In a very special Throwback Thursday, Sir Al takes a spin at Jerez on the Yamaha YZF-R7 OW-02 raced by the Sultan of Slide, Nori Haga... Test: Alan Cathcart Photography: Gold & Goose
The bike you see here will bring back fond memories for many of you that were Haga SBK fans back in the day. It is widely held to be the most desirable Japanese motorcycle yet built powered with an inline four but did not win the World Championship it was created to win.
Fast forward to now and former Aprilia MotoGP racer Andrea Iannone’s four-year ban after failing a drug test for anabolic steroids this year inevitably triggers a look back in the rear view mirror of history to exactly 20 years ago. For that’s when the destination of the 2000 World Superbike Riders’ crown was conceivably altered by Yamaha rider Noriyuki Haga’s ultimate three-week ban after a failed drugs test at that season’s first round in South Africa.
During the off-season Nori-chan had apparently embarked on an extensive fitness regime, which resulted in his turning up at Kyalami some 15kg lighter than before. He’d used a commercially available Japanese dietary supplement named Ma Huang to help trim his weight, which contained a higher natural concentration level of Ephedrine than permitted under FIM rules (12mcg vs. 10mcg allowed).
Read our other Throwback Thursday articles here…
This meant that, despite the best efforts of Yamaha itself to overturn the decision on appeal, his Race 2 victory at Kyalami was forfeited, and he was forced to miss the final Oct.15 Brands Hatch round entirely, thus sacrificing a theoretical 75 points, yet finishing runner-up in the points table just 65 points behind his Honda-mounted rival Colin Edwards.
For the 1999 season, Yamaha had finally got serious about Superbike racing by introducing the YZF-R7 OW-02 in fuel-injected, limited-edition guise alongside the R6, its equally new, volume-production 600 Supersport contender. Yamaha thus not only answered the challenge of the leading edge four-stroke racers of Honda and its European rivals, it also empowered the company’s R&D boss Kunihiko Miwa to claim “The family is now complete!” This meant that the full range of no-compromise sportbikes which had begun with the radical R1 hypersports model 12 months earlier had now arrived in the marketplace.
But with the total planned R7 production of just 500 bikes – the precise minimum number needed to homologate the model for World Superbike – constructed in a single batch for worldwide delivery, Yamaha’s intentions for the R7 were clear. Rather than spec’d down to produce a junior R1 that might compete with Suzuki’s GSX-R750 for 750 Supersport supremacy, Yamaha had followed the Ducati and Aprilia mantra by producing a costly ($36,000 AUD) no-compromises homologation special for Superbike racing, nominally marketed as a streetbike to satisfy SBK regs, but in the expectation that most bikes built would end up on the racetrack, waving the Yamaha flag…
Yet when World Superbike 2001 kicked off at Valencia in March, Haga and his R7 OW-02 were missing in action, because Yamaha had marked its displeasure at losing the previous year’s World title by cutting short its factory involvement in WSBK one year early, in favour of sending Nori-chan to learn the rules of war in two-stroke GP racing aboard a YZR500 ring-dinger, in preparation for his impending four-stroke campaign in 2002 aboard Yamaha’s new MotoGP entry, the 942cc OW-M1 prototype four.
Haga thus had to follow orders and retreat to the 500GP class, even when his heart willed him to stay and fight for the WSBK title in a classic scenario of a man torn between destiny and desire that was Strictly Hollywood….
Read Alan’s interview with Nori about the move to MotoGP, the R7 and more, here…
Four versus twin, Japan vs. the USA, Yamaha vs. Honda, Dunlop vs. Michelin, bravado vs. brio. The 2000 World Superbike struggle for supremacy between the Texas Tornado and the Sultan of Slide provided a battle of opposites, and the fact that Nori Haga’s controversial penalty deprived race enthusiasts of a last-round shoot-out to decide the World title, didn’t detract from the thrilling spectacle these two Superbike superstars delivered all season long, on two very different motorcycles.
My chance to ride the Haga R7 four at sunswept Jerez just a couple of weeks after sampling the World title-winning Honda SP-01W V-twin at rain-drenched Motegi, underlined Yamaha’s success in turning the perceived dominance of twin-cylinder Superbikes on its head, and proving that fours can be fab, too. For while Haga and the Yamaha factory were up there in contention, WSBK was far from being the Battle of the Twins it ended up becoming in 2001.
