The first thing motorcycle enthusiasts in India think of when they hear the name ‘Yamaha’ are two legendary motorcycles – the RD350 and the RX100. It came as a shock to me, therefore, upon learning that neither of them were on display at the company’s museum – aka the Communication Plaza – in Japan, home to roughly 50 of the most important Yamaha motorcycles. If motorcycles so great didn’t make the cut, can you imagine just how good the ones that did must be?
“If you are going to do it, try to be the best” were Genichi Kawakami’s words to his engineers when Yamaha had begun considering entering the motorcycle market in the early ‘50s. These words resonated with the development engineers, and they set out to work on their first prototype. This was also when Japan was full of start-up motorcycle brands competing furiously for survival, and more than a few were already beginning to fold. Six months after firing up the first prototype engine, Yamaha’s first motorcycle, the YA-1, was revealed in February 1955. Barely five months later, on July 1, the Yamaha Motor Company was formed.
This is Yamaha's first motorcycle, the 1955 YA-1, also called the Red Dragonfly.
The YA-1 was a very important motorcycle for the company and it immediately demonstrated its performance by winning the third Mt. Fuji Ascent Race in the very same month it (and the company) was launched in! The motorcycle also took the top three places in the ultra-light class at the first Asama Highlands race later that year. To give you an idea, the YA-1 only made 5.6hp and 9.4Nm of torque from its 123cc two-stroke engine and had a dry weight of 94kg. While these figures don’t sound like much now, it helped Yamaha win races and sell bikes in 1955 and thereafter.
Fast-forward to 63 years and Yamaha’s latest top-dog race machine, the YZR-M1, makes well over 250hp from its 1,000cc engine – a stat which sounds even more incredulous when you consider its 157kg kerb weight. As you can tell by the power figures, race motorcycles have a come a long way, and I am sure Kawakami’s words of inspiration continue to resonate among Yamaha’s present-day engineers.
Part of the reason we were in Japan was to watch the MotoGP race in Motegi. Witnessing this in a country with such rich motorcycle manufacturing heritage is a phenomenal experience; not only did the locals have their own countrymen to root for, but also their favourite home-grown motorcycle brands!
Even just the parking lot at Motegi on race day was surreal, with an almost endless collection of unique motorcycles filling up every available inch of real estate. The atmosphere was dominated by motorcycles, apart from kids dressed in riding gear, stalls selling cakes shaped like slick tyres and dozens of gear and accessory stalls. We reached just in time for Moto3, the class of racing made spectacular due to some feisty on-track battles despite the relatively slower speeds they involve. The Moto2 race, meanwhile, wasn’t too action-packed but the addictive howls of the inline-four engines (to be replaced by Triumph’s 765cc triple from 2019 onwards) on those bikes did keep us awestruck.
As the Moto2 bikes screamed past us on the main straight, the MotoGP crew were getting prepped. With just two laps remaining for the Moto2 race to end, the GP bikes were fired up for a final pre-race check. The thunderous sound of the GP bikes in the pits overpowered the shouty Moto2 machines at full throttle, making my hair stand on end.
Valentino Rossi's iconic 2015 YZR-M1.
Soon enough, the GP bikes were brought onto the grid and with minutes to go before the ultimate race would commence, just about everyone had their eyes transfixed on the start lights. This was a big race in particular, given that it was one that could crown the championship leader – Marc Marquez. I felt lucky to be part of something possibly historic.
A few laps into the race, it seemed like Andrea Dovizioso would stall Marquez’s championship hopes, but then he lost the front of his Ducati and crashed out of the race. Left without any threat, Marquez pulled a wicked wheelie across the finish line to clinch his fifth premiere class championship in absolute style. While it was team Honda that was successful again, Yamaha remained stoic. They knew they were out of form and the team fully acknowledged the gravity of the situation this season.
We were even shown a presentation that highlighted the many challenges the Yamaha MotoGP team has faced over the years. The most recent, and one which they are yet to overcome, are the Michelin tyres. Yamaha’s bikes, by their own admission, had been developed around the Bridgestone tyres and the regulated shift to Michelin has proven to be a challenge. While it may sound like a mechanic blaming his tools, we’re talking about a legendary marque with more than 500 Grand Prix victories under its belt since 1961, so the reasoning is perfectly plausible.
According to FIM statistics in 2017, Yamaha secured victories in the 125cc (47 wins), 250cc (165 wins), 350cc (63 wins), 500cc (120 wins), and the MotoGP class (105 wins), adding up to 500 Grand Prix wins in total. Maverick Vinales has since added a win to that list.
Kenny Roberts' multiple race winning YZR500.
This talk of GP victories takes me back to the Communication Plaza that is filled with the iconic race bikes that helped them achieve this feat. Lined up on the front row were Phil Read’s 125cc RA31A and 250cc RD56 GP winning bikes. The bulbous fairing on both these motorcycles would make any vintage motorcycle enthusiast drool – and possibly even someone with no interest in motorcycles! As you go further down the grid they had made at the museum, you will find Kenny Roberts’ signature yellow and black YZR500. It was the motorcycle he rode in 1978 to win his first of three GP500 championship titles. Completing the grid right towards the end was none other than Valentino Rossi’s 2015 M1.
More than just race bikes, the Plaza was filled with relevant motorcycles, mopeds, commuters, boats and even cars in Yamaha’s storied history. If you do find yourself in Japan with time to spare, a visit to Yamaha’s motorsport shrine is well worth it – and if it helps, the cafeteria serves some excellent sushi as well!