The Yamaha R1 was first released in 1998 and was arguably the top-dog sportsbike in a golden era for performance motorcycles. The original R1 used a 998cc 20 valve, in-line four engine to produce 150bhp. That may not sound like much by today’s standards, but at the time was more than enough to gain it a reputation.
And reputation wasn’t so easy to come by in a decade that saw the release of the Honda CBR900RR FireBlade, Ducati 916, Aprilia RSV1000, Suzuki TL1000 and Kawasaki ZX-9R.
There have been major changes such as fuel-injection arriving, underseat pipes replacing the side-mounted exhaust, radial brakes, a four-valve head and now, on the latest versions, cutting-edge electronic assists – but the name on the fairing has always remained the same.
The Honda CBR900RR changed the way sportsbikes were designed forever by being lighter and more agile, rather than more powerful than the competition. It worked and the FireBlade wiped the floor with the competition.
But when the Yamaha R1 came along, six years later, it was not only 22bhp more powerful than the Honda, it was also 5kg lighter!
There have now been six standard Yamaha R1 models plus the limited edition R1M which was released in 2015.
If you were playing motorbike Top Trumps in the late 90s, you wanted to have the Yamaha R1 in your deck. It was arm-rippingly quick, light and agile and if you let your concentration slip for a second, it would bite you.
The 2000-onwards models are slightly easier to control, but are still a real handful by today’s standards.
The Yamaha R1’s engine is similar to that seen in the Yamaha FZR1000 and Yamaha YZF1000 Thunderace (both predecessors to the R1) and is a strong lump with an even spread of torque across the rev range. Things really start to pick up at 10,000rpm and only the bravest will see the 11,500rpm redline.
The only common issue with the original R1 is a weak gearbox. Slow gear changes or abuse can cause a problem in first and second gear, but it’s not an overly expensive problem to fix.
Yamaha held off the competition until the early 00s, and the launch of the Suzuki GSX-R1000. The original Yamaha R1 continues to be an object of desire and has become a modern-day classic that features in many dream garages.
Suzuki had been somewhat left behind in the superbike world with their charismatic but, frankly, dangerous TL1000 but the GSX-R1000 upped the ante yet again and set a new benchmark for Yamaha to aim for.
The YZF-R1 redefined the boundaries in terms of power, weight and handling. The R1 used Yamaha’s traditional five-valve head, but by repositioning the gearbox mainshaft above rather than inline with the crankshaft the R1’s design team created the first ‘vertically stacked gearbox’ on a sportsbike (if you don’t count the TRX850).
- 150bhp – 79ftlb – 177kg
- Used prices from: £3500
2000 Yamaha R1
Yamaha made over 150 changes to the R1 in its first update. A stronger gearbox and taller bottom gears were the big news. The exhaust was also titanium now, but unless you are a real R1 geek you won’t spot the altered shock rebound adjuster, thinner mirror stems, smaller brake master cylinder etc…
- 150bhp – 79ftlb – 175kg
- Used prices from: £3000
2002 Yamaha R1
The big advancement of the 2002 R1 was the introduction of fuel-injection. Designed by Mikuni, the system used a vacuum-controlled intake. The vacuum pressure controls the movement of valves in the 41mm throttle bodies, regulating flow and giving amazingly-smooth response.
- 152bhp – 80ftlb – 174kg
- Used prices from: £4000
By the time Yamaha updated the R1 in 2004, Suzuki had already released the second generation of their GSX-R1000 and upped the game yet again and so the next R1 needed to be something special.
In terms of outright performance, the second-generation Yamaha R1 more than fitted the bill. This would be the last of the R1s to use the 20-valve engine, now producing 165bhp in a motorbike weighing just 173kg.
These figures meant that the 2004 R1 was the first motorcycle to claim a 1:1 power to weight ratio and a new Deltabox chassis which eschewed the stressed engine set-up of the previous model meant that the R1 was no slouch in the bends.
As with all versions of the R1, the competition in the market was fierce and the second-generation R1 was made to feel like hard work by the supple and encouraging GSX-R1000.
- 172bhp – 81ftlb – 172kg
- Used prices from: £4000
Yamaha made an all-new R1 in 2007, before reinventing it yet again in 2009. The third-generation R1 dropped from 20 valves down to 16 and used variable inlet trumpets to increase low-down grunt without sacrificing top end power. In2008 the blue option also came with gold wheels for the first time.
This was the last version of the R1 with a screaming engine note, as the divisive cross-plane crank version came into being in 2009.
The suspension is adjustable to suit every situation and a ride-by-wire throttle paired with detailed ECU mapping mean the 2007 R1 is a far more manageable beast than previous versions and the performance is more accessible (not just for the bravest or maddest anymore).
A return to the original’s wild attitude with a strong top end kick and less midrange. A slipper clutch, new chassis and massive six-piston radial brakes completed the revolution.
- 180bhp – 83ftlb – 177kg
- Used prices from: £5000
Just two years after a fairly major overhaul, the R1 underwent a second. This time, Yamaha went for something completely different in the form of a MotoGP-inspired cross-plane crankshaft engine.
Where in a conventional motor the pistons move up and down in pairs (two outer and two inner) with a 180-degree firing order, the crossplane has an uneven 270-180-90-180-degree firing sequence and the pistons are not paired up.
This firing order reduces fluctuations in torque, giving a better throttle response, increased drive and improved grip.
- 179bhp – 85ftlb – 206kg
- Used prices from: £6500
The fifth generation R1 didn’t change much from the fourth, but Yamaha added six-stage traction control and anti-wheelie. These weren’t enough to keep up with the competition on track, but the 2012 R1 is arguably a better road bike as a result.
In a much bigger update, the 2015 R1 became lighter, more agile and more powerful than ever before with a host of electronic rider aids to keep everything pointing in the right direction.
The 2015 R1’s compact design makes it feel more like a 600cc supersport, until you twist the throttle and unleash its 197bhp. The bike takes a lot of its cues from the Yamaha MotoGP bike and even has forged magnesium wheels.
2020 Yamaha R1 and R1M
In July 2019 we learnt about the new 2020 R1, launched at the WSB round at Laguna Seca, USA. It doesn't rewrite the superbike rulebook, but there's enough new toys on offer to keep the R1 in with a fighting chance of remaining at the top table.
Since then we've been looking at the tech on the new bike in our deep-dive.
In September 2019 Michael Neeves gave his first verdict on the new bike in our in-depth 2020 Yamaha R1 review.
He followed this with a separate Yamaha R1M review, where he assesses the new track-biased superbike on circuit where it belongs.
Despite its incredible performance figures, the R1 is still a road bike and Michael also set out to discover what it was like to ride one in the real world, too.
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