Yamaha R1 Traction Control | Review

2012 Yamaha R1 Traction Control

Valentino Rossi once described the Yamaha’s inline four-cylinder motor developed for their M1 MotoGP race machine as the "sweet motor."

The smooth but dramatic low-down torque is thanks to its unique cross-plane crankshaft design that gives an off-beat firing order, and the engine actually sounds and behaves a lot like a typical V-four. Yamaha have fitted this technology to their R1 superbike flagship and the result has (easily) been the best-selling liter-bike in the US. No big surprise there.

Riding the R1, the low-droning engine note is very deceptive and I am constantly surprised to glance at the tach and discover the motor spinning much faster than my ears lead me to believe. However, although the remarkable-and very useable-low down grunt is delivered progressively, it is still necessary to be highly respectful of the throttle when exiting corners, especially on unpredictable street surfaces. On the track, the motor’s engine note is so deceptive it is easy to get greedy with the throttle and cause a highside.

Fortunately, Yamaha’s considerable MotoGP experience has led it to develop a quietly spectacular traction control system, and that too has now trickled down to the street machine we can buy. In essence, it works by detecting any difference between the wheels’ speeds, and if the rear is spinning faster than the front, it backs the power down just enough to avoid excessive loss of traction at the rear.

For any rider, the key to any TC system is how smoothly (and therefore transparently) it accomplishes the task-as you might imagine, it’s no good if the power drop is too abrupt and unsettles the chassis. The R1’s system works by adjusting a combination of the ride-by-wire throttle valve, fuel injection, and ignition timing in tiny increments, and in normal circumstances it does it with perfect transparency.

The other key to rider confidence in TC is its adjustability, so you can walk the tightrope between enough interference to save you from disaster yet not so much that you feel the power is being overly diluted. It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off. The Yamaha’s seven-stage system can be changed on-the-fly in single increments, decreasing from Level 6 (maximum interference) down to Level 1.

A progress bar-type indicator on the LED instruments is easy to see which level is set; the seventh option is off, but the R1 has to be stationary to access it. As the TC activates, an easy to see yellow light flashes on the instrument pod.

The Yamaha R1’s enormous power is controlled by their ride-by-wire Chip Controlled Throttle (YCCT), and that engine management system has three changeable on-the-fly, "Drive Modes."

All of them allow full power, but "A" offers 30% quicker throttle response over Standard for the first half of the throttle range, whereas "B" softens it by 30% throughout the entire throttle range. I find "A" mode a tad too aggressive for the street, but the other two modes allow for fast, elegant riding.

On our street test, the R1 was wearing its original equipment Dunlop Q2s, and in Standard mode the TC level was set to 6 (maximum). Incidentally, Level 6 and 5 on the TC also inhibit wheelies; it’s not true wheelie control per se, but the intrusion level is enough that as the front wheel comes up a speed mismatch is detected and the power is rapidly pulled back. The system is so sensitive and reacts so quickly, that even with the front tire just skimming the road the power is tempered enough to prevent any real lift-off.

Highway 74 from Indian Wells is a twisting, slow-ish road full of hairpins and ample opportunity to sample the R1’s Traction Control. The tarmac surface is frankly appalling, and the thousands of slippery bitumen snakes across the surface make an inadequate attempt to cover the cracks in the road surface. Unfortunately, the Dunlop Q2s on the R1 gripped the surface incredibly well, and try as I might, I simply could not get the TC light to even flicker-much less feel any ‘traction control’-and this was on the Level 6 most intrusive setting!

Flipping the Drive Mode to the most aggressive "A" setting I continued to try and find a limit to the R1’s traction… however it simply made no difference. I’m prepared to admit that perhaps I didn’t notice the yellow light, but I do feel as though I was watching out for it-and I really didn’t see it. To be fair, traction control n the street is more about insurance in the event of an unexpected change in conditions-diesel spills, minor gravel etc on the surface, so I didn’t judge the TC too harshly for not making its presence known; clearly street speeds in normal conditions are simply not enough to really break a quality tire’s traction.

The track test at Chuckwalla Raceway however was a different story altogether, proving the huge difference in speed from the street. The Q2s were swapped out for Michelin’s excellent Power Pilot race tires; the TC was again set to Level 6 and the Drive Mode to Standard. Heading out on to the track I was amazed to see the traction control light begin flickering immediately; granted the tires were relatively cold, but the TC kept flickering even after a couple of laps when the tires were clearly fully warmed up.

The TC light didn’t stop making its presence known until-after several sessions-I had the confidence to dial the TC down to level 2. I wasn’t power-sliding out of turns like Casey Stoner, but I could definitely feel the rear starting to side on the exit of certain corners; however (and very impressively) it never got anywhere near alarming or out of control. It was impossible to tell if I was finessing the throttle like an alien or if it was the Yamaha TC system; however, much as I’d like to think it was me, truth is, it was the R1’s remarkable electronics merely doing precisely what they were designed for-and totally transparently.

The most remarkable thing about the Yamaha system is how invisible it is. If it hadn’t been for the tell-tale flickering yellow light I simply wouldn’t have been aware that the power was being controlled, in fact at one point I joked with Yamaha staffers that it was just a flashing yellow light hooked up to the throttle.

In a crude attempt to feel some interference from the system I purposely rode through one wide corner in a low gear and-making sure I had plenty of room on the exit-I accelerated hard enough to make the tell-light flicker, and then quickly lifted the bike upright as much as possible. The exhaust note immediately changed and the power rushed in-smoothly but dramatically-almost as if a turbo had just come on line. It was the only time I truly managed to feel the system at work, but the fact that I had to go to such extreme lengths to prove it to myself, showed its worth.

Yamaha’s 2012 version of the R1 also has a few tweaks to the styling that make it just a touch more aggressive looking. Included are minor changes to the front lights, redesigned muffler heat shields and exhaust end caps, and a mega-cool looking top triple-clamp-that is presumably a little lighter, inspired by the M1 racebike.

Other minor changes include a new rear shock spring rate that is stiffer at the start of the stroke and softer at the end; this helps with bump absorption and ultimately gives more traction at the rear.

The R1 is available with the usual Yamaha blue/white and Raven Black color options; an exuberant Pearl White with a Candy Red highlight and black Japanese motif on the fairing sides is slightly more expensive.

For a further $500 the 50th Anniversary (Yamaha made their racing debut in 1961) Limited Edition is a replica of the gorgeous Red/White speedblock design used at certain races on this year’s MotoGP calendar. It should probably be labeled the "Ben Spies" replica design as he took his maiden MotoGP victory at Assen riding those colors. At any rate, the 50th Anniversary Edition gets a numbered plate atop the gas tank (only 2,000 will be produced worldwide), a special Anniversary Emblem also on the tank, and gold Yamaha tuning fork logos around the bike.

But the big story on the 2012 Yamaha R1 is the inclusion of Traction Control. Take my advice and do not go faster to "try it out," but you will find that on a track it will give more confidence-which may make you faster-and if/when you go too far past the rear tire’s adhesion you will have a much better chance of surviving it than if the TC wasn’t there. On the street, anti-lock braking is probably the most useful safety aid, but close behind that-at least on high-horsepower liter-bikes-is the need for traction control.

Highsides are thankfully very rare, however there are so many variables affecting the road surface that you could be caught out when you least expect it. So bravo to Yamaha for passing on their multi-million dollar technology at a price we can afford-it will enhance our confidence on track, and our safety on the road.