Yamaha has made good use of the vast sums of money and resources it annually invests in roadracing’s premier class. Technologies developed and proven through its championship-winning MotoGP program have provided a steady stream of advanced features found in recent YZF-R1 sportbikes. For 2009, Yamaha continues the trend with the latest R1, which now employs a YZR-M1-derived “crossplane” crankshaft that shares the 270-180-90-180-degree uneven firing interval of Valentino Rossi’s works racer.
I traveled to Sydney, Australia, for the R1 world press launch staged at Eastern Creek Raceway, a former venue of the Australian Grand Prix. The technical presentation was opened to the soulful roar of a decidedly different exhaust note pumped into the room through a pair of large stereo speakers. While the latest R1′s staccato beat is unlike that of any inline-Four I’ve ever ridden, I wasn’t alone in finding its coarse cadence reminiscent of the sound made by a V-Four. The similarity held true for the tactile sensation that the R1 engine’s oddly spaced power pulses delivered at lower rpm the first time I engaged the cable-actuated clutch. I knew I was in for something different when I headed down pit lane for my first of five 20-minute riding sessions.
Yamaha’s goal with the altered firing order and increased crank/counterbalancer mass was to improve tractability while delivering a greater sense of connection between the twist grip and rear tire grip. On the latter point: Euro-market stock-fitment Michelin Pilot Power radials (U.S. bikes will come with Dunlop Sportmax D210 Qualifiers) were used during the morning sessions. We later switched to stickier Michelin Power One DOT race tires for the remaining three afternoon sessions. On street rubber, elevated track temperature brought on by Australia’s mid-summer heat caused the rear 190/55ZR17 to step out quite easily, yet controllably, under hard acceleration. Surprisingly, caution was also required when tipping into corners; the rear would skate sideways, despite the bike’s use of a slipper clutch.
Ideal conditions, it turned out, to explore another new R1 feature: D-mode. A right-handlebar-mounted toggle allows on-the-fly drive-mode selection between three different levels of engine response, labeled from most aggressive to least: A, Standard or B, as displayed on the LCD instrument cluster. Contrary to the multi-mode systems from other manufacturers, Yamaha’s never cuts peak power by altering ignition or fuel maps, but rather simply tempers throttle response on the Yamaha Chip Controlled Throttle ride-by-wire system, adjusting the rate of throttle valve opening in relation to twist-grip movement. The A mode delivers a sharp, nearly one-to-one response ratio, and the increased throttle sensitivity requires the rider’s A game to get the most out of that one! Standard feels quite normal, while B mode softens response a step farther without being overkill.
In fact, during stock-tire hot-lapping, the B setting eased the task of managing the rear tire’s limited grip, both mid-corner and on exit. This allowed earlier throttle application and reduced risk, which actually enabled me to match the drive of Sport Rider magazine Editor Kent Kunitsugu, but without the slip-n-grip drama of his bike running in Standard mode. I believe the forgiving nature of B mode will prove very useful not only for riding in the rain but may become my preference for general street riding.
Since this was a track-only intro, I put in a number of laps cruising at a simulated street pace and found engine vibration to be comfortably mild at freeway speeds. Driveline lash was minimal, while ample midrange torque is available during roll-ons, which should negate the need for a downshift when pulling out to pass a string of cars. The best news, though, is that there were no hiccups or fueling issues like those we encountered on the 2007 R1, the first year Yamaha applied its ride-by-wire fuel-injection system to the Open-classer.
The airbox still houses the Chip Controlled Intake variable-length velocity stacks that debuted on the ’08 model, but showerhead secondary injector nozzles, an R1 first, are used this year. Power delivery is nearly seamless from low revs to the 13,750-rpm redline, accented by a subtle top-end rush that comes in around 8500 rpm and flattens out beyond 12,500 rpm. Peak power output for the Euro-market R1 is said to be unchanged from that of last year’s bike (153 rear-wheel hp on the MasterBike dyno), while R1s sold in the States for 2009 make 6 fewer horsepower than the European machine due to the more restrictive muffler required to meet our noise regulations. Some may find consolation in the fact that color-and-graphics options exclusive to U.S.-spec bikes made many Euro journalists envious.
Things got more interesting after lunch with the additional grip of race-spec rubber and firmed-up suspension settings, both of which provided a more telling sample of the revised chassis’ cornering capability. I pushed braking deeper—thanks also to the awesome front brake setup—and my corner speed rose. As confidence swelled, I began flicking the bike into corners and exploiting the superb cornering clearance. This resulted in the toe sliders of my Alpinestars boots dragging in nearly every turn. No worries, mate! There was an easy fix via a second footpeg position that’s 15mm higher and 3mm more rearward. This comes in addition to an already more compact peg/seat/handlebar rider triangle that has closed the distance between bars and saddle by .7 inch compared to last year’s bike.
Extra grip meant utilizing A mode had become a viable option, although, truth be told, I found the Standard throttle-response setting less taxing, both physically and mentally, and my lap times remained comparable between the two. As the day wore on and I got much more assertive with the brakes and steering inputs, I became more aware of the 18 additional pounds the new 454-pound-net R1 is packing. The engine—with its beefier crankshaft, addition of a counterbalancer shaft and strengthened cases—is said to be a primary source of the weight gain. To counter this, efforts were made to improve mass centralization by lowering the fuel tank sump, as well as adopting a cast magnesium subframe to support the tail and high-mount titanium mufflers.
The new Deltabox frame (now with ECU-controlled steering damper) and swingarm combo borrows from YZR-M1 chassis development by featuring a substantial reduction in its lateral rigidity. This is said to improve stability, handling and traction on corner exits. The bike I rode at Eastern Creek displayed a modest amount of wallow and wiggle driving out of corners, particularly on the race tires. It could be related to tire choice or a matter of further tuning of the fully adjustable SOQI fork and shock. But I’ve also found that the steering damper can be at the root of the problem. Hydraulic dampers—electronically controlled or not—are great for quelling violent headshake, but sometimes stiction can induce this kind of mild unwanted movement. Overall, though, the chassis imparts an excellent sense of feedback and stability, which, coupled with the more-intuitive connection between the throttle and rear contact patch, has made the rarified performance of liter-class sportbikes more accessible and easier to manage than ever.
With that, the R1 embodies an authentic heartbeat of MotoGP, beyond just its firing order. It is the latest evidence that the shift from two-stroke 500c Grand Prix bikes to today’s four-stroke racers was sound in terms of advancing the performance of street machines. Think of the $12,390 purchase price as your personal investment in MotoGP racing’s future.