The 749cc R7 motor weighing 62.4kg (vs. its R1 big sister’s 65.7kg) was an all-new design featuring EFI for the first time on a Yamaha sportbike. It retained the 72 x 46mm dimensions of the old YZF750, as well as its 20-valve format with three intake valves and two exhausts per cylinder, but now with offset chain drive to the twin overhead camshafts, and a high 14.2:1 compression ratio. The reduced inertia of the stock titanium rods and valves, coupled with the lightweight Tuftrided crank and forged 14.2:1 slipper pistons (still three-ring, though: Yamaha tried two-ring ones, said Miwa, but oil consumption was too high) helped the engine pick up revs quite fast. The six-speed gearbox featured the same triple-stack shaft layout as the R1, and a cassette-type extractable gear cluster allowing internal gear ratios to be varied at will.
The R7 bearing the ‘Nori’ screen stickers, incorporating a speeding bullet and the name Kenisuke beneath – belonging to Nori-chan’s older brother, who was sadly paralysed in a race crash at Sugo in 1996 – was by now a super impressive ultra-refined package, with the power delivery problems and instability under braking I’d identified on the prototype R7 kitbike I’d ridden at Jerez almost two years earlier, now resolved. But Nori-chan’s choice of chassis setup was certainly distinctive, and went some way towards accounting for the lurid and spectacular riding style that had made him such a folk hero on both sides of the Atlantic and Down Under, as well as back home in Japan.
The static ride height on the R7 at both ends was pretty tall, emphasised by the thick seat pad Nori used which threw a lot of your body’s weight onto the wide-spread handlebars, and thus the front tyre. Moreover, he used very soft suspension settings which generated heaps of suspension travel via that high ride height. Haga always spent a long time in practice at each circuit dialling his Yamaha’s setup in just right, his Yamaha race engineer Roberto Brivio told me, making countless changes to fine-tune the handing of the R7.
“Nori-chan ls very sensitive to any alteration we make on the bike,” he said, “and he likes to experiment a lot with steering geometry and suspension setup. He knows what he’s looking for – and then when he finds it, he then goes all-out for victory. He’s a much more technical rider than you might expect from the carefree way he seems to ride the bike – everything is carefully planned and calculated, and he often makes a major adjustment to the setup between the two races at a given round.”
This even extended in 2000 to changing the swingarrn pivot position between races – as you could on the R7’s YZR500-derived chassis – or experimenting with one or other of the three different lengths of swingarm the Yamaha team had available – all to alter grip characteristics, as well as working to find exactly the right choice of Dunlop tyre that was such a key factor in Haga’s success in 2000, after switching back from the Michelins he’d struggled with so much in 1999.
Though he generally ended up opting for the rounder-profile British rubber, compared to the pointier Japanese Dunlops he grew up racing with, and usually chose to run with the 16.5in. tyres which were by then standardised across the Dunlop range, Nori-chan did experiment a lot with alternatives. This included testing secret new 16.25-inch rubber at various stages during the season, as well as a then-new fat 200-section rear tyre, all with the aim of helping him achieve his chosen aim of getting on the throttle sooner, and harder, than anyone else.
Running as a one-man factory team in WSBK 2000, Haga had the advantage of focused development on his bike by Yamaha’s race department, and this showed in the superior level of performance I discovered at Jerez that his bike had compared to either of the other R7 Superbikes I’d ridden, whether the early kitted prototype I sampled at the same track at the media launch in March 1999, or that season’s Yamaha Europe development bike raced by Vitto Guareschi, which I’d tested off-season at Valencia. That was several spec levels behind the corresponding Haga bike, which had been developed in the factory race shop in lwata.
Riding Nori-chan’s full-on works racer at Jerez underlined what a gulf there was between the two, for thanks to the constant flow of new parts the team kept receiving throughout 2000, the fruit of ongoing R&D back home in Japan, the Haga bike had a greater appetite for revs than a race-kitted R7, but without sacrificing low-rpm pull out of a slow turn, like the last corner before the pit straight at Jerez.
The slant-block engine pulled cleanly from as low as 6,000rpm, made good power from 8,000 revs, but came on strong at ten grand, accelerating cleanly towards the 15,500rpm revlimiter (1,300 revs more than the kitbike), which Haga told me he hit all the time in races. But although peak power of 172bhp at the gearbox was delivered as low as 13,800rpm, the power didn’t fail off significantly for at least 1,500 revs above that – meaning you had two-stroke like overrev to save a couple of gearchanges between turns, just as on a GP racer.
