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"Fast Bikes", April 1, 2013

1998 YZF-R1 vs FireBlade

The FireBlade would be forever going round in circles trying to catch this R1...

PIC: MARK MANNING

Perhaps Honda had been guilty of resting on its laurels. Six years after its stunning introduction, the rabid FireBlade had been slowly tamed – even though capacity had increased from 893cc to 918cc by now. Going into 1998 with an all new bike, Honda must have been smug about its offering.

And then it came. The R1 was simply mind blowing and instantly transformed the FireBlade into a machine Baba’s principles deplored. It was big, bloated and simply from another era and suddenly the press offered blanket coverage on the R1. Think of this; when BMW released the S 1000 RR it made some serious waves – but the R1’s impact was tsunami-like in its results.

In the (very) cold light of 2013, there’s no need to reassess this relationship. The R1 is still streets ahead of the FireBlade in every department. To its credit, the FireBlade belies its bulky looks and squat stature. The ethos of the original is still evident, but it has been wrapped up in layer of winter fat that dulled the astonishing 1992 version.

It feels light enough once under your control, and but for an old front tyre, it steers willingly. The 16-inch front wheel was part of Baba’s solution to make the FireBlade lithe and agile, but the industry didn’t follow suit and modern tyre options are limited. The RWU forks cope with real world conditions well, but this shock had certainly seen better days. You naturally sink into the bike, but the saggy rear deepens this feeling. Still, this is all recoverable, but a fast blast is certainly still within the remit of this 15-year-old machine.

The motor, on the other hand, feels as fresh as a daisy. Crisp and potent, it punches hard through the midrange, culminating in a respectable top end. It achieves everything that a modern supersport bike does, just without the spirit of a younger, smaller machine.

But no matter its dynamic ability, the R1 is easily a generation ahead of the FireBlade. This is the first bike of the modern era, a bike whose rules have been abided by ever since.

While the FireBlade’s motor is like a dependable 800 metres runner, the R1’s is an out and out sprinter. It spits out power thanks to its lighter internals, bigger capacity and bigger carbs. But that’s the easy bit; thanks to Miwa’s insistence, the motor used a tri-axis design where the crank, drive and main shafts were set in a triangular layout to make a much shorter motor. Born from the motor’s size, the R1’s wheelbase was made short to aid handling – traction was provided by a longer swingarm.

It’s immediately clear that the R1 is massively more potent. Its engine revs harder, longer and with more intent. Then the brakes offer modern day performance, even without braided hoses, and the USD forks feel fresh and capable. Through bumpy, damp turns, there’s more confidence on offer (partly due to more modern rubber and 190-section rear), and the rear shock doesn’t capitulate at the same points as the FireBlade does.

Then there are the little bits; the digital clocks, the sharp lines, its integrated look. Sure, it’s not the finished article compared to today’s bikes, but this is a bike that has been styled – rather than merely designed.

Prices for the R1 have risen already, its important legacy reflected in the secondhand market, while the FireBlade languishes towards the bottom of the pile – cast aside by all bar the skint or stunters.

1998 FIREBLADE

Highlights

918cc motor

New for ’98 internals

RWU forks

Four piston calipers

116bhp

180kg (dry)

TRACK 7

Starting to lose its shine.

FAST ROAD 8

Still hugely capable on road.

HOOLIGAN 8

As bad now as it was than...

NEW RIDER 4

Maybe these days it’s OK...

DESIRABILITY 6

No longer the cover star...

1998 YZF-R1

Highlights

998cc cracker

Short and very sharp

USD forks

Rulebook rewriter

127bhp

175kg (dry)

TRACK 9

Don’t bother on anything else...

FAST ROAD 10

A staggering weapon, even now.

HOOLIGAN 9

An absolute headcase.

NEW RIDER 3

It has a gentle side now...

DESIRABILITY 9

A garage must have.

DON’T BE FOOLED BY

Modern prices. The FireBlade was £9,265 in 1998. That equates to over £13,200 today.

Verdict: R1

The R1 absolutely blitzes this contest. It remains a staggering bike – the benchmark by which all others had to strive for.

+ ENGINE, HANDLING, AGGRESSION

- PRICES, TATTY EXAMPLES

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