The editor’s column, first published in issue 165:
Sports bikes never went away, they just got more radical.
Going fast on a motorcycle is one of the joys of riding. Feeling the wind, hearing the noise, enjoying the rush of endorphins as you wind the throttle on, driving the bike forward, tipping it hard into turns, finding the edge of your tyres, performance and ability.
It’s not really about outright speed – you’ve gone faster in an aeroplane. Airbus, however, is a very well named company, because it never set out to get its passengers’ heart rates up, despite traveling at hundreds of kilometers an hour.
Second gear through a racetrack hairpin can be a lot more heart pumping, although chance are you’ll be doing less than 80km/h.
20-odd years ago sportsbikes were morphing into race bikes. The process actually started before that – Ducati fans point to the 900SS of the 1970s as bike which was kinda, sorta, race ready out of the crate.
The reality was Ducati’s quality control was so poor many machines needed comprehensive checking, tightening and almost re-assembly before a smart person would take one anywhere near a racetrack, but you get my drift.
But in 1985 Suzuki released the GSX-R750, and it really was a game changer. Loosely based on the endurance racers of the era, it had an aluminium chassis, full race fairing, clip-on handlebars and a high performance engine.
Compared to the other production bikes turned into racers of the era, it really did look the goods. And it’s still in production today, one of the sweetest racetrack refugees you’ll find.
On a racetrack I always liked the GSX-R750. More torque and less frenetic than Supersport 600s and nowhere near as intimidating as the 1100s and 1000s, the 750 was easier to ride than both. With just one season of racing Formula 3 two-strokes under my knee scrapers I was never able to get the best from either 600s or 1000s: the 750 was a great balance.
Of course I couldn’t actually get the best from a 750 either, but I felt smoother and faster.
Over time sportsbikes got more and more track focused, while I got older and grumpier, the muscles screaming in protest (usually the following day) at the abuse of moving across the bike many time per lap.
Riding each new generation of racetrack machine was a privilege, and as the electronics got better I got faster while feeling safer. No more sphincter-puckering unexpected power slides as horsepower overtook traction while already riding at the limit of my ability.
Riding the GSX-R1000 and FZR1000 at Oran Park in the 1990s had been downright frightening, riding the ZX-10R at Sepang in 2015 exhilarating. The traction control, modern tyres and my own maturity made that day one of the highlights of my motorcycle journalism career.
Jump forward to today and my track time is pretty limited, so the opportunity to ride the new Yamaha R7 at Sydney Motorsport Park wasn’t to be ignored.
I had an absolute blast.
Compared to the ZX-10R, or even the last decent ride I had at what was known as the Eastern Creek Grand Prix circuit on a R6, the R7 has a basic chassis, low power, rudimentary suspension and electronics which have no rider aids beyond ABS.
Keeping a throttle pinned for more than a fraction of a second is a rewarding experience. I could do that multiple times a lap on the R7. I got on the throttle a bit early coming out of the slow hairpin and the tyre twitched in protest, but that was just a reminder that smooth is fast. Erratic is not.
Speed, of course, is relative. I have done lots of laps at racetracks, although they have been spread across over 30 years. I could tell without looking hard some of the people I was sharing the bitumen with that day hadn’t done much time on tracks… if I got past them in the twisty bits they’d come blasting back past down the straight, the R7 topping out at 213km/h on its digital speedo.
I’d often catch them again in Turn One, where I was able to roll off the throttle and tip the lightweight Yamaha in without a big effort on the brakes (of course a better rider than me would hold the throttle on longer down the straight and use their brakes to get the corner entry speed right).
“…smooth is fast. Erratic is not.”
But it was Turn Two, an uphill left hander, which really sorts the experienced from the newbies. I was often confused by the lines these riders were taking, so much so I’d often slow and wait for them to make a move, even waiting for the exit of the turn when I get on the gas earlier and drive hard, getting to turn three earlier or using the pace to sweep past so I could lead them into Turn 4.
Doing this drove home how skill and experience is more important than horsepower. And how riding an R7 lets you develop those skills in an unthreatening manner. How the difference between the slowest I went and the fastest I go on a given lap was a much smaller gap than so many riders on super powerful machines who could go down the straight at warp speed but seemed like they were at walking pace through the turns.
The R7 is one of a small but growing group of sportsbikes which aren’t trying to offer the final word in performance. They offer real world performance, aren’t crazy uncomfortable, are affordable and good looking.
I had an awesome time on the track, and I was surprised over the following days how I didn’t feel quite as beat up as I expected, which is probably also down to the bike: it isn’t as physically demanding to ride as faster bikes.
– Nigel Paterson.
Photography by Colin Chan