This is the bike which wiped out the Fireblade’s domination of the UK sportsbike market, almost overnight.
A lightweight mix of FZR1000 EXUP engine power, mated to a sweet handling re-jig of Yamaha´s existing Deltabox frame, the R1 was nothing revolutionary – just faster, better braked and quicker steering than the opposition. By miles.
If you want the ultimate handling sportsbike, and it´s got to have four cylinders, then the R1 has surely got to be at the top of your shopping list. Looks especially stunning in the blue paint scheme, with those mad `staring eyes´ headlights.
The launch was nearly over when the speed fever finally overcame me. Heading back to our base for the final time, I’d spent a few miles howling the YZF-R1 along the near-deserted Spanish motorway. Throttle to the stop whenever possible, rolling off for a curve or occasional car, then tucking my head behind the screen again and letting it rip, just for the thrill of feeling that surge of acceleration and seeing the scenery flash past at over two miles per minute.
When a bike appeared in the distance it was just another piece of prey to be gobbled up with barely a second glance. Until, almost alongside, I realised to my horror that it was a police bike and went past with the throttle shut, brakes on all too obviously and heart pounding.
Two days at speed on road and track aboard the YZF-R1 get to you like that. This latest incarnation of the all-conquering 998cc four is so capable, so responsive to every input, and most of all so searingly fast, that it takes over your every sense and relegates everything else to the back of your mind.
If the bike cop had stopped me, he probably wouldn’t have been impressed by my only excuse: that I had to ride like that to evaluate the differences between this latest R1 and the original model that shook the superbike world two years ago. Yamaha have made over 250 changes to the R1, and titled its launch ’the best just got better’. But most of the changes are minor for the simple reason that such an outstanding bike was never going to require major surgery so soon.
The familiar R1 look and layout remain very much intact in the new machine, which shares the original bike’s bodywork style and its format of ultra-compact, 20-valve motor, Deltabox II twin-spar frame using the engine unit as a stressed member, and long swing-arm allowed by the engine’s stacked gearbox design. Of the first R1’s famous trio of figures power 150PS, weight 177kg, wheelbase 1395mm only the weight figure has changed, and that not by much.
But Yamaha’s R-series chief engineer Kunihiko Miwa and his team have come up with a package of modifications designed to give ’more cornering flexibility’; essentially to make the fearsome four easier to ride without reducing its No Compromise philosophy. Many of the changes concern the chassis, including the front brake, which has been modified with new pads and a revised disc mounting arrangement involving thinner brackets and eight instead of ten locating pins.
A new lower triple clamp holds 41mm upside-down front forks that are internally modified with slightly narrower-diameter springs, oil-seal changes and rubber bump-stops designed to improve their anti-dive characteristics. Frame rigidity is altered slightly by adjusting the density of its cast sections, and revising the engine mounts. And there’s a new rear shock with a lighter spring (of the same rate), forged aluminium body and a damping adjuster that is modified to give more positive clicks.
The liquid-cooled engine unit is essentially unchanged, as is its peak output of 150PS (148bhp) at 10,000rpm. But the 40mm carburettors, ignition and EXUP valve opening have been fine-tuned to give a smoother throttle response. The carbs also have a new air injection system to reduce emissions, and the four-into-one exhaust system has a new titanium silencer, which looks good and is lighter than the previous aluminium can.
Arguably the most important engine-related changes are to the famous stacked gearbox. First gear is slightly taller, mainly to make it more useful in very low-speed corners on a racetrack. The shift linkage and gearlever have been modified (the shaft gaining an extra bearing) and the gear teeth made narrower, with the aim of reducing weight, improving the gearchange feel and eliminating the clonkiness of the original box.
Although the R1’s basic shape and cobra’s-eye headlight design have been retained, the new bike’s look and most of its bodywork are subtly different. The fairing is sharper and has a slightly taller screen, wider-spaced headlights, higher mirrors on slimmer stems, plus a new undercowl, most of the changes being intended to improve aerodynamics. The petrol tank is lower and slimmer at its rear; handlebars are moved forwards and the footrests down by a millimetre or two to give a very slightly roomier riding position.
