THE TOP of the ramp is getting rapidly closer and I can’t see beyond it. I grab second gear, bury the accelerator and by the time I’m thinking about changing up again, I’m momentarily weightless as I leave and ground and sail through the air towards the down ramp.
If I was on a bike, I’d avoid leaving the ground at all cost due to chronic lack of off-road skills, but I’m safely ensconced in a Yamaha YXZ1000R and the roll cage and array of harnesses give me the sense of security I need to launch myself into the air at over 60mph.
A few minutes before, I’d been strolling over to the off-road area at Thorney Motorsport’s facility near Silverstone. The first thing to come in to view is the 100ft long jump, which sits next to a track that’s not lacking a few opportunities to get wheels of the deck.
I should be making my excuses and leaving but then I see the row of Yamaha YXZ1000Rs sitting there, and as I pad up to get a closer look, my first thought is that if I do have to break contact with terra firma in a vehicle today, it might as well be in this. The roll cage, huge Fox shocks and row of helmets and braces next to the support truck are vaguely reassuring, but only because I know it’s too late to back out.
I’m here because Yamaha has invited us to have a go in its YXZ1000R side-by-side sports buggy. It’s got two more wheels than we’d usually give second thought to, but Yamaha said it’s guaranteed to be as much fun as a bike. Challenge accepted.
On paper the YXZ1000R looks promising – it’s powered by a 998cc three-cylinder engine, weighs less than 700kg wet, has a five-speed sequential gearbox and Fox suspension that looks like it’s capable of soaking up some serious abuse. Up close, it doesn’t disappoint; it looks tough and if I squint, it might even be squaring up to me.
Sure enough, it requires some respect. Prior to being allowed to drive the YXZ for the first time, me and the other assembled bike journos are given some firm guidance on what to do, but mostly what not to do. The gist of the briefing is: brake before turning and try not to roll it.
Predictably and hilariously, it takes one of the other guys two laps before he’s jammed the brakes on mid-corner and steered onto his roof right in front of where we’re all milling about dying of laughter. By the end of the day all five of the once-pristine YXZs have been rolled, one of them with me at the controls thanks to my feet bludgeoning the pedals and hands moving around the steering wheel with all the finesse of a teenage boy undoing a bra for the first time after too many WKDs.
Turning the key for the first time, the YXZ settles into an underwhelming sounding idle. That feeling lasts as long as it takes me to get rolling, at which point I floor the accelerator (obviously) and briskly surge forward on a cloud of dust, with engine hungry for the 10,500rpm limiter before I pull back on the gear lever to smash-and-grab second gear.
It’s lively alright, but manageable, as long as you’ve got your wits about you. Because of the revvy engine and sequential one up, four back gear change, moving through the gearbox feels familiar. Clearly, it’s got four wheels but it's also endowed with the urgency and playfulness of a big motocross bike, albeit with much less danger of a smashed collarbone.
The similarities continue when it comes to getting the YXZ1000R to turn. The massive suspension travel means you can’t honk it into a corner at the last minute while braking deep into a turn and hoping for the best.
I’m being mindful of this as I hoon towards the first corner, a 90 degree left-hander. I push the brake pedal hard to compress the suspension and make the YXZ squat down to force its rugged tyres to tear into the ground below. Steering requires fairly gentle inputs but it’s easy to get a feel for; it doesn’t take long for me to relax in to driving it, going in under the brakes, getting it turned and then proudly powering sideways out of each corner thanks to the 4x4 (although it can also run in two-wheel drive and has a locked diff mode, all available at the twist of a knob).
But you know how the saying goes: pride comes before a roll. Or something like that. Sure enough, during the afternoon’s qualifying and race sessions, it’s my turn to test the YXZ’s roll cage while lunging to overtake Yamaha PR man Jeff up the inside of a hairpin during a race. Thanks to being safely protected in the YXZ’s cockpit, I’m completely unscathed, although my pride takes a dent as I do the walk of shame back to the pit area.
The YXZ1000R has such composure off-road that it easily manages to make me feel safe enough to get wheels off the ground, which I’d normally avoid at all costs. It monsters over jumps and lips with aplomb, surging forward over them before giving a cushy and composed landing thanks to over 400mm of suspension travel at each corner.
The main test of my bottle and how competent the YXZ is at flying comes when I get to tackle the long jump - a specially built ramp of terror. As I said at the start, there’s a healthy run-up. I hit top of the ramp flat in second gear, sailing up to 100ft through the air, hanging up there long enough to appreciate the sensation of being airborne (and knowing I’m probably not going to die) before the YXZ effortlessly lands on the downslope. I’m surprised that I want to do it again and again.
And that was what’s so fun about it the time I spent driving the YXZ1000R – it enticed me to test my own boundaries because it’s so fast, safe and capable. I didn’t have to worry about crashing, so I could focus on getting a feel for it and going faster, which is instantly gratifying.
There’s no way you’d drive one of these and not climb out laughing about how you want to hit every jump and turn harder and faster next time round. It’s also a good chance to push your boundaries off-road and get a feel for accelerating, braking and cornering on the rough stuff, as well as get the chance to experience the feeling of being airborne without bricking it about the landing part.
Clearly, driving a YXZ isn’t the same as riding an MX bike but I come away optimistic that the sensations in my memory banks could come in useful the next time I climb aboard a motocross bike, and if that helps me feel more confident and I end up being smoother and safer, then I’ve gained.
The Yamaha YXZ1000R comes in two variants – standard and race. The standard versions costs £17,398 and the race version, which is FIA compliant and comes with a cage and various other safety features, is £21,500.
But there’s another way to get a go in one of these mental little mud maulers because Thorney Motorsport, which runs the factory Yamaha YXZ1000R race team in the British Cross Country Championship, will be running Yamaha YXZ1000R experience events like this at its place near Silverstone. The format for the day is simple: you turn up, race your mates, do some jumps, and laugh like a loon in your helmet. You get fed too and after all the airtime and sideways moments, you’re guaranteed to come away feeling like a hero and we left Thorney Motorsport convinced that the Yamaha YXZ1000R was the most fun we’ve had on four wheels.