Yamaha YZF-R1

  • MSRP: $12,390
  • Curb Weight: 476 lbs.
  • Horsepower: 146.08 @ 11,800 rpm
  • Torque: 73.12 lb-ft @ 9000 rpm
  • Quarter Mile: 10.53 seconds @ 137.5 mph
  • Outright Top Speed: 186 mph (limited)Racetrack
  • Top Speed: 153.97 mph
  • Superpole Best Time: 1:57.58

‘Derived from MotoGP technology’ is the tagline for Yamaha’s all-new YZF-R1 for 2009. Yes. We’ve all heard this a million times and it’s just plain getting old. But simply start the R1 and you can tell this is no ordinary Inline-Four 1000. Thumping, growling and rumbling, the R1 sounds more like a cross between an angry V-Twin and a racing V-Four, provoking emotion right from the first thumb of the starter button.

We sampled the bike in a stand-alone test in Australia earlier this year and came away impressed, to say the least. When ridden by itself and set-up by Yamaha’s experienced European testing staff, the R1 shined like a new set of chrome rims. I was convinced it would vie for top honors, no doubt. But when it comes time to compare all the bikes… well, things are not always as they seem.

Highlighting the changes for the all-new bike is the much-talked-about crossplane crankshaft. This was developed by Yamaha’s MotoGP team starting in 2004 to get the bike off the corner with more torque. As a result, Rossi took them to a couple world championships: Nothing to scoff at there. Thus, Yamaha figured if it worked in MotoGP why not try it in street form?

Rounding out the updates includes radically-styled bodywork and a D-mode selector on the right clip-on that allows adjustments in responsiveness via different maps for the YCC-I (Yamaha Chip Controlled Intake) system. And the changes don’t stop there, oh no – be sure to check out our 2009 Yamaha R1 First Ride for complete technical details.

These massive changes caught several of our testers off guard when first hopping on the Yami, as one isn’t expecting an Inline-Four to sound, feel or behave anything like this latest Tuning Fork-bred machine. It’s exactly that which our testers first took note of. It’s also what left us with extremely mixed reviews of the new Yamaha R1.

“Wow, they said eventually MotoGP technology would make it to our street bikes and here it is,” said Sorensen. “The feeling and the sound of the new R1 motor reminds me of the Honda VFR750. Trailing throttle off corners the Yamaha is very tractable; it is truly in-between riding a Twin and Inline-Four. One disadvantage of this configuration might have is that it doesn’t have the ‘warp speed’ top-end some of the other bikes have.”

“On the track it seems the easiest to ride, the least intimidating of the group by far,” adds Hutchison. “I was able to get comfortable on the R1 almost immediately and it was one of the first two bikes I broke through the two-minute mark on. It always made me feel as though I could be confident it wasn’t going to highside me on corner exits. Something about that crossplane crank makes the bike feel very tractable.”

Said Earnest: “The motor is disappointingly slow. It pulls well off slow corners but it just doesn’t seem to make much power when revving up – very flat on top.”

This lack of outright power is no surprise when you take a look at the hard numbers. The R1 produced the lowest horsepower (146.08) and second-lowest torque (73.12) of the bunch. And as for the data, its recorded

maximum acceleration coming out of turns 14 and 6 was the second-lowest in the group, only marginally higher than the Ducati. Also, top speed was down at the bottom, recording a best of 153.97 mph at the end of Thunderhill’s fastest straight.

Furthermore, we once again took the machines to HPCC for performance testing and its relatively weak power output and vague-feeling clutch produced the slowest quarter-mile ET of the day at 10.53 @ 137.5 mph, as well as a fried clutch after only three runs. The numbers may not have been impressive compared to the competition but the highlight of the R1 experience is hearing the Yamaha come by at full-steam, as that crossplane engine wails more like a fighter jet than a motorcycle. It’s unreal!

This incredible sound is just as breathtaking while riding. If one forgets about minute performance differences for a second and takes in just how visceral of an experience the R1 is, with its jet fighter sound and instant throttle response, it truly is amazing. But in a test like this, one quickly snaps back into precision mode, as that is what’s needed to pick apart bikes that all perform so equally. This then reveals another area which could be improved: The clutch.

