Yamaha's Superbike Gets a Clean-Sheet Redesign

My journalism instructor isn’t gonna like this article. He used to chastise his students against using exclamation points, but I’m finding it impossible to describe Yamaha’s new R1 without using them. Sorry, Donald.

I’ve never been on such an exciting ride in my seven years in motojournalism! The 850cc Muzzy Raptor was kinda fun, and the 2-stroke Bimota Vdue provided oil-burning excitement. I was nearly overwhelmed by the brute force of the GSX-R1000, and I was enthralled by the new CBR1000RR I rode last month.

But this Yamaha, whoo boy, what a ride!

I remember back in 1998 when the first R1 debuted. It was a great leap forward in the open-class, and I was amazed that I could loft the front wheel at 80 mph with some clutch-popping in second gear. The 2004 edition, now with a claimed 20 more horsepower than the ’00 model, can perform the same task simply by twisting hard on the throttle!

But there’s much more to the R1 than sophomoric shenanigans. For the first time in the bike’s development, Yamaha engineers have put racetrack performance as a priority in what it calls its QFD (quality, function and design), in which each category gets assigned a point value. Hence, this is the first R1 to receive a ram-air system and a close-ratio gearbox that gives a first-gear top speed of nearly 100 mph! (See, I can’t stop pressing the “!” button!)

There was a chill in the morning desert air as I took off with ace lensman Tom Riles to bag a few photos near the luxurious accommodations of La Casa Del Zorro in Borrego Springs, California. But the low temperatures did nothing to diminish the high excitement of the R1. It was just a few corners into the shoot that I was able to get a knee down, which was surprisingly simple even with the unwarmed Dunlop D218 tires.

The R1 gives exactly what it is asked, with no acclimatization period necessary. Turn-in is neutral and completely linear, and it’s easier to ride than many lesser bikes. The fuel tank has an extra liter of capacity but is a full two inches narrower, and with the forged aluminum footpegs closer together, the new R1 can almost pass for an R6 between the knees.

This Kate Moss-like thinness is made possible by two key design ingredients. Yamaha engineers have extolled the virtues of inclined cylinders since the 1985 FZ750, and they’ve taken that philosophy even further in ’04 by placing the cylinders at a 40-degree angle as opposed to the 30 degrees of the previous R1. This keeps the midsection of the bike narrow by allowing the aluminum frame rails to travel in a straight line over the engine instead of around it, and also helps put more weight on the front wheel. In total, the frame is 2.7-inches skinnier than previous and is even narrower than the cylinder head. But not only is the frame narrower, the engine is as well. A smaller distance between cylinder bores and other internal tricks have made the crankshaft almost an inch shorter (and 6% lighter), and moving the generator behind the cylinders allows a crankcase more than two inches narrower.

If you haven’t guessed by now, this R1 is a clean-sheet design, with the oil filter being one of the few parts carried over from last year’s bike. Its forged pistons are 3mm larger but are 3% lighter, and a shorter stroke yields the same 998cc as before. The fuel-injection’s throttle bodies are now up 5mm to 45mm, matching the 5mm-larger intake and exhaust ports. The combustion chamber now has a narrower included valve angle, providing a quicker burn and helping boost the compression ratio to a lofty 12.4:1. Intake and exhaust valves (up a scant 0.5mm) are actuated by new cams with significant changes to their timing. Controlling it all is a smaller and twice as quick 32-bit ECU brain.

Lighter, smaller, thinner, better, quicker it all adds up to a claimed 172 hp at the crankshaft, which is a whopping 20-hp boost from last year! (There I go again) Yamaha men say that number goes up to 180 hp with the assistance of ram-air induction at high speeds, something completely believable on this missile; one journo on our ride said he saw 186 mph on the speedo and it was still pulling. It’s actually geared to top out at 197 mph at its 13,750 redline if the motor could push through the wall of air at that speed.

Speaking of speedometers, the R1’s new gauge package looks totally modern yet classy, with an easy-to-read analog tach flanking the digital speedo. In addition to the normal readouts, the cluster includes a temperature gauge (that takes its readings from the airbox), a lap timer and the now-ubiquitous programmable shift light, the latter being hard to read when it rises upward to smack your chin under hard acceleration.

Following the photo shoot, I spent the next couple of hours scaring myself silly. The R1’s rate of acceleration is almost hard to comprehend. You could spend most of the day keeping the tach under 10 grand and the throttle in front of its stop and still believe the R1 is a rocketship. While it’s difficult to say if the R1 is indeed more powerful than a GSX-R1000 or CBR1000RR (or a ZX-10, which I haven’t yet ridden), the Yamaha certainly feels faster. Whereas the CBR was reluctant to wheelie, the R1 gives you no choice. Nail the clutch in second gear and the new R1’s front end will go skyward when that thin speedo is showing triple digits! This thing is a wheelie hound, and Star Boyz-types will love this stuntbike.

While you’re up there pondering when the front wheel will return to earth, you might be noticing an exotic howl unlike any stock motorcycle that has come before. Yamaha wasn’t specific in how they accomplished this aural tuning, but they did note in the tech briefing that we would enjoy it. The way the intake growl mixes with the wailing exhaust note is, like our man Neale Bayly noted in his track test, pure music to a gearhead’s ears.

