When we got our invite to the North American press introduction for Yamaha's 2006 R6, at first I considered attending the intro myself. However, Yamaha has made it clear that they designed the '06 to be more of a specialized trackbike (the 05 R6 is still available, now known as the R6S, and is significantly cheaper than the new model). To review a trackbike at a racetrack, we decided we needed a track specialist. Luckily, our friend Stephen Bowline happened to be available that day. Stephen is a former AMA professional racer, having competed in AMA 250cc GP races around the country before retiring several years ago. Considering that, as a former long-time Palmdale resident, he probably has more laps around Willow's big track than all of the Motorcycle Daily staff put together (x10!), Stephen seemed like the perfect guy to take on Yamaha's tiny screamer. Before you read Stephen's track test, you might want to check out our 'First Ride' impressions of the R6 from the World launch last year, and our technical preview from last September. Also take a look at our recent articles about the true redline of the 2006 R6 here and here.
The R6 is awash in hype and innuendo at the moment, so you might be wondering what's really going on. This is a seminal motorcycle for Yamaha, and the stakes are high. MotorcycleDaily.com tested the new R6 at Willow Springs and, in a unique same-day complementary test, at the tight and demanding next door neighbor, The Streets of Willow Springs. This was a fantastic opportunity to evaluate this promising Supersport platform in two very different environments: fast and furious vs. tight and tumultuous.
The new R6 is NEW. This is a completely different motorcycle, dripping with little bits of MotoGP essence. And they're not like shop scraps from the MotoGP dumpster either. We're talking real kid brother inheritance here. Technology like a digital throttle with more processing power than the computer that runs the space shuttle. OK, well even your iPod has more brains that that, but still, a digital throttle is a first for a production motorcycle. Fly-by-wire, as they say.
Let's not forget an all-new slipper clutch, the baby brother of Valentino Rossi's sweetheart, a frame geometry in planetary alignment, a swingarm, excuse me, traction telegraph, that's both more flexible and more rigid at the same time, a fully adustable suspension that antiquates the term "fully adjustable" that you just read five minutes ago when reading last year's bike review in the john, and, AND, an all-new powerplant that pumps out the ponies in so many new and exciting ways that Yamaha themselves lost count.
Would anyone doubt that Yamaha was going to make a fast and nimble motorcycle to replace the one that was already winning races? Of course not. But reality doesn't always conform to a marketing brochure, and real life compromises will always come to light in the racetrack environ.
Willow Springs Raceway, February, it's cold. It's windy. There's not a lot of sun in the photon budget. Traction is not on the well stocked Yamaha buffet table. On a day like this a good rapport with your motocycle is a must. This isn't a day for a lover's quarrel or miscommunications. I left the hot pit on the new R6, shod with new, specially designed Dunlop Qualifier Sportmax radials, and with old habits honed by racing GP motorcycles that don't suffer fools quite so well. I can't think of a better test.
The new skins were "fresh from the fridge" courtesy of the high desert air, so riding the R6 at a snails pace for a few laps gave me a fresh look at the Willow wasteland. Yeah, it was the same. But it was soon pretty clear that my GP habits didn't phase this bike one bit. The missed shifts and rough brake/throttle transitions I tried to confuse the bike with while blowing the cobwebs out of my brain and training my hands and feet to do strange things like use a clutch or operate a shifter were of no consequence. Man, try that with an RS125. You'll never ride one again.
It was abundantly clear on the first lap that this motorcycle was tame enough to be ridden slowly, fast enough to be ridden properly, and could stop with one finger properly applied to the correct control lever and in the proper direction. Yeah, the brakes were that good. Not gobsmacking, retinal detaching good, but firm, solid, linear and immediate. In other words, your best friend. Or in my case, my enemy since you're really not supposed to use the brakes at Willow Springs. Thankfully, I was quickly free of cobwebs, and began to ride the bike like it was supposed to be ridden.
