As we head into the final ever weekend of Valentino Rossi's Grand Prix career and his last MotoGP race, fittingly on a YZF-M1, we look back at his beloved 2004 title winning YZF-M1... Test: Alan Cathcart Photos: Kel Edge

Valentino Rossi’s deservedly acclaimed 2004 triumph in handing Yamaha its first premier-class GP Riders’ World Championship in 12 years, achieved just what he’d said he aimed to do when he walked out on Honda 12 months earlier. AC rode the famous 2004 YZF-M1…

This Blue machine is one of the most recognisable Rossi machines, Alan had the chance to ride it…


Check out our other Throwback Thursdays here…


The walk out was mainly because, he said, of HRC management’s insistence on diminishing the role of the rider (namely, himself!) in developing Honda’s V5 MotoGP racebike, and winning races with it. Walking across the street to a Yamaha Racing operation desperate for success with its hitherto underachieving YZF-M1 in-line four and turning it into a world champion, was a big ask. But, one year on, with the close support of Yamaha’s new race boss Masao Furusawa, the lovable Latin had taken the Japanese firm’s race operation by the scruff of its neck and delivered exactly what he’d said he’d do – beat Honda.



Revenge is a dish best enjoyed cold – and it was all the sweeter for Valentino because of the manner in which it was obtained, winning the first of nine MotoGP race victories on his debut ride for Yamaha in South Africa, en route to clinching the title one race early in Phillip Island. Mission accomplished.


“The lovable Latin had taken the Japanese firm’s race operation by the scruff of its neck and delivered exactly what he’d said he’d do – beat Honda”…


The chance to discover from the hotseat exactly how Rossi and the Yamaha factory race team had turned the lack-lustre YZF-M1 which I found less than impressive when I’d first ridden it one year earlier, into such a dominant title-winning 2004 package, came in a pair of 15-minute test sessions at Valencia two days after Valentino had swept to victory there in the final GP of 2004 – a race he didn’t have to win, remember, with the title already wrapped up.



After talking to him about the M1 the previous week at Yamaha’s R6 launch at the same circuit (see sidebar), I’d been counting seconds until I could finally throw a leg over his 2004 World champion ultrabike – The Bike That Valentino Made, with a little help from Yamaha, and Jerry Burgess and his crew. For this title success was indeed very much a team effort…..


Check out our preview to Rossi’s final race this weekend…


First though, just beforehand, I’d spent five laps getting reacquainted with Loris Capirossi’s V4 Ducati Desmosedici – about as different a motorcycle from the less powerful but much more refined-feeling Yamaha, as could be imagined. These two bikes were at opposite poles of MotoGP race development back then, and after hopping off the muscular, mighty, so-fast but so-flighty Ducati, which seemed eager to spin the standard rear Michelin we’d been assigned for our press tests at almost any revs in each of the bottom four gears, and needed heaps of physical force and body English to wrestle it from side to side in Valencia’s tight turns, walking up pit lane to straddle the Yamaha, seemingly so delicate and refined by comparison, was like looking at a Swiss watch to tell the time, rather than Big Ben!

There are very few bikes that have instantly recognisable features but the famous 2004 Rossi M1 is one of them…

The Yamaha felt lower and smaller to settle aboard than the Ducati, which you sat in rather than on, surrounded by bodywork, and though it was a touch wider than the V4 Suzuki I’d been riding at the same circuit the week before the GP, the YZF-M1 felt less tall and more wieldy than the GSV-R. Even compared to the ZX-RR Kawasaki I’d tested the previous day – also an in-line four, remember, and whose Suter-build frame was much more compact than 2003’s Incredible Hulk – the YZF-M1 felt slightly smaller, if a little longer, than the Green Screamie.


Read Alan’s tech feature on the bike and his interview with 2004 race boss and the man who designed the RD LC engine, Masao Furusawa, here…


That was the bike it was closest to in architecture, though – not only in terms of chassis design, but also because of the engine layout which was now very close to the Kawasaki’s, after Yamaha switched to a similar 16-valve layout from January onwards, from the five-valves-per-cylinder format used previously.



