I don’t know about you but after I’ve watched a MotoGP race, WSBK to a lesser degree, I’m usually overcome by a shot of adrenaline that urges me to go for a ride. This feeling usually subsides after the second sigh when I remind my child brain that I don’t have access to a race track. The third heavy exhale is combined with the penny dropping, I don’t have a race bike either.
Now some folk out there enjoy heading to the ‘Shed in Shoreditch to watch GP races, hanging out with mates, chinning a burger and then riding home in a spirited fashion. Not me. My enjoyment comes from complete, undistracted immersion. I want to know the paddock gossip from FP1 and enjoy the filler interviews with team bosses and tech insights from seasoned stalwarts nearly as much as the actually racing. Cheer or talk over the commentary at your peril! This all helps me to cocoon myself in the make-believe world where, I am a GP racer.
For me, riding on the road simply cannot trick my soul into being suitably stirred. Sure, I could have bigger balls or be utterly irresponsible but that results in an altogether different type of rush. I enjoy the edge, the limit, of pretty much everything and a motorcycle allows us humans a chance to find that limit, quickly. It’s the dipping a toe over that edge and managing to step back into safety for another go that floats my boat.
So, what’s this got to do with a track day? Well, if you’ve followed my ramblings over the last few years you’ll know that I’m not much of a sportsbike guy. I left motorcycles alone for over a decade as my man-plums used to be twice the size of my pea-brain. Nowadays, with the balance somewhat redressed I find myself riding without the track experience that a lot of my mates benefit from. I dabbled with big road bikes along the way but completely missed the jump from 130bhp being seen as mind bending to today’s weapons whose output figures start with a two.
This experience void means I’ve arrived slap bang into the era of hyper-clever electronics. My heart says this is all wrong. The throttle goes both ways and ABS is bollox, learn to modulate the lever and other such narrative seems to be the reserve of the old guard while millenials had traction control settings on their balance bikes and know no different. I was undecided and resided somewhere in the hinterland, until that is, I started going to training schools and riding 20 grand race bikes with number plates.
I was flown downunder to Australia in 2015 to test the new Yamaha XJR1300, a bolt-on event to the real deal which was the global press launch of the all-new R1. And as the original version managed in 1998, this rocket propelled super-computer on wheels blew everyone away. Yamaha had incorporated genuine GP technology into the R1 making it a bonefide race and track tool that just happened to have a lights and indicators.
Now if you know all this already and have a Panigale V4 in the garage that you reckon can leave the current R1 for dead then great, enjoy yourself. I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the regular folk who want to experience the absolute pinnacle of modern motorcycling. But most importantly want to do so in a safe and enjoyable environment.
There are loads of race schools to choose from, and I’ve tested a few – see here – but there’s something special about riding circuits that are part of the Moto GP calendar. The Yamaha R1M Masterclass is based at Silverstone, a track that I’ve probably been to over 50 times. I love it. The history, the nostalgia and the memories are one thing but it’s the layout that has people like Rossi eyes-wide with excitement when they talk about the place. What it lacks in gradient change and features it makes up for with flow, even with the relatively recent changes that incorporate the new paddock and Wing Complex. And to top it off, the washout that was last year’s race resulted in an eye-wateringly expensive resurfacing job that now offers a computer-game-smooth riding surface. Cal Crutchlow moaned about a few tiny bumps that the meany F1 boys had created but frankly he’d find it possible to complain about a £1m cheque because it was printed on the incorrect paperstock.
Yamaha have an exclusive deal to run their school at Silverstone and therefore cherry pick the dates to offer a range of the circuit’s layout options – the International and full Grand Prix. And tuition comes from an ultra-talented team, lead by 500 GP star and bedroom wall hero (if you’re of a certain age) Niall Mackenzie.
I thought it best to start with the less challenging International configuration but my pal at Yamaha pushed me to man-up and go for the full-on GP version. There’s a choice of bikes too and you can ignore my lyrical waxing about the R1. Either take your own (any brand will do) or pay a bit extra and book a 2019 R1M. The M is the full fat version with electronic Öhlins suspension and carbon fibre bodywork. Even if you have your own bike and want to benefit from Niall’s wealth of wisdom I’d wholeheartedly suggest you go for the R1M anyway. I’ll get to the why in a minute.
I arrived at the magnificent Wing Complex early, but not so bright. The sky was doing its I’m going to spoil your day impression. The nerves set in. There I was ready to bust-out my box fresh Power Ranger outfit and hop on a 200hp monster, just after telling a multi-time champion that I’d only been on a track twice before (on 2 wheels). My fait was surely sealed, I’d be the big bucks hipster influencer wanker from London town hashtagging and selfieing himself into the Stowe gravel trap. I however had other plans.
I’m a sponge when it comes to rider training and absolutely love learning new skills and arrive with zero bravado. A teacher’s pet even. Which was handy as Niall’s BSB superstar son Taylor was to be my lead instructor for the day. Niall would be following me on track throughout the day too and adding to Taylor’s assessments. Nowhere to hide!
