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17 years apart: Two unforgettable first rides on R1s

Published: 18 September 2015

Updated: 18 September 2015

The A507 from Baldock to Buntingford is busier than it was in 1998. There are more white lines, more white vans and more school run mums. Whenever there’s a break in the traffic the new 2015 Yamaha YZF-R1 torpedoes me out of the tedious tailback towards the horizon. You’ve got to make the most of the opportunities. And the R1 helps.

bviously it’s very, very, fast, and when the road is clear it feels great. Responsive, intuitive and staggeringly capable. It sounds fantastic too, but on a midweek mid-afternoon thwarted by traffic it’s frustrating. This is not really the place to get to know a new bike like this. 

Fortunately the R1’s 6”x3” dash panel is packed with distractions to keep you entertained while wedged between a solid white line, a sales rep in a Mondeo and a plumber in a Merc Sprinter. 

The bottom strip notifies you of the power, traction control and slide control modes you’ve selected. And there’s a gear indicator. The odometer, trip, fuel consumption and temperature displays can be scrolled from a wheel on the righthand switch cluster. The speedo is digital and the rev counter bar sweeps across the panel from left to right. Along the top of the screen there’s the potential for further information displays that relate to the GPS indicator, datalogging indicator and the ride control – but they’re not fitted to this, the £15,134 base model. There’s also a clock but it’s too small to read without my specs on.

Novelty entertainment is provided by the front brake pressure indicator and the acceleration indicator, both located on the lower right side of the panel. Squeeze the lever and watch the braking bar light up, like one of those fairground hammer games. But with a pair of 320mm discs and four-piston radial calipers a lot less effort.

The acceleration indicator doesn’t just gauge the speed at which you move forward, but how hard you’re braking too. A series of accelerate, brake, accelerate corners sees the blue indicator moving around like a stroboscope.

The rev counter detail is nice too. Potter along below 7000 and the bar is black. It turns green as the crossplane crank engine starts spinning harder and then turns orange past 10,000rpm. Nice. There’s also a ‘Revolution Peak Hold Indicator’ that briefly appears to mark the most recent peak revs of the engine. 

You can adjust the colour of the tacho bar, you can turn off the Peak Hold Indicator and of course, for track use you can switch to a Track Mode display in which lap times, activated by the dip switch, are the most prominent display. There’s also a launch control system with a light, and a shift light (and quickshifter). 

Want more? You need the £18,634 R1M that includes Öhlins electronic suspension and some more lights, bells and whistles. If this sounds complicated, it is. Which explains why the bike’s instruction book has 128 pages, with 48 pages devoted to Instrument and Control functions. There’s even a glossary. 

We’re snarled up on the A507, waiting for an occasional break in the traffic, because this is where I rode the first R1, for a feature in Bike back in May 1998 (same photographer too, and lens, though the camera has gone digital). It feels like the same fluffy white clouds on blue sky, but sadly I couldn’t fit into the same leathers. Progress isn’t always good, especially when it relates to waist measurements, hairlines and eyesight.

1998: Marlboro country

In 1998 we marvelled at the original R1s stacked gearbox, long swingarm and the sharp styling with Marlboro inspired colour scheme. It wasn’t revolutionary, but it was the pinnacle (then) of Yamaha’s five-valve fours that’d been evolving since the FZ750 of 1985. But dynamically it was significantly better than the 1998 Honda Fireblade or the Kawasaki ZX-9R. The supersports market is closer these days.

Back in 1998 the story was about what the R1 meant to ordinary riders, on ordinary British roads, doing battle with too much traffic and speed cameras, with their own riding talent (limited in my case). 

The critical numbers for the 1998 bike were 150bhp, 190kg (wet) and 170mph. Those numbers seemed crazy back then, but the ’98 bikes were tractable, agile and user friendly. 

For 2002 the R1 got fuel injection and revised frame geometry, for 2004 underseat exhausts and a significant power hike, 2007 saw a switch to four-valves per cylinder, 2009 was the year of the crossplane crankshaft and in 2012 it got traction control. 

Things have moved on again. The numbers for the new bike are 197bhp, 199kg and 180mph. And the world’s moved on too. Sportsbikes no longer dominate UK bike sales, there’s even more traffic on the A507 and Yamaha’s blurb suggests track use is now the prime design goal. ‘More fast, more easy, more settings. Expand rider potential. More learning’ they say. 

It certainly seems to work for talented riders on race tracks. Bike’s ex-GP, BSB and WSB star tester James Haydon came back from last month’s launch at Eastern Creek bubbling with enthusiasm for the new bike. Then we hear that Michael Dunlop has been elbow down at a test in Spain on a standard bike. Who’d bet against this thing for TT and superbike wins in 2015?


