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 most important bike of the 90’s? Certainly few speed freaks would disagree. Roland Brown gleefully proclaimed the virtues of the outstandingly fast and responsive R1 at its 1998 launch, crowning it King of the Superbikes.
The moment of truth came half-way through a series of tight bends north of Alicante. Brake-flick-flick-chaaaaarge went the R1, dancing through a left-right combination before hurtling forward as I dialled in some throttle from pretty low revs. Then brake-flick-lean…and leeean some more as the next bend tightened up viciously, and the Yam followed the road without the slightest fuss.
Suddenly I realised that even a FireBlade wouldn’t have sliced through those first bends so effortlessly or blasted out quite so hard, or right now be feeling so effortlessly under control in the middle of a nasty tightening corner. And at that precise moment it became clear that the hype surrounding the YZF-R1 was justified: this is the fastest and best sports bike ever to come out of Japan.
More than just its pure speed, it’s the new Yam’s rideability that makes the difference. Since the R1 was unveiled in Milan much has been made of its impressive 150bhp power output and 177kg weight, and rightly so because both are the best in the class. But the Yamaha’s third outstanding figure, its ultra-short 1395mm wheelbase, is equally important, because that relates to the bike’s amazingly responsive handling.
Think of the way that, on a twisty road, a good 600cc sportster is often better than a bigger bike: lighter, more precise, less intimidating. Then imagine it being better again due to clever chassis layout plus more sophisticated suspension, superior brakes, grippier tyres. Now add power smooth, instant, massive, at almost any revs. Think of an FZR400 with a Thunderace engine. The R1 really is that good.
Yamaha started with a clean sheet of paper in designing Project 08R, as the bike was known during its development, and considered other engine layouts including a V4 (dismissed because it would have made the bike too long) before returning to the angled-forward in-line four. The basic engine and Deltabox chassis layouts are familiar but the R1 looks fresh and new, thanks mainly to those striking cobra’s-eye headlights.
And you know this thing’s special as soon as you climb aboard. Its clip-ons are notably low and racy. Alongside the central black-faced tacho sits a rectangular digital display containing big speedometer numerals plus smaller displays for mileometer, tripmeters and a clock. (The display is also programmed to start counting the distance travelled after the low fuel warning light comes on, giving you more idea how much is left in the 18-litre tank.)
That digital speedo’s numbers are big in every sense, because boy is this bike fast. Yamaha already had just about the gruntiest big four motor around in the Thunderace, and the R1’s motor has not only an extra 5bhp at the top end but more power and torque throughout the range, thanks party to the new, more intelligent EXUP system that is programmed to boost torque between 4000 and 8000rpm.
For such a powerful motor the R1 lump feels astonishingly flexible and refined. Just crack open the throttle almost regardless of where the tacho needle is pointing, and the YZF responds with an instant kick in the back (and, in the first two gears, with a lift of its front wheel). It’s fine for lazy top-gear cruising, not that you’ll want to do much of that, and perfect for instant main-road overtaking without needing to tread down through the slick six-speed gearbox.
More to the point, the R1 is stunningly exciting to keep howling through the gears. The bike’s light weight, slippery shape and above all the monstrous power output combine to give neck-wrenching acceleration even at mental speeds. This thing kicks so hard that its digital display shows 160mph after a very short run-up. Given a long enough straight and your head wedged behind the low screen, the Yam has got to be good for a genuine 170mph.
High-speed stability is ace, despite the YZF’s racy geometry and lack of weight and length. But it’s in slow-speed bends, where even the likes of the Thunderace need a bit of muscling about, that the R1 really comes into its own. It’s one of those rare and precious bikes that’s so right that it feels as though the handlebars are bolted directly to the front wheel spindle, so instant and positive is the response to every steering command.
Yamaha’s efforts to keep the bike pointing in the right direction under hard acceleration have paid off, too. With 24 degrees of rake and 92mm of trail, allied to a tiny wheelbase, the R1 could have been a right handful. But its ultra-long swing-arm, combined with plenty of weight over the front end, have done the trick. I managed to get one pretty frightening slap out of it when accelerating hard in third gear down a horribly bumpy backroad, but instead of spitting me off the bike recovered quickly.
Needless to say, the suspension is a vital part of the R1’s handling brilliance. The 41mm upside-down forks and rear shock are quality items, both multi-adjustable but very close to dead right on their standards settings. Metzeler’s new MEZ3 tyres were impressive, too, with lots of grip and feedback. Nothing bar very occasionally the footrest tips grounded, but that’s because everything is so well tucked away.
