Early in 1998 I joined the all-new Redbull Yamaha team on its first “Shakedown test” for the 1998 World Championship season. It was a sunny summers day at Phillip Island Australia during the European winter.
I knew it had been a big risk I had taken by leaving the relative comfort of a factory Superbike ride. In 1997 we’d been fighting for podium positions at every round during the second half of 1997. It looked very good for 1998.
When I looked at the stats of the previous WSBK champions going to 500GP, it looked to me like they mostly returned to WSBK after not a particularly nice experience, with a lot of new bruises. After a week of chewing the offer over, I had decided that if I said no to the Redbull Yamaha team offer, I would probably never get the chance to ride a 500 again. Most importantly to me, I did not want to look back at 40years old wondering if I could have made friends with a 500GP bike. So I took the plunge and said yes.
Although the team had been recently assembled for this first test, the motorcycle racing world is small so I knew some of the team staff, but my actual mechanics; Hamish, Mark and Carl plus Aki the engine builder were all new to me. Only Alfred the computer guy I had experience working with. He came from Kawaski .. I had recommended him. It turned out that I had an excellent team behind me.
The other things that I believe strongly made the transition from WSBK to GP easier for me was that I was on the same suspension (Ohlins) and the same tyres (Dunlop) as I had recently felt so confident on in WSBK. In my experience, if a bike’s setup is “in the ball-park” it is easier to adapt to that completely different motorcycle than adapting to completely different brands of suspension and tyres on your same old bike. For eg; while I rode the 500, I rode the 8hr bike each year on a 4stroke I’d not ridden before, but like the 500 it was on Ohlins and Dunlops. It was not a problem for me to adapt very quickly and go as fast or faster on it as the guys who rode it normally.
So, back to Philip Island test. My first job was to run in the nice new YZR500 engine. I was told to do 2 laps below a certain (low) RPM, then two laps more at the next level of RPM, then two more at the next level, then two laps reasonably fast before returning to the pit box for a quick check over for water leaks etc. The bike was very easy to ride, not at all like I’d expected which was no bottom end power. This bike carburated nice, crisp & clean and actually pulled itself toward the “power-band” (no doubt helped by Yamaha’s experience but also by the many sensors on the exhausts and cylinder heads that indicated optimum temperatures/carburation etc to Alfred the computer man). Riding the bike slowly around Philip Island was a pleasure that any motorcyclist could enjoy. It felt incredibly light, like nothing I’d ridden since the 250GP bikes I’d done some races on earlier in my career, so all bumps were very noticeable and the tyres felt very hard because of this…. but it was easy to ride! The next RPM up was a little faster but much the same experience. Once I got to around 9- 10,000 RPM the thing absolutely launched forward violently like an animal! “Fuck me” I yelled in my helmet with a big grin, feeling a big surge of adrenaline like you get after you’ve had a fright. Out of the next turn I got it safely up off the edge of the rear tyre and aimed it, held it open and literally ‘launched’ it down the short straight at the next corner, braked hard banging it down through the gears getting it back in control. The braking was all done by the front as the engine had no engine brake at all, much like you’d just pulled the clutch in, which was scary when it was firing you at the turns with acceleration more that your brain could comprehend at first.
I will never forget those ‘relatively fast’ two laps running-in the YZR 500 at Philip Island, that very first time I felt the violent acceleration of a factory V4 2stroke. The sheer acceleration was ab-so-lutely fantastic. A rush I had not felt since my first ride on a RM 80 2stroke Motocrosser at 12 years old. Just like when I was 12, I was having fun scaring myself down the straights, then getting it back in control on the brakes and then laughing out loud and swearing. And just like my first ride on the RM 80, I was in love with this bike.
The problems started when I tried to ride it fast. Like I always say, 500 V4 2stokes are not hard to ride, they are hard to ride fast. I/we managed 3 podiums in 1998, our first full season of GP’s. One of them was a win, but that’s another story.