Greatest Bikes in History: Yamaha YZF-R1

Greatest Bikes in History: Yamaha YZF-R1

While the classic Honda CB750 may have the claim of being the first to define superbike as we know it, the Yamaha YZF-R1 can claim to have redefined said definition.

Launched in 1998 with a red and white colour scheme, red seat and stunning graphics, the R1 came to make a mark on the superbike industry. There was a subtler blue version which has now become the staple colour scheme, but everyone remembers the red and white.

We can all thank Kunihiko Miwa for the R1, and the R7 and the R6 (not a bad claim to fame), as it was his genius that gave birth to the bikes. He is now the Senior Executive Officer of Yamaha, which is a testament to how well these three models did. However, it was the R1 who was the true hero.

Miwa did something unheard of at the time in the motorbike world, and that was to place the gearbox on top of the crankshaft, creating the world first “vertically stacked gearbox”. This meant the engine, a standard five-valve 998cc, could be lighter and shorter, which in turn allowed the chassis to have a longer swingarm, giving the bike better traction, but maintaining a superbike wheelbase. When it first arrived on the scene, it wasn’t only the 150bhp that made the R1 a step above its competition, it also outshone the heavier Fireblade (the bike to beat at the time) by weighing a mere 177kg when dry. The handling was lively, but outstanding and the sharp geometrical shape of the bike meant it was also beautiful.

A new kind of sports bike had arrived, and it had arrived in amazing style.

Original Specs

Engine:  998cc, inline four, 20v, DOHC

Bore x stroke: 74 x 58mm

Power: 150bhp @ 10,000rpm

Torque: 79ftlb @ 8,500rpm

Weight: 177kg


Changes Through the Years

As with any motorcycle, Yamaha made upgrades to the model throughout the years. Some to improve performance, some to simply keep up with the ever-changing market.

2000: Yamaha made more than 150 changes in its first upgrade. The most important was the titanium exhaust, alongside other weight shaving changes such as thinner mirror stems, and an altered shock rebound adjuster.

2002: The big advancement for this year was a fuel injection system. Using a vacuum controlled intake, the bike gained an even smoother response.

2004: By 2004, other manufacturers such as Suzuki were upping their game, so Yamaha had to pull out all the stops. And they did, producing probably one of the best superbikes ever made in the process. The company managed to produce the first bike the magic 1:1 power-weight ratio and new designs to the chassis and gearbox meant it was even quicker in the bends. This was the last bike to use the 20-valve engine too.

2007: Yamaha produced a whole new R1 in 2007, before doing it again in 2009. It dropped the 20-valve for a 16-valve system to increase low rev grunt, but not sacrificing top end speed. This would be the last model with a screaming exhaust note, as a cross plane crank came in 2009. It also becomes more manageable thanks to new ECU and adjustable suspensions.

2009: Two years after changing everything, Yamaha did it again. This time with the help of their MotoGP team and a cross plane crankshaft engine inspired by the racing machine. This means that the pistons move in an uneven 270-180-90-180-degree firing sequence and are not paired up, as opposed to the traditional two outer, two inner firing at 180-degrees. This reduces any fluctuations in the torque of the machine, giving better throttle response, improved grip and an increased drive.

2012: There were no great changes to this generation from the previous one, but Yamaha added a six-stage traction control and anti-wheelie (who would want that?). While they were not the top team on the track, they were still taking the roads by storm.

2015: This update came with tons of electronic gadgets to help the rider keep the R1 pointing in the right direction. It was also lighter, more powerful and more agile than ever before. Taking inspiration and cues from the MotoGP bikes, including forged magnesium wheels, the new R1 felt like a 600cc super sport. Until you opened the throttle to unleash the 197 horses running wild in the engine. Then you know you are on an R1.

2020: At the Laguna Seca, USA WSB round, in 2019, Yamaha announced the new 2020 machine. There are no substantial changes, but enough new gadgets to keep it fighting for the top spot on the road legal superbike leaderboard. Despite its ridiculous performance, it is still a road bike after all.

There have been many other changes done to the R1 throughout the years with replica versions and limited editions, but these are the most significant changes to the bike through its generations. Design changes such as changing the exhaust to an under-seat position in 2004 and then to just below the foot-pegs in 2015 were done to keep up with the changes in fashion more than the performance of the bike. Developments in new materials have meant the bike has been made lighter with each generation, but also more powerful with new technologies. Electronic rider aids have also helped the R1 become more rider friendly, and less of a bike for adrenaline seeking madmen as it was in 1998.


The Yamaha R1 will go down in the history books as one of the best superbikes ever produced, and by far the best motorcycle the company has ever produced. With many other classical bikes under its name, covering all aspects of riding, it is no surprise that Yamaha are able to keep the R1 competitive in this market, even after 20 years. And we are sure it will stay that way for many years to come.