Designed to win a World Superbike Championship, ridden by Superman and currently the bike to beat in the NZ Post Classic Championship, Paul visited an empty Hampton Downs to ride one of Yamaha’s most iconic race machines.

Words: Paul Pics: Kerry 

As they put the last pieces of the bodywork back on, rolled off the tyre warmers and dropped the OW01 off its front paddock stand, my senses went into overload as the 5-valve, inline-four motor fired into life with a crackle through the Dutchman race exhaust system.

Still in traditional Yamaha racing colours, the bike in front of me looks like it could be any FZR from the late eighties, until you spot the extra R on the fairing.

Yep, this is the legendary Yamaha OW01, the bike that Yamaha introduced to try and wrestle Superbike success away from Honda and their just as special RC30.

Based upon the FZR750 of the time, the OW01 featured a host of factory upgrades to make it competitive in WSBK, including a beefed up Deltabox frame, a new swingarm, race-bred motor and radical riding position.

Out of the box, the OW01 pushed out 119hp and revved to 14,000rpm, with the high rev ceiling achieved by the lighter valves from the 5-valve set-up (three intake / two exhaust).

Only two piston rings, titanium con-rods, close ratio gearbox, EXUP valve and flat-slide carbs were all part of the OW01 race set up. But despite Yamaha’s best efforts to take the title, they never quite managed to get there.

And for the private owner, the bike also had some fundamental issues, which meant owners needed to be prepared to work on their expensive FZR, with the limited edition machine setting customers back 13,200GBP, when a standard FZR1000R was only 5,899GBP.

Kiwi Made

But this is no standard OW01, if there is such a thing. Paul Pavletich – aka Superman – doesn’t need much introduction in Kiwi racing circles, with the charismatic, Pukekohe local winning NZ titles in the eighties which even saw him riding an OW01 when they were new.

“Dallas Rankine bought me one originally as I was racing his ‘Fast and Fragile’ Ducati for a season,” explained Pav. “Then Robert (Holden) came back from overseas, so he gave that to Robert and bought me one of these.

“Pretty much my first meeting was the Oceania Road Racing championship and I fired it off at Manfeild at a big, big pace and broke my femur. So that was pretty much the end of me for a long time.”

After a hiatus from racing, Paul came back on the scene and joined the popular Post Classic movement, campaigning a Kawasaki ZX7R to begin with, before deciding he’d like another crack with the Yamaha.

“I thought ‘I’ve got some unfinished business with one of these,’ and I really liked it as it was a pretty good bike, so I talked to Mark (Pav’s brother, who just so happens to be an engineering whiz) and said ‘let’s build a proper one’.

We raced the ZX7R a couple of years ago and it was fantastic, just with not enough power up the hill here with me on it. So we grafted a 1000cc motor into the OW01, which was something they used to do in the day, and Mark’s breathed on it and it’s a beast.”

Yep, that’s right. This isn’t a standard OW01; the was a bit of Kiwi ingenuity and a lot of help from brother Mark required to shoehorn an FZR1000R motor into the 750cc frame, before fettling with the whole thing to make it one of the quickest bikes in the Post Classic paddock.

“It’s got 175hp at the wheel, and that’s without the proper race cams that we’ve got coming for it and a race ignition. So, our target is 180hp with a bit more kick in the middle. It’s got all lightweight wheels and Kerry Dukie has done all the suspension on it. Marty Lyles extended the swingarm ‘cos they were too short – they were really quite snappy –  and the suspension range with the short swingarm was near impossible to get perfect, so we’ve modified that,” explained Paul.

The Man Behind The Machine

Paul’s brother Mark, is the brains behind the mechanical side of the operation, with a career in motorcycles stretching back to the time when EXUPs were first appearing on the scene.

Together, they worked to get the best out of the OW01 package while keeping it within the Postie rules. Despite the exotic Yamaha supposedly being designed to win World Superbike races at the time, as Mark discovered, there were plenty of things which needed addressing, and that was before trying to squeeze the 1000cc road bike powerplant into the chassis.

With the swingarm lengthened and the Öhlins shock modified to raise the rear ride height significantly while also achieving the correct linkage ratio, the handling was improved considerably.

Squeezing the motor into the chassis wasn’t too much of an issue, with mounts fabricated to fit, but there were a few issues with the powerplant which needed to be dealt with first before trying to fit all the peripherals into the smaller OW01 frame that began the challenge.

“The standard valves were made out of butter, the original connecting rods were marginal, the crankshafts had issues with breakage and the basic motor had some really interesting ideas, but also some fundamental flaws,” explained Mark. Swapping out many of the components for better grade modern alternatives helped cure many of the performance and longevity issues, with a bit of magic from Mark making the EXUP powerplant performance sky rocket.

“Originally, the bike was 125hp at the rear wheel and on the same dyno it’s now 175hp. It’s got as much torque at 4,500rpm as the standard bike had at its peak torque – it’s almost like a Ducati in the midrange. Yamaha failed to capitalise on the potential of the 5-valve set-up.

“There’s some fundamental mistakes in the head that can be corrected (and have been).

“The 1000cc motor fits, it’s easy to get it in there. To work everything around it – as you can see with the custom make-up of the airbox and the tank – to get everything to fit in that department and work properly, was a battle. The tank cover is off a 1989 FZR600, which happened to fit straight on top.

