Words: Roland Brown Pics: Gold & Goose
Back in 2000, there wasn’t much on two wheels saucier than a Japanese factory racer. Roland got the invite to ride three in one day he most exotic, exclusive test I’d ever been privileged to take part in! Lined up in the Jerez pit lane were three factory Yamahas: Carlos Checa’s YZR500, Olivier Jacque’s YZR250 and Noriyuki Haga’s World Superbike R7. Between them they’d won a world title and 19 races in the recently finished 2000 season.
Regular pilots Haga and Checa were in attendance. Former 250cc world champ Christian Sarron was among the handful of fellow testers who’d flown in from around the world. As a bike journo it doesn’t get much better than this. So naturally it turned into the biggest fuck-up of my entire career. It all started so well. I rode the YZR500 first, and it was every bit as mind-blowingly, scarily exciting as you’d expect a factory V4 two-stroke to be. The red-and-white Yamaha made about 190bhp and weighed just 131kg. Every time I exited the fast right-hander onto the back straight it tried to rear up and throw me off, while still leaning hard over. But once it returned to Earth it handled and braked like a dream.
Compared to that bad-assed YZR (on which Checa had finished fifth in the 500cc championship behind Suzuki’s Kenny Roberts Jr), Haga’s factory R7 was a pussycat — one of those rare and memorable bikes that just feels right from the moment you pull away. This was the season the Samurai of Slide was banned for two races for taking an illegal weight-loss supplement, and came closest to winning the championship, narrowly losing out to Honda’s Colin Edwards.
Haga’s R7, aka the OW02, was a high-revving, gorgeously smooth and sweet-handling 749cc four, its engine crammed with titanium, and its ultra-stiff frame holding premium Öhlins suspension parts. I got to know it quite well, too, because Yamaha’s first (and last) Factory Test was no normal four-lap rush job. We were allowed a dozen or more laps to get a proper feel for the bikes. The R7 was so rider friendly that my lap times were coming down nicely, and I was quicker than I’d been on the more powerful YZR. Then it happened. Winding on the power as I rode into the setting sun over the brow of the fast, uphill right-hander onto the back straight, I felt the rear Dunlop step out too fast, then grip and high-side me and Yamaha’s beautiful bike into the gravel at roughly 100mph. Luckily I was barely scratched, though on returning to the paddock I threw my scraped Arai into a skip. I sure was embarrassed. The exotic R7 was wrecked, having bounced down the track after me on both sides. Yamaha had quit World Superbikes at the end of the season, but this wasn’t they way they’d planned to leave. Estimates of the OW01’s value before the crash would have begun in six figures. After it, nearer six grand. Yamaha’s people were very gracious and generously stuck to the plan to let me out on Olivier Jacque’s championship-winning YZR250 shortly afterwards.
Your head, on a plate
Almost as surprisingly, I still enjoyed riding the tiny two-stroke V-twin, which made roughly 95bhp, weighed just 95kg, accelerated like stink, and changed direction with brain-rotating speed even when carrying my oversized carcass. That evening we were sitting round a big dinner table in the hotel when someone stood up to announce they had an award to make… and presented me with my rescued Arai on a silver plate, to much amusement all round. I’d gained a souvenir and a headache, and learnt a valuable lesson. Nori Haga might regularly have made that demon-handling R7 do things no motorcycle should be capable of, but for the rest of us even the best bikes have limits that are all too easy to find.