2018 is the 20th anniversary of the first Yamaha YZF-R1. In the late '90s, the Honda CBR900RR made literbikes, including Yamaha's YZF1000R, seem woefully behind the times. Next to Tadao Baba's 900RR, the old-guard behemoths could no longer justify their weight and size. The CBR was the shot that started the war. The '98 R1 was the retaliation that was heard around the world.

The R1 carried motorcycle design and development into the new millennium. It turned literbikes into race reps. It redefined notions of Japanese design. It shaped desire by marrying technical innovation with beauty. The R1 was a legend from day one. Today, Yamaha continues the legacy of innovation as it endows its flagship machine with big ideas and high-tech features.

In 1998, design chief Kunihiko Miwa adopted Baba-san's virtue of "light is right" but wasn't content with sacrificing open-class levels of horsepower. The first-gen R1 weighed an astonishing 58 pounds less than its predecessor but made roughly the same horsepower—and close to 20 more than the CBR900RR. Its extreme geometry and shrink-wrapped bodywork made it about the size of a 600 with handling to boot. To sportbike lovers, the exhaustive level of change that it displayed made previous model updates seem lazy. After Yamaha released the R1, and the literbike wars were properly on, it was only a matter of time until worldwide racing regulations would reflect production trends; 1,000cc four-cylinder superbikes were the future of superbike racing.

If being an open-class machine in a supersport body wasn’t enough, Yamaha matched its dramatic performance with styling that changed the design language of Japanese sportbikes. And today’s sportbikes still look like the first R1: taunting tail in the air as if to say “catch me if you can,” narrow waist, angry “I-eat-Ducatis-for-breakfast” front end. Signature R1.

The first R1 looked edgy, beautiful, and desirable in a way only Italian sportbikes did at the time. Journalists mused you could park one next to a Ducati and Bimota and it wouldn't look out of place. And it was a heck of a lot cheaper and it needed valve adjustments only every 26,000 miles. A 916 would be on its way to its fourth by the time the R1 needed its first.

Here, we take a look at two decades of the Yamaha YZF-R1 and revel in its greatness.

Yamaha YZF-R1 1998–1999

1998 Yamaha YZF-R1 blue
At the ’98 international press launch in Alicante, Spain, journalists praised the R1 for its stable and quick handling, diminutive size, and prodigious power available right from idle. Check out the Deltabox II frame with its beautiful scalloped main spars that allowed for suitable steering lock.Yamaha
1998 Yamaha YZF-R1 sketch
In the real world, the R1 produced 129 hp at the rear wheel and weighed 419 pounds without fuel. It was lighter than every 600 supersport of the day except for the GSX-R600, which weighed just 7 pounds less.Yamaha
1998 Yamaha YZF-R1 engine
The first R1 was a marvel of mass-centralization.Yamaha

To shrink the engine as much as possible, the five-valve Genesis engine featured a unique stacked transmission in which the gearbox input shaft was placed above the output shaft. The water pump was also built into the cases.Yamaha claimed a supersport-sized 54.9-inch wheelbase with an extreme 24-degree rake and 92mm trail. With a shorter engine front-to-back, Yamaha was able to give it a longer swingarm without sacrificing the short wheelbase.

1998 Yamaha YZF-R1 red and white
Everything about the R1—from the Ferrari-esque circular taillights to the racy seating position—inspired comparisons to Italian motorcycles of the time.Yamaha

Before the R1 came around, Japanese bikes of the day—excluding homologation spec machines—failed to cultivate the swooning effect of bikes like the Ducati 916. The R1 shrunk the world and made Japan and Italy direct competitors in a new way.

Yamaha YZF-R1 2000–2001

2000 Yamaha YZF-R1
Yamaha worked hard to perfect the original R1 concept for the new millennium. Slightly more angular and aggressive, the ’00–’01 R1 looked as if its bodywork had been swept back in the wind tunnel.Yamaha
2000 Yamaha YZF-R1
Engineered to be 9 pounds lighter than the original.Yamaha

To save 9 pounds over the original (only to sacrifice 4 of those to the emissions gods), Yamaha said it reengineered 150 parts and changed 400 parts. So thoroughly designed was the first model that Yamaha had to pathologically search for ways to shave weight, such as famously reducing the number of bolts on the gas cap from seven to five, and ditching two buttons on the front brake discs. It also gave the bike a titanium exhaust can and a pair of magnesium side covers.