The pits were packed with every type of track day machine imaginable, from budget SV650s to a Panigale V4R. The fleet of R1Ms and the Yamaha staff commandeer the end garage for their students and our group was less than a dozen in size. Dedicated 1-to-1 tuition avoids the assembly line feel that can be the vibe at other training schools and academies. There are more than enough bikes, in case someone breaks one or runs out of fuel, and there’s a full size-range of leathers to borrow if you need.
During the run-through of the brain boggling cleverness that is the R1M’s electronics package it was explained that, among other things, we’d be able to crack the throttle wide open on corner exit and there’d be no chance of ejection to the moon. We were only to use the clutch when leaving the pits and the brakes are linked so the rear pedal is effectively redundant – for mere mortals at least. My ears heard this but inside, my brain was telling the man to fuck right off. There’s no way my body would adjust to this. It’s preprogrammed to cover the clutch and rear brake, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to train my right wrist to rotate in nano increments.
With the slide control, anti-wheelie, traction control, engine braking and ABS set to somewhere near the middle (the recommended position) I joined the slow/novice group for a sighting lap, following instructors at commuting pace so myself and the other 25 or so riders could dispatch nerves and get a feel for the GP track layout. Well that was the idea. The clouds couldn’t contain their excitement and started to leak. Was this mental rain like the commentators talk about? Or the real slippery deal? Rear tyres in front of me were shiny, that means greased banana skin in my book. Back in the pits I met Taylor for the first session. “You alright? It’s wet…” he said. “Yeah, sure, let’s get stuck in” I replied, from my man-plums, not my pea-brain.
My over cautious head was soon told to pipe down. The R1M is a stupendously capable machine that even with a lifetime of training and trying, I’d never reach its limit. After a couple of laps I wondered if Taylors rear light was defective. We weren’t exactly going fast but he hadn’t braked. Not even once. With this in my mind it was my turn to lead. And Niall was on track somewhere monitoring his proteges. No pressure!
After a tense 20 minute session we peeled in for a debrief. At the beginning of the day we’d written down what we wanted to achieve from the training. I couldn’t care less about lap times (well that’s not strictly true) but just wanted to go back to basics and have any bad habits pulled apart. It turns out I wasn’t doing much wrong at all, apart from turning left!
Now you’d think with my dirt track credentials this wouldn’t be a problem but it appears that my injured bodyparts have conspired to contort my skeleton, rendering important parts weak and feeble. With the second session well underway and the track now dry, speeds escalated, as did my inputs, resulting in a strange fatigue I’d not felt before. I literally couldn’t turn left. Thankfully Silverstone is a clockwise circuit but the lefts are slow and technical which made it worse. In between the heavy breathing I caught myself groaning into Vale, the Loop and Brooklands.
Taylor showed me footage from his GoPro, sure enough I looked like two different people. Casey Stoner through the rights and Quasimodo in the lefts. Aware of the problem I was able to work on body position and with some top tips I felt ready to go again. Taylor’s tuition style is disarming yet to the point. Handy, with all that’s going on around. There can be an overwhelming desire for students, myself included, to try and learn too much. Even if you come away with just one key thing to practice I’d say it’s worth it. Between Taylor and Niall I’d found half a dozen things that once altered not only made me faster but more importantly bought me time in crucial areas. If you’ve ever watched elite sports people and wondered how they make it look so easy the answer isn’t a secret – they simply make adjustments at the correct time, allowing more actual time to deal with the complicated tasks. I’m not about to give all the intel away, book the course for yourself and find out what I mean.
Suffice to say that in the post lunch sessions my confidence was sky high and Taylor piled on the coals, leaving me no option but to try and hang onto the back of him. And this is when it all clicked. I was now inside my GP daydream, realtime.
Smashing through the gearbox with the throttle pinned, the cross-plane-cranked engine howling beneath and the front wheel clawing the air. Not in a yo-yoing fashion, but just like on the telly when the alien GP boys are hard on the gas, no more than a couple of inches of lift while driving forward. All controlled by the electronics of course. With those switched off I’d still be in Milton Keynes A&E typing with my mouth.
Glancing at the speedo on the Hangar Straight I saw 160 something before my plums shrank and I threw the anchor out – way, way too early. Having the courage to tip into Stowe deep and at a decent pace took a few laps to work towards. As did just rolling-off into Copse with a single digit brake dab, rather than downshifting twice and squeezing the lever hard. Silverstone is riduclously wide and the runoffs confidence inspiring. You can pretty much out-brake yourself or stand the bike up in most of the corners and get away with it Scott free. In fact there’s nearly a whole extra circuit of Tarmac between the white lines and the gravel traps. And fences are even further back from there. Sod crashing here during a race, the walk back must take forever.