Braking was predictably fierce, too. The R1’s front calipers are slightly lighter versions of the superb one-piece, four-piston jobs fitted to the Thunderace, and gripped the 298mm discs with just as much power and feel. The rear caliper incorporates a ’torque stopper’, fitted to the swing arm, which replaces the normal torque rod and saves a few more grams.
It’s this attention to detail throughout the bike that has helped make the R1 the awesome machine that it is. Its handlebars are bonded, rather than welded, to their clamps because this allows them to be thinner, saving more weight. Fairing fasteners are quickly detachable. The gearlever rod runs through a hole in the frame, allowing it to be straight for reduced weight and better feel. Even the shift lever has an aluminium top and rubber bottom: obvious, maybe, but nobody else had thought to do it.
The footrests themselves are quite high and typically rearset, but despite that and the bike’s compact size I didn’t have any problems tucking in. Pillion passengers get a typically bum deal but from the pilot’s point of view my only comfort-related complaint was that the low bars load up your wrists even more than most sports bikes. Although the bars are also very narrow, the Deltabox II frame’s stamped cut-outs allow a reasonably tight turning circle.
One indication of just how good this bike is came at the end of the launch, when everyone who’d tested the R1 was asked to fill in a form evaluating the bike and listing its pros and cons. In the space for dislikes we were resorting to details such as pillion comfort, slightly dim warning lights, and the fact that there are only two luggage hooks below the seat.
More to the point, for the major factors such as engine performance, handling and braking the R1 had earned very close to perfect marks. It’s a stunning bike that is sure to be a huge success, especially as it will be competitive on price with the new ZX-9R and the FireBlade whose reign as superbike king is finally over.
Having opted to keep their familiar format of 20-valve, slant-block dohc four, Yamaha’s engineers left no stone unturned in developing the most powerful, lightest and particularly the smallest powerplant possible. The 998cc motor’s most innovative feature is its ’three-axis’ transmission, which allows the unit to be made considerably shorter by putting the gearbox mainshaft above the crankshaft and drive shaft, instead of in a straight line as is normal.
This allows the R1 motor to be 81mm shorter than the Thunderace unit. The novel two-part oil-cooler/filter is less bulky than a conventional single unit, which also helps reduce length, allowing the exhaust downpipes to run closer to the engine. The exhaust itself is a stainless steel four-into-one with a silencer made from carbon-wrapped aluminium.
Another key engine feature is the one-piece cylinder/crankcase block, which is lighter and stiffer than a conventional two-piece design. This both contributes to the engine’s overall low weight (at 65.3kg it’s 9.5kg lighter than the Ace motor) and allows the motor to be used as a stressed member of the chassis, in turn permitting the use of a lighter frame. The engine’s new ceramic-plated cylinders reduce friction and improve heat dissipation. New forged pistons, lighter-weight conrods and the thinner-web crankshaft also help reduce weight and improve response.
Yamaha say that reducing the 20 valves’ diameters slightly, in conjunction with steeper valve angles and reshaped inlet and outlet tracts, has boosted midrange power with no loss at the top end. The more sophisticated EXUP valve incorporates sensors for throttle position, throttle opening speed, revs and gear position, further boosting midrange response. Maximum power of 150bhp is produced at 10,000rpm, with the peak torque figure of 108N.m arriving at 8500rpm.
Using the motor as a load-bearing part of the chassis allowed Yamaha to develop a lighter Deltabox II frame while increasing overall rigidity. And the engine’s short design meant the wheelbase could be reduced to just 1395mm, the shortest in class, despite the use of a very long (582mm) swing-arm for added stability and traction. Weight distribution is 50:50, and the R1’s low riding position is intended to keep as much of the rider’s weight as possible over the front wheel.
Despite that, a bike this short and powerful was sure to be very wheelie-prone. To reduce this, its 41mm Kayaba upside-down forks have a very long stroke: 135mm against a sports bike’s typical 110-120mm. The extra 15-20mm is taken up when the rider sits on the bike and, in conjunction with carefully chosen rebound damping rates, helps keep the front wheel on the ground under hard acceleration.
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|Engine||Liquid-cooled transverse four|
|Claimed power (bhp)||150bhp at 10,000rpm|
|Front tyre||120/70 x 17in Metzeler MEZ3 radial|
|Rear tyre||190/50 x 17in Metzeler MEZ3 radial|
|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|
|Top speed||170 mph|
|Fuel capacity||18 litres|