Most of the other changes have been made to reduce weight, although given that the total loss is just 2kg, the individual savings must in most cases be tiny. Parts including the cylinder head, starter motor, rear mudguard, brake fluid reservoir, rear light and sidestand have all shed a few grams. The result is that the new bike weighs 175kg dry that’s light by most standards, but 5kg heavier than this year’s more dramatically slimmed-down Honda FireBlade.
Yamaha gave the new bike every opportunity to show what it could do. A day thrashing round the new Valencia grand prix circuit in southern Spain was followed by a day on the brilliantly twisty and well-surfaced surrounding roads. At the end of it all I was high on adrenalin, convinced that the new R1 was the best production streetbike I’d ever ridden but still unsure exactly how much better it is than its predecessor.
At the track the Yamaha was simply brilliant: its engine so powerful yet flexible and controllable, its chassis so agile yet stable, its brakes and tyres superb, its every detail seemingly refined to the point of near perfection. That big 20-valve motor screamed with breathtaking rapidity to its 11,500rpm redline through the gears, yet its most impressive feature had to be the majestic surge of torque that punched the bike forwards from 5000rpm and even lower.
Without having an old-style R1 on hand for a direct comparison it was hard to say whether Yamaha’s efforts to smooth the power delivery slightly have had much effect, but the throttle response was certainly very clean throughout the range. And there is definitely an improvement to the gearbox, which was notably less clonky the lower ratios, and shifted so sweetly that in two days I didn’t miss a single change.
Hammering down the start-finish straight then braking hard, treading down two gears and tipping into the following left-hand turn showed the Yam’s stability on the anchors was exceptional, and a distinct improvement on the old model. The four-pot calipers and their new pads gave heaps of both power and feel, too, although ironically I did occasionally wonder whether a tiny bit of initial bite had been sacrificed in the desire to give more feel, and whether I was having to squeeze the lever fractionally harder.
The R1 needed its fork damping turned up towards the maximum before it felt totally rock-solid on the way into bends, but once set up the bike was superb, combining light steering with remarkable stability for a bike with no steering damper. The bars shook a bit under power on the way out of a couple of bumpier left-hand turns, but in general the Yam tracked straight and true.
My only real handling problem was getting the bike to turn sufficiently fast into a very tight right-hander whose cranked-over approach didn’t allow hard enough braking to quicken the steering. Adjustments to suspension and/or my cornering line might have cured that, given more time. As it was I concentrated on putting down the power through a 190-section rear Dunlop D207 Sportmax that slid slightly earlier than expected, but did so with a very progressive feel that I think most riders would find ideal for track riding.
The rubber was flawless next day, when the bike was given a workout by a 150-mile route of brilliantly twisty, well-surfaced roads. Here the engine’s amazing low-rev torque was even more useful, most notably when one uphill bend tightened viciously. With no time to change down again I simply tipped the Yam in harder and drove it smoothly out of the turn glancing down at the tacho to see the fast-moving needle barely past the 3000rpm mark.
On roads such as these the R1 was very comfortable for such a singleminded sports bike, though how much of that was due to its revised bodywork and riding position I’m not sure. I ended the day’s ride without the slight wrist-ache that I remember after the similar amount of riding on the launch two years ago. But the differences in fairing and screen height, handlebar and footrest position are only a few millimetres, so other factors such as road surface, riding speed, wind strength and temperature were possibly more important.
In a way, that sums up the new YZF-R1. Its changes from last year’s model are so subtle that most of the time they’re barely noticeable. But the new R1 is a magnificent bike that incorporates some distinct improvements. Its front forks work better for very hard riding, its gearbox is sweeter, its titanium can is neat, and its power delivery perhaps a shade smoother. The best really did just get better. Honda’s new FireBlade will have to be very special to beat it.
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Engine Liquid-cooled transverse four
Claimed power (bhp) 148bhp at 10,000rpm
Compression ratio 11.8:1
Transmission Six speed
Front wheel 3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium
Rear wheel 6.00 x 17in; cast aluminium
Front suspension 41mm usd telescopic, adjustment for preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension One damper, adjustment for preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake 2, four-piston calipers, 298mm discs
Rear brake Double-action caliper, 245mm disc
Fuel capacity 18 litres