The Yamaha YZF-R1 has been around for over 15 years. Introduced in 1998 as Yamaha’s flagship sportsbike, it very quickly became a sales success. It was lightweight and powerful with responsive handling, and as a package it blew the competition into the weeds. At the time it was up against the Kawasaki ZX-9R, a much heavier bike, and the smaller capacity Suzuki GSX-R750 (the thousand arrived in 2001), and the Honda Fireblade 918cc. The R1 was ahead of the game, and forced the rest of the manufacturers to up the ante.
Over the years Yamaha, like any self respecting Japanese engineering corporation, has tweaked and refined its flagship sportsbike, using the know-how learned from success on the racetrack, notably MotoGP and Superbike racing.
Major leaps in performance came in 2004 when the R1 gained underseat pipes and a leap forward in handling ability, and in 2009 when it gained an all new engine with a cross plane crankshaft for zero inertial torque.
The 2004 bike was unquestionably a thing of beauty. To ride it slowly you would think you were on a 600cc bike, but once you span the engine up, it took off like it had a rocket up its chuff. The bike was designed to win races, and the results on racetrack spoke for themselves.
The 2004 R1’s handling was measured and confidence inspiring out of the crate in a way that we normally associate with the Honda Fireblade. The 04-06 bike, unhindered by Euro3 emissions regulations had a wonderful exhaust note on overrun; popping and gurgling at you changed down the gears to approach the traffic lights. You want racing pedigree, you got it!
Yamaha has always styled its flagship R1 in a very tasteful way. Single or two tone colours are selected, which gives the bike a more grown up look, while other manufacturers opt for shell-suit sporty paint jobs. The R1 was a more mature, less try-hard proposition than say a GSX-R1000, and none the worse for it. It was also set up as a road bike, and its chassis hit the perfect balance between comfort and precision (for me at least). Knee down on the road was easier than some ever believed possible.
A few years later, in 2009 Yamaha moved the game on further by moving away from the traditional R1 engine as they introduced the cross-plane crankshaft, originally developed in Valentino Rossi’s M1 MotoGP bike, and they enjoyed the massive racing success that the engine layout gave them.
In the quests for more power, motorcycle engines have been engineered to have shorter and shorter strokes (more over-square), this allows the engine to spin up to very high speeds, and provides significant power at those higher revs, but the engine does turn into a bit of a beast.