Ask Paul what it’s like to race and he paints a picture of this late eighties Superbike being a pussycat, despite allowing him to demolish the opposition in his first Post Classic season.

“It behaves very well actually. It carburettes so well, there’s no sort of surge, it just torques out of the corners. Why I’ve done so good on the road circuits is that I’ve always been good at braking hard, so I point and squirt.

“The thing stops really good and it’s got beautiful traction and torque, so that’s why I’ve done well on the roads – brake hard, aim it, out. That makes it difficult for others as they can’t get past. They were so far behind anyway last time at Paeroa, that I was leading by the whole length of the front straight. It’s good on both the streets and the race track.

“It’s been a real development year while we’ve been racing – the first time I brought it here it was way too soft and all wrong. That’s why I was surprised when we got a podium at the Shorai. I gave it to Kerry and he’s been really helpful, helping us set it up.

The Test

I could feel the eyes burning into the back of my helmet as I left the pit garage.

Riding out onto a lonely Hampton Downs (we were literally the only ones at the track), it became immediately apparent that not only was I riding a bike which has developed legendary status – due to its short and limited production run worldwide – but it’s also the machine which has been worked on by a small team of enthusiasts – probably late into the night – on countless evenings throughout the season.

This was their baby, the reason they’d been so successful all season – a cherished possession. Shit, I really hoped I didn’t stuff this up…

Just like big hair and shoulder pads, you can tell from the riding position that the OW01 is an eighties child, with the flat stance between saddle and bars, typical for the period.

Even though Paul had raised the rear of the OW01 by as much as 40mm, it didn’t feel anywhere near as focussed as a modern day Superbike, which have their tails so high I can often struggle to get a leg over. The dash is simply a rev counter with a line telling me where to grab another cog and a temperature gauge. The black foam surround is another clue of the era.

Open the taps of the FZR for the first time and it reminds you that real men rode these bikes. No fly-by-wire niceties here, with a cable connecting my hand to the carbs which, in turn, made things happen very quickly.

It was almost a religious experience the first time I decided I’d eventually got enough of a handle on the Yamaha racer and held the throttle open.

Launching out of turn six and beginning the ascent up the start/finish straight at Hampton can only be described as having a giant hand on my back, shoving me up the tarmac with increasing force.

It wasn’t a slap with the power coming in. Instead, at 4,000rpm it built like a hurricane, as the Yamaha surged out of turns and along the straights.

It’s easy to see why Paul hadn’t been passed much during his first season, as his technique of braking late and deep before turning and driving out would make it almost impossible to make a move.

It was hard to think about anything else, with the EXUP motor Mark had produced having so much of an impact on me that I was just enjoying rolling the throttle on and feeling the surge from behind. But it dawned on me that the rest of the package was just as sorted as the powerplant.

The team had worked closely with Kerry Dukie from K-Tech suspension, and it was pleasing to feel a degree of compliance from the front-end that you don’t normally expect with a race bike. With so many believing ‘harder is better’, the front-end of the OW01 lets you feel what is going on, even while making the most of the Ducati Brembos, which provide a decent degree of stopping power, despite the slightly wooden feel.

At the rear, the extra height combined with the longer swingarm means that the Yamaha simply wants to drive forward rather than leaping for the sky, a problem which Tony Rees experienced when he did the same thing to an OW01 almost 20 years ago.

The extra length makes a massive difference, with the ability to extend the ratio of the rear shock, allowing Dukie to tune the rear to Paul’s preferences.

Mid-turn was the only chink in the armour, with the Yamaha feeling to me like it was fighting to stay composed when cranked over.

Possibly due to the profile of the 180-section rear tyre, the OW01 wasn’t comfortable to hold a line, instead wanting to stand up, rather than tracking around the turn.

Given Paul’s technique of stopping, turning and squirting out of turns, he’d be spending as little time as possible with the Yamaha over on the edge of its tyres making the feeling less of an issue.

The six-speed gearbox was a bit of an interesting factor, with the ratios high enough for top gear never to be called into action on our small, tight circuits.

It’s the extra ratios that make the downshifts less of an issue on the Yamaha, with each drop of a gear only resulting in a small adjustment in the revs. This makes chatter under braking much less of an issue, and with a slipper clutch being ruled out, it’s a simple yet effective solution to making the Yamaha easier to stop.

Magic Day

Riding an empty Hampton Downs is pretty special on any day. Doing it aboard a 1989 Yamaha OW01 is even better, and having that bike perform like a modern day machine complete with a power delivery which would put many litre-class road bikes to shame was just the icing on the cake.

It’s a true credit to this small team of Kiwi enthusiasts that the bike not only looks so good and performs so well, and was able to take Paul to so many victories in their first season, which essentially was a development year. “It’s such a good bike,” Paul reminisced. “I reckon if it had a young, skinny hot-rod kid on it, it would lap everyone.

“I have been thinking about it, but it’s just finding the right kid who respects it for what it is. You can’t be cartwheeling this down the track every weekend, as you just can’t get bits, so I’d have to find someone who respects it but is also fast and fits in. I’m knocking on sixty now, so I’d like to do that.”

Superman has once again had his day of glory and it was great to see. Paul is a real character, a passionate motorcyclist whose life revolves around everything motorbikes, from teaching new riders with Pro Rider at the weekend to taking his collection of classics out to keep them fresh.

As anyone will know, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and loves nothing more than riding or racing motorcycles.

It was an honour to be invited to ride this very special bike and something that I will cherish forever.