Watching the Yamaha mechanics fire the YZF-M1 up with an ingenious rear-wheel trolley starter which didn’t require them to lock the slipper clutch in place to do so, as Ducati must (so presumably they use a higher degree of ramp angle to achieve this), was the signal to hop aboard and head off down pit lane, after first noting the M1’s quite high 3,000rpm idle speed at rest, and the so-distinctive gruff engine note of the in-line four-cylinder motor with its closed-up firing order adopted for that season, compared to the previous year’s evenly-spaced Kawasaki-like screamer.


“It didn’t wheelie any more in the bottom four gears out of Valencia’s final turn on to the pit straight, reaching repeatedly for the sky as you tried desperately to keep the throttle wound wide open”…


Next surprise: unlike any of the other MotoGP bikes, even the super-Superbike Suzuki, the Yamaha drove cleanly away from the mark almost as easily as a road bike, without any need to wind up the clutch, nor any transmission snatch, holes in the powerband, surging of revs or jerky throttle response. It just got up, and went with minimal fuss, just very fast – thus putting Valentino’s unaccustomed good starts that season into perspective, because it was such a controllable but responsive bike to get off the line when the flag dropped.

Soon it was time for Cathcart to throw a leg over the bike and take it for a rip around the world class track. Here he is with Aussie legend and the man behind much of Rossi’s success, Jeremy Burgess.

The Magneti Marelli EFI adopted on the bike from mid-season, had a programme which restricted revs to 5,800rpm in first gear after firing up the motor, good for the 80 km/h pitlane speed limit – until you changed into second gear for the first time, after which it was wiped so you could use full revs in first gear, if you decided you had to do so.

Already a veteran rider by 2004, it is hard to believe Rossi is still riding, and an M1, well at least until this Sunday… Even more amazing is the fact that Alan is still breathing…. sorry, riding!

THE RIDE
Out on the track, it’s best to explain what Valentino’s World champion 16-valve YZF-M1 was like to ride by telling you first of all what it didn’t do, especially compared to Checa’s flawed 20-valve ‘03 bike I’d ridden a year earlier. So, it didn’t wheelie any more in the bottom four gears out of Valencia’s final turn on to the pit straight, reaching repeatedly for the sky as you tried desperately to keep the throttle wound wide open as you powershifted up the gearbox with the front wheel waving around your ears. It didn’t freewheel into corners like before, with all engine braking programmed out just to satisfy the unreformed 250GP two-stroke riders who were previously responsible for developing and racing the YZF-M1, while still grappling to come to terms with such an alien concept.



Neither did it still back into turns thanks to a flawed weight transfer, when you squeezed hard on the front brake lever and stamped on the rear stopper. Nor when you got back on the throttle to exit a turn, did it snap away from your chosen line owing to the aggressive power delivery of the flatslide throttles fitted previously, instead of the smoother, more user-friendly twin-butterfly design Furusawa-san said was used now, and nor did it skip about over bumps thanks to a too-stiff suspension package, all of which it did before.

“There was just enough there when you braked hard and backshifted for a turn like Turn One at Valencia to make you realise the Yamaha was now working with you, rather than against you”…

Instead, this was a motorcycle which inside one lap you recognised had been transformed from a bad-tempered bulldog of an in-line four to a vastly more sophisticated-feeling, refined thoroughbred which worked with the rider rather than against him, and asked you what you wanted from it, rather than telling you this was the way things are gonna be, so get used to it! It’s as if the computer was no longer in charge of things, but now the rider was, and that was especially true of the engine braking, which a) now existed and b) felt perfectly set-up, so there was just enough there when you braked hard and backshifted for a turn like Turn One at Valencia to make you realise the Yamaha was now working with you, rather than against you.


“This was a motorcycle which inside one lap you recognised had been transformed from a bad-tempered bulldog of an in-line four to a vastly more sophisticated-feeling, refined thoroughbred”…


There was a far more direct connection between throttle and back tyre than before, too, much better than the Ducati and especially the Kawasaki, where the barely controllable fierce surge of acceleration when you got back on the gas after slowing for a turn, was very disconcerting, and invited you to run wide if you weren’t ready for it, as well as spin the back wheel.

