Yamaha YZF-R1 LE Limited Edition

Taking a page from the Euros, Yamaha creates Japan's most exotic, exclusive superbike to date.

Illustration by Wout Meppelink

Like all the best ideas, it seems obvious after the event: Take your top supersport motorcycle, tweak it for next season's Superbike battle as you do every couple of years--then go a step further to create a hotter-still model built in small numbers and sold at a premium price. The Italian manufacturers have been doing it for so long (Ducati has practically made an art form of it with its SP versions and the current S and R variants), the only surprise is that the Japanese haven't jumped in before now.

And with its 2006 YZF-R1 LE Limited Edition model, Yamaha has joined in at last. This ultra-trick R1 is adorned with such delicacies as hlins suspension, rear ride-height adjustment, lightweight Marchesini wheels and a slipper clutch, plus the extra power and revised frame of the '06 standard-model R1. The 500 LEs coming stateside promise serious performance, from the most exotic, exclusive open-class weapon ever to come out of Japan.

Yamaha had a great starting point with the R1, which has been so popular following its revamp two years ago that it's become the best-selling liter-size sportbike, with 50,000 units sold worldwide. Even so, the standard R1 has itself been revised for 2006, though the only tuning mods to the 998cc 20-valve engine are 5mm-shorter intake valve guides that reduce friction and boost airflow through better-breathing reshaped intake ports, plus recalibrated fuel and ignition maps in the 32-bit Mitsubishi ECU. Yamaha says those relatively subtle changes generate an extra 3 bhp, raising claimed peak power to 175 bhp at an unchanged 12,500 rpm (redline is similarly unaltered at 13,750 rpm). Peak torque bumps up from 77 to 80 pound-feet, the maker says. The tuning-fork firm also gave the engine a new camchain tensioner, a 5mm-longer mainshaft, and minor changes to the clutch and primary cover that improve oil circulation to the six-speed transmission. Of course, the LE model shares all of these changes.

In the press kit, Yamaha clearly identifies the latest R1's chassis changes as stemming from "WSB input to improve handling at corner entry and corner exit." It seems that although the R1 was capable enough to capture titles in both the '04 AMA and European Superstock classes, it has since found tougher going in World Superbike with another 40 bhp to put to the pavement. Consequently, the main updates to the standard R1's chassis involved fine-tuning rigidity--which doesn't mean simply increasing it. In fact, the cast-aluminum frame is slightly thinner between the steering head and front engine mounts; the resultant reduction in rigidity is claimed to give quicker turn-in and better front-end feedback.

There is a bit of beefing-up, though. The R1 gets a thicker bottom triple-clamp, stronger front engine-mounts, and the standard bike's 43mm Kayaba inverted fork has slightly stiffer inner tubes and marginally thinner outer tubes. At the blunt end, the swingarm--whose traction-increasing length has been an R1 feature ever since the first model eight years ago--is now a further 0.8 inch longer, stretching wheelbase to a longest yet figure of 55.7 inches, as well as putting more weight on the front wheel to improve grip during corner entry. Development team leader Makoto Shimamoto said the longer swingarm also permits use of taller and/or wider-section tires for racing use.

Still, it's in creating the LE model that Shimamoto and his team really went to town. Not with its engine, which gains little more than a slipper clutch and gold-colored silencers. Instead it's the chassis that gets the lion's share of improvements, starting with suspension from hlins. The 43mm fork, same size as the stocker's, is matched by a Swedish-built shock that has a hydraulic preload adjuster knob. The LE also gets a ride-height adjuster built into its linkage; adjustment span is 10mm. Unlike some of its competition, the R1 LE doesn't get an adjustable swingarm pivot.

Those neat gold forged-aluminum Marchesini wheels (in the same pattern as the ones on Rossi's M1 racebike) come shod with super-sticky Pirelli Diablo Corsas instead of the standard R1's Michelin Pilots. Each wheel saves roughly a pound in unsprung weight, benefiting both suspension compliance and steering quickness. Even so, the standard R1 weighs a claimed 381.4 pounds--2.2 pounds more than last year's model--and the LE is 2.2 pounds heavier again due to the hlins fork and the slipper clutch.

Not that I was worrying about an extra bit of weight (I'd had a light breakfast) as I climbed aboard the LE. The 500 units coming to the States will all be finished in Yamaha's brilliant yellow/white/black paint scheme, which will also be available on the standard R1. Yamaha insists on calling it Inter-Color, but it will probably be better known as the Kenny Roberts Replica. The LE's top triple-clamp also features a numbered plate, which read 000 in the case of this pre-production machine.

That added to the feeling of riding something extra tasty as I headed down the pit lane at Spain's Catalunya circuitThe Yamaha's immediately light and responsive feel thankfully helped to diminish nerves generated by the prospect of caning this ultra-exclusive, 175-bhp missile around a still partly wet racetrack, thanks to a series of thunderstorms and a trio of tornados. A few laps howling down the start/finish straight with the digital speedo indicating 165 mph and rising certainly got the adrenaline flowing. Especially as I knew the two remaining damp bends were the upcoming chicane and the following long right-hander, which had a couple of slippery-looking patches right on the normal racing line at its exit.

