A sweeping program of technical changes for 2017 has returned Suzuki’s GSX-R1000R to championship form.
Back Out Front
Older, slower and lacking the high-tech rider aids common with its rivals, the once all-conquering GSX-R1000 had been hanging at the very back of the grid. For 2017, thanks to knowledge from Suzuki’s MotoGP program, the big GSX-R is reborn.
Sportbike rider or not, every motorcyclist knows the latest Superbikes are ungodly fast, handle beautifully and are packed full of electronic aids. But to put into context exactly how much performance these bikes are capable of is always tough.
Maybe this will help.
As you do, I was chatting with former world champ Kevin Schwantz. We were in the pit lane of Australia’s famous Phillip Island circuit during Suzuki’s new GSX-R1000R global press launch. While Schwantz was only there as a guest of Suzuki and (officially at least) had no part in the all new for 2017 GSX-R1000/R conception, he had some very interesting information.
Because of his close relationship with the Japanese brand over the years, he’s had the opportunity to ride all of Suzuki’s MotoGP bikes. And now he was riding the new GSX-R1000R with those of us who attended the press introduction. There was no point in asking him his thoughts on the new bike. As a Suzuki ambassador, he’s paid to say it’s great. So I asked him something else.
I wanted to know where the new GSX-R stood compared to the GP and MotoGP machines he had ridden up until now. Is it comparable to a two-stroke 500cc Grand Prix bike (of course, nothing is), or to the first four-stroke 990cc MotoGP bikes of the early 2000s? Or was there simply no comparison possible between the street-legal GSX-R and all of these prototype race bikes?
He paused, hmmed, looked up, winced a bit, and then said he would put the new GSX-R more or less on par with a five-year-old MotoGP bike. I was floored. I told him I never would have expected such a small time gap, and that’s if a comparison could even be made.
He then winced again and said, “Well, between five and 10 years for sure.”
There is, of course, no way to verify this claim, but after sampling what the new bike is capable of at Phillip Island for a full day, I’m very much willing to accept his statement at face value.
For our first two sessions, we rode on stock Bridgestone RS10s, and although they are excellent street tires, the GSX-R simply overwhelmed them on the track. Two hundred horsepower —which is what the new bike produces— and the kind of speed generated by that power was just too much for the stock rubber.
The front was regularly losing grip mid-corner and the rear was sliding out of both slow and super fast turns like the 190 kmh, fourth gear last corner. The good news was that Suzuki’s new traction control system—a GSX-R first—was always there, keeping things from getting ugly. Set at level three (out of 10, with one being the least intrusive and 10 the most restrictive), it would allow the rear to slightly step out and leave long black marks out of turns, even at those speeds, and it also let the GSX-R1000R freely wheelie for a few seconds before gently bringing the front down.
There is no actual wheelie control on the new GSX-R—there should be, and it should be separate from traction control—so the wheelie limiting effect is a byproduct of the TC system which cuts power once a difference in wheel speed is detected, as in during a rear tire slide or a wheelie.
Some motorcycle writers at the launch were mentioning how the new GSX-R doesn’t wheelie, but they were obviously wrong. They were using TC set at five (or more), which indeed almost entirely restricts the front end from leaving the ground at full throttle. But with TC set at three or less, the front wheel will come up.
To me, that was the cherry on the sundae: after slightly drifting the rear at close to 200 kmh in fourth gear coming out of the last turn, I’d gently pull on the bars and the front would slowly come up. The monster power wheelie would hold until I passed fifth, about halfway down the front straight at maybe 250 kmh. Sure, if these were timed laps, I would have lost a few tenths playing around like that, but that wasn’t my goal. I wanted to both go fast and have some fun.
As foolish as they seem, these antics actually initiated a very interesting discussion with the Suzuki engineering team. Long story short, there needs to be separate traction control and wheelie control functions on all the 200-hp Superbikes; the reason being some riders aren’t comfortable with wheelies and don’t want to have to worry about the front end unexpectedly coming up.
