8000rpm it's pulling your arms out of their sockets right up to the 14,100rpm limit. I'd been told about the 'change' light that comes on at 13,900rpm but by that time I wasn't sure whether this meant 'change gear' or 'change underpants'!

Shifting down the box for the 'Prima Variante' (which, roughly translated, means 'first corner', but it sounds so much nicer in Italian) I noticed the engine revs didn't pick up as I let the clutch out between back-shifts, and I couldn't feel any movement from the rear tyre. This is because Haga likes a lot of slip on his clutch (and chocolate on his biscuits) and it means you can turn into a corner without worrying about the rear locking up. The downside is that it's hard to get any feel for what the rear is doing under hard braking. It almost feels like you've hit neutral and I found it a bit disconcerting. Most modern riders use a load of rear brake to get around this, but I'm not about to start trying that at my time of life.

The turn-in is quick and fairly effortless - this bike wants to lean over. On a couple of the longer corners I found myself having to sit the bike up to avoid running onto the grass on the inside. I found that the best way to stop this was to open the throttle a bit early and use the power to push you to the outside of the corner. Once I got used to this, I could turn in a fraction later yet still hit the apex.

Strangely, the direction change, cranking one way then the other, as if through a chicane, was more effort than I expected. I could only put this down to the bike having firm suspension. The effect of the forks and rear unit unloading and helping the bike turn is reduced when you use less suspension travel. No surprise, then, that our Japanese friend has been losing weight all year having to muscle this bike round at the speed he does.

Some of the teams in World Superbikes set-up their engine management systems to limit the power in the lower gears to stop their bikes wheelying so much. Some teams are even running a sort of traction control, whereby wheel speed sensors monitor how fast the wheels are turning in relation to each other. If the rear turns more than a specified amount faster than the front, the on-board brain deems the bike to be sliding or wheelying and reduces the power, usually by retarding the ignition. This shouldn't be looked upon as an 'anti-crash' system. Clearly, with over 200bhp on tap, if you ping the throttle open as you're cranked over you're still going to hospital. The main benefit is supposed to be less tyre wear.

In true Kamikaze tradition, though, Haga prefers to use full power in all gears, and no sissy traction control. So, to keep the front end anywhere near the ground while powering out of all the first and second gear corners, it's best to roll the throttle or short shift. Some riders keep the throttle pinned and use the rear brake to keep the front down but this is tricky, especially on right-handers where your boot would scrape. Anyway, my dad taught me never to ride the brakes against the throttle. Mind you, that was in a Datsun pick-up.

Even going down the three long straights, you don't get much of a rest on a modern one litre superbike. The last time I rode Monza in anger it was aboard this team's trusty R6 Supersports bike and I remember thinking I had enough time on the straights to make a cup of tea, or at least loosen my grip on the bars and have a bit of a 'rest'. Not so this time. The extra 70-ish bhp meant I was going quicker, earlier. Even though I had braking markers sorted out within the first couple of laps, I felt like the nearer I got to a corner the faster I seemed to be going, even when I had the brakes on. I got two five-lap stints on the bike - which, to be honest, wouldn't have been enough had I not known my way round the circuit. As it was, I could devote most of my concentration to what the bike was up to. I was pleased with my best time of 1m 53.44, compared with Haga's best lap at the May WSB round of 1m 49.40. Four seconds sounds a lot, and it is, but when you consider that it's seven years since I last raced a superbike (and then they were 750cc and 160bhp), and how I had to ride with Haga's banzai settings, and how much I was crapping myself about falling off (could you imagine explaining that) I don't think it was too shabby.

The front worked well and after a couple of laps I didn't think about it too much. I found myself just trusting that it would do its job and let me concentrate on the rear. Trying to feed a silly amount of power through a slick tyre on a cold track can be hard, but I was pleasantly surprised. Even after two or three laps the rear was warm enough to start moving and give a bit of feedback. It's this movement that tells you what's going on between the track surface and the bike and where the limit is. When these tyres started to move around they were very predictable and any little slides I did get made me giggle, not panic.

Having said all that, I was four seconds off a fast time... and it's always the last couple of seconds that bite you on the ass.

2005 Yamaha Italia YZF-R1 World Superbike

Substantial research by the team showed them that a four into one exhaust gives the best top-end performance, so the Termignoni can on the left is a dummy

The digital tacho only starts to register at 7000rpm. The rev limit is 14,100rpm, heralded by the blinking of the 'change' light at 13,900rpm. Indicators not required

It's a Yamaha, so of course the shocker and forks are from Öhlins - top-of-the-range and adjustable every which way, of course. Haga's team-mate Andrew Pitt ran 'gas' forks in '05 but Haga stuck with what he knew

Four pots, four pads and 320mm petal discs - but no matter how fancy they are, the riders always want more

Other stuff...
The frame is standard and hasn't had any extra bracing, but a lightweight composite monocoque seat unit replaces the rear subframe. The swingarm is a standard item modified for the bigger wheels and brakes