2000 Yamaha YZF-R1
I spent a lot of time as a teenager riding my older brother’s ’01 R1, so this generation has a special place in my heart. Its timeless look is more beautiful than any Japanese sportbike currently on the market, if you ask me. Shoulda held on to that one. What’s your favorite vintage?Yamaha

Yamaha YZF-R1 2002–2003

2002 Yamaha YZF-R1
For 2002, Yamaha’s goal was to refine the beast—for better or worse. Better in terms of ease of use; worse in terms of outright excitement. Electronic fuel injection replaced the old flat-slide carbs and tamed the early model’s characteristic aggressive power delivery.Yamaha
2002 Yamaha YZF-R1
In the handling department, designer Yoshikazu Koike, under the watchful eye of Miwa-san, relaxed chassis geometry, dialing in 11mm more trail for added high-speed stability.Yamaha

The all-new Deltabox III frame was 30 percent more rigid but decidedly more conventional looking. Yamaha also lifted the engine 20mm to promote easier direction changes. The addition of a steering damper helped quell the on-the-gas headshake common to the previous generations.

2002 Yamaha YZF-R1 tail
One of the most recognizable tailsections of all time?Yamaha

Yamaha YZF-R1 2004–2006

2004 Yamaha YZF-R1
Another clean-sheet design in 2004 helped Yamaha give the R1 an additional 20 hp all while slipping it diet pills.Yamaha

Ram air might have been the big marketing news, but a new engine with revised gearing and EFI changed the character of the powerplant more than anything else. The new higher-compression engine retained the five-valve head but received high-lift cams, a narrower included valve angle, and larger ports. Significantly, the engine became much more oversquare with a 3mm-larger bore and 4.5mm-smaller stroke. While this increased outright power, it came at the risk of a weaker-feeling low-end and midrange.

2004 Yamaha YZF-R1
The new frame was made using new Control Flow vacuum casting that allowed Yamaha to make thin-walled casting sections to reduce weight. The engine was canted forward an additional 10 degrees to allow the frame spars to sit above, rather than around, the engine to create the slimmest possible package.Yamaha
2006 Yamaha YZF-R1
In 2006, Yamaha released its first up-spec model, the $18,000 R1 LE (Limited Edition). The base model received subtle revisions, which the LE took advantage of, while adding premium components to match. In addition to a new slipper clutch, Yamaha tempted sportbikers by adding Öhlins suspenders front and rear and forged Marchesini wheels. Only 500 were destined for the US.Yamaha

Yamaha YZF-R1 2007–2008

2007 Yamaha YZF-R1
Electronics enter the scene.Yamaha

Yamaha debuted ride-by-wire throttle on the ’07 R1, but its biggest goal was gaining back some of the low-end grunt lost with its oversquare motor. Yamaha also had to overcome increasingly strict emissions controls. By dropping its signature five-valve per cylinder heads for a more conventional 16-valve setup, it was able to maintain the same bore and stroke figures of the previous generation. The most significant attempt at clawing back low-end thrust was by adopting variable-length intakes. Below 10,400 rpm, the longer velocity stacks helped low-end power, but revving past that number lifted the top portion of the velocity stack to provide the top-end rush the R1 was known for.

2007 Yamaha YZF-R1
While its genealogy is still apparent, the ’07 R1 adopted a more aggressive silhouette that didn’t inspire the near-universal lust of the previous models.Yamaha

Yamaha YZF-R1 2009–2011

2009 Yamaha YZF-R1
The sound of a new era. With its MotoGP-derived crank, the R1’s uneven firing order ushered in a new soundtrack of speed.Yamaha

The 270-180-90-180 firing interval not only sounded and felt different than any other inline four, but Yamaha claimed it improved tractability. Further leveraging its MotoGP know-how, Yamaha decreased lateral rigidity in the Deltabox frame to improve feel and increase grip on corner exits.