There’s actually no need to go shopping at your local Akropovic store, as Yamaha has fitted the R1 with a titanium exhaust system that snakes sinuously to its underseat mufflers. The only non-Ti component is the stainless steel cat-con located behind the engine; this year, even the EXUP exhaust valve is created from the exotic and lightweight metal.

There is, however, a compromise to be made for keeping up with the underseat-exhaust bandwagon. In order to provide space for the exhaust pipe, Yamaha had to use a new swingarm that has its bracing below the main spar instead of above it. While the length of the swinger is within 1mm of the previous model, Yamaha tells us that the new Controlled-Fill unit weights in 19% heavier. On the other hand, it is said to be 30% stiffer torsionally. The R1’s subframe also uses the CF process first seen on last year’s R6, but Yamaha admitted that the frame of the R6 is not made using the new technique, unlike what they told us back then. It turns out that a hollow part can’t be made using CF, in which minute air bubbles are vacuumed out of the molten aluminum when the part is being cast.

Going down the road, owners of previous R1 iterations will notice a firmer ride. Blame Yamaha’s newfound racetrack focus for this, as the spring rates in the upgraded Kayaba inverted fork and Soqi shock have been stiffened slightly to keep the chassis from pitching when being thrashed. By the end of the day I had backed off the rear compression damping nine clicks and the front by four clicks that yielded a much more compliant ride, demonstrating the responsiveness of the suspension components.

Like most new injected bikes, the R1 fires up without the need to fiddle with choke levers and other such nonsense, as the electronic brain automatically compensates for engine and air temperatures. But unlike last year’s wonderful suction-piston type injection, the new model replaces the vacuum-controlled suction valve with a motor-driven sub-throttle valve for improved throttle response, again because it is better for track usage.

This is one of the few areas the new R1 comes up short compared to its predecessor. The 2002-03 edition was one of the best injected bikes at allowing a smooth transition from closed throttle to open, which really comes into play when leaned over in a corner. Power coming on too abruptly can have you on your head. A careful hand will have no problem with the new R1, but clumsy riders might find things a bit jerky, especially at high rpm. Also, a discerning rider will notice a slight surge condition at constant small throttle openings.

The above, however, is nitpicking of the highest order. There are just so few negative things to say about this stunning new machine that we had to prove to you that Yamaha didn’t stuff several Ben Franklins in our gift bag. Its motor is very smooth once above its grumbly 5,000-rpm unhappy zone, and it is able to pull smartly from as low as 4,000 rpm, making second gear useful from 35 mph all the way until 127 mph! A soft rev limiter kicks in at 13,750 rpm (2,000 rpm higher than last year) before things get fully shut down at 14K.

Another rare gripe with the R1 is that it is slower steering than expected, making the old bike feel more nimble in comparison. Two of the three critical geometry figures remain the same (24-degree rake; 54.9-inch wheelbase) while trail is reduced 6mm to 97mm, which theoretically should slightly quicken steering.

Blame falls likely on a combination of the more rounded profile of the front Dunlop (built specifically for the R1) and the 22mm larger front rotors that now measure 320mm. To keep the weight similar to the old discs, the new ones are shaved 0.5mm thinner. The downward-sloping bars don’t provide much leverage assistance, either. I won’t go bad-mouthing the brakes, though, because they are right up there with the best of ’em. A radial master cylinder, 2mm larger, flows more fluid to the radial-mount, 4-piston calipers to deliver stellar stopping power while remaining eminently controllable without any touchiness.

One might want to blame the R1’s steering damper for slowing the steering, but it has a tech feature that prevents it from activating at moderate steering inputs. A check ball inside shuts down flow only when the bars are violently thrust, such as during headshake. It’s a similar but simpler system than the electronic damper on the Honda CBR1000. You’ll be grateful for the damper when the front wheel is skimming over bumps in the road at 100-plus mph.

Let’s see what else can we bitch about? Well, by going to a close-ratio transmission (again, focusing on the racetrack), the R1’s first gear is ridiculously tall. I was flabbergasted when the CBR1000’s speedometer read 90 mph in first gear; the R1 takes that and goes 7 mph higher! It’s as tall as the second cog in many other bikes, and I continually found myself stomping on a non-responsive gear lever when coming to a stop, believing I still had another gear to go down.

One of the few changes to the 2004 R1 that doesn’t cater to racetrack prowess is its ergonomics. Handlebars are now 10mm higher, while the footpegs are 7.5mm lower and 2.5mm forward. Cornering clearance is not compromised because of the narrower midsection, and not one journalist I spoke to said they touched down a peg feeler during our race, er, ride.

Yamaha says sales of its “Super Sport” motorcycles are up nearly 600% since the R1’s introduction in 1998, and there’s no reason to believe that demand for its R-series bikes will be anything but stronger in 2004. While we writers like to talk about valve angles and stiffer this and lighter that, we all know that many consumers buy motorcycles mostly for the way they look and the emotions they make us feel in our gut or perhaps further below. Critics of the R1’s styling are going to be rarer than mad-cow infected beef.

With an MSRP of $10,599, the 2004 Yamaha YZ-F R1 is just $300 more than last year, but in my estimation it’s at least $2,000 better than before. Get your deposits in early, but be smart about it: This bike is as fast as a full-blown Superbike from a few years back and should only be considered by highly skilled riders.

We think Yamaha should have called this the R!