Yamaha YZF-R7 (1999-2000) OW02 Classic Superbike
By Kar Lee
The Yamaha R7 OW-02 is 20 years old!
Like it's predecessor the OW-01, the OW-02 was a race bike designed to compete in both the Superbike World Championships and 8 hour endurance races. It's over 20 years since Noriyuki Haga rode the now iconic Yamaha YZF-R7 in World Superbikes in 1999 (with limited success due to a mixture of bad luck and bad timing). However, there was a limited run of 500 homologation specials commissioned and sold worldwide for road use, which became instantly collectable, and we're lucky enough to have one in our BeMoto collection...
This absolute beauty entered the motorcycle hall of fame in 2019 and officially became a Classic for insurance purposes as it is now 20 years old. As a rare treat, we let our friend and ex Performance Bikes journo, Kar Lee, loose on the road and on track at the now doomed Rockingham Circuit to blow some of those cobwebs off…
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“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in real life”
The ZX-6R rider stepped back and snapped another picture of the glistening red and white Yamaha on his phone. “It’s… beautiful, just stunning”. His eyes glazed over, mouth gawping. This is what an R7 does to people on a trackday. It’s to be expected, you don’t see many about. How rare? Of the 500 bikes built for WSB homologation, just 40 machines found their way to the UK.
Parked at the edge of the garage next to pitlane, it was entertaining watching the rubbernecking as people walked past, heads almost falling off as they snapped their gaze back to the R7. “Is that an R7?”, “Is that yours?”, “I just had to come over to see it”. The kudos and fascination around the R7 is very real, and while all the WSB homologation bikes of that era are special only the RC30 and RC45 come close to drawing the same levels of attention. I notice a brand-new Ducati V4 in the garage next to me and no-one bats an eyelid.
The R7 look
At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking this was a first generation R6 or R1, but people in the know, know. This is something special. The clues that mark the difference are peppered all over the bike; the twin headlamps that are subtly smaller than those on the R1 and R6; the Ohlins suspension front and rear; the single seat unit with the R7 OW-02 moniker proudly displayed on a black number board; the no-frills YZR-500-derived frame that incorporates an additional layer of alloy that makes it twice as strong as the R1s; and a sleek, but substantial swingarm.
The R7 was built to win races and deprive you of £22,000 in the process, plus another £10,000 for the race kit that would rearrange peak power numbers from the regulation-friendly 106bhp to an R1-busting 160bhp thanks to titanium everything inside the engine cases, not to mention the addition of chassis adjustability in its rake, trail, and height of the swingarm. The bike I’m riding today is owned by BeMoto and while it’s unclear what state of tune the bike is in the Akrapovic end can on its own should release around 5-7bhp. An ECU flash would add a little more and activating the second bank of injectors (disabled to meet regulations) would really up the ante and take it into the 130bhp region. The additional £10,000 race kit adds 30bhp on top of that.
Race kits are far from my mind right now though. I’m allowed just one session on the International layout of Rockingham circuit… and it’s the first time I’ve ever swung a leg over the R7. To add to my slight discomfort it’s the first bright, but chilly morning session, the track temperature is still low and it’s wearing new Supercorsas. Best not bin it then…
The first 10 minutes I’m taking it easy, slowly getting a feel for the bike while gradually leaning further to scrub the tyres in. Rockingham’s bumpy bits, of which there are a few, are despatched without fuss by the R7’s excellent Swedish-made golden suspension units which are set up just right for my weight. Combined with a frame that’s designed to handle an extra 60bhp+ at WSB speeds we’re easily keeping pace in the fast group traffic, despite my cautious riding. Why so cautious? The price for a replacement complete fairing assembly – if you can get hold of one – is £8,500 (they were all hand-made so no two fairings are the same), a tail unit would set you back £2800 and a seat pad is an eye-watering £180. Gulp. Used R7s are currently listed in the classifieds, north of £25k, which makes them dearer than their official 1999 new price of £22k. Ironically, Yamaha UK could barely shift them back in the day and had dealers discounting them to £15,000 just to clear the showroom.