Then there’s the slide control. Watching the instructors gracefully laying black lines while seemingly riding off to the shops was mesmurising. I tried to follow suit but my brain simply wouldn’t allow my wrist to whiskey the throttle. The occasional damp patch and excursions beyond the white paint on corner exit had the rear moving slightly sideways in a smooth and controlled manner. Again, 90% of which wasn’t my doing. Pros will use this facility to square-off corners and fire it down the straights. Something for next time.
At no point was I on the actual edge, but my inbuilt telemetry was registering readings on a new scale. Then, pushing hard into Vale (the corner where your mates watch you from the pitwall) I felt the front tyre understeer and push well wide of the apex. There wasn’t enough pressure on my knee slider to offer any assistance, even if my brain had been able to actually compute that fast, and I imagined doom. Tucking the front is not only something I’m used to but instigate when dirt-tracking due to not having a front brake. However, at near three-digit speeds on someone else’s 20 grand bike….. Erm. The R1M yawned, lifted two limp hands and mocked a clap – well done hero, you nearly stirred the IMU (onboard computer brain) from its slumber. Try harder next time, pal.
Buoyed by the margin I’d found in the zone between my ability, my confidence and the R1M’s capability I suddenly found myself at full concentration. A rarity for me on a bike, my overactive mind usually wanders off somewhere. But Taylor’s pace was increasing and I was being sucked along, arriving at corners a gear higher than when circulating on my own.
We swapped positions and my concentration lapsed. Having him behind me, with the GoPro on, I fell into the trap of trying to impress. I took liberties, ran into corners hotter and subsequently ran wide a few times. Smoothness gave way to the GP daydream and I started trying to do things like the men on the telly. I had most of the circuit committed to memory but was finding the flik-flak from Maggots to Beckets tricky, despite my newfound skill of pushing hard on the pegs to assist direction change.
Despite exiting Luffield and Woodcote well and dishing out all 200 of the Yamaha’s horsepowers I couldn’t pass the guy in front heading down the old pit straight and didn’t want to chuck it up the inside into Copse. Instead I barely braked and ran really deep, out onto the rumble strip around the outside of him. Taps fully open and tucked down the short straight towards Maggotts I smashed through a couple of cogs, tried not to drift too far to the right for the left kink and then pitched it right. Then my plums turned to raisins.
Something stopped my body from doing as it was told and rather than climb over to the other side of the bike for Becketts I froze, stood the bike up and torpedoed across the gravel trap towards Chapel. At around 70mph instinct took over. In a split second I covered the clutch, took my fingers away from the front brake lever and gently squeezed the rear pedal, releasing it again as the gravel ran out and my mind wondered whether the crosswinds had been sufficient to dry the patch of grass between me and the next turn. I’d slowed enough to let the other riders though then took a protracted route back onto the track so as to dump my kitty litter away from the racing line. But where was Taylor? Surely he’d witnessed my heroics…
Bring-bring, bring-bring. Ah yes, that’s the phone in my head ringing. It’s mum, “you’ve had your fun, now come in for your tea before I have to get the Savlon out.”
Taylor had peeled in a lap early to leave me to it and get the GoPro footage ready. Upon admitting my misdemeanour Niall simply said, “well, at least it shows you were trying”.
As you can probably tell, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and have definitely come away a better rider. In fact I had Taylor’s voice in my head each time I exited Chessons Drift at the Bike Shed Festival a couple of weeks ago and can put a second-a-lap reduction in lap time down to his wise words. I also had a good time with the other riders on the day. One chap had got bored of waiting for a new S1000RR to be delivered (manufactured) so figured he’d test the R1M before getting his deposit back from BMW. I didn’t catch up with him afterwards but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s switched camps. There was another guy who’d treated himself, or maybe his missus had treated him, to a day on a more sophisticated machine than his current 2008 R1. He was beaming all day and couldn’t believe how good the electronics were. He hailed from the old school way of thinking that rider aids are bullshit, but after a day of worship at the Church of IMU he was converted.
And me? I’m booking another day next year.
On the face of it the Masterclass seems like a big dollar day out but when I look at all the bikes I’ve got and the cost of maintaining and insuring them for a few outings a year, borrowing one for the day makes way more sense. A rear tyre alone is £150 and I fully intend on mullering one of those during my next visit. Besides, I haven’t got 20 large to dunk, and even if I did pick-up a cheap R6 to practice on instead I’d miss living in the GP dreamworld that the R1M allows.
The fleet will be refreshed this winter with the recently launched 2020 model so it would be a service to our readers for me to give a thorough back-to-back comparison. Dear Santa…
If you want to know what the R1M is actually when used by a grown-up, here’s Michael Neeves’ review.
We’ll be publishing the Yamaha Masterclass 2020 dates as soon as they’re released and I’ve got my hand up for hosting a Bike Shed group if anyone fancies joining me.
Find out more
Yamaha Masterclass Web
Track images by Picman