But there was no shift light like on other factory Superbikes – “I don’t like this – l only change by feel,” said Nori-chan – so if you tapped the race-pattern powershifter (by now Yamaha’s own, having ditched the over-sensitive KLS system they used to fit) at just under 15,000rpm, thanks to the relatively closed-up internal gear ratios you’d still find yourself back in the fat part of the powerband as the R7 motor screamed so thrillingly through the Akrapovič titanium exhaust. Correction – you stamped on the gearlever, for the R7’s shift action felt very harsh and mechanical, as if the gears were heavily undercut to cope with all that power – and torque.
This kind of power delivery was user-friendly and effective, because the R7 now had the really impressive acceleration it was lacking before.
In fact, to begin with I thought the powershifter wasn’t switched on until I stopped at the pits to check it was. The problem apparently was that I was using the race engine built for the final race of the season at Brands Hatch but never used, thanks to the last-minute ban on Haga competing in that round, and the gearshift ignition cutout on this hadn’t yet been dialled in properly to that fresh motor.
For a high-revving in-line four, the Yamaha had quite a lot of midrange muscle, which let you be less choosy about which gear to throw at it for a given turn, thanks to the wide spread of power and the linear delivery. And when you shut the throttle to trail!-brake into a turn, it was only in bottom gear you’d encounter the snatchy pickup when you got back on the gas again that was such a daunting feature of the 1999 R7. So I didn’t use it, and relied instead on the 2000 R7’s increased midrange to power out of a slow bend like Dry Sack, or the final turn leading onto the Jerez pit straight, in second.
But Yamaha’s 2000 switch from a single-injector EFI with Mikuni throttle bodies and a Nippondenso ECU in 1999 (resulting in a very fierce pickup from a closed throttle), to the twin-injector format with Keihin hardware and the Mitsubishi ECU used by Nori-chan in 2000, completely transformed the R7’s throttle response and controllability, as well as delivering more power, more flexibly. The Keihins now had twin injectors each, one centrally located outside the air trumpet (the length of which could be varied according to the circuit, with a shorter racekit option for more top end performance), the other just after the throttle butterfly, with a clean shot at the three intake valves.
Accomplishing this also entailed a new design of carbon-topped, fully-sealed 15-litre airbox with internally separated ducting, as well as a different wiring harness and throttle loom – but the result was worth it: the Yamaha not only had way more power over the whole rev range, but you could feel the fatter midrange punch that the revised EFI and its altered fuelling delivered when you drove out of a slower turn. Exiting the second right hander at Jerez, I short-shifted around 12,000rpm to power through the next two lefts onto the short back straight under load, holding a gear as I did so to let the engine howl up to fifteen grand-plus on the analogue tacho.
This kind of power delivery was user-friendly and effective, because the R7 now had the really impressive acceleration it was lacking before. Riding the Yamaha with the overrev capability now on tap that it also used to lack – before, the engine was all done at fourteen grand – was super stirring, and totally addictive, the nearest thing in the Superbike class to a two-stroke 500GP racer. Don’t take my word for it – listen to former World champion Christian Sarron, the only European in the ‘80s who could beat those Dam’ Yankees at the art and science of racing a V4 500 ‘stroker.
“The closest thing yet to a 500GP bike that I’ve ridden with a four-stroke engine. It has an explosive sense of power which makes it fun to ride,” Christian Sarron…
“l never liked riding Superbikes before, even in the Bol d’Or and Le Mans 24-hour races,” admitted Christian after a dozen laps on the Haga R7 at Jerez, “They always seemed so big, heavy and completely compromised, so it was just a job of work I had to get done. But this is different – it’s small and agile, the closest thing yet to a 500GP bike that I’ve ridden with a four-stroke engine. It has an explosive sense of power which makes it fun to ride, as well as very effective. My compliments to Yamaha on a job well done – it’s a good basis for them to go four-stroke GP racing with in 2002!”
