Silver dream racer

Published: 19 May 2000

IT’S back in May 1979 and I’m rushing to my local newsagents to pick up the latest copy of American bike magazine Cycle World. As I walk into the shop I glimpse the front cover and there, in glorious colour, is a red and silver apparition. The name on the tank says Suzuki, but above it there’s a strange sticker with four symbols and the word " Yoshimura " .

As I flick through the 15-page road test I’m captivated by images of a Suzuki GS1000 doing things a Suzuki GS1000 shouldn’t be able to do. I stare wide-eyed at photographs of a bike leaned farther over than anything I’ve ever seen. I’m amazed at how high the front wheel is in wheelie shots, and I’m left in awe of the machine’s performance figures.

My fascination with the bike didn’t stop there. Like a security blanket, I’d take the mag everywhere I went for weeks. I wanted to absorb every detail about this most exotic motorcycle. I wanted to reel off the stats verbatim and wow my friends with outrageous figures. I wanted to know how Yoshimura had taken an overweight road bike and turned it into a race-winning superbike. But more than anything, I wanted to ride it.

Twenty years later, I find myself at the Willow Springs race track in California. The weather is superb and the scenery spectacular, but there’s only one thing occupying my undivided attention – a red and silver superbike featuring a strange sticker with four symbols and the word " Yoshimura " . Just like the GS1000, this used to be a heavyweight Suzuki road bike. A Hayabusa, in fact. But in this guise it makes the world’s fastest production bike look insignificant.

It’s only the second time anyone outside the firm has clapped eyes on its latest creation. It’s so new that Yoshimura has never even run the bike on a track or had time to put it on a dyno. The only thing they can tell me is that it weighs around 175kg (385lb) and makes at least 190bhp at the rear tyre. That’s 38kg (83lb) less than the stock bike and 15bhp more powerful. This should be interesting.

I first glimpsed the bike a couple of days ago at Yoshimura’s U.S. headquarters in a faceless warehouse in Chino. If it wasn’t for the Japanese flag lollopping in the stifling heat you’d be hard-pressed to find the place at all. Surrounded by courier firms and fast food joints, it’s not the most auspicious home for a machine which is said to cost the best part of £50,000, but then deep-seated passion is rarely housed in grandiose surroundings. And for the guys at Yoshimura, building phenomenal motorcycles is a passion – and one they don’t share freely. Little is given away to prying eyes, but behind the gates I see dozens of blokes in white coats making exhausts. They’re probably the most famous exhausts in the world, and as I pass I’m told I’ve just seen technicians putting the finishing touches to a new titanium system for Honda’s SP-1. I feel privileged indeed.

Every part for the Hayabusa racer –codenamed X1-R – has been made in-house, too. Despite its unassuming exterior, this is one impressive facility. In the car park around the back there are two massive race transporters sprayed in Suzuki paintschemes next to a couple of other buildings housing a massive workshop. This is where the factory engineers prepare and maintain the race-spec GSX-R750s used in the American superbike championship. As I’m led into the main workshop, I walk past the very bikes Mat Mladin and Aaron Yates ride in the series, complete with a smattering of squashed bugs from the latest round at Sears Point.

Then, lurking in a darkened corner of the room, I glimpse the bike I’ve travelled so far to see. At first glance it does sort of resemble a Hayabusa, but as I get closer I start noticing things which immediately suggest this is something special. Just about everything has been changed, from the clocks to the ram-air system. If it wasn’t for the tiny single headlight and rear numberplate you could be looking at a Suzuka Eight-Hour race bike.

On the side of the bike a cable dangles from the custom-built wiring harness. It’s plugged into a diagnostic computer and next to it there’s a Japanese engineer inputting mapping commands to the bike’s engine control system. We are introduced and he nods in a polite way, but I sense he’s not keen on my presence.

He glances over at my guide, who immediately suggests I’ve seen enough and ushers me out of the room. I’ve seen what I wanted to see, and I feel a sense of satisfaction that I’ve got this far.

