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Gimmick or more grip? Yamaha’s Niken and MT-09 on a racetrack, with timing and telemetry reveals all!

Yamaha’s Niken has caused quite a stir since it appeared on the market earlier this year. A leaning three-wheeler, with a performance motor, for grown-ups, for real? It has the like-it-or-hate-it stance of something out of The Martian, combined with the tried and true mechanicals of one of the brand’s long-time favourites, the MT-09. Under the skin they are cousins, provided that somewhere along the line one of the ‘uncles’ was actually an alien.

The Niken and MT-09 share what is more or less the same engine. The Niken has revised fuelling and electronics along with a heavier flywheel but otherwise, they are as close as you could get. So the two machines represent a rare – very rare – opportunity to measure what two wheels versus three is like, if everything else was fairly constant.

One thing that its polarising appearance has done is to make the Niken the subject of great scrutiny. Why is it like that? What are the advantages? Why is it so big? And how does it actually perform up against the regulation two-wheeled version?

There’s only one way to find out…

Yamaha Australia had both bikes ready to roll, we could get our mitts on all the telemetry bells and whistles we needed and I didn’t need a second invitation to ride both beasts. Job done.

Well, nearly done.

Does anyone have a spare racetrack we can borrow? It turns out, they do.

Once the plane landed in Sydney it was a pleasant few hours cruise south to Pheasant Wood. The circuit offers tight and open corners with heavy positive banking and some off-camber turns to boot, it also has a fantastic surface and would have to be one of the best small circuits in Australia.

The plan was simple, compare the Niken to the MT-09 under controlled conditions and assess the key areas such as acceleration, braking, corner speed and most importantly, the feeling of both machines on track. The measurable points of the test would be recorded via a VBOX data logger attached to the handlebars with lap and sector times recorded by the circuit’s own timing loop. The VBOX is a GPS-based telemetry device that can record key areas of data such as acceleration, braking and lateral G force. All of which can be broken down to show critical areas of performance. Basically, it’s a digital version of Galileo’s ‘Speed equals distance over time’ Theorem. Only with less Italian and no feather quills. And it has an app. Of course it does.

Arriving at the track, the weather was particularly ominous. The surface was soaking wet and most of the track was under thick fog. A few options came to light here; firstly it was something along the lines of us having to wait for the fog to lift and track to dry, followed with a revised plan soon after which consisted mostly of me being sent out to record data of both bikes in wet conditions. Being a test rider has its perks, but assessing grip levels is something I never loved doing during my racing career. However the conditions were perfect to make comparisons.

Heading out on track, it’s important to note that it’s the Niken I chose to ride first. I sampled the Niken last year on the mountainous roads of New Zealand’s South Island and the feeling of grip and support from the front end is an impressive feat from Yamaha. On unknown surfaces, I would choose the Niken any day over a conventional bike.

On the track, it felt like I had a set of wet weather tyres mounted to the rims from the get-go. Their feedback from the track surface into the handlebars was exactly what was needed and the lap times quickly fell. On a 12-lap run, the first flying lap was a 1m26.2sec and the session ended with the final three laps all within a bull’s roar of each other, and a best laptime of 1m17.0sec.

The benchmark was set and the track conditions were still the same so it was straight aboard the MT-09 for the first comparison run. Immediately my focus was on the lack of front feel as a direct contrast to the Niken, however the MT-09 made up for its loss of front-end feel with agility and acceleration. Don’t forget, the Niken is a massive 75kg heavier than the MT-09!

The first flying lap of a 1m24.5sec was logged, followed by a run of times all within a second of each other and a best lap of 1m15.4sec. To put that into perspective, the difference in lap time between machines under fully wet conditions is less than five percent!

Braking and acceleration

The MT-09 and Niken are in no way underpowered. The triple cylinder engine is fantastic to ride with plenty of torque and a smooth transition to the top end peak of the rev range. While both the Niken and MT-09 feel similar in the way they make power, the two-wheeled version in the MT-09 feels far livelier than the Niken. The Niken’s heavier flywheel has a lot to do with this and, while it’s important for certain chassis types to have a heavier flywheel in the powerplant, it does dull things down. You can feel it, and the Niken’s 75kg of extra mass.