The last time I was at Rockingham was on my 2017 R6 just a few weeks ago, so it’s a good point of comparison. While the R6 has traction control, (suspected) similar power output, a higher rev ceiling, the R7 easily trumps it on torque, which is evident on corner exits. Due to the extra midrange muscle it’s less fussy which gear it’s in but it spins up just as freely, if not more so, than the rev-happy R6. Although this is early Yamaha fuel injection tech (the R7 is only the third bike after the 1982 XJ750D turbo lookalike and the 1993 GTS1000 – the R1 didn’t ditch the carburettors until 2002) the fuelling is almost carb-like in delivery and throttle snatch is non-existent.
The last few laps are a blur of apexes and lean angles as we begin to gel and I get my head around just how tall the first gear is. The brakes, although 20 years old, are superb and the GP-derived chassis just chuckles at me as I push harder. With each corner I throw a little more caution to the wind and go faster, and faster. I cocked a leg over this bike for the first time just 15 minutes ago but it seems like we’ve known each other weeks. The R7 is precise, going exactly where I aim it and it’s sublimely stable mid-corner, even tackling Rockingham’s notoriously bumpy surface changes going on and off the banking while cranked on its side. The precision is no mistake – the R7 carries a 53/47 front-biased weight distribution compared to an R1 at 50/50 which aids front-end feedback and accuracy through turns. The chequered flag is waved all too soon and our track time is over as we trundle into the pits and set up for some photography. I feel like I’ve just tasted a little slice of heaven, and it was delicious.
In the pits
As the photographer sets up his lights for a pitlane shoot I’m still comparing the R7 to the youthful R6. While taste is subjective, there’s no doubting the beautiful, if slightly mystical lines of the R6 with its cats eyes running lights and minimalistic tail unit and side panels. There’s so little actual bodywork on an R6 that Yamaha only really have simple single colour paint schemes on them. There are a few jarring lines in the R6 profile but on the whole it’s a neat blend of edges and curves, with sophisticated cuts scattered about its plastics. The R7 in contrast is a much simpler and purer proposition. Only one paint scheme was ever introduced to the road-going model and it’s the same speedblock design as on the 1999 R6, which incidentally I used to own. A cracking track tool with a stonking midrange-endowed engine, the 1st generation R6 was a gem. However, few would disagree that the R7 wears its speedblocks better thanks to more, and sleeker, bodywork real estate to put the design on. Where the modern R6 hits a few bum notes, the R7 is flawless all the way through with a purer, less-fussy look. There’s a purposefulness and downright sexiness about it that is undeniable, from the understated frame and swingarm to the DZUS fairing fasteners and the shapely one-piece, £10,300, 24-litre fuel tank.
On the road
Out on the road the R7’s track focus makes it, unsurprisingly, less practical. Bumpy B-roads aren’t its natural hunting ground but this is where I find myself following the photographers car in search for a location to shoot. Without the speed to take weight off the wrists the uncompromising riding position and thinly-padded strip of foam masquerading as a seat makes itself known through my bony ass and ageing spine. A WSB homologation 750 is never the best choice for narrow unknown roads but it could be worse – I could be on the ZXR750RR. The saving grace on these nadgery country roads is the flexibility of the torquey R7 engine. The response at the throttle is crisp and I can’t help but wonder how good a road bike a modern-day R7 would be – probably somewhere between “excellent” and “astonishing”.
At the shows
The R7 always gets a lot of attention when the BeMoto Events Team are at the shows. So many people remember exactly what bike they were riding at the time this baby was built. They share stories of owning one bike, but desperately wanting to get their hands on this one. Despite there being only 500 produced, it is surprising how many people claim to have owned one. It just proves that this is a bike for the enthusiast, the biker that lives, breathes, eats and sleeps whilst submerged in biking enthusiasm.
With photoshoot done, I blast back to the circuit and sample some fine roads en route, more worthy of the R7s attention. Faster, wider, grippier, and while enjoyable the truth is the OW-02 belongs on a racetrack. It’s what it was designed for and in today’s climate of traction controlled, cornering ABS 200bhp superbikes it can still hold its own with a towering presence that renders new machinery invisible. Astonishing.
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Author: Kar Lee
Images: Jason Critchell