“There was a far more direct connection between throttle and back tyre than before, too, much better than the Ducati and especially the Kawasaki.”

The Suzuki GSV-R was like the Yamaha in having The Connection, but it was also at least 25 bhp down on power to the YZF-M1, so maybe there was a reason for that! This linear power delivery made the Yamaha very controllable and responsive in terms of handling, so that it turned more tightly and held a line better than before, without the sense of instability you had on the previous year’s bike when the power got switched on again by the ECU after you’d freewheeled round a turn on the overrun!



Despite the irregular firing order Yamaha introduced that season to improve traction and acceleration, the YZF-M1 engine felt even smoother but no less vivid in terms of engine pickup than in 2003, driving hard from as low as 8,000rpm. That was thanks to the intermediate shaft positioned between the crankshaft and clutch, to allow the engine to turn backwards, now containing balance weights to act as a counterbalancer.

There were no undue vibrations of any kind, which must have helped make this a relatively untiring bike to ride for a 45-minute GP. Instead, it was sweetly responsive almost anywhere in the powerband, and especially from 9,000rpm upwards, en route to the 15,000rpm revlimiter (500 rpm lower than the year before, presumably thanks to the 16-valve layout’s bigger, therefore heavier, titanium valves).

“Yamaha’s fabulously refined power delivery wasn’t just smooth and, at 240hp-plus, extremely potent – it was also predictable, and controllable”.

There was a wakeup call at 14,500rpm when the big red junior searchlight on the dash and the row of orange lights beneath it told you to shift up right NOW on the wide-open race-pattern powershifter, but overall the Yamaha’s fabulously refined power delivery wasn’t just smooth and, at 240hp-plus, extremely potent – it was also predictable, and controllable.


“There was a wakeup call at 14,500rpm when the big red junior searchlight on the dash and the row of orange lights beneath it told you to shift up right NOW”…


When on the exit of the second-gear left-hander leading on to the fourth-gear back straight (OK – fifth for Valentino!) I got the standard rear Michelin sliding – which wasn’t really up to coping with even a high proportion of all that horsepower being thrown at it – I’ll admit to a brief moment of panic about the fate likely to befall me if I decked the World champion’s baby, and backed off the throttle slightly to let it recover. What a wimp….

The 2004 M1 was the pinnacle of Yamaha engineering, the setup would’ve been extremely secret back in the day…

But I needn’t have worried: later that lap the same thing happened in the final turn, when the revs rose a little as the tyre spun up, and this time I kept it wound on as the Yamaha’s so-effective traction control working off the ignition, asserted itself and tamed the slide before it really took hold, sending the slim, light-handling blue-and-yellow Gauloise-livery missile rocketing down the pit straight accompanied by the distinctive high-pitched drone of the 16-valve engine with its offbeat firing order, and the front wheel hovering above the ground between gearshifts, but without any of the unruly way-high wheelies of a year ago.



Nice – very nice, but you have to work at making it happen. Though Jerry Burgess set up the handlebar-to-seat-to-footrest ratio on the Yamaha so that it’s exactly the same as Rossi’s Honda from last year – and before – the YZF-M1’s very spacious riding position was expressly tailored to allow Valentino to move his body weight back and forth on the bike as crucially appropriate for grip and balance at both ends.

You saw him doing so in a race much more than he ever did with the V5 Honda, yet if you watched the bike in turns you could see that one of Valentino’s great assets on the Yamaha was his very high turn speed, faster than anyone else in the MotoGP class except maybe Tamada’s Bridgestone-shod Honda, taking full advantage of the Japanese firm’s excellent front tyre.

The Yamaha felt especially strong in the first two right-handers at Valencia, where you can actually accelerate hard between them and use the better damping of the uprated TT25 Öhlins 42mm forks and the fatter contact patch of the 16.5-in. front Michelin introduced by the French company that season, to feel what the tyre was doing and maintain momentum to the max.

