What’s Next For Yamaha’s Extraordinary YZF-R1?

Twenty-one years and counting...

Yamaha YZF-R1
When will sportbike buyers be treated to a next-generation Yamaha YZF-R1? The final stage of this production machine could be one in which a streetbike may be given electronics superior to the “control” stuff policed by Grand Prix racing.Courtesy of Yamaha

The development of Yamaha's compact, lightweight YZF-R1 liter-class sportbike covers the entire transition from the era of manual control—yes, it had carburetors!—to the sophisticated electronic systems of the present. This trail was blazed by four-stroke MotoGP roadracing, which began in 2002. Its big discovery was that raw big-inch four-stroke engines were extremely hard to ride, even for Grand Prix stars. Big numbers did not win races. Podium finishes went to riders who were given the most usable power.

For this reason, early MotoGP engines were really “pulled punches.” To make those 990cc engines rideable, they at first had to be quite mildly tuned. As strategies were developed to shape horsepower into a more usable tool, those strategies were applied to the R1 production bike.

This has always been the story of high-powered motorcycles. When the stock output of 1970s four-stroke production bikes was doubled to 150 hp for Superbike racing, only exceptional professional riders could manage their scary handling. Change was coming fast; the next 15 years saw the tire, chassis, and suspension lessons of racing applied to production bikes. By 1998, that enabled Yamaha to offer that very same claimed 150 hp—but now in rideable and civilized form—as the 998cc YZF-R1.

R1 was hailed for “handling like a 600 and feeling as small as a 250.” That agility and compactness resulted from Yamaha’s “triangular” engine. In former times, crankshaft, countershaft, and gearbox output shaft were lined up in the split between upper and lower cases, making engines quite long. But in R1, Yamaha applied the vertically stacked transmission shafts seen in 500cc GP racing in 1984, with the centerlines of the three shafts defining a triangle. This allowed a short, quick-steering wheelbase (54.9 in.) together with a long swingarm and a forward engine position. The value of vertically stacked gearbox shafts was underlined by the other manufacturers who have copied it.

Each time R1 has been revised since then, the emphasis has reflected the new tools and needs of the time. The 2001 changes emphasized rideability: a smoother and broader powerband, and a very high level of cornering performance.

1989 Yamaha YZF-R1
R1 lead engineer Kunihiko Miwa aimed to produce an extreme supersport-spec literbike that felt and handled like a 600. Stated numerical goals were 150 hp at less than 397 pounds. Miwa became known as “Mr. No Compromise,” and the slogan became “control the raw power.”Courtesy of Yamaha

A full redesign came for 2002: fuel injection, a stiffer chassis, and optimized anti-squat at the rear, allowing use of more steering trail. A big jump in power arrived with the shorter-stroke 2004 R1—up 15 percent to a claimed 172 hp at 25 percent more revs—12,500 rpm. The bike was made stiffer and lighter.

Detail changes followed in 2006, with a big jump in ’07 to 16 rather than 20 valves of the YZR-M1 MotoGP bike on which Valentino Rossi had been champion in 2004–05. Now MotoGP throttle by wire was adopted, a technology which, by computer-driven throttle modulation, a more highly tuned engine can be made to act and feel like a more docile one. This opened the door to increasing engine power.

yamaha triangular engine
Key to the R1’s good handling was its “triangular” engine, meaning that crankshaft and gearbox were no longer inline but now occupied the apices of a triangle. Step-by-step, the Yamaha YZF-R1 has adopted innovations found useful on the MotoGP-winning YZR-M1.Courtesy of Yamaha

In 2009, the conventional “flat” 180-degree crank was replaced by the 90-degree “crossplane” design used in the M1. One result was a “much better” drive out of corners and another was Ben Spies’ World Superbike championship with 14 wins. The theme of mass centralization, which lightens the feel of a machine in rapid maneuvering, was continued.

Another complete redesign followed in 2015, allowing R1 to reach a claimed 200 hp thanks to altered 79.0 x 50.9mm bore and stroke, closing in on MotoGP’s limit of 81.0 x 48.5mm. Peak revs were now 12,750. This bike reflected a change in society: Crowded highways now limit the enjoyment of riding, motivating sportbike owners to attend track days with their specialized machines. This has allowed further sharpening of R1’s high-performance focus.

The bottom line is that the R1 production bike has rapidly converged in technology and capability with its long-time “teacher,” MotoGP. Who is the teacher now?

Fracture-split titanium connecting rods became standard on the R1M variant. Electronic management was simplified by merging engine and chassis ECUs into a single unit. Selectable riding modes, wheelie control, lean-modulated traction control, and a quick shifter were all made programmable. Lean angle and pitch detection now became the job of an on-board Bosch Inertial Measuring Unit (IMU), a tiny implementation of the inertial guidance systems originally developed for space flight. Engineer Hideki Fujiwara, serving with the R1 program since its beginning, said that the production IMU provides 90 percent of the functionality of its MotoGP equivalent.

Changing the engine character or handling of a sports motorcycle in 1998 required parts, wrenches, and specialized skills. R1 has rapidly evolved into a vehicle that can be intimately tailored to its rider’s style and needs by user programming of its systems.

The bottom line is that the R1 production bike has rapidly converged in technology and capability with its long-time “teacher,” MotoGP. Who is the teacher now? The managers of MotoGP, to promote closer competition, have frozen the development of electronic systems by adopting a spec ECU and software, the same for all competitors.

No such freeze applies to production bikes, which are free to evolve in any useful and affordable direction. They will in time leave MotoGP behind, as a historical snapshot of technology as it was 10 years ago.

Ben Spies
Ben Spies won the World Superbike championship in his first and only attempt in 2009, finishing first in 14 of 28 races. The American remains the only rider in the history of the series to capture the title on a Yamaha. Dutchman Michael van der Mark has one victory this season.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

Yamaha is rumored to be preparing to reveal the next step for R1. Speculation as to what that will be is easy to find. Here is a menu of possibilities:

  • Variable valve timing, as with BMW's ShiftCam, to meet tightening emissions standards
  • Seamless-shift or DCT transmission
  • Gasoline direct injection (into the combustion chamber, not the intake)
  • Motor-adjusted ride height
  • Digital damping control
  • A reverse-rotating engine, which was pioneered by Yamaha on the YZR-M1 but so far for sale only from Ducati in its V4
  • Radical fairing winglets
  • And finally, adopting MotoGP's hallowed bore and stroke of 81.0 x 48.5mm. Or maybe two engine sizes, one at the 1,000cc limit for World Superbike homologation, and one enough bigger to make class-topping horsepower easier to make and manage.

Yamaha’s original YZF-R1 was developed by a group of 50 engineers, so there is surely no shortage of ideas. Right now, Yamaha’s World Superbike team has begun to win races against the Kawasaki of four-time series champion Jonathan Rea and the four-cylinder Ducati ridden by Álvaro Bautista.

Is Yamaha about to reply in kind to Ducati’s MotoGP replica?