The 1986 FZ600 was Yamaha’s first go at a middleweight race rep, but by today’s standards, it was a pretty tame affair. The upright, four-cylinder engine was borrowed from the XJ600 tourer and housed in a rectangular tubed steel frame. A large fairing and slabby body panels hid just about everything, but lurking beneath was a box section swinging arm and mono shock rear suspension.
It wasn’t until 1989 and the launch of the FZR600 that the bike took on its trademark characteristics. A sturdy delta box frame gave the model a much more race-orientated look. And the forward canted, liquid cooled Genesis engine, with EXUP valve, merely confirmed the fact that Yamaha was out to dominate the 600 market.
The FZR600 stayed in service mostly unchanged, for ten years, which in such a competitive market is a testament to the fact that Yamaha had nailed it.
Ironically, the factory had developed the legendary EXUP exhaust valve in response to the power-draining emission laws of the day. Something that almost 30 years later, the 2017 R6 has also fallen foul of, necessitating some major re-working. Somethings just don’t change.
The very first 600 Yamaha to wear the R6 badge rolled out of the factory just before the start of the new millennium.
Pushing out 108bhp, the R6 was capable of 160mph at an incredible 15,500 rpm. It screamed past the opposition and left the other Japanese manufacturers floundering for almost two years until the Suzuki GSX-R 600 was capable of taking it on.
Updates came thick and fast, and this kept it at the cutting edge of the 600cc race rep bunch. In 2003, the R6 got fuel injection, three years later a slipper clutch and a new engine management system allowed for ride-by-wire throttle.
Together with revisions to the delta box frame, by 2008 Yamaha had also borrowed an idea from Massimo Tamburini’s MV Agusta and added a variable length intake system. This system helped to give the R6 a blistering standing ¼ mile of just 10.67 seconds.
Yamaha chose the Almeria circuit in Spain for the launch of its 2017 model. And although the spec sheet is bristling with suspension and engine upgrades, it’s obviously the mods to the bodywork that grab your attention.
Deeply pocketed running lights join recessed twin headlights and a centralized air intake. Framed by LED indicators that form part of the rear view mirrors. All going a long way to reducing the outgoing models, ‘Angry Bird’ look.
You can also see that some serious reshaping has occurred on the fairings side panels too. No more sharp curves and cutaways, replaced with smoother more flowing lines. The seat and tank haven’t escaped attention either.
Gone are the angled shoulders of the 2016 steel petrol tank, replaced with a noticeably rounder, flatter topped tank. The use of aluminum also manages to shave 2.7lbs off the overall weight.
Moving to the rear, the seat has thankfully come in for some serious re-shaping too. Last year’s R6 was quite heavily inclined and comparatively uncompromising in terms of tipping the rider onto the bars. By comparison, the new seat unit looks positively luxurious.
With such a track orientated sports bike, pillion comfort was never going to be top of their list of priorities. The lack of passenger comfort looks about the same. But at least the new R6 with its bum-stopper now looks finished. The tail section also comes with cutouts making it appear almost skeletal.
How this adds to the bike’s aerodynamics is questionable when seated normally. I suppose riders of the new R6 will spend as much time out of the saddle with their sliders kissing the tarmac, as on it.
According to Yamaha, the bottom line of all this smoothing, flowing and re-shaping is a bike that is an incredible 8% more aerodynamic than its predecessor. Gains in this category are measured in fractions of an inch and 10ths of a second, so that’s going it some.
These days, when a manufacturer launches a revised model, it’s taken for granted that it will come with major frame mods. But Yamaha’s philosophy at least in this respect is, if it isn’t broken, don’t mend it. What they have changed dramatically, however, is the front end.
Gone are the 41mm tubes with 20mm damper cartridges, replaced with beefier 43mm KYB units and 32mm cartridges, they also get 5mm of extra travel. There is an increase in the front axle diameter to 25mm.
All of this has led to a noticeable but almost contradictory increase in stiffness, stability and front-end feel. But still, however, manages to give incredible rider feedback. Turning is sharper but at the same time incredibly stable under severe cornering.
Nevertheless, forks are fully adjustable and are complimentary to the all-new multi-adjustable KYB rear shock.
As mentioned previously, the bike’s 2006 upgrade saw it become one of the first motorcycles with advanced electronic rider aids. These aids included ride-by-wire throttle control and electronic intake control. The new model adds to that menu with a Traction Control System featuring six levels of intervention, or seven if you count the offsetting.
The TCS works by taking information from the front and rear wheel sensors, which it uses to calculate ignition timing, fuel, and throttle plate position. And say, Yamaha, they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that the Traction Control software remains as unobtrusive as possible to the rider throughout the rev range. Incredibly, this even takes tire width and grip into account as the tires wear.
The push-button controlled D-mode or selectable drive provides the rider with three throttle valve response variations; A, B, and Standard. It is possible to alter variable throttle openings on the go.
Yamaha is proud of the fact that the new R6 is capable of hitting the track straight out of the box. And to emphasize this, an optional quick-shift system can be added to give full throttle clutchless up-shifting. Unfortunately, downshifts still have to be performed in the traditional manner, but at least the slipper clutch helps out with more aggressive footwork.
The factory has always enjoyed a reputation for innovative solutions to problems. And when the R6’s engine more or less reached its optimum performance, they turned their attention to the manufacturing processes.
So this is how they’ve arrived at 16 titanium valves, 13.1 compression, and lightweight forged pistons. Cylinder bores are linerless and direct plated with a ceramic composite compound. And to keep the engine unit small and light, input and output shafts on the crank have been stacked in a triangular pattern and magnesium used for the engine covers.
With an engine that redlines at 16,500 rpm, that’s a lot of fast moving parts creating friction. So Yamaha has paid particular attention to heat dissipation. As with all high-performance engines today though, the power output is only as good as the bike’s electronics. And this is another department where Yamaha excels.
Unfortunately, motorcycle manufacturers are no longer only allowed to get on with improving their machines. Thanks to incredibly restrictive emission laws, development now revolves around creating ways to comply with engine strangling measures while still maintaining performance and output.
The result is a frustrating Catch 22 scenario that must leave manufacturers tearing their hair out. The natural evolution of a model and the need to stay ahead of the competition dictates that countless thousands of R and D dollars are spent developing lighter engines and frames using exotic metals.
Only now, those precious kilograms are eaten up by the likes of compulsory ABS, catalytic converters the size of a Sumo wrestlers lunchbox and huge sound deadening mufflers.
This factor is the reason why looking at the spec sheet to see how many extra horses they’ve managed to coax out, will be a waste of time. Last year’s R6 was good for 123.5hp, whereas the new re-fueled, euro-strangled version is actually down to 116hp.
Which is why Yamaha took an R6 to the launch fitted with a non-cat, full race, Akrapovic system and race orientated ECU. The new computer program also added a much-needed autoblipper for quick shift down-changing. These simple additions were enough to increase horsepower to 125hp and let the engine rev cleanly, without the Euro 4 induced wheeze.
Yamaha has taken a brave stance with their 2017 R6. Especially considering that sales of 600cc race reps in Europe have plummeted from 50,000 to 5,000 units in just ten years.
Not only that, but the factory has almost single-handedly kept the 600cc racing class alive and with the exception of MV Agusta are the only ones to comply with Euro 4.
When you take into account the strangling confines of emission laws, there can be no doubt that Yamaha has produced a truly exceptional bike. But whether their gamble will pay off remains to be seen. Technical victories are great for PR material, but only units sold are the true test of success.