One of the more interesting side entertainments at last weekend's Laguna Seca MotoGP round was the return of King Kenny Roberts, who did a couple of demonstration laps on both his 1980 YZR500 and on a specially prepared Yamaha YZF-M1 MotoGP bike. After the ride, he spoke to a small group of (mainly Italian) journalists about the experience of riding the two bikes, and the comparison between the two. Fortunately, the select group of journalists included Jensen Beeler, editor of the excellent motorcycle website Asphalt & Rubber, and Jensen was gracious enough to share the audio of Kenny Roberts talking about the bikes with MotoMatters.com.
Roberts' comments offer a fascinating insight into the difference between the bikes from 30 years ago and the bikes of today, and the difficulties that each bike presents. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, Roberts suggested, you could compensate for a failure in bike setup by over-riding the bike, pushing it to do things it didn't want to do and sliding the bike to compensate. Modern MotoGP machines - exacerbated by electronics and the Bridgestone tires - will go about as fast as physics allowed. The old 500cc two strokes would allow room for creativity, but the modern bikes reward only one thing: complete precision. Where previously, running wide at a corner could be compensated, now, the difference between success and failure is hitting your lines to within a few centimeters. Over-riding a modern MotoGP machine will get you precisely nowhere, and is likely to either make you radically slower or leave you rolling through the gravel traps.
The bike that Roberts rode did not have the full electronics package, giving full rein to its tendency to wheelie everywhere, making it even more difficult to ride. His 500 is more fun to ride, Roberts told the press. Here's what Kenny Roberts had to say after riding both machines:
Kenny Roberts: These things are so rigid and so precise, they're not near as fun to ride in my opinion. I think you can go round a corner as fast as you want, until you crash. In my day, you could go into the corner a little fast and you'd push the front, or the back would come around, but on that thing, you just go BOOM! That fast, and you're down. The tires, suspension, and chassis are so much better to do that exact corner, but if you don't do that exact corner exactly, it doesn't work.
Mine doesn't have all those electronic devices on it and it's wheelying everywhere. I don't know how they ride it. It wheelies everywhere, it doesn't have anti-wheelie. If you wheelie it more than two seconds, it blows up because it's missing oil. So, they said don't wheelie for more than two seconds. Why would you make a motorcycle that you can't wheelie, but that wheelies everywhere? And you can't wheelie it for more than 2 seconds. So it's bullshit. I wouldn't like that."
I rode the old 500 a week ago in England, and I liked it a lot better than I like this.
Q: You don't enjoy this?
KR: No. The 500s are better.
Q: Someone said in the past a rider needed to have more imagination to ride the bike because you could push over the limit of the bike.
KR: Yeah, yeah. The guys that could win were the guys that were physically stronger, that helped a lot, because the bikes wobbled so much and the tires went off. So every four laps the whole system change. It was the guys that had the muscles and the power that made a big difference. This isn't going to make any difference to that. This thing's so much more complicated, you can't over-ride it.
Q: You mean you need more physical power before or with this bike?
KR: No, because this bike is so much more precise, you're never going to get into the positions that we could get our bikes in. You know, we could over-ride our bikes, we could make it move around, we could slide it and make it turn, and two-strokes had a lot different powerband. This thing isn't going to do that, it's not going to slide going in, and set it up coming out. It ain't going to do that.
It wants to go round the corner as fast as it's possible to go, and if you don't hit that spot, exactly, you're out of the line, it doesn't like it. I can imagine going out and being very frustrated on this, because you're not fast enough and you don't know why. Whereas in our day, it was well, you know what, if we steepen the steering head up a little bit, I can get through the Esses better and that's going to make me faster, but this thing, no.
Q: You prefer two-strokes or four-strokes?
KR: I like four strokes. I think the 1000 will be a lot better. I tested the V5 Honda round I raced with Little Kenny around Valencia, and it was a much, much nicer, funner bike. I think the 1000s are going to help everybody out. These things are like a big 250 with 300 horsepower.
The riders are going to like the 1000 much better, because it's going to have more torque, these things only have RPM.
We raced the 700 here, the Daytona bike here, and it was an animal, a complete animal. That was my 1980 bike, it would flex so much, and down the the back straightaway is a big 2nd gear corner. I could go so fast, it would go BOING, like a big spring. So actually you could go round a corner faster than the bike could. But with this one, no way, it ain't gonna go like that.