Yamaha's YZR-M1 broke cover in Europe last week when riders Max Biaggi, John Kocinski, Norihiko Fujiwara and Kyoji Namba spent three days at the Italian circuit of Mugello, running side-by-side tests with the factory's current Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR500 GP bikes.
The outing followed previous sessions at the Yamaha test track Fukuroi, Sepang and Phillip Island, and was the first stage of a European tour for the bike that will race in anger for the first time when it competes for the 2002 MotoGP World Championship.
The YZR-M1 opens an exciting new chapter in Yamaha's Grand Prix heritage, following almost four decades of World Championship competition during which time the factory has conquered all three classes, most recently with victory in last year's 250 and 500 manufacturers' championships.
The shift to four-stroke power for GP racing's premier class brings the sport more in line with the four-stroke dominated streetbike market, encouraging a greater degree of technological feedback from the track to the street.
Yamaha currently enjoys massive success in the streetbike sector with its epoch-making range of 'no-compromise' sportsbikes - the R1, R6 and R7. But the YZR-M1 - the M1 code following Yamaha's traditional YZR race prototype prefix stands for Mission One - has no direct relationship to these machines. It is the embodiment of a free-thinking policy at Yamaha, a thought process aimed at producing a totally balanced race bike - a motorcycle designed around the rider that acknowledges user-friendliness as the surest way to race-winning performance.
For many years the YZR500 has been respected as the best-handling 500, so it has been Yamaha's desire to instil the YZR-M1 with similar characteristics. To that end the YZR-M1 utilises a chassis closely related to the YZR500. And the choice of an in-line four-cylinder engine was made specifically to complement the chassis.
''We considered other types of four-cylinder engine, like a V4, but the in-line four suits our chassis best,'' says Masakazu Shiohara, designer of the YZR-M1 engine. ''It is all new, however, with no relation to the R1 streetbike motor. We also considered more cylinders but this means a heavier engine, which can compromise chassis design.''
Shiohara is the creative genius behind many of Yamaha's Grand Prix successes. His first high-profile design was the OW20 in-line four 500 engine with which Jarno Saarinen led the 1973 500 World Championship. In 1982 he created the OW61 motor, Yamaha's original V4 500, and soon after the first-generation YZR500. Shiohara was also responsible for the YZR250 powerplant and in 1997 the YZM400F motocrosser, his first four-stroke and the engine that revolutionised motocross. It is quite a CV.
Now Shiohara is repeating that journey, taking Yamaha's GP roadrace bikes from the two-stroke era into their four-stroke future. It is an entirely original challenge in an age when racing means much more than straightforward horsepower performance.