But the R1 LE took it all in its supremely sorted, well-balanced way, slowing fiercely with the aid of the unchanged and hugely powerful radial-mount four-pot front brake calipers, then flicking effortlessly right-left through the chicane, its outstandingly well-balanced feel helping me avoid a mistake. Some bikes are hard work to get turned for the second section, but the Yamaha always felt beautifully balanced and responsive as it cranked from side to side with minimal effort.

That light steering was welcome again moments later as I nudged the bike slightly to the right to avoid the damp patches before screaming it up the hill toward the next right-hander. Everywhere else the track was dry, enough so to get the R1's footrests dragging occasionally given the impressive grip of the Diablo Corsas. Cornering clearance wasn't a problem, though, and being tall I was glad of the reasonably roomy riding position that's even more welcome on the road.

Such is the handling prowess of any top modern supersport bike--including the old R1--that any chassis improvement is going to be difficult to appreciate until you fit slicks and start cutting competitive lap times. (Yamaha's World Superbike teams will perhaps appreciate the new model most of all.) How much the new, less-rigid frame helps the R1's handling poise is open to debate; same for the longer swingarm's contribution to the way it hammers out of turns with a welcome willingness to find grip and charge forward rather than wheelie and shake its head. Still, out on real roads, the trick suspension is bound to be a superb addition, as high-quality dampers such as these are able to deliver that often-difficult combination of plushness and control.

Likewise, the Limited Edition's handling edge over the standard R1 that I'd ridden earlier in the day was perhaps as much down to setup as the Swedish-made units' extra sophistication. But it's certainly true the LE flicked into turns and floated over track ripples and bumps with that fantastically sweet, ultra-controllable feel that only comes with seriously high-quality suspension. Likewise, coming into Catalunya's stadium section, the LE sliced through the final four right-handers as sharply as a Barcelona butcher's knife, with the throttle wide open as the bike accelerated over the finish line at a breathtaking rate.

Even so, a slight twitch entering some bends suggested the fork needed a couple of clicks of damping fine-tuning. The spots of rain on my visor toward the end of my first session, heralding another downpour, meant there was no chance of that, as I didn't get another dry spin on the LE. The damp track on my second session at least made me more appreciative of the slipper clutch, which possibly prevented the rear wheel locking a couple of times when I changed down a bit too soon going into a bend.

The R1's superb fueling certainly helped in the somewhat treacherous conditions. Apart from minor tweaking to suit the new intakes, the fuel injection is unchanged, so I wasn't surprised that throttle response was as sweet as the previous model's. There's a huge amount of midrange power on tap, which made riding relatively easy even with the track streaming wet. The power came in slightly abruptly as I wound it on in one nastily slippery, slow, downhill left-hander, but generally the R1 was impressively docile for such a powerful bike.

After the LE's aristocratic air the standard R1 could have been forgiven for feeling slightly ordinary. Not a chance. Although I got only a handful of laps before the rain started coming down again, the mildly tweaked inline-four did enough to show why its predecessor has been so popular over the last two years. Like the LE it screamed down the Catalunya straight at staggering speed, revving so quickly I could barely shift gears fast enough to keep up with the rev-warning light flickering on the neat digital dashboard.

Ultimately, this revamped R1's extra few horses and probable improvement in agility could give it a slight edge over the previous model. Shame the standard model doesn't get the ride-height adjuster, though at least it does share the LE's lap timer. And that King Kenny Replica paint job has got to be worth a second a lap, at least in the bar.

Whatever the color, it still remains to be seen if this latest iteration of Yamaha's standard YZF-R1 has what it takes to best not only Suzuki's incandescent GSX-R1000, but also the most recent revamp of Kawasaki's explosive ZX-10R. The Limited Edition R1 LE's importance, though, stems from more than just performance alone. No, it's a world-class standout because of its status as the most exclusive, most exotic open-classer ever to come out of Japan. And if the LE's performance does make it top dog in the literbike class, expect to see other manufacturers follow suit with their own limited-production models.

It looks like the biggest battle the sporting open class has ever seen is just getting started. MC

2006 Yamaha YZF-R1 LE
PRICE
MSRP $18,000
ENGINE
Type: l-c inline-four
Valve arrangement: dohc, 20v
Displacement: 998cc
Transmission: 6-speed
CHASSIS
Weight: 383 lb. claimed (174kg)
Fuel capacity: 4.8 gal. (18L)
Wheelbase: 55.7 in. (1415mm)
Seat height: 32.9 in. (835mm)

Graves Motorsports
Rx for your R1

Graves Motorsports is Yamaha's racing arm in the U.S., so they're the first one to call when you want to get some for your '04-'05 R1. Operations Manager Justin Shniderman rattled off a quick list of bolt-ons: titanium full exhaust ("Gets rid of the EXUP dip."), Power Commander, velocity stack kit, smog block-off plates ("They reduce popping on deceleration.") and a rear brake return spring ("Cheap insurance to make sure your rear brake doesn't drag."). If that's not enough, GM has all the usual suspects, from rearsets to crash bungs and everything in between. GM does have some accessories for previous-generation R1s, but they're more for competition use. www.gravesport.com or (818) 902-1942

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