It’s taken me weeks of calls to the firm’s PR man Doug Wells before they finally allowed me to visit, and then another few days to persuade them to let me ride the bike.

When I finally got permission from the big suits, I was on a flight faster than you could say 194mph Suzuki. It’s amazing how the thought of fulfilling a lifelong dream can make a 10-hour flight pass in no time, and even more amazing how the scourge of jet-lag seems to be absent. Even the rush-hour traffic of downtown LA can’t dampen my spirits as we head to the hotel.

The following morning I open the curtains on typical azure Californian skies. I was awoken early by the buzzing of news helicopters chasing stories and the constant drone of the freeway, but this is one morning I’m more than happy to get out of bed. It’s some 40 miles to the track, and on the way I can’t help reminiscing about the first time I heard of Yoshimura so many years ago.

As we turn into Willow Springs’ access road I see one of the massive race transporters being unloaded. As the hydraulic back end opens, I expectantly look for the X1-R to be peering down at me from the darkness. When all I see is two 80cc quads sitting there my nerves begin to jangle. Have they decided to revoke my ride after all? Was the bike not ready? Reassurance came from development engineer and Mladin’s crew chief Ammar Bazzaz, who told me he’d been up since dawn tweaking the engine management system and that the bike would arrive shortly. A plume of dust rising in the distance signalled shortly had already arrived.

Before I was allowed out, though, the photographer wanted his own private time with the bike. Bazzaz hadn’t had time to fit the bodywork after his earlier alterations, so when it arrived at the track it was naked.

Surprisingly for a firm so keen on keeping its secrets exactly that, I was amazed they were so amenable when it came to poking and prodding around the uncovered chassis.

As the photographer shoots endless rolls of film, I walk round the bike trying to take in the plethora of aftermarket additions. Christ, if I’m getting this excited looking at the thing, what am I going to be like when it comes to riding? It wasn’t long before I found out.

Crew chief Bazzaz bump-starts the X1-R and slowly brings it up to temperature. The silence is shattered as the one-off Yoshimura Tri-Oval can barks its warning. The lightweight ignition system would never spin the engine over fast enough to start it, but with a fully-charged battery it fires up almost instantly.

As I get kitted up, Bazzaz is changing engine settings via his laptop, checking sensors and diagnostic parameters. This is his forte and the bloke has good reason to check everything. The bike has a pre-development engine management system with a pre-production Motec liquid-crystal display. The system is being used on the X1-R to see if it’s worth fitting to the factory superbikes later in the year. The advantage of the unit is its ability to not only store information, but relay the details from

a bank of sensors via the engine. Most other systems have two banks of sensors, requiring a more complicated harness and meaning a greater risk of system failure. He knows the set-up well as he built the harness linking the units together. After a further check he hands the bike over to Mitch Boehm, editor of American magazine Motorcyclist.

After a brief explanation of the functions on the ultra-trick dash, Boehm slips it into first and gets a push up the pit lane. The big Suzuki fires up and blasts out on to the desert race track with a howl.

I watch the bike circulate, generating heat in the tyres, while I wait for my turn. I’ve never ridden at Willow Springs, so I take a Yamaha R6 for a few laps to find out where the track goes. As I wait for the X1-R to flash past, I can feel the hot wind blasting my face. After two laps I open the Yamaha up. That’s when I find out how strong the desert wind can be. Exiting the long, fast turn nine I tuck in behind the R6’s screen heading on to the short main straight and the bike feels as if it’s hardly moving.

Glancing down at the LCD dash shows it’s barely hitting 90mph. Run it the other way with the wind behind you and you’d be expecting at least another 40mph. That’s the effect a constant 30mph head wind can have at this end of the circuit. Luckily, the wind doesn’t affect the other side of the track.