Is the new R1’s transmission and clutch bad? No. Is it as good as some of the competition? No. We found it to hold up to track duty well, though two of our testers did comment on missing shifts. The clutch also has an extremely easy pull with a lever that is a bit far out there for those of us with a smaller hand and has a slightly numb feel to it. The internal slipper-unit worked well at keeping back-torque to a minimum and was universally praised, but when sent out for performance testing the clutch was wasted faster than Waheed can clean out a Red Bull hospitality bar.

“The slipper had good balance of free-wheeling and drag from the engine which kept the bike more in line under braking,” Sorensen said. Earnest, though, wasn’t nearly as big of a fan, adding: “The transmission is okay, but I missed some downshifts from third to second gear.”

When it came to the bike’s handling, we once again had mixed views. Turn-in was quick and fairly easy, but an under-sprung and overly-soft front end would blow through the stroke and bottom out when pushed hard. This made hot laps a bit scary as one was always chasing their tail so to speak, trying to keep both ends in line and planted before initiating turn-in. This would also translate to some troubles mid-corner too. The R1 would ride far too low in the stroke to properly soak up the small pavement imperfections and give the rider the desired amount of feedback.

“The Yamaha backs into corners a bit too much and is unstable on entry,” Earnest comments. “The vague front end on entry is due to it being bottomed out and made it impossible to push hard going into the corners.”

“The Yamaha turn in was very positive,” contends Sorensen. “A little slower compared to some of the other bikes but not a handicap. On the other hand, a missed set up or something hurt the mid-corner stability of the Yamaha. The feedback from the front end was very vague due to where the fork was in its travel. This seemed to mute feedback from the front tire.”

While an unsettled chassis and lack of feedback held the Yamaha back, it’s interesting to note that on the data it shows the R1 recorded the highest level of grip when at max lean as well as one of the highest degrees of lean angle. What this displays is just how important rider feedback is. No doubt the potential is there for the Yamaha to be a front runner, as proven by the data, but without the rider getting the feel needed from the bike he or she is unable to extract all the performance on tap.

“With some of the low scores on the Yamaha, I am not bagging the design of this bike,” Sorensen says. “I truly believe this is solely due to setup or maybe something was wrong with the bike. I think with the proper setup the Yamaha would be a serious threat. The engine and chassis totally suit my style of riding on the track.”

Brakes were yet another area with somewhat mixed reviews, though most thought positively of them. They are more-powerful than the previous version, but still lack some of the aggressive initial bite of the Honda, Kawasaki and Ducati. Progressive lever travel and very constant braking force make them easy to modulate, inviting the rider to go deeper and deeper on the brakes, though with the back end always coming around it was nearly impossible to exploit the bike’s full braking potential.

When the numbers were added the Yamaha was clearly at the back of the group. Some of this is due to its lack of performance numbers, which hurt it quite a bit, as well as the overall impressions when pushed hard on the track. No doubt the potential is in there somewhere – look at Ben Spies in World Superbike. They are all extremely close, so you have to remember we are comparing minor discrepancies, but when it’s going up against a field this stacked it just didn’t quite have what it takes to make a run for top-billing this year.

“It’s really too bad the Yamaha didn’t work as well as we hoped. The bike is the best sounding by far and in my opinion looks the best as well, it just didn’t work as well at the track as the rest and it doesn’t have the power the rest do. Not sure what happened with it, but I still really enjoy how it feels, sounds and looks,” said Waheed.

Waheed is 100% right. It really is too bad that a host of small problems held the Yamaha back. When you break it down, there’s no question there are two bikes, and two bikes alone, that provoke the most emotion in this group: This new R1 and Ducati’s 1198. It’s funny because they both finished at the back of the pack. But one must remember this is a completely track-based performance test and these bikes are all so good and so close that minute differences can mean the difference between first and fifth place. If anything I look at the Yamaha as this: A work in progress. Some minor tweaks to get the performance to match its character and this would be a title contender. I mean, just listen to the thing…