"OK," I thought as I shadowed Suzuki test rider Yuichi Nakashima through the 70-mph right-hander onto the Ryuyo test circuit's legendary 1.2-mile back straight for the first time, "let's see if this new Hayabusa really is steamier than the old one."
Seconds later, with Naka-san and me rocketing past 160 mph-he on the still-secret '08 'Busa and me on a current model-I had my answer. We were only halfway down the runway-like straight, but the gap between us-which seemed to grow exponentially as we worked our way to about a buck-eighty-five-told me what I needed to know: Suzuki had not only reworked its wildly successful flagship sportbike, but blessed it with significantly more horsepower, not an easy task when you're talking about a motorcycle that produced nearly 160 rear-wheel horsepower and was capable of 190-mph-plus top speeds when it was introduced eight years ago. Here's how we described it in our June 1999 road test:
"Cursing, of course, signifies a weak vocabulary and a traileresque upbringing, but maaaaaan this thing is fast! FREAKING &%$#*%!! Beeeeeeeeeeeeeep, beeeeeeeeeeeep."
The thing really did freak us out. Remember, this was 1999; years before 160-bhp, 430 pound literbikes.
For a motorcycle manufacturer, redesigning a successful model is tricky business. Get one element wrong-styling, performance, price, whatever-and even the savviest plan can morph from rosy and upbeat to ugly and dire overnight. And the more successful the bike being replaced, the trickier the redesign, which meant Suzuki had plenty to be anxious about as it considered the makeup of its second-generation GSX1300R.
No doubt about it, Suzuki's Hayabusa (named for a peregrine falcon reputed to snack on blackbirds-take that, Honda!) is no ordinary motorcycle. With an almost cult-like following-especially in top-speed, drag-racing and urban-custom ranks-the bike is darn near an industry unto itself, a machine that still commands huge respect from most quarters and is regarded by half the planet as the best all-around big-bore on the planet. The bike has done more than become hugely popular and massively profitable; it has hammered out the type of priceless brand image and reputation most manufacturers can only dream of. The 'Busa is fast, edgy and cool, a bike that'll do just about anything you ask, and one that laid many of the foundational bricks for the custom sportbike scene so in vogue today.
Retail sales in the U.S. for 2006 were astonishing: more than 10,000 units, twice the number of Kawasaki ZX-14s sold last year (a brand-new model in '06, remember), and several times the number of GSX1300Rs peddled in Europe. Interestingly, Hayabusa sales in the U.S. have risen every year since the bike's '99 debut, a pattern at odds with the standard sales scenario of new, top-line sportbikes, which usually sell well initially and lose steam as the bike ages. That the Hayabusa has sold in greater numbers as the years clicked by shows there's a lot more going on between the bike and its fanatical customers than big power and swoopy bodywork.
With a machine this popular, and the effects of a design miscue almost too painful to consider, the key question for Suzuki R&D was obvious: How do you bump the Hayabusa's styling, power, cool factor and overall function while retaining the essence of what made the original bike so desirable to such a wide range of riders? Should 'Busa II be totally new, a slightly massaged version of the original, or some combination thereof?
The search for answers began in early '04, with R&D teams from the U.S. and Japan conducting market research in the States to determine what styling and design elements were likely to be embraced by customers who'd fallen so hard for the original. "What we found," design manager Koji Yoshishura told me during my weeklong trip to Suzuki Japan's Hamamatsu test center in March, "is that people loved the look of the old bike. So we knew right away we had to keep and strengthen the look."
Several styling sketches were produced to get a feel for what that aesthetic "strengthening" might look like, and these were shown to various Suzuki dealers. The sketch that generated the most excitement was improved and taken to a Philadelphia dealership with a heavy 'Busa clientele for some focus-group confirmation-which it received in spades. "It was very well received," said styling group member Yoshinori Kohinata. "We aimed for a powerful, sexy look, along with a strong family resemblance," added styling group manager Shinsuke Furuhashi.
With the new bike's basic look largely settled, the styling crew began spending more time with engineering to hammer out the myriad details of melding all the pieces together. While the early sketch work was being done, R&D brass had made a key decision regarding the new bike: to carry over the majority of the first-generation Hayabusa's engine and frame assemblies to the new bike, with a handful of key upgrades, of course. This would allow styling and engineering to work from a common mechanical platform.
The reasons for the carryover were many. For one, the current 'Busa's 1298cc inline-four already made plenty of power and had proven nearly bulletproof, Suzuki's engine development team saying it was capable of more "oomph" in noise- and emission-restricted production guise without affecting reliability. Also, the economics of using the same base engine were significant: Suzuki would save money because very little new tooling would need to be developed, purchased and amortized. Engines are, after all, the most expensive part of a motorcycle to design and build. Another key reason is that because the first-gen 'Busa had proven to be a capable handler, and because the new bike's category positioning and general concept-"Ultimate Sport" or Suzuki's "maximum two-wheeled statement"-weren't changing, there was no reason to develop and fund an entirely new frame.
By early '05, Suzuki had pretty much settled on the look and makeup of its new 'Busa concept: a comprehensive redo of the current bike in place of a new-from-the-ground-up design. Numerous engine and chassis upgrades would allow the bike to keep pace with the competition and utilize any new-think technology that had become standard-issue since the original 'Busa debuted.
While the styling team worked up a clay model of the winning sketch to see how successfully it translated to actual curves, angles and shapes, several small engineering teams got busy. The engine group grabbed horsepower and durability research they'd done prior to the start of the 'Busa II project and put a finer point on the numbers via a fresh round of powerplant tweaks and dyno testing. The fuel-injection team began working on specific air/fuel settings the new engine would likely need in the differing markets in which it'd be sold. The chassis team investigated the firmer spring and damping settings the more powerful and better-handling machine would require. New wheels and brakes were sourced and analyzed, as were chassis bits such as the lower triple clamp, which would need to be more rigid if the braking guys opted for more powerful radial-mount calipers, which they eventually did. Each new component or upgrade affected another part of the whole, which forced the teams to work closely as they methodically put all the main pieces of the puzzle in place.