In 1998, 20 years ago, Yamaha dropped a bombshell and presented a sports bike unlike no other. It was called the YZF-R1, and it was nimble, light and powerful. At that time, the maximum capacity for four cylinder superbikes was still 750cc, so the R1 was oversized and hence originally meant to be the ultimate weapon for the road.
Yamaha’s key innovation was the stacked gearbox, where the 5-valve Genesis engine was redesigned so that the gearbox input shaft was relocated closer to the crankshaft and the output shaft was placed beneath it. This allowed the engine to be much shorter, which in turn allowed a shorter wheelbase and optimized center of gravity. Shorter engine also allowed Yamaha to use a relatively long swingarm while keeping the wheelbase short. For the suspension Yamaha used a 41mm USD KYB fork in the front and the rear sported a monoshock.
The engine was fed with 40mm Keihin carburettors and Yamaha used an EXUP valve system in the exhaust to achieve an engine with both high torque and high power levels throughout the rev range.
In 1999 the R1 saw only minor updates, but in 2000 the model received a proper facelift, with slightly redesigned, more aerodynamic fairings and slightly reduced weight. The carburettors were re-jetted and the engine management modified for better power delivery. The riding position was also slightly changed for better handling.
2002 saw another important update, when the R1 was fitted with a fuel injection system. To achieve carburettor-like characteristics, the system used vacuum slides. Older models’ 4-1 exhaust was changed to a 4-2-1 system, which was made out of titanium. Also new was the stiffer, hydroformed frame, which had less welds than the previous version.
FIM had allowed four cylinder 1000cc engines in Superbike series, which meant toughening competition, so Yamaha gave the R1 another serious update in 2004. The engine bore was increased and the stroke shortened. Ram-air system was used for the air intake and the bike received a redesigned exhaust system, which had its silencers under the tail unit.
The frame was again new, and with redesigned geometry for a calmer ride and less tendency for wobbling. This was further aided by installing a steering damper as standard. To aid stopping, the conventional brakes were changed to radially mounted calipers and a radial master cylinder. The front fork diameter was changed to 43mm. Last but not least, the bike’s weight was reduced significantly; the claimed dry weight was just 172 kg.
In 2006 the swingarm was lengthened to reduce instability when accelerating and the intake ports were modified for better output. The same year saw also a limited edition model celebrating Yamaha’s 50th anniversary. The bike was fitted with a wide range of goodies, such as Öhlins suspension, forged wheels and for the first time, a slipper clutch, which would be made standard equipment the following year.
Other changes for the 2007 model include an all-new engine, where Yamaha axed the Genesis 5-valve layout and moved to more conventional four valves per cylinder. The engine used YCC-I variable length intake funnels and throttle was controlled by a fly-by-wire system. The frame and swingarm were new and in the front radial 6-pot calipers squeezed the brake pads against 310mm rotors.
In 2009 Yamaha released an all-new R1, which would use engine technology derived from their MotoGP bike. The engine had a larger bore and shorter stroke and it was equipped with a crossplane crankshaft, where the connecting rods are placed at 90° intervals. Despite expectations, Yamaha decided not to use “big bang” firing order, where all the cylinders fire on the same rotation. Still the crossplane engine gives the Yamaha a distinct sound and the design is claimed to give the rider a better throttle control. On the minus side the crossplane crankshaft was significantly heavier than the old one.
The frame was redesigned to aid mass centralisation. Also the engine was installed more front and tilted forwards compared with the previous model. Another novelty was 3-step switchable engine map, which allowed the rider to change the engine characteristics according to the circumstances.
Although this generation of the R1 looked and sounded cool, compared to the competition it was overweight and underpowered. Hence it wasn’t the ultimate trackday weapon for Joe Everyman, but it was comfortable and easy to ride. As a road going literbike, it was tough to beat.
To address the previous model’s problems, Yamaha presented in 2015 the current generation of R1. Extremely MotoGP-esque style fairing covered arguably the most state-of-the-art riding control system of the day. A six axis inertial measurement unit was used to gather information about the bike’s movements and control traction control, slide control, wheelie control, launch control and antilock brake systems.
The engine had again a larger bore was still using a crossplane crankshaft, which had a shortened stroke to keep the engine under the 1000cc limit. Finger followers were used for higher engine speeds and connecting rod big ends were fracture-split.
Along with the standard R1, Yamaha also presented a higher specification R1M, which sported a semi-active Öhlins suspension, carbon fibre fairing and extensive remapping and datalogging features.
The story of the R1 is a long and successful one, and far from over. As Yamaha have been keen to launch limited anniversary editions, presenting a YZF-R1 20th Anniversary Limited Edition model at one of this autumn’s bike show would hardly be a surprise, although a completely new R1 is still unlikely.