The secret is out. We’re the first people in the world outside of Yamaha to get the key to the 2002 R1. And that means the speculation over whether it can match the GSX-R1000 is over.
That ignition key may look exactly the same as before, but the R1 has moved things on just enough to keep us drooling. It looks sharper, hits harder and is even easier to ride fast than before. And that will bring it very much into contention with Suzuki’s 2001 MCN Award-winner.
OK, if you’re looking for a sports bike that will scare you senseless and mainline adrenalin into your vein, the more extreme GSX-R is still the ultimate high. But the R1 was never meant to beat the GSX-R in a straight line – it’s just not powerful enough for that. Where it does win is in terms of agility and control. It brakes and turns better and is even easier to get out of a corner fast.
So the new R1 doesn’t quite have the GSX-R’s power – though the motor is stronger than the new Honda FireBlade’s. But it’s still plenty powerful enough to make you wonder why it revs to 12,000rpm when all you use on the road is up to 9000rpm. Why do you need more? Answer: You don’t.
Yamaha’s technicians decided they would stick with a similar power output to the current bike, but make it rev higher, faster and for longer. They wanted to beef it up in the mid-range and make the new fuel injection system as smooth and fault-free as the Mikuni carbs the bike has now done away with.
So the firm took what was already one of the strongest motors around and added a twin EXUP system, new cylinder head, valves, crank and exhaust system (see technical details, page 30). The effect isn’t immediately obvious – until you get the bike to the kind of place where it can misbehave.
We thought that place was the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain. But when we get there the rain is coming down hard. Formula One cars were the last to use the circuit and Yamaha’s test rider reckons the rubber they’ve left, combined with the huge puddles of standing water, make it too dangerous to risk damaging one of the world’s handful of running 2002 R1s.
So the road looks like a much safer option. The chance to be the first journalist in the world to ride the bike is too big to miss and there’s still loads you can learn about bikes in the wet.
While I’m pulling on my leathers, Yamaha’s people run me through the new, sleek dash and its various toys. One useful little addition is the fact that you can now adjust the brightness of the digital speedo and purple, backlit rev-counter, just like you can on a car. To do it, you hold down the " select " button on the dash while you turn the ignition on, then choose your preferred brightness from the six-bar display by pushing the " adjust " button, followed by " select " to confirm your choice. Number five does it for me: Bright with a hint of subtlety.
Keep playing and you can also adjust the gear shiftlight. Racers and owners of Aprilia sports bikes are already familiar with shiftlights, which they can set to whatever revs they want to change gear at, and now the R1 has one, too. You can set it to stay on when it’s warning you to shift, flash repeatedly or come on at a set figure and switch off 500rpm later. You choose.
OK, it’s little more than a gimmick for a road bike, but it’s still pretty damn cool. And on a track day – say, one at Catalunya in February – it would allow you to ride without even thinking about what revs you’re pulling. It would also come in handy when you’re running-in and the choice is between sticking to low revs or blowing up your motor. There’s no better way than a purple flashing light set wherever you feel is right to remind you not to rev your new toy too much.
Once that frustrating initial period is over, it’s a question of tucking your head behind the screen, getting on the throttle and waiting for the light to flash in at the desired revs. On Yamaha’s advice, I’m sticking with setting it to come on at 11,500rpm and go off at 12,000rpm.
Like a rainy rush-hour on the M6, wet Spanish motorways are no fun at all and the flash light is the last thing on my mind as we head out in search of good weather. The bike feels settled, the suspension is plush yet firm and the Dunlop D208 tyres are doing their best on the slippery surface, though as I wind the power on hard out of corners I feel like I’ve been taking rear-wheel steering lessons off Garry McCoy. Not ideal, but it just makes your heart beat a bit faster rather than scaring you witless. If a bike can make you tingle in these conditions, you know it’s something special.
I take corners upright as the conditions are so bad, but in normal circumstances the riding position tilts your weight farther forward than before. The raised pegs and lowered bars do put a bit of pressure on your wrists, but it’s a much more natural feeling for sports riding, with good wind protection at 80mph cruising speeds.
And that means the wind blast doesn’t drown out the glorious sound of the engine. The new bike still sounds just like an R1. There’s a deep whining noise as the throttle comes on, allied with the kind of instant thrust you’ve come to expect from the legend.
And that thrust is pretty useful to get you out of sticky situations, as I discover when two cars try to join my lane at the same time. I have to react quickly to avoid turning the first R1 on the road into a Seat and Ford sandwich with extra pickled Potter.
The bike’s exemplary agility saves me, too – though that’s hardly surprising when you know the chassis shares most of its dimensions with the R7, the dragon’s-teeth-rare homologation World Superbike known for its superb handling. Push on the bars and it goes where you want, fast.
But what’s brilliant is the way the R1 behaves itself. Yamaha spent hundreds of hours on back-to-back testing with the old bike to make sure the fuel injection system worked cleanly without any snatchiness. They’ve done a beautiful job and as I swop from motorway to motorway on never-ending slip roads, many off-camber, I feel I know where I am with this bike.
Our search for dry roads takes us to Lloret de Mar, the Costa Brava’s Blackpool, but with plenty of sombreros in place of " kiss me quick " hats. It would be great in summer for a lads’ week, but what’s better is the road that leads out of it up to Tossa del Mar.
It’s known as the " road of 300 corners " . By 23 I’ve stopped counting, more worried about avoiding the cliff-side drops than how many bends there are to come. Unfortunately, the road is wet but it proves again how easy the R1 is to ride. You can get down 150-odd horses to the back wheel and know how hard you can brake on the way in with the lightest touch of the lever.