2009 Yamaha YZF-R1
Making use of that ride-by-wire throttle, Yamaha introduced three drive modes that tailored engine response—from most aggressive to least aggressive—to fit the rider’s preference or the riding conditions. The system worked by altering the amount the throttle valves opened in relation to how much gas the rider requested at the twistgrip.Yamaha

Remember the lengths to which Miwa’s team of engineers went to shave a few pounds from the original R1? It’s much easier to gain weight than to lose it. The R1 put on 18 pounds mostly in the engine. The crossplane crank was a bit heavier, a new counterbalancer shaft added some heft, and the engine used stronger cases.

2009 Yamaha YZF-R1
Some would say the first generations of R1s stood out by implementing Italian ideals of beauty but recasting them in a Japanese way. That’s not the kind of compliment most people paid the ’09 R1. Its alien-eyed front end and cluttered fairing missed the mark in terms of styling, unfortunately reneging on one of the R1’s signature strengths.Yamaha

Yamaha YZF-R1 2012–2015

2012 Yamaha YZF-R1
For 2012, the big change was the addition of traction control.Yamaha

The system didn’t use a gyroscope or lean angle sensors, but relied on its ECU to figure out how to apply TC based on changes in wheel speed, taking into account rpm, drive mode, throttle position, gear, etc. Other changes included slightly updated styling, updated rear shock spring rates, new footpegs, a MotoGP-inspired top triple clamp, LED position indicator lights, and reshaped muffler heat shields. In 2000, the R1 received literally hundreds of (much more exciting) changes. When the ’12 R1 was being designed, however, the financial crisis was at its peak. We were thankful for anything that was more than just “bold new graphics.”

2012 Yamaha YZF-R1 crank
Yamaha continued with its crossplane crank concept.Yamaha
2012 Yamaha YZF-R1
When Yamaha released ride by wire in 2007, the writing was on the wall.Yamaha

The next decade’s innovations would be in electronics. For a lot of motorcyclists, much of what made the first generations of R1s so exciting—what enticed them to buy a new model every two years—was the change of mechanical parts and the evolution of engineering philosophies that made each generation distinct in tangible ways. Early forms of electronics didn’t change the experience of riding a motorcycle to the same degree as a new firing order or massive weight loss. And they weren’t as intellectually exciting. It wasn’t until the next generation of R1 where electronics would enter a new plane of sophistication that would allow performance envelopes to be pushed once again.

Yamaha YZF-R1 2015–current

2015 Yamaha YZF-R1
For 2015, Yamaha completely redesigned the R1, taking not only the crossplane crank concept from the M1 MotoGP bike, but just about every other concept as well—from styling to electronics.Yamaha

The ’15 R1 brought Japanese literbikes back to the fore. The R1 could compete with the Italians, if not in the looks department, then certainly in terms of performance. The new engine weighed nearly 9 pounds less than the previous model and with a new Deltabox frame, magnesium subframe, cast magnesium wheels, and an aluminum fuel tank, the new model dropped an impressive 34 pounds.

2015 Yamaha YZF-R1 and R1-M
The current lineup comprises the YZF-R1; the R1S, a lower-spec version that forgoes some of the premium components for the sake of price; and the R1M, a top-spec model (much like the R1 LE of 2006) that features semi-active Öhlins suspension and carbon-fiber bodywork.Yamaha

As a clean-sheet design, the ’15 R1 was a superlative machine in much the same way early models were. It’s post-recession superbike bliss. Yamaha made a left turn with styling in order to emphasize the relationship to the M1 racer, rather than continue with the design that made it so iconic in the first place. It’s an attractive machine, though it doesn’t change the page on design like the first R1 did in 1998.

2015 Yamaha YZF-R1 electronic rider aids
The R1’s suite of electronic rider aids include traction control, power delivery modes, slide control, wheelie control, and launch control.Yamaha

The system was highly refined right out of the box. For 2018, Yamaha updated the quickshifter to feature auto-blip and up/down functionality. Impressively, across 20 years, Yamaha has been able to maintain the price of the R1. In 1998, the original R1 had an MSRP of $10,199, which is about $15,485 in 2018 money. The 2018 R1S has an MSRP of $14,999 MSRP and the R1 has an MSRP of $16,699.

For sportbike lovers, all literbikes manage to be special. The R1, however, has always gone about its business in a unique way: fighter plane styling, five-valve heads, variable-length velocity stacks, and crossplane crank bespeak Yamaha’s attempt to endow it with a strong identity that’s about more than just lap times. Here’s to 20 more years.