Cycle News Archives
The 01 and Only
The end of the 1980s was a special time for performance junkies. The World Superbike Championship (WorldSBK) had just kicked off in 1988 with American Fred Merkel and his purple Team Rumi RCM Honda RC30 taking the first-ever slice of championship cake, and bike manufacturers believed this was their chance to make some truly special hot rods masquerading as street machines.
A look back at what was available in 1989 for the average punter makes for pretty special viewing. Suzuki released a new GSX-R750R; Bimota produced the stunning, Yamaha-powered, fuel-injected YB4E1; Kawasaki very quickly got sick of losing with their GPX750 and produced the iconic ZXR750H1; and of course, Ducati and Honda beat everyone to the punch one year earlier in 1988 with their legendary 851 and RC30 models, respectively. Never before or since had we seen so many new special edition superbikes all come out at the same time.
But we’re forgetting someone here—Yamaha.
The Tuning Fork brand had been punting its FZ750 for a number of years and had enjoyed some exceptional racetrack success, especially in Australia, where Mick Doohan took a double win at the Oran Park round of WSBK in 1988 on an up-spec’d Marlboro Yamaha FZ750R. The FZ would remain in production until the end of 1991, replaced by the YZF750 for 1993. However, for ’89, Yamaha released what is possibly their most exotic machine ever, the FZR750R, more commonly known by its factory designation—the OW01.
The OW01 signaled a change in company philosophy at Yamaha. The age of superbikes was dawning and to beat the Honda RC30 they needed something special. The new GSX-R and ZXR would help fill the grids, but these bikes were considerably less—both in price and specification—than the RC30. Yamaha decided to meet Honda head-on. Sporty road commuters like the FZ750 could no longer be considered real superbikes—if you wanted to win in the arms race that was the new World Superbike Championship, you needed proper firepower.
What the RC30 proved was that there was a market for seriously high-end production bikes. Regardless of cost, all that mattered was racetrack success. Yamaha had a bike in the portly FZR1000 that cost much less and had a bigger engine than the FZR750R OW01, but it could never legally compete with the RC30 on track. The FZR1000 went on to spawn the ThunderAce and eventually the YZF-R1, but that’s a story for another time.
Yamaha already had the basis for the OW01 sitting in the factory in 1988. That year, Kevin Magee and Wayne Rainey had used a super-special, factory Formula One-spec YZF750 Genesis (at the time the YZF tag was reserved for factory specials only like the Formula One bike and was not related to the production road bike of the same tag, which debuted in 1993) to clinch pole position and the race win by one lap at the Suzuka 8 Hour endurance race.
It would be Aussie Magee’s second straight 8 Hour victory, after taking the win in 1987 with German 250cc rider Martin Wimmer as teammate. The YZF750 Magee used was an evolution of the FZ750 that was being raced around the world with a different swingarm, a highly tuned engine and a new version of the Deltabox chassis, which made its production debut on the 1985 Yamaha TZR250 two-stroke roadbike and was originally a development of the 1982 Yamaha YZR500 Kenny Roberts used in 500GP.
Mick Doohan also used a factory Yamaha YZF750 Formula One machine to take victory in the TBC Road Race at Sugo and the Mt Fuji Super Sprint event in Japan in 1988.
So the basis for the 1989 Yamaha FZR750R OW01 had been set.
The OW01 cost the equivalent of a small apartment in 1989. You had to part with over $16K to get one, and that was for the standard bike. If you wanted the race kit that was available as an aftermarket purchase, which included a non-road-legal carburetor kit, exhaust muffler, ignition system, alternative fork springs, heavier clutch springs, ECU and wiring harness, race camshafts, some new gaskets, spark plugs and sockets, you could easily add another $12-15K to the deal.
However, a small ace in the OW01’s deck over the RC30 was that it came pretty spec’d up as a standard bike. The RC30 had a massive list of add-ons via the race kit that needed to be fitted if you wanted a real race weapon, whereas the Yamaha was pretty quick straight out of the box.
Australian Simon Thomas was crew chief to double WorldSBK and 1994 AMA Superbike Champion Troy Corser during his 1992 Australian Superbike season on the Yamaha OW01 and remembers it well.
“It was a real production race bike,” Thomas says of the OW01. “When you see a standard OW01, you can see what you paid for. Parts of it were designed to be a racing bike. Simple things that we all take for granted like the first-ever detachable subframes—you could throw it down the road, put a new subframe on and away you went. That way you rarely damaged the frame, you just damaged the auxiliary bits. It had nice axle adjusters, and it was the first bike I ever saw with fully adjustable forks.
“All the levers were lightweight aluminum; it had an alloy top triple-clamp nut; plus, it had dropped offset top triple-clamps so you had a lot more adjustment in front ride height. They had a lot of things on them that you just didn’t get on a production bike that commanded such a massive price tag for the time.”
