When Yamaha released an all-new R6 for the 2006 model year, not only did they give consumers the finest combination of chassis and suspension ever offered in the supersport class (see our 2006 Supersport Shootout), they gave their race team the perfect weapon with which to contest the 2006 AMA Supersport championship - a weapon Jamie Hacking wielded in dominating fashion, to clinch said championship two rounds early.
With Yamaha's recent announcement that they will return to the AMA Superbike class in 2007, combined with the pending release of the 2007 R1 (see our preview article here), the question on everyone's mind has been: can they do it again? That is, can Yamaha release an R1 whose handling and suspension blows the rest of the superbike class out of the water, just as they did in the supersport class with the 2006 R6? If so, this would give Yamaha (and their factory racers) the modern equivalent of Daisho - the matched pair of long (Katana) and short (Wakizashi) swords carried by the long-ago Samurai, and considered the ideal pairing of weapons for battle.
I just returned from the US press introduction for the 2007 R1 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca near Monterey, California (site of the USGP), where I had the chance to spin approximately 40 laps aboard Yamaha's all-new liter-class machine. While a more complete 'First Ride' impression will have to wait for a few days (we're still waiting to receive photos from the event), I wanted to give eager readers a quick impression of how the bike felt.
Improvements to the chassis (concentrating on the concept of 'tuned flex', where some areas are made less rigid while others are stiffened, or rigidity is made greater in one direction and lesser in another) and suspension (similar to those made to the R6 in 2006) have paid off with crisp, fluid handling - quite similar to that of the R6, in fact. The new R1 inspires confidence in every part of the corner, and the front end in particular offers such impressive feel that the rider inspired to brake later, turn in harder, and carry more corner speed than at first seems possible. While the R1 obviously has a somewhat heavier feel than the R6, it feels light for a literbike, particularly during direction changes - the minor weight gain over the previous model is entirely unnoticeable to the rider.
Yamaha engineers faced competing challenges in designing the new R1 motor - as with every redesign, they were expected to build a mill more powerful than that of the previous generation bike, but at the same time, the 2007 model needed to run much cleaner in order to conform to strict new emissions standards. To overcome these obstacles, Yamaha has abandoned their traditional five-valve per cylinder design in favor of a more mainstream four-valve setup, which allowed a significantly higher compression ratio. These changes, along with the new variable (two-stage) intake-tract system (which switches the length of the intake tract at a preset RPM), helped the new R1 make a claimed 5 more peak horsepower than the outgoing model, while at the same time producing significantly more mid-range power and torque - an area where the previous R1 was generally considered to be weak.
'Weak' is certainly the farthest term from your mind when describing the powerband of the 2007 R1, which delivers a very impressive mid-range in an extremely smooth and progressive manner (smooth delivery is aided by Yamaha's YCC-T 'throttle by wire'), making it surprisingly user friendly for such a powerful motorcycle. The R1 continues to pull hard all the way to redline, but unlike the previous model, the new R1 can make rapid progress even when short-shifted in a more relaxed manner.
Overall, this is one of the most user-friendly, easy-to-ride, and least intimidating liter-class bikes I've had the chance to ride. I typically dislike riding liter bikes on the track, preferring the quicker turning and friendlier power delivery of 600s. However, this is one liter bike that I enjoyed immensely, as it honestly felt a lot like a 600 in terms of handling.
The Pirelli Diablo tires worked flawlessly as well, but in the end, there's only so much power and torque you can feed into the small contact patch left by a rear tire at extreme lean angles - as I found out to my detriment when I got overly aggressive with the throttle exiting Laguna Seca's Turn 3 . . . paying a visit to the gravel trap. Of course, the crash was entirely a result of rider error, and if I hadn't broken my thumb, I would have been right back out on the new R1 - a literbike that still demands respect, but is more rider-friendly than ever.
Stay tuned for a much more in-depth impression in Part 2 (with photos!)