The verdict is in and it’s thrown a curveball. Each bike recorded four runs of 0-100km/h and back to rest again. Averaging out the data to find the median, both bikes are virtually tied with a 0-100km/h speed of 3.87sec for the Niken and 3.88sec for the MT-09. These were completely unexpected results, and the reason for this would almost entirely be down to the fact that the Niken can leave the line at almost full revs with no fear of speed lost to wheelie.

The MT-09 did pick up the front wheel if the revs were too high and, while the MT-09 has the legs up top in the rev range, the Niken certainly held its own. The Niken’s clutch didn’t love launching as much as I did however, with the friction plates almost certainly needing a refresh…

Deceleration was also another curve ball. Using the same system and averaging the results, the Niken once again came out on top – by feel, anyway. Unfortunately we didn’t get consistent data after using the VBOX wrongly (our fault, we admit it…), however it seems two wheels applying the braking force has an advantage, both in feeling secure when nailing the front brake lever and in stopping power. We didn’t measure this feeling, however, so it’s just an example of the kind of security the Niken offers  your brain, which is worth some stopping power in itself! The extra kilos aboard the Niken would most likely rear their head from a 200km/h-plus braking test, but that’s only best guess.

Dry laps

The final decider for the day would be a consistent run of dry laps. The afternoon track conditions were absolutely perfect when the final test took place. By now, both bikes had copped plenty of abuse and with my rain visor stowed away and swapped out for a way cooler iridium sheen, it was time to set the benchmark for which Yamaha took track test honours.

Once again, a long run of laps were recorded, which allowed tyre temps to reach operating level and a consistent rhythm to take place. The Niken was first up again and peaked with a 1m06.2sec, with many of the laps in the 1m06 bracket. It was impressive to ride with pace in the dry; the front end of the Niken has a stable yet unusual feel that is consistent on the road and racetrack.

The feeling from the Ackermann setup seems to improve when it’s loaded at pace. The harder you push it, the more feedback you get in the palms of your hands. This, together with wide bars and a neutral riding position, allow for a fantastic sense of security and control. Although the extra weight is felt in the dry, mainly due to a lack of agility compared to the MT-09, it still rides and steers exactly like a normal two-wheeled bike.

Next up the MT-09 was ready to go. Sam even wheeled the bike over to me like a factory team would, which undoubtedly gave the run more importance and made me feel like I was racing in the LeMans 24 Hour again. With the stage set, the MT-09 shone. Its agility together with the lovable three-cylinder engine really proves why the 09 is the all-rounder that it is.

My biggest complaint is that on a racetrack, the front end dives and feels undersprung. The MT’s chassis is narrow and tight and stop/start corners are its strength. This is the biggest difference compared to the Niken.

The 75kg weight advantage is very noticeable and the engine differences are obvious, especially on corner exit. It was clear to me that the MT-09 would record a faster lap time, but by how much would be the point of interest.

A brisk cool-down lap and a beeline to the timing room on pitlane was high on the priority list. The winner – and by only 2.6sec a lap for an outright faster time – was the MT-09. To most of us, we look at a 2.6sec gap as huge, but when we consider this is the comparison of two total opposite ends of the spectrum with the only significant similarity being the engine its powered by, that time gap is still less than
five percent of the outright pace compared
to one another.

Once we take into account the acceleration and braking performance, so close were the results that I don’t even think we have a machine that clearly takes the top prize. What we have is the Niken offering big gains in feeling and confidence with virtually identical performance in terms of stopping and going, versus a bike whose nimble and fun nature make it a brilliant package for all manners of riding duties.

The biggest difference on a racetrack was the corner speed of the MT-09; it was certainly and noticeably quicker mid corner and could jump off the turn faster than the Niken, but really, that hasn’t surprised anyone and we were fairly sure that was going to be the case anyway. The real surprise is that the Niken isn’t a lead sled by any stretch of the imagination, even on racetrack.

Whatever team you’re on, you have to remember, Yamaha is a major Japanese manufacturer and can’t afford to release a bike that has no place in the market. The Niken has been marketed as a paradigm shift in motorcycling and that we all need to try it.

It turns out three-wheeled ‘bikes’ might just have a place in the market, and it looks like it’s not about to change any time soon.