Cal Crutchlow’s championship-winning Yamaha YZF-R6. Note the full-carbon bodywork (top) and massive radiator (bottom), both common features on top-level World Supersport bikes.
Britain’s Cal Crutchlow did what some thought to be impossible in 2009: He won the ultra-competitive championship in his rookie season! Had the same not been done by American Ben Spies in the premiere Superbike class, this would surely have been the story of the year. And while the five race wins and 10 podiums in 13 starts fall mostly on the 24-year-old Englishman’s shoulders, no question his German-built factory Yamaha R6 played a big part. The result of this strong pairing meant the end of Honda’s seven-year domination of the class– by seven points.
A quick pre-ride debrief of the Crutchlow R6 from team manager Wilco Zeelenberg revealed something none of the other machines, Superbikes included, possessed – a self-blipping throttle under downshifting. Yeah, that’s right. All one needs to do on the little R6 is bang down a gear as quickly as possible. Like a high-end paddle-shift equipped sports car or MotoGP bike, the MoTeC ECU handles the rest, perfectly matching engine rpm for each cog one changes down. And at first I didn’t like it. While it sounds easy enough, after 12 years of doing the blipping and clutch myself, it proved much harder than expected to simply turn this instinct off. But a few laps in I was able to reprogram the grey matter between my ears. And what a surprisingly cool feature this proved to be.
Hard into the corner and late on the brakes, sphincter clinched and hoping not to run off the track, being able to bang down gears with haste and fury, all the while the bike perfectly matching engine rpms, was a thing of beauty. Not only does it allow one to free their mind for more important tasks – i.e. not crashing – the precision of the blips kept the rear wheel perfectly in line. Why more of the machines in the championship don’t employ this feature is beyond me. Maybe its rider preference? I, for one, would be the first to use it. The extra mental capacity it allows during corner entry is immense, and the Yamaha boys have the system dialed to near perfection. Also controlled by the MoTeC ECU was the speed-shifter, one which worked just as flawlessly, perfectly grabbing the next gear at full throttle with a mere tap of the left foot.
First thing one notices about the factory Yamaha is its trick ECU and clutch-less shifting abilities. Pure magic!
Next up on the ‘wow’ list was the extremely potent, screaming little engine. Said to deliver right around 145 hp at a shattering 16,500 rpm (they wouldn’t divulge exact numbers), the engine can be revved as high as 17,200 rpm for possible over-rev situations. It also delivers a significantly beefed up amount of torque compared to the stock R6, which suffers some compared to the competition.
Laverty’s Honda still has it trumped downstairs by a noticeable margin, though the Yamaha has the Honda’s number above 14K. Fuel injection is spot-on as well, the YEC kit intake eliminating the mid-range hesitation stock R6s are known for. Equally wonderful is the sound, as the less-restricted Akrapovic exhaust emits a howl that raises the hair on your neck and can probably be heard from space.
Only issue we had with the Yamaha’s engine? Its traction control. Not sure if the British rider runs it as intrusive as it was or the team had turned it up to prevent ham-fisted journalists from highsiding (this would be my guess), but the system cuts in earlier than expected, though is smooth when it does. I would be hard pressed to believe he races it like this, but the team wouldn’t say much when asked, claiming it was exactly how he raced it to win the title the day before. This eliminated any rear wheel sliding whatsoever and prevented me from steering with the back end on corner exit.
On the flip side, nothing was toned down or mellowed out about the rigid little chassis housing the engine. Due to Crutchlow’s aggressive riding style and slightly bigger size (160 lbs vs. 140 lbs) it was on the stiff side for my featherweight frame, but once up to speed she came in quite well. And my lord is that mini Yamaha at home when leaned on its side. So good, in fact, that while it inspires loads of confidence it also shows one just how far they are from the machine’s limits. Where does this confidence come from? An Ohlins TTX rear shock and Ohlins gas-charged internals in the OE Soqi fork, plus a full season of development to get them perfected. And it shows.
Lightning-quick steering allowed nearly unfathomable transitional speeds from the R6, though surprisingly without sacrificing much in terms of stability.
No matter what I threw at the Yamaha it couldn’t put a foot wrong. Too hot into the corner? Pull the brake lever harder. Running wide at the apex? Push harder on the inside bar. Pointed in the wrong direction at exit? Weight the outside peg with more pressure. Regardless of how bad you mess up, the Yamaha seemingly finds its way back on line by itself. It’s uncanny, amazing and somewhat ego-deflating all at the same time. This bike simply responds to each and every input with the utmost precision.
Also impressive is the ease in which it can change direction. Merely ponder the thought of cranking the bike over and your knee is on the ground. Then by the time your brain is able to process the thought of actually turning the motorcycle you’re already well past the apex, rushing to pick your corner-exit line. At first it’s actually hard to keep up with the R6 as it devours corners and chicanes with no remorse, one’s brain working on overdrive to keep up. The last bike I rode that behaved like this was a Yamaha YZ250 – it’s that agile.
Getting things slowed down are the stock Sumitomo calipers up front, as required by WSS rules, with Brembo brake pads grabbing Brembo rotors via steel-braided lines and a remote-adjustable Brembo radial master cylinder. And while the calipers may be of stock origin per the rules, they still slow the bike down with extreme haste while giving the rider near-Superbike levels of feedback through the lever. Trail braking well past the apex comes with ease and mated to the self-blipping ECU made corner entry nearly flawless. One would have to try, and try hard, to get the R6 out of line it works so well.