The original 1998 R1; Lion or Pussycat?

When people talk about milestone bikes, the original Blade, the 916 and the R1 always get a mention – hence there’s been an awful lot written about the original R1, and a lot of it (in my humble opinion) is wrong. You’ll read a lot about a bike that’s a bit lairy, a bit scary and not for the faint hearted. I’m not of this opinion. It doesn’t get near the truth – this bike is a dream to own, and as special today as it was when it was launched, but in a totally different way…

the 1998 R1 we use to create bugsplats for testing – perfect tool!

I love Yamahas. My first job was odd job boy at a Yamaha dealer in 1984, so when I started riding I soon ended up a serial LC/YPVS junkie and then ‘matured’ on FZR’s, Thundercats, Thunderaces.

1997 – Yamaha are standing still. The Thunderace was it’s porky and awkward answer to the lightweight all conquering
Fireblade and SRAD 750. I had always loved Yamaha for it’s innovation and edginess. In 97 I couldn’t see any of it; I was miffed by this.

And then came the rumours of the R1. The first spy shots in MCN looked like something really special was brewing.

The first R1 I saw was around spring 1998 – in the warm light of a sunny evening, sat a brand spanking new, fresh from the dealer, white and red R1.

From the devils own eyes that scowled out of the tiniest nose fairing to the tailpiece that looked like it would slice your finger on it’s extremity, this R1 was shockingly gorgeous – seductive, impossibly beautiful and whilst the bike was tiny, every component looked like it was made bigger, stronger and more purposefully than anything before.

The result of this first encounter was a simple but profound reaction. I welled up, just a little.

It took me 7 years to get my own one. Bog standard and needing a little TLC, but just the one owner and full Yamaha Service History.

I had never ridden one on the road before, and after all the talk of twitchy handling and violent reactions to rider input or poor road surfaces, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had a bike that displayed no more than a few little “idiosyncracies” – nothing too dangerous at all.

The fearsome reputation of the original R1 has as much to do with it’s peers, as to what it was actually capable of; ride it back to back with a Thunderace and you’ll think they were from different planets, let alone part of the same sportsbike lineage.

True, you should be afraid of sharp inclines that end in a crest if you are accelerating hard – it is a short bike and it will smack you in the
chops with some vigour, but is that a fault? I’d argue not really. It just needs care; appreciate the issue and deal with
it. I prefer to call it “engagement”, and backing off just the right amount to get a floating front wheel and not concussion is ultimately rewarding! (I am often laughing inside my lid at moments like this – it makes you feel really bloody naughty!)

There’s another important point about the better-than-expected manners of an original R1, and that’s the benefits of modern rubber; through the 3 sets of tyres that I’ve had on it, with each piece of new Tyre technology the original R1 just gets better. I had an unidentified set of sports/touring Pirelli’s on it when I bought it, and there was no feel or connection with the road. They’d been on a few years as the bike had been stood for a while when I bought it.

Adding a set of the just released Dunlop Qualifiers in 2006 bought the thing to life – grip, feel, control, stability and above all good manners! A set of the Qualifier RR’s added since have only enhanced all of these points as well as lasting longer, being more than capable on track and gripping better in the wet.

The modern tyres are that good, that in spite of all the advice you’ll get from those “in the know” to fit a steering damper as a matter of urgency, far from never needing it, I now just wouldn’t even consider it. Accelerate hard over bumps and it’s supposed to kill you. It doesn’t. It shakes it’s head a little and accelerates with bars that bounce in your hands in a lively but perfectly controllable way!

The handling of this bike with modern rubber is stable, responsive and rewarding – add a damper and you’ll only tune out the best parts of
these to some degree. Your own need to sharpen up and learn the bikes habits will also be dialled out, and with it, the soulful connection you
could make to what is now an iconic motorcycle!

Added to the surprising way it sticks to the road is it’s other major asset; this bike has absolutely stonking bottom end power – the kind of
instant punch from the low and mid-range that just doesn’t exist in the modern 1000, where pony chasing means all the power is stuck near the thin air of a 13,500+ redline.

Take it on track and it’ll be mullered by a modern thou, it feels asthmatic in comparison to the rev-happy 160bhp+ crowd that thous keep
today, but if you’re interested in practical road use, like to watch the world disappear behind you very quickly with just a turn of throttle in
any gear, then this bike delivers. No mid range holes, no glitches, no empty revviness, just unrelenting delivery of huge great chunks of turbine smooth, rapidly accelerated forward motion!

I’m biased, and thus should probably be ignored on the subject, but I’d say that the 98 R1 is amongst the best bikes you could own for sporty
road use right now. Under £3k gets you a goodun, spares are falling out of trees for them, modern tyres make them a treat and yet they engage the rider in fashion that is up there with anything you’ll ever swing a
leg across. Just remember to not go flat out over crests, or you’ll probably be spending valuable time and money on dental treatment and not riding it!

And mine isn’t for sale, hopefully forever.