2002 Yamaha YZF - R1 - Souled out

The Yamaha YZF-R1 is my favourite motorcycle. I fell in love with a diminutive machine that was searingly powerful, razor sharp but had just enough flaws to be called character. It was above all, mad – it had trouble turning into fast corners, keeping the front wheel down and landing wheelies. A total hooligan which just blew away the Fireblade, the ZX9 and the GSX-R750 in 1998. The evolution of the R1 into the 2002 model, however, left my love stuttering indignantly.

Yamaha spoke of “jinba atai,”  – Japanese for man and horse must be one unit – as the design brief. Huh? Why not simply thrown down a 185 bhp gauntlet to that upstart (and very scary) Suzuki GSX-R1000?  The old R1 was a feline lighter than the rest, and in a world full of revvy, horsepower hung machines, she made more horses and had torque from low down. The chassis wasn’t quite as classy and it proved a flighty, tank slapping monster that could bite back. Most loved it, lots bought it, few could control completely and even fewer could wield it with authority. In a sense, sliding into the ’02 saddle, I was looking for a sign that my trust wasn’t betrayed, that the goop about man-machine unity actually worked.

When you recall the original’s lines, it’s hard to imagine stylistic evolution besides the garish YZF decal. It already looked sharper than a sarcastic tongue, more compact than a Swiss army knife and as eye-catching as a playmate. And yet, the new R1 takes your breath away. It makes the ’98 a wannabe in fake fur where the ’02 is the original in real mink. The black chassis, unadorned panels, mildly reshaped (and still distinctively R1) headlamps and austere, slashing tailpiece are just awesome. Its looks so good, it relegates many Italian machines (the long-standing style paradigms) to has-beens or couldn’t-bes. Who’d’ve thought? A Japanese machine that stops you dead with its looks alone. 

The changes only start there and to grasp the depth of the ’02 model, one must look at the Suzuki GSX-R1000. The big Gix caught other manufacturers between model years and moved the power benchmark a huge bound forward. In the face of the 165 bhp GSX-R1000, the R1’s defences were weak – just 2 more bhp from last year, 1 kg shed, fuel injection and jinba atai.

Yamaha despite having little experience in fuel injection, pulled off a coup. They employed CV carb-style slides for accurate fuelling and impossibly linear throttle response. They also gave the EXUP set-up two valves to speed the spent gases along. The result is eye-opening – thumb the R1 awake, warm her up and roll off, enjoying the smoothest throttle yet. Cruise at 40 in top and whack the throttle open and the result is seamless, linear thrust. No baulking, no jerks. Smooth as a carburettor, even.The smoothness extends to the power delivery as well. The ’98 R1’s madly stepped power delivery thrilled but caused problems. She was time-warp quick, but the feisty front-end didn’t help to gain track manner kudos. In contrast, the new R1 is a mature, big, cat. Acceleration is brisk from idle. By 5,000 rpm, you’ve transitioned into a rich
torrent of torque that will keep the digital speedo blurred. Stay on the throttle and the R1 will howl into the horizon in a rush of hard-hitting power that doesn’t tail off until well past peak horses, long after the blue shift light has flashed. The power is omnipresent, seemingly limitless and completely seamless. The clunky shift into the next gear is almost a dimensional change. 

The throttle response and flat, wide power spread were integral parts of the handling brief. Most of the chassis updates come from Yamaha’s four-cylinder superbike, the sublime YZF-R7. The R7 won races under the perpetually fighting, perpetually sliding Noriyuki Haga, despite being restricted by rules and out-cubed by Ducati, Honda and Aprilia V-twins.

The not-so-secret weapon was the R7’s handling – derived from the GP-racing YZR500. The R1 got the matt black aluminium twin-spar Deltabox III frame almost untouched and the R7’s weight distribution philosophy. The engine was raised 20 mm in the chassis to make the centre of gravity coincide with the roll centre – which helps the bike change direction. 

A reduction in the fork offset and suspension fettling ensured that the earlier R1’s handling flaws were gone. The R1 now can no longer resist quick flicks into corners or understeer at speed. In fact, it no longer needs a steering damper despite sporting the shortest wheelbase in its class. The rider is given more control on the bike than ever before. The handling has reached a peak that only the few lucky enough to have spent time with the fantastic R7 have experienced before.

Flicking into corners, it’s hard to upset the R1 in any way. Even when there is gravel or a stone, the bike just chucks it aside and holds its line. It’s civil and responsive and will make gods of good riders, and good riders of novices, all you’ve gotta do is get on! The suspension is pretty compliant for motorcycle this stable, poised and with this level road-holding. And its not even sportsbike-harsh at most times. 

It isn’t painful either, though the clip-ons were moved forward, and the pegs raised and moved back. You’re still over-the-top – typically aggressive R1 ergos – but half-hour spent shuttling up and down at slow speed for the camera isn’t painful. Even in a traffic snarl, you probably worry most about the climbing coolant temperature. And the slow roasting calf muscles.

Easing back into the parking lot, what hasn’t changed is obvious. The formerly blinding binders are no longer the best. They’re still amazing, but the R1’s contemporaries all have better brakes, though it’s hard to argue the point with the rear 180/50ZR15 Bridgestone hovering an inch off the tarmac without trying.

Parked, seated on the armco, my mind is a blur of thoughts. This bike isn’t half as mad as the old R1. It doesn’t fight you, is at peace with itself and it can do anything short of making dinner. While it isn’t as eye-widening as the big Gix, it consistently lapped 2 seconds faster than the Suzuki at Catalunya at a Superbike magazine test. Somehow, I am still torn between a ’98 and an ’02 bike in my garage.The ’98 stung the disrespectful and had a mad streak – had character. But that doesn’t apply to the ’02. Character is for bikes with little flaws like the notorious electrical glitches of earlier Ducatis. The 2002 Yamaha YZF-R1 isn’t quirky, it’s complete. It’s sorted, sober and capable of astounding physical violence. It lives. It has soul.

We’ like to thank Javad Pershan to allow us to experience his 2002 R1. Javad is a long-standing Yamaha fan and has owned, among others, a TZR250 and a RD500LC  which he still has, before picking out the R1.

Ashutosh, whose ZX7 we featured last month is having to part with his mint RD350LC, which has new bits all over. For more information on the RD350LC or the R1 call Zubin Ponappa at 9820325593.