20 years of the Yamaha YZF-R1
She runs with the times
The Yamaha YZF-R1 hit the scene in 1998. Shortly before its 20th birthday, MOTORRAD once again drove the original model and the current model in comparison.
E.t was not a test or comparison drive in which the characteristics of a motorcycle are evaluated point by point.
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20 years of the Yamaha YZF-R1
She runs with the times
Yamaha had asked Metzeler for a rear tire that would have to survive two laps at top speed on the 12.4-kilometer circular path in Nardò in southern Italy. Incidentally, during the test drives the R1 was geared longer than later in the series. The prototype tire used by Metzeler did not last two laps, but seven or eight – as long as one tank of fuel was enough. The safety-conscious Japanese engineers were enthusiastic and chose exactly that specification as original equipment for Germany.
What they had not considered: Even in the land of the theoretically unlimited motorway speed, only a few motorcyclists find their satisfaction in bolting straight for hours. The majority prefer driving fun on winding country roads with full acceleration out of the corners, and that is precisely why the hard rubber compound of the production tire offered too little grip. In addition, there was a steep increase in torque of the bearish 1000cc four-cylinder engine between 3000 and 4500 rpm, i.e. in a speed range that does not sound spectacular, let alone alarming. As a result of this not entirely fortunate chain of circumstances, many new R1 riders experienced massive rear wheel slides, and quite a few fell on highsiders. Probably the R1 was the first motorcycle to teach that you can have too much torque too early. In any case, the endeavors of the engine builders to increase the output evenly over the usable speed range was evident in the following model revisions.
A look at the power and torque curves gives an idea of the power of the early R1 and at the same time gives an idea of how much the character of the motorcycles, still named after them, has changed since 1998. Because although the 150 hp of the original model was a sensation at the time as a peak value, the torque overhang in the middle speed range indicates that the designers were more focused on driving on public roads than pure suitability for the race track. This doesn’t just apply to the engine. The base motorcycles for the Superbike World Championship were called Honda, RVF 750 (RC45), Ducati 996 SPS, Kawasaki ZX-7RR and Yamaha YZF 750 SP, from 1999 YZF-R7, and their chassis offered a whole lot more stability and steering precision and feedback as the R1, did not compromise on comfort in everyday operation.
It took us quite a while, some racetrack tests on high-grip tires and several laps on the Nürburgring-Nordschleife, until we found out that it was not a racing motorcycle par excellence. When accelerating in an inclined position, she always pulled her hindquarters a little to the side, at higher speeds she turned in rather stubbornly, but she could still hit the handlebars pretty beastly. But we didn’t care. We were intrigued and loved the idea of taming the beast. Only later did we notice that it was rather the other way round, the beast had trained us to be careful and careful.
The fundamental change in character of the R1 series took place in 2004 with the RN12 model, the last with a five-valve engine. At the same time, Honda brought the first CBR 1000 RR Fireblade (SC 57), Kawasaki the first ZX-10R. Suzuki had brought the GSX-R 1000 onto the market the year before and always pushed bigger updates after the competition. The grandiose K5 was already casting its shadow in 2004.
The reason for this marriage of the great super athletes was a fundamental change in the regulations for the Superbike World Championship – from 2004 the displacement limit for all engines, regardless of whether they were two, three or four-cylinder, was increased to 1000 cc. The disadvantaged two-cylinder engines could only be tuned more elaborately. Further adjustments to the technical regulations did not change the displacement limit for the four-cylinder, but the tuning was restricted more and more for reasons of cost, which led to the fact that the basic machines already have a high degree of racing suitability.
The current R1 (type code RN32) is one of the most advanced super athletes in this regard; it has even adopted a number of design features from the M1 prototypes that were successful in the MotoGP World Championship. Above all, the crossplane crankshaft, which generates uneven ignition intervals like a 90-degree V4 and should thus provide more traction for the rear tire.
Relocated to higher engine speeds, the four-cylinder engine also impresses with a steep increase in torque, which, however, is much easier to control with better mechanical grip, better tires and, last but not least, effective traction control. Quite apart from the fact that in everyday use it only starts when the driver’s license is driving at speeds that are negative. On the racetrack, however, or on unrestricted sections of the motorway, the acceleration and the sound of the roughly 200 hp four-cylinder can downright electrify.
And if you allow yourself the pleasure of burning one of the current R1’s with racing tires down the slopes, you will be amazed at how sharply it turns in even at high speeds and with what vehemence it picks up speed again from the apex of the bends. Whereby it always keeps a tight line and the hindquarters seemingly unshakably braced against an elemental force of lateral and propulsive forces. This is where the most noticeable difference between the RN01 and its meanwhile sixth evolutionary stage can be seen. Despite all skepticism about similar sounding marketing slogans and without wanting to compare yourself with the world’s best racing drivers, one begins to suspect why the Yamaha M1 was so successful in the course of its MotoGP career.
The original R1 had no M1 from which to derive; development went in the other direction. With their completely new, light and compact engine and chassis concept, after 13 years of FZ, FZR, Thunderace and YZF 750 models, a new era began. The R1 brought an unprecedented combination of performance and lightweight construction, opened up areas of driving dynamics that no mass-produced motorcycle had achieved before. That can still be felt, as strenuous as well as intense pleasure.
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