The lever is span-adjustable, but doesn’t adjust enough for me, and small-fingered riders might find it a stretch even on setting five.
Though the R1 is coping with the situation, we decide the road is just too greasy to be proper fun – this slow-speed throttle, brake, wobble, throttle would be hard work on even a supermoto. So we call it a day and head back to base camp in Catalunya.
It’s a five-hour ride and I’m soaked to the skin before I’m even halfway there, but it doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the bike. It’s quite a machine, with obvious potential to be manic if you want it to be, or perfectly cool, calm and collected on the motorway.
At 70mph on the autopista, it’s pulling around 4000rpm. Wind it on and you’ve got a strong hit with another 8000rpm of power to come. Working on the logic that I’ll get less wet at 120mph because I’ll get back faster even though the rain is hitting me harder, I dial in 190kph as my cruising speed. UK-spec bikes will again get digital speedos which can toggle between mph and kph.
When I finally crunch across the gravel of the hotel car park, I feel like I’m wearing a wet-suit. But amazingly, considering the cutaway fairing which is more air than plastic, the bike protects your feet and legs well. And it looks pretty damn good, too.
There are four colours to choose from, each with a colour-matched rear hugger that seems to do a good job of keeping five hours of wet riding crud away from the shock. The plain blue one without graphics is classy and simple, the blue one with traditional R1 " speed blocks " harks back to older R1s, the red and white option is clean yet racey, and the black and silver design is the best-looking of the lot. The fork legs, top yokes, frame and swingarms are all black, except on the red and white bike, where they’re gold.
It’s a shame Yamaha didn’t opt for the simple " YZF R1 " graphics on all four bikes like they did on the blue and speed block paintscheme. On the other bikes as your eye comes down from the slash-cut waistline and what is seemingly half of a petrol tank, the stacked logos on the fairing seem to read YZF R1, er, R1. As if they had to name it twice – we already know what it’s called.
While we’re quibbling, there’s not much space under the seat, but there never has been. After all, the bike’s motto is still " no compromise " . The LED wrap-around rear light sets off the undertray brilliantly – and what a rear light. It’s like Metal Mickey crossed with some cool modern art sculpture. I love it.
Losing the pillion footrests and fitting the optional alloy exhaust can mount and single-seat cowl makes it even more attractive by giving it a real racey look. You can also whip off the number plate and rear indicator hanger very quickly by undoing just four bolts, making it look even harder on track days.
If you want more track day favourites, Yamaha dealers will also be offering specially-designed crash mushrooms and a higher double-bubble screen, though no prices are yet available.
You can look at bikes for ever, but what you really need with something like the new R1 are dry roads. The next day I get them. Again, Tossa del Mar seems like the place to head for, so with only a couple of hours before I have to fly home I’m keen to get some riding done in the sunshine.
A friendly R6 rider nearly falls off as he spots the new R1 coming towards him. In minutes he’s riding alongside me. At a set of lights we talk the international biker language of corner hand signals (ask a child to make a fish out of their hand and you’ll get the idea) and he takes me to God’s own road. I’m not sure what it’s called, but it won’t be hard to find at a weekend as every biker in Spain seems to be using it. This isn’t a road, it’s a blimmin’ tourist attraction.
Finally, I get to unleash the R1. I’ve only a few miles of road to find out what it can do, so here goes.
You instantly gel a lot better with the sportier riding position than the old bike. It feels much smaller and narrower across the tank than a GSX-R1000 and you crouch over it like you mean business.
Squirt it out of a bend and it drives the rear Dunlop hard, powering the front wheel away from the ground as it hits 9000rpm between corners and the whining engine takes you on to something special. This is one seriously fast motorcycle with even more
mid-range than the old R1, plus top-end power that lets you keep on revving long after the shiftlight shows rather than hooking another gear. The gearbox isn’t the lightest, but it’s deadly accurate and the ratios (the same as last year’s R1) are close. Not that you could ever drop this motor out of its power.
Pitch into a corner, getting late on the brakes, and you can feel the subtle changes to the calipers, while new pads and lines improve things even more. Personally, I prefer the feel from the 2002 ZX-9R’s brakes, but the R1’s aren’t far behind and power is phenomenal. The lightest squeeze pulls you up fast and it really only takes a featherweight stroke to get it into a bend.
That’s another reason the R1 is so easy to ride fast, allied with the fact that it turns quickly yet accurately with no signs of getting flappy, and once in the corner it holds a tight line, letting you use all the road and play with each corner. The old bike was often criticised for running wide on standard settings, but this one is a pinpoint racer.
On the way out of the corner you can get on the gas much earlier than you could with a GSX-R1000, yet still come out with nearly as much power. That should make it very interesting when it comes down to lap times.
But as much as I’d love to take on the local heroes who are sitting chatting at the top of the mountain pass, we have to get going. Easyjet waits for no-one.
Back on the motorway the bumstop finds its rightful home, I get my head down and cruise at 120mph. The fuel light comes on after 240km (150 miles) and the reserve fuel trip meter starts counting from then, telling me there’s still 178km (111 miles) to go in reserve, so it’s fairly frugal.
The key we persuaded Yamaha to give us first now has to go back. But it won’t be long until the R1 takes on the GSX-R and it’s going to be closer than anyone previously thought possible. My money’s on the GSX-R being a bit more exciting but, whatever the outcome, you’ll read it here first.