Motoring: Truly a super superbike

The new Yamaha is building a two-wheeled dynasty

When the time comes for pundits in the motorcycle industry to vote for the best new bike of 1998, the traditional bout of head-scratching and heated debate - usually prolonged - will all be over in a matter of moments.

Yamaha's spectacular YZF-R1 stands out a mile, even in a vintage year that has seen, among many others, Kawasaki's best-ever street-bike, the ZX-9R, BMW's improbably fast and agile R1100S and a hugely impressive first superbike, the RSV Mille, from the rising Italian firm Aprilia.

The 998cc, four-cylinder R1 has shifted the boundaries of mass-produced motorcycle performance in a way not seen since the arrival of Honda's CBR900RR FireBlade in 1992. The Blade became a best-seller due to its power, lightweight and agility - the latest version has even prevented the R1 from taking top spot in the sales charts this year.

But with a maximum output of 150bhp and weight of just 177kg, the Yamaha is the most powerful and lightest of current superbikes. And with its sharply styled twin-headlamp fairing, it's the most visually striking, too.

Beneath the pointed-nosed plastic, the R1's design is best described as conventional with a twist. Its basic layout is the Japanese firm's familiar blend of 20-valve, four-cylinder engine and aluminium twin-beam frame. But Yamaha's engineers put the six-speed gearbox higher than normal behind the water-cooled cylinders, making the engine very compact. This, in turn, allows the bike to be short, while having a long rear-swing arm, as used by grand prix bikes for added stability.

The R1's new engine also contributes with its innovative one-piece cylinder and crankcase assembly, which is stiffer than the conventional design and allows the power plant to be used as a stressed part of the chassis. This means that the Yamaha's new frame needs to be substantially less strong, which helps to explain how this bike can weigh less than most 600cc sportsters.

The R1 engine is a spectacular performer in its own right, never mind its contribution to handling. The bike feels light and racy from the moment you climb aboard, with low, narrow handlebars, high foot-pegs, a firm seat and the smallest of windscreens. And such is the motor's gloriously broad spread of power that the moment you open the throttle, the R1 rips forward as though fired from a cannon.

It's not so much the fearsome acceleration when screamed towards its 11,750rpm red line that makes this bike so exciting; but the far less rarely approached - even on a racetrack - top speed of about 170mph.

Where the R1 engine really scores is in its flexibility, which ensures that smooth, addictive, strong acceleration is always available, making this a supremely easy bike to ride quickly, even on an unfamiliar road.

And the R1's handling is equally impressive. The bike's combination of light weight, rigidity, racy dimensions and excellent suspension give it the feel of a much smaller, yet perfectly balanced machine. Whether you're carving through a high-speed bend at Cadwell Park - on one of the "track days" that are becoming an increasingly common part of a typical superbike owner's riding - or pottering along the high street in the rain, the R1 is manageable and well-behaved.

Its brakes are arguably the best in the bike world, combining fierce power with plenty of feel. Detailing is generally good, notably the excellent instrument console, which combines a large digital speedometer and traditional analogue rev-counter with the welcome addition of a clock. The list price of pounds 9,459 on the road is competitive, too, and would put the R1 on a par with its main rivals in the showroom were it not for the fact that discounts are less readily available.

Despite all that the R1 is not a bike for everyday use. It's racy, single- minded, hopelessly uncomfortable for a pillion, and shares the normal hyper-bike hunger for consumables such as tyres and brake pads. More to the point it's so fast and furious that even some experienced riders would find their needs better met by the slightly less challenging ZX- 9R or FireBlade - which, ironically, suddenly finds itself cast in the role of sensible option.

Alternatively, some riders might prefer to wait for the similarly styled but less powerful and cheaper 750 and 600cc versions of the R1 that are due to be unveiled at the big European bike show in Munich next month.

Having claimed its place on the superbike throne, the YZF-R1 is already setting about establishing a two-wheeled dynasty.

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