FireEater the 1998 Yamaha R1

In the mid nineties there was still nothing that could beat the Honda’s Fireblade, but finally in 1998 Yamaha unleashed the R1 and it blew the slippers off the old Fireblade. Here’s what we thought in the SuperBike Magazine January 1998.

Yamaha has gone through some fairly ‘tough times recently. The supersports bike balance of power swung well and truly away from them when Honda launched the FireBlade back in 1992 and although they tried to respond with the YZF750, neither the old Genesis motor, nor the then new OWOl-inspired YZF750 chassis were up to the job. Even so, they tried hard to close the gap. The SP version of the 750 effectively became the standard bike, but because the YZF fell well short of expectations, in 1995 the decision was taken to withdraw the model from the range. They tried to compete again in 1995 with the YZF1000 ThunderAce. The ace was more of a bruiser than a lightweight sportster, more of an Aston Martin than a McLaren, which in such an acutely performance-orientated market, simply wasn’t enough. Yamaha must have realised long before they built the first ThunderAce that it wasn’t going to cut it against the FireBlade, because the latest they could have started to design the Rl was 1994, that’s a full year before the ‘Ace was launched. This time the approach has been completely different.


Carte Blanche

Rather than design around existing components, rather than being asked to raid the parts bin, the designers, led by Project Leader Miwa, were given the rare luxury of a clean sheet of paper. They used that advantage, not just to redesign every single component, but in true Yamaha tradition, to introduce ground-breaking technology.

Having a huge R&D budget, a large design team, good test facilities and the backing of one of the most technologically enthusiastic corporations, may be the

right ingredients for developing a world class sportsbike, but having the right ingredients doesn’t automatically mean that you’re going to produce the best bike. Attitudes, the direction of development, egos and personalities are all a part of the equation. Fortunately the Iwata-based team seem to have got it right, because as you’ll see, they’ve come up with one of the most radical production sports bikes of all time, a package that now makes the ‘benchmark’ FireBlade seem fairly tame.

Are You Sitting comfortably?

You’re struck by the diminutive dimensions the first time you see the bike, npression that’s reinforced when you I a leg over it. Considerable thought has i into the riding position and contrary to Dst contemporary designs, the engineers have tried hard to keep the tank and frame leg-area as narrow as possible. With your legs less splayed, you’re in a more natural position, one that offers a higher level of control both at a trickle and flat out. The bar position is high enough to keep excess weight off your wrists, while low enough to afford control and keep you reasonably close to a full tuck. This is essential at speeds over 80mph, where the low screen succumbs to the forces of nature and spills wind over the top. The centre of gravity seems exceptionally low, making the Rl feel beautifully balanced, which is a positive feature that the Iwata factory have failed to achieve in recent years.




Crucial to the success of any new large capacity sportsbike is the engine. These days, although we’ve become accustomed to lOOOcc motors developing a combination of high torque and good peak power, due to legislative limitations, we’ve also grown accustomed to the fact that the delivery hasn’t been perfect. This has left the way clear for tuners, to find more power.

In simple terms, the factories have been forced to compromise on the ideal power curve by limiting performance at the points in the rev range where noise and emissions tests are done. Most impose the limitations by incorporating either electronic or jetting restrictions (or both). Yamaha have another card up their corporate sleeve, the EXUP valve. Basically, not only can the EXUP be used to simulate an alteration in the length of the downpipes for maximum performance throughout the rev range, it can also be used to muffle sound. Having an extra ‘tool’ to manipulate emissions and noise means that the designers can choose which facility to play with to ensure the least negative effect on performance, while meeting the legislative requirements.

Whether the EXUP valve has been instrumental in maximising performance, or whether conventional engineering in the exhaust and fuelling departments is responsible is almost immaterial, because the end result is that the big Yamaha’s fuelling is better throughout the rev range than any other large capacity mass produced bike so ^ far produced.


Squeaky Clean

You can select sixth (top) allow your speed to drop, and even with the revs below 2,000rpm the engine will drive j absolutely cleanly on a full throttle. I can honestly say that I’ve never ridd^j a production bike with such a clean pickup.

A whisp of power picks up, snowballing quickly from negligible revs, and as the needle sweeps pasf 7000 rpm, the already enthusiastic | plot turns into an avalanche. The flood of power that ensues isn’t as sudden as a FireBlade, the delivery has a wider spread and it’s also mdt| enduring, so that by the time it’s ? starting to tail off (just before plunging into the rev limiter at 1 l,750rpm) there’s in excess of 135bhp driving less than 180kg.