The Yamaha urged you to do so, because it was so comfortable, and comforting, to ride: by comparison, all the other MotoGP contenders felt harder work, even the Honda. They were all less forgiving and some notably less refined to ride than the YZF-M1, and it was a real credit to Yamaha engineers that they could respond to Rossi’s suggestions to improve the bike, as filtered through Jerry Burgess, so effectively.



Where the Yamaha really impressed was flicking from side to side through the infield Esses before the right-hand hairpin, where my R6-launch master class with Valentino had taught me which gears to use, and also his cute little party trick of running wide into the short-circuit cutoff on the right of the left-hand entry, to allow yourself to straightline the approach to the turn for extra speed, and momentum.

Same thing again two turns later, where you shift back one gear for the second-gear right-hander, carry loads of turn speed through it, then short-shift to third and then fourth for the long left climbing the hill up and over to the last bottom-gear turn, where you notice there’s no sense of passing through neutral to hit first gear – the gearbox’s shift action was butter-smooth.

“In addition, the Yamaha was so agile and easy-steering compared to certain other MotoGP bikes that you got a much greater sense of confidence in attacking those turns at my more humble speeds.”

In addition, the Yamaha was so agile and easy-steering compared to certain other MotoGP bikes that you got a much greater sense of confidence in attacking those turns at my more humble speeds compared to The Doctor’s – but I bet he got the same feeling, albeit at a different level: this is a very friendly, refined, as well as powerful package.

For the Yamaha steered really well and had quite responsive handling for such a potent bike, especially flicking from side to side in those fast Esses, where it seemed more like a 250 compared to the other two MotoGP monsters I’d just been riding. It felt very balanced and together – poised even.


“Valentino had taught me which gears to use, and also his cute little party trick of running wide into the short-circuit cutoff on the right of the left-hand entry, to allow yourself to straightline the approach to the turn for extra speed”…


Yet while in a straight line the Yamaha was plenty fast enough to get your attention, accelerating sweetly and controllably up through the ratios all the way to a genuine – if brief! – top gear past the pits before shutting off and braking hard for the third-gear Turn One, it had the bottom four gear ratios closed well up together to maximise acceleration out of the first-gear bend. Even so, as I confirmed in my afternoon rides on both bikes, it definitely was not as fast as the V4 Ducati in a straight line – just made up the difference in turn-in, corner speed, and hook-up out of a bend.

Despite the M1 lagging slightly behind on the straights compared to the Ducati, 339km/h was still bloody fast!

Still, it was no slowcoach, as the Mugello speed traps confirmed, with the Yamaha clocked at 339km/h down that kilometre-long front straight, if slightly slower than Barros’ Honda at 343 km/h and the inevitable Capirossi Ducati at 341 k’s. And that’s with the somewhat, er, gangly Valentino aboard, trying to drape himself behind the Yamaha’s vestigial screen.

You could tell by the way the bike steered and handled that Yamaha had obviously decided that high-speed aerodynamics were less important than ease of handling and speed of turning in tighter corners – and that’s the package they ended up delivering to Valentino for him to do the business with. As he indeed did….

Alan preferred the 2004 M1 to the RC211V, the Ducati and the Suzuki. He rated it at the time as his best ever ride experience on any bike, ever!

Having done so, after riding the bike he did it with, I have to say that I preferred riding Valentino’s Yamaha to the Rossi Honda RC211V I sampled a year earlier, because it felt smaller, easier-steering and had an even better engine character – leastways, for a rider of my humble talents. It felt hooked up, easy-steering, fast-accelerating, stable under braking (and unlike on the Kawasaki, the Brembo carbon brakes worked well in the infield turns or stopping hard at the end of the pit straight), and above all, so controllable and user-friendly.


“I preferred riding Valentino’s Yamaha to the Rossi Honda RC211V I sampled a year earlier, because it felt smaller, easier-steering and had an even better engine character… the best motorcycle of any kind I’d ever ridden in a quarter-century career of testing the best”…


Everything about the bike felt so refined, so balanced, and just so, well – right. It was my new best-ever, succeeding the RC211V Honda I’d ridden a year earlier as the best motorcycle of any kind I’d ever ridden in a then quarter-century career of testing the best of the best. Hang on, though – it was the same rider who developed both bikes, with the same pit crew.
Maybe that told you something – right, Honda?!

