Off-Road Observer: 25
The Yamaha WR450F features a five valve fuel injected engine housed in a YZ250F chassis. The current model WR450F heralds the biggest change since the introduction of that first WR400F. Yamaha designers, testers and engineers have revisited the drawing board and re-invented the new WR450F from the ground up.
Alex Gobert focuses on the world of off-road, presented by Yamaha's 2012 WR450F.
Entering this season, the Ballard’s Yamaha Park and Fly Off-Road Team opted to field both Matthew Phillips and Stefan Merriman aboard the brand new WR450F.
Recent seasons saw the team campaign a YZ450F, set-up for enduro, but with Yamaha’s release of the heavily revised 2012 model WR450F, it quickly became obvious that it’d only be natural for the factory team to ride the bike in Australian off-road competition.
After winning the AORC series Outright last year with Chris Hollis riding the YZ450F before he switched to KTM for this year, the WR450F and Matty Phillips had reasonably big shoes to fill.
Phillips had finished last season on a roll, recognised as one of the sport’s top rising stars, and he was selected to switch to E2 from E3 and spearhead Yamaha’s WR assault.
Alongside Phillips on a WR450F has been Merriman, albeit on a big-bore 480cc version in order to ride the E3 class. Completing the team has been Daniel Milner on a YZ250F, who has surprisingly been the class of the team to date!
Phillips is top 450cc contender in the Yamaha Australian Off-Road Championship and leads the E2 standings with four rounds remaining, plus he’s second Outright behind title favourite Toby Price (who’s riding a 500 EXC in the E3 ranks).
Meanwhile, Merriman’s second in E3 behind Price and a solid fourth Outright, while Milner’s running away with the E1 championship and is third Outright despite his YZ’s smaller capacity.
While doing my research for this Off-Road Observer column, I gave team owner Geoff Ballard a call to find out how development of the WR450F is going from the man himself – an icon in enduro circles.
“The riders are so different, so the settings are always so different between them,” Ballard told me. “Merriman, no matter what’s going on, he never stops developing or trying to improve – that’s his mindset.
“In saying that, he’s tried plenty of different things. He’s riding a 480 because he needs to get into that E3 class, not because he needed more power or anything. In fact, he spends half his time detuning all of his bikes.
“Merriman seems to like the 480 and it’s pretty easy to ride in some ways because it has a smooth bottom-end. He’s been changing damping and things like that, but in the settings he’s really quite settled you’d have to say.”
Interestingly enough, what the team has found since testing and racing during the current season is that the base setting of the WR450F is ultimately very capable even under the stresses of national competition.
“Merriman’s actually riding a pretty standard bike,” Ballard continued. “The next thing he’s going to try is a different linkage, but out of all the things that he has tried, he just keeps going back to standard. In some ways Phillips has been doing the same thing. We’ve tried different offset triple clamps, different swingarms and all sorts of things, but we keep going back to standard.”
With the AORC series currently in the middle of a mid-season break while many focus on desert racing, Phillips has been back in Tasmania preparing for the Conondale AORC weekend that will take place at the end of next month.
During his time back home, he’s been aboard a stock WR450F and has found that he indeed favours certain aspects of that bike over his race bike, which will result in the team further heading back in the direction of the production model according to Ballard.
“Matt rode a stock one in Tasmania about a month ago and really liked it, so we sort of based it around going back to standard,” he said. “Phillips is nowhere near as settled as Merriman though, that’s for sure. He’s basing everything around a stock bike now, and we’re running less sag than we normally would in the back at around 85mm.
“It’s fairly normal for a new bike, they’re trying to get confidence and they do anything they can at that level to get that. Sometimes you can think you’re on the right tangent, but at the stage we’ve just been trying standard again and we think it’s pretty close.”
Despite Price dominating at the front after a difficult 2011 season, Ballard is relatively pleased with Phillips and Merriman’s form while developing the WR. Now, an Outright win or two to close the season would make it all the more special.
“You’re always happiest if you’re winning Outright, no doubt,” Ballard admitted. “But ultimately Toby’s the quickest guy in the country. He had a down year last year with a few injuries, but from the word go we’d figure he’d be the one to beat and he is.
“Milner’s the one who seems to be able to get closest to him and he’s elevated himself this year. Matty’s had a few little injuries and dramas along the way, but it would be great to beat Toby and I think we can because we’ve been close at times. We’re in a good position, winning E1 and E2, plus being second in E3.”
With the WR450F featuring a frame that’s vastly similar and based off the YZ250F, I asked Ballard if there are any similarities when it comes to the chassis of Milner’s E1 contender alongside the 450s of Phillips and Merriman. As suspected, there’s not really too much the same in race trim.
“The frame’s very similar, but the swingarm and linkage is different, as well as the weight of the engine is higher and its position is different,” he explained. “There are enough changes that make it feel like a different bike, so they’re not similar enough that we can make the same development steps with both.”
While the 2012 WR450F is still a work in progress for the team in race trim, and the riders figure out what they can do to stop Price’s dominance, it’s clear to see that Ballard is relishing the challenges that have been presented this season. That’s exactly why he’s one of the most respected guys in the entire motorcycle industry on a domestic level.