The wait was long but we finally had our chance to see what the hyper-hyped Kawasaki Ninja H2 is all about.
AFTER THE HYPE
Turns out even Kawasaki had a hard time getting a Ninja H2 for its use. Talk about short supply. There was only one unit available at the press introduction of the supercharged machine—and unfortunately no H2R—and it was to be shared by seven American journalists and one Canadian intruder. This meant two things: first, don’t crash. Second: limited time on the bike—as in one 20-minute session in the morning and one in the afternoon. But hey, some time on an H2 is better than no time on an H2, right?
Ultimately, I did get a pretty good idea of what the bike is about. First and foremost, it’s different: I had never ridden anything quite like the H2.
To allow journalists to acclimate to the track—for some of us, our first time here—Kawasaki brought along a few ZX-6Rs to Fontana, California’s Auto Club Speedway. As I was scheduled to ride the H2 last, I had time to do enough laps on a 6R to get a good sense of the track. Which meant when I finally threw a leg over the H2 just before lunch, I could get right down to business.
But there was still a great deal of figuring out to do with the H2 itself as it behaved nothing like the ZX-6R I had just climbed off. Which, frankly, was to be expected, but that it was so different to ride from a litre-bike such as the ZX-10R or BMW’s S1000RR came as somewhat of a surprise.
The physical differences from a typical Superbike are immediately felt. The Ninja H2 is longer, although not as long as the ZX-14R. Above all though, it’s heavier. For example, it’s 37 kilograms heavier than the ZX-10R, which is enormous on a racetrack. The additional weight changes everything in the sense you just can’t throw the H2 around a track with little effort like you do a traditional supersport or litre-class bike. This doesn’t mean it’s not a proper track bike; it’s just not typical.
By comparison, the ZX-6R felt like a completely harmless machine I could do no wrong with, like something so easy to ride that lapping the Fontana layout literally became child’s play. The hard to ride nature of the H2 doesn’t end with weight. The power delivery is also quite particular. For a motorcycle so hyped for its performance, it felt strangely soft below 7,000 or 8,000 rpm. Even in neutral, from idle, revs don’t pick up as quickly as a regular sportbike’s motor when the throttle is blipped. Of course, all this is a consequence of the H2 being supercharged.
The compression ratio is a low 8.5:1, but goes way up when the Kawasaki engineered and built supercharger starts spooling. From 8,000 rpm all the way to the 14,000 rpm redline, the Ninja H2 takes on a whole different personality and becomes properly fast.
The 200 horsepower claim feels legit, but the way power arrives is anything but typical as it seems to get serious at about the 8,000-rpm mark and then climbs exponentially until redline.
In that zone, the Ninja H2 also has an extraordinarily abrupt throttle response making it extremely difficult to adjust throttle mid-corner.
And to make matters worse, when my turn came to ride the H2, the rear slick was done. Despite traction control limiting how bad things can get, the rear would suddenly and massively step out at corner exits.
Even in third and fourth gear coming onto the banked oval, the rear was all over the place and every time I tried to regain traction by closing off the throttle things would get worse when I reopened it because of the highly abrupt way power comes on.
If this all sounds as though I had a tough time on the H2 during that first session, well, that’s exactly the case. I came in sweating profusely, physically exhausted from having to fight the bike’s weight at every direction change and mentally drained from having to deal with its finicky nature and ruined rear tire.
A few hours went by before I got back on the Ninja H2 for my second and last session. During that time I reflected considerably on everything that happened during first contact. I was promised a brand new slick, so I hoped the poor traction issue would be fixed. Still, it was obvious if I rode it the same way, the result would be the same. The thing is, during the first session I noticed clear improvements when I adapted. For example, the throttle abruptness issue almost disappeared if I carried a higher gear and kept the revs below the very sensitive zone.
The weight of the bike couldn’t be masked, but by adopting more precise and flowing lines and by moving my own weight around more, the H2 could be ridden with less effort. Minor adjustments to the suspension were also made.
My second session was a total contrast from the first. The brand new rear slick was now hooking up nicely despite me being even more aggressive on the throttle at corner exits and traction control now worked well and didn’t allow the rear to step out. The H2 is still a big chunk of a motorcycle to move around, but the more precise and technical I was the less effort it demanded and the more fluidly and efficiently it got around the track. Finally, the Ninja H2 and I were starting to mesh and it was during those last laps I got clarity on what it was and was not. What it is not is the fastest way to go around a racetrack, and certainly not the easiest. For that, get a supersport or a Superbike, that’s what they’re for.
But very fast, surprisingly different and extremely demanding around a racetrack is what the H2 is. So where’s the satisfaction in that? Well, it doesn’t come from the absolute fastest lap times, but rather from the feeling of accomplishment knowing you rode well. After that second session, some journalists came back depleted from another 20-minute fight they had lost. Either they didn’t get the Ninja H2 or they weren’t able to adapt and refine their riding enough to operate it well. And it won’t budge. Fight the bike and it will beat you down. But
-by Bertrand Gahel, August 2015 issue