Rossi On The 2004 YZF M1
Valentino Rossi was a surprise visitor to the 2005-model Yamaha R6 press launch at Valencia the week before I tested his bike there the day after the GP – smiling and jovial as ever despite a severe dose of jetlag on his return 48 hours earlier from Australia.


“I know you think otherwise, but it’s honestly not a hangover” he insisted. “We didn’t celebrate especially winning the title a race early at Phillip Island, just we all went out to dinner after the race, and relaxed. We still have another GP here at Valencia next week – but after that, we can have some fun!” I’m sure after equalling his own Honda record of nine victories in a single MotoGP season, he did just that…. The chance to quiz Valentino about his title-winning YZR-M1, which I already knew I’d be riding ten days later, was too good to miss.


The Gauloises cigarette sponsorship was covered by the now iconic “GO!!!!!!!!” stickers on the VR46 machine.


What were his first reactions to the 2003-year bike when he rode it for the first time at Sepang in January – having been forced to wait until then to do so by Honda’s enforcement of his HRC contract to the letter?


“It wasn’t so bad, but the bikes were so different. The first impression I had was that the Yamaha was much too stiff, especially the suspension settings. The bike worked a little bit like a Formula 1 car, very stable, low – but not so easy to change direction with. The first feeling was that with a new tyre the bike was good, but when the tyre started to move and lose grip, then the Yamaha was very hard to control. This was my first impression with the M1 – but it was not only the suspension which was not perfect, but also the engine delivery.



This was a little bit strong in acceleration, so not such good control out of a corner – but it was the fact that the setup of the bike was too stiff for me, which caused most immediate problems. So we start to change a lot the suspension to have more feeling with the front, more feeling at the rear, also when the tyres are finished, we needed to have better control. But also I wanted more agility – I felt the bike is a little bit slow to change direction – stable, but slow to steer. So we work on this, too, partly by lifting the bike for better weight transfer.”


“The bike worked a little bit like a Formula 1 car, very stable, low – but not so easy to change direction with.”


How about the Growler motor introduced for 2004?


”The first version was very good to ride, but quite slow – but with the second version we improved a lot. It gives good engine character that makes the bike better to ride.” And the famous engine braking – as a former 125/250/500cc two-stroke world champion, did he like the ‘03 Yamaha M1’s carefully dialled-in freewheel characteristic? Valentino laughed. “The M1 had a lot of trouble last year with engine braking, but already when I tried the bike they had improved this! The system is still not perfect, but it’s nearly OK – we still do a lot of work on that point.”



MNA Q4 RXT

2004 Valentino Rossi Yamaha YZF-M1 Specifications 

ENGINE: Watercooled DOHC 16-valve transverse in-line four-cylinder four-stroke with offset composite chain and gear camshaft drive, 990cc, 14.8:1 compression, Electronic fuel injection and engine management system, with Magneti Marelli ECU, two injectors per cylinder, two optional EPROM maps and four Keihin throttle bodies with dual butterflies, 6-speed cassette-type extractable gearbox, Multiplate dry ramp-style slipper-type clutch.


CHASSIS: Aluminium Deltabox twin-spar frame, Front suspension: 42mm Ohlins inverted telescopic forks, Rear: Machined aluminium swingarm with Ohlins shock and rising rate linkage, front wheel: 12/60-420 Michelin on forged Marchesini wheel, rear: 19/67-420 Michelin on forged Marchesini wheel, front brakes: 2 x 308mm or 320mm Brembo carbon discs with four-piston radial Brembo calipers, rear: 1 x 220 mm Yamaha ventilated steel disc with two-piston Brembo caliper


PERFORMANCE: Over 240hp@15,000rpm (at crankshaft), 148 kg with oil and water no fuel, 56/44% static distribution, 339km/h top speed (Mugello 2004)


OWNER: Yamaha Motor Company, Iwata, Japan

 

2004 VR46 Yamaha YZF-M1 Gallery


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Yamaha Q2

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