Over the last decade there have been few bikes that really raised the bar and should be considered landmark machines. The 1998 Yamaha YZF-R1 was truly one of those bikes. The lineage continues today, but it all began with the first generation model that debuted in 1998 and ran until 2001. It was lightweight, powerful and a giant step ahead of its closest competitor.
Looking at its rivals of the day, the Honda CBR900RR was a good handling bike but its comparatively wimpy motor was nearly 20 horsepower shy of the R1. Suzuki was preoccupied with the superbike-bred GSX-R750 and was caught asleep at the wheel when the new R1 hit the streets, leaving the company with its overweight TL-1000R twin as the only Suzuki literbike in the showroom. Kawasaki on the other hand had a new ZX-9R out in the same year, but even with its comparable horsepower and huge weight loss over the old model, it couldn't quite match the Yamaha. In fact, it would take the competitors until 2001 to catch up with this "total package sportbike."
With a powerplant making 150 horsepower and weighing in at 419 pounds dry (448 pounds wet), it was the most powerful and lightest bike in the class. It was also the smallest; in fact, the diminutive setup was smaller than most 600s at the time. Yamaha claimed the wheelbase was an ultra short 54.9 inches, and even though the actual length was more like 55.5 inches, it was still much smaller than its competition.
With a bike this groundbreaking, you can bet Yamaha sold a lot of them. In the early days of the new model it was difficult to find one because dealers sold them as fast as they arrived and supply could not keep up with the demand. As you would expect with a bike this good, its popularity has lived on well past its normal life expectancy, and even today nice examples can be found roaming the streets and local tracks.
The Genesis five-valve engine sported a compression ratio of 11.8:1 and an 11,750-rpm rev limit as well as several unique design features such as vertically-stacked transmission shafts with the clutch positioned high in the cases. To save space, the water pump was located inside the engine cases, making repairs a nightmare if it failed. Anything that could be stacked or shrunk was in order to make the engine as tiny as possible. In fact the whole engine bay was quite packed, which made some maintenance items rather difficult. One look under the gas tank and you knew you were in for an afternoon of fun when it came time to change the plugs or re-jet the carbs...you do remember carburetors, right?
If you were old enough to be riding sportbikes back in 1998 you will know fuel injected motorcycles were not quite mainstream yet (the fuel injected R1 would not show up until 2002). So if you wanted to remap your bike's fuel curve, it meant pulling the tank, airbox and a bunch of hoses to access the carbs. Jet kits were popular for those of you that installed both slip-on and full exhausts. Others simply shimmed the carb needles and adjusted the mixture screws. Most riders who replaced the exhaust opted for full systems to get rid of the EXUP valve, which appeared to be more about sound reduction than maximizing exhaust scavenging.
The combination of re-jetting, a free flowing exhaust and the addition of an after-market air filter resulted in an easy 10 horsepower and the loss of 9-12 pounds as well (SR simply installed a Yoshimura stainless steel RS-3 Duplex system by itself on their test unit and gained 13 horsepower with no jetting changes!). The result was a bike that made power everywhere. With such a long-stroke engine configuration, the R1's midrange was unrivaled and these mods only helped things get better. Of course, the aftermarket world became ripe with go-fast goodies. Both Graves Motorsports and Yoshimura had drop-in cams and adjustable cam sprockets for $799 as well as ignition advancer modules that would get you in the 150-horsepower neighborhood when combined with more compression and a proper head porting.
All that torque meant that the front wheel would often be airborne, and the R1's 24-degree rake and 92mm trail steering geometry wasn't the most stable around. Thus, the addition of a steering damper/stabilizer is another popular modification.
Overall, the engine was bulletproof and other than the occasional clutch plate replacement, it required very little in the way of maintenance. The OEM Yamaha clutch plates and springs were usually preferred with Barnett also being another popular choice. The transmission was also a solid unit unless abused in which case you would likely experience the dreaded second gear jump to neutral while under power. When this happened, a bottom end rebuild was probably in your future.
Riders that were more interested in chassis improvements were not left out either. While the 4-piston front mono-bloc calipers already delivered class-leading braking, many riders opted for upgrades such as steel braided brake lines and aftermarket brake pads. If you wanted to go the full distance on brakes, Brembo had kits to convert your calipers over to radial-mounted models however, they were quite expensive. Those seeking better suspension often added aftermarket fork kits to the inverted forks with springs and internal valves while the rear shocks were usually replaced with aftermarket items from either Ohlins or Penske. Of course, Ohlins also offered full fork assemblies as well.
