First Ride: 2002 Yamaha YZF-R1

A little more rip, a lotmore refinement

When Yamaha's "new" YZF-R1 was unveiled at last year's Milan show, everyone wondered how Yoshikazu Koike and his design team-still under the watchful eye of original R1 Design Chief Kunihiko Miwa-would fare when reinventing what's arguably the world's favorite open-class sportbike. After a two-day test of the new R1 in sunny Spain, courtesy of 50 laps at the Catalunya GP circuit followed by a 200-mile day of real-world riding along Costa Brava and up through the foothills of the Pyrenees, now we know.

Conclusion? Rather than try to match the Suzuki GSX-R1000's horsepower and aggressive performance even in street guise, Koike & Co. have focused on weight reduction and increased ridability-and in so doing have given the R1 an aura of added refinement. Driven by the Japanese saying jin ba itai (roughly translated as "making man and machine as one"), Yamaha has focused on enhancing the R1's overall sophistication, as well as improving its handling beyond the benchmark standards the original R1 established way back in 1998 by combining the engine performance of a one-liter hyperbike with the chassis and handling of a super-sport 600. Sounds familiar, eh?

Although total claimed horsepower of 152 hp at 10,500 rpm is only a couple of ponies up on the previous-generation bike (and still some 10 to 15 hp shy of the GSX-R), it's delivered in a much smoother, more user-friendly way than its carbureted counterpart. First impressions can be misleading: You might think the new bike has lost some of its punch. But that impression goes away when you realize just how much cornering speed you carried through that last balls-out sweeper leading to Catalunya's pit straight, or how deceptively hard the R1 accelerated out of the third-gear left leading into a long right climbing the paddock hill-a corner you'd need to take in second on most open-classers to get the kind of muscular drive the R1 delivers as second nature once its midrange chimes in at approximately 5000 rpm.

Or how easily the 382-pound (claimed dry) R1 flicked side to side in the chicane, then drove hard up the hill that follows while holding the line you'd chosen without pushing the front 'round the long sweeper as you feed in the power as so many other bikes do here. Or the way the new 43mm Kayaba inverted fork ironed out the bumps the Formula 1 roller skates have left in various places without the bike shaking its head or flapping the bars in your hands (as its more nervous predecessor would most definitely have done) thanks to calmer steering geometry. And that's in spite of Koike & Co. lifting the engine 20mm in the twin-spar frame to promote easier directional changes through a reduction of the polar moment-normally a recipe for less stability, not more.

The completely revamped (but still unmistakably styled) fairing and bodywork offer a 20mm-wider nose section, which improves wind and weather protection to the rider's shoulders and head, the latter thanks to the reangled slant to the R1's snake-eye "face." But even with a wider fairing, the new R1 feels small and nimble; it remains a motorcycle you feel you can flick into a turn almost as easily as its YZF-R6 little brother. Except that now you feel much more a part of the bike, thanks in part to the revised riding position (clip-ons angled back and slanted downward, and footpegs moved back slightly), but also the narrower, resculpted fuel tank, which, at the cost of a one-liter (0.3 gallon) reduction in capacity, is much easier to snuggle up close to than its wider, bulkier predecessor. And though seat height remains the same, there's definitely less weight on your arms and shoulders, making the new R1 less tiring to ride.

Still, the main thing you notice while aboard the R1 is how much less aggressive the power delivery is when you open the throttle while cranked hard over in a turn. On the old carbureted R1 there was the typical sudden pickup of a set of flat-slides-an aggressive, vivid response that I'll admit to thinking could only get worse when I learned Yamaha had fuel injected the new R1. That's because the company's first attempt at sportbike EFI was fitted to the limited-edition R7 Superbike homologation special, one of the more flawed applications of point-and-squirt fueling in recent years. The R7 had an extremely snatchy pickup from closed throttle, which spelled potential disaster if you were unwise enough to crack the throttle hard while still cranked over. (Why do you think Nori-chan was so spectacular to watch backing his R7 out of corners two SBK seasons ago?)

I needn't have worried, because the new R1's suction-type EFI, with Mitsubishi engine-management system and 40mm Mikuni throttle bodies, plus a single injector per cylinder located beneath the throttle butterfly, has a smooth, precise pickup that allows you to accelerate much harder and earlier than on the old bike. That in turn encourages you to tip it hard on its side while trail- braking, using the excellent grip of the front D208 Dunlop specially formulated for the new R1 to keep up corner speed, and then feed the power in a good deal more decisively than you might otherwise have done if you were forced to pull the bike upright earlier and wait for the EFI's fierce response to kick in as you opened the throttle. In fact, the cold track conditions at Catalunya meant the rear Dunlop still slid around quite a bit, but these were controllable slides thanks to the smoother power delivery of the revised 20-valve motor, and the forgiving nature of the Anglo-Japanese rubber.