That improved power delivery, plus the Dunlop tyres, must have been a big factor in Haga getting so completely on the pace that year, winning four races in the 2000 season against just one in ’99 – well, he took the flag first five times, but lost one win in South Africa thanks to the drug test. Counting that, he visited the rostrum a dozen times in all, the same as Colin Edwards, but in two fewer races, thanks to his Brands Hatch ban. Nori-chan’s spectacular style which led to those victories was achieved thanks to the Yamaha’s peerless handling for an inline four, and its ability to cut a tight line in turns – never better demonstrated than in Hockenheim’s Sachs Kurve on the last lap of Race 2 in Germany, when Nori cut his four inside Edwards’ twin on a seemingly impossibly tight line, and passed him seemingly with ease en route to the chequered flag. Just amazing and when I rode the Yamaha, I understood how he could.
The R7’s steering actually felt sharper than Carlos Checa’s YZR500 I was riding the same day, so direct and easy by four-cylinder Superbike standards, a fact accentuated by the very light steering damper setting that Nori-chan used. This however led to some exciting moments when I gassed it up hard and lifted the front wheel powering out of one of Jerez’s many tight turns in second or third gears. But it was a sign how right the R7 chassis setup was that when the wheel touched down all crossed up – because I was frantically trying to steer it straight while popping this wheelie – it gave just a single flick of the ‘bars and resumed normal service.
How forgiving is that? There was no sign of the pumping action that so afflicted Yanagawa’s factory Kawasaki when I’d ridden it earlier in the year, nor of the snatchy throttle response of the Chili Suzuki, which kept spinning up the back wheel in those pre-TC days, and made it so hard to get a decent, controlled drive.
Slim-feeling and so well balanced, Haga’s R7 was really nimble and easy to change direction with – this was a four with the agility of a twin that, because of the optimum 53/47% weight distribution, had a front end that felt planted in both fast turns and slow. Turn-in was very neutral and you could carry huge amounts of turn speed, with the 43mm Öhlins fork and Dunlop rubber working in tandem to give lots of feedback, as well as grip.
Miwa-san said the design of the R7’s Deltabox II chassis – which had extra sheeting and no elbow cutouts compared to the R1, resulting in 100% increased stiffness over the R1’s frame, and a massive 240% stiffer than the old YZF750, all for quicker steering and more stable handling – was largely derived from Yamaha’s YZR500 GP chassis, especially in terms of torsional rigidity, total stiffness and weight distribution.
In two short seasons, the R7 Yamaha had become the benchmark bike of the four-cylinder Superbike contenders – as well as, so nearly, the best bike all told. It was the Suzuki RGV500 of the Superbike category – a bike that steered so beautifully it made its competitors almost seem like trucks, and which had a forgiving, usable power delivery that let you back off slightly if you made a mistake and went too deep into a turn, then got back on the throttle again, all without a hiccup – or without losing momentum.
Because it appeared so slim and small when you were riding it, the R7 seemed to change direction at least as well as a twin, despite its inevitably greater bulk and what I’d expect must have been a higher centre of mass. The 31° slant-block engine design not only gave 20° of vertical downdraught to the 46mm Keihin throttle-bodies, it also lowered the Yamaha’s cee of gee quite a bit, easing the way it flicked from side to side in a chicane. That was despite the thick seat pad that gave the impression of sitting very high up, and made the R7 feel rather tall – except it wasn’t. And even with the extra power of a factory Superbike motor, the Yamaha hooked up really well out of turns, thanks to the great grip delivered by the ultra-long swingarm permitted by Miwa-san’s trademark triple-stack gearbox layout, courtesy of the Öhlins shock and 16.5-inch rear Dunlop.
Combined with the well-chosen steering geometry, with the quite radical stock geometry settings of a 22.8° head angle (adjustable in half-degree increments one degree either side) and 95mm of trail, the cocktail of compliant chassis setup and forgiving tyre choice that Haga spent the 2000 season dialling in at each meeting was crucial to his success. Pity he couldn’t do the same on Michelins in 500GP.
Nori-chan liked to be seated quite far forward to load up the front wheel all he could with his body weight, with lots of leverage from the pair of wide-spread, straight-set clip-ons.
The Yamaha stopped brilliantly thanks to its benchmark six-piston Nissin calipers and the big 320mm discs from the factory race kit. These hauled the R7 down well from high speed, helped by some vestigial engine braking for slower turns courtesy of the slipper clutch, but with no trace of any rear wheel chatter despite a ‘normal’ 1,500rpm idle speed rather than the 2,300rpm on Chli’s Suzuki with no slipper clutch. The Yamaha was really stable when stopping hard – no weaving around thanks to undue weight transfer despite its forward weight bias, which combined with the YZR500-derived steering geometry and those meaty brakes, might have caused problems. Sorted.