Even though the stock extruded beam swingarm was part of Yamaha's "controlled flex" in the chassis, a small group of industrious owners took the stock swingarm and welded aluminum plates between the lower beam and the upper brace in an attempt to stiffen the stock arm. If you had some extra scratch to spend, Harris made an ultra trick swingarm that looked as good as a factory part or better. Though few riders would admit it, the difference was not that great because the stock arm was sufficient for 95 percent of the riders on the street as designed by Yamaha.
While the fit and finish of the bike was high, the windscreen was quite low and the whole aero package offered little in the way of wind protection for anyone except the smallest of riders. So another popular modification was to fit a larger/taller windscreen in order to create a slightly larger pocket of still air for the rider to hide behind.
The seat was comparatively high in relation to the clip-ons, and to many riders that was a source of discomfort. So another common modification was the installation of Heli riser bars in order to ease the strain on the wrists and back. Though not a good track day solution, it did make longer days in the saddle a lot more comfortable.
The year 2000 arrived, and while we were all busy worrying about our computers crashing, Yamaha was busy releasing a new version of the R1 with a whole host of improvements in an attempt to keep it on top of its class. In fact, 150 total changes were announced, including a five-pound weight reduction and a broader, smoother powerband. While the bike maintained its razor sharp looks, the Y2K upgrades also included improved ergos with a new fuel tank shape sporting a 5mm lower top, more rounded slope at the rear and a few millimeters narrower width, and a steeper rear subframe angle with softer seat padding. Suspension improvements included revised damping rates and lighter fork springs, plus an all-new rear shock with different style adjusters. Inside the engine the new model got modified carburetion, improved camshaft lubrication, a taller first gear, lighter transmission gears, and a titanium exhaust canister.
The styling of the R1 was a definite trendsetter, and played a big role in its popularity. The dual cat eye headlights, sharp angular bodywork, and long swingarm/compact engine setup were design influences that still resonate today. Even today, the first gen R1 is a stunning bike, especially in the red and white paint scheme that seemed so rare at the time.
We also interviewed several current and previous owners of the bike and as you will see, they all had good memories of the bike. Ben in Shelby North Carolina said "It was the bike to have at the time" and "the lack of a steering damper is about the only real gripe I had about the bike. It was an extremely lively ride and the midrange grunt had the front wheel constantly coming up or skating along barely in contact with the road."
John Gratz of Fairview, Texas, tells us about one of his best memories on the R1. "One time a guy in Fast by Ferracci leathers on a Ducati 916 came up behind me on a twisty road and wanted to play. So I waved him by and then totally disgraced him by riding his back tire and then passing him in a corner. I waited for him at the end of the road to chat but he just kept going."
Stuart Smith (California Superbike School instructor of seven years) raced a 1998 R1 and said he found the bike "very confidence inspiring, comfortable and forgiving on the track". Even though he only raced it one season in 2001 it was a very reliable bike and the only problem he recalls was getting "hot foot" on long races due to the position of the exhaust in relation to his footpeg.
The mechanics we talked to had a slightly different opinion of the bike due to its compact design. Because the bike is so small and tidy, everything had to be buried behind something else. John France (former race mechanic for the Factory Ducati team in 2006) of Melbourne, Florida said, "If a guy pulls up just wanting the spark plugs changed he is going to be waiting for a while because they are a bitch to get to."
John also recalls rebuilding at least 10 of the transmissions for the aforementioned second gear problem. But even with these issues he is quick to admit that the bike was "generally a good bike with no major flaws" and that they "do hold their valve clearances well."
If you are in the market for a used R1, they range in price from $2785 to $3665 for 1998 models and $3285-$4320 for the 1999s. Step up to the revised Y2K model and the price jumps to $3585-$4715 and for the 2001 expect to pay $3700-$4865. (NADA price estimates) Of course prices vary wildly and we saw a few unmolested 1998s with asking prices much higher than the going book value.
The only major thing to avoid with this bike is the transmission issue discussed earlier. So if you are shopping make sure you get a test ride and check for this problem. It usually happens under load in second gear. Also try shifting from first to second gear under hard acceleration. If you feel any clunking or something that feels like the bike is jumping in and out of gear that is a sure sign that problems lie ahead. And of course if it completely jumps into neutral the gearbox is already toast. Repairs are expensive too, so just move along unless you can split the cases yourself.
Every bike has its day and clearly the day of the R1 was from 1998 to 2001. By the end of the Gen-1 era, the supply restriction was over and the bike was very popular. As of this article, the new 2009 R1s are just hitting dealer showrooms and the cycle starts all over again as Yamaha begins writing a new chapter in their history. This new chapter is one led by three-time AMA Superbike champion Ben Spies as he will be riding the '09 factory model in the ultra-competitive World Superbike series.