Punch And Stamina

Okay so the Rl’s delivery is smooth, but let’s face it, on sportsbikes smoothness is less important than raw punch. It’s sickening to admit it, but the fact is that Yamaha has come up with a package that combines both. The drive is like nothing yet produced in a road bike, because although the likes of the Super Blackbird develop an exceptionally strong mid-range, the top-end is comparatively lacklustre. The Rl’s characteristics are completely different. Crack open the throttle in first and if you’re not on the case, you’re likely to have the top yoke tuning-fork emblem imprinted on your forehead. In fact the delivery is so enthusiastic that it’s easier to clutch up wheelies in second, than it is to pull them off the throttle in first. Believe it or not, even in second it’s not essential to use the clutch, because the mid-range is still strong enough, with a tug of the bars, to pull the pointy-end airborne at an amazing 150kph (90mph).

Wheelies on the R1 were so easy during the photo sessions, that I actually felt as though I was cheating pulling them. Normally you have to work a bit at it – to take a few risks, and to get the launch just right to ensure that they’re long and high. With the Rl though, not only is it easy to get it up in the first place, but the strength and flexibility of the engine is so great, that you can travel the motorway, literally for half a kilometre at a time on the back wheel.

There’s no better real-life way of testing the strength, depth, flexibility and delivery of an engine, than by sticking the bike on the rear wheel and keeping it there. In this respect, no other production bike comes close to the Rl’s capability.


Twist And Turn

In general terms, the Rl’s handling is outstanding. Not, as you’ll see, completely without fault, but not far off. The strongest feature is ironically what has developed into a corporate blind spot for Yamaha in recent years, the front end.

Apparently Ohlins has had a hand in designing the inverted forks and not only do they look the part, they also seem to work rather well. Even so, my initial impression was that they were a little soft, diving a little more than I’d like on the brakes. This is something that, given time and facilities, I would liked to have messed around with, because you could probably have completely eliminated the dive with a touch more compression damping, or alternatively, slightly stiffer fork springs. Then again, I really am splitting hairs here, because the front absolutely revels in loading, it accepts brake right up to the apex, steers well under the right lever, and settles smoothly as you come off the brakes and onto the power.

On the mountain hairpins, where on occasion blind corners tightened, the front could be stressed safely beyond the norm, allowing you to turn the bike tighter and harder. The front end really does offer a ‘get out of trouble free’ facility when you get caught out and a vastly extended performance envelope when you choose to use it. The extra sag that the design team have built into the equation is also very noticeable, allowing the front wheel to track for longer on the power before lifting off and landing more smoothly once it’s in the air. Incidentally, one of the places it’s most in evidence is touching the nose-wheel down from fast wheelies, You’d think that with such a tiny wheelbase and tight rake the Yam would be prone to flap around a bit, but the long swingarm, combined with extra sag and predictable front Metzeler profile, seem to have damped out any potential problems. It was possible, by playing silly buggers to provoke the odd kick (say by landing a power wheelie on rough ground with the bars not straight) but you had to place it under extreme duress and it settled down more or less instantly. Far less nervous than many other sportsters.


Grip Grumble

The front may have been exceptional, but laying the power down at the rear was a problem, which is why the angles of lean on the pictures from all the magazines aren’t that impressive. Basically it wasn’t possible to combine max-dangle with hard throttle because the back would slide and spin-up almost straight away. The best way to ride the Rl was therefore to square off the corners and use the punch to drive the bike on the upright. Yamaha’s chief European tester, David Bean, took me to one side in the bar one night and asked for my opinion. Because the bike is generally so good, the only significant negative criticism that I could offer concerned the rear end grip. Although he tried to get me to specify a cause, I wasn’t willing to. You see, although I marginally improved drive out of corners by increasing the rear rebound two clicks, in adjusting the rebound I may have only been disguising the real fault -something that I couldn’t determine definitively with only three sessions of testing on an unfamiliar track. The other problem with cranking the rebound up is that, because the Cartagena racetrack is relatively slow (you don’t get out of third gear most of the way around) you can get away with running a lot of rebound. You see, on fast tracks when the bumps are arriving thick and fast, if you run a lot of rebound, the back end can’t recover fast enough and pumps itself down, the front goes light and you can (among other things) find yourself with stability problems. Either way it was easier to cite the aspects of the rear suspension that were clearly not at fault.

The springing was, for example, very good, hard enough to prevent squat, while being soft enough to ensure a comfortable and controlled ride. What’s more, the rear shock appeared to have more than enough of a range of adjustment, which meant that you could tailor the suspension to suit your particular needs. Again, without testing it’s difficult to make a definitive judgement, but my gut feeling is that the traction limitations had nothing to do with the bike perse, rather it was the characteristics of the new Metzeler MEZ3 tyres that were allowing the bike to slide early.

