Words: Donovan Fourie
Pics: Meghan McCabe
Suzuki sure has been dragging their heels with their new GSX-R1000, having last released the last major upgrade in 2009, and talking about a new one for the past two years. With all this time under their wings, the end result can be nothing but special. To find out how special, we took one to Tarlton Drag Strip to find out how fast it is in a straight line, and we took one to Red Star Raceway to find out how fast it is not in a straight line. On to the drag strip, but first there was a problem.
Of course, before any riding takes place, there is a moment of visual reflection, as you see the bike in the flesh for the first time, and any deceptions photos may have given wash away. While it certainly has an updated look compared to its predecessors, it does have some things lacking. The mirrors are units that are seemingly taken straight out one of their parts bins and bolted on, the indicators are classy LED units, but are not integrated into the mirrors or headlight, as is the norm these days. The plastics are fitted and bolted on, and do not give the impression that they have been moulded to the bike, again as many others do. The dash is now fully digital, Suzuki doing away with their long tradition of using analogue rev counters, but where everyone else has adopted full colour units, The GSXR’s remain completely black and white. The exhaust can, instead being sleak and tucked away, looks like a petrol can strapped to the side of the bike. Still, there is far more to a bike than simple aesthetics. Plonking down in the seat gave a severe impression of smallness. It feels very small, as is the ever-compacting ways of modern superbikes. Even though it is small, you don’t sit on top of it, as you do with other bikes, rather you are more in it, giving the feeling of being part of the workings, rather than merely a passenger.
Down the drag
Finally, it lined up at the start line at Tarlton, still feeling tiny, seeing the expanse of drag strip before it. The motor blips enthusiastically, like an angry stallion ready to lunge out of the starting gate. There was no starter for this, as it wasn’t a race, merely me goofing around, so there was nothing to it – engage first gear, give the throttle a few extra blips for good measure, and set off…
Now, there’s a way in which litre superbikes behave when they are being accelerated from a standstill, and that is badly. As the clutch is nearing full release, the front will start hopping, and as the revs start throwing themselves into the meat of the torque curve, the hop turns into a full-on wheelie, followed by an even bigger wheelie. If left unattended, it will eventually rocket right up into the air, over the top and backwards, presumedly leaving the rider and his bank account worse for wear. The done thing, then, is to accelerate in first gear as much as physics will allow and then short shift to second, restarting the process. If physics continues to play hardball, then you need to short shift to third, and from there it should be hunky-dory.
The GSXR gave a light hop from the front wheel as the clutch was fully released, and then I awaited the immenent front wheel lift . . . which didn’t come. The bike accelerated, and accelerated hard, the front wheel got a bit light, but never actually showed any signs of danger, until the rev limiter was reached and second gear was engaged. From there, there was nothing but a hard drag to the line, and then some. We took it to nearly the 800m mark, and saw just over 270 km/h, which is spectacular, especially in Johannesburg where the thinner air caused by the height above sea level means bikes see as much as a 17% drop in power.
This is confusing. Why the lack of theatrics? Much of it has to do with the chassis, that has been designed to help with acceleration. The motor has been angled to throw more weight towards the front wheel, and you can feel it. More so, Suzuki have also lengthened the swingarm by 40mm. There is far more that goes into this than simply bolting on a longer swingarm, which would resulty in an ill-handling drag bike. The trick is to move the swingarm pivot further forward, thereby allowing the swingarm length to be increased without affecting the overall length of the bike. This is truly astounding. The swingarm was lengthened on the 2009 GSXR, and the engineers at the time went on at length about lengths of swingarms, and how they had had to make the engine as compact as physically possible to get a few millimetres more room for a longer swingarm. Now, the engineers have belittled all the hard work that their predecessors did and somehow made 40mm less engine to make room for more swingarm.
A whole 40mm more swingarm makes a big difference.
More more so, the engine on the GSXR features an industry first variable valve system, the same as that used on their MotoGP machines. The rules in the premier class ban the use of electronic intervention in thje valve timing area, thus the engineers had to get creative with their systems and, for inspiriation, they turned to the world of scooters. Most scooters have an automatic gearbox, more so, a CVT gearbox, that does not require any gears but uses a system of smalls metal balls in a hub that spins with the motor. The faster the hub spins, the more the balls are pushed outwards by the centrifugal force, and the more they lengthen the gearing. With the GSXR, these balls adjust the inlet valve timing, changing it according to the revs. The result is that at lower rpm the timing is set for more torque and better midrange, but at higher rpm, it adjusts to be more like a racing cam that operates better for top end power With most manufacturers, they would use this opportunity to give their bike huge amounts of midrange and keep the same amount of top end, thereby making this a lovely street bike for cruising the open roads, but this is Suzuki we are talking about. They are all about big power.