Ten laps later I come into pit lane and pop down the sidestand. The Yoshimura engineers are busy refuelling the X1-R and Bazzaz is checking the electronics. This is the first time the bike has been run on a track and the crew are getting as much feedback as they can. With no problems registering on the engine diagnostic programme, I glance across at Bazzaz and he gives me that reassuring nod, as if to say " it’s all yours " .

The first problem I have is getting on the bike. This is like no Hayabusa I’ve ever sat on before. The combination of hard suspension settings and Yoshimura seat make the bike so high that it takes a couple of attempts before I get my leg over. This is not the sort of bike you want to be responsible for dropping. Once on I can just get my feet on to the floor. I reach over the exquisite, hand-made Yoshimura tank for the clip-on style bars and it’s obvious the riding position is designed for one purpose. It feels just like a big GSX-R750, but I’ve never seen a GSX-R750 with so much stuff on the dash. Bazzaz explains the readouts. To save battery power you activate the display by a small switch on the left bar. I flick it on and the dash runs through its own diagnostic checks in seconds. When it has finished it displays battery voltage, engine temperature, throttle position, gear position, speed, air/fuel mixture and engine revs. A large red gearshift light sits on top of the dash, which can be programmed to come on at any revs.

There’s a small fuel spray bar to aid starting the big motor, so bumping it is not the problem you’d expect. All you do is flick the kill-switch to run, snick the gearbox into first, give the throttle a twist to 100 per cent and then release the throttle and let the clutch out.

With my mind working overtime to figure it all out I get the wave I’ve been waiting for. Iridium visor down, I pull in the ultra-light hydraulic clutch as the bike gathers speed, snick the gearbox down into first and dump the clutch, catching the engine revs as it fires. No Hayabusa ever sounded like this.

There’s no tickover, so I blip the throttle to keep the engine running as I weave towards the track to get some heat into the Dunlop D207GP tyres.

Listening to the exhaust note as I head into the first left-hander, I begin to settle down. I move around checking out the short, high billet aluminium footpegs and hand-crafted seat. Everything feels right.

This tucked-in riding position confirms that if you manage to drag a footrest it will be closely followed by your elbow... then your head. This is nothing like the standard bike, where you can ground the cans without trying.

The big bike steers remarkably easily as I experiment with the immensely powerful race-spec brakes. As I head up the left-right turns to the highest part of the track I open her up and head down towards the fast left and down Willow’s even faster back straight. I’m still taking it easy and allowing everything to come up to temperature. I exit on to the front straight and glance across at the crew. Another four laps and I signal that I’m coming into the pit lane. There’s nothing wrong – this has been the plan we’d agreed. I’d have a few laps in the morning to acclimatise myself to the machine and circuit, and then go out for a second run in the afternoon to really see what it’s made of.

As I cruise up to the assembled mechanics, I let the engine die and brake to a halt. Even before I’ve removed my lid Bazzaz is in there with his probes, gleaning every piece of information as the engine cools. As he’s doing it he’s probing me for feedback. " How was it? " " Does it need any adjustments? " " What’s the throttle response like? " " Is the suspension set up correctly...? " My replies to all his queries are positive.

An hour or so later I’m back in the seat for my second session. Two laps to build up temperatures and the moment of truth has arrived.

As the rev counter readout sweeps over 5000rpm, the rear squats and the engine note changes. My vision starts to blur as the hard, racing suspension struggles to smooth out the bumps and the rear Dunlop fights to stop 190bhp tearing it into chunks. I’m shouting expletives into my lid as I feel an immense amount of power firing me along the front straight.

You can feel the massive grunt trying to pull the short and hugely-braced factory swingarm forwards as the front wheel climbs upwards. I try to edge up the tank to get some weight over the front, but it’s almost impossible to stop the Marchesini rising as the revs climb and the rear spins up, even when approaching the shift light at 12,000rpm.

