The Stopwatch Says Who's Fast And Who's Not On The Streets Of Willow
Conventional wisdom says that the best bike for the street is not often the best on the track. Then again, sometimes it is. Naturally, you need predictable behavior on the street and a smidgen of stability doesn't hurt anything. But as you push for ultimate velocities on a closed course, certain limitations that never emerge on the street begin to appear. Greatly simplified, to go fast a bike needs lots of cornering clearance, buttoned-down suspension, gobs of power and strong brakes. Every performance measurement is taken to the extreme, and what might be fine on the street could be woefully inadequate on the track. At the Streets of Willow with soft-spoken but blisteringly fast Sport Rider Associate Editor Andrew Trevitt pulling the wire, we discovered that the winner on the real roads need not be the loser at the Streets.
Honda CBR600F4 best time: 1:14.08
Trevitt summed it up like this: "Basically, in right turns you just lay it over on the pipe and go." So defines the CBR's main racetrack limitation-cornering clearance. The last time we compared 600s on the track (April 1999), Honda took exception to the control tires fitted (Michelin Hi-Sport Race 3s), claiming, correctly, that a smaller-diameter tire would hinder cornering clearance. This year we fitted Metzeler's new ME-Z3 Rennsport gumballs to all four bikes, which, on the F4, are taller overall than the stock Michelin Hi Sports. The combo gave the bike slightly more cornering clearance, but the tires didn't do enough; Trevitt's best time on the Honda was a whopping 1.92 seconds slower than the best bike here.
Otherwise, the F4 jammed around the track just fine. The light steering we witnessed on the street turns a touch sluggish when really rapid transitions were needed at the track, and the CBR's generally soft suspension had the bike moving around quite a bit. It's a fine streetbike and would make a decent track bike for mere mortals, but it trails this pack by a significant margin.
Suzuki GSX-R600 best time: 1:13.28
Just eight-tenths of a second ahead of the CBR but more than a second adrift of the top-placed Yamaha, the GSX-R600 was a bit of a surprise on the track. For their shortcomings as all-around streetbikes, the GSX-Rs usually make up big ground at the track. Chassis-wise, the 600 is no exception, being able to maintain high corner speeds and drive undramatically from even tight, bumpy corners. It was beginning to run out of cornering clearance as Trevitt began working at the limits, but it was nothing like the spark-shedding Honda. With high-caliber suspension and racer-perfect ergos, the Suzuki feels well at home on the Streets circuit. It says something that Trevitt's best and worst times were only slightly more than a second apart.
As in the real world, the GSX-R's engine let it down on the track. "You can make time through the corners," said Trevitt, "but when you roll it on for the exit, there's just nothing there." With more bite to go with the bark, we'd expect the GSX-R to be nipping at the Yamaha's heels. Maybe next year.
Kawasaki ZX-6R best time: 1:12.56
Here's another surprise from the stopwatch. We fully expected the ZX-6R to be in the same class as the Honda at the track-good but not great, and trailing the more track-oriented Suzuki and Yamaha. We'll have our crow now, Miss, with a nice dijonnaise on the side, please. Trevitt hopped off the 6R, shrugged his shoulders and said, "It moves around a bit and isn't very stable, but it's got some motor, eh?" Indeed, the Kaw ripped from corner to corner with a kind of aggression that's noticeable from 100 yards away.
It's not exactly like the chassis is one big boat anchor, either. Less composed at a ten-tenths pace than either the Suzuki or the Yamaha, the Kawasaki suffered from too much high-speed compression damping and too little of the low-speed variety. It closed the gap mainly with highly usable power and top-notch brakes. With suspension modifications, the ZX-6R could be a world beater.
Yamaha YZF-R6 best time: 1:12.17
"With the other bikes," said young Trevitt, "there's usually something holding you back, something you have to ride around. On the Yamaha the limiting factor is you." Combine class-leading peak power and at least 1500 rpm more headroom than any of the others and you've got the YZF-R6 scorcher. Trevitt rated the ZX-6R slightly ahead of the Yamaha for its better midrange lunge, but at the track, where you can plan to keep the peakier R6 on the boil, it's not a great difference.
The R6's engine may be among the best for track use, but its chassis is clearly superior. Plentiful cornering clearance, first-rate suspension componentry and powerful brakes combine to make the R6 a circuit-killer. Heavier steering effort, a mild annoyance on the street, was a nonissue on the track because the light, short R6 could carve a tighter line and stay on course under conditions that would have the other bikes coming unglued. As Trevitt said, you never feel like you're working around some shortcoming-how fast you go is entirely up to you. The R6 is there to please.