Their intentions is evident in the fact that the bore and stroke have gone from 74.5mm x 57.2mm on the previous model to 76.0mm x 55.1mm on this bike meaning that the cylinders are heavily over-square, gearing it for some serious power at top end revs. Normally, this will result in a racebike-type power delivery, whereby there is very little bottom end, and then the power suddenly kicks in at the higher rpm and the needle shoots to the redline. This happens on the new GSXR, but the valve timing in the lower revs mean that there is none of that turbo lag-type feeling, but rather your normal load of midrange followed by an extra surge of power at top end. With this, there is strong power throughout the rev range, right up to the ridiculously high rev limiter at 14,500 rpm. There are supersport 600s that are only just able to dabble that high.
The result of all these various factors is a dumbfounding amount of acceleration without the inconvenience of it attempting to throw you off. This means some serious speed on the likes of the drag strip, especially from a standstill, a situation that these sort of superbikes don’t usually thrive in. There is a worry, though. As we saw with the 2006 GSXR1000 – many a pro drag racer is adamant that this model is still the best drag racing bike – where it was launched with a fantastic amount of power, control and stability, until you reached a corner, in which case, good luck with that. There is only one solution to find out whether this has happened on this model. We have to take it to a race track.
Around the track
Red Star Raceway is a track that breeds good racers. It is tight, sinuous and unrelenting, and a bike that is not agile will find itself out of sorts very quickly. In a baptism of fire, we headed out there the next day to see how out of sorts we could get on the GSXR, and we were confronted with a problem – being a journalist for Bike SA, and more so a host on The Bike Show, is far from the worst job on the planet, but it is not deprived of all monotony and tedium. Yes, riding a motorcycle, especially the latest superbikes, around a race track is good fun, especially when you are riding at your own pace, at your own time and chasing your own goals. When you are riding for a photographer or, worse, Ivan the camera crew, you need to keep passing the same point a hundred times at pace, whether you want to or not, or there will be no good photos for a story and no film for the TV show. Because of this, we have circulated Red Star thousands and thousands of times. With such repetition, it goes beyond pure knowledge of the track and bores straight into muscle memory – you know that for this corner and for all sorts of bikes, you need to brake at this point, carry this much speed, push on the bars this much and the bike will carry precisely this line. It is programmed into our permanent memory. So heading into the first corner at speed was a doddle – brake here, carry this much speed, push on the bars this much and… Almost run on to the grass on the inside.
It is slightly unnerving how easily this bike tips into corners. How they achieved this stability and massively fast steering in one package is baffling and extraordinary, but apparently it can be done. The good turning is assisted by Brembo callipers that gracefully add good feel to the braking experience and better control. The front uses Showa Big Piston Forks, that are not a latest in suspension technology, but mostly they work well.
For the short track, that we were using to make filming and photography easier, it’s best to use second gear out of the tighter corners, opening the throttle at 6,000 or 7,000 rpm, letting the not-too-aggressive torque at this range carry the bike before the revs start climbing. Between the corners, the revs climb to between 10,000 and 12,000 rpm, where there is some serious punch from the over-square engine, before braking for the next corner and repeating the process. Heading onto the short pit straight is much the same – you exit the last corner at 7,000 rpm, get the bike pointed semi-straight and take a handful of throttle. The torque kicks in and the bike accelerates, gaining revs and so gaining acceleration as the revs climb more and more. With most litre superbikes, the rev-limiter is hit a little before the start/finish line, in which case you click third and continue accelerating until you have to brake for turn one.
On the GSXR, the finish line comes and goes but the rev limiter remains out of sight. The ears ring as the revs climb higher and higher, reaching a 600cc level and nearly touching the redline before you have to brake for turn one. If the pit straight were 50m longer, you’d find the rev limiter at a massive 14,500 rpm, right after your ears begin bleeding. These extra revs are more fortuitous on the base GSXR, because it has not a quickshifter, neither up or down. It also has no electronic suspension nor cornering ABS (only regular ABS). What it does have, though, is a five directional (with a sixth calculated) Inertia Measurement Unit connected to a ride-by-wire throttle, meaning different riding modes and, of course, multi-level traction control that was pre-set to level three on this day, and we would have sought to lower it had we ever noticed it intervering with our riding pleasure, which it didn’t. The only point where any of us even noticed its existence was while happening to look upon the dash while exiting a corner and seeing the TC light flashing merrily, reminding us how buggered we would be if it weren’t there.
If you decided to actually read this story and not simply skip to the end to find out what happens, you will probably have the feeling that we enjoyed this bike, and you would be correct. It gets better because, in July, there will be more goodness in the form of the GSXR1000R that will sport the uprated Showa Balance Free Forks, a both-ways quickshifter and cornering ABS, although you have to wonder why they didn’t add the last option to the base model as it already has an easy-to-plug-in IMU. This model should sell for a more hefty price, but it should be excellent. If you don’t want to wait until July, wait until April and get the standard model. It might not have all the bells and whistles, but it is far from disappointing.