MotoGP looks, Moto2 handling – the new R6 reminds us why 600cc supersports bikes are so much fun.
It’s been ten years since Yamaha last gave the R6 any serious updates. You’d think that would leave it miles behind the competition, but that’s far from the case. In truth, the popularity of the 600cc supersports class has been shrinking since 2006, so very few manufacturers have put the sort of development into the bikes as they have in, say, their 1,000cc supersports bikes. That’s not to take away from how good the 2007 R6 was and is – it blew us away when we first rode it and, in the last SuperBike supersports test a few years ago, it still won best track bike. An addictive, screaming engine that pulled harder the more it spun, coupled to a chassis that pushed you to take liberties on corner entry, made the outgoing R6 a bike that everyone loved on track. Now Yamaha has given it stunning M1 lookalike bodywork, electronic goodies and, they say, an even better feeling chassis. Well sign me up.
Whatever happened to the supersport 600 class? Once dominant on tracks and roads alike, favoured by riders who valued corner speed over acceleration, now the litre bikes have taken over, why? Traction control has had a big hand in that, taming 200bhp monsters and giving us all artificial throttle control to rival Doohan. And with noise and emissions regs closing in ever tighter, the 600cc supersport class has taken a real kicking. Triumph, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki; all folded their hands, chucking aces and kings on the table when Euro 4 raised its head. MV still has the F3 675 and Yamaha just couldn’t let the R6 fall by the wayside. So after ten years, the R6 finally gets the update it deserves. Thankfully, the grown-ups at Yamaha seem to value screaming flat-out around corners as much as we do.
However, the regulations that were steep enough to kill off most of the competitors meant that the R6 was never going to get through unscathed. 13 horses have wandered off and been turned into lasagne between the power claimed for a 2008 R6 and the new bike, while a kilo of fat has snuck on leaving us with a 116bhp bike, weighing 190kg wet. When you’re used to hearing power figures go up and weight go down, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. More on that in a moment, but let’s put it into perspective – the choice was a slower R6, or no R6 at all.
If you can get around the power disappointment, the 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6 is stunning. Ripping cues from the M1 MotoGP bike, the new bodywork manages to look incredible, while improving airflow both into the engine and over the rider. The hidden headlights are genius, just like the latest YZF-R1, and like the R1 you just can’t stop walking laps of it, poking grubby fingers at shiny panels and unusual shapes. There’s a quickshifter fitted as standard, six-stage traction control, ABS, switchable throttle maps and new KYB suspension.
That chassis. Wow. Lap after lap, I pushed and pushed my luck, both on the brakes and through Almeria’s long sweeping turns and the R6 never frightened me once. The front-end feel from the old R6 was one of the best, even in standard trim, but somehow Yamaha has made it even better. Turn three is an impossibly long, third-gear left hander and the R6 just invited you to keep leaning and leaning, with solid confidence coming up through the forks. Eventually I manage to get the rear tyre to break away, peeling in for a late apex, but it happens so smoothly that everything’s back in line before I’ve had a chance to panic and screw things up.
After a couple of sessions, I’m actually beginning to enjoy the lack of power – it’s forcing me to find more corner speed, to get on the power earlier and to use every last inch of the track. And the kerb. Overtakes have to be plotted three corners ahead, on braking I’m daring myself closer to the white line, just to make the entry wider so I can carry more speed. I feel like I’m riding the track and the bike as hard as I possibly can. Compare that to a 1,000cc supersports bike, where the only thing you’re doing as hard as you can is holding on. Quickshifter: awesome. Brakes: awesome. New clocks: awesome. Engine: awesome, oh, as long as I was riding the superstock-spec bike that Yamaha kindly let us have a spin on, to give a feel of the bike’s potential without the emissions strangling it.
The ABS, now there was a nice little surprise – non-switchable ABS normally leads to a couple of stomach lurching moments when it kicks you off the brakes right as you’re desperately trying to skim off speed for a turn. Usually because it has a heart attack that the rear wheel has lifted slightly and usually followed by a swift trip to the pits for a game of hunt the ABS fuse. But the R6’s system, despite not having a track mode and despite not having a clever IMU to control it, works really, really well on track. Sure, it does kick in and limit how late you can brake, but not too early and in a way that still lets you make the apex. The traction control was nice, safe and cut in early in the higher modes, and then I never noticed it in the lowest setting. It’s not like on a 1,000 where you’re constantly leaning on it and thanking the engineers with every flash of the light. On track, you’d spend most of your time with it turned off, but on a chilly ride home you’ll be thankful of it.
Now, before we all go off wailing that the R6 has turned middle-aged, fat and slow, there are a few things to consider. Firstly – it has only gained 1kg in weight, despite having a ton of emissions and noise reducing crap slapped on it. That’s because Yamaha has made a lighter, aluminium tank, trimmed weight out of the rear subframe, fitted specially developed lightweight Bridgestone tyres and bunged in a smaller battery. So if you replace the bulky exhaust and take the emissions crap off, you actually have an R6 that is some 4kg lighter, according to one of the technicians we cornered in a garage. That doesn’t help guys using them on the road in Germany (where modifying bikes for the road involves a lot of red tape), but for countries like the UK with more relaxed attitudes to modifying bikes, it’s a winner. The second point to console ourselves with here, is that if you stick on a full exhaust system and remap using your favoured box of tricks (Power Commander or the Yamaha kit ECU would be a good start), then you get all that wonderful screaming power back. It feels like the clocks have been rolled back fifteen years, to when you could buy any bike and make it 10bhp better by changing the exhaust. No, that’s not ideal on a bike that you’ve already dropped £10,999 on, especially when the MV Agusta F3 675 is cheaper and more advanced. Would I pick one over the MV? As a race bike, yes – it’s a proven package with a ton of Yamaha race kit parts available, and a WSS race win within the first two rounds. As a trackday bike? Again yes. Despite the higher price and lower spec, in track format it’s every bit as fast as the MV and way easier to ride right on its ragged edge. As a nice sports bike for the road? Hmm, there’s a tricky call and one that it isn’t fair to make without a back to back 600cc road trip. Let’s just hope Yamaha starts doing some epic deals on exhaust and ECU upgrades…
Words: Chris Northover Images: Yamaha