The engine was Yamaha’s first real go at a proper short stroke engine. The FZ750’s dimensions were 68 x 51.5mm. The new OW01 came in at a distinctively oversquare 72 x 46mm with an 11.2:1 compression ratio (this was increased to upwards of 12.5:1 via race kit head gaskets). Those dimensions allowed the revs to rocket up the scale, with peak claimed power of 121 hp coming in at 12,000 rpm; torque was measured at a claimed 51 lb-ft at 9000 rpm. Those were blazing numbers for a standard production bike back in 1989. Indeed, 1989 really signaled the start of the power race, as figures climbed exponentially over the next 10 years to near Grand Prix levels by the end of the 20th century.
The OW01 followed the RC30’s lead in using ultra-special titanium conrods. These were bolted to a plain bearing crank down the bottom and pumped two-ring forged aluminum pistons up top—and went a way to explaining why this thing cost as much as it did! Thanks to the use of only two piston rings (one oil and one compression), the OW01 has been known to like a drink of oil.
As was Yamaha’s signature of the time (and for a long time after), they fitted their five-valve (two 23mm inlet and three 24.5mm exhaust) cylinder head. Feeding the beast was a quartet of downdraft Mikuni BDST 38mm carburetors with removable tops for quick needle changes in the pits, mixing with the fresh air routed from the front of the fairing to the airbox in front of the fuel tank. Cooling came via a single piece radiator, rather than the twin unit on the RC30 (which was replaced for racing anyway).
On the exhaust side, the OW01 had Yamaha’s EXUP valve to optimize backpressure and overall horsepower. It worked by what is now a primitive microcomputer driving a servomotor in the exhaust collector box. The result was the valve would alternate the backpressure depending on what revs the engine was using. It’s no surprise that an easy route to more horsepower was to ditch the exhaust and muffler for an aftermarket item, as it was quite restrictive in standard form (but if you’re after an OW01 for a collection, make sure it’s got the standard exhaust).
The chassis engineers took the lessons learned in Grand Prix and Endurance racing in stiffness and rigidity to create a new version of the Deltabox frame with no downtubes and used triangular mounting plates that bolted to the top of the cylinder head. The engine was inclined forward at 40° and was a fully stressed member of the chassis to increase overall rigidity.
The chassis was substantially lighter, shorter and stiffer than any production Yamaha before it, and had fully adjustable 43mm forks that let racers and engineers into a world of adjustments they’d previously never seen on production bikes (unless they’d been riding RC30s!).
Steering rake was a track-ready 24.5° with trail measured at 3.9-inches, 9mm more than the RC30. Yamaha chose not to fit a steering damper, but there were threaded holes drilled into the frame ready for one. Out the back Yamaha fitted a fully adjustable Öhlins shock with the ability to vary rear ride height via a bolt mounted to the top of the shock mount under the seat—quite a feature for 1989.
The swingarm was an all-new design that didn’t come out with any bracing as standard, although many a factory bike at the time eventually employed braced swingarms for extra stiffness. Stopping the hugely expensive show were a pair of magnesium-bodied four-piston calipers gripping 280mm discs that had been swiped from the larger-capacity FZR1000 up front and a single caliper biting down on a 177mm disc out the back. The OW01 rolled on cast aluminum 17-inch wheels—probably the cheapest part of the whole bike.
Aesthetics-wise the OW01 was similar to the FZR1000 but it had some distinct differences. The blue, white and red color scheme was similar but the OW01’s design lines came straight off the Formula One YZF750, with the twin air snorkels mounted on top of the fairing that housed two round headlights taken from the FZR1000. Low clip-on handlebars and a rider-only single seat cowl painted in racy number board red made it pretty clear this thing was racebike first, roadbike second. Just to emphasize the point, Yamaha fitted a super-cool twin endurance-style fuel filler for the tank, awesome for Sunday ride bragging rights.
Yamaha only built 500 of these instantly collectable bikes for the worldwide market, just enough to get them over the line for WSBK homologation requirements.
There’s no denying the Yamaha FZR750R OW01 is one of the most important and collectable bikes in the company’s storied history. This and the YZF-R7 OW02 of 1999 are the only two bikes Yamaha built specifically to go World Superbike racing (no, the current YZF-R1M doesn’t count), built in a time when glory was everything and the word ‘budget’ had yet to be fully grasped or respected.
Even though it never took out the Superbike World Championship, the OW01 was far from a flop on the track. It took 16 of the 98 WSBK races it contested in the hands of Aussies Michael Dowson, Kevin Magee and Peter Goddard, Britons Terry Rymer and Rob McElnea, Italian Fabrizio Pirovano and American Tom Kipp, but it wouldn’t be until 2009 that Ben Spies finally captured Yamaha’s elusive first WorldSBK on the YZF-R1.
But looking purely at the world championship race wins record doesn’t tell the whole story. The OW01 was always destined to be a collector piece and the fact it never quite won what it was designed to win makes the bike strangely appealing. That, and the fact OW01 is downright, drop-dead sexy with an air of exclusivity about it that Joe Blow at the café on a battered R1 just wouldn’t understand. CN