“Yamaha and Öhlins have always enjoyed a very close relationship and for many years Yamaha actually owned the company, so working together on the Electronic Racing Suspension (ERS) project felt completely natural. Three years ago, when Yamaha first approached us about developing the ERS, we were very excited about the prospect of bringing an Öhlins semi-active suspension system to the market on a production bike. For a small company like Öhlins it was a very big step, obviously we don’t manufacture motorcycles and so working with Yamaha from the very start of a project as important as the new YZF-R1M was a great opportunity...

“Nowadays production motorcycles are such high specification that everyone is looking for a new way to get a bit more performance, but where do you get it from? Do you add 20bhp? If so where is the grip coming from? The chassis technology is only moving forward in very small steps and ABS is now thoroughly developed. The only area that manufacturers have yet to properly exploit is suspension, luckily Öhlins knows quite a lot about this field of motorcycle development.

“We actually developed our first electronic suspension system with Yamaha back in 2008 when we were in World Superbikes. Nori Haga won at Vallelunga using an electronic suspension system on his YZF-R1 and it was very similar to the system used on the new YZF-R1M. The main difference between the two systems is that the WSB one reacted to pre-set GPS co-ordinates while the latest ERS is stand alone and reacts to data supplied by the motorcycle’s Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU). Why has it taken eight years to make a system for a road bike? Sadly the FIM banned its use in racing at the end of 2008, which slowed development. Also, we realised that we could not use a GPS-based system on a production bike as we would have to map every track in the world to make the system effective, which simply wasn’t possible. The only future for electronic suspension was for it to be semi-active and able to respond to inputs from sensors on the motorcycle. We had to wait until motorcycles were built that contained the required sensors to run such a system, thanks to the IMU on the new YZF-R1M we have been able to build such a system.

“Developing a semi-active suspension system is not easy and that’s why it was important to be involved at the very start of the new YZF-R1M project. While we do have an aftermarket system for the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R that gives it a semi-active shock absorber, it isn’t as advanced as the one on the YZF-R1M, which uses data from the IMU.

“The ERS on the YZF-R1M uses its own ECU, which we call the Suspension Control Unit (SCU). The IMU on the R1 feeds its data into the SCU and this data is then combined with information from all of the bike’s other sensors to allow the SCU to make a decision about what is happening with the bike at that precise moment in time and what is likely to happen in the future. The SCU calculates this data at 100 times a second and then sends a command to the stepper motors on the suspension. The semi-active suspension units are very similar to standard Öhlins suspension units, the forks are 43mm NIX units while the shock is a TTX36, but the compression and rebound damping adjustors have stepper motors controlling them. The stepper motor is basically an electronic screwdriver turning the adjustor.

“Although we could make many changes a second, we aim to keep the suspension feeling constant as this won’t upset the bike’s handling. If you continually alter the damping throughout a corner the bike would feel on the move, so we try to limit the suspension’s movement to keep it feeling smooth and give the rider confidence in the corner. Although the ERS is capable of operating over the full range of damping adjustment, effectively it is more of a fine-tuning system that continually monitors and tweaks the damping to make the bike feel perfect.

“Creating the ERS was a very hard project and really tested Öhlins’ technological knowledge as it was so reliant of software and programming. Much of the ERS was developed in an office using computers and test beds as you have to be 100% confident it won’t do anything odd before you even consider testing it on a bike. When your computer’s software crashes it is annoying, imagine what would happen if the SCU failed or did something unexpected while the rider was on track! Fitting the system to a bike was the simple part and by the time Yamaha’s test riders trialed it we knew it was very good. I remember one test rider wasn’t totally convinced about the system, but when he tried it he couldn’t believe how good the semi-active suspension was.

“Semi-active suspension is certain to be the future of motorcycle suspension systems. If you think about it, the ERS is basically a very small man from Öhlins sitting on your pillion seat continually monitoring and adjusting your suspension for you using all of our company’s knowledge gained from years of dominating race series such as MotoGP and WSB. That’s an amazingly powerful tool to have at your disposal.”

What does it feel like to ride?

“Having spent a day at Eastern Creek riding the new Yamaha YZF-R1 I didn’t think the bike could get any better, but then we were allowed out on the YZF-R1M with its Öhlins semi-active suspension…

“The R1M was absolutely mind-blowing, probably the best bike I have ever ridden on track. The Öhlins semi-active suspension sharpens the whole R1 package even further, stiffening the front end under braking and allowing the shock to squat and drive the rear tyre into the ground under acceleration. At points where the conventional suspension on the R1 felt a little soft, the R1M was precise, firm and noticeably more composed while also dealing with fast ripples in the track’s surface without feeling harsh. It’s an incredibly impressive set-up and I can’t wait to test it under normal road conditions.”
Jon Urry, freelance motorcycle journalist