'I always thought I'd thrashed it senseless' – a love letter to the Yamaha R6, by James Whitham

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In 1999 James Whitham took a one-off ride in the World Supersport series. What followed was the start of a love affair with the YZF-R6. Prepare to want one all over again.

he fact I even ended up riding a YZF-R6 in the first place was a bit of a weird one. I never intended on racing in supersport at all and when I got the call to ride the Belgarda team’s bike at Donington I didn’t even really know what an R6 was! 

After my superbike career, and spending a bit of time on a GP bike, I considered supersport bikes to be shopping bikes! However, as soon as I got on the Yamaha my mind was changed.

By 1999 middleweight 600s were the real deal and not the horrors I’d started my career on. The supersport game had moved on a giant leap and you couldn’t compare the R6 to the Suzuki GSX600F I once raced. That was a bag of sh*t, but the R6 was a proper little race bike and I instantly clicked with it.

I was a bit lost in 1999 and after not getting a superbike ride I decided to sit the season out and do a bit of ambulance chasing. Luckily for me Massimo Meregalli, who was the Belgarda rider and is now Yamaha’s MotoGP team manager, had injured himself at the South African round and I got the call to stand in for him at Donington Park.

Key design feature

With a claimed 120bhp the original YZF-R6 was the first four-stroke production bike to hit a claimed 200bhp per litre. This was achieved using the same design of vertically stacked gearbox as the 1998 YZF-R1, electroplated bores and even hollow cams!

I didn’t really know what to expect the first time out on the R6 as it was on street tyres with standard forks, frame and brakes – but I was suitably impressed and so were the team as they offered me a full-time ride for the next season. Well, I did win the race and set the fastest lap time!

I was lucky, in 2000 the R6 was the bike to have and Belgarda were basically a factory team. Every time I sat on the grid that year I felt like I could win the race – even though my qualifying was generally pretty crap.

ROSSI REP! The R46 ‘Rossi Rep’ was launched in 2005 with each bike coming in Rossi colours with a Termignoni can and numbered plaque on the top yoke. Only 2500 came to Europe.

In the end I spent three years racing supersport and in 2000 I very nearly took the world title. I actually snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and after leading the championship I ended up in sixth place after a series of front-end crashes. 

I had a great three years of racing on the R6 and every season I was in the title hunt and picking up a few victories and rostrums. I loved that R6 and when I retired I kept it in my house under the stairs, although it now lives in a museum.

WHOOP! A year after the bike’s launch, Jorg Teuchert won the World Supersport championship on the Alpha Technik Yamaha YZF-R6. Whitham finished in sixth place, with one race win.

Supersport bikes are a really nice balance between usable power and a lovely nimble chassis. I always got off an R6 thinking I’d thrashed it senseless and got something out of it, which is a great feeling and one you simply don’t get with a superbike. 

Even back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when superbikes only had 160bhp, they were almost riding you – nowadays they are even more powerful and that takes a bit of the fun of out of them. I love the idea of riding a bike you can cane and getting the most out of it, which is why the R6 still brings the demon out in me.

PHWOAR! In 2006 Yamaha stunned the world with the new R6. It was the first bike to have a ride-by-wire throttle plus high- and low-speed compression damping adjustment at the front and rear.

A few years ago I was asked to fly out to Suzuka to ride the 2008 R6. I’ve always gone well at Suzuka, I love the R6, and it didn’t take long for a bit of needle to develop between the Yamaha test rider and myself. He would overtake me, I would overtake him, and by the end of the day it got a bit out of hand and developed into a full-on race! 

I remember him coming steaming up the inside of me into a corner and thinking ‘if he makes that corner I’ll take my hat off to him’. He went straight on through the gravel! That’s the problem with the R6, it’s such an enjoyable bike to ride and so much fun to thrash, it makes you do silly things.

R6 need-to-knows

Whit’s R6 nose job

“What you tended to have to do with the R6 handling-wise was get it on its nose. The early models used to struggle to hold a line mid-corner and jacking up the rear ride height made all the difference. Once we worked this out, the R6 was a beautiful-handling bike.”

Injection of grunt

The R6 was updated in 2003 with its carbs replaced by a fuel injection system. These are the more refined of the early R6 models as they have a stronger midrange, making them better road bikes. The best of this bunch is the 2005 model, which has larger injectors and more grunt.

Get the master key

Post-2003 R6s come with a factory fitted immobiliser, so ensure you get the red ‘master’ key included when buying a used one. Without the red key you can’t reprogram blank black keys, meaning if you lose your keys you need to buy a whole new ignition set for around £1000!

Has it been crashed?

Many R6s are used for trackdays and racing so inspect any used bike very well for any signs of crash damage. Early pre-black frame Yamahas quite often suffer from leaking fork seals and their build quality isn’t as good as the later
 black-framed models.

Stop the slop

Early R6 models can suffer from sloppy gearchanges as the de-tensioner spring on the gear linkage gets worn and stretches. It’s a cheap and easy fix and only costs a few quid, but owners often don’t realise their bikes have an issue and put it down to age.

Funny front tyre

From 1999 until 2004, Yamaha gave the R6 an unusual 120/60 size front tyre as they believed it gave better handling. Many owners fit a more conventional 120/70 tyre. If you do this, ensure it is rated for the R6 as some tyres can expand with heat and catch on the mudguard.

R6s for sale right now. 

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