The X1-R catches me by surprise as I start to brake for the next corner – hard in left before accelerating on to a long decreasing-radius right. I’m into the corner before I realise, forcing me to chop the throttle as I slam the engine down two gears and drop the anchor. Still running in too hard, I squeeze the massive six-piston calipers and the effect is almost instant as the X1-R stands on its nose and shakes its tail like a shark thrashing around a fresh kill.

With my heart still in my mouth, I pitch the bike in hard on to my slider before driving uphill, snatching another gear as the front wheel again lifts. Rolling on the throttle again, the wheel tries to break loose and spin up as I tighten my line towards the cambered left.

It’s evident this is no NSR500, and you can feel the weight as gravity pulls you towards the floor. It doesn’t handle badly – quite the opposite – but you can’t help wondering what it would be like if they’d shaved off another few pounds (though don’t ask me how).

The engine is so torquey you can hold the wheel in the air while sweeping past 130mph. As it comes back down I pitch into a fast, seemingly never-ending right-hander and scrub off speed for the tight exit before picking out a small red cone marking the apex. Aware that the wind has coated the corner in fine sand, I back off slightly more than I’d like – well, this is the only X1-R in the world, and I don’t want to give my editor an insurance bill for the price of a small semi in Basildon. I’m glad I rolled off as I feel the back end snaking around slightly over the surface, but no sooner have I passed the cone I seem to be doing 120mph. The pick-up on this thing is just incredible.

As I accelerate even harder down the back straight, I dare to sneak a look at the speedo – it’s registering 160mph. Now while you may think your CBR600 will do that, bear in mind that I’m riding a £50,000 bike into a serious head wind and there’s a six-foot brick wall alongside me. These conditions are not conducive to speed testing. Yoshimura publishes a maximum of 205mph, but Bazzaz claims that’s with a detuned motor. Before it was tweaked he says test riders clocked more than 220mph in speed strip runs, but he had to knock it down because no tyres could cope with that kind of stress for more than a few miles.

Nevertheless, the amount of power available, the way it’s delivered and the way this bike clings to a line all go to illustrate how different the X1-R is to a standard Hayabusa. This is a race bike with lights that just happens to have a Hayabusa frame and the same basic engine. But as far as a riding experience goes, it couldn’t be farther removed. I know the stock Suzuki is the fastest production bike in the world, but this makes it feel pedestrian.

After another five laps I signal and come back into the pits to see if the suspension can be softened a little, but it’s not possible today. Bazzaz explains it takes a few hours and a complete shock change and spring swop to set the bike for my weight and riding style. With that in mind we decide to call it a day. In a way I’m relieved it’s all over. Aside from the fact it’s so exclusive and expensive, this bike pounds your senses. After less than 15 laps I’m totally knackered, both physically and emotionally.

As the delayed jet-lag catches up with me on the way back to the hotel, I drift in and out of a dreamworld. A dreamworld I first experienced 20 years ago when I saw that Yoshimura GS1000 on the cover of a magazine. Except this time, the dream is based on reality.

YOSHIMURA X1-R

Cost: £50,000

Availability: Yoshimura 001-909-628-4722

Colours: Red/silver/black

SPECIFICATION

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 1298cc, 16v dohc four-stroke in-line four. Motec fuel injection. 6 gears.

Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar

Front suspension: Ohlins inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Rear suspension: Ohlins monoshock with Yoshimura rising rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Tyres: Dunlop D207; 160/70 x 17 front, 180/55 x 17 rear

Brakes: AP Racing; 2 x 320mm front discs with 6-piston calipers, 220mm rear disc with 2-piston caliper

PERFORMANCE

POWER: 192bhp @ 10,500rpm

TORQUE: 110ftIb @ 7500rpm

Weight/power to weight ratio: 175kg (385lb), 1.10bhp/kg

Standing 1/4-mile time/terminal speed: 9.5s, 148mph

Top speed: 205mph (detuned from 220mph)

Average mpg/tank capacity/range: Depends on engine settings

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