MCN Awards 2015: Best Sportsbike (Unlimited)

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With so many brilliant sportsbikes released this year, we were spoiled for choice when it came to making a decision about our sportsbike of the year. The new R1 though was outstanding in every respect, both on paper and in reality; it’s an impressive machine bristling with technology derived from Moto GP and boasts an astonishing electronics package. Yamaha have really upped the game with the R1 and its great to see them back on top.

This has been one of the busiest years for the MCN road test team in recent memory, and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the thick and fast introduction of so many exciting new bikes. 2015 has seen the arrival of great new adventure bikes, cruisers, retros, 125s, A2 licence-friendly machines and scooters, while also being hailed as the return of the superbike. 

The MCN awards are our pick of the best metal to be released this year and covers multiple categories. Tomorrow we reveal the all important bike of the year, so make sure you check back.

Best Sportsbike (Unlimited)
Yamaha YZF-R1


‘The year of the superbike’

What a year it’s been for the superbike. We’ve seen the first major overhaul of BMW’s S1000RR, a more powerful Aprilia RSV4, the sexy MV F4 Reparto Corsa and not one, but new, revamped Ducati Panigales: the swish 1299 and mouth-watering homologation-special R.

But for the first time since the BMW came along and showed the world that road-going superbikes can easily produce over 190bhp, the Japanese are finally back on top of the pile. Welcome to the faster, fitter, cleverer new R1.

Yamaha revealed their new R1 at the tail end of last year, after years of will-they-won’t they speculation. Grainy spy shots in MCN, rumoured to be Yamaha’s new superbike, showed a strange-looking test mule with a big engine squeezed, almost unbelievably into an R6 chassis and bodywork. It couldn’t be, could it? Now we know it was the new R1 in testing, powered by a new crossplane crank engine so compact it could be comfortably slotted into that prototype’s supersport frame.

When the first official details and pictures came through we foamed at the mouth in anticipation. The stats read well: it weighed just 199kg, had a claimed 197bhp, used cast magnesium wheels and was packed with the most advanced electronic rider aids yet seen: traction control, slide control and anti-wheelie, all controlled by a new six-axis Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU). It also had multi-programmable riding modes, launch control, a quickshifter and racing ABS.

With a chassis layout and riding position aping Yamaha’s 2011 YZR-M1 MotoGP bike, the R1 was supersport-small, but the big talking point before we rode it was the way it looked. Its minimalist fairing flanks and spacey tail unit were a departure from your average sportsbike, but the blunt, M1-lookalike nose, devoid of conventional headlights, was like nothing we’d seen on a road bike before.

We’ve got used to that face now and most who’ve clocked the new R1 in the flesh love it… and can’t get over how small the whole bike is. ‘Is that really a thousand?’

Best of all, there wasn’t just one new R1, there were two: a standard version and the R1M. Costing three grand more, only 75 were brought into the UK. They were snapped-up the moment Yamaha’s R1M website opened for business (they’re releasing another limited-edition batch for 2016). Exclusivity was assured and the R1M came with carbon bodywork, a datalogger and semi-active Öhlins suspension. 

Yamaha back on top

It was great to see Yamaha up and fighting again. After the brief success of the original 2009 crossplane crank R1, which won 1000cc group tests and superbike championships all over the world, including WSB and BSB, the firm went through some dark days. BMW’s 2010 S1000RR made us forget about the R1 in an instant and that was followed by the financial crisis which saw Yamaha’s sales slump. The firm compounded the problem by putting prices through the roof.

But over the past few years a revitalised Yamaha hit the jackpot with their funky MT-09 and MT-07 and now it was time for their superbike to shine.

It was all glitz and glamour in the heat of the track-riding launch at the Eastern Creek circuit in Australia in January. Yamaha were proud to have the project leader of every previous R1 on hand, as well as BSB’s Josh Brookes, to show us the way around the track.

The new R1 was sensational. It was smaller, lighter, nimbler and so much faster than before. It still had that ghostly wail at full revs, but the short-stroke, high-compression motor emitted a harder-edged, angrier racket. 

The old R1 had masses of low to mid-range power, but that was gone now and replaced with an almost turbo-charged top end rush. It was blessed and the agility and accuracy of a 600 with the acceleration of racing superbike. The brakes were the only weak point, but we forgave it for that because the jewel in the R1’s crown were the new electronic rider aids.

The lean angle-sensitive traction and slide control were spellbinding, letting you hold a slide out of corner in complete safety while still driving forward. It gave you so much confidence that after a few laps you’d deliberately square-off corners like a pro, while still accelerating hard.

The wheelie control was just as good. Hold the throttle wide open out of a slow corner and the front wheel hovered majestically, inches off the ground while you stretched every muscle just trying to hold on. Then there’s the slick quickshifter, racing ABS and four riding modes with mix-and-match electronics. The only technology missing was a clutchless downshift ‘autoblipper’.

Yamaha fitted slicks and shorter gearing to the R1M at Eastern Creek to show us what their superbike was really capable of. It felt every inch a racer and it blew our minds.

Totally uncompromising

Away from the track the R1 is unapologetically focused. I’ve been running one as an MCN long-term test bike all year and ridden it around France and Spain. The seat is like a rock and the YZR-M1 layout bars are low. The crossplane engine is so smooth on and off the throttle that the Yamaha floats like a butterfly, but doesn’t give a big sensation of speed. That’s great for the track, but no so good for your licence.

But like Yamaha said, this is a trackbike with lights, albeit little LED ones. We managed to find the first R1 in
Europe in March and test it at Jerez against the S1000RR, 1299 Panigale, ZX-10R, Blade and GSX-R1000.

With all the bikes on Metzeler’s new Racetec RR tyres it was quicker than the rest on the track and the S1000RR’s nose was bloodied for the first time since 2010. But credit to the BMW, it was still the best road superbike, thanks to its comfier seat, heated grips, cruise control and more involving engine.

With our 1000s group test win under its belt the R1 carried on impressing. We pitched it against the Kawasaki H2 at Rockingham and it beat it by a whopping three seconds a lap. We also raced it against a Porsche 997 GT2 RS, but the Yamaha was so much quicker we didn’t even bother to get the datalogger out.

It’s won BSB races, in the hands of Josh Brookes, and the dream team of Bradley Smith and Pol Esparago took their very special factory R1 to an easy win at Suzuka 8-hour in the summer.

To have Yamaha come back and produce a kick-ass R1 when cynics were telling us superbikes were dead, warms the heart. And the superbike landscape is about to get even more interesting with the arrival of a new Kawasaki ZX-10R and GSX-R1000. But until then the R1 is top dog. 


Engine 998cc (79 x 50.9mm), 16v inline four
Frame Aluminium twin spar
Kerb weight 199kg
Tank size 17 litres
Seat height 855mm
Rider aids Riding modes, traction, slide, wheelie, launch and engine braking control, quickshifter, ABS
Measured power 189.28bhp@13,500rpm
Measured torque 82.98ftlb@8500rpm
Top speed 180.74mph
0-180mph 17.21s
Standing ¼ mile 10.42s@153.28mph
Roll-on: 40-120mph 10.53s
Braking: 70-0mph 55.47-meters
Price £14,999
PCP £3845.30 deposit, 36 monthly payments: £195, final payment: £6866

Click here to see our review of the R1

MCN Staff

By MCN Staff