Two-wheel drive R1 spotted… and it rocks

Published: 09 December 2001

These pictures provide the first proof that Yamaha is seriously working on two-wheel-drive technology for its most powerful bikes. And one man who has ridden the 2WD R1 claims the system improves the bike immensely, even making it safe to ride hard in the wet.

Two-wheel drive could be just the revolution motorcycling requires as it copes better with the ever rising bhp outputs of the latest performance bikes.

The R1 was spotted at a circuit in Spain, where Yamaha was testing the 2wd system to see just how it could affect performance and handling.

The test bike is the result of almost a decade’s development. Suspension firm Ohlins, which is 75 per cent owned by Yamaha, has been working on this 2wd system since 1992.

Indeed, MCN has previously been invited to ride an off-road Yamaha with a similar system fitted.

At the moment, the roles a bike’s front and rear tyres play in acceleration, cornering and braking are clearly defined – and more than anything else it is the limits of their grip that define the performance parameters of any bike. Two-wheel-drive has the potential to share the tyres’ tasks more equally – giving any bike fitted with such a system a potentially huge advantage in outright grip.

Accelerating in a straight line, the front tyre of normal, one-wheel-drive bikes is effectively redundant. Equally, under braking the front tyre takes all the strain.

When a bike is cranked over, both the front and rear tyres have to cope with huge sideways loads. And when they’re asked to cope with either hard acceleration or braking at the same time, they can give up the ghost – with predictable consequences.

This is where two-wheel-drive could help.

By directing even a small amount of the bike’s power through the relatively lightly loaded front tyre through corners, there is the potential to raise its limits as it means the rear has less to cope with.

Yamaha’s two-wheel-drive system also has a second benefit; while during normal riding only a small fraction of the power goes through the front wheel, if the rear loses grip and spins it will transfer more power and torque to the front – hopefully helping to pull the bike back on course before the back slides out far enough to cause a crash.

Yamaha is keeping quiet about how well the testing of the bike is going but we tracked down one of the bike’s development riders and persuaded him to spill the beans.

For obvious reasons, he can’t be named, but this is what he said: " I really didn’t think two-wheel-drive would be a benefit on Tarmac. Off-road, two-wheel-drive makes a big difference, especially in really muddy conditions when you can feel the front clawing it’s way through. But on Tarmac, I was sceptical – until I had the chance to try it.

" The stock R1 is actually a difficult bike to ride really hard on a circuit. It spins the tyre a lot more than the average road rider would realise, and it wheelies at will. It also understeers and is unstable over bumps. In other words, it’s hard to make really good lap times.

" But once I tried the bike with the two-wheel drive connected it was transformed. There are no more high wheelies for a start. If you really gun it off the line the most the front lifts is about five or six inches – and, because some of the power is transferred to the front, it doesn’t wheelie in the higher gears at all.

" The bike no longer understeers either. As you turn in to the corner, you can feel the drive to the front tyre dragging you towards the apex. And, what’s even more impressive, is that you can actually run into the corners a gear lower than before and be more aggressive coming out of the corners because there’s no wheelspin to worry about. It’s just all drive.

" And all that’s in the dry. In the wet it becomes even more impressive. You can push so hard that you almost have to re-think your riding style. It’s almost as big a jump as fitting a qualifying tyre for the dry.

" The only disadvantage is in the extra weight. There’s no question you can feel the difference turning at very slow speeds but once you get up to speed the system makes the bike do everything so much better you won’t worry about it such a small disadvantage. "

There’s more on this story in MCN published on December 19, 2001.