It wouldn’t be hard to argue that the litre sportsbike owes its existence to the Yamaha R1. The idea fell out of the mind of Kunihiko Miwa, from whose brain would later also spring the R6 and R7. The conventional thinking of the time was that big engines demanded a big bike, and while that recipe wasn’t without charm, Miwa couldn’t help but ask why.
Of course, that quickly led to another question: just how do you fit a 1000cc engine into a 600cc-sized bike?
The answer actually lies with the gearbox. By raising the input shaft above the output shaft, Miwa’s team had created a ‘stacked’ gearbox design that was much more space efficient and would soon be widely copied. It was mated to a derivative of Yamaha’s Genesis engine concept with forward-canted cylinders that continued the space-saving theme, while five valves per cylinder and the ubiquitous EXUP exhaust valve gave it excellent top-end power without sacrificing bottom-end torque. This new compact power unit meant that Miwa’s team could keep their shorter and sportier wheelbase while positioning the engine within the chassis for an optimised centre of gravity.
Honda’s Fireblade had had things its own way for too long, and when the Yamaha R1 made its debut at Milan in 1997, its 150bhp wiped the floor with the incumbent. Not surprisingly, the industry lost their collective minds, and what followed was a decade-long period of excess and one-upmanship that gave the world some of the greatest sportsbikes known to man.
The big four Japanese manufacturers were locked in a battle for supremacy; every other year, a major update arrived that promised more power and less weight in a frenzied struggle that felt it would never reach its crescendo. Each was a plastic-clad celebration of the engineering prowess concealed beneath, a two-wheeled cathedral built to worship the horsepower gods. Nobody needed 0-60mph in less than three seconds. And few could have asked for handling that was just as terrifying as it was terrific. But that’s what we got, and we loved it.
When the late, great David Jefferies used one to join the tiny band of riders to win three Isle of Man TT races in a week, the R1’s place in the history books was guaranteed. And there it remains to this day, a hero of an analogue age left behind by digital upstarts.
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