Question: Now that all Thousands have become fire-breathing Superbikes with lights, and BMW’s unreal S1000R has even upped the ante yet another notch (or two), just how do you give your new litre bike the edge it needs to sell?
Answer: Easy, You get the MotoGP guys involved.
I think it’s a huge mistake on Kawasaki’s part to hush the fact that its brand new ZX-10R is basically the child of the Akashi firm’s now-defunct MotoGP program. It’s not the official position of course, but it seems reasonable to conclude that Kawasaki’s marketing people were shy about tying the promotional campaign for the 2011 10R to the company’s lacklustre performance on the MotoGP circuit—racing’s highest echelon. Who in their right mind would even consider acquiring a bike directly linked to an unsuccessful MotoGP effort, right? Uh, yeah, right.
Over the past few decades, we’ve seen sportbikes evolve at a frantic pace. We were astonished by the introduction of massive aluminum frames and swingarms, and the ever-sexier plastic. We grew excited as more and more honest-to-God race parts were fitted. And today we stand completely awed by the level of performance every one of them offer. Really, the only frontier left was MotoGP.
And now that the line has been crossed, as far as large-production models are concerned, it’s a damn shame Kawasaki’s not milking every ounce of this MotoGP thing (lacklustre performance or not) in the promotion of its new 10R.
While every prior version of the ZX-10R was an evolution of the original 2004 model, the 2011 edition is an all-new machine without any significant part in common with its predecessor. Yet, the architecture of the new bike remains very similar to that of the old—and to that of just about every bike in the class.
It’s a classic Japanese Thousand with a huge cast aluminum frame, first class suspension including a big-piston fork, and a super powerful inline-four, an engine claimed capable of producing an even 200 horsepower in its European tune, and 179.1 horses in North American tune.
A significant difference, at the very least on paper. The manufacturer says the disparity is essentially due to tougher regulations.
Being all-new, literally every part has been lightened, strengthened or optimized, says Kawasaki, with just one stated objective: to help riders cut better lap times with less drama. True enough, the thing hauls ass.
Though on paper the ZX-10R outputs 14 less horses than BMW’s mighty S1000RR, going through the slick-shifting tranny at wide-open throttle on Road Atlanta’s super-fast back straight, the new 10R still felt extremely strong. Strong enough to power-lift the front wheel in fourth while going downhill just after the track’s back straight crest. At 230 kmh, that’s not only a very impressive demonstration of massive power, but it’s also exactly the kind of stuff that made (and still makes) the S1000RR stand apart from the class. Which incidentally is also the type of behaviour to be expected from these litre bikes now that they get ever closer to the 200-bhp mark. The result is they show an ever greater tendency to lift the front wheel, even in higher gears, or to spin the back tire when pushed hard off corners. Ironically, these are two infamously counterproductive characteristics when it comes to lap times.
Where the 2011 ZX-10R story gets really interesting is how Kawasaki managed to marry a rider-friendly nature with the very tricky behaviour inherent to such a powerhouse. Their solution was electronics straight from Kawasaki’s MotoGP program, a system called S-KTRC, or Sport-Kawasaki Traction Control.
Although it does control traction, S-KTRC actually manages so much more it should be qualified as Ride Control rather than Traction Control. It is a very complex system, and one that is also unique in the production world. Actually, Kawasaki says the most particular aspect of S-KTRC is that it’s designed to act before an event (traction loss, for instance) actually occurs, in contrast with other systems like BMW’s and Ducati’s which react to the said event after it started. Yes, that’s a tough concept to grasp. Here’s the theory. Instead of relying almost solely on wheel speed sensors to detect traction loss and then cut power to regain traction, S-KTRC uses an almost infinite combinations of maps stored in the ECU to recognize different situations, then adjusts power accordingly, essentially preventing traction loss before it happens. Yes, it’s still hard to comprehend, but the fact that the system analyses all its parameters no less than 200 times per second might help understand its ability to “predict.”
One of the most important of the many parameters S-KTRC monitors is throttle movement. As it does so, it is essentially reading your mind in real time. Think about it: 200 times every second, your right hand’s movement is being scrutinized. Are you feathering the throttle mid-turn? Are you whacking it open down some back straight? Are you slightly backing off to control a wheelie? All of these scenarios and a great deal more have been programed in the ECU, allowing the 10R to literally interpret your actions. On a racetrack, the result is a bike that feels at the same time very familiar and very different.
Familiar because the 2011 ZX-10R is one of the sweetest handling machines out there. Lighter than last year’s version by 22 pounds and very well served by top notch suspension, it’s difficult to criticize in the chassis and handling department. Frankly, I couldn’t find one nitpick: it just disappears under you and works brilliantly when pushed hard around a track, at every level.
However, the story is a bit different when it comes to power delivery as you find yourself literally interacting with the electronics. For instance, you can come out of the same tight corner with the 10R behaving differently every time. Exiting Road Atlanta’s last turn, a tight 90-degree right I took in first gear, the ZX-10R would sometimes stand on its rear wheel, and sometimes keep its nose barely above the ground. I never really knew what it would do. That was the electronics at work, reading my throttle movements 200 times a second, drawing conclusions and finally choosing to intervene by managing power delivery to keep the front wheel down and the acceleration at a maximum. Or to not do anything at all.
This, I found a bit awkward at first. But as the laps went by and as I started to understand how the bike reacted to different right hand inputs, the 10R’s overall behaviour became more predictable. Suddenly, comments I heard various MotoGP riders make on television about electronics “taking over” part of the riding equation started to make sense.
Because I wasn’t sure if I liked all that intervening, I tried switching the S-KTRC off for a few laps. The very friendly nature of the 10R remained intact and nothing either much better or much worse happened.
But to be honest, it didn’t feel completely logical riding such a powerful machine like the ZX-10R without the security blanket of the excellent traction control function of S-KTRC (which, along with power, can be adjusted for different traction conditions). So, at the flick of a switch, it all came back on, along with the confidence to be much more aggressive with the throttle, and the quicker lap times that accompany such confidence.
The S1000RR opened the floodgates of the electronics war last year. The introduction of this all-new ZX-10R for 2011 makes it crystal clear that while horsepower will remain an important topic for the next generation of super powerful litre-class machinery, how that power is controlled will determine future winners. I’m still not sure if I like the feeling of a motorcycle’s “brain” actually intervening with my riding, although I do have to admit this whole intervention business is absolutely transparent 95 per cent of the time around a racetrack.
My guess is that with each new model in the years to come, we’ll see a very interesting evolution in the way electronics interact with riders. Just like it’s done in MotoGP.
- Bertrand Gahel