But it’s still sold as a road bike, so it’s got to work on the A507. And its got to work for ordinary riders like me who need to drone dual carriageways to connect those good bits of tarmac. Who have somehow got to keep their licences intact and stay out of hedges. 

Baldock to Peterborough is a quick schlepp up the A1. And while the new R1’s riding position may have deeper knee pockets and a higher screen it’s not what you’d call sumptuous, even for this short test of self-control. Especially for bones that are 17 years older. 

Back at base it’s started raining. Ride in the wet? On tyres that are practically slick and with a fairing that’s predominantly white? It might have traction control, slide control and a power limiter, but it doesn’t clean itself. Well, that’s my excuse. I mope around the office, stare into middle distance and fail to achieve anything. Time for further study of the 128 page manual.

Manual cant

The R1’s computer offers four levels of power delivery. PWR 1 is effectively race, PWR 2 tones it down slightly but peak remains the same, PWR 3 drops the midrange out a little more and softens the initial delivery. While PWR 4 reduces ultimate power significantly, drops out even more midrange and makes low-speed delivery positively cuddly.

So think of one and two as variations on a race setting. Three is street and four is rain. Because I’m an idiot I used one to start with. But three is much nicer, partly because you have to rev the engine a little harder. The speeds are still ballistic, but the rev counter bar changes colour more often. And if you want to relax just use rain. 

Switching between control modes (A, B, C, D) using a switch on the left handlebar cluster, will alter the level of power delivery (A=1, etc.) and levels of TCS and SCS intervention. The settings on our bike matched Mode D with PWR 4 with TCS 7 (of nine) and SCS 3 (of four). PWR 1 was matched with TCS 3 and SCS 2. The balance between PWR, TCS and SCS settings can easily be adjusted to personal preference. TCS and SCS can also be turned off. I left them well alone, happy with the choices Yamaha had made for me. 

Obviously there is also the LIF, LCS, QSS and other clever gizmos too, and linking all this together is a computer that, had it been around when the original R1 was launched, would probably have been powerful enough to control a space probe.

As well as conventional sensors there’s also what Yamaha are calling an Inertial Measurement Unit. This detects movement in three conventional axes (forwards-backwards, up-down, side to side) and gyroscopic forces too. It means that it can temper a rider’s irrational inputs, even when the bike is leant over and calculate grip and adjust braking and throttle inputs accordingly. 

It’s still raining, so I go to look at the bike in the lock-up. The magnesium wheels are things of beauty, and so’s the titanium exhaust. The detailing is fantastic. Part of the attraction of these bikes is as objects. And the Yamaha works on that score. You’d be happy to stand there with a cup of tea and just gaze at it.

A brisk wind has dried the roads and the sun’s trying to get out. Time to ride. This time on emptier roads. 

I switch to Mode C; that’s PWR3, TCS5, SCR3. Ahead are 40 miles of fast A-roads with decent visibility and big sweeping curves. There’s not much traffic, easy overtaking opportunities, no cameras and, mostly, a half decent and dry surface. 

Big Brother Britain

But it’s still a chilly day, on a public road, in Big Brother Britain. I’m not going loopy, but the scenery disappears backwards in a blur of quickshifted gears, the numbers on the digital speedo flicker, the tacho bar changes colour, cars shrink in the mirrors, corners are cornered, straights obliterated. 

Observations; the handling is sublime, the steering utterly intuitive. But I’m rusty and out of practice. The suspension, on these settings and with this 11 stone rider, needs smooth roads. The engine is gloriously torquey and astonishingly powerful, I’ve never used top gear less on any other bike. First is good for 95mph and you can spend half a day riding without getting above third gear. The rider aids are utterly unobtrusive and quietly re-assuring. They gave me confidence. This is a great bike.

In truth, and in isolation, I could have been on last year’s bike. Or a ZX-10. Or any of the across the frame, four-cylinder supersports bikes. I’m not a good enough, fast enough rider to pick up on the subtleties of difference. Except for one thing. That glorious crossplane crank growl. When the engine starts to really suck, at around 8000 rpm, it sounds absolutely magnificent, and that makes it a winner in my book. 

The R1 does make sense. Even for an average (but experienced) rider in speed limit Britain. It challenges you to ride better, but without intimidating you. It’s got nearly 200bhp, but it’s no bully. And strangely, that was the verdict 17 years ago too.

How does the R1 make you feel? Alive. 


01932 358000


£15,134 (R1M £18,634)


liquid-cooled, DOHC
16-valve four




197bhp @13,500rpm


83 lb.ft @ 11,500rpm

Top speed


Fuel system

fuel injection


six-speed, chain


aluminium, twin spar 





Seat height


Tank size

17 litre

Front suspension

43mm upside down, fully adjustable

Rear suspension

monoshock, fully adjustable


 2x 320mm discs, 4-pot calipers/220mm, 2-pot

Wet weight

199kg (claimed)


38 mpg/140 miles (est)

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