Others want the fastest lap times possible and a wheelie control system to help them get those times. And others yet are absolutely in awe of a motorcycle capable of lifting its front wheel at these kinds of speeds in upper gears.
This is important: if I was a potential buyer and the right to make my own decisions was taken away from me by an always-on anti-wheelie function, I just wouldn’t buy that model. On the other hand, another rider might not want a particular Superbike because it’s too wheelie prone.
The conclusion is that fun is a very subjective feeling, so the logical solution is to give riders the choice to have their motorcycle behave the way they are comfortable with, which is what rider aids are supposed to be about too.
So, to recap, Suzuki’s TC system works very well and does allow for wheelies on less intrusive settings, say three, two and one. However it’s not perfect. Set at 10, it seems to react against any more-than-moderate acceleration and generates abruptness at full throttle, almost as if two systems were fighting against each other. But 10 is reserved for rainy conditions, during which any bike should be ridden with the lightest touch, so it’s not a major flaw in real life conditions.
There’s much more to the new GSX-R1000R than brute horsepower. First, power isn’t delivered at all in a peaky way, but instead builds regularly and from relatively low revs. The good low to mid-range torque allowed for some slower turns in third gear rather than in second at Phillip Island.
This I appreciated as it made corner exits easier to manage, just as quick, and also saved one downshift entering the corner and another leaving it. Not that shifting is a chore on the new GSX-R1000R.
The six-speed transmission is every bit as smooth as you’d expect a Suzuki gearbox to be, but the awesome part here is the quick shift system that allows clutchless shifts up and down. So far, it’s the best I’ve tested.
The CBR1000RR is very close, but I give Suzuki’s the nudge. One corner was a super-fast 215 kmh left taken in fourth, followed by a second gear 50-ish right-hander.
I would grab the (excellent and consistent ABS equipped) brakes and give the shifter two hits and seamlessly transition from one corner to the other.
Another aspect of the GSX-R in these kinds of seamless maneuvers at track speed is the absolutely wonderful chassis. Don’t let the surprisingly small size of the new frame fool you: at no point during track test sessions—even at the much higher speeds reached at the end of the day with DOT race rubber mounted and the track layout now more familiar to me—could I find anything wrong with handling. Nothing at all. Actually, quite the contrary.
Many Superbikes feel big, heavy and cumbersome to move around on a track, so very much unlike an agile 600 even if weight and proportions are similar. Suzuki narrowed the new GSX-R1000/R by about an inch and lowered the top of the tank also by about an inch.
Wet weight for the 2017 GSX-R1000R tested is 203 kilos, by the way, so only two kilos less than the previous generation (the standard, ABS 2017 GSX-R1000 weighs in at 202 kg).
The result is a bike that feels amazingly narrow and agile for a Superbike powered by an inline four.
The Honda CBR1000RR also has that 600-like feel and I found that characteristic to be one of the most enjoyable offered by the new Suzuki on the track. It makes the bike feel as though it can be simply ridden rather than muscled into doing the rider’s bidding.
Although the GSX-R1000 is now a 200-hp bike, it still retains its trademark rider friendliness that makes it feel almost instantly familiar. In the case of my evaluation of the motorcycle, this quality of accessibility is a major reason why I was able to get up to speed so quickly on a track I had never seen before, and also why I went better and faster on successive sessions.
I really wish we could have made a few laps on the base GSX-R1000 to compare it, but this was a GSX-R1000R only media intro.
The R version adds a launch control function, quick shift system, high end Showa Balance Free fork and shock, lightweight upper triple clamps, a black LCD instrument panel face, LED position lights and a lightweight battery.
As with all the new-gen Superbikes, the 2017 GSX-R1000 is substantially pricier than its predecessor at $18,399 for the base version and $21,899 for the R.
Which brings us back to that little exchange with Mr. Schwantz. Though the sticker is hefty, according to one racing legend, it buys performance similar to that of a five- to 10-year-old MotoGP bike and that is just mind-boggling.
by Bertrand Gahel