Naturally the German Metzeler representative steadfastly asserted that the new MEZ3 tyres are the most grippy, predictable and hardest wearing rubber in the history of motorcycle tyres – and got a mega strop-on at the honest and constructive suggestion that Yamaha could have done better (not that surprising really) but the fact remains that there was a grip deficiency.

It felt to me as though Metzeler had made an attempt to build a degree of Dunlop-type slide-ability into the rear, to make it more predictable at the limit. With the Dunlops though, the designers have only sacrificed a tiny amount of grip for a huge return in predictability, whereas it felt as though the Metzeler boffins had traded a lot more grip for the same control.

I’m conscious that I need to put all of this into perspective. The front Metzeler felt extremely good, combining a high level of grip, with absolute perfect stability. Moreover, on the road the early slide characteristics of the rear were barely noticeable and compared to the BT56 rubber fitted to the new Kawasaki ZX-9R, for example, the MEZ3 rear was very good. Similarly, if predictable slide and control was the aim, then they’ve achieved this, even if it’s at the cost of outright grip.



Yamaha’s new challenge for the supremacy of the supersports class has been more successful than even they could have imagined. They’ve gone from being totally out of the game, from not being able to get close to the Honda, to completely decimating it. No modern superbike can match the Rl either in terms of statistics, or on the road, I just hope that the first owners give themselves enough time to acclimatise to the wider parameters. No greater tragedy could occur than for rider excess to put a damper on the success of the bike. Either way, with the Fireblade, the ZX-9R and| the Rl all arriving within the next six weeks, we’re in for a hell of a treat in 1998.




Technical Highlights

Yamaha’s reputation for innovative engineering has been kept well and truly alive with the introduction of the RLThe engine weighs 9.5kg less and is 81mm shorter than the ThunderAce. The compactness has been achieved by positioning the gearbox mainshaft uniquely above, rather than in line with the crankshaft and by using a two-piece oil cooler and filter, ‘wired’ in series, instead of a longer one-piece ‘parallel wired’ unit.

Like the CBR600 before it, the top crankcase and barrels are cast as a single unit, the innovation is that on previous designs, iron liners have been pressed into the barrels. Thanks to a new casting process the R1’s barrels are all alloy with a patented ‘electrodeposited ceramic surface’.

Yamaha keep the 5-valve head design, but they have reduced the size of the valves to improve torque. To maintain top-end power the heads have reshaped inlet and outlets, as well as steeper valve angles. On the exhaust side, the EXUP valve (which alters engine back pressure manually) has been refined to operate progressively, and to take into account a whole new range of input including: throttle position, the speed that the throttle opens, crank speed and gear position.

As for the reciprocating components, the pistons are forged, the rods carburized and the mass has been kept to a pedantic minimum to enhance pick-up and reduce vibration.

40mm carbs take care of the fuelling, though surprisingly there’s no forced air induction, and the carb bank is 30mm narrower, allowing the chassis to be thinner.

A completely new aluminium twin spar chassis, using the engine as a fully stressed member is mated to a heavily braced alloy swing arm.

Yamaha have given the bike an extremely small 1,395mm wheelbase, but because the engine is so short, they’ve been able to use an extra long swing arm. Three advantages. Under acceleration the rear wheel moves up and back. The longer arm reduces the backward wheel movement, limits the effect of acceleration on squat, and also minimises overall machine pitch. This increases machine stability under acceleration and improves traction.

The 41mm, inverted, fully adjustable forks have extra stroke built in, but rather than using the additional travel purely on the compression side, the front has been set up to provide much more rebound travel, or sag. (45-55mm with the rider on board to be precise)The idea is that under acceleration the front wheel stays on the floor for longer.

Finally, stopping power is provided by Yamaha’s single-casting, rigid, one-piece calipers, a weight reduced development of the excellent ThunderAce brakes.




150bhp claimed

Twin spar aluminium Front: 46mm telescopic forks, fully adjustable Rear: Monoshock, fully adjustable

Front: Tokico six piston,

2x320mm diameter discs

Rear. Single 184mm disc

Front: 120/70-17

Rear: 180/55-17





19 litres

183kg (dry)


You can still enjoy these awesome bikes now, and owning a white and red original Yamaha R1 will turn more heads than a lot modern bikes. They are fairly rare now but there are still a couple knocking about, although the prices are starting to get interesting now…

This one is perfect

Another here too