This is a fast 600. Power builds sluggishly in the lower 6000 rpms (perfect for an out-lap on a cold winter Willow day) and then increases, mildly but with perfect linearity, until all hell breaks loose at around 12,000 rpm. The explosion of power is impressive for such a small displacement bike, and it's still apparent at higher speeds and in taller gears, likely due to the remarkably effective ram air system. The charge over Willow's Turn 6 opens the floodgates on horsepower and aerodynamic pressure as the you make the transition to lightspeed in Turn 8. This is not hyperbole. For a bike to continue accelerating like this at such high speeds, you know there's some airbox magic in the mix. Just in case you thought the tail wind down that back straight might color the ram air impression, the R6 would consistently loft its front wheel at 140mph while still accelerating over the ever-so-slight dip at the Willow Springs International Raceway start/finish. Yamaha's solution to airbox designs follows the lead of other manufacturers, using an opening in the head stock to channel the air in a direct shot from near the center of pressure of the fairing (a la Honda's RC51). In fact, the leading portion of the fuel tank is actually housing the airbox. Fuel is centrally maintained low and toward the rear of the tank. More on this later as we ride the technical Streets of Willow.
Yamaha claims a peak wheel horsepower of 112 horsepower at 15,200rpm. Entering Turn 8 on the big track with all these ponies dialed in is The Willow Way; however, playing it safe on DOT tires and a cold, blustery day is My Way. I roll out at the mouth of Turn 8 and then roll back into it. No muss. No fuss. Easy Peasy. The crosswind was brutal, but even so I never really felt uncomfortable. The front end was generally stable and communicative. I crawled forward and did my best to weight the front end and mitigate The Breeze.
At the time I was a little disappointed that the wind was punishing us so. But in retrospect I can see that it actually worked to great advantage for the test. Sure, lap times may have suffered, but nothing got puckered and the R6 proved quite stable in the adverse conditions. The big track is not really the best test of a bike's front end, but the low frequency undulations in the surface of Turn 8 work against you to great effect when the wind is trying its best to pry the front wheel off the tarmac. We'd find out in a few hours if this stability would work against the bike on The Streets. It's definitely a plus in the fast stuff.
One of the trickier aspects of WSIR is the fast Turn 9, found at the end of a short chute from Turn 8. In a lot of ways 9 is like an extension of 8, but one of the keys to a fast lap on the big track is to not scrub off hard earned speed on your approach. The other is getting a bike to turn in on time and on target at 120mph. My experience on two-stroke 125s and 250s dictates one or two ultraquick downshifts and a little off-throttle speed scrubbing with the front. This was a great test for the slipper clutch, and I found I could kick it down twice and ease out the clutch, with no worries and with no attention diverted to rev matching as I arced in tighter for the apex. That's impressive. Think about it. Cranked over...120mph...30mph cross wind...tumbleweeds passing you on the inside...and you need to downshift twice without upsetting the bike. OK, forget what I said. Don't think about it. Just do it. It works that well.
It's probably worth noting that at one point early in the day I accidently downshifted the bike while coming down the hill from Turn 4 (I'm used to running a race shift pattern on my GP bikes). I was accelerating out of Turn 4b and went to grab a gear...oops! Street pattern! The wheel spun a bit and the bike slithered its tail in response. Nothing violent and nothing to really mention - except that if the slipper clutch hadn't been working so well I would probably be writing this article from a hospital bed.
One thing for sure is that this screaming banshee loves to spin. The engine just isn't happy unless it's on full boil. It lives to go fast, just like you do. So fast that it's actually hard to remember that it's OK to rev that high. That is until you realize the howling screams of delight are actually coming from the bike. Effective feedback to say the least. Keep the revs low around infants, birds, and those faint of heart.
The big track was also a good testground for Yamaha's new "chipped" throttle - the fly-by-wire throttle that everyone's been talking so much about. The combination of very fast turns and a small technical section showcase this effective technology. The YCC-T is flawlessly programmed to translate your wrist angle into an injected mass of fuel. And that's really the operative word - translate. Since there is no direct connection between the throttle and the throttle bodies some kind of interpretive mapping is taking place. The possibilities seem endless. The quarter turn throttle could conceivably be programmed with a different response curve for different gears (and potentially even different riding styles). Imagine a throttle that maps a wider range of small throttle angles in the lower gears (e.g. for fine control exiting turns in low gears) vs. a finer range at wider throttle settings for higher gears and controlling power in fast sweepers. Yamaha is decidedly mum on the particulars, but given the processing power in the engine management system (dual 32 bit processors) there's got to be plenty of capacity in this regard, and I believe that this is exactly what's going on.