I have two thoughts running through my mind. 1) Don’t look embarrassingly slow and 2) don’t crash. I have rivers of sweat pouring down my back, and my heart rate is racing already, and I’ve only just put my leathers on. To get the R1 this far has taken many-months of development, countless hours of dyno time and man hours plus a huge financial commitment.
Steve Rodgers, the team owner, is a relaxed and friendly man but if I crash this R1 I may as well walk into the parched scrubland that surrounds Almeria with a shovel.
Clearly concerned team personnel want me to get sized up and run through the controls. I barely understand my Sky remote, so the BSB Yam’s cockpit is an intimidating prospect, with more controls than the Millennium Falcon.
Then there are the physical limitations. Tarran uses a bespoke fixed seat, with a backstop that forces him against the tank, which means he’s can’t move forwards or backward in the seat. He has the physical dimensions of a 12-year old boy while I am not. Amusingly, we discover that I can’t fit in his minute seat and I’ll have to use Jason’s, which is a ‘conventional’ flat perch.
We also run through the very alien controls. Once moving you no longer need to use the clutch. The gearbox is clutchless on up and down changes, which explains why the clutch leave looks so odd, almost vertical. Underneath the clutch is that back-brake lever, which the team call the BMX brake. There is also a conventional back brake under my right foot. The theory is that one is used to control wheelies, the other is used to stop the bike. It sounds confusing and worrying that’s because it is.
And finally, all the sophisticated MotoGP-derived rider aids that come as standard on the 2020 R1 removed. No wheelie or traction control and no cornering ABS. Sound like skydiving without a chute.
The McAMS Yamaha starts with an angry snarl, the crossplane R1 must be one of the best sounding bikes in the British Superbike paddock. Crew chief Chris Anderson gives me a push, wheels turning, into first gear, feed the ‘vertical’ clutch out and we’re away. I trickle down the pit lane, tap into second on the race shift and enter the track. I’m holding onto the left bar like a dog holding onto his favourite ball, and I have already decided to just leave the BMX back brake alone.
The first few corners are taken gingerly, I don’t want to make any unwise mistakes. But, after a few corners, it quickly becomes apparent the R1 doesn’t feel right. Despite the Spanish sun, the heat isn’t being maintained in the Pirelli slicks, the Ohlins suspension isn’t being used, this BSB bike isn’t happy. The fuelling is incredibly smooth at low revs, there’s virtually no snatchiness; engine wise, you could ride this to the shops, but the rest of the bike is complaining about my pedestrian pace.
Halfway into the lap and it’s time to pick up the pace a little. There is a unique and distinctive bark from the full titanium race system. Between clutchless gear changes the engine momentary cuts the ignition, its split-second backfires are additive. The shifts are smooth and effortless, up or down the revs perfectly matching the back changes.
From lower down in the power, where normal racers would never venture, the throttle response is striking, power is linear, the fuelling is impressive. Towards the end of my first lap, I’m starting to think I might have made a mistake, the angry bull isn’t that scary after all. It’s light, flickable and easy to manage. Then we hit the back straight. For the first time, it’s full throttle. As fast as I can tap the gears it keeps accelerating and wanting more – second, third, fourth, fifth, and as fast as that and the long 900m Almeria straight is done. It doesn’t feel barking fast, but the unsightly café/restaurant at the end of the straight is appearing alarmingly quickly, time to brake.
Back through the gears as fast as my Yorkshire dancing feet will allow, remembering there’s no need to use the clutch, just jump on the front brake, and leave the back brakes alone, oh yeah and no ABS. My head can only deal with one thing at a time, and it wants the world to stop moving so fast! The Brembo stoppers are unbelievable, my eyeballs nearly hit my visor, my arms are hurting already.
It feels like I’m about to flop onto the dummy petrol tank. But, there’s no need to brake so hard, I’ve braked way too early, my brain hasn’t recalibrated to BSB performance.
Right, then flick left past the pit-wall, second gear, tap into third, try not to look too slow in front of the McAMS Yamaha team. Into turn one, the downhill right, and the brakes are stronger than my arms. I knew the engine performance would blow me away, but I wasn’t expecting the same from the front end.
Turn four’s long left-hander, with a late apex, is confidence-inspiring, knee down, great feedback and huge grip. But unlike the road-going bikes I’ve ridden previously here my toes aren’t dragging, despite the decent amount of lean. I’m unsure of how far I can actually go? It’s a strange feeling, one I’m not used to. On a road R1, on-road rubber you soon find the limit, but the BSB Yamaha is another level.
The steering is super-precise, I’m feeling more confident, getting closer to the apex. The fast approach to the final chicane, and it’s point-point accurate, even with a heavy-breathing club racer at the helm. The R1 rides over the kerbs as if by magic, and after a short handful of gas I’m ready for the straight again.
Bizarrely it doesn’t feel mentally quick on the straight as the track is wide and there are no peaks in the power. Yes, it’s fast, with 230bhp plus, but I’m not scrambling over the fuel tank to keep the front wheel down. I’ve ridden bikes with less power that feel quicker. The McAMS bike just accelerates naturally. Twist the throttle, tuck in behind the new aerodynamic bodywork and tap the gears when you see the gear shift indicator lights illuminate. You don’t really get a sense of speed until you see the end of the straight appearing at a scary rate. Then it’s time for more arm torture.
As I cross the line once more my lap time appears on the Motec dash, and it’s embarrassing. I’m battered already, like a boxer on the ropes. Sure, my confidence is developing but I just don’t have the talent or courage to throw it on its side to elbow-down levels of lean. I’ve shown off and dragged my elbows for photos many times previously, but this is very different, this is race pace, all be it my race pace.
The grip and feedback are there, the bike is capable of more, but it’s like being on a first date; I’m in an unknown area, past where normal bikes would start to complain or drag toe sliders.
My ‘faster’ lap starts to come together. I have a smooth run through the blind right-hander (turn 5 to 6) and the faster sections are clicking together. I get a nice drive towards the final chicane, grab third gear, and the drive is smooth and stable.
Again, I’m not struggle against the bars, just accelerating rapidly. Braking and turning, trying to scrub off speed, and there isn’t any sign of understeer. As I come onto the back straight once more, I forego entry speed to get a good exit and only change gear when all the rev light illuminates. For the first time I manage to grab sixth gear on the long straight and despite grabbing top gear the R1’s still accelerating as hard as it was in third.
Over the line, 1’50s, not bad, though I’ve gone quicker on road bikes, so I push for one more quick lap. As I brake into turn one and my arms scream, they simply aren’t willing to go one more round. I’m flapping and holding into the ropes. It’s time to do what I do best, look fast for photographs and stop worrying about lap times.
The R1 is incredible, and I’m only at 50% of what the bike is capable of. I’m a different size and weight to the riders, I’m not using all the suspension to the full effect and in some corners I’m a gear lower than I should be – I can only imagine how good this would be perfectly set up for my weight, speed, and style.
I’ve ridden race bikes before – WSBK, GP and TT bikes – and I’ve been professionally testing bikes for 20-years, but I didn’t expect the BSB bike to be so physical, especially on the brakes, and, honestly, I’m only playing with it. How do they do this for than half an hour around Cadwell or Oulton Park, twice in one day? It’s beyond belief.
On top of that, they are changing mappings, controlling rear tyre life, reading pit boards, working on a race strategy, and bashing fairings with another 30 skilled riders all hungry for the win. I had the greatest respect for BSB riders, from the ones at the front to the guy or girl at the back, but now it’s tenfold.