With Haga’s soft settings front and rear for the Öhlins suspension, the only time you noticed the soft front-end was under really heavy braking, as at the end of the Jerez main straight or for Turn One after the pits, when to anyone with a conventional riding style it might seem that there was a lot of front-end dive on the brakes, and you’d risk folding the front end as you steered into the turn. But that was all part of the Haga hardware package.
Nori-chan liked to be seated quite far forward to load up the front wheel all he could with his body weight, with lots of leverage from the pair of wide-spread, straight-set clip-ons. He also used heaps of back brake which I discovered had the double effect of preventing too much front end weight transfer if you used it before the front, as he did, and he also got the rear Dunlop sliding as he backed it into the turn in inimitable, spectacular fashion. Sorry, though – I’m just the understudy, so you won’t see any photos on these pages of me backing the R7 into the last turn at Jerez with the wheels a foot out of line, as was the trademark sight for the Sultan of Slide in his so-close 2000 season. Because that’s an acquired skill – no, art – which ordinary riders aren’t blessed to be born with.
Could it have been mission accomplished in 2001, if Yamaha hadn’t pulled the plug on its WSBK operation in favour of focusing on the OW-M1 four-stroke GP racer?
Trouble is, it’s also an art which dictates the use of a tool finely-honed to your specific requirements, as the Yamaha R7 undoubtedly then was after two years of R&D by the Yamaha factory race shop, specifically targeted at meeting Haga’s needs for the bike. That brought some spinoff benefits in its wake for SBK privateers and National-level Yamaha teams around the world, but it’s worth noting that none of these enjoyed the same level of success with the R7 as the factory team did – not even back home in Japan, where the neo-vintage carburetted Kawasaki ZX-7RR remained king of the four-cylinder Superbike clan, as well as All-Nippon SBK champion.
The Yamaha R7 was a bike that went into premature hibernation without winning the World title it was developed for. Could it have been mission accomplished in 2001, if Yamaha hadn’t pulled the plug on its WSBK operation in favour of focusing on the OW-M1 four-stroke GP racer – which as a fuel-injected 20-valve in-line four of just 942cc against its 990cc rivals seemed to have an awful lot in common with the R7 it was almost certainly derived from!?
On the basis of riding them both almost back to back, I have to say I think that on Dunlop tyres and with Nori-chan at the helm, the chances were very good that Yamaha could have wrested the WSBK title for the very first time in 2000 by defeating Honda/Edwards, instead of waiting until 2009 for Ben Spies to finally do the job for them. But that’s all what-if territory. Too bad we’ll never know for sure…
SPECIFICATIONS – YAMAHA YZF-R7 OW-02 FACTORY HAGA SUPERBIKE
Engine:Liquid-cooled DOHC, 20-valve, inline transverse four-cylinder four-stroke with offset cam drive, 72 x 46mm bore x stroke, 749cc, 14.2:1 compression, EFI with Mitsubishi ECU, two injectors per cylinder, 4 x 46mm Keihin throttle-bodies, Akrapovič titanium four-into-one exhaust, six-speed cassette-type extractable gearbox with Yamaha Powershifter, multiplate dry ramp-type slipper clutch, 172hp@13,800rpm.
Chassis: Deltabox II alloy twim-spar frame, fully adjustable Ohlins 42mm inverted forks, fabricated alloy swingarm, fully adjustable Ohlins Monoshick, rising rate link, billet alloy triple-clamps, rearsets and controls, Ohlins steering damper, dual 320mm Nissin rotors with Nissin six-piston calipers (f), single 200mm Nissin rear rotor with two piston Nissin calier, Nissin radial-pull master-cylinder (f), 120/75 – 420 16.5in Dunlop KR106 on 3.50in Marchesini forged magnesium wheel (f), 190/60 – 420 16.5in Dunlop KR108 on 6.0in Marchesini forged magnesium wheel (r), 23º steering rake, 95mm trail, 1400mm wheelbase, 53/47% weight distribution, 162kg wet weight.
Top speed: 308km/h (Hockenheim 2000)
Owner: Yamaha Motor Co., Iwata, Japan