What this translates to out on the street is a fluid but forceful riding package that allows you to cover distance every bit as fast as on the older bike, but with added comfort and a sense of purposeful refinement that, once again, makes the new R1 simply less tiring to ride harder, longer. It's still just as fast as the old bike-faster, in fact, with the same gearing and an extra 500 rpm available on top, before the 11,800-rpm rev-limiter kicks in, with the fuel-injected engine now holding the power beyond its 10,500-rpm peak. This over-rev allows you to hold a gear between hairpins climbing a twisty mountain pass, or scooting between turns along the Costa Brava coast road, where by sticking the R1 in third gear for long stretches zapping between bends alternately flanked by a sheer rock face or a stunning view of the Mediterranean Ocean, I suddenly realized I was riding what amounted to a true twist 'n' go hyperbike.

Where the new R1 undoubtedly comes up short compared with the Suzuki is in top-end horsepower. But in terms of real-world road riding, the Yamaha is almost certainly still The One, with even more user-friendly street manners than Honda's previous-generation CBR929RR. As a track-day bike it'll probably take the arrival of ram-air induction further down the line for the R1 to rival the balls-out engine performance of the GSX-R1000-that and the ability to jack up the rear end via a ride-height adjuster, whose absence on the new R1 I find quite inexplicable. It can't be for cost reasons, so why not give the rider the option of sharpening chassis balance for track use? Koike says it's possible to drop the front end by up to 15mm to achieve the same purpose ("but please be careful of front wheel clearance against header pipes!"), but not only is that a longer, more complicated job than simply raising the rear end, it may also impact cornering clearance, which at the moment is faultless; nothing touched down on either side at Catalunya. With its more conservative steering geometry, the new R1 is slightly but still noticeably heavier to lay into a turn than its predecessor, especially on the brakes where it needs a decisive hand to make it crank over and stay there. Having the option of steepening the effective head angle by lifting the rear would have been welcome without, I feel, making it unduly twitchy.

The payoff for all this, however, comes when you hit a bump hard on the gas, and the superior compliance of the new Kayaba fork (modified internally to reduce the stroke by 15mm to 120mm), coupled with a stiffer spring rate on the Soqi rear shock, results in much greater front-end composure and a less unduly exciting ride. When the first R1 was launched four years ago, I complained bitterly that there was no steering damper fitted; this was a bike fond of doing the shimmy-shimmy shake-shake under power. Happily, that need has been completely eliminated on the more composed R1, which in the many places at Catalunya where its forebearer would have flapped its front wheel was instead completely and impressively composed. The added refinement brought to the fuel-injected motor has clearly been extended to the chassis.

And to the brakes, also. Yamaha's benchmark four-piston Sumitomo one-piece calipers gripping 298mm Tokico discs (whose smaller diameter results in less unsprung weight for better suspension compliance, reduced gyroscopic effect and thus easier steering) have been upgraded: They're lighter, and now have aluminum pistons and sintered pads. Although at first it seems you don't have as much bite as on a set of 320mm Brembos or the 954RR's massive 330mm Nissins, it's not borne out by the R1's stopping power, which allowed me to brake every lap at the 200-meter board at the end of the Catalunya pit straight with no fade. Impressive, and reassuring. You do have to squeeze a little harder on the lever than on a Brembo package, for example, but not enough to be taxing and for sure without the risk of locking the front wheel if you do so, as has happened to me on Brembo's snatchy new four-pad package. The payoff comes on the streets, too, where there's excellent modulation if you just want to stroke the five-way adjustable lever to shave off a little speed. Very satisfying, very refined.

Parked atop the digital speedo is a shift light, a bright junior searchlight aimed straight at your face. Its intensity can be adjusted and it is a straight carryover from Yamaha's GP bikes-and Haga's R7 World Superbike contender. It can be set to flash anywhere you choose from 7000 rpm up to 11,500 rpm, and is a great track-day tool where you might be worrying too much about other loonies around you, or learning an unfamiliar circuit, and trying to watch the tach to know when to shift. And speaking of shifting, you'll appreciate the new R1's smoother gearchange, which is less notchy than its predecessor's in the first three gears-a big improvement.

Those last three words apply to the new R1 as a whole. It's more well-rounded and refined than any of the previous R1 iterations, though it does dispense with some of the raw-edged thrills of the original bike. OK.there'll be some customers who'll deplore the fact that Yamaha has arguably taken the Honda route in making the new R1 more refined and livable. But in doing so, Yamaha has combined what I feel are the best traits of its competitors: the refinement of the Honda, and the sharp-edged chassis performance of the GSX-R-all with what I feel is plenty of useable horsepower. Time for a comparo, then?